Archive for April, 2010

The Good Night Kiss

April 28, 2010

Marcel knows that his love for Albertine was not foreordained.

…which now was for ever impossible and yet was indispensable to me. Indispensable without perhaps having been in itself and at the outset something necessary, since I should not have known Albertine had I not read in an archaeological treatise a description of the church at Balbec, had not Swann, by telling me that this church was almost Persian, directed my taste to the Byzantine Norman, had not a financial syndicate, by erecting at Balbec a hygienic and comfortable hotel, made my parents decide to grant my wish and send me to Balbec. To be sure, in that Balbec so long desired, I had not found the Persian church of my dreams, nor the eternal mists. (V,675)

 But that is not to say that the character of his love was not determined in advance. It was imprinted on him as a child by his mother.

Who would have told me at Combray, when I lay waiting for my mother’s good-night with so heavy a heart, that those anxieties would be healed, and would then break out again one day, not for my mother, but for a girl who would at first be no more, against the horizon of the sea, than a flower upon which my eyes would daily be invited to gaze, but a thinking flower in whose mind I was so childishly anxious to occupy a prominent place that I was distressed by her not being aware that I knew Mme de Villeparisis? Yes, it was for the good-night kiss of such an unknown girl that, in years to come, I was to suffer as intensely as I had suffered as a child when my mother did not come up to my room. (V,676)


Explosions in the Dark

April 27, 2010

For Marcel memories are impregnated with sensations. Often they provoke pleasure, as those laid down in childhood.

So then my life was entirely altered. What had constituted its sweetness–not because of Albertine, but concurrently with her, when I was alone–was precisely the perpetual resurgence, at the bidding of identical moments, of moments from the past. From the sound of pattering raindrops I recaptured the scent of the lilacs at Combray, from the shifting of the sun’s rays on the balcony the pigeons in the Champs Elysées; from the muffling of sounds in the heat of the morning hours, the cool taste of cherries; the longing for Brittany or Venice from the noise of the wind and return of Easter. (V,645)

Those associated with a loved one who is recently dead are full of pain.

And if Françoise, when she came in, accidentally disturbed the folds of the big curtains, I stifled a cry of pain at the rent that had just been made in my heart by that ray of long-ago sunlight which had made beautiful in my eyes the modern facade of Marcouville-l’Orgueilleuse when Albertine had said to me: “It’s restored,” Not knowing how to account to Francoise for my groan, I said to her: “Oh, I’m so thirsty.” She left the room, then returned, but I turned sharply away under the impact of the painful discharge of one the thousand invisible memories which incessantly exploded around me in the darkness. (V,646)

It was not enough now to draw the curtains; I tried to stop the eyes and ears of my memory in order not to see that band of orange in the western sky, in order not to hear those invisible birds responding from one tree to the next on either side of me who was then so tenderly embraced by her who was now dead. I  tried to avoid those sensations that are produced by the dampness of leaves in the evening air, the rise and fall of humpback roads. But already those sensations had gripped me once more, carrying me far enough back from the present moment to give the necessary recoil, the necessary momentum to strike me anew, to the idea that Albertine was dead. (V,647)

Little Girls

April 26, 2010

Marcel had sometimes found Albertine’s presence comforting, “like a domestic animal which comes into a room and goes out again and is to found wherever one least expects to find it, and she would often–something that I found profoundly restful–come and lie down beside me on my bed, making a place for herself from which she never stirred, without disturbing me as a person would have done.” (V,9) He requires a similar presence to ease his anguish over Albertine’s escape.

Outside the door of Albertine’s house I found a little poor girl who gazed at me with huge eyes and who looked so sweet-natured that I asked her whether she would care to come home with me, as I might have taken home a dog with faithful eyes. She seemed pleased at the suggestion. When I got home, I held her for some time on my knee, but very soon her presence, by making me feel too keenly Albertine’s absence, became intolerable. And I asked her to go away, after giving her a five-hundred franc note. And yet, soon afterwards, the thought of having some other little girl in the house with me, of never being alone without the comfort of an innocent presence, was the only thing that enabled me to endure the idea that Albertine might  perhaps remain away for some time. (V,583)

 The girl’s parents are outraged and press charges, which also bring a respite of sorts to his distress.

…and fear, to a certain extent, as I felt on my way to see the head of the Sûreté, is an at least temporary and fairly efficacious counter-irritant for sentimental miseries. (V,598)

But as soon as they had gone, the head of the Sûreté, who had a weakness for little girls, changed his tone and admonished me as man to man: “Next time, you must be more careful. Good God, you can’t pick them up as easily as that, or you’ll get into trouble. Anyhow, you’ll find dozens of little girls who are better-looking that than one, and far cheaper. It was a perfectly ridiculous amount to pay.”  I was so certain that he would fail to understand me if I attempted to tell him the truth that without saying a word I took advantage of his permission to withdraw. Every passer-by, until I was safely at home, seemed to me an inspector appointed to  spy on my every movement. (V,598-599)

 Proust continues to play the incident as comedy, perhaps to diminish the creepiness, with Françoise, his unfailing Falstaff.

Unfortunately, although I had assumed that the business with the Sûreté was over and done with, Françoise came in to tell me that an inspector had called to inquire whether I was in the habit of having girls in the house, that the concierge, supposing him to be referring to Albertine, had replied in the affirmative, and that since then it seemed as though the house was being watched. (V,601)

But all of a sudden, by a confusion of which I was not aware (for it did not occur to me that Albertine, being of age, was free to live under my roof and even to by my mistress), it seemed to me that the charge of corrupting minors might apply to Albertine also. thereupon my life appeared to me to be hedged in on every side. And reflecting that I had not lived chastely with her, I saw, in the punishment that had been inflicted upon me for having dandled an unknown little girl on my knee, that relation, which almost always exists in human sanctions, whereby there is hardly ever either a just sentence or a judicial error, but a sort of compromise between the false idea that the judge forms of an innocent act and the culpable deeds of which he is unaware. But then when I thought that Albertine’s return might involve me in an ignominious charge which would degrade me in her eyes and might perhaps even do her some damage for which she would not forgive me, I ceased to look forward to her return, it terrified me. And immediately, a passionate desire for her return overwhelmed me, drowning everything else. (V,602)

To give the story its full arch, and to show Marcel’s interest in little girls is not a passing fancy:

I looked at Gilberte, and I did not think: “I should like to see her again,” I said merely, in answer to her offer, that I should always enjoy being invited to meet young girls, poor girls if possible, to whom I could give pleasure by quite small gifts, without expecting anything of them in return except that they should serve to renew within me the dreams and the sadnesses of my youth and perhaps, one  improbable day, a single chaste kiss. Gilberte smiled and then looked as though she were seriously giving her mind to the problem. (VI,439)

Intermittences of the Heart – II

April 25, 2010

Albertine has escaped and Marcel’s pain is like that of a heart attack. He knows perfectly well why she has left.

 It seemed to me that the unforeseen calamity with which I found myself grappling was also something  that I had already known (as I had known of Albertine’s friendship with a pair of lesbians), from having read it in so many signs in which (notwithstanding the contrary affirmations of my reason, based upon Albertine’s own statements) I had discerned the weariness, the loathing that she felt at having to live in that state of slavery, signs that had so often seemed to me to be written as though in invisible ink behind her sad, submissive eyes, upon her cheeks suddenly inflamed with an unaccountable blush, in the sound of the window that had suddenly been flung open. (V,569)

But reason has little power to ameliorate the pain.

I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallised salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain. I was so much in the habit of having Albertine with me, and now I suddenly saw a new aspect of Habit. Hitherto I had regarded it chiefly as an annihilating force which suppresses the originality and even the awareness of one’s perceptions; now I saw it as a dread deity, so riveted to one’s being, its insignificant face so incrusted in own’s heart, that if it detaches itself, if it turns away from one, this deity that one had barely distinguished inflicts on one sufferings more terrible that any other and is then as cruel as death itself. (V,564-564)

But above all, this anguish was incomparably more intense for a number of reasons of which the most important was perhaps not that I had never tasted any sensual pleasure with Mme de Guermantes or with Gilberte, but that, not seeing them every day, and at every hour of the day, having no opportunity and consequently no need to see them, that had been lacking, in my love for them, the immense force of Habit. (V,577)

 Habit had transformed Albertine for Marcel.

The time was long past when I had all too tentatively begun at Balbec by adding to my visual sensations when I gazed at Albertine sensations of taste, of smell, of touch. Since then, other more profound, more tender, more indefinable sensations had been added to them, and afterwards painful sensations. In short, Albertine was merely, like a stone round which snow had gathered, the generating centre of an immense structure which rose above the plane of my heart. (V,590)

 If time created this trap, only time could release him from it.

…I even enjoyed a few moments of agreeable calm in imagining Venice and beautiful, unknown women. As soon as I was conscious of this, I felt within me a panic terror. This calm which I had just enjoyed was the first apparition of that great intermittent force which was to wage war in me against grief, against love, and would ultimately get the better of them. (V,603)

Marcel Breaks His Writer’s Block

April 19, 2010

Part of the richness of Proust’s prose is the complex narrative voice. Young Marcel’s voice is captured in dialog. The mature Marcel is the writer of this narrative. He for the most part writes with a limited omniscience, as if he is the young Proust, thereby not showing knowledge of the future. Although, occasionally the narrator telegraphs a thought, “as we will see…” And there is Proust himself, the undisguised author of the novel, as where he names the protagonist “Marcel.” Finally, there is the narrator at work on the early version of this text, writing even as we are reading, several volumes behind us. In this passage we learn that Marcel has begun writing Swann in Love.

On one occasion I found Françoise, armed with a huge pair of spectacles, rummaging through my papers and replacing among them a sheet on which I had jotted down a story about Swann and his inability to do without Odette. Had she maliciously left it lying in Albertine’s room? (V,493)

We are left with a sense of the novel as self-reflexive: It’s text is influencing the course of the narrative.

A few pages later Marcel talks with Albertine about writing and art. He meditates on Vinteuil’s effect on him.

But while she was speaking, and I thought once more of Vinteuil, it was the other, the materialist hypothesis, that of there being nothing, that in turn presented itself to my mind. I began to doubt again; I told my self that after all it might be the case that, if Vinteuil’s phrases seemed to be the expression of certain states of soul analogous to that which I had experienced when I tasted the madeleine soaked in tea, there was nothing to assure me that the vagueness of such states was a sign of their profundity rather than of our not having yet learned to analyse them, so that there might  be nothing more real in them than in other states. (V,513)

I quote this passage to show that Marcel has already had his epiphany on unforced memory, something I had supposed happened much later in his life.

The Decisive Battle

April 18, 2010

Perhaps inspired by the perfectly executed Verdurin plan to separate Charlus from Charlie, Marcel launches a campaign against Albertine to insure that she remains his captive. It starts when Albertine is outraged that Marcel would go out for the evening by himself. He intuits this as a reprimand to him for not allowing her the freedom go where and when she pleases.

And so, just as she was telling me that she had never felt so affronted and when she had heard that I had gone out alone, that she would sooner have died than be told this by Françoise, and just as, irritated by her absurd susceptibility, I was on the point of telling her that what I had done was trivial, that there was nothing wounding to her in my having gone out, my unconscious parallel search for what she had meant to say had come to fruition, and the despair into which my discovery plunged me could not be completely hidden, so that instead of defending, I accused myself. “…My little Albertine” (I went on in a tone of profound gentleness and sorrow), “don’t you see that the life you’re leading here is boring for you. It is better that we should part and as the best partings are those that are effected most swiftly, I ask you, to cut short the great sorrow that I am bound to feel, to say good-bye to me tonight and to leave in the morning without my seeing you again, while I’m asleep.”  She appeared stunned, incredulous and desolate: “Tomorrow? You really mean it?” (V,459)

Marcel becomes assured that she really is content with her life with him.

The fear that Albertine was perhaps going to say to me: “I want to be allowed to go out by myself at certain hours. I want to be able to stay away for twenty-four hours,” or some such request for freedom which I did not attempt to define, but which alarmed me, this fear had crossed my mind for a moment during the Verdurin reception. But it had been dispelled, contradicted moreover by the memory of Albertine’s constant assurances of how happy she was with me. (V,465)

He is fully aware that he has put on a show to reign in Albertine.

My words, therefore, did not in the least reflect my feelings. If the reader has no more than a faint impression of these, that is because, as narrator, I expose my feelings to him at the same time as I repeat my words. But if I concealed the former and he were acquainted only with the latter, my actions, so little in keeping with them, would so often give him the impressions of strange reversals that he would think me more or less mad. (V,467)

Albertine being in more or less the same position as the reader, it is a wonder that she does not think him mad. The tide of battle shifts. Albertine reveals some of her secrets.  She reveals that she is well acquainted with Bloch’s sister Esther, that she not only knows the actress Lea but spent three weeks with her, that she lied about going to Balbec and instead spent time with a friend, which at one point involved going out dressed as a man, etc. This fires Marcel’s jealous resentment and locks him into an even more consuming desire to dominate.

I had suddenly wanted to keep Albertine because I felt that she was scattered about among other people with whom I could not prevent her from mixing. But even if she had renounced them all for ever for my sake, I might perhaps have been still more firmly resolved never to leave her, for separation is made painful by jealousy but impossible by gratitude. I felt that in any case I was fighting the decisive battle in which I must conquer or succumb. I would have offered Albertine in an hour all that I possessed, because I said to myself: Everything depends upon this battle.” (V,475)

Charlus Meets His Match

April 17, 2010

We have seen that jealousy may have a social as well as sexual origin. The same may be said of cruelty. Mlle Vinteuil and her friend act out a scene of cruelty to get them in the frame of mind for sex, since for them sex is tinged with evil. Charlus, too, enjoys both self-inflicted cruelty, at the end of a whip, and verbal cruelty, a sort of orgasmic outburst, sometimes directed at a potential conquest, as Marcel can testify.

“Do you suppose that it is within your power to offend me? You are evidently not aware to whom you are speaking? Do you imagine that the envenomed spittle of five hundred little gentlemen of your type, heaped one upon another, would succeed in slobbering so much as the tips of my august toes?” (III,765)

Marcel has gotten over that and now sees Charlus as essentially a good man who badly manages his appetites. Mme Verdurin turns Morel against Charlus.

Perhaps what now struck him speechless was–when he saw that M. and Mme Verdurin turned their eyes away from him and that no one was coming to his rescue–his present anguish and, still more, his dread of greater anguish to come; or else the fact that, not having worked himself up and concocted an imaginary rage in advance, having no ready-made thunderbolt at hand, he had been seized and struck down suddenly at a moment when he was unarmed (for, sensitive, neurotic, hysterical, he was genuinely impulsive but pseudo-brave–indeed, as I had always thought, and it was something that had rather endeared him to me, pseudo-cruel…(V,425-426)

 There is nothing pseudo about Mme Verdurin’s cruelty, nor is it sexual. Motivated by social jealousy, sparked by  Charlus promoting Morel to his aristocratic friends, she concocts slanders about Charlus, which are just plausible enough to convince Morel.

There are certain desires, sometimes confined to the mouth, which, as soon as we have allowed them to grow, insist upon being gratified, whatever the consequences may be; one can no longer resist the temptation to kiss a bare shoulder at which one has been gazing for too long and on which one’s lips pounce like a snake upon a bird, or to bury one’s sweet tooth in a tempting cake; nor can one deny oneself the satisfaction of seeing the amazement, anxiety, grief or mirth to which one can move another person by some unexpected communication. (V,414)

She delights in finding just the right word to mortify Morel.

At this moment there stirred beneath the domed forehead of the musical goddess the one thing that certain people cannot keep to themselves, a word which it is not merely abject but imprudent to repeat. But the need to repeat it is stronger than honour or prudence. It was to this need that, after a few convulsive twitches of her spherical and sorrowful brow, the Mistress succumbed: “Someone actually told my husband that he had said ‘my servant,’ but for that I cannot vouch, ” she added. (V,421)



A Certain Penetration

April 16, 2010

Brichot is the picture of the academic historian, a professor of immense learning who is, nevertheless, at least according to Charlus, appallingly ignorant of history and society. Charlus is thus compelled to give Brichot a lecture of his own, from an admittedly specialized view of history.

The insistence with which M. de Charlus kept reverting to this topic–into which his mind, constantly exercised in the same direction, had indeed acquired a certain penetration–was in a rather complex way distinctly trying. He was as boring as a specialist who can see nothing outside his own subject, as irritating as an initiate who prides himself on the secrets which he possesses and is burning to divulge, as repellent as those people who, whenever their own weaknesses are in question, blossom and expatiate without noticing that they are giving offence, as obsessed as a maniac and as uncontrollably imprudent as a criminal. (V,408)

 For reasons of brevity, I will summarize some of this hidden history.

  • Only three men out of ten is innocent of homosexuality.
  • Swann, for instance, played around a bit with Charlus back in their school days: “In those days he was he had a peaches-and-cream complexion, and, ” he added, finding a fresh note on each syllable,” he was as pretty as a cherub…” (V,400)
  • It was he who introduced Odette to Swann and provided other services to her: She used to force me to get up the most dreadful orgies for her, with five or six men. (V,400)
  • Odette had innumerable lovers, unknown to Swann and she once fired a gun at Swann, nearly hitting him. The enraged Swann then had an affair with Odette’s sister. Who knew?
  • He explains how Marcel’s impecunious friend in Balbec, M. de Crecy, became that way.

O Tempora o mores!  Back in the day, homosexuals were the very bedrock of civilization.

Good heavens, in my day, leaving aside the men who loathed women, and those who, caring only for women, did the other thing merely with an eye to profit, homosexuals were sound family men and never kept mistresses except as a cover. Had I had a daughter to give away, it’s among them that I should have looked for my son-in-law if I’d wanted to be certain that she wouldn’t be unhappy. Alas! things have changed. (V,409-410)

Social Jealousy

April 15, 2010

The novel might be considered a long treatise on the nature of jealousy. The form that afflicted Swann and now afflicts Marcel springs from the fear that the loved one may be enjoying herself with someone else and quite possibly in a way that he can never compete with. Marcel’s jealousy is especially strangling because it’s origin is Oedipal, his childish anguish over his mother enjoying herself with dinner guests rather than with him. Mme Verdurin introduces a non-erotic form of jealousy. She cannot bear the thought that one of her clan may be happy outside of her salon.

She has tolerated Charlus, who manifestly has another life, because he brings Morel and he confers some status. But at a musical soirée he crosses the line. He has invited various of his relatives and the elite to attend Morel’s playing of the Vinteuil septet. After the concert they take their leave from Charlus, ignoring their hostess.

The most noble ladies were those who showed most fervour in congratulating M. de Charlus upon the success of a party of the secret motive for which some of them were not unaware, without however being embarrassed by the knowledge, this class of society–remembering perhaps certain epochs in history when their own families had already arrived in full consciousness at a similar effrontery–carrying their contempt for scruples almost as far as their respect for etiquette. Several  of them engaged Charlie on the spot for different evenings on which he was to come and play them Vinteuil’s septet, but it never occurred to any of them to invite Mme Verdurin….The latter was already blind with fury. (V, 363-364)

The Baron is oblivious to her fury at being marginalized in her own house, in front of her clan.

Intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, M. de Charlus failed to realise that by acknowledging Mme Verdurin’s role and confining it within narrow limits, he was unleashing that feeling of hatred which was in her only a special, social form of jealousy. Mme Verdurin was genuinely fond of her regular visitors, the faithful of the little clan, but wished them to be entirely devoted to their Mistress. Cutting her losses, like those jealous lovers who will tolerate unfaithfulness, but only under their own roof and even in front of their eyes, that is to say when it scarcely counts as unfaithfulness, she would allow the men to have mistresses or male lovers, on condition that the affair had no social consequence outside her own house, that the tie was formed and perpetuated in the shelter of her Wednesdays.In the old days, every furtive giggle that came from Odette when she was with Swann had gnawed at Mme Verdurin, and so of late had every aside exchanged by Morel and the Baron; she found one consolation alone for vexations, which was to destroy the happiness of others. (V,370)

Marcel’s Ode to Mlle Vinteuil’s Friend

April 14, 2010

Marcel realizes that he shares something with Vinteuil: Mlle Vinteuil’s friend has made them both miserable. And perhaps she is also the key to creativity in each of them. Marcel has just heard Vinteuil’s septet, a posthumous work completed by this same woman.

And I for whom, albeit not so much, perhaps, as for Vinteuil, she had also been, had just been once more this very evening by reawakening my jealousy of Albertine, was to be above all in the future, the cause of so many sufferings, it was thanks to her, in compensation, that I had been able to apprehend the strange summons which I should henceforth never cease to hear, as the promise and proof that there existed something other, realisable no doubt through art, than the nullity that I had found in all my pleasures and in love itself, and that if my life seemed to me so futile, at least it had not yet accomplished everything. (V,350)

And the promise that opens to him may be a new mode of communication, one based on the “unanalysed.”

And, just as certain creatures are the last surviving testimony to a form of life which nature has discarded, I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been–if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened–the means of communication between souls. It is like a possibility that has come to nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language. But this return to the unanalysed was so intoxicating that, on emerging from that paradise, contact with more or less intelligent people seemed to me of an extraordinary insignificance. (V,344)