Hermann Hesse’s poem ‘Stufen’ – ‘Stages’


Wie jede Blüte welkt und jede Jugend

Dem Alter weicht, blüht jede Lebensstufe,

Blüht jede Weisheit auch und jede Tugend

Zu ihrer Zeit und darf nicht ewig dauern.

Es muß das Herz bei jedem Lebensrufe

Bereit zum Abschied sein und Neubeginne,

Um sich in Tapferkeit und ohne Trauern

In andre, neue Bindungen zu geben.

Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne,

Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.

Wir sollen heiter Raum um Raum durchschreiten,

An keinem wie an einer Heimat hängen,

Der Weltgeist will nicht fesseln uns und engen,

Er will uns Stuf um Stufe heben, weiten.

Kaum sind wir heimisch einem Lebenskreise

Und traulich eingewohnt, so droht Erschlaffen,

Nur wer bereit zu Aufbruch ist und Reise,

Mag lähmender Gewöhnung sich entraffen.

Es wird vielleicht auch noch die Todesstunde

Uns neuen Räumen jung entgegen senden,

Des Lebens Ruf an uns wird niemals enden…

Wohlan denn, Herz, nimm Abschied und gesunde!


Herman Hesse, 1941.



As every bloom wilts and youth ever

Yields to age, so every stage of life blooms,

Wisdom and every virtue bloom

At their right time and may not last for ever.

The heart must at every call of life

Be ready to take its leave and to make a new beginning,

So as to devote itself to new commitments

With courage and without regret.

And each beginning holds a magic within

Which guards us and helps us to live.

We shall stride cheerfully from room to room,

Clinging to none like a home;

The world spirit will not tie us and constrict us,

It will at every step raise and extend us.

Hardly are we comfortably attached to a sphere of life

And intimately involved when listlessness threatens;

Only those who are ready for departure and travel

May extricate themselves from crippling habits.

Perhaps even the hour of our death

Will send us new rooms to explore, young;

Life’s call to us will never end…

Then heart, take your leave, and be positive!  

tr DRH 2008



Marcel Proust in 1913 – ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ – ‘The Way by Swann’s’

Many of the themes of À La Recherche (In Search of Lost Time) are introduced in the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann (The Way by Swann’s).

The volume is divided into three parts:

  1. Combray
  2. Un amour de Swann (A Love of Swann’s)
  3. Noms de pays: le nom (Place-names: the Name) – an epilogue (suffused with nostalgia).

It is the first two that are commented upon below.


Here we see the world from the point of a view of a child (that of the first-person narrator), albeit recalled many years later by the adult narrator.


We meet many of the characters who appear repeatedly throughout the novel.  We have first impressions of the Swann family – Charles and Odette, and Gilberte, their daughter.

We see different aspects of people, both pleasant and unpleasant.  Françoise is kind and loyal to Aunt Léonie but cruel to the kitchen maid.   Legrandin gradually reveals his snobbery (which he appears to deny to himself).

Combray gives us too an early example of homosexuality, in the relationship between Mlle Vinteuil and her unnamed friend: this is a topic which will be returned to many times in the novel.

The arts

The arts are very important.  For example, Vinteuil is first introduced as a musician and unsuccessful composer who falls ill and dies prematurely; but his music will play a very important part in the novel (acquiring special significance both for Charles Swann and for the narrator); and his reputation will rise.

The narrator is very responsive to landscapes, incorporating both scenery and historic buildings (especially churches), and he describes them pictorially.  He produces his first word-painting while still a child – about the steeples of the church of Martinville.

The unfortunate maid who helps Françoise with the cooking is compared to Giotto’s emblematic fresco of Charity (one of the series of Virtues and Vices, in Padua).  Later, many art works are referred to in À la recherche, and Giotto’s frescoes are mentioned again.


The narrator notes that an evening visit by Charles Swann to his family means that his mother does not get round to giving him his sought-after his goodnight kiss.  The wait for the kiss provokes anxiety – and this emotion is of major importance throughout the novel, especially in relation to love.

The two ‘ways’

 The last part of Combray is taken up with the contrasts between the two ‘ways’ – the way past Swann’s house (also called the Méséglise way) and the Guermantes way.  (It is on a walk along the former that the narrator has his first sighting of Gilberte and Odette, through their garden hedge.)  The two represent the worlds of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, respectively.  The rest of the book will be taken up with the narrator’s exploration of the two ‘ways’.


The narrator finds that he can recall some aspects of his childhood life in Combray by an effort of the will.  But he adds to his account details of the occasion when his mother gave him a ‘madeleine’ cake and a cup of lime-blossom tea – the same as his aunt had used to give him: a much more detailed, vivid picture suddenly emerged, of Combray and its surroundings, like the pieces of paper the Japanese like to place in water, to see how they open out and take shape.  This is the first indication in the novel that the workings of involuntary memory are more powerful than those of voluntary memory.


A synopsis

In his introduction to the Gallimard edition of Du côté de chez Swann (1987-8), Antoine Compagnon neatly sums up Un amour as follows:

“Un amour de Swann did not belong to the first plan conceived by Proust for À la recherche.  This is a strange episode – an account in the third person of an adventure that occurred before the hero’s birth.  It serves to introduce the character of Charles Swann, the alter ego of the hero, his model for the rest of the novel.  It offers an initial analysis of love and jealousy, with which the hero himself will become acquainted, after Swann.  It also gives a first picture of Parisian society, the evolution of which, over time, is one of the themes of the novel.  Swann meets Odette; she introduces him to the Verdurins’ little clique, described at the beginning.  He is indifferent to her at first, but he falls in love with her, because of two aesthetic experiences: firstly, he associates her with a phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata, heard in her company; secondly, he discovers by chance her resemblance to a face painted by Botticelli.   But his love is really awakened by her absence, one evening, when he arrives at the Verdurins after Odette has already left.  From the beginning, his love is linked to anxiety and is converted immediately into jealousy.  Odette lies; Swann is driven away by the Verdurins.  When he hears the phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata, at the first grand society soirée depicted in À la recherche, held at the home of Madame de Saint-Euverte, he realises that Odette will cease to love him.  His love and his jealousy persist, however, till his love fades as quickly as it was aroused.”  [page xxvi, tr DRH]

Un amour de Swann is like a novel within a novel.  It is available on its own – but only in French.

First-person v third-person narrative

Although Un amour is written in the third person, it could be a first-person story.  The reader sees things through Swann’s eyes: his thought processes are described in detail.  We do not gain much insight into Odette’s thinking: we (like Swann) can only draw inferences from her body language, her words and her actions.

Similarities and differences

Swann remains an amateur art critic, dilettante and socialite (the narrator calls him lazy), whereas ultimately the narrator becomes a writer.  Swann thinks about finishing his study of Vermeer but never does so.

Swann and the narrator have similar experiences of love, with its attendant jealousy, anxiety and disappointments.  Outside the scope of Un amour, Swann eventually marries Odette, when she bears him a child (Gilberte), whereas the narrator remains unmarried.

Parallels between scenes

The soirée held by the Marquise de Saint-Euverte is the first of a series of “society” scenes in À la recherche.

The rejection of Swann by the Verdurins in Un amour de Swann foreshadows their more dramatic rejection of Charlus in La Prisonnière.

The performance of Vinteuil’s sonata in Un amour is followed up by the performance of his septet in La Prisonnière.

Swann’s relationship with Odette resembles that of the narrator’s own relationships, covered later in the novel – firstly with Gilberte Swann and secondly with Albertine Simonet.  Both Swann and the narrator question Odette and Albertine, respectively, about any lesbian tendencies.  The result is the death of love:

“Il alla chez Odette.  Il s’assit loin d’elle.  Il n’osait l’embrasser….Il se taisait, il regardait mourir leur amour.”  [Un amour de Swann]

“He went to Odette’s.  He sat down at a distance from her.  He dared not kiss her….He remained silent; he watched their love die.”

When the narrator puts pressure on Albertine (La Prisonnière), she leaves him without warning.


Although concentration upon the first volume deprives the reader of a view of the overarching structure of the novel, Du côté de chez Swann does provides a good introduction to Proust’s themes, and it can be read on its own.


David R Harries

January 2013




Why read Proust?

Should we bother?

In 1913 the first volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) – namely, Du côté de chez Swann (The Way by Swann’s) – was first published.  In 2013, should we care about this (in)famous work?

The value of À la recherche depends on the justification of this principle: that a work of art that vividly reflects one life, one place, one period, has universal significance.  Although it can be criticised, on various grounds (especially its pessimism about love), there is a universality about the work.


Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was born in Paris and lived there all his life.  He ingratiated himself with prominent members of Parisian ‘society’ and was known as a social butterfly and dilettante writer.   

In 1905 his mother (to whom he was very attached) died.  He withdrew from social life. In 1908 he started work on À la recherche – he continued work on it until the end of his life.  Later parts were published after his death.  It is likely that he would have revised them if he had had more time.

Proust indeed constantly revised his work: he transposed certain passages and kept on adding to it.  He knew how it would end, but he kept amplifying the middle.

Du côté de chez Swann, then, was published in 1913.  His publisher refused to back it,  unless Proust cut a few hundred pages from the end.  Proust complied and improvised an epilogue, to round off the truncated first volume.  The discarded passages were incorporated in the next volume, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, which had to wait until 1919 to appear.

World War I, indeed, gave Proust lots of time to expand his magnum opus and to write an account of the wartime bombing of Paris (which appears in the final volume, Le Temps retrouvé).

The result is a very long book – six volumes in the recent Penguin edition.

What is it all about?

It traces the efforts of the protagonist/narrator (who remains nameless and writes in the first person) to become a writer.  The history of his attempts is itself the novel.  He looks back at his life, aided by his insomnia, and recalls the places where he has stayed and the people he has known.  He records the influence on him of a fictional writer, a painter and a musician.

It reflects certain aspects of life in France’s Third Republic.  It reflects the huge output of artistic activity at the time and also technological change (the arrival of the motor-car, the telephone and the aeroplane).  There are many references to the Dreyfus Affair, which divided France for many years, and in which Proust himself was involved (on the side of Dreyfus).

In particular, it reflects the life of fashionable Parisian ‘society’, with its rival salons and coteries.  Snobbish behaviour on the part of the participants is closely observed, in a way that is comical and subtly satirical.  (Edmund Wilson compares Proust with Dickens.)  Indeed, snobbery is shown to be a suitable topic for literature.  Any pretensions to an exalted status, either claimed by aristocrats or social climbers, or ascribed to them by others, are undermined by the continual revelations of their true characters, including their selfishness and cruelty on occasions.

It has to do with love.  It demonstrates a pessimistic thesis, namely that, insofar as we fall in love, we are doomed to suffer anxiety and jealousy, and concomitant unhappiness.  The narrator/protagonist loves (or thinks he loves) two women in succession – Gilberte and Albertine.  His emotional immaturity and ineptitude doom him to failure with both women.  He tries to restrict Albertine’s movements and asks her awkward questions – she runs away.

Charles Swann, the protagonist’s alter ego, is a womaniser: he has a taste for women from lower social classes but avoids entanglements with them.  He becomes seriously infatuated with Odette, although she is not his “type”: the ensuing relationship has a bigger impact on him, and greater consequences, than all the previous ones. 

The novel is very concerned with homosexual attraction too.  (The fourth volume is called Sodome et Gomorrhe.) The overtly homosexual characters, in particular, are not portrayed sympathetically (despite the fact that Proust himself was homosexual):

“Homosexuality figures in Proust almost exclusively under the aspect of perversity, and it is in general unmistakably associated, as in the incident of Mlle Vinteuil, with another kind of perversity, sadism.” [Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle, Chapter V] 

The sexuality of certain other characters remains ambiguous: the pieces of evidence are contradictory.  Both the protagonist and Charles Swann are preoccupied at times with the proclivities of the women they pursue, but they never achieve certainty.  The treatment of this theme by Proust is peculiar and unsatisfactory: it probably reflects contradictions within the writer himself.

The loving relationship that shines out from the pages is that between the protagonist and his grandmother (reflecting, no doubt, Proust’s own relationship with his mother).  His grandmother is caring and unselfish.  Her final illness and death are vividly and movingly described in the third volume, Le Côté de Guermantes.

I have mentioned recalling the past, above.  Now, Proust has a great deal to say about memory and its workings.  He makes a distinction between a memory recalled by voluntary effort and an involuntary memory that takes us by surprise.  He prizes the latter more highly.  The operation of involuntary memory is exemplified by the well-known incident (in Du côté de chez Swann) where the protagonist eats a “madeleine” cake and experiences the revelation of scenes from his own past – his life as a child in Combray.

Proust has a lot to say about all the arts, particularly examples from the Renaissance up to his own period.  He conveys a deep knowledge and appreciation of them.  The arts, indeed, form a quasi-religion for his protagonist (and hence, no doubt, for Proust himself).  A great feel for Venice is conveyed in a chapter in Albertine disparue (in the fifth volume of the Penguin edition).

Finally, the novel spirals around its central themes and characters.  Places, incidents, people are continually revisited, and each time new aspects are revealed.   Proust shows that (a) we do not know everything about a place, an event or a person at first sight, and (b) that people change (and age).

So what?  Advice to the potential reader.

Although the novel may be regarded as faulty in some ways (it is lengthened, perhaps excessively, by the late inclusion of the Albertine story), it has to be admired for (a) the overarching structure, (b) the spiralling technique of visiting and re-visiting important themes (elaborating on them, the while) and (c) providing insight into human feelings and behaviours.

Give it a go.  Enjoy the comedy.  But prepare yourself for an encounter with very long sentences, with subordinate clauses that refine the message or picture.

Read it in translation, unless your knowledge of French is excellent.  See for example the 21st century Penguin edition, In Search of Lost Time, where each volume is assigned to a different translator, who also provides an introduction.

Suggestions for further reading (two short, worthwhile pieces, chosen from the many available)

  1. There is an excellent chapter on Proust and À la recherche in Edmund Wilson’s  1931 Axel’s Castle – a study in the imaginative literature of 1870-1930 (Fontana)
  2. Albertine, the novel by Jacqueline Rose (Vintage, 2002), cleverly retells the story of Proust’s character from her point of view.  (You do not need to know Proust’s original to appreciate this take on the story.)


David R Harries

January 2013