Archive for the ‘Jean Santeuil’ Category

Jean Santeuil

March 13, 2011

Proust began writing his first novel, Jean Santeuil, in 1896. He abandoned it a few years later and never attempted to publish it. It was reconstructed from a box full of pages discovered after his death and published in 1952. One does not have to read very far into the book to discover why Proust left it unfinished. It is, however, a vital source in discovering the genealogy of themes and characters in Search. These are the opening lines of chapter 1, “Evenings at Saint-Germaine”: 

The little garden door closed slowly behind Jean after the third time he had been to say good night to his mother and had been ill received. “I’m afraid he’s rather miserable, Doctor,” said Madame Santeuil gently, turning to Professor Surlande, meaning to excuse her son. “I have never, till this evening, missed going to see him in bed and saying good night and he is feeling upset. Such an impressionable little boy.” — “He is what we should call a nervous subject,” replied the Doctor with a smile, as though he had made a witticism. “I could tell as much from the look of him. I expect Doctor Marfeu is trying cold-water treatment?” — “Cold water?” said Madame Santeuil showing surprise: “dear me, no. Monsieur Marfeu has prescribed warm water: he insisted most strongly that it must be warm” –“Warm water?” said Monsieur Surlande with a laugh, “gracious goodness me, that is really very strange! Still, Marfeu is an excellent physician and you could not have chosen anyone better for your son. But I should not like to think,” he added politely, “that I am the cause of your not saying good night to him.” — “You mustn’t think that!” exclaimed Madame Santeuil, “we don’t want to mollycoddle him. We have had to give in to him far too long as it is–because of his delicate health you know–and being spoiled will  make life very hard for him when he is older. My husband and I are so anxious that he should grow up to be a manly little fellow.”…(25-26)

“What a charming garden you have, with a stream too, the water of which looks to me very clear and pure.” — “It is a great comfort in hot weather,” replied Madame Santeuil with becoming modesty; “and in a few years time when we are no longer here, it will be nice for Jean, if his health remains poor, to come from time to time for a breath of this good air.” Monsieur Santeuil, having sat down, said nothing but looked tenderly at his wife, his mind carried back by those words “when we are no longer here” to the days when she had been fresh and lovely and to the long succession of years which had followed. (26)

Glancing up, she had seen the light come on again in her son’s bedroom and felt a spurt of annoyance. A boy of seven must learn to go to sleep alone. Hoping that Jean would doze off again she decided not to go up to him until she had seen the light once more disappear. In a very short while the window was pushed open. A small pale face showed a white nightgown and a voice sounded in the darkness. “Mamma, I want you for a moment.” — “Shut the window at once, Jean! you’ll catch cold! What a little silly you are!” exclaimed Madame Santeuil rising from her chair in a panic. (27)

He could hear outside in the corridor, the footsteps of Augustin, the old servant, taking the washed-up dinner service back to the dining-room. He called to him. But Augustin, accustomed to Master Jean’s nerves and having nowhere to put down his load, pretended that he had not heard. Then Jean, with a sudden spurt of annoyance, and fearing that the old man, once in the dining-room would be out of earshot, called again more loudly, “Augustin, I may tell you in a moment to fetch Mamma.” He did not dare to say, “If I ask you to fetch Mamma, will you?” because he might be met by a refusal to which he though the other form of words would not expose him.  (29)

Habit, the only one of all the ancient powers of this world which is stronger than suffering, might overcome, little by little, the cruel torments of which we have just been witnesses which, through all his early years he still endured whenever evening came. But each time, in youth, and even in maturity, that some circumstance occurred to suspend temporarily the anathematizing  effects of habit, each time that he went to bed earlier or later than usual, each time that a light or an unaccustomed sound prevented him from unconsciously  achieving the act of summoning sleep, the trouble remained slight and did not last. (32)

Beyond the drame du coucher, we see the motifs of amused skepticism of the medical arts, the corrosive effects of time, the solace and danger of habit, the solicitous grandmother (and her garden) and the family servant. What is missing is the power of the first person narrator; the style is bare of metaphor. But we are not surprised to find this ten page chapter written in only ten paragraphs.