Archive for the ‘Time Regained’ Category

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)

Time Visualized

January 9, 2010

Mozart was said to be able to “see” a new composition in its entirety, a remarkable ability given, for the rest of us, the need to experience music in time. The closing pages of Time Regained finds the narrator also visualizing time in much the same way. Visualized time retains its vastness and calls for the right instrument to view it.

Even those who commended my perception of the truths which I wanted eventually to engrave within the temple, congratulated me on having discovered them “with a microscope,” when on the contrary it was a telescope that I had used to observe things which were indeed very small to the naked eye, but only because they were situated at a great distance, and which were each one of them in itself a world. (VI,520)

Time is viewed as having weight.

…at least I should not fail to portray man, in this universe, as endowed with the length not of his body but of his years and as obliged–a task more and more enormous and in the end too great for his strength–to drag them with him wherever he goes. (VI,528)

And spatial dimensions:

A feeling of vertigo seized me as I looked down beneath me,yet within me, as though from a height, which was my own height, of many leagues, at the long series of the years. (VI,531)

Sometimes the expanse of time can be visualized in a person, as when Marcel sees Gilberte’s daughter.

…Mlle de Saint-Loup. Was she not–are not, indeed, the majority of human beings?–like one of those star-shaped crossroads in a forest where roads converge that have come, in the forest as in our lives from the most diverse quarters? Numerous for me were the roads which led to Mlle de Saint-Loup and which radiated around her….But the truth, even more, is that life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another, and that these threads are crossed and recrossed, doubled and redoubled to thicken the web, so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from. (VI,502-504)

Swann in Love: Epilogue

January 8, 2010

Odette’s life has appeared to me a trajectory from forced childhood prostitution to more and more upscale liasons, culminating in her marriage to Swann, who does his best to get her accepted in society and to populate her salon with the best people. That is all true enough, though there are indications that she remains a courtesan at heart. Foremost of these is the “lady in pink” episode, preceded by the false lead at Combray, where she is seen at Tansonville with a mysterious man (Charlus). And there is the suggestion by Norpois that her home is a popular destination for men. Bloch claims to have had her three times on a train ride. But the bulk of the narrative shows Odette demurely hosting her salon and walking in the Bois.

In Time Regained, the narrator resolves all ambiguity. She’s a tramp all the way down. Odette is now the mistress of the Duc de Guermantes. The narrator misses no opportunity to call her the lady in pink.

…Gilberte might have had the morals of Odette herself but people would have gone there…(VI,52)

…Mme Swann in a pink dress in my great-uncles study.. (VI,413)

…just as, beginning with the lady in pink, there had existed several Mme Swanns, separated by the colorless ether of the years…(VI,442)

…and the other with the lady in pink because a well-informed man within me assured me that this was so…(VI,443)

…she was tending under pressure of new circumstances to become once more, the lady in pink (VI,481)

…this Second Empire courtesan swathed in one of the wraps which he liked, the lady in pink would interrupt him with a sprightly sally… So for a moment the Duke glared at the audacious lady in pink. (VI,486)

The morals of Swann while married to Odette, by the way, were apparently no better.

…Swann, when he was no longer in love with Mme Swann but with a waitress at the same Colombin’s where at one time Mme Swann had though it smart to go and drink tea…(VI,403)

The narrator finally has had enough of her:

It must be added that Odette was unfaithful to M. de Guermantes in the same fashion that she looked after him, that to say without charm and without dignity. She was commonplace in this role as she had been in all her others. Not that life had not frequently given her good parts; it had, but she not known how to play them. (VI,488) 

Just as…

January 7, 2010

Proust at every occasion will expand on a simple observation by comparing it to another he believes we must know. These examples come from the former prostitute Rachel’s poetry recital at the Princesse ‘s matinee.

But for the first few moments, just as when, in a trivial case in a low-court, we see a barrister advance, raise a toga’d arm in the air and start to speak in a threatening tone, we hardly dare look at our neighbours. For our immediate reaction is that this is a grotesque–but we cannot be sure that it is not in fact magnificent, so for the present we suspend judgement. (VI,457)

People looked at one another, not knowing what expression to put on their faces: a few badly mannered young things giggled audibly; everyone glanced at his neighbor with that stealthy glance which at a smart dinner-party, when you find beside your plate an unfamiliar implement, a lobster-fork or sugar-grinder perhaps, of which you know neither what it is for nor how to use it, you cast at some more authoritative guest in the hope that he will pick it up before you…(VI,457)

When the moment came to make a joke, she [Mme de Guermantes] would check herself for the same number of seconds as in the past, she would appear to hesitate, to have something within her that was struggling to emerge, but the joke, when at last it arrived, was pitifully feeble. But how few of her listeners noticed this! Because the procedure was the same they believed that the wit too had survived intact, like those people who, superstitiously attached to some particular make of confectionery, continue to order  their petits four from a certain shop without noticing that they have become almost uneatable. (VI,464)


Friends Rediscovered

January 6, 2010

Proust was a famously congenial host at his dinner parties, moving from guest to guest with his plate in hand, engaging each person. As he worked on the novel, however, he retreated from society and declined most invitations. Passages in the novel, I believe, offer his explanations, if not apologies,  to his ignored friends. The truth was, he retreated from them to know them better.

Was it not, surely, in order to concern myself with them that I was going to live apart from these people who would complain that they did  not see me, to concern myself with them in a more fundamental fashion than would have been possible in their presence, to seek to reveal them to themselves, to realise their potentialities? What use would it have been that, for a few more years, I should waste hour after hour at evening parties pursuing the scarcely expired echo of other people’s remarks with the no less vain and fleeting sound of my own, for the sterile pleasure of a social contact which precluded all penetration beneath the surface? (VI,436)

 And far from thinking myself wretched–a belief which some of the greatest men have had–because of this life without friends or familiar talk that I should live, I realized that our powers of exaltation are being given a false direction when we expend them in friendship, because they are then diverted from those truths towards which they might have guided us to aim at a particular friendship which can lead to nothing. (VI,437)

Ecstasy of the Tart

January 5, 2010

Proust is a master of characterizing people in conflict, trying to be both one thing and the other. The young Mme. Cambremer masks her social ignorance with her charm, as in this scene where she is introduced to a general at Mme de Saint-Euverte’s party.

When Swann did finally introduce M. de Froberville to the young Mme de Cambremer, since it was the first time she had heard the General’s name she offered him the smile of joy and surprise with which she would have greeted him if no one had ever uttered any other; for, not knowing any of the friends of her new family, whenever someone was presented to her she assumed that he must be one of them, and thinking that she was showing evidence of tact by appearing to have heard such a lot about him since her marriage, she would hold out her hand with a hesitant air that was meant as a proof at once of the inculcated reserve which she had to overcome and of the spontaneous friendliness which successfully overcame it. (I,489)

Another fine example is Marcel’s encounter with the aged courtesan, the Princesse de Nassau, a person he had not seen in some years.

As she passed near me, making her discreet exit, I bowed to her. She recognised me, took my hand and pressed it, and fixed upon me the round mauve pupils which seemed to say: “How long it is since we have seen each other! We must talk about all that another time.” Her pressure of my hand became a squeeze, for she had a vague idea that one evening in her carriage, when she had offered to drop me at my door after a party at the Duchesse de Guermantes’s, their might have been some dalliance between us. Just to be on the safe side, she seemed to allude to something that had in fact never happened, but this was hardly difficult for her since a strawberry tart could send her into an ecstasy… (VI,426)

Bloch Head

January 4, 2010

Marcel spots his childhood friend Bloch at the party. Once more Proust makes Bloch his painful Jewish alter ego.

…it would have needed my grandfather’s flair to detect the “sweet vale of Hebron” and those “chains of Israel” which my old schoolmate seemed definitively to have broken….His nose remained large and red, but seemed now to owe its tumescence to a sort of permanent cold which served also to explain the nasal intonation with which he languidly delivered his studied sentences….And thanks to the way in which he brushed his hair, to the suppression of his moustache, to the elegance of his whole figure–thanks, that is to say, to his determination–his Jewish nose was now scarcely more visible than is the deformity of a hunchbacked woman who skilfully arranges her appearance. (VI,384)

This rather vicious characterization is leavened with this humorous passage:

But above all–and one saw this the moment one set eyes on him–the significance of his physiognomy had been altered by a formidable monocle. By introducing an element of machinery into Bloch’s face this monocle absolved it of all those difficult duties which a human face is normally called upon to discharge, such as being beautiful or expressing intelligence or kindliness or effort. (VI,384)

Prose That Time Forgot

January 3, 2010

Marcel is  seeing the way time has shaped the physiognomy of those he has known. Here are excerpts, in a style as fresh as they were composed a hundred years ago.

Having been assured that M. de Cambremer’s mother had not died, I asked him how she was. “She is wonderful still,” he said, using to describe her an adjective which in certain families–by contrast with those tribes where aged parents are treated without pity–is applied to old people in whom the continued exercise of the most rudimentary and unspiritual faculties, such as hearing, going to mass on foot, sustaining the demise of their relatives with insensibility, is endowed in the eyes of their children with an extraordinary moral beauty. (VI,358)

…the old valet of the Prince de Guermantes…appeared old. One felt merely that in the human race there exist species, like the mosses and the lichens and a great many others in the vegetable kingdom, which do not change at the approach of winter. (VI,359)

A few, of whom the Prince d’Agrigente was one, seemed actually to have been embellished by age. His tall, thin figure, with its lacklustre eye and hair that seemed destined to remain a carroty red for all eternity,  had turned, through a metamorphosis more appropriate to an insect, into an entirely different old man, whose red hair, too long exposed to view, had been taken out of service like a table-cloth too long in use and replaced by white. (VI,359)

Their faces might be surrounded with a first circle of wrinkles and a sweep of white hair but they were still the same babyish faces, with the vain enthusiasm of an eighteen-year-old. They were not old men, they were very young men in an advanced stage of withering. (VI,361)

…I had the surprise of talking to men and women  whom I remembered as unendurable and who had now, I found, lost almost every one of their defects, possibly because life, by disappointing or by gratifying their desire, had rid them of most of their conceit or their bitterness. (VI,363) 

Some men walked with a limp, and one was aware that this was the result not of a motor accident but of a first stroke: they had already, as the saying is, one foot in the grave. (VI,363) So he’s not perfect.

Mental Meets Flesh

January 3, 2010

Just before entering the ballroom filled with the aged persons of Marcel’s past, he makes the realization that the mental has precedence over the actual. His grandmother’s death is real only some months after the event. Proust, like Whitman, is not afraid of self-contradiction. As Marcel enters the ballroom, aged flesh asserts primacy over the mental and Marcel becomes disoriented.

M. d’Argencourt, the once imperious Belgian envoy, is no longer visibly intimidating.

…one was obliged to study them at the same time with one’s eyes and with one’s memory…the new, the unrecognisable Argencourt was there before me as the revelation of Time, which by his agency was rendered partially visible, for in the new elements which went to compose  his face and his personality one could decipher a number which told one the years of his age, one could recognise the hieroglyph of life–of life not as it appears to us, that is to say permanent, but as it really is: an atmosphere so swiftly changing that at the end of the day the proud nobleman is portrayed, in caricature, as a dealer in old clothes. (VI,342)

Marcel searches for what the face shows of the person’s moral qualities.

And if I no longer felt any ill will towards  him, it was because in this man who had rediscovered the innocence of childhood there was no longer any recollections of the contemptuous notions which he might once have had of me…either because the sentiments had ceased to exist in him or because in order to arrive at me they were obliged to pass through physical refractors which so distorted them that in the course of their journey they completely changed their meaning, so that M. d’Argencourt appeared to be kind for want of the physical means of expressing that he was still unkind…(VI(341)

But time may have revealed more agreeable aspects in a person.

From this young girl, for instance, as from M. d’Argencourt, time had extracted possibilities that one could never have suspected, but these possibilities, though it was through her physiognomy or her body that they had expressed themselves, seemed to be of a moral order….In a woman, for instance, whom one had known as stiff and prim, an enlargement out of all recognition of the cheeks, an unpredictable arching of the nose, caused one the same surprise–and often it was an agreeable surprise—as one would have felt at some sensitive and profound remark, some noble and courageous action that one would never have expected of her. (VI,343)

The Usefulness of Happiness

January 1, 2010

Proust no doubt approved of Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The only difference is that for him unhappiness is not so much a one way trip to the train station, but the fruit of happiness.

As for happiness, that is really useful to us in one way only, by making unhappiness possible. It is necessary for us to form in happiness ties of confidence and attachment that are both sweet and strong in order that their rupture may cause us the heart-rending but so valuable agony which is called unhappiness. Had we not been happy, if only in hope, the unhappinesses that befall us would be without cruelty and therefore without fruit. (VI,316)

There is cruelty because there is love. This drives the author to new depths of feeling.

…it almost seems as though a writer’s works, like the water in an artesian well, mount to a height which is in proportion to the depth to which suffering has penetrated his heart. (VI,318)

And once one understands that suffering is the best thing that one can hope to encounter in life, one thinks without terror, and almost as of a deliverance, of death. (VI,319)