Archive for the ‘The Captive’ Category

The Art Simile

February 5, 2011

Milton Hindus, in his The Proustian Vision, calls the art simile the most characteristic feature of Proust’s literary style. The relationship of art to nature as the source of truth is far different from the Romantics.

When Proust has occasion to liken his impressions of nature with his memories of art experiences, it is in a tone almost of apology for nature. To Proust, as to Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,”art is something precious and permanent rescued from the destructive changes of the natural world. Proust prefers the golden bird to the feathered one. He asks forgiveness from the reader at one point of his story for daring to compare the “humble landscape” of Combray with certain “glorious works” of art–“those old engravings of the ‘Cenacolo,’ or that painting by Gentile Bellini, in which one sees, in a state in which they no longer exist, the masterpiece of Leonardo and the portico of Saint Mark’s.”

There seems to me no aspect of Proust which makes him more “modern” than this elevation of art to a position superior to nature. One must have traveled very far indeed away from the romantic poets in terms of aesthetic theory if one is to think of a pastoral landscape as humble when compared with certain paintings. Is it possible to conceive of Wordsworth or Shelley valuing a work of art above nature? For these poets, the highest aspiration of the artist was to produce something which merited comparison with nature, while for Proust it seems to be the highest praise of natural beauty that is suggests a work of art. See what becomes, for example, of Keats’ “murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves” when Proust is the listener: ” the flies…performed for my benefit, in their small concert, the chamber music of summer.”

Proust is able to put the art simile to a variety of uses. Sometimes, as in most of the examples I have given, he uses it, as the simile is used generally, simply to make the feeling which surrounds a given term clearer by a felicitous comparison. But sometimes he uses it as a conscious comic device, making the analogy tremble on the edge of the ridiculous without quite allowing it to topple over. This use of the figure of speech then becomes so intimate and personal a thing that I can describe its effect best as Proustian irony–that is, an irony which is kindly rather than cruel, an irony which, like that of the grandmother’s smile as Proust describes it, is directed at himself rather than at a victim. A good example of this is his description of the trouble his poor cook takes in honor of an important diplomat who is to be their dinner guest: “She had gone herself to the Halles to procure the best cuts of rump-steak, shin of beef, calves’ feet, as Michelangelo passed eight months in the mountains of Carrara choosing the most perfect blocks of marble for the tomb of Julius II.” Or again when he compares the cries of street peddlers outside his window to passages from Mussorgsky and Debussy. These conceits make us smile, but it is an affectionate humor, for it would be too gross and out of character for Proust to have intended such extravagant comparisons to dwarf still further the modest stature of a servant or of a peddler. Rather (if I  may be excused for analyzing with so heavy a hand what is so feathery a touch of fantasy) he seems to me to imply here that all those who serve their purposes well, whatever these purposes might be, resemble each other. Françoise, the cook, as he points out on other occasions, is, in her own way, an artist; the narrator admires not only her cooking but her poetic speech–he admires what the Existentialists would call her authenticity. And the great artists who are thus compared to the most humble tradesmen and workers would probably have been the least distressed or amused by the contrast. (50-52)

Proust is so aware that this is his signature stylistic technique that he is comfortable imitating himself in a pastiche.

He introduces a parody of himself from the lips of Albertine, who has lived with him long enough presumably to mimic him successfully. Her pastiche necessarily is overdone, but the features which she caricatures are present in the original:

What I like about these foodstuffs that are cried is that a thing which we hear like a rhapsody change its nature when it comes to our table and addresses itself to my palate. As for ices (for I hope that you won’t order me one that isn’t cast in one of  those old-fashioned moulds, which have every architectural shape imaginable), whenever I take one, temples, churches, obelisks, rocks, it is like an illustrated geography book which I look at first of all and then convert its raspberry or vanilla monuments into coolness in my throat….I set my lips to work to destroy, pillar after pillar, those Venetian churches of a porphyry that is made with strawberries, and send what I spare of them crashing down upon the worshippers. Yes, all those monuments will pass from their stony state into my inside which throbs already with their melting coolness. (V,166)

Even to the most uncritical reader, this passage seems to give the show away. To the one whose consciousness is already attuned to Proust’s artistic device, it increases his awareness.It is a kind of play within the play, which underlines the essential pattern of the original. Proust has slipped the key to his own method under the door mat. (54-55)


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)



Fixing to Die

April 12, 2010

Proust’s description of the last days of Bergotte is written with much personal authority. First, Proust was perpetually cold and covered himself with all manner of clothing, giving little or no attention to his appearance. Regardless of the season, all windows had to be shut wherever he visited. And Bergotte…

I have said that Bergotte never went out-of-doors, and when he got out of bed for an hour in his room, he would be smothered in shawls, rugs, all the things with which a person covers himself  before exposing himself to intense cold or going on a railway journey. He would apologise for them to the few friends whom he allowed to penetrate to his sanctuary; pointing to his tartan plaids, his travelling-rugs, he would say merrily: “After all, my dear fellow, life, as Anaxagoras has said, is a journey.” (V,240)

Proust self-medicated himself with barbituates and opium to sleep and caffeine and adrenaline to stay awake.

Bergotte tried them all. Some of these drugs may be of a different family from those to which one is accustomed, by-products, for instance of amyl and ethyl. When one absorbs a new drug, entirely different in composition, it is always with a delicious expectancy of the unknown. One’s heart beats as at a first assignation. To what unknown forms of sleep, of dreams, is the newcomer going to lead one? It is inside one now, it is in control of one’s thoughts. In what way is one going to fall asleep? And, once asleep, by what strange paths, up to what peaks, into what unfathomed gulfs will this all-powerful master lead one? What new group of sensations will one meet with on this journey? Will it lead to illness? To blissful happiness? To death? Bergotte’s death came to him the day after he had thus entrusted himself to one of these friends (a friend? an enemy?) who proved too strong. (V,243-244)

On May 1, 1922, Proust accidentally took too strong a dose of adrenaline, which burned his digestive tract. From then on he consumed only ice cream and cold beer, a diet that left him weakened. He died of pneumonia on Nov. 18.

A Word from the Author

April 12, 2010

Proust occasionally inserts his own voice into the novel, as if to say, “Don’t forget about me! This is my novel.” The only authorial voice we should expect to hear is that of the elderly Marcel, writing his memoire. In this point of view, the characters are former acquaintances of the author, not “characters.”

Before we come back to Jupien’s shop, the author would like to say how grieved he would be if the reader were to be offended by his portrayal of such weird characters…But it is not the less true that considerable interest, not to say beauty, may be found in actions inspired by a cast of mind so remote from anything we feel, from anything we believe, that they remain incomprehensible to us, displaying themselves before our eyes like a spectacle without rhyme or reason. What could be more poetic than Xerxes, son of Darius, ordering the sea to be scourged with rods for having engulfed his fleet? (V,52-53)

 The novelist is not at all coy about himself here, where the protagonist finally gets a name.

Then she would find her tongue and say: “My–” or “My darling–” followed by my Christian name, which , if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be “My Marcel,” or “My darling Marcel.” (V,91)

The novelist and narrator are so entwined in this passage that I am unable to parse it.

And yet, my dear Charles Swann, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a y0ung idiot has made you the hero of one of his novels that people are beginning so speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live. If, in Tissot’s picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond de Polignac and Saint-Maurice, people are always drawing attention to you, it is because they see that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann. (V,262-263)






April 9, 2010

Albertine is at once a creation of Marcel’s jealous obsession, rooted in childhood trauma, and a person that he has chosen to live with. Morel enjoys a similar dual existence for Charlus. This unstable duality carries the risk of resolution by madness and even death, a conclusion Marcel both acknowledges and is reluctant to accept.

Jealousy is thus endless, for even if the beloved, by dying for instance, can no longer provoke it by her actions….There is no need for there to be two of you, it is enough to alone in your room, thinking, for fresh betrayals by your mistress to come to light, even though she is dead. (V,107)

“I beg of you, my darling girl, no more of that trick riding you were practising the other day. Just think, Albertine, if you were to have an accident!”  Of course I did not wish her any harm. But how delighted I should have been if, with her horse, she had taken it into her head to ride off somewhere, wherever she chose, and never come back to my house again! (V,153)

 It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one’s own like a bomb which one holds in one’s hands, unable to get rid of it without committing  a crime. But one has only to  compare this with the ups and downs, the dangers, the anxieties, the fear that false but probable thing will come to be believed when we will no longer be able to explain them–feelings that one experiences if one lives on intimate terms with a madman. For instance, I pitied M. de Charlus for living with Morel (immediately the memory of the scene that afternoon made me feel that the left side of my chest was heavier than the other); leaving aside the relations that may or may not have existed between them, M. de Charlus must have been unaware at the outset that Morel was mad….But all this  is only a comparison. Albertine was not mad. (V,236)

Many years later Marcel was to learn just how close to madness Morel had driven Charlus. This is from a letter meant to be read after his death.

This divine prudence it was that made him resist the appeals to come back and see me which I conveyed to him, and I shall have no peace in this world or hope of forgiveness in the next if I do not confess the truth to you. He was, in resisting my appeals, the instrument of divine wisdom, for I was resolved, had he come, that he should not leave my house alive. One of us two had to disappear. I had decided to kill him. (VI,168)