Saturday, July 15, 2017

On Interconnectedness

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This was the moment when I began to understand how unaware I'd been - not only in planning to run away, but in everything. I'd never understood how closely things are connected to one another. ... We human beings are only a part of something very much larger. When we walk along, we may crush a beetle or simply cause a change in the air so that a fly ends up where it might never have gone otherwise. And if we think of the same example but with ourselves in the roll of the insect, and the larger universe in the role we've just played, it's perfectly clear that we're affected every day by forces over which we have no more control than the poor beetle has over our gigantic foot as it descends upon it. What are we to do? We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them.

—From Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden, p. 127

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part III

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In the final section of Swann's Way, titled "Place Names: The Name," we're thrust back into our original narrator's voice as he ruminates on the power of names, particularly their ability to trigger a memory or emotional episode from one's past. After a fair amount of lengthy prose on this phenomenon itself, he finally gets to the main point: the narrator's relationship with Swann's daughter Gilberte, of which he had spoken more briefly towards the end of Part I.

In some sense, this is where the prior two seemingly disconnected parts to the novel finally do connect. The narrator is in Paris as a child/youth [I'm a little unclear about the exact age] and while out in the Champs-Elysees he hears the name 'Gilberte,' bringing to mind the girl he met back at Combray who made an "indecent gesture" towards him. [One: I don't know what that gesture actually was. Two: See how he connects the name recollection to memory here with this personal experience; point taken.] The girl connected to the name here in Paris is, in fact, the same Gilberte, and the narrator's intrigue is quickly rekindled and strengthened, especially as he becomes a frequent playmate of Gilberte.

The intrigue quickly turns to infatuation with habits and behaviors mimicking the ones we just read about Swann; the narrator finds that Gilberte occupies his thoughts, even outside of their time together and the experiences they share. He begins to judge his own life through a lens that she colors. His governess suddenly seems less sophisticated than Gilberte's; strangers with whom she interacts suddenly have more appeal, strictly by the fact that they earned Gilberte's attention. Further, M. Swann has lost all identity to the narrator as his parents' friend, the man who came to dinner at Combray and prevented his mother from kissing him goodnight. Now, he is "Gilberte's father," and an individual whose attention the narrator desperately seeks for validation, gaining pleasure at the idea that he may occupy any place in the Swanns' thoughts.

This infatuation is called love by the narrator, juxtaposed alongside Swann's own experiences chronicled in Part II, though identified as mere innocence since he, the narrator, was only a child. It becomes clear as I read this section that Proust always intended to carry the story further, using frequent parenthetical side comments to indicate something that will be noted or seen in the future. In a way, this consideration helps make sense of the novel's disjointedness; presumably this story was always meant to be an anthology, stretched out into segments that hop back and forth in time, with a mere single volume entirely unable to tell the full story. This becomes even more apparent with the story's big twist that **SPOILER ALERT** despite Swann's insistence at the end of Part II that he is, in fact, out of love with Odette, it is she who is Gilberte's mother and Swann's wife! And more interestingly, it is simply stated as fact, without any clue as to what led here. I have to say "well done" to Proust for burying the lead; I'm only discouraged that there are six more volumes to read that may or may not, at some point, finally reveal the full story!

After dropping that bomb, Proust concludes Swann's Way with present-day reflection by the narrator as he observes the Paris of the present, finding it void of the elegance he remembers from his past. But ultimately, how accurate are these memories and recollections?

"The reality I had known no longer existed.... The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment [emphasis mine]; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years."

Concluding with the idea that reminisces are not realities, that we hold our memories to a higher esteem where they take on a revered status, Proust reflects that perhaps it was never the "thing" in the first place; there's no sanctity in the objects or experiences to which we attribute such strong emotional connection, but rather it's us - our own personal moment of development, realization, experience, etc. - that creates the moment of inspiration and allows these outside "things" to hold such magic.

"But when a belief disappears, there survives it - more and more vigorous so as to mask the absence of the power we have lost to give reality to new things - a fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief once animated, as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent cause, the death of the Gods."

And that, my friends, is my completion of Swann's Way. And having finally checked off such a daunting title that has been on my list for fifteen whole years - more of a project, really - I can say with complete confidence and acceptance that I will most likely not be reading on further into In Search of Lost Time. Sorry, Proust.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part II

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Part 2 of Swann's Way is a lengthy, 200-page section titled "Swann in Love," and it's drastically different than the book's first part. It chronicles a period of Swann's history when he was (yep, you guessed it) in love, which was a narrative briefly alluded to by our narrator in Part 1 (so brief, in fact, that I had not even remembered it). The object of Swann's affections is a woman named Odette who is described as rather unremarkable, not the most intelligent, and not at all Swann's usual type. Basically, she's a 19th-century basic bitch.

Swann meets Odette through this social circle led by M. and Mme. Verdurin. Basically, they seem to be a group of semi-social outcasts that have created their own circle of friends just to judge those that have judged them. It's an eclectic set of personalities with the most comedic member, I think, being Dr. Cottard, a man who so humorously lacks social awareness that he never forms a true opinion and always responds with an ironic smile as his safety net - if his attitude doesn't match the socially accepted one, well of course, he knew that all along and now he's simply making a joke about it! Socially, Swann is above all of these people and thus considered a catch for their little social set. Yes, he has managed to create a better social persona than they have, but he's just as shallow and eager to please the public as they are. He only sticks around so long because he falls for Odette, and the Verdurins are his gateway to her.

So about this relationship with Odette. It's funny because in the beginning Swann is described as quite the ladies' man. Upon meeting her at the Verdurins, he gets the impression that she is trying to woo him, though he doesn't find her particularly appealing; the only real attraction comes from the fact that he knows she likes him so much. In fact, he's often with other women right up until he meets her and the Verdurins! As time passes, though, that attraction he feels from her causes his own attraction towards her to grow, creating an interesting type of love affair. How genuine can it be considered if you only fall for the person because you know they have fallen for you? (A modern day quandary as well, I'm sure.)

As time passes, Swann's intrigue turns to infatuation, which turns to full-out obsession. We rarely hear Odette's side, just Swann's as he struggles with the passion, thrills, and insecurities of this relationship. They're definitely lovers by its most basic definition; they meet up regularly, sleep together, and carry on some sort of passionate relationship. Swann is left enamoured, holding on to tiny moments, actions, or words during the time they are not together. (That's the novel's theme playing out: the staying power of insignificant memories.)

After introducing this part's main players and building relationships with descriptive interactions, the relationship begins to fall apart as Swann continues to hear rumors of Odette's amorous past, feeding into a deep, unsettled insecurity. He begins to question everything she says and does, convincing himself that the times she is not with him are filled with deception. Both Odette and the Verdurins lose interest in Swann, most likely due a great amount to his obsessive behavior. Proust then uses pages and pages to convey Swann's internal self-deprecation. He's experiencing an obsession to the point where he doesn't know how to not think about it, creating stories and convincing himself of drama that may or may not exist, because it's easier than letting it all go - you're so used to the anguish that you don't know what to do without it.

As a reader, I'm thinking, "Ohmygod please don't let this go on forever," because it's exhausting and also pretty monotonous. And Proust, then, most likely agrees and brings Swann back into the society he has for so long neglected where it becomes clear how much he has detached himself because of Odette. This, I think, is one of the more realistic and universal points in this whole affair of Swann's. He has sacrificed all other aspects of his life for this tumultuous, insecure affair, and it's this break from Odette, as he is trying to "wean himself" from her, that illuminates that sacrifice. When he once again hears the phrase from the piano sonata that came to define his early passion for Odette, he realizes that passion no longer exists; it's maintained only by his memory.

So like the dunking of the madeleine and the view of the church steeples in Part 1, this musical phrase conjures more than just reminisces; it invokes overwhelming feeling linked to a particular time and place. And in this instance, it's the realization that this emotion no longer exists that helps Swann break with Odette for good.

And before Swann had time to understand, and say to himself: "It's the litte phrase from the sonata by Vinteuil; don't listen!" all his memories of the time when Odette was in love with him, which he had managed until now to keep out of sight in the deepest part of himself, deceived by this sudden beam of light from the time of love which they believed had returned, had awoken and flown swiftly back up to sing madly to him, with no pity for his present misfortune, the forgotten refrains of happiness.

The drastic difference of this section from the previous one comes from the narration. It's told in such a third-person omniscient voice that we totally forget that it's actually the voice of "Marcel," our Part 1 narrator. In fact, I don't think he uses the word 'I' until over 100 pages into this section! We very quickly forget that this whole story about Swann and Odette is, in fact, just a retelling. We're reminded that everything we're reading took place in the past, before the narrator's time, and it must have just been retold to him, perhaps by his grandfather who has been mentioned as a friend of Swann's. I was happy to see, as I predicted, that the story would end up focusing more on Swann (since his name is in the book's title and all), but this total disconnect of narrative voice has left me wondering how it all connects. What's the point in sharing this tumultuous romance of Swann's past and nearly losing track of our narrator? Perhaps Part 3 will tell...