Thursday 27 October 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: Proust’s method of characterisation

Before I picked up Proust, one of my preconceptions or expectations was that he would enter his characters’ heads and inhabit their minds. 

Turns out, he doesn’t. Proust’s characters are mostly seen from the outside, making him more like Jane Austen, Dickens, Cao Xueqin… than Tolstoy, Henry James, George Eliot, Flaubert, Murasaki Shikibu… I’m about 4/5 of my way through Within a Budding Grove and so far, apart from the narrator’s, we only know Swann’s thoughts, and he is similar to the narrator’s—Swann’s obsession with Odette is later mirrored by his obsession with Gilberte and Albertine.

Proust however adds life, adds depth to his characters in different ways. His characters appear real and multifaceted because Proust depicts them from different angles, in different environments, in different roles. 

For example, when we first see Swann, he’s a friend of the narrator’s family, a guest who interrupts the goodnight kiss ritual, a man who never seems to speak his real opinions, and so on. Then we see Swann in society, with other people, and see Swann in love, obsessive, jealous, pathetic. Then we see Swann as the father of Gilberte, when the narrator becomes infatuated with her. At that point in Volume 1 and at the beginning of Volume 2, Swann appears as a barrier between the narrator and his object of desire, no longer a friend of the family, but he appears different again when the narrator starts frequenting their house and having tea with Gilberte. 

It’s the same with Odette Swann, née de Crécy: we see her differently as a courtesan, as the lady in pink, as the woman who holds Swann captivated and torments him, as Mme Swann, and as the mother of Gilberte. The narrator sees her differently in these different roles, and thus gets us to see her differently. 

He also says: 

“… A consultant more discerning than M. de Norpois would doubtless have been able to diagnose that it was this feeling of shame and humiliation that had embittered Odette, that the infernal temper she displayed was not an essential part of her nature, was not an incurable disease, and so would easily have foretold what had indeed come to pass, namely that a new regimen, that of matrimony, would put an end with almost magic swiftness to those painful incidents, of daily occurrence but in no sense organic.” (Vol.2, P.1) 

That is interesting. 

Proust lets his characters unfold over time, through different roles, and sometimes drops a surprising detail, such as Elstir’s portrait. Placed next to Proust, many writers would appear quite crude—for instance, Cao Xueqin’s characters, except Wang Xifeng, are generally quite consistent, in different circles and towards different people (though the interesting question that arises is: how does Cao Xueqin still make his characters feel so believable, so real?). 

Proust doesn’t always have to portray the characters in different roles, he can remove the layers and let his characters unfold over time: in an earlier blog post about Swann’s Way, I have written about Françoise and aunt Léonie. Françoise continues to unfold in Volume 2, when they’re at Balbec:  

“… Françoise—who on the day of her arrival, when she still did not know anyone, would set all the bells jangling for the slightest thing, at hours when my grandmother and I would never have dared to ring, and if we offered some gentle admonition would answer: “Well, we’re paying enough for it, aren’t we?” as though it were she herself that would have to pay—now that she had made friends with a personage in the kitchen, which had appeared to us to augur well for our future comfort, were my grandmother or I to complain of cold feet, Françoise, even at an hour that was quite normal, dared not ring, assuring us that it would give offence because they would have to relight the boilers, or because it would interrupt the servants’ dinner and they would be annoyed. And she ended with a formula that, in spite of the dubious way in which she pronounced it, was none the less clear and put us plainly in the wrong: “The fact is …” We did not insist, for fear of bringing upon ourselves another, far more serious: “It’s a bit much …!” So that what it amounted to was that we could no longer have any hot water because Françoise had become a friend of the person who heated it.” (Vol.2, P.2) 

Françoise is probably the most delightful character in In Search of Lost Time (is it too early to say?). 

“She had presently, with respect to Saint-Loup, whom she worshipped, a disillusionment of a different kind and of shorter duration: she discovered that he was a Republican. For although, when speaking for instance of the Queen of Portugal, she would say with that disrespect which is, among the people, the supreme form of respect: “Amélie, Philippe’s sister,” Françoise was a Royalist. But above all a marquis, a marquis who had dazzled her at first sight, and who was for the Republic, seemed no longer real. And it aroused in her the same ill-humour as if I had given her a box which she had believed to be made of gold, and had thanked me for it effusively, and then a jeweller had revealed to her that it was only plated. She at once withdrew her esteem from Saint-Loup, but soon afterwards restored it to him, having reflected that he could not, being the Marquis de Saint-Loup, be a Republican, that he was just pretending, out of self-interest, for with the Government we had it might be a great advantage to him. From that moment her coldness towards him and her resentment towards me ceased. And when she spoke of Saint-Loup she said: “He’s a hypocrite,” with a broad and kindly smile which made it dear that she “considered” him again just as much as when she first knew him, and that she had forgiven him.” (ibid.) 

(This is, I can’t help saying, my favourite Proust: funny Proust, comedy of manners Proust). 

Proust’s characters also appear multifaceted because he depicts them through the eyes of different characters. 

For example, this is the Princesse de Luxembourg: 

“… I saw, in the distance, coming in our direction, the Princesse de Luxembourg, half leaning upon a parasol in such a way as to impart to her tall and wonderful form that slight inclination, to make it trace that arabesque, so dear to the women who had been beautiful under the Empire and knew how, with drooping shoulders, arched backs, concave hips and taut legs, to make their bodies float as softly as a silken scarf about the rigid armature of an invisible shaft which might be supposed to have transfixed it.” (ibid.) 

This is how the judge’s wife sees her at Balbec:

““Just listen to this. A woman with yellow hair and six inches of paint on her face and a carriage which reeked of harlot a mile away—which only a creature like that would dare to have—came here today to call on the so-called Marquise!”” (ibid.) 

Especially interesting is the way he introduces Charlus. I wonder if Proust has calculated that In Search of Lost Time would get to the point of being so well-known that most people picking it up would have heard of the name Charlus and had some preconceptions about him, that he introduces him under a different name and surprises us later: 

“Saint-Loup told me that even in the most exclusive aristocratic society his uncle Palamède stood out as being particularly unapproachable, scornful, obsessed with his nobility, forming with his brother’s wife and a few other chosen spirits what was known as the Phoenix Club.” (ibid.) 

Robert de Saint-Loup also says: 

““One day, a man who is now one of the brightest luminaries of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, as Balzac would have said, but who at a rather unfortunate stage of his early life displayed bizarre tastes, asked my uncle to let him come to this place. But no sooner had he arrived than it was not to the ladies but to my uncle Palamède that he began to make overtures. My uncle pretended not to understand, and took his two friends aside on some pretext or other. They reappeared on the scene, seized the offender, stripped him, thrashed him till he bled, and then in ten degrees of frost kicked him outside where he was found more dead than alive; so much so that the police started an inquiry which the poor devil had the greatest difficulty in getting them to abandon…”” (ibid.) 

One can’t help thinking back of that passage when one later realises that uncle Palamède and Baron de Charlus are the same person. 

This is the first time (or is it?) the narrator meets Saint-Loup’s uncle: 

“… I turned my head and saw a man of about forty, very tall and rather stout, with a very black moustache, who, nervously slapping the leg of his trousers with a switch, was staring at me, his eyes dilated with extreme attentiveness. From time to time these eyes were shot through by a look of restless activity such as the sight of a person they do not know excites only in men in whom, for whatever reason, it inspires thoughts that would not occur to anyone else—madmen, for instance, or spies. He darted a final glance at me that was at once bold, prudent, rapid and profound, like a last shot which one fires at an enemy as one turns to flee, and, after first looking all round him, suddenly adopting an absent and lofty air, with an abrupt revolution of his whole person he turned towards a playbill in the reading of which he became absorbed, while he hummed a tune and fingered the moss-rose in his button-hole.” (ibid.) 


“He gave me the impression of a hotel crook who, having been watching my grandmother and myself for some days, and planning to rob us, had just discovered that I had caught him in the act of spying on me. Perhaps he was only seeking by his new attitude to express abstractedness and detachment in order to put me off the scent, but it was with an exaggeration so aggressive that his object appeared to be—at least as much as the dissipating of the suspicions he might have aroused in me—to avenge a humiliation which I must unwillingly have inflicted on him, to give me the idea not so much that he had not seen me as that I was an object of too little importance to attract his attention. He threw back his shoulders with an air of bravado, pursed his lips, twisted his moustache, and adjusted his face into an expression that was at once indifferent, harsh, and almost insulting. So much so that I took him at one moment for a thief and at another for a lunatic.” (ibid.) 

That whole passage sounds very much like something out of Dostoyevsky.

Charlus is fascinating, I expect him to become more fascinating as we follow him throughout the 7 volumes. 

In In Search of Lost Time, Proust continually makes the point that we can never truly know another person: the narrator doesn’t know Gilberte, Swann doesn’t know Odette, nobody truly knows anybody. So he doesn’t convey anyone’s thoughts (he enters Swann’s mind in Volume 1, only when Swann is in love, but doesn’t in Volume 2), and all the characters are seen from the outside—through the eyes of the narrator or other characters.

But they’re all complex, multifaceted, and forever capable of surprising us. They feel utterly real. 

Thursday 13 October 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: “like those apparently inanimate objects in a Persian fairy-tale”

I wonder if any reader never gets tired, frustrated, or annoyed reading Proust. There must be an ideal reader out there, savouring every page of Proust as I did with War and Peace or Moby Dick. Much as I enjoy and often blog about visual details, I sometimes can’t help getting impatient when Proust spends pages describing the furniture and flowers in the Swanns’ house and garden, or detailing Mme Swann’s clothes and change of fashion. One drowns in a sea of details, often trivial.

Proust, and thus his narrator, is highly sensitive. My temperament is different. 

“I was left alone there in the company of orchids, roses and violets, which, like people waiting beside you who do not know you, preserved a silence which their individuality as living things made all the more striking, and warmed themselves in the heat of a glowing coal fire, preciously ensconced behind a crystal screen, in a basin of white marble over which it spilled from time to time its dangerous rubies.” (Vol.2, P.1) 

Fortunately I don’t just read for the “reading experience”, so it’s interesting to see what Proust’s doing. The narrator compares the orchids, roses, and violets to “people waiting beside you who do not know you”, and many pages later, comes back to the same idea of the flowers as living, sentient beings. 

“There was always beside her chair an immense crystal bowl filled to the brim with Parma violets or with long white daisy-petals floating in the water, which seemed to testify, in the eyes of the arriving guest, to some favourite occupation now interrupted, as would also have been the cup of tea which Mme Swann might have been drinking there alone for her own pleasure; an occupation more intimate still and more mysterious, so much so that one wanted to apologise on seeing the flowers exposed there by her side, as one would have apologised for looking at the title of the still open book which would have revealed to one Odette’s recent reading and hence perhaps her present thoughts. And even more than the book, the flowers were living things; one was embarrassed, when one entered the room to pay Mme Swann a visit, to discover that she was not alone, or if one came home with her, not to find the room empty, so enigmatic a place, intimately associated with hours in the life of their mistress of which one knew nothing, did those flowers assume, those flowers which had not been arranged for Odette’s visitors but, as it were forgotten there by her, had held and would hold with her again intimate talks which one was afraid of disturbing, the secret of which one tried in vain to read by staring at the washed-out, liquid, mauve and dissolute colour of the Parma violets.” (ibid.) 

He has an interesting, unusual way of looking at things. This, for example, is how he writes about a stool:  

“When, after lunch, we went to drink our coffee in the sunshine of the great bay window of the drawing-room, as Mme Swann was asking me how many lumps of sugar I took, it was not only the silk-covered stool which she pushed towards me that exuded, together with the agonising charm that I had long ago discerned—first among the pink hawthorn and then beside the clump of laurels—in the name of Gilberte, the hostility that her parents had shown to me and which this little piece of furniture seemed to have so well understood and shared that I felt myself unworthy and found myself almost reluctant to set my feet on its defenceless cushion; a personality, a soul was latent there which linked it secretly to the afternoon light, so different from any other light in the gulf which spread beneath our feet its sparkling tide of gold out of which the bluish sofas and vaporous tapestries emerged like enchanted islands…” (ibid.) 

This passage about a stool doesn’t just show the narrator’s hypersensitivity, but also lets us see his obsession with Gilberte and his reverence for anyone and anything related to Gilberte. 

But my favourite part, at least so far, about furniture in Within a Budding Grove is about a few pieces of furniture, including a big sofa, that he inherited from his aunt Léonie and then gives to a brothel as presents: 

“I used never to see them, for want of space had prevented my parents from taking them in at home, and they were stored in a warehouse. But as soon as I saw them again in the house where these women were putting them to their own uses, all the virtues that pervaded my aunt’s room at Combray at once appeared to me, tortured by the cruel contact to which I had abandoned them in their defencelessness! Had I outraged the dead, I would not have suffered such remorse. I returned no more to visit their new mistress, for they seemed to me to be alive and to be appealing to me, like those apparently inanimate objects in a Persian fairy-tale, in which imprisoned human souls are undergoing martyrdom and pleading for deliverance.” (ibid.) 

In the book, we can see that the narrator is rather careless about the items he inherited from Aunt Léonie, selling “a magnificent set of old silver plate” just to send orchids to Mme Swann and later “a big vase of old Chinese porcelain” just so “every day, for a whole year, [he] could smother Gilberte in roses and lilac”, so here he gives away his late aunt’s furniture to a brothel. But the moment he sees the furniture “tortured by the cruel contact to which I had abandoned them in their defencelessness”, he sees them differently. 

The fascinating part, however, is that Proust doesn’t end there. Our memory, he says, doesn’t present things chronologically.

“… I remembered only long afterwards that it was upon that same sofa that, many years before, I had tasted for the first time the delights of love with one of my girl cousins, with whom I had not known where to go until she somewhat rashly suggested our taking advantage of a moment in which aunt Léonie had left her room.” (ibid.) 

Now we see the sofa differently. 

This is Proust’s technique: he depicts a thing, or a person, from different angles, gets us to perceive it/ him/ her in different ways, and transforms the object or person. 

These passages come from the translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright. 

Saturday 8 October 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: facial expressions

It’s fascinating to see how Proust describes facial expressions:

“… M. de Norpois, while anything was being expounded to him, would preserve a facial immobility as absolute as if you had been addressing some ancient—and deaf—bust in a museum. Until suddenly, falling upon you like an auctioneer’s hammer or a Delphic oracle, the Ambassador’s voice, as he replied to you, would be all the more striking in that nothing in his face had allowed you to guess what sort of impression you had made on him, or what opinion he was about to express.” (Vol.2, P.1) 


“… But the absolute control over his facial muscles to which M. de Norpois had attained allowed him to listen without seeming to hear a word. At length my father became uneasy: “I had thought,” he ventured, after an endless preamble, “of asking the advice of the Commission …” Then from the face of the noble virtuoso, who had maintained the passivity of an orchestral player whose moment has not yet come, there emerged with an even delivery, on a sharp note, and as though they were no more than the completion (but scored for a different voice) of the phrase that my father had begun, the words…” (ibid.)

Nothing escapes him. 

“… replied the Ambassador with a slyness veiled by good-humour, casting round the table a glance the gentleness and discretion of which appeared to be tempering while in reality intensifying its malice.” (ibid.)

That is still M. de Norpois. I also note his language, his choice of words when he talks about the Comte de Paris and Madame Swann: “a little episode which is not unintriguing”, “his impression of her had on the whole been far from unfavourable”, “are as often as not the last to let themselves be embarrassed by the decrees of popular opinion”, etc. (my emphasis)

All these double negatives show that M. de Norpois seems very careful and particular about every single word he utters, that he talks like a diplomat even in informal settings. One of the problems with reading Proust in translation is that I can’t tell how well he conveys the different voices—some of it must be lost. In this case, I can see something in the language. 

But then the narrator’s mother asks M. de Norpois about his own impression of Madame Swann: 

“All the vigour of an old connoisseur broke through the habitual moderation of his speech as he answered: “Quite excellent!”

And knowing that the admission that a strong impression has been made on one by a woman takes its place, provided that one makes it in a playful tone, in a certain form of the art of conversation that is highly appreciated, he broke into a little laugh that lasted for several moments, moistening the old diplomat’s blue eyes and making his nostrils, with their network of tiny scarlet veins, quiver. “She is altogether charming!”” (ibid.) 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember having encountered any writer describing the quivering of a character’s nostrils, “with their network of tiny scarlet veins”. The only nose I remember is Gogol’s “The Nose”, but that’s different. 

Later, the narrator asks M. de Norpois about the Swanns (as a way of asking about Gilberte):  

“… I had seen flitting across the face of the Ambassador an expression of hesitation and displeasure, and in his eyes that vertical, narrow, slanting look (like, in the drawing of a solid body in perspective, the receding line of one of its surfaces), that look which one addresses to the invisible interlocutor whom one has within oneself at the moment when one is telling him something that one’s other interlocutor, the person to whom one has been talking up till then—myself, in this instance—is not meant to hear.” (ibid.) 

I have always liked subtlety, but Proust is particularly perceptive and sensitive.

However, sometimes what I see in Proust is not the perception of a sharp-eyed novelist but rather the perception of an over-sensitive, insecure, and obsessive person, who overthinks, tries to decipher the meaning of every little detail, and obsesses over the most trivial of things. Perhaps I’m not explaining myself very well, but in most of the passages above (except the last), the narrator is depicting the facial expressions in a detached way, as an amused observer, but in the last passage, he’s no longer detached—he puts lots of hopes on M. de Norpois mentioning his name to the Swanns and perhaps helping him enter the house, but then he makes a blunder and messes up his chance. 

This is another description that is not detached: 

“It was when she had been to her classes, when she must go home for some lesson, that Gilberte’s pupils executed that movement which, in the past, in Odette’s eyes, had been caused by the fear of disclosing that she had opened the door that day to one of her lovers, or was at that moment in a hurry to get to some assignation.” (ibid.) 

It makes me think of Proust’s description of a shift in M. Legrandin’s pupils in Swann’s Way

“But, at the sound of the name Guermantes, I saw in the middle of each of our friend’s blue eyes a little brown nick appear, as though they had been stabbed by some invisible pin-point, while the rest of the pupil reacted by secreting the azure overflow. His fringed eyelids darkened and drooped. His mouth, set in a bitter grimace, was the first to recover, and smiled, while his eyes remained full of pain, like the eyes of a handsome martyr whose body bristles with arrows.” (Vol.1, P.1) 

This is however a detached description from an amused observer. The level of detail makes it feel like an exaggeration (or is it?). 

These passages come from the translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright. 

It’s a good thing that Proust switches between different modes and different tones. I feel weary whenever the narrator writes about obsession—Swann’s obsession with Odette in Swann’s Way and now the narrator’s anxiety about Gilberte—and when Proust starts generalising about love, I get even wearier and just think “no, not everyone’s like you”.

But I may get back to this subject.

Friday 7 October 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: Bergotte and genius

The narrator’s first meeting with his childhood hero and favourite writer Bergotte must be one of the most interesting sequences in Within a Budding Grove, perhaps in all of In Search of Lost Time

“… there, in front of me, like one of those conjurers whom we see standing whole and unharmed, in their frock-coats, in the smoke of a pistol shot out of which a pigeon had just fluttered, my greeting was returned by a youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man, with a red nose curled like a snail-shell and a goatee beard.” (Vol.2, P.1) 

We have heard of the name Bergotte in Swann’s Way, and heard M. de Norpois’s impression of him at the beginning of Within a Budding Grove, but don’t see him till the narrator finally meets him at the Swanns’. 

“… Starting from them, I should never have arrived at that snail-shell nose; but starting from the nose, which did not appear to be in the slightest degree ashamed of itself, but stood out alone there like a grotesque ornament fastened on his face, I found myself proceeding in a totally different direction from the work of Bergotte, and must arrive, it would seem, at the mentality of a busy and preoccupied engineer, of the sort who when you accost them in the street think it correct to say: “Thanks, and you?” before you have actually inquired of them how they are…” (ibid.) 

Proust is hilarious! 

Then Proust—or the narrator—spends pages writing about the differences between Bergotte the writer and Bergotte the person in real life, and analysing the nature of literary genius. 

“… genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them.” (ibid.)

George Eliot is undeniably more intellectual, but I think Jane Austen and Emily Bronte are both better writers.

“Similarly, the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected. The day on which the young Bergotte succeeded in showing to the world of his readers the tasteless household in which he had spent his childhood, and the not very amusing conversations between himself and his brothers, was the day on which he rose above the friends of his family, more intellectual and more distinguished than himself…” (ibid.) 

Part of me thinks Proust has a point, but part of me feels uneasy. 

This is how M. de Norpois describes Bergotte: 

““… Ah! there’s a man who justifies the wit who insisted that one ought never to know an author except through his books. It would be impossible to imagine an individual who corresponded less to his—more pretentious, more pompous, more ill-bred. Vulgar at times, at others talking like a book, and not even like one of his own, but like a boring book, which his, to do them justice, are not—such is your Bergotte. He has the most confused and convoluted mind…”” (ibid.) 

We later see how ill-bred he is: 

“The malice with which Bergotte spoke thus to a stranger of the friends in whose house he had for so long been received as a welcome guest was as new to me as the almost tender tone he invariably adopted towards them in their presence.” (ibid.) 

Can a pretentious, pompous, ill-bred, vulgar, and boring person be a literary genius? The great writers I love, as far as I know (I mean, hear from other people), were not vulgar or boring. I can more readily accept a great writer being cruel and selfish in real life, than them being pompous, vulgar, or boring.

It also makes me wonder: people have often said that Bergotte is based on Anatole France, or at least the meeting is based on young Proust’s disappointing meeting with Anatole France. Are these lines about him? Was Anatole France like this? I can’t say. But if they are, Anatole France’s reputation has greatly fallen—nobody talks about him now, I doubt he’s even big in his home country—so the writer Proust calls a literary genius, in spite of dullness and lack of intellect, is not really a genius after all. 

The next part is also interesting: 

“As for those other vices to which M. de Norpois had alluded, that almost incestuous love affair, which was made still worse, people said, by a want of delicacy in the matter of money, if they contradicted in a shocking manner the trend of his latest novels […] those vices did not necessarily prove, supposing that they were fairly imputed to Bergotte, that his literature was a lie and all his sensitiveness mere play-acting.” (ibid.)

Here Proust discusses the questions that have bothered people for years: why were some writers who showed such humanity, such sensitivity and compassion and understanding in their novels such assholes in real life? 

“It is the vices (or merely the weaknesses and follies) of the circle in which they live, the meaningless conversation, the frivolous or shocking lives of their daughters, the infidelity of their wives, or their own misdeeds that writers have most often castigated in their books, without, however, thinking to alter their way of life or improve the tone of their household.” (ibid.) 

He goes further: 

“Perhaps the more the great writer developed in Bergotte at the expense of the little man with the beard, the more his own personal life was drowned in the flood of all the lives that he imagined, until he no longer felt himself obliged to perform certain practical duties, for which he had substituted the duty of imagining those other lives. But at the same time, because he imagined the feelings of others as completely as if they had been his own, whenever the occasion arose for him to have to deal with an unfortunate person, at least in a transitory way, he would do so not from his own personal standpoint but from that of the sufferer himself, a standpoint from which he would have been horrified by the language of those who continue to think of their own petty concerns in the presence of another’s grief. With the result that he gave rise everywhere to justifiable rancour and to undying gratitude.” (ibid.) 

I think he’s right.

I see this post as a starting point, so tell me your thoughts! Discuss! Argue!

Saturday 1 October 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: society and Proust’s extended metaphors

I love the metaphors in Proust.

Look at this passage in Within a Budding Grove, when the narrator writes about Professor Cottard: 

“… we must bear in mind that the character which a man exhibits in the latter half of his life is not always, though it often is, his original character developed or withered, attenuated or enlarged; it is sometimes the exact reverse, like a garment that has been turned.” (Vol.2, P.1) 

At some point I will discuss the way Proust writes characters, maybe, but I like that garment simile.

This is the narrator going to the Swanns’ to visit Gilberte: 

“Meanwhile, on those tea-party days, pulling myself up the staircase step by step, reason and memory already cast off like outer garments, and myself no more now than the sport of the basest reflexes, I would arrive in the zone in which the scent of Mme Swann greeted my nostrils.” (ibid.) 

I like that.

This is another garment simile, when he buys a photograph of the famous opera singer Berma, whom he finds neither beautiful nor a magnificent singer as he’s been told:  

“The wholesale admiration which that artist excited gave an air of slight impoverishment to this one face that she had to respond with, immutable and precarious like the garments of people who have none “spare,” this face on which she must continually expose to view only the tiny dimple upon her upper lip, the arch of her eyebrows, and a few other physical characteristics, always the same, which, after all, were at the mercy of a burn or a blow. This face, moreover, would not in itself have seemed to me beautiful, but it gave me the idea and consequently the desire to kiss it, by reason of all the kisses that it must have sustained and for which, from its page in the album, it seemed still to be appealing with that coquettishly tender gaze, that artfully ingenuous smile.” (ibid.)

Now that is a rather strange simile, no? I find it strange. 

Sometimes Proust has extended metaphors: 

“And as though she found a similarity between the somewhat summary, rapid, and violent manner in which Mme Swann conquered her new connections and a colonial expedition, Mamma went on to observe: “Now that the Tromberts have been subdued, the neighbouring tribes will soon surrender.” If she had passed Mme Swann in the street, she would tell us when she came home: “I saw Mme Swann in all her war-paint; she must have been embarking on some triumphant offensive against the Massachutoes, or the Singhalese, or the Tromberts.” And so with all the new people whom I told her that I had seen in that somewhat composite and artificial society, to which they had often been brought with some difficulty and from widely different worlds, Mamma would at once divine their origin, and, speaking of them as of trophies dearly bought, would say: “Brought back from the expedition against the so-and-so!”” (ibid.) 

“Colonial expedition”, “tribes”, “war-paint”, “offensive”, “trophies”: throughout the entire passage, Proust expands on the expedition metaphor.

The Swanns, the narrator tells us, “shared this failing of people who are not much sought after”: a visit or invitation from anyone prominent is loudly publicised. 

“The Swanns were incapable even of keeping to themselves the complimentary letters and telegrams received by Odette. […] Thus the Swanns’ drawing-room was reminiscent of a seaside hotel where telegrams are posted up on a board.” (ibid.) 

It is rather pathetic, and Proust makes it appear more ridiculous as the narrator’s mother compares the “conquests” to war and expedition. Then he switches to another extended metaphor: 

“… a great deal of the pleasure which a woman finds in entering a class of society different from that in which she has previously lived would be lacking if she had no means of keeping her old associates informed of those others, relatively more brilliant, with whom she has replaced them. For this, she requires an eye-witness who may be allowed to penetrate this new, delicious world (as a buzzing, browsing insect bores its way into a flower) and will then, so it is hoped, as the course of her visits may carry her, spread abroad the tidings, the latent germ of envy and of wonder.” (ibid.)

That is why Madame Swann invites the boring Madame Cottard. Proust expands some more on the pollination metaphor:  

“She knew what a vast number of bourgeois calyxes that busy worker, armed with her plume and card-case, could visit in a single afternoon. She knew her power of pollination…” (ibid.) 

Like Tolstoy, Proust notices everything and sees through everything. But Proust goes further than Tolstoy in dissecting and analysing the rules, the little games in high society. Perhaps French society in Proust’s time is more subtle, more snobbish and complicated? Or perhaps Proust is more interested in all the social games, the mores, the different circles, the hypocrisies and pretensions—Tolstoy after all doesn’t like high society. 

For example, the narrator writes that in his early childhood, no respectable salon would have opened its doors to a Republican. But the rules about whom to exclude change over time. 

“... like a kaleidoscope which is every now and then given a turn, society arranges successively in different orders elements which one would have supposed immutable, and composes a new pattern. […] These new arrangements of the kaleidoscope are produced by what a philosopher would call a “change of criterion.” The Dreyfus case brought about another, at a period rather later than that in which I began to go to Mme Swann’s, and the kaleidoscope once more reversed its coloured lozenges.” (ibid.)

This is another extended metaphor. Proust starts with the kaleidoscope image then talks about changes in society, the different circles, the perceptions of Odette/ Madame Swann in society, and so on for pages, then returns to the metaphor: 

“To return to the reasons which prevented Odette, at this period, from gaining admittance to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, it must be observed that the latest turn of the social kaleidoscope had been actuated by a series of scandals.” (ibid.) 

It is a rather unusual metaphor—I tend to associate kaleidoscopes with light and colours—but it works. 

My copy is the translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright.