French literary anniversaries, part 4 – Du côté de chez Swann
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
If literary anniversaries matter at all – and we do seem to be quite keen on them at the TLS – then this week offers a humdinger: the birth of a book rather than an author. November 14, 1913 saw the publication of Du côté de chez Swann. Had that been the end of Proust’s literary career it still would have earned him a place in French literary history, so compellingly strange and original a work was it. But there were a further seven volumes to come, of course, 3,800 pages in all. Readers had to wait until 1919 for the appearance of the second part, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs – as the anonymous TLS reviewer wrote at the time, “Those who remember the first volume, and who appreciated its qualities, will be happy to know that the cessation of the war has permitted the publication of this work to continue”. (Only four of the eight volumes would be published by the time of Proust’s death at 51 in 1922.)
The groundwork for much of the novel is done in its first part: many of the principal characters are introduced and by the end of it we already feel we know well Charles Swann, Odette de Crécy – not to mention members of the Narrator’s family and of course the cook and housekeeper Françoise; we have also heard much about the Guermantes and Charlus who will come into the picture more fully later. Both the structure and content of the work were already in the author’s mind – as Adam Watt writes in the TLS this week, “the closing chapter of its final volume [was] written immediately after the opening chapter of the first” – all Proust had to do was get it down on paper. Easy!
As is well known, André Gide turned the novel down for the Nouvelle Revue Française, thinking it, on the evidence of the sections he skimmed, the work of a snobbish dilettante – a decision he was to regret for the rest of his life (and a lesson to all publishers’ readers maybe); by 1918, he was writing in his Journal of “Proust’s marvellous book, which I was rereading”, almost as if in a quest for private redemption for his earlier misjudgement.
Something for the typesetters to work on: proofs of Du côté de chez Swann (note the working title, "Intermittences . . . ")
Fortunately another publisher, Bernard Grasset, stepped in. William Carter writes in his mammoth and invaluable Marcel Proust (2002) that Grasset regarded the publication of Proust’s work as a “business deal” and had tried to read it “but found it impenetrable”. He told a friend “it’s unreadable; the author paid the publishing costs”.
On the eve of publication Proust set out his artistic credo in Le Temps: “Je ne publie qu’un volume, Du côté de chez Swann, d’un roman qui aura pour titre général A la recherche du temps perdu. J’aurais voulu publier le tout ensemble; mais on n’édite plus d’ouvrages en plusieurs volumes. Je suis comme quelqu’un qui a une tapisserie trop grande pour les appartements actuels et qui a été obligé de la couper” (“ . . . I would have liked to have published the whole thing together, but works are no longer published several volumes at a time. I am like somebody who has a wall hanging too big for the intended rooms and who has been obliged to cut it up”). He points out that his novel “is dominated by the distinction between involuntary and voluntary memory” and goes on to stress that the “Je”, i.e. the Narrator, of the novel is not him, before concluding “The pleasure that an artist gives us, is to introduce us to another universe” – "Le plaisir que nous donne un artiste, c'est de nous faire connaître un univers de plus". He must have known these words could be fully applied to his own forthcoming work.
The first print run was of 1,750 copies, with a number of those going to friends. Among early favourable responses, according to Carter, was that of the Venezuelan-born composer of exquisite songs Reynaldo Hahn, Proust’s one-time lover, who wrote to “Mme Duglé, Charles Gounod’s niece” on November 21: “Proust’s book is not a masterpiece if by masterpiece one means a perfect thing with an irreproachable design. But it is without a doubt (and here my friendship plays no part) the finest book to appear since L’Éducation sentimentale. From the first line a great genius reveals itself and since this opinion one day will be universal, we must get used to it at once”.
The editor of the Figaro’s literary supplement, Francis Chevassu, wrote “an unfavourable account of Swann’s Way in the December 8 issue” (in Carter’s words), acknowledging it as “highly original”, but criticizing it for an absence of plot (not a word helpfully applied to Proust). But Chevassu goes on to say, sensibly: “You must read M. Marcel Proust’s book slowly because it is dense”. Proust dedicated the book to Gaston Calmette, editor of the Figaro, to which he had contributed numerous articles (Calmette was assassinated in March 1914).
It’s gratifying to report that the TLS review was both prompt and favourable. Carter again: “The drama critic of the Times, Arthur Bingham Walkley, wrote a long anonymous piece in the December 13 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Walkley found similarities between Swann’s Way and Henry James’s A Small Boy and What Maisie Knew . . . . This was a ‘fascinating book’, one whose weaknesses and strengths accorded admirably with the spirit of our times” (whatever that means). Carter tells us that Edith Wharton sent James a copy of the novel, “but it is not certain whether [he] ever read it”.
Carter reveals that in Italy the “writer and critic Renato Manganelli, using the pseudonym Lucio d’Ambra, advised his readers in the Rassegna contemporanea to ‘remember this name and remember this title’ . . . . Proust’s novel was rapidly acquiring many foreign admirers”. At home meanwhile, Cocteau was among those to hail it as a “masterpiece”. The novel had “at least nineteen reviews, notices, and reprints in newspapers – sometimes paid – of favourable reviews . . .” (Proust wasn’t above using his charm and persuasion to try to place reviews).
Lydia Davis, in a translator’s introduction to her 2002 Penguin version The Way by Swann’s, talks of how “many moments [in the book] are . . . so well known that they occupy a permanent place in our literary culture”: the narrator being denied a goodnight kiss by his mother; the dunking of the madeleine in a cup of tea, which calls up involuntary memory, the two paths at Combray . . . . To those who are tempted to identify the Narrator, who is after all called Marcel, with Proust (easily done), Davis says, “this novel is not autobiography wearing a thin disguise of fiction but . . . fiction in the guise of autobiography”; and there are scenes in it which the Narrator could not possibly have been present at, as Proust plays radically with time perspectives.
Interestingly, Davis pays generous tribute to C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s original translation (the first volume of which, Swann’s Way, was completed in the author’s lifetime – the English title caused him anguish as, with his less than perfect English he understood it to mean “Swann’s manner”). She praises Moncrieff’s “sensitive” ear and “adroit handling of the language”. Her own version strikes me as excellent: unadorned, confident and alert to nuance. In compiling useful notes she says that she consulted the biographies of Carter, the Proust scholar Jean-Yves Tadié and George Painter, as well as Edmund White’s short breezy book.
Painter’s two-volume Life (1959 and 65) has rightly been criticized for its overconfident and too literal identification of characters in Proust’s novel with real people. Gabriel Josipovici, writing in the TLS in 1996 (while reviewing the French edition of Tadié’s huge biography), suggested that it “turned Proust’s life into a middle-brow novel” and led some people to think it “was a more than adequate substitute” for the novel itself. But it should be said that Painter completed a huge amount of original research and that, in among the society gossip and fripperies, he delivers many valuable insights. Of course talk of the author having “migrated to the Cities of the Plain”, of “his awakening perversion” or of “the guilt of his Jewish blood” reads absurdly now, but his book is full of amusing anecdotes: at a dinner given by Mme Aubernon, the hostess asks the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio to talk about love: “‘Read my books, madam, and let me get on with my food’”.
I recently reread Du côté de chez Swann and was struck by just how much I’d forgotten, so profuse is the detail, beginning with Proust’s handsome dedication to his Figaro editor: “A monsieur Gaston Calmette comme un témoignage de profonde et affectueuse reconnaissance” (“as a token of profound and affectionate gratitude”).
Already on p61 (Folio edition) the Narrator is talking about “l’édifice immense du souvenir” (“the immense edifice of memory” in Lydia Davis’s version).
One of the first of many wonderful passages on reading also occurs early on: “Beaux après-midi du dimanche sous le marronnier du jardin de Combray, soigneusement vidés par moi des incidents médiocres de mon existence personnelle que j’y avais remplacés par une vie d’aventures et d’aspirations étranges au sein d’un pays arrosé d’eaux vives, . . . ” (“Lovely Sunday afternoons under the chestnut tree in the garden at Combray, carefully emptied by me of the ordinary incidents of my own existence, which I had replaced by a life of foreign adventures and foreign aspirations in the heart of a country washed by running waters”).
Perhaps the single most charming moment in the whole novel occurs on p120: the Narrator (not yet ten years old at this point) is disturbed in his afternoon reading by Swann, who is paying one of his regular visits to the family house in Combray; on encountering the boy as he sits in the garden reading a novel by Bergotte (a friend of Swann’s), he offers to have the book signed.
“Je n’osai pas accepter, mais posait à Swann des questions sur Bergotte. ‘Est-ce que vous pourriez me dire quel est l’acteur qu’il préfère ?’
– L’acteur, je ne sais pas. Mais je sais qu’il n’égale aucun artiste homme à la Berma qu’il met au-dessus de tout. L’avez-vous entendue?
– Non, Monsieur, mes parents ne me permettent pas d’aller au théâtre. ”
“I did not dare accept his offer, but asked Swann some questions about Bergotte. ‘Could you tell me which is his favourite actor?’
– Actor ? I don’t know. But I do know that he doesn’t consider any man on the stage equal to La Berma; he puts her above everyone else. Have you seen her?
– No, Monsieur, my parents don’t allow me to go to the theatre.”
(Note the courteous “vous” with which Swann addresses the boy, unavoidably lost in translation.)
The description of the church at Combray is staggering in its detail, as are, of course, the evocations of nature. Elsewhere I’ve noted the priggishness of the composer Vinteuil, the fragrance of asparagus, the thrill of railway timetables, the Narrator’s fishing expedition, Odette “fishing for compliments”, the erotic significance for Swann of the cattleyas, the shocking scene in which the Narrator spies on the late Vinteuil’s daughter as she and her lesbian partner desecrate a portrait of her father during a tryst . . . .
When, in the great finale to the Second Part, “Un amour de Swann”, Swann gradually comes to understand that Odette the ideal and Odette the real person are far apart, the Narrator writes: “Il admirait la terrible puissance récréatrice de sa mémoire” (“He admired the terrible recreative power of his memory”). The crushing realization, after many years, that Odette is “pas mon genre!” (“not my type!”) is one of the most memorable moments in the whole novel.
I only half-remembered Swann’s unrealized project to write a book on Vermeer and had forgotten that he played poker – at the Jockey Club presumably (where one of his models, Charles Haas, had become the first Jewish member).
Elsewhere there is the glorious social comedy of the Verdurins’ “intimate circle”, which Swann, in his obsessive pursuit of Odette, feels drawn into in spite of its philistinism and absurdity, its coarse humour, and casual cruelty offset by occasional acts of genuine kindness.
And the snobbery, not least that of the Narrator who unsparingly tells us, towards the end of the book, how as a boy he recoiled at Françoise’s appearance as she accompanied him to the park near the Champs-Élysées to meet Swann’s daughter Gilberte, with whom he was infatuated – “cette bonne dont je rougissais” (“that maid who made me blush”). The Narrator’s character, in all its complexity, is being formed.