Many believe “In Search of Lost Time” – a more accurate translation of the book’s title than Scott Moncrieff’s “Remembrance of Things Past” – to be the greatest novel of the 20th century. Others have found it nearly unreadable due to its length (1.5 million words), its seemingly endless serpentine sentences, and its author’s microscopic interest in the nuances of societal relationships and the subtlety of the human heart.
TS Eliot wrote about waste and woe. His private life provided material.
Years ago, I took an undergraduate French course in Proust during which I slowly worked through the entire three-volume Pléiade edition. Looking back, I don’t seem to have done much that spring. But as with Tolstoy’s War and Peace – another long-running novel about families and the passage of time – I felt that its characters were more realistic than the real people around me. You don’t read as often “in search of lost time” as in it.
In particular, I remember ending the famous section “Swann in Love” (from “Swann’s Way”) at the Carnegie Library at Oberlin College while the lights were out in the main reading room. I returned to my dwelling in a daze, Charles Swan’s words ringing in my ears: “I think I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I was in love with the greatest woman I wasn’t attracted to, who wasn’t my type.”
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Last week, I reread “Swann in Love” in a new translation by Lucy Raitz, heralded by Pushkin Press as a “stand-alone novel” and “the perfect introduction to Proust.” In many ways, both claims are accurate: all that remains of Proust’s brilliant work focus on the narrator’s childhood, friendships, affairs of the heart, and intermittent moments of transcendent happiness, before he arrives at discovering his calling – which is no less. Than to write the book we were reading, and to redeem through art all the wasted years of a faltering life.
However, Swann in Love isn’t as easy-going as it might seem. Some of his characters are already introduced in “Combray,” the opening portion of the novel, which describes the narrator’s family and early life. Moreover, all of her men and women It will continue to appear throughout the book, as years past reveal deeper layers of vulgar salon hostess Madame Verdoren, Swan’s friend Baron de Charles, the charismatic Odette and even the unnamed artist who turns out to be young Elstair, later the greatest painter of his generation. Above all, though, Swann’s obsession with Odette provides a model for all of the book’s subsequent love affairs. In other words, this Pushkin hardcover would have made use of a contextual introduction and at least a brief conclusion to make it clear that this “novel” really should end with the words “to go on.”
Here, though, is how to get started.
One evening, Charles Swan, a wealthy, charming man around town and back from the highest levels of society, is introduced to Odette de Cressy at a theater by a friend who quietly suggests he might have a good time with her. The middle-aged Swann has already enjoyed many relationships, with women of all classes, and at first feels relatively indifferent to Odette. Although her eyes were large and beautiful, “her appearance was very sharp, her skin very thin, her cheekbones very high, and her features very drawn.” What’s more, Vermeer’s beauty and power Swann finds it unintelligent. However, Odette seems quite taken in by it, and as Proust notes, “the feeling that one really has the heart of a woman can be enough to make one fall in love.”
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As Odette spends her evenings at Madame Verdoren, Swann stoically endures the companionship of this ultra-social climber and her hanger full of adulation. There one night he hears a violin sonata and piano playing by a composer named Vinteuil and is struck by a small five-note sentence, two repeated. This music becomes an anthem for his growing love for Odette (as well as being one of the dominant themes in the entire novel).
This love reaches its climax one evening when Swan visits Verdurins and learns that Odette has already left but may stop for a cup of chocolate at Prévost. rushes there – no Odette. Desiring to see her, he searches other cafes and restaurants, and his desperation grows. Then, just as he’s about to give up, he almost literally bumps her outside Maison Dorée, where Odette tells him she’s just had dinner. He drives her home in his carriage, on his way timidly asking to seize separated orchids in his repelling, and that night they make love for the first time.
Before long, the once-brave Swann experiences what novelist Stendhal, in his treatise On Love, calls “crystallization”: no aspect of Odette now seems less than utterly charming. “He did not conflict with her banal ideas, or the bad taste she showed in everything, which, in fact, he liked because he loved everything about her.”
But one evening at dinner, Swan spotted a peek passing between Odette and another Verdoren guest, the Comte de Vorchevel. Since then, he has begun to wonder about those occasions when this Botticelli-like beauty sent him home early due to fatigue. Was she secretly expecting another visitor later? Could you fool him with Forchville or other men? Or, as an anonymous letter suggests, even with women?
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Among the pleasures of reading Proust is his constant recourse to unexpected similes, such as that of jealousy to “an octopus stretching first, then second, and then shining third” as it strangles the sufferer. In vain Swann tries to calculate Odette’s movements at all times of the day and night. Doubts increasingly tormented him. Odette, Despite this, he soon realizes that Swann is a drug addict, and gladly accepts his gifts, treating him more and more as baggage. Before long, the majestic man of fashion is grateful for the slightest crumb of affection.
Let me stop there. I skipped a lot of the details and there’s more to come, but the real gift of “Swann in Love” isn’t so much its plot as its spirited intensity and the fully immersive experience of inhabiting Swann’s consciousness. Longing, possessiveness, jealousy, deception, self-torture, the impossibility of truly knowing another person – these are the unhappy and recurring elements of Protestant love.
However, in the midst of his misery, Swan happens to attend a big soiree, where his creator – also a brilliant comic novelist – presents an extended satirical palette of Parisian high society. Then, as he is about to leave the party, Swan unexpectedly hears the hired musicians playing the Ventuel sonata, and this time he realizes that “the feelings Odette had for him would never return, and that his hopes for happiness would not come true.”
However, the story of Charles Swann and Odette de Crissy is far from over. However, you’ll need to read not only “Swann in Love” but the rest of “In Search of Lost Time” to find out what happens to this mismatched couple. You will be surprised.
Written by Marcel Proust, translated by Lucy Reitz
Pushkin Press. 256 pages $24
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