”At the hour when I usually went downstairs to find out what there was for dinner...I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet--still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed--with an iridescence that was not of this world, I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognize again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.”The more you look at asparagus the odder and more wonderful they look.
Now anyone can see beauty in the Pacific Ocean, in the Rocky Mountains, in the New York Skyline or in a Turkish spice market, but not everyone looks at asparagus and sees beauty. Proust looks at this unusual looking vegetable and sees so much more than just his next meal. He sees rainbows, mythical creatures, and an explosion of radiant colors. He inhales their aroma as they exit his body as well. Their final gift to his senses. When we see an asparagus and see so much more than just an asparagus; life, however small or however large, becomes a kaleidoscope of adventure. It is wise to see beauty in the smallest things.
Our narrator although I can not distinguish him from Proust; so therefore, I will continue to think of them as one and the same, is a reader. So much so that his parents have to insist that he do something in the fresh air before he buries himself in his books for the rest of the day. Many of us can identify with that desire, that indulgence if I may, that would allow us to spend a day in bed reading. Even the best jobs can not compete with the worlds to be experienced in books or for that matter with our favorite sheets, our fluffy pillows, and our washed a hundred times comforter. ”I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to wallow in the central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread.”
He loves his momma. In fact bedtime is one of his favorite points in the day where he waits with great anticipation for the moment when his mom slips in to kiss him goodnight. He will even risk the ire of his father to elicit this kiss if he feels his mother is distracted by guests or may believe she can skip this all important, much awaited brush of her lips to close the day. Marcel Proust, he loves his momma, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.
He meets a girl, Gilberte, the daughter of Swann, a man who drifts in and out of his family affairs. A man who becomes an obsession of our narrator. As he pursues the daughter he also pursues the story of her father.
Swann meets a woman named Odette de Crecy. She, in the beginning, is much more enamored with him than he is with her. ”She had struck Swann not, certainly, as being devoid of beauty, but as endowed with a kind of beauty which left him indifferent, which aroused in him no desire, which gave him, indeed, a sort of physical repulsion, as one of those women of whom all of us can cite examples, different for each of us, who are the converse of the type which our senses demand.”
Swann looks at her the way we do when we are first analyzing a potential mate, overcritical in a Seinfeldesque manner. ”Her profile was too sharp, her skin too delicate, her cheekbones were too prominent, her features too tightly drawn to be attractive to him. Her eyes were beautiful, but so large they seemed to droop beneath their own weight, strained the rest of her face and always made her appear unwell or in a bad mood.”
As they are thrown together at the same parties and Odette continues to pursue him his opinion of her changes although reluctantly. He keeps a little seamstress as almost a counter weight to his relationship with Odette. ”But Swann told himself that if he could make Odette feel (by consenting to meet her only after dinner) that there were only pleasures which he preferred to that of her company, then the desire that she felt for his would be all the longer in reaching the point of satiety. Besides, as he infinitely preferred to Odette’s style of beauty that of a young seamstress, as fresh and plump as a rose, with whom he was smitten, he preferred to spend the first part of the evening with her, knowing that he was sure to see Odette later on.”
Swann begins to see her beauty differently and we, the reader, can start to feel the shift in affections. ”Standing there beside him, her loosened hair flowing down her cheeks, bending one knee in a slightly balletic pose in order to be able to lean without effort over the picture at which she was gazing, her head on one side with those great eyes of hers which seemed so tired and sullen when there was nothing to animate her, she struck Swann by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, which is to be seen in the Sistine frescoes.”,Botticelli's Zipporah
He realizes that despite his best efforts he is falling in love with her or more accurately of an ideal version of her. His resistance has crumbled. ”And it was Swann who, before she allowed it, as though in spite of herself, to fall upon his lips, held it back for a moment longer, at a little distance, between his hands. He had wanted to leave time for his mind to catch up with him, to recognize the dream which it had so long cherished and to assist at it’s realization, like a relative invited as a spectator when a prize is given to a child of whom she has been especially fond. Perhaps, too, he was fixed upon the face of Odette not yet possessed, nor even kissed by him, which he was seeing for the last time, the comprehensive gaze with which, on the day of his departure, a traveller hopes to bear away with him in memory a landscape he is leaving for ever.”
*Sigh* Swann is in love. It is really an interesting roller coaster that Proust takes us on with this relationship. At first I felt that Swann was being rather unchivalrous with Odette and unduly harsh, but then as Odette pursues him I start to feel like maybe his first reaction to her was the proper evaluation. As he falls into pit after pit of jealousy both become mired in a relationship that probably never should have started. As his passion increases her ardour for him cools. He has turned a corner in the relationship that blocks his view of the road that would take him away from Odette. ”And this malady which Swann’s love had become had so proliferated, was so closely interwoven with all his habits, with all his actions, with his thoughts, his health, his sleep, his life, even with what he hoped for after his death, was so utterly inseparable from him, that it would have been impossible to eradicate it without almost entirely destroying him; as surgeons say, his love was no longer operable.”"In each of their gardens the moonlight, copying the art of Hubert Robert, scattered its broken staircases of white marble, its fountains, its iron gates tempting ajar. All that was left of it was a column, half shattered but preserving the beauty of a ruin which endures for all time."
A character, a friend of Swann’s named Princesse des Laumes shows up in the later pages of the book and I wish she’d had a bigger role. I want to share a bit of conversation she has with a General about Mme de Cambremer. ”Oh, but Cambremer is a quite a good name--old, too,” protested the General.
“I see no objection to its being old,” the Princess answered dryly, “but whatever else it is it’s not euphonious,” she went on, isolating the word euphonious as though between inverted commas, a little affection to which the Guermantes set were addicted.
Do you hear just a bit of the Dowager Countess Lady Grantham in that exchange?
Swann finds himself unhappily happily in love. ”he said to himself that people did not know when they were unhappy, that one is never as happy as one thinks.”
I will counter that to say that rarely are people aware of how happy they are either. He may have been as happy as he was ever going to be when he was cuddling with his seamstress.
Our narrator sees Odette long after all the negotiations, passions, and pain have passed with her relationship with Swann. ”I doffed my hat to her with so lavish, so prolonged a gesture that she could not repress a smile. People laughed. As for her, she had never seen me with Gilberte, she did not know my name, but I was for her--like one of the keepers in the Bois, or the boatman, or the ducks on the lake to which she threw scraps of bread--one of the minor personages, familiar, nameless, as devoid of individual character as a stage-hand in a theatre, of her daily walks in the Bois.”
There are those books that once finished inspire the reader to turn back to the first page and start again. This is one of those books for me. It does not feel like a 600+ novel. Once you are sucked into the story which for different readers begins at different points the pages will seem to fly by. I finished this in the midst of the recent snowstorm in Kansas City. The blizzard provided the proper isolation for me to devote my total attention to the final 200 pages. If you are finding Proust difficult I might suggest starting with the section called Swann in Love
. I know odd to think of reading a book out of order, but this is one of the few books that you actually can. If you enjoy that section then you can go back and read the rest, after all at that point as they say in poker you are pot committed. I may still be in a Proust glow, but I must say for me this fits the bill of a masterpiece. I’m in awe of the Proustian insights into human behavior and his unique and inspiring way to see the world around us. More Proust please.