Thursday, August 24, 2006

Place-Names

I finished Swann's Way and began Within a Budding Grove. In case you have not read this far yet, I will say only that I was surprised how things turned out for M. Swann.

Building on the binocular theory as I am trying to understand it, we read at the end of "Swann in Love" the theme in miniature that Shattuck suggests Proust presents full-blown in the entire novel. One day a letter arrives for Swann that begins for him a reassessment of all his friends. We are told that Swann
knew quite well as a general truth, that human life is full of contrasts, but in the case of any one human being he imagined all that part of his or her life with which he was not familiar as being identical with the part which he was.
Isn't this common among many people? We are always shocked when the politician we respect and vote for is revealed to enjoy cross-dressing and cock-fighting. We always think the neighbor next door is quiet and friendly until the police arrest him on child pornography charges. Faced with this commonality, the narrator wonders
What criterion ought one to adopt, in order to judge one's fellows?
I wondered how Swann would escape his dilema of love. His discovery of an
undercurrent of falsehood which debased for him all that had remained most precious, his happiest evenings
seems to do the trick, and this section ends well for him.

What seems to be happening is Proust sets out beautiful phrases that encapsulate all the details of his specific examples. Later (if we remember them) these same phrases turn out to be foreshadowings. A first reading gives us a sense of wonder; a second reading would likely gives us a sense of appreciation. So is the way "Swann in Love" closes.

Stefanie recently wondered about autobiographical details inserted by an author into his writing. I have also wondered how much of Proust is in the characters other than the narrator--for instance, do any of the details of Swann's love come from Proust's own experience? Though it seems unlikely he personally experienced everything he writes so insightfully about, how did he come to know such things so well and so precisely? A quote from the end of the section gives us only a hint:
like certain novelists, he had distributed his own personality between two characters....
In the last section of the book, the narrator rhapsodizes about names. He notes that
names themselves are not very comprehensive;
suggesting that a name alone does not conjure memories like a madeleine soaked in tea. Names seem to lead inevitably to disenchantments--experienced as the death of gods--as they can only ever be the smallest abstraction of something real. Like Swann, always eager to talk about Odette, to speak of anything that had to do with her, such as the street she lives on, the narrator now falls for Gilberte. Having been so long dazzled by the people who seemed of high society by their association with Swann and the Verdurins and the Guermantes, by his love he gains new powers of perceptions, and for the first time he sees such people as
containing in themselves no beauty that my eyes might have endeavoured, as in the old days, to extract from them.... They were just women, in whose elegance I had no belief, and whose clothes seemed to me unimportant.
The close of the book comes with the revelation that
The reality that I had known no longer existed.
The final three sentences once again wrap everything together in a tight, melifluous package that leaves us completely under Proust's influence. We don't want to spoil the effect by including it here, for those who haven't reached it yet, but instead allow the experience to come in its proper place. Enjoy.

6 Comments:

Anonymous condalmo said...

Just wanted to say that this site (along with a new translation by Lydia Davis) has seeded some Proust interest in me, where before there was none... Swann's Way rises higher in my TBR pile every day. thanks -

12:21 PM  
Blogger LK said...

Couldn't agree more, Quillhill! Thanks for this post.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Nice post Quillhill. I find it interesting that with all the meticulous attention to detail and specificity, that Proust still manages to somehow relate to life in general.

From reading Edmund White's short Proust bio, he did mention that most of the various loves throughout the novel are amalgams of real-life love affairs, but for proust the real-life was all with men.

I am now very much anticipating the ending of the book.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Quillhill said...

Right now I feel ready to make it to the end. I had read Swann's Way many years ago, and never got any further. I too am anticipating.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Can I also echo all the sentiments expressed in the earlier comments. Like you Qillhill it took my several years and several completions of Swann's Way to really feel I wanted to progress further. I began Young Girls in Flower a few weeks back and am pleased that I can now continue...
Your comments about lovers wanting to use and hear the names of loved ones reaches comic proportions when Marcel tries to encourage his reluctant parents to discuss Swann and his family. It is still Proust's humour that does it for me.

3:27 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Alan, that little performance with marcel and Swann's name was a good laugh :)

6:56 AM  

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