Beware! Appearances can be deceptive.
When Swann first made an appearance in ‘The Way by Swann’s‘, I was so pre-occupied with the anguish of young Marcel that it took me while to notice him. He only registered as the one whose presence threatened the safety-net of Marcel’s bedtime ritual. As his relationship to the Proust family unfolded, peppered by the hilarious rudeness he is subjected to by Proust’s great-aunt, I wondered why he spent so much time with them, especially considering that his own social standing was so far above theirs.
He never complains or sets the record straight when comments are made which infer his lower social status, and or even question his competence. On hearing of his passion to collect art and antiques, Proust‘s great-aunt, ascerbic as ever, warns him against being hood-winked by his ‘betters’.
But are you a connoisseur? I ask for your own sake, because you’re likely to let the dealers unload some awful daubs on you.
She genuinely thinks he is a total idiot, and has no problem declaring as much. Yet, Swann says nothing.
When titbits of gossip from the neighbours reach them about Swann dining with a princess, and being seen in the company of the noblest families in Paris, they’re completely baffled, as that doesn’t fit with their definition of him. It reminded me of that moment in Breaking Bad (season 5), when Jessie Pinkman goes to a music store with Badger and Skinny Pete to buy cases large enough to carry meth-making equipment. While Badger is thrashing about on guitar Skinny Pete pauses at the keyboard, before launching into a note-perfect rendition of C.P. Bach’s Solfeggietto No. 2. In a gestalt shift, all my presumptions about who Skinny Pete is and his background shattered. Whatever else has happened in his life, he comes from a family who could afford piano lessons.
So, was this secrecy on the part of Swann due to ‘the reserve and discretion of his character’? Or was it in part
the fact that bourgeois people in those days formed for themselves a rather Hindu notion of society and considered it to be made up of closed castes?
Well, no doubt there’s a certain amount of truth in both of those observations, but after reading “Swann in Love” later on in the book, and it’s descriptions of the tiresome two-faced social game-play that proliferated in Swann’s circles, I think he appreciated that the Prousts‘ friendship was unfettered by veiled ambition. They saw him as good company rather than as their foothold to a higher rung on the social ladder.
I’m not saying that they were unblemished by snobbery – the great aunt being a case in point, and the whole family showed reluctance inviting Swann after his marriage to someone they considered beneath him and their society. I do love that Proust‘s grandmother, at least, judged character above social standing
because for her, distinction was something absolutely independent of social position.
Also, call me shallow, but they extended hospitality to a man who chose to wear his hair in the Bressant-style, otherwise known as a finely coiffed Mullet. That’s doesn’t just demonstrate tolerance and a generosity of spirit, that is pure charity.