Archive for October, 2009

Proust’s Humor

October 22, 2009


France is at war and Parisian society does its part by adapting to the new circumstances. Proust here unleashes his full comic powers, which resemble Jane Austen’s irony in the delightful gap between what is said and what is meant. A few examples follow.

Mme Verdurin has by now ascended to the height of society and she now welcomes all to her salon, including the “bores” and not including all of the “faithful”:

Another noticeable change was that, as more and more smart people made advances to Mme. Verdurin, inversely the number of those whom she dubbed “bores” diminished. By a sort of magical transformation, every bore who had come to call on her and asked to be invited to her parties immediately became a charming and intelligent person. In  short, at the end of a year, the number of bores had dwindled to such an extent that “the fear and awfulness of being bored,” which had filled so large a place in the conversation and played so great a role in the life of Mme Verdurin, had almost entirely disappeared….And the terror of being bored would doubtless, for want of bores, have entirely abandoned Mme Verdurin had she not, in some slight degree, replaced the vanishing bores by others recruited from the ranks of the former faithful. (VI,56)

Wartime shortages have forced Mme Verdurin to move her salon to a large hotel, where everyone is absorbed in discussions of the war effort.

After dinner the guests went upstairs to the Mistress’s reception rooms, and then the telephoning began. But many large hotels were at this period peopled with spies, who duly noted the news announced over the telephone by Bontemps with an indiscretion which might have had serious consequences but for a fortunate lack of accuracy in his reports, which invariably were contradicted by events. (VI,63)

The Dreyfus case is now ancient history; everyone is a Dreyfusard now. Society adopts change in its own way.

In society (and this social phenomenon is merely a particular case of a much more general psychological law) novelties, whether blameworthy or not, excite horror only so long as they have not been assimilated and enveloped by reassuring elements. It was the same with Dreyfusism as with that marriage between Saint-Loup and the daughter of Odette which had at first produced such an outcry. Now that “everybody one knew” was seen at the parties given by the Saint-Loups, Gilberte might have had the morals of Odette herself but people would have “gone there” just the same and would have thought it quite right that she should disapprove like a dowager of any moral novelties that had not been assimilated. (VI,52)



The Artist as Mirror

October 15, 2009

At Tansonville Marcel pulls down a volume of the Goncourt brothers journal from Gilberte’s library. Proust here writes a delicious pastiche of a Goncourt entry on a dinner at the Verdurins. I enjoyed the passage, but I like the real Goncourt better. My favorite entry was about their discovery of the true life of their housekeeper, their “Francoise.” The brothers were devastated with grief at her death, which was tempered a bit when they learned from a household staff member that she had over the years stolen money from the house budget to pay for elaborate orgies, of which she was the center of attention. But back to Proust.

Marcel feels pangs of inadequacy as a would-be writer after reading the entry on the Verdurins. He had known them as insignificant social climbers, certainly, he thought, unworthy of being the object of serious art. What did he miss? Does he have an “illness” that keeps him from seeing the richness of the world around him? Why can’t he remember the kinds of sparkling conversations recorded by the Goncourts? His responses to these questions take him a giant step closer to knowing what and how to write, a process completed later in Time Regained.

We can begin with the question of his “incapacity for looking and listening”:

…which the passage from the Journal had so painfully illustrated to me, was nevertheless not total. … the stories that people told escaped me, for what interested me was not what they were trying to say but the manner in which they said it and the way in which this manner revealed their character or their foibles, or rather I was interested in what had always, because it gave me specific pleasure, been more particularly the goal of my investigations; the point that was common to one being and another.  As soon as I perceived this my intelligence–until that moment slumbering, even if sometimes the apparent animation of my talk might disguise from others a profound intellectual torpor–at once set off joyously in pursuit, but its quarry then…was situated in the middle distance, behind actual appearances, in a zone that was rather more withdrawn.  So the apparent copiable charm of things and people escaped me, because I had not the ability to stop short there–I was like a surgeon who beneath the smooth surface of a woman’s belly sees the internal disease which is devouring it. If I went to a dinner party I did not see the guests: when I thought I was looking at them, I was in fact examining them with X-rays. (VI, 39).

This discovery about himself frees Marcel to pursue a psychological rather than “copiable” descriptive language of society. His next puzzle is the proper subject of art. Recall Marcel’s frustration, in Combray, at not being able to imagine a subject for writing that was lofty enough. Some of this attitude  “>carrys over from his childhood when he reads the Goncourt Journal and wonders how the Verdurins could a subject for art.

Marcel recalls paintings of drawing rooms and ladies in lace that left him with sense of longing to visit and see with his own eyes. Yet he knows that these are places and people that he has known to be common and boring. He recalls how the artist creates beauty:

For I had already realized long ago that it is not the man with the liveliest mind, the most well-informed, the best supplied with friends and acquaintances, the one who knows how to become a mirror and in this way can reflect his life, commonplace though it may be, who becomes a Bergotte (even if his contemporaries once thought him less witty than Swann, less erudite then Breaute)… Will not posterity, when it looks at our time, find the poetry of an elegant home and beautifully dressed women in the drawing-room of the publisher Charpentier as painted by Renoir, rather than in the portraits of the Princesse de Sagan or the Comtesse de La Rochefoucauld by Cot or Chaplin? (VI,44)

These two insights, the power of his psychological insights and the artist as mirror, still leave Marcel with self-doubt. He retreats to a sanatorium, leaving the final self-discoveries to come later, when he wrestles with time and memory.

Structure of Lost Time

October 12, 2009


This time rereading Proust I am going to read the volumes in more or less the order Proust wrote them, in the expectation that I will get new insights into how he wrote. Scholars who have had access to Proust’s notebooks generally agree that he began with sketches that he gradually shaped into Swann’s Way, Guermantes Way, Shadow of Young Girls (without Albertine) and Time Regained. The other volumes grew from the time Proust took advantage of the publishing moratorium imposed by WWI. (For this information I rely mostly on the essay “The Birth and Development of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” by Marion Schmid in The Cambridge Companion to Proust, 2001.)

So I am following my reading of Swann’s Way with Time Regained. The Time Regained volume apparently has its origins in the unfinished Contra Saint Beuve, which concludes with a dialogue on aesthetics with his mother. My hunch is that Proust had to work through his aesthetic principles before he could justify to himself the worth of a novel so heavily infused with his own, seemingly insignificant,  life experiences. Before I return to reading the published sequence of volumes, I want to become clearer about what these aesthetic judgement were and to keep them in front of me as I read.

My first observation (more on this in other posts) is the parallelism between Swann’s Way and Time Regained. They both open with Marcel’s Combray childhood, though from different points of view. Marcel is visiting with Gilberte at Tansonville and she provides her view of their first meeting. She recalls giving him an obscene gesture,  out of a sense of juvenile sexual longing for him. Marcel, of course, had interpreted the gesture as one of defiant rejection. One more childish illusion overcome.

Marcel walks along some of the same paths around Combray that he had as a child. This time, though, the Vivonne is “ugly.”  He has lost the desire to walk into Combray. He sees what had once entranced him, but time has ravaged his vision.

Idolatry of Words

October 1, 2009

The young Marcel wants to write but cannot, at least until he can overcome his idealization, worship actually, of language.  Much of the chapter Place-Names in Swann’s Way is taken up with this theme.

The narrator starts the chapter as he began the volume, with the setting of sleepless nights:

Among the rooms which used most commonly to take shape in my mind during my nights of sleeplessness, there was none that differed more utterly from the rooms at Combray…than my room in the Grand Hotel de la Plage, at Balbec… (I,545).

This is recalled from his childhood visits to Balbec. But his first contact with the town was an invention of his imagination:

And yet nothing could have differed more utterly, either, from the real Balbec than that other Balbec of which I had often dreamed, on stormy days, when the wind was so strong that Francoise, as she took me to the Champs-Elysees, would advise me not to walk too close to the walls or I might have my head knocked off by a falling slate, and would recount to me, with many a groan, the terrible disasters and shipwrecks that were reported in the newspaper.  (I,546)

And from Legrandin:

And it is the ultimate encampment of the fishermen, the heirs of all the fishermen who have lived since the world’s beginning, facing the everlasting kingdom of the sea-fogs and shadows of the night. (I,547)

And from Swann:

Yes indeed I know Balbec! The church there, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and still half Romanesque, is perhaps the most curious example to be found of our Norman Gothic, and so singular that one is tempted to describe it as Persian in its inspiration. (I,547)

Thus did the name Balbec evoke storms and exotic Persian styled churches:

Thereafter, on delightful, stormy February nights, the wind–breathing into my ear, which it shook no less violently than the chimney of my bedroom, the project of a visit to Balbec–blended in me the desire for Gothic architecture as well as for a storm upon the sea…I need only, to make them reappear, pronounce the names Balbec, Venice, Florence, within whose syllables had gradually accumulated the longing inspired in me by the places for which they stood. (I, 548-550)

The narrator hints at what we will later see; by associating such ideal images with these place names, Marcel will inevitably become unable, at least for a time, to appreciate the actual places:

But if these names thus permanently absorbed the image I had formed of these towns, it was only by transforming that image, by subordinating its reappearance in me to their own special laws; and in consequence of this they made it more beautiful, but at the same time more different from anything that the towns of Normandy or Tuscany could in reality be, and by increasing the arbitrary delights of my imagination, aggravated the disenchantment that was in store for me when I set out upon my travels. (I,550)

These images were false for another reason also–namely, that they were necessarily much simplified. Doubtless whatever it was that my imagination aspired to, that my senses took in only incompletely and without any immediate pleasure, I had committed to the safe custody of names; doubtless, because I had accumulated there a store of dreams, those names now magnetised my desires; but names themselves are not very comprehensive; the most that I could do was to include in each of them two or three of the principal “curiosities” of the town…(I,553)

This theme is renewed in the scenes where Marcel meets Gilberte. He hears one of her playmates call her name:

The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close to me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the  proximity of its target–carrying it its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed…(I,560)

It will be only in the final volume that Marcel will know Gilberte directly, unmediated by the powerful associations connected to her name.

In the following volumes Marcel will face other idealisations that he must overcome before he will be able to write about them, most notably the French aristocracy.