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7.10.03

Your Weekly Proust 2

My apologies for the long lacuna in posting. Ionarts has been in Paris and unable to get observations onto the site. I will be publishing a backlog of posts over the next couple days, corresponding to the days on which they were written.

One of the delights (and sometimes annoyances) of reading Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu is the little diversions into completely unrelated areas. In the book, the character Swann is a man immersed in the contemplation of art. He views art in a very personal way, a type of viewing that makes connections to life like no other. Proust seems to imply that one of the reasons Swann ends up marrying Odette, who is depicted basically as an aging prostitute, is her resemblance to a Botticelli painting. Daughters of Jethro, detail from Botticelli's Life of MosesHere is an excerpt from Du côté de chez Swann:

As [Odette] stood there beside him, brushing his cheek with the loosened tresses of her hair, bending one knee in what was almost a dancer’s pose, so that she could lean without tiring herself over the picture, at which she was gazing, with bended head, out of those great eyes, which seemed so weary and so sullen when there was nothing to animate her, Swann was struck by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter [see image at right—ed.], which is to be seen in one of the Sistine frescoes. He had always found a peculiar fascination in tracing in the paintings of the Old Masters, not merely the general characteristics of the people whom he encountered in his daily life, but rather what seems least susceptible of generalisation, the individual features of men and women whom he knew, as, for instance, in a bust of the Doge Loredan by Antonio Rizzo, the prominent cheekbones, the slanting eyebrows, in short, a speaking likeness to his own coachman Rémi; in the colouring of a Ghirlandaio, the nose of M. de Palancy; in a portrait by Tintoretto, the invasion of the plumpness of the cheek by an outcrop of whisker, the broken nose, the penetrating stare, the swollen eyelids of Dr. du Boulbon. . . . He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and limbs, and these he tried incessantly, afterwards, to recpature, both when he was with Odette, and when he was only thinking of her in her absence; and, albeit his admiration for the Florentine masterpiece was probably based upon his discovery that it had been reproduced in her, the similarity enhanced her beauty also, and rendered her more precious in his sight. . . . The words 'Florentine painting' were invaluable to Swann. They enabled him (gave him, as it were, a legal title) to introduce the image of Odette into a world of dreams and fancies which, until then, she had been debarred from entering, and where she assumed a new and nobler form. . . . When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed all the lovelier in contrast, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine that he was holding Odette against his heart.
And from A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur:
[Swann] still liked to recognise in his wife one of Botticelli’s figures. . . . Swann had a wonderful scarf of oriental silk, blue and pink, which he had bought because it was exactly that worn by Our Lady in the Magnificat. But Mme. Swann refused to wear it. Once only she allowed her husband to order her a dress covered all over with daisies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots and campanulas, like that of the Primavera. And sometimes in the evening, when she was tired, he would quietly draw my attention to the way in which she was giving, quite unconsciously, to her pensive hands the uncontrolled, almost distraught movement of the Virgin who dips her pen into the inkpot that the angel holds out to her, before writing upon the sacred page on which is already traced the word 'Magnificat'.

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