Swann’s Way Review: Love Stinks

“Sylvia Plath — interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.” – Woody Allen

Similar to Woody’s observation about artists’ suicides, we also tend to view “love” as a lofty, dreamy affair that makes us swoon and smile — Marcel Proust very articulately reminds us that love is anything but. It’s painful, it’s torturous, it’s brutal, it’s cruel, it’s time-consuming, it’s nightmarish, it’s bleak, it’s atrocious and drives us to do crazy, out-of-character things — that we know are crazy (and years later will still be embarrassed of) — and we do it with 100% more gusto than anything else because we’re compelled by a neurotic fixation — that we’d gladly accept a pill of nothingness to relent — as our imaginations run machinations of what could be.

In short:

Swann’s Way Summary

In Proust’s first volume of In Search of Lost Time (Swann’s Way), we’re treated to an affably anxious child whose afflicted by romance — albeit his mother. For little Marcel (the character, not author), all he wants is a kiss before bedtime and every day’s events orchestrate that eventuality.

Marcel is keenly aware of what behaviors and scenarios will lead to a kiss before bedtime, which means that any unfamiliar scenarios require him to weigh all the grave consequences. He does believe a kiss before bed to be a matter of life and death. At one point, in which he stays up later than he ought to, he fears (as his father doesn’t approve of bedtime kisses) that his father will send him off to boarding school and deprive him of kisses for years.

And thus, Proust gives us our first glimpse into “love”. Whether it’s romantic or familial, love is something we crave; we slave over; we risk life and limb for; die for.

“[I]t was with a light heart, full of the hope of going to see some great painting the next day, that he got into bed and put out his light; but, no sooner, as he prepared to go to sleep, did he cease to exert upon himself a constraint of which he was not even aware because it was by now so habitual, than at that very instant an icy shiver would run through him and he would begin to sob. He did not even want to know why, dried his eyes, said to himself with a smile: “Delightful—I’m turning into a real neurotic”

This is what brings us to Monsieur Swann, who Marcel sees as an enemy and rival. His (Marcel’s) mother is happily married, but whenever Swann comes over, Marcel is put to bed early and without any kisses. So he lays awake at night, tortured. Of course, Swann has more in common with Marcel than he knows and that’s what leads us to the novel within the novel, Swann in Love.

Swann in Love

Swann's Way Review

Swann, a capable, confident, successful man — with his fair share of ladies, is all at once absorbed by Odette. A woman who he doesn’t find attractive in the least and considers simple-minded… but that is how it happens. All at once, he cannot stop thinking about her, he’s consumed by her. He morphs from a self-assured man, often the object of envy, to a weaselly man with no backbone whose jealousies are the romantic equivalent of hypochondria.

He goes through her mail, follows her home, calls and tests her to make sure she’s where she claims she is, hangs outside her home, and spends countless hours (days, really) ruminating on infidelity scenarios that give him waking nightmares — since he cannot sleep.

(Of course, I have to assume the anxiety I felt in reading Swann in love is a true depiction of Proust’s work and is immaculately captured by Lydia Davis’ translation.)

This comes to a sardonic head when Monsieur Swann finds a lump on his body and prays it’s cancerous; terminal; malignant. “[I]t was to escape not so much the acuteness of his sufferings as the monotony of his struggle”. This depiction of love makes “cheaters” empathetic.

As a brief aside, I’m a Joey Greco kinda guy. Cheaters are inadmissible. Unrelatable. Cowards. They’re people who no longer love the one they’re with, but don’t have the balls to tell them. Many a time, people have tried to tell me there’s more to it than that, but I’ve failed to see the grey… until this line, “How often we sacrifice the fulfillment of a possible happiness to our impatience for an immediate pleasure.” Swann doesn’t cheat on Odette, but you can understand why he’d want to. He’s consumed with love for this woman and not entirely sure it’s reciprocated. What’s more, he doesn’t care if it’s reciprocated, but he fears that by not caring, he leaves the door open to her aloof torture.

Love & Other Drugs

In the same way the novel helps me understand cheating, it helps me understand masturbation. Make no mistake, Proust grew up in the Victorian Era and as such, there’s a level of ambiguous poise in all things sexual. But I believe the following quote is intended to be about masturbation and why it leads to self-loathing — regardless of religious affiliation:

“If, as sometimes happened, she had the features of a woman I had known in life, I would devote myself entirely to this end: to finding her again, like those who go off on a journey to see a longed-for city with their own eyes and imagine that one can enjoy in reality the charm of a dream.”

Between that and the “immediate pleasure” quote, it seems like a poetic rationalization for self-love. Ultimately, it’s in pursuit of real love, but the reality is so far-fetched that we fallback on the fantasy. The self-loathing is not so much about the act, but the return to reality; in the same way you come crash from a high. If there is any self-loathing, it’s in that you tricked yourself into believing in could be a reality for a brief moment.

And this is what leads to heartbreak which Proust simultaneously depicts as morbidly depressing and subtly encouraging, “when a belief disappears, there survives it—more and more vigorous so as to mask the absence of the power we have lost to give reality to new things—a fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief once animated, as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent cause, the death of the Gods.” As if the objects of our affection brought out the best in us, when really, it comes from us and us alone. We put the object of our affection on a pedestal, we assign the meaning.

The problem Proust points out is we lose the ability to control the fantasy as we age. Our imagination weakens and reality continues to intrude. “[The] enjoyment of thinking about a woman as I thought about Gilberte, without worrying about whether that image corresponds to the reality, and also with the pleasure of loving her without needing to be certain that she loves us.” But as a child, Marcel’s desire for the reality pushes the fantasy out of his mind. He fantasizes receiving a letter from Gilberte professing her love and, rather than explore that further, he cuts himself off “I realized that if I were to receive a letter from Gilberte, it could not be that one anyway since I was the one who had just written it. And from then on, I forced myself to turn my thoughts away from the words I would have liked her to write to me, for fear that by articulating them, I would exclude precisely those—the dearest, the most desired—from the field of all possible compositions”. In other words, he fears that by believing something to become true, there’s no possible way it can.

We see how this is a slippery slope in Swann since, he never imagines “good” scenarios, only the bad. And no doubt, this is a layover from when we’re children and imagine good scenarios that cannot possibly happen as we want; as intended. In the same way that Cecily in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest writes letters from her Ernest, she fabricates her own to feed her desires — but who hasn’t?

What little girl hasn’t imagined her crush as a Ken doll. What boy hasn’t fantasized that the girl of his dreams will come up to him and satisfy all those desires. As a child, the world is full of possibility, but as we age, we dampen our expectations.

Love is Fleeting

Love is fleeting and it’s one of those things we can never dwell on much or it will drive us insane. Swann is constantly wrestling with thoughts about Odette, and fights himself off despite returning time and again or as Marcel’s grandfather would say “I think of my poor wife often, but I can’t think of her for long at a time.”

The feeling of love is fleeting, but we want it to last forever and in this way, Proust explains the need for boys to hurt girls they like, “I loved her, I was sorry I had not had the time or the inspiration to insult her, hurt her, and force her to remember me. I thought her so beautiful that I wished I could retrace my steps and shout at her with a shrug of my shoulders: “I think you’re ugly, I think you’re grotesque, I loathe you!”” We remember the negative memories more than the good ones; we remember humiliation more than gratification. We want to hurt the ones we love because it’s the only way to ensure that we’ll forever be remembered; the only way we can put a stamp on their memory because they have forever put a stamp on ours. And all our lonely nights thinking about them will amount to nothing and we hate them for it, but we love them too.

Love and In Love

Indeed, this review reads more like scattered thoughts (as my Infinite Jest review did), but that’s kind of the point. Proust rambles, he runs on, and it’s the only way to capture the neuroses of love. He circles around the same point, sends out disclaimers, epiphanies, redacts and contradicts, and it’s so impossibly perfect; so formidably real that it’s no wonder he names his protagonist after himself. This is what we do, what we continue to do, what we won’t stop doing… and it makes you question any man who can perfectly articulate his feelings about the woman he’s interested in because there is no way to do it without droning on in monologues about what she does to him (I’m looking at you Romeo).

that's love
that’s love

It is the difference between loving someone and being in love. It’s not that “loving” someone is superficial or more shallow. It’s that being “in love” is a state of mind; a state of being. It’s all-consuming; all-knowing. It’s all you can think about and everything not involving the object of your love is a deliberate distraction because it’s all you can do to not think about your love.

I’ll close with this:

“[O]nce the novelist has put us in that state, in which every emotion is multiplied tenfold, in which his book will disturb us as might a dream but a dream more lucid than those we have while sleeping and whose memory will last longer, then see how he provokes in us within one hour all possible happinesses and all possible unhappinesses just a few of which we would spend years of our lives coming to know and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slowness with which they occur prevents us from perceiving them (thus our heart changes, in life, and it is the worst pain; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality it changes, as certain natural phenomena occur, slowly enough so that, if we are able to observe successively each of its different states, in return we are spared the actual sensation of change).”

Swann’s Way
by Marcel Proust

Translation by Lydia Davis (2003)
Penguin Classics

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