Waggish

2.1.1 Mme Swann at Home: The Situation

Onto volume two. As a translation Within a Budding Grove is kind of a stretch; the new translation is quite literal as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, but it sounds clunky. The meaning of both is that Marcel is in that adolescent/post-adolescent state in which women are preoccupying him. He is now far past

that period of life when one has not yet separated the fact of this sensual pleasure from the various women in whose company one has tasted it, when one has not yet reduced it to a general idea which makes one regard them thenceforward as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same. (172)

Consequently, much of “Madame Swann at Home” concerns Marcel’s infatuation with Gilberte, the Swanns’ daughter. He has a relationship with her that ends with him falsely giving up on her several times, then doing it for real. It echoes Swann’s own infatuation with Odette in the first volume, though Marcel is more self-aware, younger, and thus less able to wreck his life in the process. He is no less inconsistent than Swann was, but he is more able to treat it as a part of the process of living than as a pathology. What was arbitrary tragedy in “Swann in Love” is now a process of endless revision of one’s view of other people and the world.
As with “Swann in Love,” Gilberte is less interesting as a person than as just some object of desire that Proust can spin ideas around. The background presence of Madame Swann (Odette’s new moniker) keeps “Swann in Love” in the picture, as though the journey was from one of (mostly) objective retelling to one of experiencing and rewriting. Proust describes it, after his father encourages him to become a writer:

In speaking of my inclinations as no longer liable to change, and of what was destined to make my life happy, he aroused in me two very painful suspicions. The first was that (at a time when, every day, I regarded myself as standing upon the threshold of a life which was still intact and would not enter upon its course until the following morning) my existence had already begun, and that, furthermore, what was yet to follow would not differ to any extent from what had gone before. The second suspicion, which was really no more than a variant of the first, was that I was not situated somewhere outside Time, but was subject to its laws, just like those characters in novels who, for that reason, used to plunge me into such gloom when I read of their lives, down in Combray, in the fastness of my hooded wicker chair. In theory one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can rest assured . . . In saying of me, “He’s no longer a child,” “His tastes won’t change now,” and so forth, my father had suddenly made me conscious of myself in Time, and caused me the same kind of depression as if I had been, not yet the enfeebled old pensioner, but one of those heroes of whom the author, in a tone of indifference which is particularly galling, says to us at the end of a book: “He very seldom comes up from the country now. He has finally decided to end his days there.” (520)

Though Proust doesn’t refer back explicitly to these thoughts later, they’re so central to the progression that occurs in the second volume (vs. the first) that I quoted the whole, lengthy thing. The tentativeness with which he enters the world, and indeed, enters his relationship with Gilberte, reflects his instinct not to take up one partial position but to remain aware, as much as possible, of the consubstantiality of all views of people and objects. In tandem with what action he does take, the section is more complicated and richer than what preceded it.
(Here it reminds me of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, in which the constant undermining of the narrative situation as presented eventually collapses what otherwise would have been a traditional aristocratic tragic love story, one that’s intentionally dull and superficial. The narrator’s interventions and the passage of time during the chronicling wreck the stability of the story. I’m also reminded of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, another uneasy amalgam of old and new, for reasons I’ll get to later.)
But also, compare it to this passage, from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as weall know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon. (444)

The orientation is very different; that searing dissatisfaction and anger in Musil is much more subdued in Proust. But in both, there is the pervasive idea of being captured by particulars, where the constant intrusion of a set of circumstances on one’s own life, and more significantly, the need to act on them, corrupts and diminishes the span of one’s view.

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