Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part III

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.

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