Archive for the ‘Contre Saint-Beuve’ Category

Contre Saint-Beuve II

May 26, 2010

Proust speaks of his talent for finding the “song” in an author.

 When I began to read an author I very soon caught the tune of the song beneath the words, which in each author is distinct from that of every other; and while I was reading, and without knowing what I was doing, I hummed it over, hurrying the words, or slowing them down, or suspending them, in order to keep time with the rhythm of the notes, as one does in singing, where in compliance with the shape of the tune one often delays for a long time before coming to the last syllable of a word. (265)

At this time, just before beginning ISOLT, he is still composing the tune for this novel. The sketches in Contre Saint-Beuve are thin and far from their final form. Consider the early portrait of Charlus, in the chapter titled A race accursed.

Early every afternoon there appeared a tall stout gentleman with a strutting gait; his moustache was dyed, and he always wore a flower in his buttonhole: this was the Marquis de Quercy. He walked through the courtyard and went to call on his sister, Mme. de Guermantes…His life was extremely methodical; he saw the Guermantes daily from one till two, spent the next hour with Mme. de Villeparisis whose flat was overhead, then went on to his club where he did various things…(211)

 But even as I said this to myself, I seemed to see a magical reversal taking place in M. de Quercy. He had not moved, but all of a sudden he was illuminated by a light from within, in which everything about him that I had found startling, perplexing, contradictory, had been harmoniously resolved as soon as I said those words to myself: “One would take him for a woman.” I had understood, he was one. He was one of them. He belonged to that race of beings who are in effect, since it is precisely because their temperament is feminine that they worship manliness, at cross-purposes with themselves, who go through life apparently in step with other men, but bearing about with them, on that little disk of the eye’s pupil, through which we look at the world and on which our desire is engraved, the body, not of a nymph but of a youth, who casts his shadow, virile and erect, over all they see and all they do. A race accursed…(218)

 When M. de Quercy was a little boy, when his playmates told him about the pleasures of going with a woman, he pressed up against them, supposing he only partook in a common wish for the same excitements. Later on, he felt that they would not be the same; he felt it, but did not say so, nor say so to himself. On moonless nights he went out of his castle in Poitou and followed the lane into the road that goes to the castle of his cousin, Guy de Gressac. Here, at the crossroads, they met, and on the grass bank they renewed what had been the games of their childhood…(225)

But there were times when, just as the desire for a perverse pleasure may blossom for once in a normal being, he was haunted by a desire that the body he clasped to his own might have had the breasts of a woman, breasts like tea-roses, and other more sequestered characteristics. He fell in love with a girl of high breeding whom he married and for fifteen years all his desires were contained in his desire for her, like a deep river in a blue-tinted bathing-pool. He marvelled at himself, like the  former dyspeptic who for twenty years could take nothing but milk and who lunches and dines every day at the Café Anglais, like the idler turned industrious, like the reformed drunkard. She died; and the knowledge that he had found the cure for his sickness made him less afraid to relapse into it. (229)

The language is conventional, the characterization merely descriptive. But through a magical reversal, Charlus would emerge in his glorious, flaming, queenly self.


Contre Saint-Beuve Sketches

May 24, 2010

In the years prior to writing ISOLT, Proust wrote continuously, including an 800 page novel, Jean Santeuil. A journal he kept at the time, called now Contre Saint-Beuve (and collected in  Marcel Proust on Art and Literature), contains a number of sketches that Proust will later unfold like a Japanese paper flower and include in his better known novel.

I dipped the toast  in the cup of tea and as soon as I put it in my mouth, and felt its softened texture, all flavoured with tea, against my palate, something came over me–the smell of geraniums and orange-blossoms, a sensation of extraordinary radiance and happiness; I sat quite still, afraid that the slightest movement might cut short this incomprehensible process which was taking place in me, and concentrated on the bit of sopped toast which seemed responsible for all these marvels; then suddenly the shaken partitions in my memory gave way, and into my conscious mind there rushed the summers I had spent in the aforesaid house in the country, with their early mornings, and succession, the ceaseless onset, of happy hours in their train. (19-20)

As I was walking through a pantry the other day, a piece of green canvas plugging a broken window-pane made me stop dead and listen inwardly. A gleam of summer crossed my mind. Why? I tried to remember. I saw wasps in a shaft of sunlight, a smell of cherries came from the table–I could not remember. For a moment I was like those sleepers who wake up in the dark and do not  know where they are, who ask their bodies to give them a bearing as to their whereabouts, not know what bed, what house, what part of the world, which year of their life they are in. (22)

But as soon as I tasted the rusk, a whole garden, up till then vague and dim, mirrored itself, with its forgotten walks and all their urns with all their flowers, in the little cup of tea, like those Japanese flowers which do not re-open as flowers until one drops them into water. In the same way, my days in Venice, which intellect had not been able to give back, were dead for me until last year, when crossing a courtyard I came to a standstill among the glittering uneven paving stones….I still did not know what it was, but in the depth of my being I felt the flutter of a past that I did not recognise…(20-21)

A railway time-table with its names of stations where he loves to fancy himself getting out of the train on an autumn evening when the trees are already stripped of their leaves and the bracing air is full of their rough scent, or a book that means nothing to people of discrimination but is full of names he has not hear since he was a child, can bw worth incommensurably more to him than admirable philosophical treatises…(24-25)

This is the hour when some sick man, lodged for the night in a strange hotel and roused by a savage assault of pain, sees with rejoicing a streak of daylight under his door. Heaven be praised, it is already morning!–in a minute or two the hotel will be astir, he will be able to ring his bell, some one will come and look after him…At that moment, the streak of light under his door goes out. It is midnight, they have turned off the gas whose light he mistook for the light of morning, and all the long night through he will have to lie anguishing and unaided. (28)

When the art that claims to be realistic suppresses that inestimable truth, the witness of their imagination, it suppresses the only thing of value; and on the other hand, if it records it, it enriches the meanest material; it could give a value to snobbery if instead of describing it in its relation to fashionable life–where, like real love, real travel, it counts for nothing–it tried to recover it in the light that never was–the only true one–that plays from the longing eyes of a young snob on the violet-eyed Countess as she set out in her carriage on a summer Sunday. (54)

Unlike those passages, Proust contracts (censors?) the following in the novel.

It was an unusually spacious room for a water-closet….Then, in search of a pleasure that I did not know, I began to explore myself, and if I had been engaged in performing a surgical operation on my brain and marrow I could not have been more agitated, more terrified. I believed at every moment that I should die….At last a shimmering jet arched forth, spurt after spurt, as when the fountain at Saint-Cloud begins to play….In that moment I felt a sort of caress surrounding me. It was the scent of lilac-blossom, which in my excitement I had grown unaware of. But a bitter smell, like the smell of sap, was mixed with it, as though I had snapped the branch. I had left a trail on the leaf, silvery and natural as a thread of gossamer or a snail-track, that was all. (30-31)