In Search of Lost Time 4-1-2022

Odette is Swann’s lover. Here are some pictures of what others think Odette looks like.

Swann in Love (film)

From the Swann in Love movie.

What these two pictures and other Goolge searches show is that Odette is a white woman. That’s what I thought when reading about France in the early 1900s. But I may have changed my mind, and I’m surprised that, as far as I can tell, I am the only person to notice what she looks like. Here is what I read on page 139 of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (the second volume of In Search of Lost Time):

[B]etween Mme. Swann, who was dark, and the golden-skinned girl [Gilberte, who is Odette and Swan’s child] with fairish hair. . . . Gilberte resembled a portrait of her mother, verging on a good likeness, but done by a fanciful colorist who had made her pose in semi-disguise . . . It was not just the blond wig she was wearing, but the fact that every last atom of her [Gilberte’s] dark complexion had faded . . . . Her fair complexion was so clearly her father’s that Nature, in order to create Gilberte, seemed to have been faced with the problem of imitating Mme. Swann while being able to use as its sole material the skin of M. Swann. . . . a new variety of Mme. Swann had been achieved, like a white lilac growing beside a purple one.

In this description and what is left out, the narrator describes Gilberte by noticing certain features Gilberte inherited from her mother, Odette, and her father, Swann. What I want to point out is that from this description, it seems Odette is a person of color and not white. This adds a twist to when Odette is first mentioned in Swann’s Way where she is basically described as not being beautiful in the “traditional” conception of beauty. I read that as code for not “white” beauty.

It’s interesting because none of the characters indicate she is a person of color and nor does the narrator. What it does is to make the following seemingly innocuous scene from 29 pages earlier gain new meaning. In the following scene, Odette and Swann are talking about Mme Blatin and judging her (judging people behind their backs seems to be the main occupation of all the characters):

[Swann speaking:] “It’s too stupid. You see, Mme Blatin likes to address people in a way that she thinks is friendly, but which gives the impression that she’s talking down to them.” “What our neighbors across the Channel call patronizing,” Odette interrupted. “So recently she went to the Zoo, where there was this exhibition being given by black fellows, from Ceylon, I think, or so I’m told by my wife, who’s much better at ethnography than I am.” “Charles do stop being facetious.” “I’m not being facetious in the slightest. So there she is, saying to this black fellow, “Good morning, blackie! . . . Well, this form of speech was not to the black fellow’s liking—’Me blackie,” he bellowed at Mme Blatin, ‘you camel!'” (110)

You can see here how two characters reference the man as being black, and one in a most racist manner. I would think someone would say something similar about Odette if she is black, but they don’t . . . directly. In this passage, Swann says Odette is “better at ethnography” and Odette tells Swann to “stop being facetious.” I read this as Swann saying Odette is black so she would recognize where a black person hails from, and Odette is basically telling Swann in a most polite manner to shut up with his racist remark.

I’m not sure what to do with this new knowledge as of now, but I am concerned that I haven’t seen this mentioned elsewhere. But I think someone else needs to investigate this and verify what I am claiming or indicate how I am missing reading all of this.


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