In Search of Lost Time 2-27-2022

Marcel Proust’s first volume of In Search of Lost Time is Swann’s Way, which is divided into three parts: “Combray,” “Swann in Love,” and “Place Names.” Since my last post, I have entered the second part, “Swann in Love, and there is quite a difference from the first part. In the first part, the narrator (who, despite being unnamed, is referenced by critics and readers as Marcel) presents his young life along side his adult life. The transitions between the two are seamless, and sometimes, it takes me a while to figure out which one I am reading about. The first part, “Combray,” presents an idealistic view/understanding of the author’s community and experiences in such a small environment. He has ideals about art, how to view art, writing, how to read, and falling in love for the first times. He’s biggest concerns, if I remember correctly, are receiving a kiss from his mother before going to bed (and there is Freudian undertones to his relationship with his mother) and writer’s block. Marcel is young and his experiences are limited to his town and two paths to two other towns. In brief, that is the gist of Swann’s Way.

The second part of Swann’s Way, “Swann in Love,” right away moves into the community of Verdurin’s house, which appears to be a cross between a brothel and a cult that has even married two women, which must have been scandalous for the time. It is here that Swann meets his love, Odette, who is a member of the brothel and cult. She is not very “beautiful,” but she is the “best-dressed person in Paris” (205). Or is she beautiful?

Part of this answer rests with art. In “Combray,” Marcel’s imagination used art to make a person’s black eyes blue. He didn’t paint her. He chose to decide to see color her eyes that way. He imposed a reality, an art, on her to make her beautiful, a beauty which he had previously imagined her to be. In “Swann in Love,” art acts similarly but has more nuance. For instance, art has capitalistic aspects in its “expressive value” (217) and as something Swann can possess and have in his house (219-20) with the “sensuality of a collector” (233). At the same time, art challenges Swann, and art is used to make Odette beautiful to him. For Swann, art is the challenge that enables him to confront the “the frivolity of the society of people” (231) he interacts with and the generalizations he interacts with. This maybe why or how he uses art to challenge Odette’s non-pleasant appearance. If it were not for Botticelli’s art, and another artist whose name I can’t currently locate, and the associations their artworks create in Odette, she would not beautiful. As the narrator says of Swann and his perception of Odette:

He no longer appraised,” (note the capitalism in “appraised”) “Odette’s face according to the finer or poorer quality of her cheeks and the purely flesh-colored softness he supposed he must find when he touched them with his lips if he ever dared to kiss her, but as a skein of of subtle and beautiful lines that his eyes reeled off, following their winding curve, joining the cadence of her nape to the effusion of her hair and the flexion of her eyelids, as in a portrait of her in which her type became intelligible and clear. (232)

Swann has used art, particularly Realism, to create a beauty. Swann would not be able to love her and this newly created beauty without having a knowledge of and experience with art. If it wasn’t for art and the associations to and from art he creates for Odette, she would be ordinary. In fact, Odette is a a palimpsest on which Swann layers art and associative beauty to which she will become “precious” (232) and he will own. In fact he thinks, “How nice it would be to have a little woman like that in whose home one could always find that rare thing” (230). He views her like some collectors view art — something that has an aura of authenticity and as something to own.

The world of In Search of Time has become complicated and exciting.


Fun observations.

Fauvism was new at the time of Proust’s writing, but he makes mention of it when he shows people reacting to the modern art of the time: “women do not have lavender hair” (221).

The first, and so far only, exclamation point appears on page 155!


Words of the days to make up for missed posts.

Demimondaine (198) — a woman considered to belong to the demimonde. Demimonde — a class of women who have lost their standing in respectable society because of indiscreet behavior or sexual promiscuity. — Think Odette.

Neuralgia (214) — sharp and paroxysmal pain along the course of a nerve.

Orangeade (220) — a beverage consisting of orange juice , sweetener, and water, and sometimes carbonated. This word makes the list because I didn’t realize it had been around for so long.


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