Odette: Marcel Proust's La Recherche du Temps Perdu

I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through Marcel Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or, in the Montcrieff translation, In Search of Lost Time. I’ve only read four of the seven volumes that this masterpiece encompasses, but I am amazed at how fluidly each volume fits with the others. Each one elaborates upon a thread of the narrator’s story, which is a recollection of past events as they are suddenly remembered through various sensory re-experiences. The first volume famously unfolds from the remembered taste/scent combination of the petite madeleine cookie as it is dipped in aromatic herbal tea. Our narrator seizes this memory and uses it to revisit past experiences, conversations, and characters while also inserting incredibly interesting passages that explore the concepts of time, of sleep and wakefulness, jealousy and romantic relationships, and even of the relationship between the author of a book and the reader who is reading it. The most interesting thing to me is how the process of creating or developing an identity is so perceptible in every one of his explorations.

Of course, I also adore his interest in the role of fashion. I was re-reading some passages from the second volume, Within a Budding Grove, while I was struck by his description of Mme Swann, or Odette, as she strolled through the park on her morning walk.

Smiling, rejoicing in the fine weather, in the sunshine which had not yet become trying, with the air of a calm assurance of a creator who has accomplished his task and takes no thought for anything besides, certain that her clothes—even though the vulgar herd should fail to appreciate them—were the most elegant of all, wearing them for herself and for her friends, naturally, without exaggerated attention to them but also without absolute detachment, not preventing the little bows of ribbon on her bodice and skirt from floating buoyantly upon the air before her like creatures of whose presence she was not unaware and whom she indulgently permitted to disport themselves in accordance with their own rhythm, provided that they followed where she led, and even upon her mauve parasol, which, as often as not, she still held closed when she appeared on the scene, letting fall now and then, as though upon a bunch of Parma violets, her happy gaze, so kindly that, when it was fastened no longer upon her friends but on some inanimate object, it still seemed to smile.

Odette isn’t just wearing a dress in the latest fashion; somehow, her dress has become a living thing, an entity which cavorts about her and introduces her to the people she encounters. It’s as if she has provided herself with an entourage of admirers all bundled up into one little dress and a few obligatory accessories. She knows her elegance, she knows that she can convey this elegance naturally and with ease, and she knows that her clothing will express this confidence and contentment. Her dress is her messenger. It carries her individual and enviable character outside of her and into the society she loves. She translates all of these internal attributes through the universal language of clothing.

The most interesting thing about this passage is that it shows us the thoughts of someone on the receiving end of a style-happy woman. We do not see Odette’s mental discourse as she selects a dress and then ruminates over what sort of person she’ll be today. Instead, we see the narrator’s response to her persona, his immediate recognition of her careful, yet natural crafting of an outfit and of how it accomplishes her desire to interact with a world. She appears to him to be happy in her creative power and confident in her accomplished elegance. Proust shows how fashion can influence the way one is seen. Odette, as she is viewed by our narrator, becomes a style icon. She projects such an air of fashion and self-contentment that she seems to carry with her an entire suitcase full of identifiable traits.

The narrator is probably of a slightly more sensitive nature than your average passerby, and he may have even let his imagination run away with him a bit, but what he is tuning into when he reacts so rapturously to the way Odette looks is her innate style, which is much closer to the surface because she has expressed it through her clothing. Odette may not realize that she has such an effect on anyone, and, in fact, we are never entirely in control of the way in which we are seen, but fashion provides us with an excellent method of expressing ourselves without words or emotions. We select our clothes so that they can step in front of us and shake hands with the people we meet.

I could list other places in this multi-volume work where Proust sends me into raptures through his description of a well-tailored coat, a correctly handled hat, or even the incredible effect of an all gray skirt suit that transforms, like a rainbow does to the gray sky, when the jacket is removed to reveal sleeves of delicately hued plaid. But beyond his poetic recollection of well-clad women is his incredible description of the construction of identity. Memory, emotion, imagination, fantasy, all of these can be found in our own lives, and explored through Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu.