Archive for November, 2011

Parsifal I

November 18, 2011

Several persons have identified Wagner’s Parsifal as the template for Search. In both a young man engages in an epic quest. We know that Proust first heard the opera after its copyright expired in 1914 (Wagner had forbidden its performance anywhere but at Bayreuth), either in person or by his telephone music service. But the score and libretto would have been available earlier and concert versions were performed across Europe.

I am struck by the number of echos of the opera found in the novel:

Parsifal’s mentor is Gurnemanz. Is this the medieval root of the Guermantes name?

Parsifal makes his entrance with a dead swan over his shoulder that he has shot with his bow. Swann?

The evil Klingsor fills the valley with flower-girls to tempt the knights. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower?

But the clincher is Gurnemantz’ advice to Parsifal as he prepares to search for the spear: “Time here has become space.”


The Stones of Venice

November 5, 2011

I may be the last one to get the joke here, so excuse me if that is so. Marcel enters the Guermantes courtyard and trips over an uneven paving stone. He is flooded with a happy sensation, one that he quickly traces to standing on the uneven floor of the baptistery of St. Marks in Venice. The joke: John Ruskin, who Proust translated, was the author of The Stones of Venice, a study of Venetian architecture. Proust dedicates this definitive passage on unforced memory to Ruskin.

Revolving the gloomy thoughts which I have just recorded, I had entered the courtyard of the Guermantes mansion and in my absent-minded state I had failed to see a car which was coming towards me; the chauffeur gave a shout and I just had time to step out of the way, but as I moved sharply backwards I tripped against the uneven paving-stones in front of the coach-house. And at the moment when, recovering my balance, I put my foot on a stone which was slightly lower than its neighbor, all my discouragement vanished and in its place was that same happiness which at various epochs of my life had been given to me by the sight of trees which I had thought I recognised in the course of a drive near Balbec, by the sight of the twin steeples of Martinville, by the flavour of a madeleine dipped in tea, and by all those last works of Vinteuil had seemed to me to combine the quintessential character. Just as, at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all anxiety about the future, all intellectual doubts had disappeared, so now those that a few seconds ago had assailed me on the subject of the reality of my literary gifts, the reality even of literature, were removed as if by magic.

…Every time that I merely repeated this physical movement, I achieved nothing; but if I succeeded, forgetting the Guermantes party, in recapturing what I had felt when I first placed my feet on the ground in this way, again the dazzling and indistinct vision fluttered near me, as if to say: “Seize me as I pass if you can, and try to solve the riddle of happiness which I set you.” and almost at once I recognised the vision: it was Venice, of which my efforts to describe it and the supposed snapshots taken by my memory had never told me anything, but which the sensation which I had once experienced as I stood upon the two uneven stones in the baptistery of St Marks’s had , recurring a moment ago, restored to me complete with all the other sensations linked on that day to that particular sensation, all of which had been waiting in their place–from which with imperious suddenness a chance happening had caused them to emerge–in the series of forgotten days. (VI,255-256)


November 2, 2011

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has a painting by Martin Johnson Heade titled Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle (ca. 1875-1890).

Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle

She found something ‘quaint’ in the shape of each of her Chinese ornaments, and also in her orchids, the cattleyas especially (these being, with chrysanthemums, her favourite flowers), because they had the supreme merit of not looking in the least like other flowers, but of being made, apparently, out of scraps of silk or satin. “It looks just as though it had been cut out of the lining of my cloak,” she said to Swann, pointing to an orchid, with a shade of respect in her voice for so ‘smart’ a flower, for this distinguished, unexpected sister whom nature had suddenly bestowed upon her, so far removed from her in the scale of existence, and yet so delicate, so refined, so much more worthy than many real women of admission to her drawing-room. As she drew his attention, now to the fiery-tongued dragons painted upon a bowl or stitched upon a fire-screen, now to a fleshy cluster of orchids, now to a dromedary of inlaid silver-work with ruby eyes, which kept company, upon her mantelpiece, with a toad carved in jade, she would pretend now to be shrinking from the ferocity of the monsters or laughing at their absurdity, now blushing at the indecency of the flowers, now carried away by an irresistible desire to run across and kiss the toad and dromedary, calling them ‘darlings.’ 

Proust, Marcel (2004-12-01). Swann’s Way (Kindle Locations 3730-3739). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.


She had in her hand a bunch of cattleyas, and Swann could see, beneath the film of lace that covered her head, more of the same flowers fastened to a swansdown plume. She was wearing, under her cloak, a flowing gown of black velvet, caught up on one side so as to reveal a large triangular patch of her white silk skirt, with an ‘insertion,’ also of white silk, in the cleft of her low-necked bodice, in which were fastened a few more cattleyas. She had scarcely recovered from the shock which the sight of Swann had given her, when some obstacle made the horse start to one side. They were thrown forward from their seats; she uttered a cry, and fell back quivering and breathless. “It’s all right,” he assured her, “don’t be frightened.” And he slipped his arm round her shoulder, supporting her body against his own; then went on: “Whatever you do, don’t utter a word; just make a sign, yes or no, or you’ll be out of breath again. You won’t mind if I put the flowers straight on your bodice; the jolt has loosened them. I’m afraid of their dropping out; I’m just going to fasten them a little more securely.”

Proust, Marcel (2004-12-01). Swann’s Way (Kindle Locations 3923-3931). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.