Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Swann in Love

"This is a Shell Leines or a pearl oyster shell-shaped
madeleine, which was made by Blanca."
Photo by Miyuki Meinaka, April 2010
(via Wikimedia Commons, License CC BY-SA 3.0
Having browsed the bookshelf, or rather looked at it and taken out a random book, I have decided to live-blog my attempts to read a portion of Proust's The Remembrance of Things Past, entitled Swann in Love or Un amour de Swann. Since I've got it, I'll use it: I'm reading an original French edition from Gallimard (1977), which is presumably in our bookshelves by grace of Omama. I haven't read anything by Proust, and know little beyond the famous detail that he bit into a biscuit once and it reminded him of something; please excuse my ignorance. For the sake of context: according to a certain online encyclopaedia, The Remembrance of Things Past was written from 1908ish to 1922. [Let's not mention what happened to my last live-blog, of War and Peace.]

10:47 p.m. It irritates me as a classical music aficionado and detail-obsessive when fictional pianists play pieces (e.g. a Haydn symphony) which are not composed for the piano. While Wagner did write pieces for the piano — which I had never heard of until a few minutes ago, when I conferred with Wikipedia's 'List of compositions' by him — Proust lends the pianist a repertory of extracts from The Valkyrie and Tristan and Isolde.

Anyway, the portraiture of high society begins at once; the little tiffs over favoured musicians, doctors, etc. oneupmanship between hostesses of salons and parties, and the bothers of patronage. Oddly enough these details remind me a good deal of Maria Edgeworth.

In terms of characters we are introduced to M. Verdurin and Mme. Verdurin, the lady being 'virtuous and of a respectable bourgeois family, excessively rich and entirely obscure, with whom she had ceased, little by little and voluntarily, any relations.' In her salon she welcomes Mme. de Crécy, a lady of ill-er repute; the wife of her favourite doctor Cottard; and the aunt of her favourite pianist (he of the Wagner repertory), among the ladies. Her pianist is permitted to appear — and play if he considers that the spirit is moving him — and so is her favourite painter. They talk, play charades, indulge in ladylike valetudinarianism (Mme. Verdurin), and listen to the music.

By this point I realize that my French is not up to the standard of reading Marcel Proust, so Le Petit Robert ('petit' inasfar as a brickbat which encompasses 2949 numbered pages can be considered 'petit') in a 2003 edition and Follett Publishing Company's Classic French Dictionary (1962) have appeared on the scene.

faribole - idle story, trifle
esclaffer - [etym. used early as 1534, from Provençal esclafa (éclater), revived 19th cent.] bursting into loud laughter ("éclater de rire bruyamment")

This society sounds incredibly boring.

We have reached 'Page 9,' which is really Page 3.

11:43 p.m. The society dissolves in the course of time, as very pressing obligations take its members elsewhere. (A slow dignified exit out the door, followed by a reckless thumping run down the carpeted hallway, shoes clattering down the stairs, footman cut off mid-polite-inquiry, door slamming, pause, horse-drawn carriage or automobile tumbling away . . . one presumes.) Mme. Verdurin is shocked that her guests have lives outside her salon. She wonders why the doctor would want to bother his patients by promptly tending them upon their request.
Christmas and New Year's and religious holidays are clearly conspiracies against her — bothersome provincial customs. Other places, like the Auvergne, are howling wildernesses full of man-eating fleas. Lovers are all right, the Verdurins (M. Verdurin being mainly an extension of the will and agency of Mme. Verdurin) magnanimously concede, as long as they aren't too much of a distraction. Otherwise the lover is manoeuvred away.

Mme. de Crécy, the lady of light virtue (Proust says 'demi-mondaine'), introduces M. Swann as one of these lovers. Of course, Odette dear, says Mme. Verdurin when the request for an invitation reaches her. We'll refuse you nothing!

marivaudage - mannerism

So voici M. Swann. He is (we are told) a collector of lady acquaintances, always glad to stumble upon across a new bevy of them; hence his interest in the claustrophobic circle of Verdurin. There's a really long sentence and I can't quite sort it out, so for those of you who can, here it is:
Mais Swann aimait tellement les femmes qu'à partir du jour où il avait connu à peu près toutes celles de l'aristocratie et où elles n'avaient rien plus rien eu à lui apprendre, il n'avait plus tenu à ces lettres de naturalisation, presque des titres de noblesse, que lui avait octroyées le faubourg Saint-Germain, que comme à une sorte de valeur d'échange, de lettre de crédit, dénuée de prix en elle-même, mais lui permettant de s'improviser une situation dans tel petit trou de province ou tel milieu obscur de Paris, où la fille du hobereau ou du greffier lui avait semblé jolie.
There is as far as I can tell an unbearable conceit in all of this. Here the narrator is apparently bragging about Swann's amatory skill. — For one thing, it's still not as impressive or helpful as finding the cure for world hunger. For another, no matter which field we are in, or how old or how experienced we are, we continue to learn more of it until the day we die [N.B.: Nod to Ballet Shoes.], except if hubris desensibilizes us. Lastly — though since I am not privy to the bed-hopping life I generally hesitate to comment on related matters — I can think of nothing unsexier than being three to a bed with a man and his ego.

Anyway, Proust bemoans his bedhopping because it fritters away time which Swann could have spent unfurling the tender leaves of "les dons de son esprit" and "son erudition en matière d'art à conseiller les dames de la société dans leurs achats de tableaux et pour l'ameublement de leurs hôtels." In other words, Swann should have been an interior decorator? — All right, then.

1:01 a.m. Swann (Proust?) contemplates the delightlessness of monogamy. There is a French saying, "Quand on n'a pas ce que l'on aime, / Il faut aimer ce que l'on a." ('when you do not have what you love, you need to love what you have'). Swann does not quote this saying, and besides I find it rather cheerful than otherwise; but in his cheeky opinion, a pitiful settling for mediocrity lies at the core of monogamy.
Il n'était pas comme tant de gens qui, par paresse ou sentiment résigné de l'obligation que crée la grandeur sociale de rester attaché à un certain rivage, s'abstiennent des plaisirs que la réalité leur présente en dehors de la position mondaine où ils vivent cantonnés jusqu'à leur mort, se contentant de finir par appeler plaisirs, faute de mieux, une fois qu'ils sont parvenus à s'y habituer, les divertissements médiocres ou les supportables ennuis qu'elle renferme.
He seems to overstate the undilutedness of the pleasures of bed-hopping. We aren't all attractive/ed to everyone else so the number of people with whom one would want affairs is generally limited, sex carries emotional complications and medical risks too, the spectrum of sexuality is not limited to rabbit prolifics but covers asexuality and tiredness and preoccupations, etc.

As for his tastes in women, he likes them rosy and vivacious, and saves his admiration for higher feminine aesthetics for the abstracter realm of figurative art. He also likes having affairs with women of lower social classes because he feels like he has more to prove to them. This is apparently supposed to be a sign of a charmingly vulnerable sense of self. I think instead that it's rather egocentric and chickenhearted. One could meet these women on an equal footing and be interested in what they have to offer, i.e. life experience, character, observation, etc., instead of basking (as Swann seems to do) in one's magnanimity in permitting them to come in contact with one's superior self whilst refusing to see them as anything more than middle- or lower-class trophies.

2:15 a.m. We have reached 'Page 13'/Page 7, which isn't a whole lot; but I have things to do tomorrow and this live-blog has turned into a sermon of sorts, so I will cut the tedium by submitting the continuation of this enterprise to the vicissitudes of time and temper. (Whatever that means.)

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