Swann in Love

Those who know love and those who enjoy life are not the same people.

Young Marcel is an unreliable narrator because he is ignorant. He writes of a great, much lauded, actress, that he sees no value in her acting and is greatly disappointed, yet others tell him how good she is. Also, he likes a good story, contrasting “the low, undignified door of the everyday” with “the golden portals of the imagination”. So is the vertiginous social hierarchy so extreme? Swann, having married beneath himself, is cast out of the social circles he had inhabited before, reduced to needing to take pride in having a civil servant grace his wife’s salon- some mere permanent secretary- and, worse, having to spread the story of it himself. The distinctions are finer than Eric Blair’s “upper-lower-upper middle class”.

The narration moves between the young, ignorant Marcel, the elder Marcel looking back, and an omnicient Narrator. All three talk of Love, in Marcel for Gilberte Swann and in Charles Swann for Odette, nĂ©e de Crecy, who becomes his wife. Odette is fantastically sophisticated in young Marcel’s eyes, and even before his trifling tiff with Gilberte, which is the breach between them, he is more concerned with the mother than the daughter.

Swann’s love, which ends in marriage and at least an accommodation, perhaps an ongoing affection, starts as an obsession more like hatred. Swann is aware Odette has other lovers, and hangs around her house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her; on one occasion he bangs on the window, knowing that a man is within. He wants to hurt her with this knowledge, to raise some emotion in her, but at that time when his own feelings have reduced sufficiently that he might broach the subject, his desire to hurt has also subsided. And this one night, which has such significance for him- why should she remember it at all, over so many other nights?

Young Marcel refuses to see Gilberte after their trifling row, but instead writes letter after letter, designed not to achieve any result but to express his feelings, which he knows must be irksome to Gilberte. He wants her to declare her love for him, but will only go to her house when he knows she is away; he imagines letters from her with declarations of love. After five months, slinking about in a way better fitted to keep his fantasy alive than to produce a reconciliation, he sees her with another young man. Though his fantasy agonises him, he clings to it.

I love the satire, such as this line from de Norpois, a former diplomat:

His Highness appeared not averse to letting it be divined, by means of certain signs, you understand, which though they may verge on the imperceptible, are withal quite unambiguous, that his impression of the lady had been far from, in a word, unfavourable.

I also enjoy the translation: it keeps the word-play, though not quite the meaning, when Swann’s cousins call him “Cousin Batty”, punning on Balzac’s “Cousin Bette”, from the French Cousin BĂȘte.

I hope that there will be a Love, somewhere in the novel, with the potential to unite people, rather than trap them in solipsism and solitude. A sonnet.

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