In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 183-198.
There are times when Proust reminds me of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, that infamously interminable eighteenth-century epistolary novel that Henry Fielding parodied in Shamela and Joseph Andrews. Not, of course, that I've actually read Pamela, but I've read in it and about it -- including Fielding -- enough to know that it requires a certain patience and persistence to get through a thousand-plus pages about a woman defending her virtue. (Apologies and kudos to those who have read it.) Today is one of those times, with the narrator wallowing in self-inflicted misery about Gilberte's not making the next move to restore their relationship.
He begins by waiting for the New Year's Day letter he expects her to write. And waiting and waiting, having decided it must have been held up in the mail.
Whether it was really likely or not, our desire for such a letter, our need for it, is enough to make us believe it will probably come. The soldier is convinced that an indefinitely extendable period must elapse before he will be killed, the thief before he will be arrested, all of us before we must die. This is the amulet that protects individuals, and sometimes nations, not from danger, but from the fear of danger, or, rather, from belief in danger, which can lead to the braving of real dangers by those who are not brave.
There's enough wisdom and psychological insight in passages like that one to win us over, to keep us going through what might otherwise be sheer ennui -- a trait that, again reportedly, Proust shares with Richardson (despite Fielding's mockery). Proust also makes us realize that what the narrator is going through is a kind of addiction: "I was as distressed as an invalid who has finished his vial of morphine without having another one available." And indeed, the narrator has his own physiological addiction: "My heart palpitations had become so violent that I was ordered to reduce my consumption of caffeine. This having put a stop to them, I began to wonder whether the caffeine might not be partly responsible for the anguish I had felt when I more or less chose to fall out with Gilberte."
Well, yes, but he might as well face it, he's addicted to love. (Catchy line, that.) "I detested the thought that one day I might have these same feelings for someone else, as this deprived me not only of Gilberte, but also of my love and my pain, the very love and pain through which, as I wept, I tried to grasp the real Gilberte, though I was obliged to admit they did not belong to her in particular, but would sooner or later devolve to another woman." He fancies going to Gilberte to tell her that one day he would love another, but decides that this would only show her how great his love for her is now, "and she would have been more irked than every by the sight of me." You're caught in a trap, you can't get out, because you love her too much, baby.
Sorry for the pop song references, but they make a point: What the narrator is going through here is familiarly adolescent posturing, of a different order from the fevered obsession of Swann for Odette. "So, with tears, courage, and consolation, I sacrificed the happiness of being with her to the possibility of one day seeming lovable in her eyes, though knowing it would be a day when the prospect of seeming lovable in her eyes would leave me cold."
We know that the narrator's infatuation is a shallow one because he's so easily distracted from self-pity by the goings-on at the Swanns', particularly by Odette herself, who is constantly upgrading her style:
She was in the habit of maintaining that she would go without bread sooner than be deprived of art and cleanliness, and that she would have be more upset by the burning of the Mona Lisa than by the annihilation of "swarms" of her acquaintance. These conceptions appeared paradoxical to her lady friends, giving her among them the renown of a high-minded woman, and brought the Belgian ambassador to visit her once a week; and in the little world that revolved about her sun, everybody would have been astounded that elsewhere -- at the Verdurins', for example -- she was seen as stupid.
The narrator's observations of the way Odette has changed, even in the eyes of Swann, are another of Proust's violations of point of view -- it's unlikely that the still-naive narrator would have seen so clearly that Swann "could still see her as a Botticelli" while Odette "had no time for Botticelli."
In the evenings, Swann would sometimes murmur to me to look at her pensive hands as she gave to them unawares the graceful, rather agitated movement of the Virgin dipping her quill in the angel's inkwell, before writing in the holy book where the word Magnificat is already inscribed. Then he would add, "Be sure not to mention it to her! One word -- and she'd make sure it wouldn't happen again!"
Similarly, the nuanced analysis of of Odette's clothing -- "One could sense that, for her, dressing was not just a matter of comfort or adornment of the body: whatever she wore encompassed her like the delicate and etherealized epitome of a civilization" -- is a bit beyond the young narrator's sensibility. But why quibble, when it gets us away, if only temporarily, from his musings about Gilberte?