Proust Read-Along: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

“He knew perfectly well as a general truth that human life is full of contrasts…” Swann’s Way, P. 510

While plowing through Part 2, ‘Swann In Love’, I happened to reread The Great Gatsby. Thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s new movie adaptation, I’m sure many more are doing the same. And oh what interesting contrasts Swann and Gatsby make.

Both are deeply in love, yearning for a woman who seems to be utterly elusive. Gatsby frantically maximizes to attract Daisy; Swann willingly minimizes to reach Odette. From a poor background, Gatsby grabs whatever means he can to build his wealth; Swann whose niche belongs to high society, has to pretend that he is nobody special, stooping to ‘a lower social sphere’ (P. 285) to be near Odette.

That distance is more than social. Swann is willing to forsake his cultured tastes of art and music, to lay aside even his own research and writing on Vermeer (Odette: I’ve never heard of him, is he alive still? P. 279). Swann is willing to lay down his interests and privileges for a woman who is uncouth in the sophistication of high society, who has superficial views and flashy tastes, and alas, even promiscuous.

However, love transforms all deficiencies and blemishes into ethereal beauty. Here’s how Swann visualizes Odette. To him, she is like Sipporah, Jethro’s daughter, Botticelli’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel:

Zipporah, Jethro's Daughter by Botticelli

Following Odette to her ‘little nucleus’ at the Verdurins, Swann downplays his association with prominent people and tries not to be so outspoken with his knowledge and opinion about art and music.

When he is alone with Odette, he has taken her values and interests:

he tried at least to ensure that she should be happy in his company, tried not to counteract those vulgar ideas, that bad taste which she displayed on every possible occasion, and which in fact he loved, as he could not help loving everything that came from her, which enchanted him even. (P. 348)

Is this measurement of incompatibility in tastes inherently snobbish? Yes, Swann (or Proust) is sensitive enough to analyze this in depth. What is ‘taste’ anyway, or the intellectual beliefs with which he has been raised from the days of his youth?

… the objects we admire have no absolute value in themselves, that the whole thing is a matter of period and class, is no more than a series of fashions, the most vulgar of which are worth just as much as those which are regarded as the most refined. (P. 350)

So, all for love of Odette, Swann is willing to give up going to the Jockey Club, lunching with the Prince of Wales, or his love of Holland, or a visit to the Versailles (‘which bored her to tears’):

And so he denied himself the pleasure of visiting those places, delighted to tell himself that it was for her sake, that he wished only to feel, to enjoy things with her. (p. 350)

Those colorful shirts Gatsby has hoarded, Odette would have loved them, just like Daisy, and his mansion too… if only Swann had resided in a more prestigious address, somewhere ‘more worthy of him’ instead of his house on the Quai d’Orleans. (P. 346)

Odette’s fondness of Swann begins to wane as Forcheville enters into the picture. She becomes even harder to get. Swann is burned with jealousy, anger and bitterness. Yet he cannot forget her. His love even grows stronger for her, despite receiving an anonymous letter defaming her. Why,

People often say that, by point out to a man the faults of his mistress, you succeed only in strengthening his attachment to her… he had begun to desire the possession — as if that were ever possible — of another person. (P. 517)

Perhaps that is a mark of love: the demand for exclusivity. This is exactly what Gatsby wants Daisy to admit, that she has never loved Tom, that she has always loved him. “Oh, you want too much,” she cried to Gatsby.

But Swann is more fortunate. He knows he must gain back Odette’s full and exclusive devotion and somehow he does. I’m glad to read in Part 3 that eventually Odette does become Mme Swann. I’d be curious to know how that comes about. (Proust’s strategy to get us go on reading the next volumes?)

**

Part 3 is an enjoyable and much swifter read as the narrator remembers his childhood in Paris drown in unrequited love (so far, not sure about how this unfolds later) for Swann and Odette’s daughter Gilberte. Because of his love for Gilberte, the boy is infatuated with M and Mme Swann as well. His crush on the elusive Gilberte parallels Swann’s love for Odette in their earlier days.

The last sentence in Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, like that in The Great Gatsby, ends with a haunting remark on memory and the past:

The places we have known… were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

There are much more to be said, but nothing can replace the actual experience of reading Proust first hand. From March to May as I plowed through Swann’s Way, there had been up’s and down’s. Numerous times long sentences entangled, yet the very next moment could be so beautiful and lucid it dissipated all frustrations. I now look forward to Volume II.

**

Thanks for joining me in this Read-Along. Finish or not, you’re welcome to share your thoughts. Throw your two pebbles into the pond and make some ripples. If you have written a post, do let me know so I can link it here.

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

**

CLICK HERE to my post on Part 1 of Swann’s Way: Combray

***

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

19 thoughts on “Proust Read-Along: The Swann and Gatsby Foil”

  1. What a beautiful selection of quotes from the book (“Swann’s Way”) the last one about “the places we have known. . .” is something i have struggled with in my mind, trying to make peace with memory and nostalgia. Like the compare and contrast with Gatsby also. Brilliant.

    Like

    1. Hedda,

      With a title In Search of Lost Time, you can imagine memories are what Proust dwells on in this novel. Since I’ve only read Vol.1 of the seven-volume totality, I can only speculate. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind words.

      Like

  2. I’ve not read the book, as you know. But I’ve come across that final quotation in four different contexts recently, and am fascinated by it. Between it and the madeleine passage, I’m feeling myself tempted toward giving it a read.

    I’m also much intrigued by the relationship between Swann and Odette. It’s the first time I can remember a male character exhibiting all the traits of a 1950s female who had been trained from childhood to remember that “boys never make passes at girls who wear glasses – that is, smart, curious, accomplished, knowledgeable girls. I can’t tell you the number of times, while dating, I hid my own knowledge and refused to express my real preferences in order to be acceptable.

    Now, to flip the coin – I also have a great deal of difficulty dealing with people who assume they are superior to others because of their knowledge or experience. And nothing’s more boring than someone who either wants to show you all she knows immediately, or who dismisses out of hand the books, music, art or experiences that you enjoy or hold dear.

    Life is indeed full of contrasts, and some of the most interesting are the contrasts in our own behavior, depending on who we’re around and what we want to accomplish!
    Yes, I think perhaps I’ll have a go at this one!

    Like

    1. Linda,

      I think you’ll enjoy Proust, yourself being a word and language lover. Contrasts… yes, lots of them and incompatibility within a relationship, the nature of love, the difference between love, infatuation, passion, physical attractions, the socially constructed values of ‘culture’ and ‘taste’, and yes, you’ll be surprised, ‘the sin of snobbishness’… are but a few of the issues Proust explores here. Highly thought-provoking. I’m sure this is for you. 😉

      Like

  3. Arti, even though I’m not reading the book, I’m finding this post fascinating, particularly in light of the Great Gatsby. (That line: Oh, you want too much” may be my favorite in the book.) I confess I don’t have mind that reads like yours — sharply analytical yet passionate and observant of the smallest details. It’s one reason why I admire your posts so much.

    Like

    1. Jeanie,

      Thanks for your very kind words. It could be just coincidence that The Great Gatsby is just released, and of course, I needed to read that again before I saw the movie. The contrast is too obvious… Maybe somebody would make a mini-series of In Search of Lost Time? 😉

      Like

  4. How fascinating for you to compare and contrast Gatsby and Swann; I would not have thought to do the same.

    I did think it a tragedy that Swann would stoop to Odette’s level, willingly forsake all he knew and loved for her, and then even after discovering he did not love her, to find that he had married her?! It was like a thunderbolt to me! I wonder how many marriages occur after one party has determined that love is no longer there…

    I thought of Swann’s love (initially) for Odette such as our narrator possesses for Gilberte: both so one sided…

    What sticks with me is the evocation of the past, the way that we dwell on who are from whence we’ve come. I loved that our narrator had Combray to return to, but how said it was that Swann had essentially nothing. So what was Swann’s way? More than a walking path to his estate, rather than the Guermantes’ way. Perhaps Proust is hinting at Swann’s way as a way that really leads to no where.

    Like

    1. Bellezza,

      You know, as I was reading about Swann’s love for Odette, I had in my mind Hosea in the OT. But of course, Swann was no saint either, he had other women too, didn’t he? The little seamstress? At first, I thought he should just forget about Odette, but later as I read more and more, until Part 3, from the child’s point of view, they are both good parents to Gilberte, I suppose. So I thought that’s good, they’re together now. But how it came about, then I think we need to read on to the next Volume(s). Swann’s Way I thought is the actual footpath that goes by his property in Combray, as opposed to Guermantes’ way, since another title is translated as “The Way by Swann’s”. But of course, we know the natural beauty of that path too, so could it serve a metaphorical purpose as well? Maybe this is Proust’s enticement for us to read on to find out more. 😉

      Like

      1. Of course I remember the literal translation, but as I started leaving my comment here I was thinking about Proust giving Vol. 1 this title, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should look at Swann’s Way as his way of life…will more be divulged in subsequent volumes? I don’t know, but I’d love to find out with you in the autumn.

        Like

  5. Interesting contrasts and pleasing to have found some connection between the two, that always enhances the overall reading experience.

    Have you read The Hare With Amber Eyes’? I was struck by the mentions in it of Charles Ephrussi, said to be one of the models for Proust’s Swann’s Way, he was an art collector and they used to frequent the same salons. I haven’t read Proust, but have talked a little about this first book with a friend(a Philosophy professor) who is writing a book on it, which I am most intrigued about. Allegedly, he wrote the book lying in his bed. 🙂

    Like

    1. Claire,

      Thanks for mentioning this intriguing book, I’ve now put a hold on it in my public library. Considering your love of literature, I think you’ll find Proust deeply gratifying. Also, good to hear about your prof. friend’s writing habit, which is so consistent with Proust’s, I don’t feel so bad about laying in bed and read through my iPhone for much longer than I should.

      Like

  6. It’s been only this week, in having (finally) made some inroads into Part Two, that I understand your earlier comment of how the two novels made for interesting companion reads.

    How good, then, to read your comparison between Gatsby & Proust — not once but twice — and to carry your thoughts with me as I went to see the film yesterday… which I loved…. and then in picking Proust up again last night.

    The theme of putting aside our true selves in order to realize the fantasy or dream of great love, is more or less something that I imagine everyone can identify with. Which, I suppose, explains why Proust is credited with writing the 2oth century masterpiece… and Fitzgerald the great American novel. Interesting how they accomplished their works in similar time periods… but with very different writing styles.

    I could say more. But, you’ll be glad to hear,I think, that I rather read Proust than write about reading him. I’m even considering re-reading Swann’s Way before I move onto Book Two!

    Janell

    Like

    1. Janell,

      I have the same thought too… rereading Part 1 so I can see more clearly Swann’s visits to Combray and the parts about his new wife. I can only vaguely remember those descriptions now. But hey, curiosity got hold of me and I’ve started Vol. 2 already. I can’t wait to hear your sharing in your post. But, take your time. Those tiny morsels of tasty bits need to be savoured slowly. 😉

      Like

    1. Stefanie,

      Just a matter of timing, I guess. If not because of the movie, I probably would have read something else… say, Pride and Prejudice. Now, wouldn’t that be something for a character foil? Why yes, both are upper class high society figures reaching down … 😉

      Like

  7. Oh I love this clever and astute comparison! I would never have thought to put them together but how beautifully they mesh. As for Swann’s marriage to Odette, it is the great enigma of the book(s). It is never explained – just one more of those important things lost to time.

    Like

      1. Bellezza,

        I think Swann’s anger and bitterness towards Odette is mainly due to jealousy. If she had returned to him, I think he’ll take her back anytime. Maybe that’s what happened, who knows… 😉

        Like

  8. I agree that his jealousy was the root of their demise. But my impression was that he had tired of her completely, long before he had married her. How terrible if it had been the other way around: he’d married her, then tired of her. Of course neither situation is good…it reminds me of a pastor I knew who said, “It is better to be single and wish you were married, than to be married and wish you were single.” As I suspect is he case Chez Swann.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s