Swann in Love: Prelude


Marcel does not get a goodnight kiss from his mother because he is dismissed from the dinner table, where Swann is the guest. He experiences longing that makes him feel near death.

And so I must set forth without viaticum [note for non-Catholics: literally “provisions for a journey”, given at the Last Rite]…Once in my room I had to stop every loophole, to close the shutters, to dig my own grave as I turned down the bed clothes, to wrap myself in the shroud of my nightshirt. But before burying myself in the iron bed which had been placed there because, on summer nights, I was too hot among the rep curtains of the four-poster, I was stirred to revolt, and attempted the desperate stratagem of a condemned prisoner. I wrote to my mother begging her to come upstairs for an important reason which I could not put in writing. (I,36-37)

We will see this desperate despair played out more fully a little later.

As for the agony through which I had just passed, I imagined that Swann would have laughed heartily at it if he had read my letter and had guessed its purpose; whereas, on the contrary, as I was to learn in due course, a similar anguish had been the bane of his life for many years, and no one perhaps could have understood my feelings at that moment so well as he; to him, the anguish that comes from knowing that the creature one adores is in some place of enjoyment where oneself is not and cannot follow–to him that anguish came through love, to which it is in a sense predestined, by which it will be seized upon and exploited; but when, as had befallen me, it possesses one’s soul before love has yet entered into one’s life, then it must drift, awaiting love’s coming, vague and free, without precise attachment, at the disposal of one sentiment today, of another tomorrow, of filial piety or affection for a friend. And the joy with which I first bound myself apprentice, when Françoise returned to tell me that my letter would be delivered, Swann, too, had known well–that false joy which a friend or relative of the woman we love can give us, when, on his arrival at the house or theatre where she is to be found, for some ball or party or “first night” at which he is to meet her, he sees us wandering outside, desperately awaiting some opportunity of communicating with her… Too often, the kind friend comes down again alone…My mother did not appear….(I,39-41)

Marcel’s agony will never be lost to him because it becomes associated with sensual impressions, smell, sight and sound. He mounts the stairs after having been exiled from the dinner table.

That  hateful staircase, up which I always went so sadly, gave out a smell of varnish which had, as it were, absorbed and crystallized the special quality of sorrow that I felt each evening, and made it perhaps even crueller to my sensibility because, when it assumed this olfactory guise, my intellect was powerless to resist it. (I,36)

Noiselessly I opened the window and sat down on the foot of my bed. I hardly dared to move in case they should hear me from below. Outside, things too seemed frozen, rapt in a mute intentness not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating each of them, and throwing it back by the extension in front of it of a shadow denser and more concrete than its substance, had made the whole landscape at once thinner and larger…What had to move–a leaf of the chestnut-tree, for instance–moved. But its minute quivering, total, self-contained, finished down to its minutest gradation and its last delicate tremor, did not impinge upon the rest of the scene, did not merge with it, remained circumscribed. Exposed upon this surface of silence which absorbed nothing of them, the most distant sounds, those which must have come from gardens at the far end of the town…(I,42-43)

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