Reading with Bronchitis: Swann’s Way and Laughing at Odette

Me biking, the year I broke my arm.

Biking a few weeks after the broken arm fiasco.

Last night, I lay in bed panicking.  It hurt to cough.  It hurt to breathe.

Did I need to go to the hospital? I wondered.

No.  I would lie in bed and gently breathe until my doctor’s appointment the next day.

Going to the emergency room in the middle of the night is not an experience one wants to repeat. Long, long ago, in a city far, far away, I foolishly went running at night and tripped on the sidewalk and broke my arm.  At the hospital I waited four hours in a filthy emergency room (no soap in the restroom) and all they gave me was a sling.  Does that left arm look a little hyperextended to you?  Yup.  That’s ER care.

No, I would wait to see the doctor.  Because I knew it was bronchitis, not pneumonia.  A cough, chills and sweating, aching lungs, and a fading feeling when I tried to take a walk.

But had it ever hurt to breathe?  It’s been 20 years since I had bronchitis.  I didn’t remember that.

I was in pain, but I am glad I didn’t visit the ER in the middle of the night. The diagnosis is bronchitis and an hour after taking the antibiotics for bronchitis, I COULD BREATHE AGAIN and was on my bike.

And after the bike ride, I was laughing at Odette.

What do I mean by laughing at Odette, you might want to know.

Proust Swann-Way-Modern-Library-Classics-0812972090-LI’m rereading Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, previously translated more elegantly, to my mind, as Remembrance of Things Past.

Not being a French literature scholar, I find it difficult to write about Proust.  Would that I had read Swann’s Way with Sam Jordison at the Guardian Book Club in 2013.  He eloquently said,

I’m guessing that a healthy proportion of people who pick up the book don’t even get beyond page 51. Within a similar word count, Raymond Chandler could have got through two murders, six whiskies, half a dozen wisecracks. Raymond Carver could have described at least six suburban households descending into despair. And Hemingway had almost finished The Old Man and The Sea. Yet, in pure plot terms, pretty much all that happens in those first pages of Proust is that the young Marcel struggles to fall asleep.

Although little happens, there are moments of wild joy.  Proust is for those who revel in lyrical, sensual language rather than traditional narrative. Three thousand pages pass while the narrator Marcel meditates on the subject of memory and describes the visual and sensual cues that evoke the past.  Reading Swann’s Way is like falling into a luxurious feather bed of exquisite language.   Marcel, the narrator, remembers as a boy he couldn’t sleep unless his mother kissd him.  He describes every detail of life at Combray, where the family lives in the summer with his great-aunt, from his Aunt Leonie’s two rooms to the hawthorns he admires on walks to the emotions evoked by the joyful reading of his favorite author, Bergotte, and the joy of his first serious writing.

Swann, a brilliant, thoughtful, charming man who moves in high society, is s a close friend of Marcel’s family.  He is pitied for an unfortunate marriage to a woman who blatantly is unfaithful. Marcel’s aunts don’t quite understand how well-connected Swann is in society.  They like him purely for his kindness, courtesy, and conversation.

The  second section of the novel, “Swann in Love,” focuses on Swann’s passionate affair 15 years ago with Odette, a former courtesan.  The prose is often erotic, and Proust does very definitely know how to evoke the development of an erotic relationship.

Odette is often comical.  Like Marcel’s aunts, she doesn’t understand the meaning of the social circles Swann moves in.  Because his friends, high-ranking government officials and aristocrats, don’t go to the parties and balls she has heard are fashionable, she concludes that Swann’s friends are bores, though she appreciates the first-night theater tickets and racing tickets .

She hoped that he would continue to cultivate such profitable acquaintances, but in other respects she was inclined to regard them as anything but smart, ever since she had passed the Marquise de Villeparisis in the street, wearing a black woolen dress and a bonnet with strings.

“But she looks like an usherette, like an old concierge, darling!  A marquise, her!  Goodness knows I’m not a marquise, but you’d have to pay me a lot of money before you’d get me to go round Paris rigged out like that!”

So funny!

A few of my impressions so far.

6 thoughts on “Reading with Bronchitis: Swann’s Way and Laughing at Odette

  1. I’m sorry to hear you have been ill — or are. Bronchitis is serious and can lead to pneumonia so you must take care of yourself. Reading Proust will keep you in so you can rest.

    I loved _Swann’s Way_: I can’t say I laughed at Odette: I was gripped by the narrator’s enthrallment. The depth of musing and emotional contact on offer riveted me — as well as the language. I went between the French and the older English translation as a crib.

    You look well in that photo.



    • Ellen, the cold suddenly turned into an infection. It’s miserable, and I should have gone to the doctor sooner. (HIndsight is 20/20.)

      I, too, am gripped by the beautiful details of their romance when Swann is always asking Odette if he can arrange her flowers pinned to the waist.


  2. So sorry to hear the cold has turned into something nasty – but at least you avoided the ER. I have spent too many hours there over the last year or so…. I adore the Proust I’ve read so far – yes, you definitely read it for the beautiful language and the psychological study!


    • Oh, dear, why why why must we all get sick in the middle of the night? I hope everything is going well health-wise for your mother-in-law. Yes, Proust is a delight.


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