Posts Tagged ‘Swann’

The Tide Turns

March 17, 2010

The Dreyfus affair exposed the deep rift in French society between the secular and the religious, republican and royalist sentiments, the rule of law and adherence to loyalty and tradition. One lasting remnant of this division is the dueling presence of the Eiffel Tower (1889), symbolizing the modern break with tradition, and the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (1884), built to “expiate the crimes of the communards.” Proust uses the affair as a litmus test for a person’s decency. The most dramatic account is the conversion of the Prince de Guermantes, the most traditional of all the characters in the novel. The account of the conversion is related by Swann to Marcel. First, as nearly always when a person is called out as a Jew, he is described in the most physical terms.

But Swann belonged to that stout Jewish race, in whose vital energy, its resistance to death, its individual members seem to share. Stricken severally by their own diseases, as it is stricken itself by persecution, they continue indefinitely to struggle against terrible agonies which may be prolonged beyond every apparently possible limit, when already one can see only a prophet’s beard surmounted by a huge nose which dilates to inhale its last breath, before the hour strikes for the ritual prayers and the punctual procession of distant relatives begins, advancing with mechanical movements as upon an Assyrian frieze. (IV,141-142)

The Prince, although not obviously changing in his opinion of Jews, becomes increasingly aware that an injustice has been done to Dreyfus. Amid numerous interruptions from the party goers, as if to emphasize the gulf being traversed, Swann relates what the Prince had to say.

“‘Well, my dear Swann, about eighteen months ago, a conversation I had with General de Beauserfeuil made me suspect that, not an error, but grave illegalities, had been committed in the conduct of the trial….I don’t mind telling you that this idea of a possible illegality in the conduct of the trial was extremely painful to me, because I have always, as you know, worshipped the Army. I discussed the matter again with the General, and, alas, there could be no room for doubt. I need hardly tell you that, all this time, the idea that an innocent man might be undergoing the most infamous punishment had never even crossed my mind. But tormented by this idea of illegality, I began to study what I had always declined to read, and then the possibility, this time  not only of illegality but of the prisoner’s innocence, began to haunt me. I did not feel I could talk about it to the Princess.'”(IV,146-147)

His surprised to learn that someone he knows has reached the same conclusion, as he learned from his priest when he asks that a mass be said for Dreyfus.

“‘No, the abbé informed me’ (“I say me ,” Swann explained to me, “because it’s the Prince who is speaking, you understand?”), ‘for I have another mass that I’ve been asked to say for him tomorrow as well.–What, I said to him, is there another Catholic as well as myself who is convinced of his innocence?–It appears so.–But this other supporter’s conviction must be more recent than mine.–Maybe, but this other was asking me to say masses when you still believed Dreyfus guilty.–Ah, I can see that it’s no one in our world.–On the contrary!–Really, there are Dreyfusits among us, are there? You intrigue me; I should like to unbosom myself to this rare bird, if it is someone I know.–It is.–What is his name ?–The Princess de  Guermantes.'” (IV,150)



Swann’s Final Self

March 16, 2010

Swann is many things: a sophisticated collector of art, art advisor to the rich, member of the exclusive Jockey Club, confidant of elite members of society. The Dreyfus affair has reduced him in society to one thing: a Jew.

As soon as Swann enters the Prince de Guermantes’s soiree, he is whisked away by the Prince, leading to much speculation among the guests.

[Mme de Guermantes was] dreading the prospect of having to shake hands with Swann in these anti-semitic surroundings. With regard to this, her mind was soon set at rest, for she learned that the Prince had refused to have Swann in the house and had had “a sort of an altercation” with him. There was no risk of her having to converse in public with “poor Charles,” whom she preferred to cherish in private. (IV,98)

Reassured as regards her fear of having to talk to Swann, Mme de Guermantes now felt merely curious as to the subject of the conversation he had had with their host. “Do you know what it was about?” the Duke asked M. de Bréauté. “I did hear,” the other replied, “that it was about a little play which the writer Bergotte produced at their house. It was a delightful show, I gather. But it seems the actor made himself up to look like Gilbert, whom, as it happens, Master Bergotte had intended to depict.”…”The explanation that you have given us,” said Colonel de Froberville to M. de Bréauté, “is entirely unfounded. I have good reason to know. The Prince purely and simply gave Swann a dressing-down and begged to instruct him, as our fathers used to say, that he was not to show his face in the house again, in view of the opinions he flaunts. And to my mind, my uncle Gilbert was right a thousand times over, not only in giving Swann a piece of his mind–he ought to have broken off relations with a professed Dreyfusard six months ago.” (IV,102)

“Yes, after the friendship my wife has always shown him,” went on the Duke, who evidently considered that to denounce Dreyfus as guilty of high treason, whatever opinion one might hold in one’s heart of hearts as to his guilt, constituted a sort of thank-offering for the manner in which one had been received in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, “he ought to have dissociated himself. For, you can ask Oriane, she had a real friendship for him.” (IV,104)

“Don’t you see,” M. de Guermantes went on, “even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that  they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally.  It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going, and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew.” (IV,107-108)

The narrator confirms Swann as Jew physically, with the emergence of not  previously noticed characteristics. His face is eaten away with disease.

Whether because of the absence of those cheeks, no longer there to modify it, or because arteriosclerosis, which is also a form of intoxication, had reddened it as would drunkenness, or deformed it as would morphine, Swann’s punchinello nose, absorbed for long years into an agreeable face, seemed now enormous, tumid, crimson, the nose of an old Hebrew rather than of a dilettante Valois. Perhaps, too, in these last days, the physical type that characterises his race was becoming more pronounced in him, at the same time as a sense of moral solidarity with the rest of the Jews, a solidarity which Swann seemed to have forgotten throughout his life, and which, one after another, his mortal illness, the Dreyfus case and the anti-semitic propaganda had reawakened. There are certain Jews, men of great refinement and social delicacy, in whom nevertheless there remain in reserve and in the wings, ready to enter their lives at a given moment, as in a play, a cad and prophet. Swann had arrived at the age of the prophet. (IV,121-122)


The Dragon Within

March 4, 2010

The concluding pages of The Guermantes Way is one very long riff on the essence of the nobility, a subject that has little currency for me. The prose, as always, is lively, but I am not engaged by long passages on the distinctions between the Courvoisiers and the Guermantes. Marcel’s fascination with names, names of the aristocracy in this case and their places of origin, is amply documented. The Charlus interlude is very welcome. Yet there are occasions where we recognize ourselves. Take the case of Swann’s announcement of his impending death and how it is received, filtered by the listeners’ preoccupations, lack of reference and, yet, love for the man.

 Swann cryptically talks of death. He has brought a picture for the Duchess to see.

“But, my dear Charles, I’m longing to see your photograph.”

“Ah! Extinctor diraconis latrator Anubis,”said Swann.

“Yes, it was so charming what you said about that apropos of San Giorgio at Venice. But I don’t understand why Anubis?” (III,810)

The Duchess gets the reference to the dragon and how it is famously associated with Venice. The last part of the phrase is from Vergil, referring to the “baying jackal Anubis,” a carrier of corpses across the Charon. Swann is content to leave himself unexplained. She invites Swann to accompany her and the Duke on a visit to Italy.

“Very well, give me in one word the reason why you can’t come to Italy,” the Duchess put it to Swann as she rose to say good-by to us.

“But my dear lady, it’s because I shall then have been dead for several months. According to the doctors I’ve consulted, by the end of the year the thing I’ve got–which may, for that matter carry me off at any moment–won’t in any case leave me more than three or four months to live, and even that is a generous estimate,” replied Swann with a smile, while the footman opened the glazed door of the hall to let the Duchess out.

“What’s that you say?” cried the Duchess, stopping for moment on her way to the carriage and raising her beautiful, melancholy blue eyes, now clouded by uncertainty. Placed for the first time in her life between two duties as incompatible as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner and showing compassion for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the right line to follow; not knowing which to choose, she felt obliged to pretend not to believe that the latter alternative need be seriously considered, in order to comply with the first, which at the moment demanded less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that any existed. “You’re joking,” she said to Swann. (III,816)

Odette’s New Look

January 19, 2010

Since her marriage, Odette has lost some of her fragile beauty but gained a youthfulness as her added weight fills out her face. Swann still prefers the Botticelli version of Odette.

And sometimes in the evening, when she was tired, he would quietly draw my attention to the way in which she was giving, quite unconsciously, to her pensive hands the uncontrolled, almost distraught movement of the Virgin who dips her pen into the inkpot that the angle holds out to her, before writing upon the sacred page on which is already traced the word “Magnificat.” But he added: “Whatever you do, don’t say anything about it to her; if she knew she was doing it, she would change her pose at once.” (II,265


Swann himself doesn’t get his picture taken so often.

…I should have wished them to understand what an inestimable present I had just received and, to show their gratitude to that generous and courteous Swann who had offered it to me, or to them rather, without seeming any more conscious of its value than the charming Mage with the arched brow and fair hair in Luini’s fresco, to whom, it was said, Swann had at one time  been thought to bear a striking resemblance. (II,201)

Swann at Home

January 16, 2010

Swann is, of course, a character to judged on the terms presented in the novel. But I cannot help but think he’s another of Proust’s alter egos. He’s clever, knows  a huge amount about art, has exquisite taste and is a great conversationalist comfortable in high society. He’s also a cautionary figure, someone who seems destined to be an artist but squanders those abilities out of a kind of laziness.  So how’s married life for Swann and Odette? Marcel gets a look when visiting with their daughter Gilberte. Swann continues to collect art.

 He would show me his latest acquisitions and explain to me the interesting points about them, but my emotion, added to the unfamiliarity of being still unfed at this hour, stirred my mind while leaving it void, so that while I was capable of speech I was incapable of hearing. (II,137)

And he has found another aesthetic, but indolent, enjoyment, pairing the people in his and Odette’s circle for comic effect.

But Swann was not content with seeking in society and fastening on the names which the past has inscribed on its roll and which are still to be read there, a single artistic and literary pleasure, he indulged in the slightly vulgar diversion of arranging as it were social nosegays by grouping heterogenous elements, by bringing together people taken at random here, there and everywhere. These amusing (to Swann) sociological experiments did not always provoke an identical reaction from all his wife’s friends….She [Mme Bontemps] inwardly cursed the depraved taste which caused Swann, in order to gratify a wretched aesthetic whim, to destroy at one swoop the dazzling impression she had made on the Cottards when she told them about the Duchesse de Vendôme. (II,128)

Otherwise, he has simply resumed his pre-Odette life.

As for Swann himself, he still often called on some of his former acquaintances, who, of course, belonged to the very highest society. And yet when he spoke to us of the people whom he had just been to see I noticed that among those whom he had known in the old days, the choice that he made was dictated by the same kind of taste, partly artistic, partly historic, that inspired him as a collector. And remarking that is was often some Bohemian noblewoman who interested him because she had been the mistress of Liszt or because on of Balzac’s novels dedicated to her grandmother…(II,127)

 And he continues (like Odette) to sleep with whom he pleases.

For a long time now it had been a matter of indifference to him whether Odette had been, or was being, unfaithful to him….Swann was in love with another woman, a woman who gave him no grounds for jealousy but none the less made him jealous, because he was no longer capable of altering his mode of loving, and it was the mode he had employed with Odette that must serve him now for another. (II,132-133)

 And this was how a person of the highest potential lived out his life.

Swann Dive

January 10, 2010

Marcel’s parents are planning a dinner party for M. de Norpois and are considering the invitation list. Swann is quickly dismissed as a candidate.

Now this attitude on my father’s part may be felt to require a few words of explanation, inasmuch as some of us, no doubt, remember…a Swann of by whom modesty and discretion, in all his social relations, were carried to the utmost refinement of delicacy. (II,1)

Since marrying Odette Swann has become “a different man.” The narrator considers various explanations for this change for the worse. First, he allows Odette to set the standards.

…it would have been understandable if, in order to gauge the social importance of these new acquaintances and thereby the degree of self-esteem that might be derived from entertaining them, he had used, as a standard of comparison, not the brilliant society in which he himself had moved before his marriage, but former connections of Odette’s. But, even when one knew that it was with uncouth functionaries and tainted women, the ornaments of ministerial ball-rooms, that he now wished to associate, it was still astonishing to hear him…proclaim with quite unnecessary emphasis that the wife of some junior minister had returned Mme Swann’s call. (II,2)

Second, there is the “Bloch effect;” the rootless Jew who mirrors society for his own advantage.

…like certain other Jews, my parents’ old friend had contrived to illustrate in turn all the successive stages through which those of his race had passed, from the most naive snobbery and the crudest caddishness to the most exquisite good manners. (II,2)

Finally the narrator settles on a rather simpler explanation, the laziness of associating virtues with particular actions and environments rather than the application of principled standards.

But the chief reason–and one that is applicable to humanity as a whole–was that our virtues themselves are not free and floating qualities over which we retain a permanent control and power of disposal; they come to be so closely linked in our minds with the actions in conjuction with which we have made it our duty to exercise them that if we come to engage in an activity of a different kind, it catches us off guard and without the slightest awareness that it might involve the application of those same virtues. (II,2)

This latter might be another case of destructive habit: acting virtuously out of habit rather than out of conviction.

Swann in Love: Epilogue

January 8, 2010

Odette’s life has appeared to me a trajectory from forced childhood prostitution to more and more upscale liasons, culminating in her marriage to Swann, who does his best to get her accepted in society and to populate her salon with the best people. That is all true enough, though there are indications that she remains a courtesan at heart. Foremost of these is the “lady in pink” episode, preceded by the false lead at Combray, where she is seen at Tansonville with a mysterious man (Charlus). And there is the suggestion by Norpois that her home is a popular destination for men. Bloch claims to have had her three times on a train ride. But the bulk of the narrative shows Odette demurely hosting her salon and walking in the Bois.

In Time Regained, the narrator resolves all ambiguity. She’s a tramp all the way down. Odette is now the mistress of the Duc de Guermantes. The narrator misses no opportunity to call her the lady in pink.

…Gilberte might have had the morals of Odette herself but people would have gone there…(VI,52)

…Mme Swann in a pink dress in my great-uncles study.. (VI,413)

…just as, beginning with the lady in pink, there had existed several Mme Swanns, separated by the colorless ether of the years…(VI,442)

…and the other with the lady in pink because a well-informed man within me assured me that this was so…(VI,443)

…she was tending under pressure of new circumstances to become once more, the lady in pink (VI,481)

…this Second Empire courtesan swathed in one of the wraps which he liked, the lady in pink would interrupt him with a sprightly sally… So for a moment the Duke glared at the audacious lady in pink. (VI,486)

The morals of Swann while married to Odette, by the way, were apparently no better.

…Swann, when he was no longer in love with Mme Swann but with a waitress at the same Colombin’s where at one time Mme Swann had though it smart to go and drink tea…(VI,403)

The narrator finally has had enough of her:

It must be added that Odette was unfaithful to M. de Guermantes in the same fashion that she looked after him, that to say without charm and without dignity. She was commonplace in this role as she had been in all her others. Not that life had not frequently given her good parts; it had, but she not known how to play them. (VI,488) 

Idolatry of Painting

September 7, 2009

Swann in Love fits in curiously with the remainder of Search.It has an omniscient narrator, an ‘as related to’ kind of voice, even though Proust adds a line to say he heard Swann’slove story later in life. It interrupts the unfolding of Marcel’s coming of age story, pushing the narrative back a generation to the time around Marcel’s birth. We do get introduced to some of the main characters in the following volumes, besides Swann himself: Mme Verdurin, Elstir, Princess des Laumes, etc. And the love story is a forecast of the Albertine affair (Albertine had not been envisaged when Proust wrote Swann’s Way;I wonder if she had been how he would have handled Swann.) The narrator, at the end ofCombray, says that Swann’s story, like the madeline, served as an aide memoire to his childhood:

Thus would I often lie until morning, dreaming of the old days at Combray, of my melancholy and wakeful evenings there, of other days besides, the memory of  which had been more recently restored to me by the taste–by what would have been called at Combray the “perfume”–of a cup of tea, and, by an association of memories, of a story which, many years after I had left the little place, had been told me of a love affair in which Swann had been involved before I was born… (I, 262)

But the strongest claim for the inclusion of the Swann episode comes a little later, when the narrator injects his personal voice, “…when I began to take an interest in his character because of the similarities which, in wholly different respects, it offered to my own…” (I, 273). All this by way of introduction to my theme: Swann is Marcel’s spiritual alter ego in his understanding of art (and love). By looking at Swann’s view of painting, we see what Marcel must overcome. The following passages show how Swann’s vision and understanding become clouded in part because of his, to use Roger Shattuck’s term, art idolatry.

Swann is not initially attracted to Odette’s physical beauty, until one day he notices a similarity she has to a figure in Botticelli’s The Trials of Moses.

…she struck Swann by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, which is to be seen in one of the Sistine frescos. He had always found a peculiar fascination in tracing in the paintings of the old masters not merely the general characteristics of the people whom he encountered in his daily life, but rather what seems least susceptible of generalization, the individual features of men and women when he knew…. He no longer based his estimate of the merit of Odette’s face on the doubtful quality of her cheeks and purely fleshy softness which he supposed would greet his lips there should he ever hazard a kiss, but regarded it rather as a skein of beautiful, delicate lines which his eyes unravelled…(I, 315)

Now hear Swann at the end of Swann in Love:

Odette’s pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn feature, her tired eyes…”To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” (I, 543)

Swann’s idealization of art keeps him from living incitefully, with disastrous results. Marcel’s idealization of literature is a translation of this idea into literature; he cannot possible write the ethereal prose that he imagines literature requires.

On the other hand, Swann’s depiction of Odette as Zipporah is brilliant. Proust simply worked from Botticelli to create Odette’s face. I normally am hesitant to have a novelistic image locked into a single form by, as in this case, a painting or by a reading by an actor. But I concede here that the Botticelli image is much better than what I had imagined prior to seeing it in detail.