Archive for March, 2010

Agostinelli, RIP

March 30, 2010

Not long after riding in his first automobile, Marcel sees his first airplane. Granted that I am always a bit confused about Marcel’s age, not to mention the calendar year of events, the sight of an airplane at this time in the novel seems out of place. Orville Wright was born just a month after Proust and he didn’t make the first flight (despite French claims to the contrary) until 1903, which would make him about 33. The first flights over the French countryside would not likely have occurred before around 1910 (especially one with metal wings), a few years before the war. But let us read the passage.

Suddenly, my horse reared; he had heard a strange sound; it was all I could do to hold him and remain in the saddle; then I raised my tear-filled eyes in the direction from which the sound seemed to come and saw, not two hundred feet above my head, against the sun, between two great wings of flashing metal which were bearing him aloft, a creature whose indistinct face appeared to me to resemble that of a man. I was as deeply moved as an ancient Greek on seeing for the first time a demi-god. I wept–for I had been ready to weep the moment I realised that the sound came from above my head (aeroplanes were still rare in those days), at the thought that what I was going to see for the first time  was an aeroplane. Then, just as when in a newspaper one senses that one is coming to a moving passage, the mere sight of the machine was enough to make me burst into tears. Meanwhile, the airman seemed to be uncertain of his course; I felt that there lay open before him–before me, had not habit made me a prisoner–all the routes in space, in life itself; he flew on, let himself glide for a few moments over the sea, then quickly making up his mind, seeming to yield to some attraction that was the reverse of gravity, as though returning to his native element, with a slight adjustment of his golden wings he headed straight up into the sky. (IV,582)

 As is well known, Proust modeled the Albertine story after his jealous obsession with his driver, Agostinelli. He escaped Proust’s suffocating attention by fleeing to Monaco, where he took flying lessons under the name Marcel Swann. He died in a crash at sea. I think the recall of Agostinelli’s death, in 1914, is the most likely source of this passage. Especially the abundance of tears at the sight of the plane and the image of it “headed straight up into the sky.”



True Geometry

March 30, 2010

The then recent inventions of the telephone, airplane and automobile all play a part in this novel. Each provided novel ways to experience time and space, destroying the habitual:

We set off again, escorted for a moment by the little houses that came running to meet us with their flowers. The face of the countryside seemed to us entirely changed, for in the topographical image that we form in our minds of separate places the notion of space is far from being the most important factor. We have said that the notion of time segregates them even further. It is not the only factor either. Certain places which we see always in isolation seem to us to have no common measure with the rest, to be almost outside the world, like those  people whom we have known in exceptional periods of our life, in the army or during our childhood, and whom we do not connect with anything. During my first stay at Balbec there was a hill which  Mme de Villeparisis liked to take us up because from it you saw only the sea and the woods, and which was called Beaumont….I knew that Beaumont was something very special, very remote, very high, but I had no idea of the direction which it was to be found,having never taken the Beaumont road to go anywhere else; besides, it took a very long time….But the motorcar respects no mystery, and, having passed through Incarville, whose houses still danced before my eyes…recognized Beaumont, close by which I passed thus without knowing it whenever I took the little train, for it was within two minutes of Parville….so Beaumont, suddenly linked with places from which I supposed it to be so distinct, lost its mystery and took its place in the district, making me think with terror that Madame Bovary and the Sanseverina might perhaps have seemed to me to be like ordinary people, had I met them elsewhere than in the closed atmosphere of a novel. (IV,548-549)

 and creating the novel:

No, the motor-car did not convey us thus by magic into a town which we saw at first as the collectivity summed up in its name, and with the illusions of a spectator in a theatre. It took us backstage into the streets, stopped to ask an inhabitant the way. But, as compensation for so homely a mode of progress, there are the gropings of the chauffeur himself, uncertain of his way and going back over his tracks; the “general post” of the perspective which sets a castle dancing about with a hill, a church and the sea, while one draws nearer to it however much it tries to huddle beneath its age-old foliage; those ever-narrowing circle described by the motor-car round a spellbound town which darts off in every direction to escape, and which finally it swoops straight down upon in the depths of the valley where it lies prone on the ground; so that this site, this unique point, which on the one hand the motor-car seems to have stripped of the mystery of express trains, on the other hand it gives us the impression of discovering, of pinpointing for ourselves as with a compass, and helps us to feel with a more lovingly exploring hand, with a more delicate precision, the true, geometry, the beautiful proportions of the earth. (IV,550)

The Organ of Stupidity

March 28, 2010

In the description of M. de Cambremer we find the description of a human nose as fine as found in Gogol’s The Nose.

To anyone who had only heard of him, or of letters written by him, brisk and suitably expressed, his personal appearance was startling. No doubt one grew accustomed to it. But his nose had chosen, in placing itself askew above his mouth, perhaps the only oblique line, among so many possible ones, that one would  never have thought of tracing upon this face, and one that indicated a vulgar stupidity, aggravated still further by the proximity of a Norman complexion on cheeks that were like two red apples. It is possible that M. de Cambremer’s eyes retained between their eyelids a trace of the sky of the Contentin, so soft upon sunny days when the wayfarer amuses himself counting in their hundreds the shadows of the poplars drawn up by the roadside, but those eyelids, heavy, bleared and drooping, would have prevented the least flash of intelligence from escaping. And so, discouraged by the meagerness of that azure gaze, one returned to the big crooked nose. By a transposition of the senses, M. de Cambremer looked at you with his nose. This nose of his was not ugly; it was if anything too handsome, too bold, too proud of its own importance. Arched, polished, gleaming, brand-new, it was amply disposed to make up for the spiritual inadequacy of the eyes. Unfortunately, if the eyes are sometime the organ through which our intelligence is revealed, the nose (whatever the intimate solidarity and the unsuspected repercussion of one feature on another), the nose is generally the organ in which stupidity is most readily displayed. (IV,422,423)

Mme de Charlus

March 28, 2010

M. de Charlus, infatuated with Charlie Morel, accompanies him to the Verdurin’s summer place, La Raspelière, a place in which he would not otherwise think of entering. He instinctively knows that his high society hauteur will not serve him among people who are unaware of his place in society, which allows us to see yet another of his faces.

“Why, yes, here the are!” M. Verdurin exclaimed with relief on seeing the door open to admit Morel followed by M. de Charlus. The latter, to whom dining with the Verdurins meant not so much going into society as going into a place of ill repute, was as apprehensive as a schoolboy entering a brothel  for the first time and showing the utmost deference towards its mistress. Hence the Baron’s habitual desire to appear virile and cold was over-shadowed (when he appeared in the open doorway) by those traditional ideas of politeness which are awakened as soon as shyness destroys an artificial pose and falls back on the resources of the subconscious. (IV,414)

As for M. de Charlus, whom the society in which he had lived furnished at this critical moment with different examples, with other arabesques of amiability, and especially with the maxim that one must in certain cases, for the benefit of people of humble rank, bring into play and make use of one’s rarest graces, normally held in reserve, it was with a fluttering, mincing gait and the same sweep with which a skirt would have enlarged and impeded his waddling motion that he advanced upon Mme Verdurin with so flattered and honoured an air that one would have said that to be presented to her was for him a supreme favour. His face, bent slightly forward, on which satisfaction vied with decorum,was creased with tiny wrinkles of affability. One might have thought that is was Mme de Marsantes who was entering the room, so salient at that moment was the woman whom a mistake on the part of Nature had enshrined in the body of M. de Charlus. (IV,415-416)

By dent of thinking tenderly of men one becomes a woman, and an imaginary skirt hampers one’s movements. (IV,417)

Decomposed Faces

March 25, 2010

Some years have passed since Marcel first saw Charlus in Balbec, a man with the vigour to walk cross-country for days at a time. He now spots Charlus near Balbec, where he is trying to seduce the handsome young Charlie Morel, and notes the actions of time on his face.

In Paris, where I encountered him only at evening receptions, immobile, strapped up in dress-clothes, maintained in a vertical posture by his proud erectness, his eagerness to be admired, his conversational verve, I had not realised how much he had aged. Now, in a light traveling suit which made him appear stouter, as he waddled along with his swaying paunch and almost symbolic behind, the cruel light of day decomposed, into paint on his lips, into face-powder fixed by cold cream on the tip of his nose, into mascara on his dyed moustache whose ebony hue contrasted with his grizzled hair, everything that in artificial light would have seemed the healthy complexion of a man who was still young. (IV,351)

 Meanwhile, in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach is touching himself up at the barbershop.

Like any other lover, he desired to please; suffered agonies at the thought of failure, and brightened his dress with smart ties and handkerchiefs and other youthful touches. He added jewellery and perfumes and spent hours each day over his toilette, appearing at dinner elaborately arrayed and tensely excited. The presence of the youthful beauty that had bewitched him filled him with disgust of his own aging body; the sight of his own sharp features and grey hair plunged him in hopeless mortification; he made desperate efforts to recover the appearance and freshness of his youth and began paying frequent visits to the hotel barber….He watched it in the mirror and saw his eyebrows grow more even and arching, the eyes gain in size and brilliance, by dint of a little application below the lids. A delicate carmine glowed on his cheeks where the skin had been so brown and leathery. The dry, anemic lips grew full, they turned the colour of ripe strawberries, the line around eyes and mouth were treated with a facial cream and gave place to youthful bloom. It was a young man who looked back at him from the glass–Aschenbach’s heart leaped at the sight. (Death in Venice, trans. Lowe-Porter)

Blame Odette

March 23, 2010

The narrator sums up the Charlus-Jupien encounter as a thing of beauty.

M. de Charlus had distracted me from looking to see whether the bumble-bee was bringing to the orchid the pollen it had so long been waiting to receive, and had my chance of receiving save by an accident so unlikely that one might call it a sort of miracle. But it was a miracle also that I had just witnessed, almost of the same order and no less marvellous. As soon as I considered the encounter from this point of view, everything about it seemed to me instinct with beauty. (IV,38)

Cottard has planted the idea that Albertine is sexually aroused by Andree (and maybe Gisele). Contrast Marcel’s reflexion above with his thoughts on female homosexuality.

I finally made bold to tell her what had been reported to me about her way of life, and said that notwithstanding the profound disgust I felt for women tainted with that vice, I had not given it a thought until I had been told the name of her accomplice, and that she could readily understand, loving Andrée as I did, the pain that this had caused me. (IV,313-314)

Where does this disgust come from? Perhaps it is Odette’s fault. Marcel recalls Odette’s prostitute origins, her lesbianism, her infidelities and conflates them all.

I thought then of all that I had been told about Swann’s love for Odette, of the way in which Swann had been tricked all his life. Indeed, when I come to think of it, the hypothesis that made me gradually build up the whole of Albertine’s character and give a painful interpretation to every moment of a life that I could not control in its entirety, was the memory, the rooted idea of Mme Swann’s character, as it had been described to me. These accounts contributed towards the fact that, in the future, my imagination played with the idea that Albertine might, instead of being the good girl that she was, have had the same immorality, the same capacity for deceit as a former prostitute, and I thought of all the sufferings that would in that case have been in store for me if I had happened to love her. (IV,275-276)

He tries to convince himself of the error in equating the two women.

Doubtless I had long been conditioned, by the powerful impression made on my imagination and my faculty for emotion by the example of Swann, to believe in the truth of what I feared rather than of what I should have wished. Hence the comfort brought me by Albertine’s affirmations came near to being jeopardized for a moment because I remembered the story of Odette….Was there not a vast gulf between Albertine, a girl of good middle-class parentage, and Odette, a whore sold by her mother in her childhood? There could be no comparison of their respective credibility. Besides, Albertine had in no sense the same interest in lying to me that Odette had had in lying to Swann. And in any case to him Odette had admitted what Albertine had just denied. I should therefore have been guilty of an error of reasoning… (IV,316)

But the damage has been done.

Anatomy of Jealousy

March 22, 2010

The seeds of Marcel’s raging jealousy over Albertine are laid right at the beginning of his re-acquaintance with her at Balbec. The first time she sees him she tells him she wants to leave Balbec.

But on the day on which Albertine came, the weather had turned dull and cold again, and moreover I had no opportunity of hearing her laugh; she was in a very bad mood. “Balbec is deadly dull this year,” she said to me. “I don’t mean to stay any longer than I can help.” (IV,243)

Shortly after, she announces that she has changed her mind.

She informed me (contrary to what she had said the other day) that she would be staying for the whole season and asked me whether we could not arrange, as in the former year, to meet daily. I told her that at the moment I was too sad and that I would rather send for her from time to time at the last moment, as I did in Paris. “If ever you’re feeling gloomy or if you’re in the mood, don’t hesitate,” she told me, “just send for me and I shall come at once, and if you’re not afraid of its creating a scandal in the hotel, I shall stay as long as you like.” (IV,253)

Marcel notices that she has changed her mind about wanting to leave, but is left to wonder why. And, as if taking advantage of her impecunious circumstances, he treats her as a servant, to be called when he is in need of her. This belies his own professed awareness.

It would be untrue, I think, to say that there were already symptoms of that painful and perpetual mistrust which Albertine was to inspire in me, not to mention the special character, emphatically Gomorrhan, which that mistrust was to assume. (IV,252).

The “Gomorrhan” fixation is implanted by a remark by Dr. Cottard. They have just entered a casino and find there Andrée and Albertine. He abandons his plan to go on the Verdurins after being aroused by the sound of Albertine’s laughter, a sound that would arouse him by its sensuality and then pain him because it excluded him.

The fact was that I had just heard her laugh. And this laugh at once evoked the flesh-pink, fragrant surfaces with which it seemed to have just been in contact and of which it seemed to carry with it, pungent, sensual and revealing as the scent of geraniums, a few almost tangible and secretly provoking  particles….”There now, look,” [Cottard] went on, pointing to Albertine and Andrée who were waltzing slowly, tightly clasped together, “I’ve left my glasses behind and I can’t see very well, but they are certainly keenly aroused. It’s not sufficiently known that women derive most excitement through their breasts. And theirs, as you see, are touching completely.”…At that moment Andrée said something to Albertine, who laughed with the same deep and penetrating laugh that I had heard before. But the unease it roused in me this time was nothing but painful; Albertine appeared to be conveying, to be making Andrée share, some secret and voluptuous thrill. (IV,265-266)

Next day, when Albertine wrote to me that she had only just got back to Epreville, and so had not received my note in time, and would come, if she might, to see me that evening, behind the words of her letter, as behind those that she had said to me once over the telephone, I thought I could detect the presence of pleasures, of people, whom she preferred to me. (IV,267)

Proust also was tormented with jealousy for a servant, his driver Agostonelli. Note that this fear of losing a possession is completely bourgeois, afflicting Swann and Marcel, but which is not so evident in the aristocracy (think of the Duchesse’s behavior over the Duke’s infidelities), where it would be considered vulgar.








The Decline of Grief

March 21, 2010

Marcel’s delayed grief for his grandmother begins viscerally, not at the prompting of memory. He seeks to prolong the pain of grief as a means of reviving his grandmother, in vain.

A few days later I was able to look with pleasure at the photograph that Saint-Loup had taken of her; it did not revive the memory of what Francoise had told me, because that memory had never left me and I was growing used to it. (IV,242)

In my fear lest  the pleasure I found in this solitary excursion might weaken my memory of my grandmother, I sought to revive it by thinking of some great sorrow that she had experienced; in response to my appeal, that sorrow tried to reconstruct itself in my heart, threw up vast pillars there; but my heart was doubtless too small for it, I had not the strength to bear so great a pain, my attention was distracted at the moment when it was approaching completion, and its arches collapsed before they had joined, as the waves crumble before reaching their pinnacle. (IV,246)

Not just the weakening force of habit, but other visceral impressions were supplanting his grief.

But on reaching the road I found a dazzling spectacle. Where I had seen with my grandmother in the month of August only the green leaves and, so to speak, the disposition of the apple-trees, as far as the eye could reach they were in full bloom, unbelievably luxuriant, their feet in the mire beneath their ball-dresses, heedless of spoiling the most marvellous pink satin that was ever seen, which glittered in the sunlight; the distant horizon of the sea gave the trees the background of a Japanese print; if I raised my head to gaze at the sky through the flowers, which made its serene blue appear almost violent, they seemed to draw apart to reveal the immensity of their paradise….it was a day in spring. (IV,244-245)

Parallel Time

March 19, 2010

Marcel, on doctor’s orders, returns to Balbec near Easter time. He has vivid expectations of what he will see and do.

They were very different from those of the earlier time, for the vision in quest of which I had come was as dazzlingly clear as the former had been hazy; they were to prove no less disappointing. The  images selected by memory are as arbitrary, as narrow, as elusive as those which the imagination had formed and reality has destroyed. There is no reason why, existing outside ourselves, a real place should conform to the pictures in our memory rather than those in our dreams. (IV,203)

One illusion was the ecstasy to be experienced with Mme Putbus’s maid.

No doubt there was no essential connexion between Mme Putbus’s maid and the country round Balbec; she would not be for me like the peasant girl whom, as I strayed alone along the Méséglise way, I had so often summoned up in vain with all the force of my desire. But I had long since given up trying to extract from a woman as it were the sqaure root of her unknown quantity, the mystery of which a mere introduction was generally enough to dispel… It was true that Mme Putbus was not to be at the Verdurins’ so early in the season; but pleasure which  we have chosen may be remote if their coming is assured and if, in the interval of waiting, we can devote ourselves to the idleness of seeking to attract while powerless to love. (IV,208)

These arbitrary fantasies of his active mind would quickly be dispelled by the powerful reality of an unforced memory. Marcel returns to his hotel room, fatigued to the heart.

But scarcely had I touched the topmost button than my chest swelled, filled with an unknown, a divine presence, I was shaken with sobs, tears streamed from my eyes….I had just perceived, in my memory, stooping over my fatigue, the tender, preoccupied, disappointed face of my grandmother, as she had been on that first evening of our arrival, the face not of that grandmother whom I had been astonished and remorseful at having so little missed, and who had nothing in common with her save her name, but of my real grandmother, of whom, for the first time since the afternoon of her stroke in the Champs-Elysées, I now recaptured the living reality in a complete and involuntary recollection. (IV,210-211)

Not only did his grandmother revert to herself of that long ago trip, but Marcel had reverted to his old self, at least for a moment.

Now, inasmuch as the self that I had just suddenly become once again had not existed since that evening long ago when my grandmother had undressed me after my arrival at Balbec, it was quite naturally, not at the end of the day that had just passed, of which that self knew nothing, but–as though Time were to consist of a series of different and parallel lines–without any solution of continuity, immediately after the first evening at Balbec long ago, that I clung to that minute in which my grandmother had stooped over me. (IV,212)

But it his current self that is remorseful over the unkind way he had opposed his grandmother in her wish to have a photograph taken of herself while still relatively well.

I clung to this pain, cruel as it was, with all my strength, for I realised that it was the effect of the memory I had of my grandmother, the proof that this memory was indeed present within me. I felt that I did not really remember her except through pain, and I longed for the nails that riveted her to my consciousness to be driven yet deeper. (IV,214-215)



The Tide Turns

March 17, 2010

The Dreyfus affair exposed the deep rift in French society between the secular and the religious, republican and royalist sentiments, the rule of law and adherence to loyalty and tradition. One lasting remnant of this division is the dueling presence of the Eiffel Tower (1889), symbolizing the modern break with tradition, and the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (1884), built to “expiate the crimes of the communards.” Proust uses the affair as a litmus test for a person’s decency. The most dramatic account is the conversion of the Prince de Guermantes, the most traditional of all the characters in the novel. The account of the conversion is related by Swann to Marcel. First, as nearly always when a person is called out as a Jew, he is described in the most physical terms.

But Swann belonged to that stout Jewish race, in whose vital energy, its resistance to death, its individual members seem to share. Stricken severally by their own diseases, as it is stricken itself by persecution, they continue indefinitely to struggle against terrible agonies which may be prolonged beyond every apparently possible limit, when already one can see only a prophet’s beard surmounted by a huge nose which dilates to inhale its last breath, before the hour strikes for the ritual prayers and the punctual procession of distant relatives begins, advancing with mechanical movements as upon an Assyrian frieze. (IV,141-142)

The Prince, although not obviously changing in his opinion of Jews, becomes increasingly aware that an injustice has been done to Dreyfus. Amid numerous interruptions from the party goers, as if to emphasize the gulf being traversed, Swann relates what the Prince had to say.

“‘Well, my dear Swann, about eighteen months ago, a conversation I had with General de Beauserfeuil made me suspect that, not an error, but grave illegalities, had been committed in the conduct of the trial….I don’t mind telling you that this idea of a possible illegality in the conduct of the trial was extremely painful to me, because I have always, as you know, worshipped the Army. I discussed the matter again with the General, and, alas, there could be no room for doubt. I need hardly tell you that, all this time, the idea that an innocent man might be undergoing the most infamous punishment had never even crossed my mind. But tormented by this idea of illegality, I began to study what I had always declined to read, and then the possibility, this time  not only of illegality but of the prisoner’s innocence, began to haunt me. I did not feel I could talk about it to the Princess.'”(IV,146-147)

His surprised to learn that someone he knows has reached the same conclusion, as he learned from his priest when he asks that a mass be said for Dreyfus.

“‘No, the abbé informed me’ (“I say me ,” Swann explained to me, “because it’s the Prince who is speaking, you understand?”), ‘for I have another mass that I’ve been asked to say for him tomorrow as well.–What, I said to him, is there another Catholic as well as myself who is convinced of his innocence?–It appears so.–But this other supporter’s conviction must be more recent than mine.–Maybe, but this other was asking me to say masses when you still believed Dreyfus guilty.–Ah, I can see that it’s no one in our world.–On the contrary!–Really, there are Dreyfusits among us, are there? You intrigue me; I should like to unbosom myself to this rare bird, if it is someone I know.–It is.–What is his name ?–The Princess de  Guermantes.'” (IV,150)