A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 2

Day 1

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 11-23.

We meet Swann, but first we witness some of the family dynamic. The grandmother's love for being outdoors, even in a rainstorm, puts her at odds with the rest of the family, and even with the gardener whose paths are "too symmetrically aligned for her liking" and the maid who finds her muddied skirts "a source of despair and a problem." She is also perturbed by the failure of the narrator's father to "make him strong and active" and "build up his endurance and willpower." The narrator's mother submits to the father, unwilling to "try to penetrate the mystery of his superior qualities." The great-aunt's teasing of his grandmother provokes the narrator, who, "already a man in my cowardice, ... did what we all do, once we are grown up, when confronted with sufferings and injustices: I did not want to see them."

The boy's love of his mother is so intense that he can't enjoy it. When he hears her coming to his room to kiss him goodnight, the moment is marred because of his awareness that it will end. He comes to prefer anticipation to fulfillment:
It heralded the moment that was to follow it, when she had left me, when she had gone down again. So that I came to wish that this goodnight I loved so much would take place as late as possible, so as to prolong the time of respite in which Mama had not yet come.

And then Swann appears, to set the household dynamic into a new alignment. He has, we are told, an "aquiline nose" and "green eyes under a high forehead framed by blond, almost red hair, cut Bressant-style." A footnote to Lydia Davis's translation tells us that the actor Jean-Baptiste Prosper Bressant "introduced a new hairstyle, which consisted of wearing the hair in a crew cut in front and longer in the back." In other words, Swann had a mullet. But the chief thing that we learn is that, unknown to his neighbors in Combray, Swann, the stockbroker's son, moves in the highest social circles when he is in Paris.
Our ignorance of this brilliant social life that Swann led was obviously due in part to the reserve and discretion of his character, but also to the fact that bourgeois people in those days formed for themselves a rather Hindu notion of society and considered it to be made up of closed castes, in which each person, from birth, found himself placed in the station which his family occupied and from which nothing, except the accidents of an exceptional career or an unhoped-for marriage could withdraw him in order to move him into a higher caste.
This sets in motion some Jane Austen-style comedy, centered on the great-aunt who has pigeonholed Swann because his town house is in "a part of town where my great-aunt felt it was ignominious to live." She handles Swann, "who was elsewhere so sought after, with the naive roughness of a child who plays with a collector's curio no more carefully than with some object of little value."

Proust typically uses Swann's unsuspected double life as a means to reflect on the nature of personality -- we are what we are seen to be:
But even with respect to the most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others.
And since this is a novel about recovering time, the narrator observes that the varied encounters we have with one person over time are freighted with revelations not such much about them as about who we were when we previously encountered them:
I have the impression of leaving one person to go to another distinct from him, when, in my memory, I pass from the Swann I knew later with accuracy to that first Swann -- to that first Swann in whom I rediscover the charming mistakes of my youth and who in fact resembles less the other Swann than he resembles the other people I knew at the time, as though one's life were like a museum in which all the portraits from one period have a family look about them, a single tonality -- to that first Swann abounding in leisure, fragrant with the smell of the tall chestnut tree, the baskets of raspberries, and a sprig of tarragon.

Finally, we meet grandmother Bathilde's spinster sisters, with whom Jane Austen would have had almost as much fun as Proust does:
They were women of lofty aspirations, who for that very reason were incapable of taking an interest in what is known as tittle-tattle, ... and more generally in anything that was not directly connected to an aesthetic or moral subject. The disinterestedness of their minds was such, with respect to all that, closely or distantly, seemed connected with worldly matters, that their sense of hearing -- having finally understood its temporary uselessness when the conversation at dinner assumed a tone that was frivolous or merely pedestrian ... -- would suspend the functioning of its receptive organs and allow them to begin to atrophy.

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