Archive for January, 2010

Optical Illusions

January 31, 2010

Marcel visits Elstir’s studio and meditates on the sources of his artistic vision. Here is a concise definition of Impressionism.

Now the effort made by Elstir to reproduce things not as he knew them to be but according to the optical illusions of which our first sight of them is composed, had led him precisely to bring out certain of these laws of perspective, which were thus all the more striking, since art had been the first to disclose them. (II,570)

Proust’s writing is impressionistic in the same way, as in this scene of the Rivebelle restaurant.

All this dizzy activity became fixed in a quiet harmony. I looked at the round tables whose innumerable assemblages filled the restaurant like so many planets, as the latter are represeneted in old allegorical pictures. Moreover, there seemed to be some irresistible force of attraction at work among these various stars, and at each table the diners had eyes only for the tables at which they were not sitting, with the possible exception of some wealthy Amphitryon who, having managed to secure a famous author, was endeavouring to extract from him, thanks to the magic properties of the turning-table, a few insignificant remarks at which the ladies marvelled. The harmony of these astral tables did not prevent the incessant revolution of the countless waiters, who, because instead of being seated like the diners they were on their feet, performed their gyrations in a more exalted sphere. No doubt they were running, one to fetch the hors d’oeuvres, another to change the wine or to bring clean glasses. But despite these special reasons, their perpetual course among the round tables yielded, after a time, to the observer  the law of its dizzy but ordered circulation. (II,532)


Les Demoiselles de Balbec

January 31, 2010

When Marcel first sees the band of girls on the Balbec beach they are a swirl of eyes and skin tones. These passages might well be describing a cubist painting, where parts stand in for the whole. 

Although each was of a type absolutely different from the others, they all had beauty; but to tell the truth I had seen them for so short a time, and without venturing to look hard at them, that I had not yet individualised any of them. Except for one, whose straight nose and dark complexion singled her out from the rest, like the Arabian king in a Renaissance picture of the Epiphany, they were known to me only by a pair of hard, obstinate and mocking eyes, for instance, or by cheeks whose pinkness had a coppery tint reminiscent of geraniums; and even these features I had not yet indissolubly attached to any one of these girls rather than to another; and when (according to the order in which the group met the eye, marvellous because the most different aspects were juxtaposed, because all the colour scales were combined in it, but confused as a piece of music in which I was unable to isolate and identity at the moment of their passage the successive phrases, no sooner distinguished than forgotten) I saw a pallid oval, black eyes, green eyes, emerge, I did not know if these were the same that had already charmed me a moment ago, I could not relate them to any one girl whom I had set apart from the rest and identified. 




January 29, 2010

Marcel views the seascape from his hotel window, and sees changing scenes according to the circumstances: “…as it were the repetition–dear to certain contemporary masters–of one and the same effect caught at different hours…” (II,526) Take the case where he is hungry.

A few weeks later, when I went upstairs, the sun had already set. Like the one that I used to see at Combray, behind the Calvary, when I came home from a walk and was getting ready to go down to the kitchen before dinner, a band of red sky above the sea, compact and clear-cut as a layer of aspic over meat, then, a little later, over a sea already cold and steel-blue like a grey mullet, a sky of the same pink as the salmon that we should presently be ordering at Rivebelle, reawakened my pleasure in dressing to go out to dinner. (II,523)

He has more painterly views, too.

And if, beneath my window, the soft, unwearying flight of swifts and swallows had not arisen like a playing fountain, like living fireworks, joining the intervals between their soaring rockets with the motionless white streaming lines of long horizontal wakes–without the charming miracle of this natural and local phenomenon which I had before my eyes–I might easily have believed that they were no more than a selection, made afresh every day, of paintings which were shown quite arbitrarily in the place in which I happened to be and without having any necessary connexion with that place. (II,524)

I had more pleasure on evenings when a ship, absorbed and liquefied by horizon, appeared so much the same colour as its background, as in an Impressionist picture, that it seemed to be also of the same substance, as though its hull and the rigging in which it tapered into a slender filigree had simply been cut out from the vaporous blue of the sky. (II,525)


Without Rancor

January 28, 2010

The narrator does try to be understanding of Bloch.

 I did not believe what he was saying, but I bore him no ill-will on that account, for I had inherited from my mother and grandmother their incapacity for rancour even against the worst offenders, and their habit of never condemning anyone. Besides, Bloch was not altogether a bad fellow: he was capable of being extremely nice. (II, 445)

But he tires of the effort. Bloch is at Balbec with his tribe.

Personally, I was not particularly anxious that Bloch should come to the hotel. He was at Balbec, not by himself, unfortunately, but with his sisters, and they in turn had innumerable relatives and friends staying there. Now this Jewish colony was more picturesque than pleasing….they formed a solid troop, homogenous within itself, and utterly dissimilar to the people who watched them go by and found them there again every year without ever exchanging a word or a greeting…(II,434)

Marcel and Robert are invited to dinner with Bloch and his family and witness scene after scene of vulgar behavior. Here is Bloch’s father scrimping on the wine and theater seats.

However, if the failing of his son, that is to say the failing which his son believed to be invisible to other people, was coarseness, the father’s was avarice. And so it was in a decanter that we were served, under the name of champagne, with a light sparkling wine, while under that of orchestra stalls he had taken three in the pit, which cost half as much, miraculously persuaded by the divine intervention of his failing that neither at table nor in the theatre (where the boxes were all empty) would the difference be noticed. (II,487)

And in the unkindest cut of all, Bloch is revealed to have had sex with Odette in a railway car.

“I picked her up a few days before that on the Zone railway, where, speaking of zones, she was so kind as to undo hers for the benefit of your humble servant….I was hoping ,” he said, “thanks to you,  to learn her address, so as to go there several times a week to taste  in her arms the delights of Eros, dear to the gods; but I do not insist since you seem pledged to discretion with respect to a professional who gave herself to me three times running, and in the most rarefied manner, between Paris and Point-du-Jour. I’m bound to see her again some night.” (II,489)







January 27, 2010

Charlus’ duality manifests itself in his fierce masculinity layered on his femininity.

 Of two or three “gigolos,” relatives or intimate friends of Saint-Loup, who happened to mention their names, M. de Charlus remarked with an almost ferocious expression in sharp contrast to his usual coldness: “Young scum!” I gathered that the particular fault which he found in the young men of the day was their effeminacy. “They’re nothing but women, ” he said with scorn. But what life  would not have appeared effeminate beside that which he expected a man to lead, and never found energetic or virile enough? (II,466)

But listen to his voice.

M. de Charlus not only revealed a refinement of feeling such as men rarely show; his voice itself, like certain contralto voices in which the middle register has not been sufficiently cultivated, so that when they sing it sound like an alternating duet between a young man and a woman, mounted, when he expressed these delicate sentiments, to its higher notes, took an unexpected sweetness and seemed to embody choirs of betrothed maidens, of sisters, pouring out their fond feelings… Often while M. de Charlus was talking one could hear their laughter, the shrill fresh laughter of school-girls or coquettes twitting their companions with all the mischievousness of sharp tongues and quick wits. (II,469)

 And always on a (color) diet.

At that moment, noticing that the embroidered handkerchief which he had in his pocket was exhibiting  its coloured border, he thrust it sharply down out of sight with the scandalised air of a prudish but far from innocent lady concealing attractions which, by an excess of scrupulosity, she regards as indecent. (II,470)




Inverted Signals

January 26, 2010

Now that most of the enlightened world treats sexual inclinations as just another personal attribute, we are amused at the elaborate signaling once necessary to convey one’s proclivities. The rituals must look rather normal to the casual observer but must be informative for the receptive observer. See how they are done by one who is a haughty aristocrat with impeccable taste. First there is the mating dance.

I turned my head and saw a man of about forty, very tall and rather stout, with a very black moustache, who, nervously slapping the leg of his trousers with a switch, was staring at me, his eyes dilated with extreme attentiveness. From time to time these eyes were shot through by a look of restless activity such as the sight of a person they do not know excites only in men in whom, for whatever reason, it inspires thoughts that would not occur to any one else–madmen, for instance, or spies. He darted a final glance at me that was at once bold, prudent, rapid and profound, like a last shot which one fires at an enemy as one turns to flee, and, after first looking all round him, suddenly adopting an absent and lofty air, with an abrupt revolution of his whole person, he turned towards a playbill in the reading of which he became absorbed, while he hummed a tune and fingered the moss-rose in his button-hole. (II,452)

Then there are the visual clues, subtle but revealing.

The suit he was wearing was darker even than the other; and no doubt true elegance lies nearer to simplicity than false; but there was something more: from close at hand one felt that if colour was almost entirely absent from these garments it was not because he who had banished it from them was indifferent to it but rather because for some reason he forbade himself the enjoyment of it. And the sobriety which they displayed seemed to be of the kind that comes from obedience to a rule of diet rather than from lack of appetite. A dark green thread harmonised, in the stuff of his trousers, with a the stripe on his socks, with a refinement which betrayed the vivacity of a taste that was everywhere else subdued, to which this single concession had been made out of tolerance, while a spot of red on his tie was imperceptible, like a liberty which one dare not take. (II,454)


The Remorse of Friendship

January 25, 2010

Marcel is hardly ever so miserable as when he experiences friendship. It is at once the promise of the end of his loneliness and the betrayal of his self.

…I told myself that I had a good friend, that a good friend was a rare thing, and I savoured, when I felt myself surrounded by assets that were difficult to acquire, what was precisely the opposite of the pleasure that was natural to me, the opposite of the leisure of having extracted from myself and brought to light something that was hidden in my inner darkness. If I had spent two or three hours in conversation with Saint-Loup and he had expressed his admiration of what I had said to him, I felt a sort of remorse, or regret, or weariness at not having remained alone and settled down to work at last. (II,431)

Leaving aside the feeling of wasting his time instead of being a creative writer, which was an empty concern, he felt guilt because he was in a sense using Saint-Loup, using him as creative fuel.

He was no more than an object the properties of which, in my musings, I sought to explore. The discovery in him of the pre-existent, this immemorial being, this aristocrat who was precisely what Robert aspired not to be, gave me intense joy, but a joy of the mind rather than the feelings. (II,432)

And Saint-Loup explains why Marcel is so attracted to the aristocracy. At their best, they simple are, without aspiration, noble.

…I sense in it above all the certainty or the illusion in the minds of those great lords of being “better than other people,” thanks to which they had not been able to hand down to Saint-Loup that  anxiety to show that one is “just as good as the next man,” that dread of seeming too assiduous of which he was indeed wholly innocent and which mars with so much stiffness and awkwardness the most sincere plebeian civility. Sometimes I reproached myself for thus taking pleasure in considering my friend as a work of art, that is to say in regarding the play of all the parts of his being as harmoniously ordered by a general idea from which they depended but of which he was unaware and which consequently added nothing to his own qualities, to that personal value, intellectual and moral, which he prized so highly. (II,431)


Lawful Behavior

January 24, 2010

Proust rarely judges his characters, despite their flaws. They are, after all, simply behaving according to psychological laws.

Thus it is superfluous to make a study of social mores, since we can deduce them from psychological laws. (II,117)

Here is an example of one, this describing Mme de Villeparisis.

And her one and only failure in true politeness lay in this excess of politeness–which it was easy to identify as the professional bent of a lady of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, who, always seeing in her humbler friends the latent discontent that she must one day arouse in their bosoms, greedily seizes every possible opportunity to establish in advance, in the ledger in which she keeps her social account with them, a credit balance which will enable her presently to enter on the debit side the dinner or reception to which she will not invite them. (II,414)

Does the narrator find this class behaviour distasteful? No.

And for  that reason, quite as much as the dazzling splendour of the beach, the many-coloured flamboyance and subaqueous light of the rooms…the daily kindnesses shown us by Mme de Villeparisis, and also the unaccustomed, momentary, holiday ease with which my grandmother accepted them, have remained in my memory as typical of life at the seaside. (II,414)




Déjà Vu

January 23, 2010

Marcel sees something on the roadside that triggers what for most of us would call déjà vu. But Marcel is not like the rest of us.

And for a neurotic nature such as mine–one, that is to say, in which the intermediaries, the nerves, perform their functions badly, fail to arrest on its way to the consciousness, allow indeed to reach it, distinct, exhausting, innumerable and distressing, the plaints of the most humble elements of the self which are about to disappear…(II,340)

He sees a simple, unremarkable pattern of trees.

We came down towards Hudimesnil; and suddenly I was overwhelmed with that profound happiness which I had not often felt since Combray, a happiness analogous to that which had been given me by–among other things–the steeples of Martinville. But this time it remained incomplete. I had just seen, standing a little way back from the hog’s-back road along which we were travelling, three trees which probably marked the entry to a covered driveway and formed a pattern which I was not seeing for the first time. I could not succeed in reconstructing the place from which they had been as it were detached, but I felt that it had been familiar to me once; so that, my mind having wavered between some distant year and the present moment, Balbec and its surroundings began to dissolve and I wondered whether the whole of the drive were not a make-believe, Balbec a place to which I had never gone except in imagination, Mme de Villeparisis a character in a story and the three old trees the reality which one recaptures on raising one’s eyes from the book which one has been reading and which describes an environment into which one has come to believe that one had been bodily transported. (II,404)

This unexplained feeling of happiness can come rushing back to him later when driving down new roadways.

For as soon as the carriage or the motor-car turned into one of these roads that seemed to be the continuation of the road along which I had driven with Mme de Villeparisis, what I found my present  consciousness immediately dwelling upon, as upon the most recent event in my past, would be (all the intervening years being quietly obliterated) the impressions that I had had on those bright summer afternoons and evenings, driving in the neighborhood of Balbec, when the leaves smelt good, the mist was rising from the ground, and beyond the nearby village one could see through the trees the sun setting as though it had been some place further along the road, distant and forested, which we should not have time to reach that evening. (II,409)




Human Aquarium

January 22, 2010

Marcel survives his first night away from home and eagerly observes his new environment. The hotel is a favorite of the rich, whether from the provinces or Paris. One rather reserved old lady, who we will learn is Mme de Villeparisis, attracts the attention of the other ladies.

Whenever the wives of the notary and the judge saw her in the dining-room at the meal-times, they put up their lorgnettes and gave her an insolent scrutiny, as meticulous and distrustful as if she had been some dish with a pretentious name but a suspicious appearance which, after the adverse result of a systematic study, is sent away with a lofty wave of the hand and a grimace of disgust. (II,348)

…the suppression of all desire for, of all curiosity about, ways of life which are unfamiliar, of all hope of endearing oneself to new people, for which, in these women, had been substituted a feigned contempt, a spurious jubilation, had the disagreeable effect of obliging them to label their discontent satisfaction and to lie everlastingly to themselves, two reasons why they were unhappy. (II,349)

Marcel imagines looking into the hotel dining area from the boardwalk.

Meanwhile, perhaps, amid the dumbfounded stationary crowd out there in the dark, there may have been some writer, some student of human ichthyology, who, as he watched the jaws of old feminine monstrosities close over a mouthful of submerged food, was amusing himself by classifying them by race, by innate characteristic, as well as by those acquired characteristics which bring it about that an old Serbian lady whose buccal appendage is that of a great sea-fish, because from her earliest years she has moved in the fresh waters of the Faubourg Saint-
Germain, eats her salad for all the world like a La Rochefoucauld. (II,354)