Day Thirty-Two: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, pp. 30-44

From "The cold beef with carrots..." to "...foreshadow what was to happen after his death?"
Proust pulls several narrative tricks in this section.

First, he wears us down with several pages of the ineffably boring M. de Norpois, about whom the narrator comments, "The only deduction I could draw was that, in politics, it was a mark of superiority rather than inferiority to repeat what everybody else thought." And then, just as we are tempted to begin to skim, he allows M. de Norpois to deliver a small bombshell at the dinner table:

"I dined [last night] at the house of a lady of whom you may have heard -- the beautiful Mme Swann."

My mother all but trembled. ... However, she was curious to know what sort of people went to the Swanns', and inquired of M. de Norpois about his fellow guests.

"Well, now .... to tell you the truth ... I must say it's a house at which most of the guests appear to be ... gentlemen. There were certainly several married men present -- but their wives were all indisposed yesterday evening, and had been unable to go," the ambassador replied, with a crafty glance masked by joviality, his eyes full of a demure discretion that pretended to moderate their mischievousness while making it more obvious.

And he goes on in this vein, remarking on Swann's fallen state in society, until he finally delivers the second narrative coup, answering the question that has lurked in the reader's mind about why Swann has married Odette when the last time we saw him, he was convinced he no longer loved or was obsessed by her:
"And yet, you know, I don't think the man's unhappy. It's true that the woman stooped to some pretty nasty things in the years before the marriage, some quite unsavory blackmail -- if he ever declined to satisfy her something or other, she just forbade him access to the child."

And having let us know that Odette had conceived a child -- Gilberte, the reader assumes at this point -- who was used to bind Swann to her permanently, Proust does something that would be considered a flaw in most contemporary fiction writing: He superimposes the mature narrator on the point of view of the young narrator. It's as if this section of the novel is being narrated by two voices. It's the mature narrator who takes over to tell us how Odette manipulated Swann into a marriage which "came as a surprise to almost everybody, which is a surprise." It is the mature narrator, after all who is privy to the information that "when it occurred to [Swann] that he might one day marry Odette, there was only one person in society whose opinion he would have cared for, the Duchesse de Guermantes." And that the Duchesse, whom we saw through the young narrator's eyes earlier in the novel , is someone we have also seen in the "Swann in Love" section, when she was the Princesse des Laumes.

And here we get another narrative trick: imparting information to us about what is to come in the novel, a kind of "spoiler" that might even be considered a narrative flaw in the hands of a lesser writer.
[I]t can be said that the purpose of Swann's marrying Odette was to introduce her and Gilberte, even though no one else might be present, even though no one else might ever know of it, to the Duchesse de Guermantes. As will be seen, the fulfillment of this social ambition, the only one he had ever harbored for his wife and child, was the very one that was to be denied him; and the veto preventing it was to be so absolute that Swann was to die without imagining that the Duchesse would ever meet them. It will be seen too that the Duchesse de Guermantes did come, after Swann's death, to be acquainted with Odette and Gilberte.

So why does Proust drop these as-will-be-seens on us, including the death of a major character, thereby eliminating at least one element of narrative suspense from his novel? We can only assume that Proust has bigger things in mind than mere plot.


David Prashker said...

Charles you have a typing error in your last quote. Swann marries Odette, not Gilberte.

Charles Matthews said...

You are quite right, and I have corrected it accordingly. Many thanks for noticing!