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:
- Un amour de Swann (A Love of Swann’s)
- 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 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.
UN AMOUR DE SWANN
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