Archive for February, 2010

The Soul of Wit

February 28, 2010

Mme de Guermantes’s wit is so famous, it begs for a definition.

It is fickle and easily distracted.

As though corrupted by the nullity of life in society, the intelligence and sensibility of Mme de Guermantes were too vacillating for disgust not to follow pretty swiftly in the wake of infatuation (leaving her still ready to be attracted afresh by the kind of cleverness which she had alternately sought and abandoned) and for the charm which she had found in some warm-hearted man not to change, if he came too often to see her, sought too freely from her a guidance which she was incapable of giving him, into an irritation which she believed to be produced by her admirer but which was in fact due to the utter impossibility of finding pleasure when one spends all one’s time seeking it. (III,646)

It is amoral.

Known to be kind, she would receive the constant telephone calls, the confidences, the tears of the abandoned mistress and make no complaint. She would laugh at them, first with her husband, then with a few chosen friends. And imagining that the pity which she showed for the unfortunate woman gave her the right to make fun of her, even to her face, whatever the lady might say, provided it could be included among the attributes of the ridiculous character which the Duke and Duchesse had recently fabricated for her, Mme de Guermantes had no hesitation in exchanging glances of ironical connivance with her husband. (III,661)

It is cruel.

An idea seemed to flicker in the eye of Mme de Guermantes. She insisted that M. de Grouchy must not give himself the trouble of sending the pheasants. And making a sign to the betrothed footman with whom I had exchanged a few words on my way in from the Elstir room, “Poullein,” she told him, “you will go tomorrow and fetch M. le Comte’s  pheasants and bring them straight back–you won’t mind, will you, Grouchy, if I make a few little presents. Basin and I can’t eat a dozen pheasants by ourselves.” “But the day after tomorrow will be soon enough,” said M. Grouchy. “No, tomorrow suits me better,” the Duchesse insisted. Poullein had turned pale; he would miss his rendezvous with his sweetheart. This was quite enough for the diversion of the Duchesse, who liked to appear to be taking a human interest in everyone. (III,662)

How like the sensibility of a writer!

But Mme de Guermantes on the contrary drew from such incidents opportunities for stories which made the Guermantes laugh until the tears streamed down their cheeks, so that one was obliged to envy the lady for having run short of chairs, for having herself made or allowed her servant to make a gaffe, for having had at a party someone whom nobody knew, as one is obliged to be thankful that great writers have been kept at a distance by men and betrayed by women when their humiliations and their sufferings have been if not the direct simulus of their genius at any rate the subject matter of their works. (III,641).

Precious and Rare

February 27, 2010

Marcel finally gets to mix with the aristocracy when invited to a dinner party by Madame la Duchesse, as she insists the butler address her. As in all cases where imagination is corrected by experience, imagination is killed.

To a certain extent, it is true, though not nearly enough to justify this state of mind, the Guermantes were different from the rest of society; they were more precious and rare. They had given me at first sight the opposite impression; I had found them vulgar, similar to all other men and women, but that was because before meeting them I had seen them, as I saw Balbec, Florence or Parma, as names. Naturally enough, in this drawing-room, all the women whom I had imagined as being like Dresden figures were after all more like the great majority of women. But, in the same way as Balbec or Florence, the Guermantes, after first disappointing the imagination because they resembled their fellow-men rather more than their name, could subsequently, though to a lesser degree, hold out to one’s intelligence certain distinctive characteristics. (III,599)

Let’s take a look at those “distinctive characteristics.” First, consider the Princesse de Parme, a person so grounded in her blue-blood and wealth, that she takes genuine delight in radiating a benevolence on those lesser endowed.

Well before I arrived in her vicinity, the lady had begun to flash at me continuously from her large, soft, dark eyes the sort of knowing smiles which we address to an old friend who perhaps has not recognised us. As this was precisely the case with me and I could not for the life of me remember who she was, I averted my eyes as the Duke propelled me towards her, in order not to have to respond until our introduction should have released me from my predicament. Meanwhile the lady continued to maintain in precarious  balance the smile she was aiming at me. She looked as though she was in a hurry to be relieved of it and hear me say: “Ah, Madame, of course! How delighted Mamma will be to hear that we’ve met again!” I was as impatient to learn her name as she was to see that I did finally greet her with every indication of recognition, so that her smile, indefinitely prolonged like the note of a tuning fork, might at length be given a rest. (III,580)

By the same token, in a fragmentary survival of the old life of the court which is called social etiquette and is by no means superficial, wherein, rather, by a sort of outside-in reversal, it is the surface that becomes essential and profound, the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes regarded as a duty more essential and more inflexible than those (all too neglected by one at least of the pair) of charity, chastity, pity and justice, that of rarely addressing the Princesse de Parme save in the third person. (III,583)

As the traveller discovers, almost unaltered, the houses roofed with turf, the terrace which may have met the eyes of Xenophon or St Paul, so in the manners of M. de Guermantes, a man who was heart-warming in his graciousness and revolting in his hardness, a slave to the pettiest obligations and derelict as regards the most solemn pacts. I found still intact after more than two centuries that aberration, peculiar to the life of the court under Louis XIV, which transfers the scruples of conscience from the domain of the affections and morality to questions of pure form. (III,598)

Face Names

February 25, 2010

Pity the poor immigrant. However long he has lived in his adopted home, whatever his good qualities, he will never be French.

They repelled–the Jews among them principally, the unassimilated Jews, that is to say, for with the other kind we are not concerned–those who could not endure any oddity or eccentricity of appearance (as Bloch repelled Albertine). Generally speaking, one realised afterwards that , if it could be held against them that their hair was too long, their noses and eyes were too big, their gestures abrupt and theatrical, it was puerile to judge them by this, that they had plenty of wit and good-heartedness, and were men to whom, in the long run, one could become closely attached. (III,559)

But in Saint-Loup, when all was said, however the faults of his parents had combined to create a new blend of qualities, there reigned the most charming openness of mind and heart. And whenever (it must be allowed to the undying glory of France) these qualities are found in a man who is purely French, whether he belongs to the aristocracy or the people, they flower–flourish would be too strong a word, for moderation persists in this field, as well as restriction–with a grace which the foreigner, however estimable he may be,does not present to us. Of these intellectual and moral qualities others undoubtedly have their share, and, if we have first to overcome what repels us and what makes us smile, they remain no less precious. But it is all the same a pleasant thing, and one which is perhaps exclusively French, that what is fine in all equity of judgment, what is admirable to the mind and the heart, should be first of all attractive to the eyes, pleasingly coloured, consummately chiselled, should express as well in substance as in form an inner perfection. I looked at Saint-Loup….the curves of the nostrils are as delicate and as perfectly designed as the wings of the little butterflies that hover over the field-flowers round Combray….(III,560) 

Yet we have learned that certain personal traits can mar even this near-perfect visage. Saint-Loup tells Marcel that he informed Bloch that Marcel “didn’t like him all that much.”

Whatever it was, his face was seared, while he uttered these vulgar words, by a frightful sinuosity which I saw on it once or twice only in all the time I knew him, and which, beginning by runing more or less down the middle of his face, when it came to his lips twisted them, gave them a hideous expression of baseness, almost of bestiality, quite transitory and no doubt inherited. (III,547)

Is there something we don’t know about Robert?

But the Prince de Foix, who was himself rich, belonged not only to this fashionable set of fifteen or so young men, but to a more exclusive and inseparable group of four, which included Saint-Loup. These were never asked anywhere separately, they were known as the four gigolos, they were always to be seen riding together, and in country houses their hostesses gave them communicating bedrooms, with the result that, especially as they were all four extremely good-looking, rumours were current as to the extent of their intimacy. (III,55)

Little wonder that Gide complained that Proust, for all his giving prominence to homosexuals in his novel, never portrayed their experience in a positive light. (Give me a moment and I will find examples of heterosexuals portrayed positively.)


Upward Nubility

February 23, 2010

When they had last met, Marcel’s attempt to kiss Albertine was violently rebuffed. Albertine visits Marcel in Paris and his interest in her is revived.

One has seen a woman, a mere image in the decorative setting of life, like Albertine silhouetted against the sea, and then one has been able to take that image, to detach it, to bring it close to oneself, gradually to discern its volume, its colours, as though one had placed it behind the lens of a stereoscope. It is for this reason that women who are to some extent resistant, whom one cannot possess at once, of whom one does not indeed know at first whether one will ever possess them, are alone interesting. (III,495)

Will she now accept his advances? He finds clues in her speech.

…had I been asked upon what–in the course of this endless chatter throughout which I was at pains to keep from Albertine the one thing that was in my mind–my optimistic assumption with regard to her possible complaisances was based, I should perhaps have answered that this assumption was due (while the forgotten outline of Albertine’s voice retraced for me the contour of her personality) to the advent of certain words which had not formed  part of her vocabulary, or at least not in the acceptation which she now gave them. (III,484)

Mme Bontemps has inducted her into womanhood, in part by transforming her language.

Her more pronounced nubility had struck home when Albertine, speaking of another girl whom she considered ill-bred, said: “One can’t even tell whether she’s pretty, because she paints her face a foot thick.“….All these expressions Mme Bontemps had imparted to her at the same time as a hatred of the Jews and a respect for black because it is always suitable and becoming, even without any formal instruction, but as the piping of the parent goldfinches serves as a model for that of the newborn goldfinches so that they in turn grow into true goldfinches also. (III,485-487)

Marcel has heard what he wanted to hear.

To my mind, that is the best thing that could possibly happen. I regard it as the best solution, the stylish way out.”

This was so novel, so manifestly an alluvial deposit leading one to suspect such capricious wanderings over ground hitherto unknown to her, that on hearing the words “to my mind” I drew Albertine towards me, and at “I regard” sat her down on my bed. (III,486)


Death Masks

February 22, 2010

The grandmother’s illness sculpts her face at it moves to conclusion.

The work of the sculptor was nearing its end, and if my grandmother’s face had shrunk in the process, it had at the same time hardened. The veins that traversed it seemed those not of marble, but of some more rugged stone. Permanently thrust forward by the difficulty that she found in breathing, and as permanently withdrawn into itself by exhaustion, her face, worn, diminished, terrifyingly expressive, seemed like the rude, flushed, purplish, desperate face of some wild guardian of a tomb in a primitive, almost prehistoric sculpture. But the work was not yet completed. Afterwards, the sculpture would have to be broken, and into that tomb–so painfully and tensely guarded–be lowered. (III,44)

For some days she could not see at all. Her eyes were not at all like those of a blind person, but remained just the same as before. And I gathered  that she could see nothing only from the strangeness of a certain smile of welcome which she assumed the moment one opened the door, until one had come up to her and taken her hand, a smile which began too soon and remained stereotyped on her lips, fixed, but always full-faced, and endeavouring to be visible from every quarter, because it could no longer rely on the eyes to regulate it…(III,452)

Cottard, to her disappointment, gave the preference, though without much hope, to leeches. When, a few hours later, I went into my grandmother’s room, fastened to her neck, her temples, her ears, the tiny black reptiles were writhing among her bloodstained locks, as on the head of Medusa. (III,455)

All this agitation was not addressed to us, whom she neither saw nor knew. But if it was only a beast that was stirring there, where was my grandmother? Yes, I could recognise the shape of her nose, which bore no relation now to the rest of her face, but to the corner of which a beauty spot still adhered…(III,458)

An  hour of two later Françoise was able for the last time, and without causing it any pain, to comb that beautiful hair which was only tinged with grey and hitherto had seemed less old than my grandmother herself. But now, on the contrary, it alone set the crown of age on a face grown young again, from which had vanished the wrinkles, the contractions, the swellings, the strains, the hollows which pain had carved on it over the years. As in the far-off days when her parents had chosen for her a bridegroom, she had the features, delicately traced by purity and submission, the cheeks glowing with a chaste expectation, with a dream of happiness, with an innocent gaiety even, which the years had gradually destroyed. Life in withdrawing from her had taken with it the disillusionments of life. A smile seemed to be hovering on my grandmother’s lips. On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl. (III,470)

Charlus in Love III

February 21, 2010

In the space of a short walk, Charlus’s erotic imagination is engaged by Marcel, Bloch and a cab driver. He tries to seduce Marcel with promises of secrets known only to the inner elites.

There is nothing so agreeable as to put oneself out for a person who is worth one’s while. For the best of us, the study of the arts, a taste of old things, collections, gardens, are all mere ersatz, surrogates, alibis. From the depths of our tub, like Diogenes, we cry out for a man. We cultivate begonias, we trim yews, as a last resort, because yews and begonis submit to treament but we should prefer to give our time to a plant of human growth, if we were sure that he was worth the trouble. (III,386)

I have often thought, Monsieur, that there was in me, thanks not to my own humble gifts but to circumstances which you may one day have occasion to learn, a wealth of experience, a sort of secret dossier of inestimable value, of which I have not felt myself at liberty to make use for my own personal ends, which would be a priceless acquisition to a young man to whom I would hand over in a few months what it has taken me more than thirty years to acquire, and which I am perhaps alone in possessing….I could give you an explanation that no one has dreamed of, not only of the past but of the future. (III,389)

Charlus now questions Marcel about Bloch, whom he had heard spoken of at Mme de Villeparisis’s, wondering if  “he was young, good-looking.” There follows some talk about Dreyfus, whom Charlus does not consider a traitor simply because he is not French, but a Jew. He then launches into a remarkably violent anti-semitic outburst than can only be considered, given Charlus’s disposition toward S&M, orgasmic.

Perhaps you could ask our friend to allow me to attend some great festival in the Temple, a circumcision, or some Hebrew chants. He might perhaps hire a hall and give me some biblical entertainment, as the young ladies of Saint-Cyr performed scenes taken from the Psalms by Racine, to amuse Louis XIV. You might perhaps arrange that, and even some comic exhibitions. For instance a contest between your friend and his father, in which he would smite him as David smote Goliath. That would make quite an amusing farce. He might even, while he was about it, give his hag (or, as my old nurse would say, his ‘haggart’) of a mother a good thrashing. That would be an excellent show, and would not be unpleasing to us, eh, my young friend, since we like exotic spectacles, and to thrash that non-European creature would be giving a well-earned punishment to an old cow. (III,390)

Charlus passes up cab after cab, not finding them quite what he was looking for.

At that moment a cab passed, zigzagging along the street. A young cabman, who had deserted his box, was driving it from inside, where he lay sprawling on the cushions, apparently half-tipsy. M. de Charlus instantly stopped him. The driver began to parley: “Which way are you going?” “Yours.”  “Well, I don’t want to get up on the box. D’you mind if I stay inside?” “No, but lower the hood…” (III,401)



February 20, 2010

Marcel has not noticed the signs of his grandmother’s illness as they have accumulated over the last year. He can no longer avoid the obvious when she takes to bed with a fever. It is time to call in the doctors. Proust himself, a lifelong sufferer of asthma, had a rich experience in the ineffectiveness of medicine at that time. The body is a mystery.

But to ask pity of our body is like discoursing in front of an octupus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the tides, and with which we should be appalled to find ourselves condemned to live. (III,404)

First, Dr. Cottard, who prescribes his cure-all:

Cottard, who had been called in to examine my grandmother–and who had infuriated us by asking with a subtle smile, the moment we told him she was ill: “Ill? You’re sure it’s not what they call a diplomatic illness?”–tried to soothe his patient’s restlessness by a milk diet….So that to believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe in it were not a greater folly still, for from this mass of errors a few truths have in the long run emerged.  (III,404)

Next, Dr. du Boulbon, who has a “special competence in cerebral and nervous matters” :

You have what I have had occasion to call ‘mental albumin.’ We have all of us had, when we have not been very well, little albuminous phases which our doctor has done his best to prolong by calling our attention to them. For one disorder that doctors cure with medicaments (as I am assured that they do occasionally succeed in doing) they produce a dozen others in healthy subjects by inoculating them with that pathogenic agent a thousand times more virulent than all the microbes in the world, the idea that one is ill. (III,410)

Marcel, following the advice of du Boulbon, accompanies his grandmother to the park, where she immediately has a stroke. He importunes a reluctant nearby doctor to see her.

I helped my grandmother in Professor E—-‘s lift and a moment later he came to us and took us into his consulting room. But there, pressed for time though he was, his offensive manner changed, such is the force of habit, and his habit was to be friendly, not to say playful, with his patients….My confidence in my grandmother’s prompt recovery was all the more complete in that …I was distracted …by a shout of laughter which served as conclusion to one the Professor’s jokes….I waited until my grandmother had left the room, closed the door and asked him to tell me the truth. “Your grandmother is doomed,” he said to me. (III,431)

Profile of a Duchesse

February 19, 2010

With a few deft strokes, the narrator gives us the essential Duchess de Guermantes.

The historian made a low bow, as I did too, and since he seemed to suppose that some friendly remark ought to follow this salute, his eyes brightened and he was preparing to open his mouth  when he was chilled by the demeanour of Mme de Guermantes, who had taken advantage of the independence of her torso to throw it forward with an exaggerated politeness and bring it nearly back to a position of rest without letting face or eyes appear to have noticed that anyone was standing before them; after breathing a little sigh she contented herself with manifesting the nullity of the impression that had been made on her by the sight of the historian and myself by performing certain movements of her nostrils with a precision that testified to the absolute inertia of her unoccupied attention. (III,267)

And it was true that  the Duchess was bored by other women, if their princely rank did not give them an exceptional interest. (III,277)

Moreover the type of mind illustrated by Mérimée and Meilhac and Halévy, which was also hers, led her, by contrast with the verbal sentimentality of an earlier generation, to a style of conversation that rejects everything to do with fine language and the expression of lofty things, so that she made it a sort of point of good breeding when she was with a poet or a musician to talk only of the food that they were eating or the game of cards to which they would afterwards sit down….And presently the luncheon came to an end and the party broke up, without a word having been said about poetry which they nevertheless all admired but to which, by a reserve analogous to that of which Swann had given me a foretaste, no one referred. This reserve was simply a matter of good form. (III,278)

Mme de Guermantes formed a smile by contacting the corners of her mouth as though she were biting her veil. (III,281)

Mme de Guermantes emitted a sort of raucous noise which meant that she was laughing for form’s sake. (III,282)

Mme de Guermantes muttered something in M. d’Argencourt’s ear which I could not catch but which must have referred to Bloch’s religion, for there flitted at that moment over the face of the Duchess that expression to which one’s fear of being noticed by the person one is speaking of gives a certain hesitancy and falseness mixed with the inquisitive, malicious amusement inspired by a human group to which one feels oneself to be fundamentally alien. (III,333)

The Hyena

February 18, 2010

Proust never misses an opportunity to use Bloch to portray the Jew as Other. The Dreyfus affair has not yet reached its frenzied peak, so Bloch is still welcome at certain, albeit less prestigious, salons.

But, for one thing, however fiercely the anti-Dreyfus cyclone might be raging, it is not in the first hour of storm that the waves are at their worst. In the second place, Mme de Villeparisis, leaving a whole section of her family to fulminate against the Jews, had remained entirely aloof from the Affair and never gave it a thought. Lastly, a young man like Bloch whom no one knew might pass unnoticed, whereas leading Jews who were representative of their side were already threatened. His chin was now decorated with a goatee beard, he wore a pince-nez and a long frock-coat, and carried a glove like a roll of papyrus  in his hand. The Romanians, the Egyptians, the Turks may hate the Jews. But in a French drawing room the difference between those peoples are not so apparent, and a Jew, making his entry as though he were emerging from the desert, his body crouching like a hyena’s, his neck thrust forward, offering profound “salaams,” completely satisfies a certain taste for the oriental.  Only it is essential that the Jew in question should not be actually “in” society, otherwise he will readily assume the aspect of a lord and his manners become so Gallicised that on his face a refractory nose, growing like a nasturtium in unexpected directions, will be more reminiscent of Molière’s Mascarille than of Solomon. (III,253)

It struck me that if in the light of Mme de Villeparisis’s drawing-room I had taken some photographs of Bloch, they would have given an image of Israel identical  with those we find in spirit photographs–so disturbing because it does not appear to emanate from humanity, so deceptive because it none the less resembles humanity all too closely. (III,255)

That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp

February 17, 2010

Marcel is puzzled at the social standing of Mme de Villeparisis. She is close kin to the Guermantes family but is not considered quite proper by fashionable society. True, she has a continuing relationship with Ambassador de Norpois, which was once passionate, but so what? Having lovers has never been a disqualification for acceptance in society. Considering and rejecting various possible reasons for her social outcast status, Marcel settles on this as the most likely cause:

I had remarked at Balbec that the genius of certain great artists was completely unintelligible to Mme de Villeparisis, and that all she could do was to make delicate fun of them and to express her incomprehension in a graceful and witty form. But this wit and grace, in the degree to which they were developed in her, became themselves–on another plane, and even though they were employed to belittle the noblest masterpieces–true artistic qualities. Now the effect of such qualities on any social position is a morbid activity of the kind which doctors call elective, and so disintegrating  that the most firmly established can hardly resist it for any length of time. What artists call intelligence seems pure presumption to the fashionable world…(which)  feel in their company an exhaustion, an irritation, from which antipathy rapidly springs. (III,246)

[Talent] is the living product of a certain moral conformation from which as rule, many qualities are lacking and in which there predominates a sensibility of which other manifestations not discernible in a book may make themselves fairly acutely felt in the course of a life: certain curiosities for instance, certain whims, the desire to go to this place or that for one’s own amusement and not with a view to the extension, the maintenance or even the mere exercise of one’s social relations. (III,248)

To this bohemian or bourgeois intellectual whom she had marked out with her favour she was obliged to address her invitations, the value of which he was unable to appreciate, with an insistence that gradually depreciated her in the eyes of the snobs who were in the habit of judging a salon by the people whom its mistress excluded rather than by those whom she entertained. (III,249)