As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve found Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way to be an extremely delightful but much too filling dish; I cleansed my palate with the fun and silly, if very slightly disappointing, Kraken, and then dove back in. I finished Swann’s Way last night after a couple of days of sweaty-browed gorging.
Actually, I exaggerate, just a little. (Generally. But I mean in the case of the exertion required and the price paid to get to page 606 of my copy of Proust’s most famous novel.) You see, the whole book does not comprise the childhood memory/brooding/hair-tearing emotional intensity that I was steeped in when I wrote about this novel before. The first part, entitled Combray, is about the boy-narrator. The second part, Swann in Love, is also told from by our narrator but his own choking over-sensitivity takes a deep backseat; it is, rather, a third person relation of Swann’s intense love affair with toxic lady-about-town and future Mme Swann, Odette de Crecy. It’s obvious to readers that Odette is a grasping schemer and gold-plated prostitute; initially, it’s obvious to Swann himself that there’s nothing special about her, that she’s neither very good-looking nor very charming.
But he does fall in love with her; or, perhaps more precisely, creates a mythology surrounding her and becomes obsessed with it. It begins with art, is nurtured by music, but is mostly sustained by near fatal doses of day-dreaming, self-deception, and a great deal of running anxiously about town in a carriage. Swann is so invested in his created love affair that he initially feels no interest in what Odette does with her life when he’s not in her presence. He creates a world for her in which he may imagine her inhabiting impossible ideals that belong solely to him. He becomes rapturous, unbearable, florid, embarrassing, laughable, and just shockingly stupid about her. In the following snippet, Swann is waxing ridiculous to a mutual acquaintance, who may be or have been one of Odette’s many lovers (although this doesn’t occur to poor Swann):
He began by alluding to her a priori excellence, her axiomatic and seraphic super-humanity, the inspiration of her transcendental, inexpressible virtues. “I should like to speak to you about her,” he went on, “You know what an incomparably superior woman, what an adorable creature, what an angel Odette is.” (p. 443)
Almost the entirety of the Swann in Love section–that’s almost 200 pages–reads like this, except when Swann’s being even more pathetic because he’s realized Odette is a whore without a heart of gold. Even as his carefully wrought edifice is torn down and he sees the rot beneath, he still can’t drag himself away. It’s sad, ludicrous, touching, infuriating, and funny.
This is why the novel is both great and sometimes almost unbearable. Or, to invoke a cliché I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of deploying appropriately before–it’s funny (in a painful way), because it’s true. By which I mean, Proust, probably better than any other writer I’ve encountered, anatomizes in excruciatingly minute detail the process by which we degrade ourselves for passion. I, and I think he, don’t mean we always do this. But unless you’re either 11 or made of stone, it’s likely happened once. You’ve probably done to yourself, for someone who didn’t give a shit about you, what Swann does to himself for the seraphic Odette, i.e., abandoned friends and pride; willfully blinded yourself; smashed ideals for unsatisfying time spent in The Presence; engaged in an abuse of language so profound that hyperbole itself became embarrassed for you.
Well, I have anyway. I know what poor Swann goes through, and am thankful to say I had the sense to get dumped by the guy and therefore didn’t marry him! I spent a lot of my reading time with this volume marveling at how damned good Proust is while also shuddering, cringing, and blushing in remembered mortification.
After watching Swann twist in the wind for 200 pages, there was a short third part to Swann’s Way which returned to our boy-narrator; this part focuses mostly on his budding obsession with Swann’s silly daughter, Gilberte, specifically, and his over-excitability generally. Obsession–irrational, mis-placed, all-consuming, destructive–seems to define the human condition for Proust in this novel. Desire becomes a stand-in for the thing or person desired; it becomes more real, even, than the object of desire. Or, it inhabits so much space that getting what one wants can no longer possibly assuage the longing for it; the mere but terrible fact of wanting becomes a self-sustaining entity.
Proust portrays this gruesome notion as no less true for a reasonably intelligent adult than for an overly thoughtful, sickly, and introverted child; what a terrible way to live one’s life and/or view one’s fellows! It has not been my experience that the horrors of childhood are doomed to be repeated in more sordid and humiliating forms in adulthood. But then my life, quiet, content, and dull as it is, wouldn’t make for a novel that anyone in the world would want to read. And you know? Right now, I’m pretty damned grateful for that.