I love France #8: #72 review: Du côté de chez Swann


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Du côté de chez Swann

(Swann’s Way)

by Marcel PROUST

400 pages

Published in 1913

read in daily installments with Dailylit.com


I read some Proust decades ago, though I’m not even sure I finished a whole volume. Looking around for some free ebooks, I discovered that dailylit.com offered some French authors, and almost all the volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu.

I wanted to give it a try, and that was quite a revelation. I had totally forgotten how I could be totally entranced by Proust. If you look for action, Proust is probably not for you. But I love so much the power of his descriptions, be it in the realm of music, the famous petite phrase was haunting in Proust’s words itself, or on nature: especially flowers and water.

I wanted to share the beauty with a non-French reader, and discovered a free English translation online that was actually quite good at creating the same atmosphere.

We always quote the episode of the madeleine, to refer to his example of how our senses recall some special event to our memory, but this is much more common in the whole first volume of his masterwork. It is a kind of perpetual ode to time and memory, that takes you in and makes you live in an enchanting world.

Needless to say that I’m now reading the next volume: A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. (Within a Budding GroveIn the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)


The Narrator begins by noting, “For a long time, I went to bed early.” He comments on the way sleep seems to alter one’s surroundings, and the way Habit makes one indifferent to them. He remembers being in his room in the family’s country home in Combray, while downstairs his parents entertain their friend Charles Swann, an elegant man of Jewish origin with strong ties to society (the character is modelled on Proust’s friend Charles Ephrussi). Due to Swann’s visit, the Narrator is deprived of his mother’s goodnight kiss, but he gets her to spend the night reading to him. This memory is the only one he has of Combray, until years later the taste of a madeleine cake dipped in tea inspires a nostalgic incident of involuntary memory. He remembers having a similar snack as a child with his invalid aunt Leonie, and it leads to more memories of Combray. He describes their servant Françoise, who is uneducated but possesses an earthy wisdom and a strong sense of both duty and tradition. He meets an elegant “lady in pink” while visiting his uncle Adolphe. He develops a love of the theater, especially the actress Berma, and his awkward Jewish friend Bloch introduces him to the works of the writer Bergotte. He learns Swann made an unsuitable marriage but has social ambitions for his beautiful daughter Gilberte. Legrandin, a snobbish friend of the family, tries to avoid introducing the boy to his well-to-do sister. The Narrator describes two walking paths: the way past Swann’s home (the Méséglise way), and the Guermantes way, both containing scenes of natural beauty. Taking the Méséglise way, he sees Gilberte Swann standing in her yard with a lady in white, Mme Swann, and her supposed lover: Baron de Charlus, a friend of Swann’s. Gilberte makes a gesture that the Narrator interprets as a rude dismissal. During another walk, he spies a lesbian scene involving Mlle Vinteuil, daughter of a composer, and her friend. The Guermantes way is symbolic of the Guermantes family, the noblemen of the area. The Narrator is awed by the magic of their name, and is captivated when he first sees Mme de Guermantes. He discovers how appearances conceal the true nature of things, and tries writing a description of some nearby steeples. Lying in bed, he seems transported back to these places until he awakens.

Mme Verdurin is an autocratic hostess who, aided by her husband, demands total obedience from the guests in her “little clan.” One guest is Odette de Crecy, a former courtesan, who has met Swann and invites him to the group. Swann is too refined for such company, but Odette gradually intrigues him with her unusual style. A sonata by Vinteuil, which features a “little phrase,” becomes the motif for their deepening relationship. The Verdurins host M. de Forcheville; their guests include Cottard, a doctor; Brichot, an academic; Saniette, the object of scorn; and a painter, M. Biche. Swann grows jealous of Odette, who now keeps him at arm’s length, and suspects an affair between her and Forcheville, aided by the Verdurins. Swann seeks respite by attending a society concert that includes Legrandin’s sister and a young Mme de Guermantes; the “little phrase” is played and Swann realizes Odette’s love for him is gone. He tortures himself wondering about her true relationships with others, but his love for her, despite renewals, gradually diminishes. He moves on and marvels that he ever loved a woman who was not his type.

At home in Paris, the Narrator dreams of visiting Venice or the church in Balbec, a resort, but he is too unwell and instead takes walks in the Champs-Élysées, where he meets and befriends Gilberte. He holds her father, now married to Odette, in the highest esteem, and is awed by the beautiful sight of Mme Swann strolling in public. Years later, the old sights of the area are long gone, and he laments the fugitive nature of places. [wikipedia]


French novelist, best known for his 3000 page masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), a pseudo-autobiographical novel told mostly in a stream-of-consciousness style. Born in the first year of the Third Republic, the young Marcel, like his narrator, was a delicate child from a bourgeois family. He was active in Parisian high society during the 80s and 90s, welcomed in the most fashionable and exclusive salons of his day. However, his position there was also one of an outsider, due to his Jewishness and homosexuality. Towards the end of 1890s Proust began to withdraw more and more from society, and although he was never entirely reclusive, as is sometimes made out, he lapsed more completely into his lifelong tendency to sleep during the day and work at night. He was also plagued with severe asthma, which had troubled him intermittently since childhood, and a terror of his own death, especially in case it should come before his novel had been completed. The first volume, after some difficulty finding a publisher, came out in 1913, and Proust continued to work with an almost inhuman dedication on his masterpiece right up until his death in 1922, at the age of 51.
Today he is widely recognised as one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, and À la recherche du temps perdu as one of the most dazzling and significant works of literature to be written in modern times [Goodreads]



8 thoughts on “I love France #8: #72 review: Du côté de chez Swann

  1. Yes I have read this book yet and some others of the same author but it was soooo boring for me ! This Proust, what a yenté !
    Pour moi, juste un mondain désoeuvré, bavard et assez creux, monté en épingle par le petit milieu parisien qu’il fréquentait et qu’on continue à encenser par habitude alors qu’il méritait tout juste de figurer dans le guiness des records pour ses interrrrrrrrminables phrases.
    En bref : Cher Marcel, vous auriez gagné à faire un bon coming out, à user d’un peu moins de gomina et d’un peu plus du “point à la ligne” :))


    • alors là je suis pas d’accord. j’ai approché Proust hors de tout préjugé, et j’ai découvert une merveille, un génie de l’évocation. quant à ses interminables phrases, en fait je n’en ai pas vraiment trouvées dans ce 1er tome


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  5. I was entranced by the drama of that goodnight kiss, and the dilemma posed by the two parents: the insensitive father wanting a moment of kindness for the boy, and the sensitive mother wanting him to cope without her kiss. Had it been the other way round, there would be far less interest in that moment.

    But you quote Wikipedia! What would you say of it, yourself?


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