Proust 2020/2021: Swann’s Way (pp. 224–99)

Relation of Parts I and II

This section of Swann’s Way closes out “Combray” and opens “Swann in Love,” a section I initially found baffling. It seemed entirely unrelated to Part I, and I felt disappointed that the novel had so quickly abandoned developments in the friendships of Swann and the Narrator or the Narrator and Gilberte or Mlle. Vinteuil or Françoise or his grandmother.

On this most recent read-through, Part II still felt jarringly distinct from Part I—in tone, plot, and character—and yet it seems true to me that much of the literary significance of Part I depends not so much on the madeleine from several pages earlier but, rather, on the portrayal of the “little nucleus” or “group” or “clan” to which Odette de Crécy invites Swann. As innocent, for instance, as the pages about the “Saturday joke” may have seemed when first reading Part I, “Swann in Love” may encourage us to recall how the Narrator’s family also constructs a code of belonging, attachment, and hierarchy. And if we don’t immediately notice how this could be the case, Proust folds ironic references to the Narrator’s family into his second major section: e.g., how his grandfather considered Swann request to be put in touch with the Verdurins to be impossible. Years ago, after all, “he had entirely severed his connexion with the ‘young Verdurin’”—not so young anymore—“considering him more or less to have fallen . . . among the riff-raff of Bohemia” (281). Ironically, then, the clan that the Narrator unfolds for us in Part II of Swann’s Way, a section founded on the analysis of exclusionary social codes, has been excluded from the very first clan to which we’ve already been introduced: the Narrator’s family.


But I’ve jumped ahead. I don’t want to try to develop anything like a “reading” here, but once upon a time I wanted to write a dissertation chapter on “doubling” in Proust’s novel—and I’m beginning to feel, for the first time, how I could have started conceptualizing this.

A small point (made, I imagine, by an army of critics before me): every scene forecasts its double, complement, or echo. How the odd scene in which the Narrator watches M. Vinteuil arrange his room for a visit from his parents anticipates, inflects, haunts, shapes, and informs the scene in which the Narrator watches Mlle. Vinteuil arrange her own room for another visitor—a friend, a lover (226–27; cf. 157).

But this echo is then productive of other echoes: it contributes to a broader pattern of passages about pleasure, desire, grief, mourning, cruelty, evil, art, and knowledge. I wish I had the energy to sketch this out more. But I don’t, so I’m just making a note of it here.

A few more things:

  • It’s no wonder Deleuze loved Proust so much: we encounter sexuality here not just as a matter of object choice but, in addition, as a creative way of receiving and also delaying and modifying and intensifying pleasure: of extending a creative desire.
  • I’ll say, too, that what interests me here about doubling in Proust’s novel is that it discloses the texture and rhythm as well as the very pedagogy of the novel’s form: how the book teaches us to read it, engage with it, partner with it, make of it the kind of sustenance the Narrator himself discovers / invents in the encounter with the 3 steeples of Martinville and Vieuxvicq (cf. 253–57).
  • The kind of memorial sustenance—like his recollections of the Méséglise and Guermantes ways—that return across his life.
Unique Love

What much does Proust want us to love his novel? “What do I love uniquely?”—I wrote this question after the following passage:

. . . [recollections of] a hedge of hawthorns . . . give [my present-day] impressions a foundation, a depth, a dimension lacking from the rest. They invest them, too, with a charm, a significance which is for me alone. [Is this possible? I, Benjamin Hagen, wonder.] When, on a summer evening, the melodious sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is the memory of the Méséglise way that makes me stand alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the lingering scent of invisible lilacs.

pg. 262
Final, Hasty Notes

So much more to say, really, about the glimpses of the Narrator’s struggle with his career as a writer (243ff.); his description of ruins (236–37); his description of the river / its currents and its flowers as a figure for flux, change, and harmony (238–39); the portrayal of awakening as a kind of machine that involves his mind and imagination with the geography of the two ways (Méséglise and Guermantes) that he sketches out for us here (258, 260, 262–64).

To conclude, a few notes about transitioning to “Swann in Love”:

  • The initial use of second-person pronouns is jarring; it gives this section the feel of an instruction manual or social manners textbook.
  • The depiction of social performance is delicious, especially the cringeworthy depiction of Mme. Verdurin (266–67; 289–90).
  • Have I stopped cringing? Do I love Mme Verdurin this time around?
  • The perspective on Swann has completely changed here (and will change again). We’re no longer bound by the Narrator’s family’s ignorance of Swann’s connectedness, which gives the Narrator room to fill in observations about his use of social relations as tools (271, 285; cf. Legrandin); his tie to Charlus (272); his preoccupation with love and liaisons (275–76); and why / how Odette seemed to interrupt or make a difference in this series of affair (276–79).
  • Again, if Dr. Cottard feels strange, then it’s because we’ve learned to pay attention. Something is being forecasted here. Something will have been forecasted. This is part of the novel’s relentless pedagogy: always giving homework, inviting us to reflect on our feelings about this or that detail, to ready ourselves for unforeseen significance up ahead.
  • Jealousy . . . oh, there will be so much more on jealousy (293–94).
  • And lots more on the tune or little phrase (294–99): after all, how do we learn to love? How do we finally find love later in life? The Narrator has already forecast and figured such questions in musical terms:

At this time of life one has already been wounded more than once by the darts of love; it no longer evolves by itself, obeying its own incomprehensible and fatal laws, before our passive and astonished hearts. We come to its aid, we falsify its memory and by suggestion. Recognising one of its symptoms, we remember and re-create the rest. Since we know its song, which is engraved on our hearts in its entirety, there is no need for a woman to repeat the opening strains—filled with admiration which beauty inspires—for us to remember what follows. And if she begins in the middle—where hearts are joined and where it sings of our existing, henceforward, for one another only—we are well enough attuned to that music to be able to take it up and follow our partner without hesitation at the appropriate passage.

pg. 277

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