Archive for the ‘Swann’s Way’ Category


November 2, 2011

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has a painting by Martin Johnson Heade titled Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle (ca. 1875-1890).

Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle

She found something ‘quaint’ in the shape of each of her Chinese ornaments, and also in her orchids, the cattleyas especially (these being, with chrysanthemums, her favourite flowers), because they had the supreme merit of not looking in the least like other flowers, but of being made, apparently, out of scraps of silk or satin. “It looks just as though it had been cut out of the lining of my cloak,” she said to Swann, pointing to an orchid, with a shade of respect in her voice for so ‘smart’ a flower, for this distinguished, unexpected sister whom nature had suddenly bestowed upon her, so far removed from her in the scale of existence, and yet so delicate, so refined, so much more worthy than many real women of admission to her drawing-room. As she drew his attention, now to the fiery-tongued dragons painted upon a bowl or stitched upon a fire-screen, now to a fleshy cluster of orchids, now to a dromedary of inlaid silver-work with ruby eyes, which kept company, upon her mantelpiece, with a toad carved in jade, she would pretend now to be shrinking from the ferocity of the monsters or laughing at their absurdity, now blushing at the indecency of the flowers, now carried away by an irresistible desire to run across and kiss the toad and dromedary, calling them ‘darlings.’ 

Proust, Marcel (2004-12-01). Swann’s Way (Kindle Locations 3730-3739). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.


She had in her hand a bunch of cattleyas, and Swann could see, beneath the film of lace that covered her head, more of the same flowers fastened to a swansdown plume. She was wearing, under her cloak, a flowing gown of black velvet, caught up on one side so as to reveal a large triangular patch of her white silk skirt, with an ‘insertion,’ also of white silk, in the cleft of her low-necked bodice, in which were fastened a few more cattleyas. She had scarcely recovered from the shock which the sight of Swann had given her, when some obstacle made the horse start to one side. They were thrown forward from their seats; she uttered a cry, and fell back quivering and breathless. “It’s all right,” he assured her, “don’t be frightened.” And he slipped his arm round her shoulder, supporting her body against his own; then went on: “Whatever you do, don’t utter a word; just make a sign, yes or no, or you’ll be out of breath again. You won’t mind if I put the flowers straight on your bodice; the jolt has loosened them. I’m afraid of their dropping out; I’m just going to fasten them a little more securely.”

Proust, Marcel (2004-12-01). Swann’s Way (Kindle Locations 3923-3931). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.


The Songs of Reynaldo Hahn

August 28, 2011

For some reason I have never sought out the music of Reynaldo Hahn until now. Listening to his songs sung by Susan Graham has given me new insight into the “little phrase” and Proust’s appreciation of music. The songs are exquisite. Proust and Hahn had different musical sensibilities; Hahn felt a close kinship to Mozart and Proust to Wagner. But it is easy, especially after reading Swann in Love, to see how the passionate stage of their love affair must have been suffused with and amplified by music. Proust would ask Hahn to play the theme from Saint-Saen’s Sonata for Violin and Piano over and over. He was 22 and Hahn 19 when they became lovers.

Be careful who you are with when you listen to Graham sing these songs.

The Little Phrase

August 14, 2011

At various times Proust provided different sources for the source of Vinteul’s “little phrase.” The original source, though, must have been the Saint-Saëns Sonata I for piano and violin. Proust would ask his lover Reynaldo Hahn to play the opening movement over and over (Carter, Marcel Proust, 207). Later he grew disenchanted with Saint-Saëns and would sometimes mention César Franck’s Sonata in A Major for piano and violin as a source. Both pieces of music are quite lovely. The only problem is that neither piece has music that lives up to this description:

At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. (I,294)

Then they were silent; beneath the restless tremolos of the violin part which protected it with their throbbing sostenuto two octaves above it–and as in a mountainous country, behind the seeming immobility of a vertigious waterfall, one descries, two hundred feet below, the tiny form of a woman walking in the valley–the little phrase had just appeared, distant, graceful, protected by the long, gradual unfurling of it transparent, incessant and sonorous curtain. (I,374-375)

When, after that first evening at the Verdurins’, he had had the little phrase played over to him again, and had had sought to disentangle from his confused impressions how it was that, like a perfume or a caress, it swept over and enveloped him, he had observed that it was to the closeness of the intervals between the five notes which composed it and to the constant repetition of two of them that was due that impression of a frigid and withdrawn sweetness; but in reality he know that he was basing this conclusion not upon the phrase itself, but merely upon certain equivalents, substituted (for his mind’s convenience) for the mysterious entity of which he had become aware, before ever he knew the Verdurins, at that earlier party when for the first time he had heard the sonata played. He knew that the very memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the elements of music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still almost entirely unknown) on which, here and there only, separated by the thick darkness of its unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by a few great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme they have discovered, of showing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that vase, unfathomed and forbidding night of our soul which we take to be an impenetrable void. Vinteuil had been one of those musicians. (I,496-497)

How beautiful the dialogue which Swann now heard between piano and violin, at the beginning of the last passage! The suppression of human speech, so far from letting fancy reign there uncontrolled (as one might have thought), had eliminated it altogether; never was spoken language so inexorably determined, never had it known questions so pertinent, such irrefutable replies. At first the piano complained alone, like a bird deserted by its mate; the violin heard and answered it, as from a neighbouring tree. It was as at the beginning of th world, as if there were as yet only the two of them on the earth, or rather in this world closed to all the rest, so fashioned by the logic of its creator that in it there should never by any but themselves: the world of this sonata. (I,499-500)

But perhaps to hear music this intensely requires an altered state of mind. Swann’s barren life had eroded his ability to feel deeply. The little phrase changed that and Proust created some of his most startling metaphors to describe Swann’s new musical faculty.

There was a deep repose, a mysterious refreshment for Swann–whose eyes, although delicate interpreters of painting, whose mind, although an acute observer of manners, must bear for ever the indelible imprint of the barrenness of his life–in feeling himself transformed into a creature estranged from humanity, blinded, deprived of his logical faculty, almost a fantastic unicorn, a chimeaera-like creature conscious of world through his hearing alone. And since he sought in the little phrase for a meaning to which his intelligence could not descend, with what a strange frenzy of intoxication did he strip bare his innermost soul of the whole armour of reason and make it pass unattended through the dark filter of sound! (I,336-337)

As though the musicians were not nearly so much playing the little phrase as performing the rites on which it insisted before it would consent to appear, and proceeding to utter the incantations necessary to procure, and to prolong for a few moments, the miracle of its apparition, Swann, who was no more able to see it than if it had belonged to a world of ultra-violet light, and who experienced something like the refreshing sense of a metamorphosis in the momentary blindness with which he was struck as he approached it, Swann felt its presence like that of a protective goddess, a confidante of his love, who, in order to be able to come to him through the crowd and to draw him aside to speak to him, had disguised herself in this sweeping cloak of sound. And as she passed, light, soothing, murmurous as the perfume of a flower, telling him what she had to say, every word of which he closely scanned, regretful to see them fly away so fast, he made involuntarily with his lips the motion of kissing, as it went by him, the harmonious, fleeting form. (I,494)

Noxious Memory

January 30, 2011

Proust associates unforced memory with a visceral feeling of joy or enchantment, which may precede the conscious awareness of the actual memory. But the association is not always so pleasant. In two passages unforced memories evoke the deepest, sharpest feelings of pain found anywhere in the novel. As is often the case, the first such event is a rehearsal by Swann for that of Marcel: the discovery that their lovers are (horror alert!) female homosexuals. In Swann’s case, he suddenly realizes what he had unconsciously known all along, that Odette had been (another horror alert) Mme Verdurin’s lover.

One day, during the longest period of calm through which he had yet been able to exist without being overtaken by an access of jealousy, he had accepted an invitation to spend the evening at the theatre with the Princesse des Laumes. Having opened his newspaper to find out what was being played, the sight of the title–Les Filles de Marbre, by Théodore Barrière–struck him so cruel a blow that he recoiled instinctively and turned his head away. Lit up as though by a row of footlights, in the new surroundings in which it now appeared, the  word “marble,” which he had lost the power to  distinguish, so accustomed was he to see it passing in print beneath his eyes, had suddenly become visible again, and had at once brought back to his mind the story which Odette had told him long ago of a visit which she had paid to the Salon at the Palais de l’Industrie with Mme Verdurin, who had said to her, “Take care, now! I know how to melt you, all right. You’re not made of marble.”  Odette had assured him that it was only a joke, and he had attached no importance to it at the time. But he had had more confidence in her then than he had now. And the anonymous letter referred explicitly to relations of that sort.

…But now, by one of those inspirations of jealousy analogous to the inspiration  which reveals to a poet or a philosopher, who has nothing, so far, to go on but an odd pair of rhymes or a detached observation, the idea or the natural law which will give him the power he needs, Swann recalled for the first time an observation which Odette had made to him at least two years before: “Oh, Mme Verdurin, she won’t hear of anyone just now but me. I’m a ‘love,’ if you please, and she kisses me, and wants me to go with her everywhere, and call her tu.” So far from seeing at the time in this observation any connexion with the absurd remarks intended to simulate vice which Odette had reported to him, he had welcomed them as a proof of Mme Verdurin’s warm-hearted and generous friendship. But now this memory of her affection for Odette had coalesced suddenly with the memory of her unseemly conversation. He could no longer separate them in his mind, and he saw them assimilated in reality, the  affection imparting a certain seriousness and importance to the pleasantries which, in return robbed the affection of its innocence. He went to see Odette. He sat down at a distance from her. He did not dare to embrace her, not knowing whether it would be affection or anger that a kiss would provoke, either in her or in himself. He sat there silent, watching their love expire. (I,512-514)

As with Swann, a seemingly innocent remark sets off a nearly identical reaction in Marcel.

“…Well, this friend (oh! not at all the type of woman you might suppose!), isn’t this extraordinary, is the best friend of your Vinteuil’s daughter, and I know Vinteuil’s daughter almost as well as I know her. I always call them my two big sisters. I’m not sorry to show you that your little Albertine, can be of use to you in this question of music, about which you say, and quite rightly, that I know nothing at all.”

At the sound of these words, uttered as we were entering the station of Parville, so far from Combray and Montjouvain, so long after the death of Vinteuil, an image stirred in my heart, an image which I had kept in reserve for so many years that even if I had been able to guess, when I stored it up long ago, that it had a noxious power, I should have supposed that in the course of time it had entirely lost it; preserved alive in the depths of my being–like Orestes whose death the gods had prevented in order that, on the appointed day, he might return to his native land to avenge the murder of Agamemnon–as a punishment, as a retribution (who knows?) for my having allowed my grandmother to die; perhaps rising up suddenly from the dark depths in which it seemed for ever buried, and striking like an Avenger, in order to inaugurate for me a new and terrible and only too well-merited existence, perhaps also to make dazzlingly clear to my eyes the fatal consequences which evil actions eternally engender, not only for those who have committed them but for those who have done no more, or thought that they were doing no more, than look on at a curious and entertaining spectacle, as I, alas, had done on that afternoon long ago at Monjouvain, concealed behind a bush where (as I had complacently listened to the account of Swann’s love affairs) I had perilously allowed to open up within me the fatal and inevitably painful road of Knowledge. And at the same time, from my bitterest grief I derived a feeling almost of pride, almost of joy, that of a man whom the shock he has just received has carried at a bound to a point to which no voluntary effort could have brought him….It was a terrible terra incognita on which I had just landed, a new phase of undreamed of sufferings that was opening before me. (IV,702-703)

In Dark Woods

January 9, 2011

Swann’s Way both opens and closes with voice of the mature narrator, speaking years after the events. (Although the final passage he claims to be writing “this year” (I,598), which creates an ambiguity of its place in time with regard to the epiphanies of the final volume.) In both passages the narrator struggles to discover his essential nature. In the first it is sleep that has rendered the wakening man adrift because his memories have not yet restored him to his place and time. In the closing passage, he is again lost, this time in a November wood, lost because his memory has failed to adequately recreate the past, leaving him only with a present deprived of its past beauty. Fowlie hears the despair of this unresolved quest.

The narrator’s consolation is the past, and he goes back farther than his own past, farther than the Bois de Boulogne, to the groves celebrated by Virgil, to the Elysian garden of beautiful women, to the Druidic crown of the oak trees. He finds himself, on this sunlit November morning of his adulthood, in an empty unused forest. Where has the past, the past which he once lived on this very spot, gone? The last lines have the solemnity of a partial revelation. He knows that his past is not here in the Bois de Boulogne. The reality he had once known is over. La réalité que j’avais connue n’existait plus. The places we have known in the past do not belong solely to the world of space. Les lieux que nous avons connus n’appartiennent pas qu’au monde de l’espace. The desolation of the November scene and the sadness of the narrator form an experience in his life as a man. The reader does not fully realize at this point that the work he is reading is the only possible remedy to the desolation and the sadness. The narrator observes that houses and roads are as fleeting as the years. Les maisons, les routes, les avenue, sont fugives, hélas! comme les années. Without using the word time in the final sentences, Proust focuses our attention on the passing of time, the intangibility of the past, and its elusiveness. (82)

Another forerunner of these passages is, of course, Dante:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring; death is hardly more bitter…

(Robert Pinsky translation)

Alas! in the acacia-avenue–the myrtle-alley, I did see some of them again, grown old, no more now than grim spectres of what they had once been, wandering, desperately searching for  heaven knew what, through the Virgilian groves. They had long since fled, and still I stood vainly questioning the deserted paths. The sun had gone. Nature was resuming it reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that is was the Elysian Garden of Woman; above the gimcrack windmill the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries perched, one after another, on the great oaks which, beneath their Druidical crown, and with Dodonian majesty, seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest, and helped me to understand how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years. (I,605-606)

An Artist in Evil

March 11, 2010

Sadism is not associated with hate for Proust. It may be a way to experience pleasure, or it may be the cruelty of indifference. It is the former for Mlle Vinteuil, who profanes her father’s memory in order to get in the right frame of mind for sex. She challenges her lesbian friend to spit on her father’s photograph. They close the curtain on the voyeur Marcel and we are left to imagine the rest. Now for the psychological analysis…

But, appearance apart, in  Mlle Vinteuil’s sort at least in the earlier stages, the evil element was probably not unmixed. A sadist of her kind is an artist in evil, which a wholly wicked person could not be, for in that case the evil would not have been external, it would have seemed quite natural to her, and would not even have been distinguishable from herself; and as for virtue, respect for the dead, filial affection, since she would never have practised the cult of these things, she would take no impious delight in profaning them. Sadist’s of Mlle Vinteuil’s sort are creatures so purely sentimental, so naturally virtuous, that even sensual pleasure appears to them as something bad, the prerogative of the wicked. And when they allow themselves for a moment to enjoy it  they endeavour to impersonate, to identify with, the wicked, and to make their partners do likewise, in order to gain the momentary illusion of having escaped beyond the control of their own gentle and scrupulous natures into the inhuman world of pleasure. (I,231)

It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure, that seemed to her attractive; it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil. And as, each time she indulged in it, it  was accompanied by evil thoughts such as ordinarily had no place in her virtuous mind, she came at length to see in pleasure itself something diabolical, to identify it with Evil. (I,232)

Perhaps she would not have thought of evil as a state so rare, so abnormal, so exotic, one in which it was so refreshing to sojourn, had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone else, that indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the most terrible and lasting form of cruelty. (I,232-233)

Proust took his mother’s photograph to the male brothels he frequented late in his life.

Baron of Bums

March 10, 2010

Legrandin is rather clumsy in his desire to be a good neighbor to Marcel and his family and at the same time to appear rather more important than he is to the local landed gentry. He is at the early stage of being a snob, a character trait that he will continue to develop. Here he is with prominent landowners of Combray.

Legrandin’s face wore an expression of extraordinary zeal and animation; he made a deep bow, with a subsidiary backward movement which brought his shoulders sharply up into a position behind their starting point, a gesture in which he must have been trained by the husband of his sister, Mme de Cambremer. This rapid  straightening-up caused a sort of tense muscular wave to ripple over Legrandin’s rump, which I had not supposed to be so fleshy; I cannot say why, but this undulation of pure matter, this wholly carnal fluency devoid of spiritual significance, this wave lashed into a tempest by an obsequious alacrity of the basest sort, awoke my mind suddenly to the possibility of a Legrandin altogether different from the one we knew. (I,174)

One is prompted by this physical description of Legrandin’s derrière to ask if his name is a Dickensian joke. And one is also curious of the opinion of the Baron of Bums, Charlus.

When the Princess, who had undertaken to find a husband for Mlle d’Oloron, asked M. de Charlus whether he knew anything about an amiable and cultivated man called Legrandin de Méséglise (it was thus that M. Legrandin now styled himself), the Baron first of all replied in the negative, then suddenly the memory recurred to him of a man whose acquaintance he had made in the train one night and who had given him his card. He smiled a vague smile. “It’s perhaps the same man,” he said to himself. (V,903)


March 10, 2010
For Marcel, hawthorns in flower are almost unbearably beautiful, sometimes forcing him to avert his gaze.

It was in the “Month of Mary” that I remember having first fallen in love with hawthorns. Not only were they in the church, where, holy ground as it was, we had all of us a right of entry, but arranged upon the altar itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose celebration they participated, thrusting in among the tapers and the sacred vessels their serried branches, tied to one another horizontally in stiff, festal scheme of decoration still further embellished by the festoons of leaves, over which were scattered in profusion, as over a bridal train, little clusters of buds of a dazzling whiteness. Though I dared not look at it except through my fingers, I could sense that this formal scheme was composed of living things, and that it was Nature herself who, by trimming the shape of the foliage, and by adding the crowning ornament of those snowy buds, had made the decorations worthy of what was at once a public rejoicing and solemn mystery. (I,155-156) 

I don’t have a hawthorn in my garden, but I feel much the same way about my rhododendrons.  





The Invention of the Novel

March 9, 2010

The inventor of the novel, according to Proust, made the discovery that we can experience life as profoundly in reading, and usually more so, as with interacting with “real people.” Having a “real” person in front of you is actually a distraction.

These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Françoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a decided improvement. A real person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. (I,116-117)

And the unfolding of “real” life takes place over time, which can dull our imagination because it cannot take in such an extended impression.

And once the novelist has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to us in sleep, why then, for space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them. (I,117)

When we are young the time spent lost in reading is perhaps our most intense, unforgettable experience.

Sweet Sunday afternoons beneath the chestnut-tree in the garden at Combray, carefully purged by me of every commonplace incident of my personal existence, which I had replaced with a life of strange adventures and aspirations in a land watered with living streams, you still recall that life to me when I think of you, and you embody it in effect by virtue of having gradually encircled and enclosed it–while I went on with my reading and the heat of the day declined–in the crystalline succession, slowly changing and dappled with foliage, of your silent, sonorous, fragrant limpid hours. (I,121) 

Swann in Love: Prelude

March 7, 2010

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)