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.