I’m nearing the end of “Swann’s Way,” and am in the midst of the pages and pages examining Swann’s love for Odette.
Only Swann isn’t really in love with Odette. He suffers more from an obsession (borderline stalker by today’s standards), that kind of puppy crush that is bittersweet in a teenager, embittering in an adult. Swann’s love is not mature, selfless, giving. (And Odette is not an object worthy of mature love, which I’ll discuss in a future post.) Instead, his love objectifies Odette, so that she mirrors what he wants to see and feel – and when she doesn’t conform to this ideal, he feels contemptuous, both of her and himself. Throughout these pages, Swann vacillates between contempt and rationalization, for both his behavior and hers. (Actually, the prose is better than it was in earlier passages of this section – Proust seems to have hit his stride now.)
Then Swann detested her. “But also, I’m too stupid,” he would tell himself, “I’m paying with my own money for other people’s pleasures. All the same, she ought to take care and not pull to hard on her bowstring, because I might very well not give anything more at all.”…And because his hatred, like his love, needed to manifest itself and to act, he took pleasure in pursuing his evil fantasies further and further…
And a page and a half later:
Now that, after this oscillation, Odette had naturally returned to the place from which Swann’s jealousy had for a time removed her, to the angle from which he found her charming, he pictured her as full of tenderness…How he must have hurt her! Of course he could not find valid reasons for his resentment against her, but they would not have been enough to make him feel that resentment if he had not loved her so much.
Still, Proust steers clear of stereotyping Swann as the mad lover because of his recording of every shade of Swann’s feelings. Readers simply can’t help but identify with Swann and his plight at some points because they had to have undergone some of these experiences themselves.
One passage I thought particularly humorous was Swann’s pursuit of Odette to Pierrefond, where he spent most of his time avoiding her, so as not to arouse her suspicions, but mooning over the places where she had been (how many of us have done this same thing in the first flush of a romance?).
Even before seeing Odette there, even if he did not manage to see her, what happiness it would give him to step on that earth where, not knowing the exact location, at any given moment, of her presence, he would feel palpitating everywhere the possibility of her sudden appearance….
And, of course, the scene where he goes to confront Odette and her other lover but ends up knocking on the windows of the wrong house is priceless:
Because he was in the habit, when he came to Odette’s house very late, of recognizing her window by the fact that it was the only one lit among windows that were all alike, he had made a mistake and knocked at the window after hers, which belonged to the adjoining house.
If he had been indulging in this behavior today, he would be given a restraining order!