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Swann's Way

Swann's Way - Marcel Proust,  C.K. Scott Moncrieff,  Lewis Galantière image
(Painting of Swann, by David Richardson)

In some ways, maybe, both love and destruction come to us, seek us out, and we are powerless to pursue or avoid them. I tend to think that is not the case, but I am often wrong, and I am too willing to make grand pronouncements about life to be unwilling to be called wrong. Or, as my friend says of herself, I am never wrong because if I hear an idea that is better than mine, I change my mind to that idea, and then I am right again. Anyway, in Swann’s Way, Proust writes a museum of love and, the other side of love’s coin, abandonment, of comfort and loneliness. Every human relationship in this story is linked to some form of art, and I think the narrator gestures at this when he says,

If only Bergotte had described the place in one of his books, I should, no doubt, have longed to see and to know it, like so many things else of which a simulacrum had first found its way into my imagination. That kept things warm, made them live, gave them personality, and I sought then to find their counterpart in reality, but in this public garden there was nothing that attached itself to my dreams. (p. 565)

There is an inevitability to all of these art/human interactions, as though what is pre-written cannot be resisted.

I am going to talk in spoilers in this review, I think, but my own personal read of this story held most of it to be largely predictable, and purposely so. The beginning of the story is the end, and the end of the story is the very, very end, and all of the telling is wrapped up together. I don’t think I’m going to hide the spoilers, then, because the narrator tells you early on what becomes of M. Swann, and then he develops it carefully and delicately so that you know just how it should be told and how he has seen it unfold. It doesn’t seem to me that what I have to say will ruin any of it, but I like to come to books fresh, so I respect that, and if you feel the same, now is the time to exit.

Proust’s characters see life translated through books and paintings and music. In that way there is a sort of self-reflexivity in the story, but also something that feels resonant today. If we have seen it done before, if someone has recognized it before, we can do it ourselves. For example, the narrator’s Oedipal relationship with his parents comes to a peak (sorry) just before his mother’s censored bedtime read-a-loud of [b:Francois le Champi]. The narrator then develops a passion for the invented author Bergotte, and when the narrator learns that M. Swann is personal friends with Bergotte, he thereafter sees the Swann family through a Bergotte-colored monocle. He falls in adolescent love with them, the way he is in adolescent love with Bergotte.

Swann, likewise, uses art as a touchstone for life. Like men, or really both men and women, now, often justify a woman’s beauty, not by their own preferences, but instead through some expectation that Heidi Klum and Jessica Alba are the framework of beauty, Swann acknowledges a women’s beauty by association to painting. Swann’s kitchen-maid can be beautiful because she is Giotto’s Charity:

Giotto’s Charity

He finally reconciles himself to Odette’s beauty when he realizes she looks like Botticelli’s Zipporah from The Trials of Moses:

Botticelli Trials of Moses cropped to Zipporah

M. Swann’s very relationship with Odette becomes embodied in the little phrase from M. Vinteuil’s sonata. We ironically know from the story of Combray that M. Vinteuil died of heartbreak at least in part, presumably, because of his own “intense prudishness” and in reaction to his daughter’s lesbian tendencies – ironic, obviously, because M. Swann’s deepest disappointment with Odette is that she has ever been with a woman. Towards the end of Swann in Love, I kept picturing M. Swann's relationship with Odette as Love the Way You Lie. I wonder if the sonata sounded like that.

Swann handed over his preferences regarding beauty to painters like we hand over our preferences to movie producers and modeling agencies. M. Swann reconciled himself to owning Odette as a mistress while they both slept with other people, but if Odette slept with a woman, that was betrayal. Today, we can handle adultery, abuse, marital rape, and bride purchasing, but if gay people get married, that will undermine the institution. People never change.

Or maybe we change, but we change as individuals. This book made me love Proust. I think he captures all of this with the awe of adolescence and the cynicism of adulthood. I also love him because he reminds me so incredibly of one of my best friends from school. My friend, whom I am calling Marcel below because, you know, privacy, matches his polo shirts to his argyle socks every day. He is always on gchat, and some of us were planning to start a blog where we posted our gchats with him because we think they are so hilarious. Anyway, I am posting some of them below because I think they are how a modern day Proust would be. In our first year of law school, a lot of people thought that Marcel was a snob. But, I don’t think he is. Or, technically, he is, and his snobbishness might stand out more because of his money, but aren’t we all snobs about something? He is a snob about BMWs, and I am a snob about coffee and middlebrow literature. So, when people say Proust is a snob, I’ve started to feel a little defensive because, sure, but aren’t you? He is also sweet and witty and shy. And has more weird allergies than anyone you’ve ever met – or at least my friend does. Seriously, who is allergic to lettuce? But, now I am mixing up my Marcels. And, oh Marcels, why do you get so taken in by other people’s rules about beauty? If you think a girl is ugly, think she's ugly. And if you like her anyway, like her anyway! But, don't get so taken in by other people's ideas and expect them to be universal. But, ah, you do, and I love you anyway.

Some cattleyas for the bitches:

orange cattleya orchid

green cattleyagutuga

purple cattleya


And the Marcel gchats (keep in mind that this person is like twelve years old):

Day 1: I'm including this one because it is probably Marcel's favorite, but I also really love it.

12:49 PM Marcel: our sea of whirly twirly lamps is a little too
organized right now

12:50 PM me: i was thinking that too

12:51 PM Marcel: much better

1:17 PM Marcel: Rosamond wants me to be facebook friends with Octave and his
girlfriend so she can creep on them
that makes me uncomfortable

me: yeah, don't do it
she will regret it later too

1:18 PM Marcel: i don't think i'm much of an enabler anyway
i mean i wouldn't want that on my resume or anything

1:19 PM me: yeah, i hear firms look for "passive aggressive" before

1:20 PM Marcel: i'll have to work on that then
i'm not sure i'm good at being passive aggressive
unlike some people...

Day 2: This is really more expressive of him as a person.

9:40 AM Marcel: this dude in front of me in admin law
spends his time in class
looking at assault weapons
on his computer
all class

9:42 AM me: whoa
that is not good
who is the dude?

Marcel: disturbing
Albert something

9:43 AM me: ohh, Albert Bloch?

Marcel: that sounds right

9:44 AM me: yeah, that guy is pretty weird.
he dated mlle Lea all last year
he's a big republican
or, like, maybe just last spring

9:45 AM Marcel: crazies attract

9:46 AM me: so true

Marcel: i mean
you should see the people i've attracted over the years
i sadly mean that jokingly and seriously

9:47 AM me: same
9:48 AM literally, one guy who liked me went running through the
streets of seattle naked because he made a deal with god that
if he gave up everything, including his clothes, god would get
these friends of his back together as a couple. He was a nice
guy, though.
9:49 AM and, you know, that was a really good deal for god.

9:50 AM Marcel: you can't call someone crazy for believing in god
i'm intentionally missing the point

9:51 AM me: bah dum tss

10:10 AM Marcel: i don't think i'm very comfortable with the expression
that's how the sausage gets made

me: it's like "flesh it out"
bad visual

10:23 AM Marcel: if norpois or cottard were in admin law
i would actually skip this class
but we still get bontemps
so it's tempting to skip

10:25 AM me: who teaches that class?

10:26 AM Marcel: Mme. Verdurin
i think i don't like her
10:27 AM but i'm not positive

me: huh, interesting
i have never had a class with her, but she has always been
nice to me

10:29 AM Marcel: i think she just annoys me in class
and so far it has been unrelated to her red hair
at least consciously

me: yeah, it is tough to separate that

Marcel: but maybe i've been seeing her red hair and just not
liking her bc of that

me: definitely possible and not unreasonable

10:30 AM Marcel: i'm not sure where i picked up my default of strongly
disliking redheads
until i get to know them
like gilberte and saint loup are great

me: true, but they might just be an exception to the rule

Marcel: fact
10:31 AM one of my business partners has red hair
and i appreciate greatly
when he wears a hat

me: "one of my business partners." please say more words about

Marcel: well one of six others
10:32 AM they're certainly not all redheads

10:33 AM me: "business partners." please say more words about that.

10:34 AM Marcel: Beta Cascade Ventures, LLC
we're an investment company
with focuses on philanthropy, education, and networking

10:38 AM me: huh
10:39 AM that is very 1% of you

10:40 AM Marcel: our logo
is a sailboat

me: o

10:41 AM Marcel: i'll have to show you sometime