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Introducing M. Swann

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This is the first of three articles on Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. The second and third  follow in issues 57 and 58.

The first time my wife-to-be invited me round for a meal, and sat me down in her book-lined dining-room, my eye was caught by three thick volumes in a slipcase, in decorative blue, white and red dust- wrappers, bearing the name ‘Marcel Proust’ in large black letters at the top of each spine. ‘You’ve read Proust!’ I burst out, thrilled to be able to add to the array of charms with which she had already dazzled me that of having read the incomparable Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu).

‘Well, yes and no,’ she replied. ‘Part of it. The first part, in fact, the one about Swann. For some reason, I didn’t get any further.’ Looking more closely, I noticed to the side of the three-volume set a paperback edition of the first of the novel’s seven books, Swann’s Way, so well-thumbed it was nearly falling apart. ‘You have a treat in store, then,’ I said, ‘reading the rest.’ ‘Yes, I must get round to that – when I have time,’ she added, a note of hesitancy in her voice.

As it happened, an opportunity to read more arose not too long after this conversation. It turned out that my beloved suffered intermittently from insomnia. Normally, she would try to read herself back to sleep, with varying degrees of success. So, as an eager lover anxious to please, I suggested I read to her in the hope that this would lull her to sleep, as bedtime stories had in childhood. But what to read? We tried several writers, without success. One she found too exciting, another too childish, another – Henry James, if I remember rightly – too much of a syntactical puzzle to be restful. Then it occurred to me: how about Proust? We might be able to kill two birds with one stone, simultaneously combining the inducement of sleep with the completion of

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This is the first of three articles on Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. The second and third  follow in issues 57 and 58.

The first time my wife-to-be invited me round for a meal, and sat me down in her book-lined dining-room, my eye was caught by three thick volumes in a slipcase, in decorative blue, white and red dust- wrappers, bearing the name ‘Marcel Proust’ in large black letters at the top of each spine. ‘You’ve read Proust!’ I burst out, thrilled to be able to add to the array of charms with which she had already dazzled me that of having read the incomparable Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu).

‘Well, yes and no,’ she replied. ‘Part of it. The first part, in fact, the one about Swann. For some reason, I didn’t get any further.’ Looking more closely, I noticed to the side of the three-volume set a paperback edition of the first of the novel’s seven books, Swann’s Way, so well-thumbed it was nearly falling apart. ‘You have a treat in store, then,’ I said, ‘reading the rest.’ ‘Yes, I must get round to that – when I have time,’ she added, a note of hesitancy in her voice. As it happened, an opportunity to read more arose not too long after this conversation. It turned out that my beloved suffered intermittently from insomnia. Normally, she would try to read herself back to sleep, with varying degrees of success. So, as an eager lover anxious to please, I suggested I read to her in the hope that this would lull her to sleep, as bedtime stories had in childhood. But what to read? We tried several writers, without success. One she found too exciting, another too childish, another – Henry James, if I remember rightly – too much of a syntactical puzzle to be restful. Then it occurred to me: how about Proust? We might be able to kill two birds with one stone, simultaneously combining the inducement of sleep with the completion of the remainder of Proust’s great novel. Clearly it might take some time, since the more successful a soporific Proust proved, the longer we would need to reach the end. Still, it was surely worth a try. The first time I read her Proust at night, his gently meandering sentences put her back to sleep by the end of the first paragraph. This success was amusing in its way, since we had agreed to begin again at the beginning, and the novel’s opening pages are about falling asleep:
For a long time, I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’ And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book . . .
From these first lines, the narrator goes on to tell us about the half-memories and phantasms that his half-conscious state conjures up, and the difficulty he has, waking in the dark, in identifying the objects in the surrounding gloom. He fails to recognize in which of the many bedrooms of his life he now finds himself. Gradually, in the uncertain light, the shapes resolve themselves into the familiar furniture of his present room – his chest of drawers, his writing-table, his fireplace – and he is now wide awake. His memory has been stirred and, like my wife in her own sudden returns to wakefulness, he does not go back to sleep at once but spends much of the night recalling his past life, starting, appropriately enough, with bedtime in his childhood, at his great-aunt’s house in the village of Combray, when his mother would come up to kiss him goodnight. One kiss was never enough, he would want to call her back for another but feared that if he did so he would incur her displeasure, keen as she was to get him out of the habit of needing this goodnight kiss, of which his father so disapproved and which she feared would be the ruin of his character. But the evenings when his mother spent such a short time in his room were infinitely preferable to those
on which we had guests to dinner, and therefore she did not come at all. Our ‘guests’ were usually limited to M. Swann, who, apart from a few acquaintances, was almost the only person who came to our house at Combray, sometimes for a neighbourly dinner (more rarely after that unfortunate marriage of his, because my parents did not want to receive his wife), sometimes after dinner, unexpectedly.
It is in this way, just fourteen pages into the 3,000-plus page novel throughout which he will be such an influential and ubiquitous presence, that Charles Swann - the man who lends his curious surname (for a Frenchman) to that first book of the novel Swann’s Way or, in a later translation, The Way by Swann’s – makes his first entrance.

*

This first book of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past – or In Search of Lost Time as it is now better known – appeared in 1913 and the last in 1927, five years after its author’s death. The span of time the whole novel covers is close to fifty years, although it is difficult to know exactly, since almost no dates are mentioned. It is a fictional autobiography which recalls, broadly, the childhood, youth and maturity of the narrator but, thanks to the character of Swann, also extends to a period contemporaneous with the narrator’s infancy and earliest childhood, years containing events which he can only learn about from others. In Search of Lost Time is a single novel comprising within it seven individual books. The first – using the titles of the most recent English version – is The Way by Swann’s, the second In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the third The Guermantes Way. Book four is entitled Sodom and Gomorrah, books five and six The Prisoner and The Fugitive respectively, and the seventh and final book Finding Time Again (Le Temps retrouvé in the French original). There is a chronological progression through the novel, but because the interest of the novel is as much in the great cast of characters and the narrator’s reflections on them (and on himself) as on the story, it seemed to me more appropriate to organize these essays around the three main protagonists and the themes they represent, rather than trace the plot step by step through the seven books. The years the novel portrays are those from the late 1870s to the early 1920s, a time when – until 1914 at least – French society and culture were so vibrant and inventive, and things French and Parisian exerted such an attraction beyond France’s borders, that periods within it have come to be known by their French names – the fin de siècle and the Belle Époque. (Some historians, when asked, have said that this is the age and place in which they would have wished to be alive.) For this – the years of the Third Republic – was a time of innovation and change, when electricity began to replace gas, the horse-drawn carriage gave way to the motor-car, the railway network expanded (allowing the narrator to travel to the Normandy coast for holidays, and to Venice), when the first telephones arrived, Kodak cameras became widely available, moving film was invented and the first aeroplanes rose into the skies. Medicine and pharmacology, too, were developing: the first X-rays were taken, new drugs such as morphine and aspirin became available, and new medical ideas – psychosomatic illness for one – were in the air. (The narrator is very keen on the new terms neurotic and neurasthenic, which seem to fit his excessively nervous disposition like a glove.) However, this brave new world of modern technology will belong more to the younger man, the narrator, than to the older figure of Charles Swann, the former’s mentor, precursor, hero and – in some respects negative – role model. Swann may be a family friend of his solidly upper-middle-class parents (though their deprecation of his demi-mondaine wife has reduced the frequency of his visits to their house in Combray) but he belongs to a different world and moves in more elevated circles. Swann is a member of the most select private gentleman’s club in France, the Jockey Club, despite being a Jew. He is a personal friend and adviser of the Duchesse de Guermantes and her husband, the head of one of France’s oldest aristocratic families. What he advises on is their purchase of art, since he is an art historian and connoisseur, as well as a prominent collector, lending – as the narrator’s great-aunt reads in Le Figaro – one of his Corot paintings to an exhibition in Paris. A Rubens, we are told later, hangs above the fireplace of his Paris sitting-room. Swann is also a friend of Elstir, one of the new school of Impressionist painters, and of the novelist Bergotte, whose writing the narrator is not alone in admiring so fervently. Swann helps form the boy’s taste, recommending to his grandmother prints of Old Master paintings to give her grandson, inspiring in him an interest in the cathedrals and old churches of France, encouraging him to visit the Normandy coast to see the church of Balbec, and supporting his desire, opposed by his parents, to see the great actress Berma play her celebrated and eponymous role in Racine’s Phèdre on stage. It is also through Swann that two other great themes of the novel are introduced: love and sex. The first girl the narrator falls in love with is Swann’s daughter, spied through a gap in the hawthorn hedge at Swann’s country house near Combray; and the second object of his desire is the girl’s mother, Swann’s wife Odette, to whom the narrator transfers his adolescent longings after the daughter proves indifferent. To the narrator, Mme Swann is a glamorous figure of fashion, swathing herself in the latest dresses and fabrics, festooning her drawing room with exotic cut flowers, garnering the tributes of the men-about-town who doff their hats to her as she takes her walks down the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne. Only later, when he enters the world of the salons, does he learn – from others – the reason why his parents refused to meet her and why they regarded Swann’s marriage to her as ‘unfortunate’. What he then discovers reveals to the reader another aspect of French social life in the late nineteenth century, the world of the demi-monde, of kept women and mistresses, of licensed tarts and unlicensed streetwalkers, of maisons closes and maisons de passe, the brothels and ‘houses of assignation’. This is the Paris of upmarket houses of pleasure such as the Chabanais, for which the Prince of Wales (mentioned in the novel as part of Swann’s circle) designed his notorious love seat and which other princes and even crowned heads of Europe, and statesmen, diplomats, lawyers and wealthy businessmen are said to have patronized so indefatigably. According to historians, there were 235 licensed brothels in Paris in the 1890s and an estimated 35,000‒40,000 prostitutes. It is to this world that Swann’s mistress Odette belongs. In Odette, Proust has created an embodiment of the professional courtesan of the time: mercenary, manipulative, socially ambitious, using her erotic power and intuitive understanding of the weaknesses of naïve rich gentlemen to get them to support her and to shower her with jewels and other precious gifts. She grants just enough of her favours to keep them begging (Odette drives Swann almost mad with jealousy) before – if she’s successful – finally inveigling them into marriage. The story of Swann’s love affair with Odette sets the pattern for the narrator’s own tortured obsession later in the story with a girl he meets at the seaside resort of Balbec. The narrator’s search for the psychological laws of love, revealed in both Swann’s and his own affairs, runs parallel to his other searches – for lost time, for the laws of human sexual behaviour of all kinds, and for the laws of social change, exemplified in one way in the tale of the one-time grande horizontale Odette and, in another, by those members of the gratin – the absolute upper crust – of French society, the Guermantes. It is the Guermantes and their world – which, once she had been introduced to them, put an end for good to Proust’s efficacy as a soporific for my wife – that will be our next subject.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56 © Anthony Wells 2017


About the contributor

Anthony Wells has spent the best part of a lifetime avoiding putting pen to paper, prevaricating with a number of occupations including monitoring East German radio for the BBC, librarianship and running a family business. He hopes it’s going to be a case of better late than never.

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