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. 


  1. Yes, Proust's metaphors are marvelous -- and, as you say, at times very unexpected.

    I think one of the reasons Proust focuses so much on details (and absurdities) of society life is that he himself was a notorious social climber and snob. And yet, he's so well able to expose the absurdities of people like himself.

    1. Yeah.
      You know some philistines often complain that Tolstoy & Jane Austen just write about their own class, but I do think that, despite writing about characters of their class, Tolstoy & Jane Austen write about universal feelings & experiences, independent of class, whereas Proust writes a lot about the little games, rules, & pretensions specific to his class.

    2. One of Proust's techniques, though, was that at these parties he would spend time making friends with and hanging out with the servants. That's why his gossip was the good stuff. The actual Proust was not as snobby as his narrator.

    3. What else is the difference between Proust & the narrator?

    4. Apart from sexual orientation & stuff.

    5. Ha ha, don't want to spoil the ending! The differences between the narrator and author are in one sense what the ending is about.

      So many differences. The biggest one, besides the real Proust being gay and Jewish, is the existence of Robert Proust, the author's brother.


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