Swann’s Way

December 26th, 2009 at 11:20 am David Frum | 3 Comments |

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Marcel Proust is the writer to whom I have returned most often over my life. Now that Audible.com is at last releasing an unabridged audiobooks edition of Remembrance of Things Past, I am returning once more.

One of Proust’s great themes is the transformation of personality across time. Our earlier selves cannot begin to imagine our later selves; our later solves are baffled if not horrified by our earlier selves. Swann’s Way, the first novel in the great novel series, ends with the eponymous Swann marveling at his own earlier life:

To think that I have wasted years of my life that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!

On each of the half dozen times I’ve read Swann’s Way, I’ve taken something different. Proust would of course say, that’s because I am different.

This time I found myself thinking a lot about Proust’s study of group dynamics: his account of a small artistic salon,  “the ‘little nucleus,’ the ‘little group,’ the ‘little clan’” sponsored by a wealthy couple, M. & Mme. Verdurin.

The Verdurins never invited you to dinner; you had your ‘place laid’ there. …

Evening dress was barred, because you were all ‘good pals,’ and didn’t want to look like the ‘boring people’ who were to be avoided like the plague ….

But just as the ‘good pals’ came to take a more and more prominent place in Mme. Verdurin’s life, so the ‘bores,’ the ‘nuisances’ grew to include everybody and everything that kept her friends away from her, that made them sometimes plead ‘previous engagements,’ the mother of one, the professional duties of another, the ‘little place in the country’ of a third. If Dr. Cottard felt bound to say good night as soon as they rose from table, so as to go back to some patient who was seriously ill; “I don’t know,” Mme. Verdurin would say, “I’m sure it will do him far more good if you don’t go disturbing him again this evening; he will have a good night without you; to-morrow morning you can go round early and you will find him cured.” From the beginning of December it would make her quite ill to think that the ‘faithful’ might fail her on Christmas and New Year’s Days. The pianist’s aunt insisted that he must accompany her, on the latter, to a family dinner at her mother’s.

“You don’t suppose she’ll die, your mother,” exclaimed Mme. Verdurin bitterly, “if you don’t have dinner with her on New Year’s Day, like people in the provinces!”

Yet as the satire of the Verdurins proceeds, they become less ridiculous. In their dining rooms and rented summer houses, they present a study in tyranny and conformity.

The Swann of Swann’s Way is one of the most popular men in high society. His charm, the wealth he inherited from his stockbroker father, and his fabulous art connoisseurship offset his otherwise fatal Jewish background. He is welcomed into the aristocratic Jockey Club and to the friendship of the pretender to the French throne.

He is drawn to the Verdurins’ decidedly unaristocratic nucleus by his attraction to a young courtesan who spends her evenings there, Odette de Crecy, the woman not in his style.

At first the Verdurins are delighted by him. The tact and charm that soothed Swann’s way into the company of France’s grandees proved just as winning among painters, pianists and doctors. But rumors of Swann’s other life gradually reach the Verdurins, culminating in an awful revelation by a first-time attendee at the salon:

“Isn’t that so, Swann? I never see anything of you, do I?—But then, where on earth is one to see him? The creature spends all his time shut up with the La Trémoïlles, with the Laumes and all that lot!” The imputation would have been false at any time, and was all the more so, now that for at least a year Swann had given up going to almost any house but the Verdurins’. But the mere names of families whom the Verdurins did not know were received by them in a reproachful silence. M. Verdurin, dreading the painful impression which the mention of these ‘bores,’ especially when flung at her in this tactless fashion, and in front of all the ‘faithful,’ was bound to make on his wife, cast a covert glance at her, instinct with anxious solicitude. He saw then that in her fixed resolution to take no notice, to have escaped contact, altogether, with the news which had just been addressed to her, not merely to remain dumb but to have been deaf as well, as we pretend to be when a friend who has been in the wrong attempts to slip into his conversation some excuse which we should appear to be accepting, should we appear to have heard it without protesting, or when some one utters the name of an enemy, the very mention of whom in our presence is forbidden ….

Swann’s fate is sealed. He will be banished and his love affair wrecked.

He could have escaped, perhaps, by an act of submission to the prevailing standards of the Verdurin group, but that is the one thing he would not do.

[The Verdurins] had at once discovered in [Swann] a locked door, a reserved, impenetrable chamber in which he still professed silently to himself that the Princesse de Sagan was not grotesque, and that Cottard’s jokes were not amusing; in a word (and for all that he never once abandoned his friendly attitude towards them all, or revolted from their dogmas), they had discovered an impossibility of imposing those dogmas upon him, of entirely converting him to their faith ….

It’s almost as if Marcel Proust had wandered into Ayn Rand’s living room.

And the same phenomenon occurs, only somewhat less intensely, in larger groups. Groups are typically bound less by their purposes than by their accepted valuations and verities – less by their adhesion to ideas, more by their loyalty to persons.

Dissent from these valuations and verities will be inferred even from silence, as poor Swann found – and as many others have found and will find again.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • cnathan

    Interesting. I take as the principal subject matter of David’s essay the assertion that “Groups are typically bound less by their purposes than by their accepted valuations and verities – less by their adhesion to ideas, more by their loyalty to persons.” At first he seems to have introduced a contradiction: are “valuations and verities” not themselves a form of “ideas”? And do not most groups coalesce fairly effortlessly around some statement of their organizing purpose? They say, sometimes tacitly but often enough explicitly: “we are for human dignity,” or “there is nothing worse than cruelty,” or “we love beauty,” or “we are against prejudice in any form” or some such thing. Whatever our assessment of their objective merits, or the integrity of their definitions, or the rigour of their thinking, groups tend to believe these things about themselves. They do not normally say, except in satire or caricature: “we are for ourselves, and the exclusion and repudiation of others.”

    But I think Proust is showing – and David highlighting by this curious choice of subject matter at this fraught time of year – that in practice personal and group associations are not reliably constituted for the actual accomplishment (“purpose”) of dignity, kindness, beauty, toleration and so on. That in practice groups are ill-suited to the rigorous pursuit of purposes or ideals, and that they exhibit an acrobatic talent for delineating membership on the basis of eccentric and idiosyncratic norms, but above all, personal loyalty.

    So, given the ambitious committment of David Frum’s intellectual venture – and its less than fully comfortable place at the contemporary conservative dinner party – this rather subtle gloss on the manners of our community strikes me as almost aristocratic in its tone and discretion. He chides us, but gently. I have not read Swann, but I take away this point from David’s essay: let us resolve to distinguish carefully between our loyalty to people and our committment to ideas and purposes. Where the two seem to be at odds let us at least tell ourselves the truth, or be silent, rather than trading our very integrity for the approval or affection of a group that does not please us, and is not – when fully considered – genuinely in our style.

  • alexandriavol


    You have mentioned in previous posts that certain books (such as Thomas Hardy novels) are great to experience as an audiobook, while others should be read (such as Shelby Foote’s books on the Civil War).

    I’m considering listening to the audiobook edition of Remembrance of Things Past, but would like to know whether you think it should be read, rather than listened to as an audiobook? Did you enjoy the audiobook edition?


  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Evelyn Waugh was right about Proust’s novels. They really are incoherent and unreadable. (“He never tells you the age of the hero and on one page he is being taken to the WC in the Champs Elysees by his nurse & the next page he is going to a brothel. Such a lot of nonsense.”)

    Anyone looking for a reading experience similar to the one promised by In Search of Lost Time’s lofty reputation should instead try Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time.”

    (Case in point: Frum has to interpolate Ayn Rand into Swann’s Way in order to make it interesting. Oh dear.)