Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part II

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...

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