A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 17


Where this began
Day 16


Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 220-239.

Swann's infatuation with Odette deepens, even though the conniving of the Verdurins to bring them together is sometimes clumsy. The theme from Vinteuil's sonata becomes "like the anthem of their love," which causes him some perturbation because "when Odette, capriciously, had begged him to, he had given up the idea of having some pianist play him the entire sonata.... 'Why would you need the rest?' she said to him. 'This is our piece.'" Proust, who has earlier given us an account of the complexity of musical composition, is obviously demonstrating Odette's shallowness here, as she reduces a sonata to background music.

But then Proust pulls out all stops to alert us to Odette's deficiencies. The neighborhood in which she lives is denoted by its "short streets," the "monotony" of the houses, the "sinister street stall, the historic sign and sordid vestige of a time when these districts were in bad repute." Even her handwriting gives her away:
an affectation of British stiffness imposed an appearance of discipline on ill-formed letters that would perhaps have signified, to less prejudiced eyes, an untidiness of mind, an insufficient education, a lack of frankness and resolution.

And Swann is forced to overlook the deficiencies in her beauty,
to limit what he imagined of her cheeks only to her fresh, pink cheekbones since the rest was so often yellow, languid, sometimes marked with little red specks, distressed him, as it seemed to prove that the ideal is inaccessible and happiness mediocre.

So he lets himself fall into the fantasy that she resembles the figure of Zipporah (above) in the fresco by Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel. It is a way of bringing grace to "those large eyes of hers, so tired and sullen when she was not animated." Once again, as with the theme from Vinteuil's sonata, he falls into the habit of reducing works of art to suit his personal circumstances: "The words 'Florentine painting' did Swann a great service. They allowed him, like a title, to bring the image of Odette into a world of dreams to which it had not had access until now and where it was steeped in nobility." And so he contemplates Odette "sometimes with the humility, spirituality, and disinterestedness of an artist, and sometimes with the pride, egotism, and sensuality of a collector."

We learn, perhaps with some surprise, that they have not yet slept together. Certainly the Verdurins are surprised: Mme. Verdurin tells her husband and others in the "little circle," "As she hasn't anyone just now, I told her she ought to sleep with him." M. Verdurin, to his credit, sees Odette clearly: "I don't know if you heard what he was declaiming to her the other evening about Vinteuil's sonata; I love Odette with all my heart, but to construct aesthetic theories for her benefit, you'd really have to be quite an imbecile."

Which is pretty much what Swann has become in his infatuation, as he pursues the trail of Odette through the clubs and restaurants of Paris:
Of all the modes by which love is brought into being, of all the agents which disseminate the holy evil, surely one of the most efficacious is this great gust of agitation which now and then sweeps over us. Then our fate is sealed, and the person whose company we enjoy at the time is the one we will love. It is not even necessary for us to have liked him better than anyone else up to then, or even as much. What is necessary is that our predilection for him should become exclusive.

Is it worth pointing out that although this passage is a comment on Swann's passion for Odette, the generalizing pronouns that Proust uses are "him" and not "her"?