Archive for the ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ Category

Noxious Memory

January 30, 2011

Proust associates unforced memory with a visceral feeling of joy or enchantment, which may precede the conscious awareness of the actual memory. But the association is not always so pleasant. In two passages unforced memories evoke the deepest, sharpest feelings of pain found anywhere in the novel. As is often the case, the first such event is a rehearsal by Swann for that of Marcel: the discovery that their lovers are (horror alert!) female homosexuals. In Swann’s case, he suddenly realizes what he had unconsciously known all along, that Odette had been (another horror alert) Mme Verdurin’s lover.

One day, during the longest period of calm through which he had yet been able to exist without being overtaken by an access of jealousy, he had accepted an invitation to spend the evening at the theatre with the Princesse des Laumes. Having opened his newspaper to find out what was being played, the sight of the title–Les Filles de Marbre, by Théodore Barrière–struck him so cruel a blow that he recoiled instinctively and turned his head away. Lit up as though by a row of footlights, in the new surroundings in which it now appeared, the  word “marble,” which he had lost the power to  distinguish, so accustomed was he to see it passing in print beneath his eyes, had suddenly become visible again, and had at once brought back to his mind the story which Odette had told him long ago of a visit which she had paid to the Salon at the Palais de l’Industrie with Mme Verdurin, who had said to her, “Take care, now! I know how to melt you, all right. You’re not made of marble.”  Odette had assured him that it was only a joke, and he had attached no importance to it at the time. But he had had more confidence in her then than he had now. And the anonymous letter referred explicitly to relations of that sort.

…But now, by one of those inspirations of jealousy analogous to the inspiration  which reveals to a poet or a philosopher, who has nothing, so far, to go on but an odd pair of rhymes or a detached observation, the idea or the natural law which will give him the power he needs, Swann recalled for the first time an observation which Odette had made to him at least two years before: “Oh, Mme Verdurin, she won’t hear of anyone just now but me. I’m a ‘love,’ if you please, and she kisses me, and wants me to go with her everywhere, and call her tu.” So far from seeing at the time in this observation any connexion with the absurd remarks intended to simulate vice which Odette had reported to him, he had welcomed them as a proof of Mme Verdurin’s warm-hearted and generous friendship. But now this memory of her affection for Odette had coalesced suddenly with the memory of her unseemly conversation. He could no longer separate them in his mind, and he saw them assimilated in reality, the  affection imparting a certain seriousness and importance to the pleasantries which, in return robbed the affection of its innocence. He went to see Odette. He sat down at a distance from her. He did not dare to embrace her, not knowing whether it would be affection or anger that a kiss would provoke, either in her or in himself. He sat there silent, watching their love expire. (I,512-514)

As with Swann, a seemingly innocent remark sets off a nearly identical reaction in Marcel.

“…Well, this friend (oh! not at all the type of woman you might suppose!), isn’t this extraordinary, is the best friend of your Vinteuil’s daughter, and I know Vinteuil’s daughter almost as well as I know her. I always call them my two big sisters. I’m not sorry to show you that your little Albertine, can be of use to you in this question of music, about which you say, and quite rightly, that I know nothing at all.”

At the sound of these words, uttered as we were entering the station of Parville, so far from Combray and Montjouvain, so long after the death of Vinteuil, an image stirred in my heart, an image which I had kept in reserve for so many years that even if I had been able to guess, when I stored it up long ago, that it had a noxious power, I should have supposed that in the course of time it had entirely lost it; preserved alive in the depths of my being–like Orestes whose death the gods had prevented in order that, on the appointed day, he might return to his native land to avenge the murder of Agamemnon–as a punishment, as a retribution (who knows?) for my having allowed my grandmother to die; perhaps rising up suddenly from the dark depths in which it seemed for ever buried, and striking like an Avenger, in order to inaugurate for me a new and terrible and only too well-merited existence, perhaps also to make dazzlingly clear to my eyes the fatal consequences which evil actions eternally engender, not only for those who have committed them but for those who have done no more, or thought that they were doing no more, than look on at a curious and entertaining spectacle, as I, alas, had done on that afternoon long ago at Monjouvain, concealed behind a bush where (as I had complacently listened to the account of Swann’s love affairs) I had perilously allowed to open up within me the fatal and inevitably painful road of Knowledge. And at the same time, from my bitterest grief I derived a feeling almost of pride, almost of joy, that of a man whom the shock he has just received has carried at a bound to a point to which no voluntary effort could have brought him….It was a terrible terra incognita on which I had just landed, a new phase of undreamed of sufferings that was opening before me. (IV,702-703)


Obscure Deities

April 3, 2010

For all the importance she has in the novel, Albertine is curiously undeveloped as a character. Almost alone among the characters, she exists only in relation to Marcel and not as an independent person. This may be because she is foremost Marcel’s lover, and for him love is an act of the imagination much more so than interactions between the lovers. (Imagine Marcel in a happy marriage!)

For that matter, the mistresses whom I have loved most passionately have never coincided with my love for them. That love was genuine, since I subordinated everything else to seeing them, keeping them for myself alone, and would weep aloud if, one evening, I had waited for them in vain. But it was more because they had the faculty of arousing that love, of raising it to a paroxysm, than because they were its image. When I saw them, when I heard their voices, I could find nothing in them which resembled my love and could account for it.  And yet my sole joy lay in seeing them, my sole anxiety in waiting for them to come. It was as though a virtue that had no connexion with them had been artificially attached to them by nature, and that this virtue, this quasi-electric power, had the effect upon me of exciting my love, that is to say of controlling all my actions and causing all my sufferings. (IV,718)

Indeed I am inclined to believe that in these relationships (I leave out of account the physical pleasure which is their habitual accompaniment but is not enough in itself to constitute them), beneath the outward appearance of the woman, it is to those invisible forces with which she is incidentally accompanied that we address ourselves as to obscure deities. It is they whose good will is necessary to us, with whom we seek to establish contact without finding any positive pleasure in it. The woman herself, during our assignation with her, does little more than put us in touch with these goddesses. (IV,719)

The Proustian paradox of love: It is not when we are near the loved one that we are most in love, it is when we realize that the loved one is remote from us.

What a deceptive sense sight is! A human body, even a beloved one, as Albertine’s was, seems to us, from a few yards, from a few inches away, remote from us. And similarly with the soul that inhabits it. But if something brings about a violent change in the position of that soul in relation to us, shows us that it is in love with others and not with us, then by the beating of our shattered heart we feel that it is not a few feet away from us but within us that the beloved creature was. Within us, in regions more or less superficial. But the words: “That friend is Mlle Vinteuil” had been the Open sesame, which I should have been incapable of discovering by myself, that had made Albertine penetrate to the depths of my lacerated heart. And I might search for a hundred years without discovering how to open the door that had closed behind her. (IV,719-720)

Marcel the Snob

April 1, 2010

Marcel seems in danger of lulling himself into a state of contentment as summer draws to a close in Balbec. But then a casual conversation with Albertine changes everything. He mentions that he wants to ask Mme Verdurin about a musician he believes Albertine is unaware of, Vinteuil.

We may have revolved every possible idea in our minds, and yet the truth has never occurred to us, and it is from without, when we are least expecting it, that it gives us its cruel stab and wounds us for ever. “You can’t think how you amuse me,” replied Albertine, getting up, for the train was about to stop…”You remember my telling you about a friend, older than me, who had been a mother, a sister to me, with whom I spent the happiest years of my life, at Trieste, and whom in fact I’m expecting to join in a few weeks at Cherbourg, where we shall set out on a cruise together (it sounds a bit weird, but you know how I love the sea)? Well, this friend (oh! not at all the type of woman you might suppose!), isn’t this extraordinary, is the best friend of your Vinteuil’s daughter, and I know Vinteuil’s daughter almost as well as I know her…” (IV,701-702)

The pain is immediate and deep for Marcel. He wonders what he has done to deserve it. Was it

…for my having allowed my grandmother to die; perhaps rising up suddenly from the dark depths in which it seemed for ever buried, and striking like an Avenger, in order to inaugurate for me a new and terrible and only too well-merited existence, perhaps also to make dazzlingly clear to my eyes the fatal consequences which evil actions eternally engender, not only for those who have committed them but for those who have done no more, or thought that they were doing no more, than look on at a curious and entertaining spectacle, as I, alas, had one on that afternoon long ago at Montjouvain, concealed behind a bush where (as when I had complacently listened to the account of Swann’s love affairs) I had perilously allowed to open up within me the fatal and inevitably painful road of Knowledge. (IV,702)

Exactly what Knowledge has he gained? There is the confirmation of Cottard’s suspicion, that Albertine loves women. But why is that so much more shocking than men loving men, something Marcel handles with equanimity, even fascination. The prototype of this pain lies in his childhood.

It was Trieste, it was that unknown world in which I could feel that Albertine took a delight, in which were her memories, her friendships, her childhood loves, that exhaled that hostile, inexplicable atmosphere, like the atmosphere that used to float up to my bedroom at Combray, from the dining room in which I could hear, talking and laughing with strangers amid the clatter of knives and forks. Mamma who would not be coming upstairs to say good-night to me; like the atmosphere that, for Swann, had filled the houses to which Odette went at night in search of inconceivable joys. (IV,710)

He is envious of what is cannot join, a type of snobism.




Marcel at Peace

April 1, 2010

A delightful summer at Balbec is drawing to an end. The place names now have etymologies and are no longer mysterious. The towns linked by the little train are now all associated with his acquaintances .

And so Hermenonville, Harambouville, Incarville no longer suggested to me even the rugged grandeurs of the Norman Conquest, not content with having entirely rid themselves of the unaccountable melancholy in which I had seen them steeped long ago in the moist evening air. Doncières! To me, even after I had come to know it and had awakened from my dream, how long there had survived in that name those pleasantly glacial streets, lighted windows, succulent fowls! Doncières! Now it was merely the station at which Morel joined the train, Egleville (Aquilae Villa) the one at which Princess Sherbatoff generally awaited us, Maineville the station at which Albertine left the train on fine evenings, when, if she was not too tired, she felt inclined to enjoy a moment more of my company, having, if she took a footpath, little if any further to walk than if she had alighted at Parville (Paterni Villa). (IV,696)

Acquaintances? No, friends!

Not only did I no longer feel the anxious dread of loneliness which had gripped my heart the first evening; I had no longer any need to fear its reawakening, nor to feel myself a homesick stranger in this land so productive not only of chestnut-trees and tamarisks, but of friendships which from beginning to end of the route formed a long chain, interrupted like that of the blue hills, hidden here and there in the anfractuosity [thank you, Scott Moncrieff, for this new word] of the rock or behind the line-trees of the avenue, but delegating at each stopping-place an amiable gentleman who came to punctuate my journey with a cordial handclasp, to prevent me from feeling its length, to offer if need be to continue it with me. Another would be at the next station, so that the whistle of the little train parted us from one friend only to enable us to meet others. (IV,696)

The only task remaining for Marcel is to do what common sense dictates: break up with Albertine. But, as his grandfather would say, “On guard!”


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.