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Madame Swann at home

August 23, 2010 7 comments

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Part I by Marcel Proust.

I have read the first part of In the Shadow of Young Girls In Flower, Madame Swann at Home, and will start the second part soon. Thankfully, I have found an English translation online, which is of course much better for quotes than the clumsy translations I could have done. This post contains spoilers about the plot, and I feel comfortable with this as I don’t think one reads Proust for the plot. 

Now, the Narrator, Marcel, is a young man. He has just finished school and needs to choose a carrier. He still lives at his parents’, but is free to go and see whoever he wants. He has inherited from his Aunt Léonie and has the liberty to spend his money according to his own wishes. Indeed, we see him sell a Chinese vase to get some cash, which makes me think he is over 21, the age of majority in France at that time. So, as Marcel Proust was born in 1871, we are probably now around 1892, in Paris and this book covers 18 month of his life. But I’m not sure, as he acts like a teenager. This first part has four important sections: the narrator in his domestic life and M. de Norpois, the meeting and acquaintance with the writer Bergotte, his relationship with Gilberte and as a background of all these aspects of his life, Madame Swann. 

The beginning is about M de Norpois, a friend of the narrator’s father. This man, a rather old Ambassador he had been working for Napoleon the Third – works with Marcel’s father, who praises himself for the acquaintance. M de Norpois looks ridiculous and old fashioned. The humour Proust puts in his descriptions of this man and his supposedly fine crowd is clear in the following passage :  

In the words of a fine Arab proverb, ‘The dogs may bark; the caravan goes on!’ After launching this quotation M. de Norpois paused and examined our faces, to see what effect it had had upon us. Its effect was great, the proverb being familiar to us already. It had taken the place, that year, among people who ‘really counted,’ of “He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind,” which was sorely in need of a rest, not having the perennial freshness of “Working for the King of Prussia.” For the culture of these eminent men was an alternate, if not a tripartite and triennial culture.

The French text has an agricultural metaphor/play-on-words, as in French, “culture” is a word used both for “crop” and “culture”. The narrator cannot be but ironic about this man who does not like everything he himself adores : M de Norpois considers that the narrator has no talent for literature, that Bergotte, whom he admires so much is a flawed author and that Madame Swann is not worth knowing.

This part around M de Norpois is the opportunity to describe the evolution of the family life and of the narrator’s activities. Françoise now lives with them in Paris and is still a vivid character. A carrier as a diplomat is what the narrator’s father would have wanted for his son but he acknowledges nothing else will make him happy as devoting himself to literature. So the narrator is officially an aspiring writer. This aspect is not developed in this part, except for his incapacity to concentrate on his work because of his relationship with Gilberte.

 The narrator is introduced to Bergotte at a rather formal luncheon at the Swann’s. He is embarrassed because he does not know how to behave, out of his own social circle and tells it frankly with a hint of self-irony:

“I did as they had done, with the air of spontaneity that a free-thinker assumes in church, who is not familiar with the order of service but rises when everyone else rises and kneels a moment after everyone else is on his knees.”

The meeting was a disappointment for him as he struggles to reconcile the writer with the man who speaks to him. He even thinks his physical appearance does not match at all with the cleverness and sensibility of his books. This conversation is the opportunity to discuss art and Bergotte thinks him intelligent. Proust takes advantage of this passage expose his ideas on the nature of talent, of genius, that I could not sum up here.  

Madame Swann at home.

Throughout the novel are scattered scenes of everyday life at the Swann’s house, as Odette de Crécy is now married to Swann. The narrator calls her Madame Swann as long as his relationship with Gilberte is going on and Odette after they have parted.

Proust describes the Swann’s way of life: the visits, the furniture, the food, Odette’s gowns, her habits. She has eccentric ways for everything: decoration, clothes, language – she uses English words in her French. She is as silly as she was in Swann’s Way but she still attracts men and regards. Proust shows the competition between Odette and Mme Verdurin, as they both hold a salon. The scene when Mme Verdurin comes to visit Odette is so funny! The narrator also tells her efforts to reach higher circles and how Swann deals with the impossibility for his former friends to admit Odette as their own acquaintance. The narrator becomes a frequent visitor to their house and shares their lunches, or diners and activities.

 Gilberte.

The relationship with Gilberte is disconcerting. It has no name. A flirtatious friendship? A chaste love story? The narrator is in love with her and is equally convinced his love is unrequited. Yet, she invites him at her parties and spends a lot of time with him. Marcel never tells her that he loves her, he just assumes that she knows. It’s a bit frustrating for the reader, since we only have his point of view. It seems to me that she does love him, at least at the beginning, and that she got tired to wait for him to make the first step. The scene during which they playfully wrestle is sensual and full of desire on both sides. Actually, she tells him she loves him during their last fight.

 “For a moment I was afraid that she thought that I did not love her, and this was for me a fresh agony, no less keen, but one that required treatment by a different conversational method. “If you knew how much you were hurting me you would tell me.” But this pain which, had she doubted my love for her, must have rejoiced her, seemed instead to make her more angry. Then, realising my mistake, making up my mind to pay no more attention to what she said, letting her (without bothering to believe her) assure me: “I do love you, indeed I do; you will see one day,” (that day on which the guilty are convinced that their innocence will be made clear, and which, for some mysterious reason, never happens to be the day on which their evidence is taken), I had the courage to make a sudden resolution not to see her again, and without telling her of it yet since she would not have believed me.”

 She cares for him exactly at the moment he realizes he has enough strength to leave her. It is noticeable that the translator has chosen “love” and not “like” to translate “aimer”, since there is only one word for both verbs in French. It will be the last time they see each other at this period of their lives because he stubbornly keeps the promise he makes to himself that day, whatever the suffering it will generate. He decides to kill the self who is in love with Gilberte, to be able to move on.

There is a parallel between the two love stories of Swann/Odette and Marcel/Gilberte. Swann’s love for Odette was “no longer operable”. Unlike Swann, Marcel decides to operate himself and relates the operation and his convalescing. Swann suffered for a woman “who wasn’t even his type”, Marcel refused to be a diplomat to stay in Paris near the Gilberte he is now leaving.

His decision not to see her again is at the same time brave and childish. In the end, he never had an open conversation with Gilberte on their mutual feelings, out of shyness probably. This first love is clumsy as often first loves are. The description of his feelings, the waiting for a note, the need to see her and his seeing her mother instead, to hear of her are lucid, clever and tender. Proust has a brilliant way to describe hearts and feelings with realistic details. I have always thought of him as an impressionist writer. The Monet of literature: small touches which, seen as a whole, are as vivid as life and move deeply the reader.

Proust has always touched something very personal in me. It did it the first time I read him. It does it again now. It feels like he has lived in my head for a while and visited it all, even the most remote corners.

For other reviews: here are Richard’s first and second posts on this volume and Max’s first and second posts.

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