Proust or bust: have you ‘done a cattleya?’

You could be forgiven for thinking that my silence over the past couple of weeks has been due to having been immersed in the pages of Proust. Have I been held in such deep wonderment by ‘Swann’s Way’ that I was unable to find my own way out? Have I been transported by a flight of linguistic fancy to a land of metaphor and symbolism? Or have I simply been trying to remember what Proust said at the start of the paragraph six pages earlier?

All of the above, actually, at some point or other.

I have found, (and now that I am well into the second part of volume one I feel as if I can talk with some degree of authority), that I need to be in a position to concentrate for a considerable amount of time to really appreciate Proust’s writing. It takes me at least twenty minutes to ‘tune in’ to his style, and for this I need peace and quiet; I must also be alert which makes it a more problematic bedtime read. The perfect Proust reading time for me is early afternoon with all the possibilities to continue until evening; this in itself makes reading his work a guilty pleasure because to give an entire afternoon over to reading is a luxury for a person of working age.

My reading of Proust then, is best achieved in long, flowing, rambling chunks. There are so few ‘natural’ breaks in the sections anyway, that it is far better to continue until an appropriate point; otherwise I find that I have to backtrack page after page to reconnect with the action (or rather, inaction, because let’s be honest, Proust is at his best when immersed in one of those flights of metaphorical fancy).

Such talk of metaphors provides a timely segue to my current favourite snippet of Proustian genius: in the early part of ‘Swann in Love’ we learn that Swann (the womanizer) and Odette (naughty courtesan) like to ‘do a cattleya’ (‘faire cattleya‘ in the original). I profess, I had to look this one up as my botanical knowledge of tropical flowers is limited to the sorry specimen of a peace lily crying out for water in the living room. A cattleya is a species of orchid, and a rather blousy one it is too.

Doing a cattleya!

cattleya labiata

Odette wears them on her bodice and Swann takes to ‘rearranging’ them as part of his attempts at love-making. In time, ‘to do a cattleya’ becomes a euphemism for the general act of amorous fondling:

“And long afterwards, when the rearrangement….of her cattleyas had quite fallen into desuetude, the metaphor “Do a cattleya”, transmuted into a simple verb which they would employ without thinking when they wished to refer to the act of physical possession, survived to commemorate in their vocabulary the long-forgotten custom from which it sprang.” (Proust, ‘Swann’s Way’.)

It is certainly one of the more unusual metaphors for secret canoodling that I can think of and a perfect example of how reading ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is becoming ever more entertaining and stimulating.

I’d be interested if you’ve come across any metaphors which tickled your fancies, botanical or not. Do let me know.


2 comments on “Proust or bust: have you ‘done a cattleya?’

  1. Robert Kemp says:

    But this latest love had burst the cage of lines. It had refused to be kept between them out of sight. There was one code word I did remember—“onions”. That word had been allowed in our correspondence to represent discreetly our passion. Love became “onions,” even the act itself “onions.” Graham Greene, The End of the Affair, p. 53

  2. JD Aaron says:

    I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Days of Abandonment’ and came across: “…Mario would give me a cattleya, in imitation of Swann.” A quick search brought me to your missive on the subject. Thank you!

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