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Du côté de chez Swann  - Marcel Proust Reposting this review since it had been erroneously deleted.

It feels peculiar to write a review on Du côté de chez Swann given how many comments I have posted during the two months of our reading in the GoodReads Group “2013 The Year of Reading Proust”.

As I have read it in the original French my quotes come from the Gallimard edition.

Many of my posts have shown how fascinated I have been by the very visual writing of Marcel Proust. Colors, light and its effects, bounties of flowers, all combine together into a very pictorial style. I think this is fundamental in Proust’s aesthetics.


Colors are notoriously difficult to render in language; there is simply no vocabulary for conveying their aspect or qualia. We have to resort to things to identify any given tone or hue. Homer’s wine dark sea is a famous example. We should not be surprised that Proust, the stylist, would pay meticulous attention to his palette. For any one who has read this novel, rose will have stood out as one of the Narrator’s favorite tones. Who will not remember la femme en rose? Or the beautiful passage on the hawthorns in which their pink shade is eulogized over their alternative white? There is however another color which I think is more prominent than pink, but which stands out less singly. The suggestive azur or the mellow céleste or the precious zaphir or the mysterious outre-mer, all form part of that one category of bleu which in its homogenized state does not imprint itself so prominently in our internal retinas as the lovely sounding rose. Mauve or violet, the nineteenth century color par excellence, and often in combination with white, also figures prominently in Proust. The Narrator comments twice on his fascination with the mauve ribbons, sealed with white wax, with which Gilberte presents him Bergotte’s Racine notes (467).

When colors need the support of a thing for their own definition, the thing will also color the described object. What if a green is a vert-chou or cabbage green, rather than a treasured émeraude? Or if instead of just yellow it is doré or as yellowish as a coquille d’oeuf? Do you picture them differently? The object so described then is not just given a chromatic trait and acquires a common or a precious extra quality. Proust is also aware of the most difficult colors to render artificially, those with an iridescent quality found in the rainbow and the tail of the peacock. They both fascinated the theoreticians in the middle Ages. The latter appropriately appears in the beautiful passage on the Combray gothic church and its stained glass windows. While the full rainbow colors Vinteuil’s violin sonata when it emerges again in full score and sound, and far from the Verdurins home, where the piece was played in a reduced format.

Like a painter, when Proust picks his colors he is very aware on the way they affect each other. He has his Narrator observing une image..... s’embellit et bénéficie du reflet des couleurs étrangères qui par hasard l’entourent dans notre rêverie. And again it is the color projected in the mind that stays in one’s memory, as the Narrator acknowledges that for him the black eyes of the blonde Gilberte are azur (p. 167). Furthermore, if color lives in one’s imagination, it can easily connect with other sensations such as sound. The last syllable of the name Guermantes acquires a distinct orange in the Narrator’s consciousness.

We are treading right into the World of Synesthesia.


But of course, there is no color without light. Some of the most beautiful passages deal with the sensation de la splendeur de la lumière. The description of the Combray church alluded above is one of the most brilliant episodes in which light shines. As he favors the Gothic sections of the church versus the Romanesque, the narrator adroitly selects light as it filters through the stained glass. As an informal pupil of Emile Mâle and longstanding admirer of mediaeval architecture, Proust knew well that the high vaults and elevated arches were built in their aspiration to receive divine illumination. Both theologians and masons devised together a new kind of temple that would make possible for godly wisdom to enlighten the earthly followers.

The divine source of illumination for Proust is, however, Art. And the Narrator’s first trial at writing takes place as he observes the effect of sunset on the three belfries in Martinville and as, in his enchantment, they appear to him as three flowers in a painting (p. 214).

Proust pays attention to all kinds of lights. Even artificial light, and in particular electricity in its modernity is contrasted to the gas lighting of earlier times. But unsurprisingly it is natural light, both from the sun and from the moon, which irradiates most resplendent from his text. I have collected many of these passages. Here is one of the nicest:

Le soleil ne se couchait pas encore… sa lumière qui s’abaissait et touchait la fenêtre, était arrêtée entre les grands rideaux et les embrasses, divisée, ramifiée, filtrée, et, incrustant de petits morceaux d’or le bois de citronnier de la commode, illuminait obliquement la chambre avec la délicatesse qu’elle prend dans les sous-bois (p 158-9).

The moon, less bright, invites for somewhat more veiled meanings. His clairs de lune clothe scenes with lyricism, as in:

Le clair de lune, qui doublant et reculant chaque chose par l’extension devant elle de son reflet, plus dense et concret qu’elle-même, avait à la fois aminci et agrandi le paysage comme un plan replié jusque-là, qu’on développe”( p. 44)

But moonlight can get dangerously close to kitsch as the aesthete Swann begins his descent into hellish vulgarity and he associates it to his visits at the rue de la Pérousse. And as the clair de lune illuminates love scenes, it also seems to ignite homosexual sparks, as in the foreboding dinner of the young Narrator at Legrandin’s, or later as Odette admits to some lesbian toying: “Elle m’a assuré qu’il n’y avait jamais eu un clair de lune pareil. Je lui ai dit “Cette blague!”.. je savais bien où elle voulait en venir”.


And when there is light, looking or regarder is possible. And Proust liked to look. He makes his Narrator a voyeur several times, in some instances as part of effective theatrical devices, but also in scenes that acquire the quality of a spectacle that goes beyond the strictly dramatic needs. Out of the two occasions in which the Narrator is spying at Vinteuil’s home, the second provides the impressionable youth with his first knowledge of sadisme, an inclination that we suspect will haunt him later in life and in the novel.

For looking is a way of possessing. And le regard or the gaze (as Lacan later examined) objectifies that which it captivates. The eyes of Mme de Guermantes enjoy freedom and independence as disengaged beings as they set out to explore what is there to be observed and, may be, appropriated.

“…ô merveilleuse indépendance des regards humains retenus au visage par une corde si lâche, si longue, si extensible, qu’ils peuvent se promener seuls loin de lui.....ses regards....comme un rayon de soleil qui....me sembla conscient. (p.207).

Eyes are often exalted for they are precious as their close name to jewels (yeux-joyeux) suggests. It is thanks to its last syllable that the name of the town Bayeux acquires brilliancy sa noble dentelle rougeâtre et dont le faîte était illuminé par le vieil or de sa dernière syllabe (p. 451)


The pictorial can also be attained without mentioning either colors or light. Flowers are bright chromatic alternatives. And as the literary Proust mentions the exemplary flora in Balzac’s writing he must have set himself to plant more buds in his literary garden. I reckon that Proust’s botany is the most varied collection in French literature. But the beauty does not emerge from the simple numbers (I have counted over forty different flowers) and their charming names. He is very picky for his cultivated bouquet and why he has chosen each specimen, “boutons d’or gardent un poétique éclat d’orient”.

In this first volume his very many flowers form different beds in different sections (les deux côtés ont des différentes fleurs). The most florid is found in the Méséglise area, where the capucines, bluets, primevères, pensées. giroflées, and of course, the legendary aubépines, blossom. On the Guermantes path the fluvial landscape conjures up the water-lilies and other aquatic plants. Later, Odette’s boudoir and clothes call for the oriental, exotic and seductive chrysanthèmes and the teasing catleyas, even if they also emit whiffs of vulgarity, which irritate Swann. And finally, some cities such as Parma are embodied in its Stendhalian violets or Florence in its Fleur de Lys (the latter is also a literary echo of Anatole France’s Le Lys Rouge).

Flowers form part of Proust’s vibrant palette. But thanks to their fragrance they acquire an additional depth. They symbolize. The hawthorns become the Narrator’s escaping childhood, the cattleyas promise heaven to Swann, and the trapped water lilies are a perfect demonstration of captivity. They can, however, also have a perverse side. Images of dissipate women conjure up venomous flowers intermingled with precious jewelry à la Gustave Moreau.


Reading Du côté gives the impression that Proust paints his novel with his pen on a panel. And I am not just referring to the very rich catalog of paintings that has led Erik Karpeles to produce his beautiful book
[b:Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time|3753149|Paintings in Proust A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time|Eric Karpeles|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348882774s/3753149.jpg|3797011]. I am referring to Proust’s way of looking and of writing.

Already his young Narrator is presented as a painter when he is observing his mother’s face as he tries to find the precise location where he wants to daub his kiss as if her face were a canvas. Some descriptions read like a transcribed text from an extant but unidentified painting. The depiction of the asparagus seems a conscious choice to paint Manet’s version but with text. Similarly, the passages describing the Guermantes pond and the aquatic plants unavoidably conjure up Monet’s water-lily series. Or the effects of light on the Parisian streets and balconies reflect Pissarro’s city views. I do no think that it is the reader’s doing to abstract these images from the text, but that it is the author who is craftily and specifically imaging his text for his viewers.

Pictorial conceptions abound, as when the Narrator examines the glass cabinets in the Hotel room in Balbec, on which une telle partie du tableau changeant de la mer, se reflétait, déroulant une frise de claires marines. (P. 445). Or, when the Narrator conceives the town of Florence as if it were an early medieval fresco in which there are two panels: in one, under an architectural canopy, there is a curtain of sunlight, while in the other he sees himself in the near future as he visits the town and crosses Ponte Vecchio, which inevitably is covered with “jonquilles, de narcisses et d’anémones”.

Light can be so powerful in this work, that it can even surpass the two-dimensions of the strictly pictorial and reach full plasticity as it becomes a sculptor:

Je traversais des futaies où la lumière du matin, qui leur imposait des divisions nouvelles, émondait les arbres, mariait ensemble les tiges diverses et composait des bouquets. Elle attirait adroitement à elle deux arbres; s'aidant du ciseau puissant du rayon et de l'ombre, elle retranchait à chacun une moitié de son tronc et de ses branches et, tressant ensemble les deux moitiés qui restaient, en faisait soit un seul pilier d'ombre que délimitait l'ensoleillement d'alentour, soit un seul fantôme de clarté dont un réseau d'ombre noire cernait le factice et tremblant contour (p. 491).

We see that in this novel the Narrator understands his world through representation. Art dresses and transforms reality. And this provides an aspect of Proust’s aesthetics. We see this poignantly in Swann’s ability to find parallels between paintings and people to the extent that not until he has wrapped the slightly vulgar Odette in Botticelli’s refined attire, does he fall in love with her.

Du côté de chez Swann comes across as a meditation of the representational powers of the mind. Whether we read about passionate and obsessive feelings, or memories of time foregone, or sensitivities to the natural world or observations on society circles, these are all phenomena that live necessarily inside someone’s mind, “…mais tous les sentiments que nous font éprouver la joie ou l’infortune d’un personnage réel ne se produisent en nous que par l’intermédiaire d’une image de cette joie ou de cette infortune”

But for this mental representation images are needed. And these have to be rich images, with resplendent colors, with sun- and moon-light, with evocative and fragrant flowers, and with a pictorial vivacity, if they are to be precious, effective and… memorable. Language, however, is not the best medium to render the visual. And yet Proust astoundingly succeeds in creating a literary palette which displays chromatisms in full blossom and projects all shades of luminosity.

Art is the guiding illumination that has made Proust the Abbé Suger of Literature.

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