Since I grew up in suburbia, mostly, there are certain misanthropic resonances in this second part of Du côté de chez Swann that I just can’t shake. Almost a novella in its own right, “Un amour de Swann [Swann’s Love]” tells the story of Swann’s marriage as it began many years prior. The narrator is mostly absent in this section, so we are led to believe that he is culling the story from stories he’s heard from family and family friends. First we learn that Swann was ever the Casanova, fond of cooks and maids and aristocratic ladies alike. When he initially meets Odette de Crecy, however, he is hardly taken: she is, he asserts, “pas mon genre [not my type].” Most importantly, Odette has a history of paramours and she seems easy to seduce; the lack of challenge bores Swann. Suddenly one evening, though, he sees her as if she were a Boticelli painting and immediately falls in love. What follows is endless torment for Swann as she takes lovers, refuses to love him fully, and lies endlessly. But it is a kind of torture Swann welcomes–a masochism of sorts–and when he exclaims finally that it was silly to be preoccupied by a woman “qui n’était pas mon genre” we suspect that this might not be the end of Swann in love (359).
What strikes me in this section is the description of the insufferable Verdurins–the couple who first introduce Swann to Odette– as emblematic of a haute bourgeoisie with little respect for art and culture. For them, art is a means of currency with which they buy entrance to a select elite. Unlike the blue-bloods in Swann’s circle, they frequent vaudeville acts and have little taste in high art. They even amend the sonata that moves Swann so much, simply for convenience. So why is Swann so taken with the Verdurins? One could easily say that it is because they are friends of Odettes’. Since he has fallen so desperately in love with her, the argument goes, he feels he must ingratiate himself to her friends. However, since Swann’s aristocratic friends, such as the Duchesse du Guermantes, are portrayed as equally petty and shallow, a bit of healthy misanthropy seems to be at play here. Like any good artist, Proust muses that the world is filled with twenty salons of ugly, selfish people for every true Swann. He’s no hero by any means, but he is sympathetic. Like the narrator, Swann is poised on the edge of entrance–and is often even granted entrance–but ceases to fit anywhere. He seeks a home in Odette, in society life, in family, but all is fraught. And this sadness permeates the text.