Madame Swann at home

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Part I by Marcel Proust.

I have read the first part of In the Shadow of Young Girls In Flower, Madame Swann at Home, and will start the second part soon. Thankfully, I have found an English translation online, which is of course much better for quotes than the clumsy translations I could have done. This post contains spoilers about the plot, and I feel comfortable with this as I don’t think one reads Proust for the plot. 

Now, the Narrator, Marcel, is a young man. He has just finished school and needs to choose a carrier. He still lives at his parents’, but is free to go and see whoever he wants. He has inherited from his Aunt Léonie and has the liberty to spend his money according to his own wishes. Indeed, we see him sell a Chinese vase to get some cash, which makes me think he is over 21, the age of majority in France at that time. So, as Marcel Proust was born in 1871, we are probably now around 1892, in Paris and this book covers 18 month of his life. But I’m not sure, as he acts like a teenager. This first part has four important sections: the narrator in his domestic life and M. de Norpois, the meeting and acquaintance with the writer Bergotte, his relationship with Gilberte and as a background of all these aspects of his life, Madame Swann. 

The beginning is about M de Norpois, a friend of the narrator’s father. This man, a rather old Ambassador he had been working for Napoleon the Third – works with Marcel’s father, who praises himself for the acquaintance. M de Norpois looks ridiculous and old fashioned. The humour Proust puts in his descriptions of this man and his supposedly fine crowd is clear in the following passage :  

In the words of a fine Arab proverb, ‘The dogs may bark; the caravan goes on!’ After launching this quotation M. de Norpois paused and examined our faces, to see what effect it had had upon us. Its effect was great, the proverb being familiar to us already. It had taken the place, that year, among people who ‘really counted,’ of “He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind,” which was sorely in need of a rest, not having the perennial freshness of “Working for the King of Prussia.” For the culture of these eminent men was an alternate, if not a tripartite and triennial culture.

The French text has an agricultural metaphor/play-on-words, as in French, “culture” is a word used both for “crop” and “culture”. The narrator cannot be but ironic about this man who does not like everything he himself adores : M de Norpois considers that the narrator has no talent for literature, that Bergotte, whom he admires so much is a flawed author and that Madame Swann is not worth knowing.

This part around M de Norpois is the opportunity to describe the evolution of the family life and of the narrator’s activities. Françoise now lives with them in Paris and is still a vivid character. A carrier as a diplomat is what the narrator’s father would have wanted for his son but he acknowledges nothing else will make him happy as devoting himself to literature. So the narrator is officially an aspiring writer. This aspect is not developed in this part, except for his incapacity to concentrate on his work because of his relationship with Gilberte.

 The narrator is introduced to Bergotte at a rather formal luncheon at the Swann’s. He is embarrassed because he does not know how to behave, out of his own social circle and tells it frankly with a hint of self-irony:

“I did as they had done, with the air of spontaneity that a free-thinker assumes in church, who is not familiar with the order of service but rises when everyone else rises and kneels a moment after everyone else is on his knees.”

The meeting was a disappointment for him as he struggles to reconcile the writer with the man who speaks to him. He even thinks his physical appearance does not match at all with the cleverness and sensibility of his books. This conversation is the opportunity to discuss art and Bergotte thinks him intelligent. Proust takes advantage of this passage expose his ideas on the nature of talent, of genius, that I could not sum up here.  

Madame Swann at home.

Throughout the novel are scattered scenes of everyday life at the Swann’s house, as Odette de Crécy is now married to Swann. The narrator calls her Madame Swann as long as his relationship with Gilberte is going on and Odette after they have parted.

Proust describes the Swann’s way of life: the visits, the furniture, the food, Odette’s gowns, her habits. She has eccentric ways for everything: decoration, clothes, language – she uses English words in her French. She is as silly as she was in Swann’s Way but she still attracts men and regards. Proust shows the competition between Odette and Mme Verdurin, as they both hold a salon. The scene when Mme Verdurin comes to visit Odette is so funny! The narrator also tells her efforts to reach higher circles and how Swann deals with the impossibility for his former friends to admit Odette as their own acquaintance. The narrator becomes a frequent visitor to their house and shares their lunches, or diners and activities.

 Gilberte.

The relationship with Gilberte is disconcerting. It has no name. A flirtatious friendship? A chaste love story? The narrator is in love with her and is equally convinced his love is unrequited. Yet, she invites him at her parties and spends a lot of time with him. Marcel never tells her that he loves her, he just assumes that she knows. It’s a bit frustrating for the reader, since we only have his point of view. It seems to me that she does love him, at least at the beginning, and that she got tired to wait for him to make the first step. The scene during which they playfully wrestle is sensual and full of desire on both sides. Actually, she tells him she loves him during their last fight.

 “For a moment I was afraid that she thought that I did not love her, and this was for me a fresh agony, no less keen, but one that required treatment by a different conversational method. “If you knew how much you were hurting me you would tell me.” But this pain which, had she doubted my love for her, must have rejoiced her, seemed instead to make her more angry. Then, realising my mistake, making up my mind to pay no more attention to what she said, letting her (without bothering to believe her) assure me: “I do love you, indeed I do; you will see one day,” (that day on which the guilty are convinced that their innocence will be made clear, and which, for some mysterious reason, never happens to be the day on which their evidence is taken), I had the courage to make a sudden resolution not to see her again, and without telling her of it yet since she would not have believed me.”

 She cares for him exactly at the moment he realizes he has enough strength to leave her. It is noticeable that the translator has chosen “love” and not “like” to translate “aimer”, since there is only one word for both verbs in French. It will be the last time they see each other at this period of their lives because he stubbornly keeps the promise he makes to himself that day, whatever the suffering it will generate. He decides to kill the self who is in love with Gilberte, to be able to move on.

There is a parallel between the two love stories of Swann/Odette and Marcel/Gilberte. Swann’s love for Odette was “no longer operable”. Unlike Swann, Marcel decides to operate himself and relates the operation and his convalescing. Swann suffered for a woman “who wasn’t even his type”, Marcel refused to be a diplomat to stay in Paris near the Gilberte he is now leaving.

His decision not to see her again is at the same time brave and childish. In the end, he never had an open conversation with Gilberte on their mutual feelings, out of shyness probably. This first love is clumsy as often first loves are. The description of his feelings, the waiting for a note, the need to see her and his seeing her mother instead, to hear of her are lucid, clever and tender. Proust has a brilliant way to describe hearts and feelings with realistic details. I have always thought of him as an impressionist writer. The Monet of literature: small touches which, seen as a whole, are as vivid as life and move deeply the reader.

Proust has always touched something very personal in me. It did it the first time I read him. It does it again now. It feels like he has lived in my head for a while and visited it all, even the most remote corners.

For other reviews: here are Richard’s first and second posts on this volume and Max’s first and second posts.

  1. September 2, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    I’ve saved this entry so I can read it when I get back. Are you working your way through the whole sequence?

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    • September 2, 2010 at 1:31 pm

      I plan to read it as soon as I have finished The Controversy of Valladolid, which is very good.

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  2. Robert
    September 15, 2011 at 4:46 am

    I am not familiar with the routine of posting to blogs so I wondered if I should contribute a short piece of 130 words taken from a review of 890 words as a way of introducing myself.
    It concerns the narrator and his ambitions to be a writer:-

    So to encourage Marcel’s literary desires his father asks him to write something to show de Norpois when he arrives for dinner. To his horror he finds despite all the wonderful stuff going through his mind he cannot write anything. In desperation he shows de Norpois a prose poem he wrote years ago in Combray – and is devastated when it is dismissed without any comment. Why doesn’t he question himself on that failure?
    It seems ever since he started to read he has wanted to create fiction. He can in his head but somehow he seems incapable of committing anything to paper. And yet later on in the section he writes a sixteen page letter to Swann about his deep friendship for Gilberte. Emotion succeeds where imagination fails him?

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    • September 15, 2011 at 6:52 am

      Hello
      Thanks for visiting. I don’t host guest posts but don’t hesitate to leave long comments if you wish. Long comments are welcome here.

      PS: I’ve finished Sodom and Gomorrah and the Narrator hasn’t written anything yet…

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  3. Robert
    September 21, 2011 at 1:45 am

    I have only recently been directed to your blog by a fellow member of wordpress.com so I realise I am rather late in making comments on your excellent review. After years of reading modern novels I am thoroughly enjoying Proust and marvelling at the dexterity with which he uses words. I wrote this in June this year and wonder if it would be of interest:-

    I may be stating the obvious but by bringing in the reminiscence of the madeleine biscuit so early in the novels Proust is indicating that the overall title of the whole, In Search of Lost Time, means that the reader will be experiencing in some part the way daily promptings will bring hidden memories to the surface of the conscious mind.

    In a series of novels with so many characters I have decided that Marcel is the one to focus on and that his memory or lack of memory, as he remembers it, is to be trusted. I don’t mind if his memory of certain events, conversations or judgements is a little inaccurate as long as I can believe that he is really trying to record his life in detail. So it was unusual that a significant episode in Paris was not fully explained.
    Marcel even from his Combray days has expressed a wish to meet girls so that when he meets up with Bloch in Paris who promises that those wishes can be met, Marcel agrees to frequent a brothel. Typically it is one that Bloch no longer uses – a fact he doesn’t convey to Marcel. The house is rather sparsely furnished which prompts Marcel to give the mistress of the house items of furniture, including a large sofa, left to him by Aunt Leonie. Marcel recalls that it was on this very sofa that he exchanged a kiss with a female cousin years before and it is because of those fond memories that he decides not to return to the brothel.

    Now I am wondering why he doesn’t remember that it was Bloch’s suggestion that Aunt Leonie at one time was a ‘kept’ woman that led to Marcel’s parents banning Bloch from the house in Combray. Doesn’t Marcel realise that subconsciously he may be confirming in his own mind that the suggestion is true by the action of giving the furniture to a brothel?
    And that another member of the family Uncle Adolphe ceased visiting his parents when Marcel had told them of arriving at Adolphe’s home in Paris uninvited and finding his favourite uncle entertaining ladies of the demi-monde. Has he forgotten that his parents disapproved of Mme Swann for years because of her life as a courtesan? It all adds up to a strict moral family code of conduct to follow.

    I suppose the adolescent Marcel has suppressed such uncomfortable thoughts now that Bloch seems to be showing him the pleasures of the flesh. He is also ignoring Bloch’s suspicious use of the name M. Moreul when employed in the secretariat of the Ministry of Posts. The Permanent Secretary is M. Bontemps whose wife is a friend of the Swanns and even more significantly, their niece is the famous ‘Albertine’ who is forecast to be dreadfully ‘fast’ when she gets older. I think Bloch will be around to witness that behaviour as will Marcel.

    I can only conclude that Marcel is intrigued by Bloch and is prepared to remain friends with him despite indications that he could be leading Marcel into new and possibly uncomfortable situations.

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    • September 21, 2011 at 7:22 pm

      I didn’t remember that allusion to Tante Léonie. As far as Oncle Adolphe is concerned, it’s the other way round: the Narrator’s family stops visiting him. Yes Albertine will benefit from a lot of freedom and the Narrator will be happy about it.
      I’m not sure that Bloch has a bad influence on the Narrator as you suggest. He’s the evidence that the Narrator doesn’t choose his friends or lovers for their social class or their social abilities but for who they are. I like him for that.
      The Narrator’s family is probably a typical sample of the French bourgeoisie of that time. I believe it was very common for young men to have their sexual education in brothels.

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  1. June 15, 2011 at 10:26 am

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