Swann’s Song

I must admit: The second half of “Swann’s Way” isn’t quite as engaging to me as the first half, perhaps because Proust has switched POV from the narrator/Marcel to a more omniscient third-person. The reader is distanced by being outside the characters looking in, as opposed to being in the head of the narrator/Marcel, which Proust used to such great effect in Part 1.

I can’t really comment on plot, as I find the plot almost incidental. (Consequently, the Roger Shattuck Field Guide irritates me, with its diagrams and plot lines. I don’t know if this will change as I further my reading…) The narrative movement is psychological, versus plot-driven. Or perhaps another way to look at it is that the plot is psychological movement, and discussion of fictional devices – character, POV, setting, dialogue – need to be considered in the context of furthering the psychological movement.

For example, I see that Proust is using a recurring device of a sensory experience or association to awaken a memory or longing.

In the first half of the book, there’s the famous tea-soaked Madeleine scene, of which I quote merely a portion below. (I vow to indulge in this experience, just to follow in the narrator’s footsteps – or in this case, taste buds. Though I don’t expect it to call up any childhood experiences of St. Louis. Perhaps I should eat a Kool-aid-infused Hostess Cupcake instead.)

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of Madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me (though I did not yet know and had to put off to much later discovering why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street, where her bedroom was, came like a stage to attach itself to the little wing opening onto the garden that had been built for my parents behind it…

Proust uses the same device (to less effect, in my first reading – for some reason, these passages strike me as forced or half-formed, almost as if Proust were struggling with a second draft, not quite articulating what he wanted to say) with Swann, who hears a musical phrase that ignites his longing for an idealized object of romantic love:

This time he had clearly distinguished one phrase rising for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had immediately proposed to him particular sensual pleasures which he had never imagined before hearing it, which he felt could be introduced to him by nothing else, and he had experienced for it something like an unfamiliar love.

And a page later:

Now, scarcely a few minutes after the young pianist had begun playing at Mme. Verdurin’s, suddenly, after a high note held for a long time through two measures, he saw it approaching, escaping from under that prolonged sonority stretched like a curtain of sound hiding the mystery of its incubation, he recognized it, secret, murmuring, and divided, the airy and redolent phrase that he loved. And it was so particular, it had a charm so individual, which no other charm could have replaced, that Swann felt as though he had encountered in a friend’s drawing room a person whom he admired in the street and despaired of ever finding again.

I detect this with Odette and her flowers as well, which seem to call up in her an association of refinement:

“This one looks as though it were cut from the lining of my coat,” she said to Swann, showing him an orchid, with the suggestion of respect for this very “chic” flower, for this elegant and unexpected sister which nature had given her, so far removed from her on the scale of living creatures and yet so refined, more deserving than many women of being given a place in her drawing room.

I am not sure what to make of all this on my first reading, but I expect that these motifs (if that is the proper term) will recur and deepen my understanding of the characters, while expanding the role that memory and mind play in the novel.

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