Montjouvain and the “Little Phrase”
There are three relationships in Swann’s Way that are intimately connected; those between M Vinteuil and Mlle Vinteuil, M Swann and Odette, and Marcel and his mother, which, at the end of the book, we see transfer, thematically, into a relationship between Marcel and Mlle Swann. Proust connects these relationships with recursive usage of a piece of M Vinteuil’s music that M Swann refers to as the “little phrase.” Proust first discuses M Vinteuil’s music in the Montjouvain scene of “Combray,” and then brings back the “little phrase” repetitively throughout “Swann in Love”, and the themes he develops in doing so hearken back to, and inform the central irony of, the “Overture”, just as the novel moves into its second book, Within a Budding Grove, where it seems that the themes Proust establishes through these three relationships will be further developed in the budding relationship between Marcel and Mlle Swann.
We learn what we do about M Vinteuil and Mlle Vinteuil’s relationship primarily through the Montjouvain scene, in which Marcel oversees Mlle Vinteuil have a passionate encounter with another woman. But before the scene takes place, Marcel reflects on the history of M Vinteuil as he knows it through his mother: after M Vinteuil’s wife died, M Vinteuil devotes himself entirely to raising his daughter, Mlle Vinteuil, and this devotion prevents him from completing his last artistic pursuit, which causes him a pain that only an “honorable and respectable” future for Mlle Vinteuil could alleviate. But despite M Vinteuil dedicating all his efforts into forming his daughter, she only ever “caused him to suffer.”
There is an inherent problem in Vinteuil transferring his source of happiness from his writing music to willing his daughter into an “honorable and respectable” future, in that Mlle Vinteuil has an agency that a work of art does not. M Vinteuil could have never possessed Mlle Vinteuil as he could have possessed his own music, because she is not a work of art that he can mold; she is a living woman. He could never control her human desires, her passion, and surely not her sexuality. And thus this lesbian scene that we witness at Montjouvain through Marcel seems M Vinteuil’s greatest defeat.
Indeed, in this scene, Mlle Vinteuil seems to use her agency to thoroughly spite her father’s memory, continuing to engage in “dishonorable” activities, in his house, next to his sheet of music, and allowing her lover to spit on his picture. However, Marcel picks up on an element of theatricality about the whole event, in that she has stages it, carefully places its props, and acts in it, leading him to comment that:
If M Vinteuil had been able to be present at this scene, he might still, in spite of everything, have continued to believe in his daughter’s goodness of heart, and perhaps in doing so he would not have been altogether wrong. (179)
Marcel sees that she is not purely evil, but an “artist of evil,” and that in her devotion to this scene she staged, she is much like her father in his devotion to his music, and then his devotion to her. In fact, she may even be a better artists of evil than M Vinteuil was a musician or father, because while he could never manage to posses her – to make her into the daughter he wanted – in the later years of M Vinteuil’s life, it seems that Mlle Vinteuil did posses him with her artistry.
In “Swann in Love” the piece of Vinteuil’s music Swann calls the “little phrase” acts as a thematic bridge that links the relationship of M Vinteuil and Mlle Vinteuil in “Combray,” to M Swann and Odette in “Swann in Love.” Indeed, M Swann seems to charge the “little phrase” with the suffering M Vinteuil felt because of his daughter, “What could his life have been? From the depths of what well of sorrow could he have drawn that god-like strength, that unlimited power of creation?” (379), which parallels the suffering M Swann feels at the hands of Odette. Although it is unclear weather M Vinteuil did create the “little phrase” out of his suffering at the hands of his daughter, the possibility highlights the connection between suffering and creation, which is picked up in M Swann’s writing of his essay on Vermeer, as the parallel unfolds, and ultimately to Marcel composing a letter to his mother, and potentially understanding these parallels for himself as he begins his relationship with Mlle Swann.
Upon hearing the “little phrase in the Verdurin’s salon, Swann wishes to wholly posses it:
But now, at last, he could ask the name of his fair unknown (and was told that it was the andante of Vinteuil’s sonata for piano and violin); he held it safe, could have it again to himself, at home, as often as he wished, could study its language and acquire its secret. (231)
This desire of Swann’s to posses the secrets of the little phrase, prefigure his desire to posses Odette, the secrets of her past, her hours apart from him, and the letter she writes to Forcheville:
How small a thing the actual charm of Odette was now in comparison with that formidable terror which extended it like a cloudy halo all around her, that enormous anguish of not knowing at every hour of the day and night what she had been doing, of not possessing her wholly, at all times and in all places, and knowing whose address is printed in letters of fire that seared his heart. (245)
But no matter how hard M Swann tries to turn Odette into a work of art – by endlessly comparing her appearance to the Botticelli’s he finds so beautiful, and justifying spending so much time with her by comparing doing so to studying a work of art – she is not a work of art; she is a living woman, and thus he can never wholly posses her, which causes him to suffer. However, Odette is not passive in regard to M Swann’s suffering. Like Mlle Vinteuil, Odette very consciously refuses to be possessed; Odette is herself a sort of artist of suffering.
Indeed, the thing Odette seems to enjoy most, and the thing she is surely most intelligent about – the only thing she is intelligent about at all, in fact – is torturing M Swann. And the greatest tool of her torture, which causes the greatest height of M Swann’s suffering, and again parallels their relationship with that of M Vinteuil and Mlle Vinteuil, is her bisexuality, which upon having confirmed by her, causes Swann to suffer more than ever:
The agony that he now suffered in no way resembled what he had supposed. Not only because even in his moments of most complete distrust, he had rarely imagined such an extremity of evil, but because, even when he did try to imagine this thing, it remained vague, uncertain, was not clothed in the particular horror which had sprung from those words ‘perhaps two or three times.’ (395)
This is because, to him, her bisexuality means that he can never wholly posses her. Still, when he first hears her confirm her bisexuality, he wants “to devote more care to her, as one tends a disease which one has suddenly discovered to be more serious than thought,” but he quickly realizes this is impossible, because he sees that while he might be able to succeed in keeping Odette away from one women, he will never be able to keep her away from all women – he will never be able to control her sexuality. And at this realization, he also realizes the futility of anyone every wholly possessing another.
But in this moment, Swann’s actions seem to prove his thoughts wrong, in that Odette very nearly posses all of him, and primarily through her own sexuality. Indeed, it seems that M Swann has cease to work on his essay on Vermeer through much of “Swann in Love,” but at the end of the book, after he has married her, it seems that he will begin again. It is unclear whether he will be able to create again because of his suffering, or because he has subdued his suffering by marrying her – a nuance on the theme of suffering and creation that I think will be important in Marcel’s relationship with Mlle Swann.
What we learn about M Swann in “Swann in Love” hearkens back to the “Overture,” where Marcel, unable to sleep at night, recalls a time as a child at Combray with his family, when he also could not fall asleep. This early example of voluntary memory, in contrast with the following example of involuntary memory Marcel has when he tastes the madeleine, ultimately fails to comfort Marcel, as all voluntary memories must, but in it, his relationship with his mother, and his suffering at not being able to get a goodnight kiss from her, has numerous connections with these other two relationships of Swann’s Way.
For Marcel, getting a kiss from his mother before he goes to sleep will affirm his very existence, which comes into question for him while tossing and turning. This example of a child suffering because he cannot be affirmed by his parent is an interesting reversal of the relationship between M Vinteuil and Mlle Vinteuil, in which a parent suffers because he cannot be affirmed by his child. While Marcel’s mother has no hint of Mlle Vinteuil’s maliciousness, as theatrical as it may be, the fact remains that Marcel and M Vinteuil, the child and the parent, both suffer because they cannot control the one human relationship that truly matters to them – the one human relationship that wholly controls them.
As M Vinteuil’s suffering causes him to try to raise his daughter toward the “honorable” future that would validate him, Marcel’s suffering inspires him to write a letter to his mother that will bring her upstairs to give him his good-night kiss. Ultimately, both productions fail their creators, and it is, again, because they are both dealing with living people – the futility of which Swann discovered in “Swann in Love,” through M Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” which is the central irony of the “Overture.”
One of the primary reason’s Marcel is afraid to go downstairs to speak to his mother on the evening of the “Overture” during which he had so much trouble falling asleep, is because his family had a dinner guest: “M Swann, the unwitting author of my suffering” (46). But after reading about Swann’s experience with the “little phrase” and Odette, and looking back at this scene, we can see that this fear of Marcel’s is ironic because M Swann is the only character present that evening who would understand Marcel’s suffering, recalling the fact that Marcel’s ability at anticipating other characters’ reactions to his desire was questionable when that scene was first read, as well, because his whole perception of the relationship between his mother and father is called into question when his mother protests Marcel’s wakefulness, and his father suggests that his mother stay with the boy for that entire night. If Marcel could understand his parallel with Swann, he would be re-creating the artistry of this novel itself, and his ability to do so seems like it will be crucial to his relationship with Mlle Swann through the rest of the book.
Thus the “little phrase” acts as a thematic bridge not only between the suffering of M Vinteuil in “Combray,” and M Swann in “Swann in Love,” but also to Marcel in the “Overture.” At this point, these parallels make readers feel as if we are witnessing the eternal return of a curse on human relationships. But, coming as these realizations do, at the end of the first book, when another relationship is budding – that between Marcel and Mlle Swann – the reader also feels that there is more to be learned about the themes of possession and suffering and artistry that Proust has already so wonderfully developed. We can already see that Marcel wishes to posses Mlle Swann, and that this causes him great suffering, possibly through an artistry of Mlle Swann’s, but we have not conclusively learned if there is the potential of these men to create through their suffering – in what state M Swann can complete his essay on Vermeer, or if M Vinteuil’s little phrase did indeed come from his suffering at the hands of Mlle Vinteuil, as Swann’s interpretation of the piece implies; and ultimately, if Marcel can put these scenes together and draw meaning from them as Proust has – in this way creating from his suffering – or if he will become wholly possessed by her, by her artistry of evil, and thus perpetuate the eternal return of a curse on human relationships.