Monday, September 04, 2006

Two Swanns in Love

I wanted to do a wrap-up of Swann in Love now that I have seen the film version and found my lost copy of Milton Hindus' book. When we can see this first volume in relation to the entire novel, perhaps there will be more thoughts to post.

"Swann in Love" is a French film that offers a good example of how a story changes through point of view. Though Proust's novel uses a first person narrative, he is virtually omniscient, as well as telling his story from hindsight. This allows us to see and understand all the characters and their motivations clearly. In the film, people are introduced and events occur that simply cannot mean much when they are removed from the fullness of the novel's treatment.

The film also is a not very good adaptation of a good story. It shows how truly important a director is in translating a novel to film. The film begins after Swann has fallen in love with Odette, and he is now falling into jealousy. There are numerous scenes faithful to the novel. Between these are moments of flashback, when Swann recalls their first times together. Presented in this way his jealousy comes across not as strong, because we don't have the foundation of their early relationship to contrast. Perhaps the flashbacks were meant to give the impression of Proust's scenes of involuntary memory, but in the film they don't really work.

The film also attempts to convey the power of music over Swann. The sonata is begun and he suddenly stops walking, goes into a sort of mesmerized state, grips a chair back. Visually, though, this does not convey the sensations that the novel does.

We see in the film the detail of Botticelli's painting which first causes Swann to find Odette worthy of love. Here, then, is the face of Odette:

Odette comes across as a coquette from the start of the film, which, initial suggests to the contrary, she did not to me in the novel. (Perhaps I am too much like Swann!) I would have preferred the revelation to come more gradually, and still remain uncertain, until the end. The film also jumps ahead, beyond the end of the book, to show us Gilberte and Mme. Swann--quite unchanged in her beauty and bearing--and Swann near death.

The character of the Baron de Charlus is wonderfully fun. There is a brief scene in which he is rebuffed by a young man, which seems rather out of place in the story of Swann. One reason it stands out so is that it is not from Swann's point of view, as is the rest of the movie. A basic rule is that if one is going to break an established point of view, there had better be an overwhelming reason, because it generally always weakens the story. If the scene is meant to illuminate some aspect of Swann's love, I missed it. One of my favorite scenes is when Swann is in desperate search of Odette through the streets of Paris, and an attractive young lady asks him for a ride in his carriage, clearly offering herself to him. Swann completely ignores her, telling his driver to remind him to order more firewood or some such thing. True to the novel, it demonstrates without a doubt the grip of love which held Swann, that he would rather be in search for something that he might not find and was yet but a desire, than to partake of what is freely offered him. The film also does a good job of presenting the difference in the social gatherings of the Guermantes and Verdurins, though, again, snippets of conversation too often come from all directions and, without support from the rest of the novel, produce confusion. The film left me eager to return to Proust.

So, back to the novel.
My thoughts began insensibly to wander. The moonlight shining into the room reminded me of a certain moonlight night in England--the night after a picnic party in a Welsh valley. Every incident of the drive homeward, through lovely scenery, which the moonlight made lovelier than ever, came back to my remembrance, though I had never given the picnic a thought for years, though, if I had tried to recollect it, I could certainly have recalled little or nothing of that scene long past. Of all the wonderful faculties that help to tell us we are immortal, which speaks the sublime truth more eloquently than memory? Here was I, in a strange house of the most suspicious character, in a situation of uncertainty, and even of peril, which might seem to make the exercise of my recollection almost out of the question, nevertheless, remembering, quite involuntarily, places, people, conversations, minute circumstances of every kind, which I had though forgotten forever; which I could not possibly have recalled at will, even under the most favorable auspices. And what cause had produced in a moment the whole of this strange, complicated, mysterious effect? Nothing but some rays of moonlight shining in at my bedroom window.
Proustian as all; yet this comes from the 1852 short story "The Traveler's Story of a Terribly Strange Bed", by Wilkie Collins. Did Proust know it?

In A Reader's Guide to Marcel Proust, Milton Hindus calls Proust's novel the literary equivalent of Wagner's Ring cycle. I find this a particularly apt description. Both men were initially accused of not knowing how to create traditional works of art, because both were creating something new. Both works are internally connected through the whole by theme, or lietmotifs. Today we understand this, and often begin reading Proust's novel having some foreknowledge of it; yet what must it have been like for readers in 1913 who had only the first book, who had not yet seen or could even conceive of Proust's ultimate architecture?

There is so much to take in from this novel, already I am going back to reread sections, and finding key elements I had merely read through quickly without really comprehending what they meant. The novel seems to demand a second reading, and yet, having finally completed reading two thousand some pages, will the desire to reread them still exist?


Blogger Dorothy W. said...

It certainly does demand a second reading! Thanks for the movie description -- I'm interested in how they did it, but skeptical, and rightly so it turns out, at the possibility of doing a good job with the novel. If there's one novel that would be impossible to film, might it not be this one? It's so very interior, the opposite of what film does.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Quilhill, some thought provoking points. I will have to view Swann in Love-The Movie again before I can reply fully. I thoroughly enjoyed Jeremy Irons' performance and felt many key emotions had been captured....more on this at a later date. Have you seen the other Proust film?

I would agree with your final point about revisiting sections of book 1. I have just re-read Swann's first visit to the Verdurin's and I now realise how important some of the characters will become. It is also the moment when the musical theme appears for the first time.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Quillhill said...

Alan, what is the other Proust film?

I'm not sure my memory serves me as well as Proust's, but wasn't there a film called Damage with Irons in it? The vague impression I have is that I felt more of the emotions of jealousy and possession in that movie than Swann in Love.

11:51 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

The other Proust film is "Time Regained," by Raul Ruiz. I quote from a review:

Set in the early 20th century, in the salon society of the Paris elite, the film begins with the aging narrator (a not-so-thinly veiled Marcel Proust, played by lookalike actor Marcello Mazzarella but voiced by Patrice Chereau) dictating his final novel from a sickbed: "Then one day, everything changes."

That phrase describes the film nicely: nothing is fixed, everything is in flux. In this opening scene, the camera glides through the bric-a-brac of his bedroom as the room expands and shrinks wildly from shot to shot. Far from mere acrobatics, it sets the stage for an exploration of the fabric of memory.

The narrator’s mind floats back to his days with a small circle of acquaintances: gentleman gadabout Count Saint Loup (Pascal Greggory) and his neglected young wife Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart), her luxury-loving mother Odette

(Catherine Deneuve), the insolently decadent Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich), pianist/journalist Morel (Vincent Perez), and social busybody Madame Verdurin (Marie-France Pisier).

Books arer still best!! Although this film does hold on to the humour I so much love about Proust.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

I had no idea there were films! Even though your review of Swann in Love doesn't make the film sound fantastic, I am still interested. Time Regained sounds good too. I don't know how Proust could be translated to film, but you have to give the filmmakers credit for trying.

The Wilkie Collins passage had me fooled.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Alan said...


For what it is worth the BBC even produced (last year) a three episode drama of the whole book!!!!

9:22 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Really? How'd they get all those books into three episodes? I think this winter when a big snow storm is in the forecast, I will be making a trip to the video store!

8:08 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Stefanie, I may have mislead you. It was BBC radio which produced a 6 part dramatisation of the books. I have it , but only on cassette. If you search the BBC website (Radio 4) you may find it!! There are certainly some interesting links if you search Proust.

1:52 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home