Detail of Zipporah from Botticelli’s The Trials of Moses
Shown above is a detail from Sandro Botticelli’s painting “The Trials of Moses” depicting Jethro’s daughter Zipporah. It is this image which Marcel Proust used to describe the love of Charles Swann’s life, Odette de Crécy. It was a mammoth undertaking, especially as Proust was gay: He constantly had to translate heterosexual behavior through a homosexual template, which was more familiar to him. (In later volumes, Marcel’s lover Albertine was thus “translated” from his Italian chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli.) As difficult as it seems to do this, Proust succeeded so well that Swann’s Way is perhaps the greatest work in literature about disappointment in love.
Swann was not immediately taken with Odette:
[S]he had seemed to Swann not without beauty, certainly, but of a type of beauty that that left him indifferent, that aroused no desire in him, even caused him a sort of physical repulsion, one of those women such as everyone has his own, different for each, who are the opposite of the kind our senses crave. Her profile was too pronounced for his taste, her skin too delicate, her cheekbones too prominent, her figures too pinched. Her eyes were lovely, but so large they bent under their own mass, exhausted the rest of her face, and always gave her a look of being in ill health or ill humor.
A few pages later, we see what Swann (and by extension Proust) was doing in crystallizing his feelings toward this young woman::
He placed on his worktable, as if it were a photograph of Odette, a reproduction of Jethro’s daughter. He admired the large eyes, the delicate face, which allowed one to imagine the imperfect skin, the marvelous curls of the hair along the tired cheeks, and adapting what he had found aesthetically beautiful up to then to the idea of a living woman, he translated it into physical attractions which he rejoiced to find united in a creature whom he could possess. The vague feeling of sympathy that draws us toward a masterpiece as we look at it became, now that he knew the fleshly original of Jethro’s daughter, a desire that henceforth compensated for the desire that Odette’s body had not at first inspired in him. When he looked at that Botticelli for a long time, he would think of his own Botticelli, whom he found even more beautiful, and bringing the photograph of Zipporah close to him, he would believe he was clasping Odette against his heart.
Alas, Odette is openly unfaithful to Swann and drives him crazy with envy as the Comte de Forcheville moves in on his woman, while their friends at the Verdurins’ salon conspire against him. In the process, Swann’s life becomes bitter; and he no longer derives any joy from the things that hitherto had sustained him, his friends, his art, and high society. In the end, Swann admits to himself: “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!”
Of course, that didn’t keep him from marrying her. But that is another story.