Thursday, August 8, 2013

Embalmed in its vesture of gold

At the end of Volume II, Within a Budding Grove, Marcel and his grandmother are the last to leave the Balbec resort at the end of the season. Albertine slipped away without saying goodbye. Marcel feels numbed by the change that even the sunlight of a new day does not please him.

"And when Francoise removed the pins from the top of the window-frame, took down the cloths, and drew back the curtains, the summer day which she disclosed seemed as dead, as immemorial, as a sumptuous millenary mummy from which our old servant had done no more than cautiously unwind the linen wrappings before displaying it, embalmed in its vesture of gold."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The three trees revisited

"And when, the road having forked and the carriage with it, I turned my back on them and ceased to see them, while Mme de Villeparisis asked me what I was dreaming about, I was as wretched as if I had just lost a  friend, had died myself, had broken faith with the dead or repudiated a god."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pass the peas, please

Albertine is the object of jealousy when Andrée's mother learns her daughter's best friend is being invited to fine houses. The inevitable scapegoat is of course the chef responsible for the undercooked peas at dinner.

"Andrée's mother was probably not prompted by the thought that the banker and his wife, learning that Albertine was made much of by her and her daughter, would form a high opinion of them both; still less did she hope that Albertine, kind and clever as she was, would manage to get her invited, or at least get Andrée invited, to the financier's garden parties. But every evening at the dinner table, while assuming an air of indifference and disdain, she was fascinated by Albertine's accounts of everything that had happened at the big house while she was staying there, and the names of the other guests, almost all of them people she knew by sight or by name. Even the thought that she knew them only in this indirect fashion, that is to say did not know them at all (she called this kind of acquaintance knowing people "all my life"), gave Andrée's mother a touch of melancholy while she plied Albertine with questions about them in a lofty and distant tone, with pursed lips, and might have left her doubtful and uneasy as to the importance of her own social position had she not been able to reassure herself, to return safely to "the realities of life," by saying to the butler: "Please tell the chef that his peas aren't soft enough." She then recovered her serenity.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Rainy day hijinks at the casino

"If it rained, although the weather had no power to daunt Albertine, who was often to be seen in her waterproof spinning on her bicycle through the showers, we would spend the day at the casino, where on such days it would have seemed to me impossible not to go. I had the greatest contempt for the Ambresac sisters, who had never set foot in it. And I willingly joined my new friends in playing tricks on the dancing master. As a rule we had to listen to admonitions from the manager, or from some of his staff usurping directorial powers because my friends — even Andrée whom on that account I had regarded when I first saw her as so Dionysiac a creature whereas in reality she was delicate, intellectual and this year far from well, in spite of which her actions were responsive less to the state of her health than to the spirit of that age which sweeps everything aside and mingles in a general gaiety the weak with the strong — could not go from the hall to the ball-room without breaking into a run, jumping over all the chairs, and sliding along the floor, their balance maintained by a graceful poise of their outstretched arms, singing the while, mingling all the arts, in that first bloom of youth, in the manner of those poets of old for whom the different genres were not yet separate, so that in an epic poem they would mix agricultural precepts with theological doctrine."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A profound astonishment in their presence

The group of girls at the Balbec seashore who Marcel admired from afar for so long have accepted him into their company. They spend their days riding bicycles, playing games and exploring the resort where they are staying. Marcel loves them, and this is one of the few times in the long novel where is he happy and satisfied with his life.

"Such was for me this state of love divided among several girls at once. Divided, or rather undivided, for more often than not what was so delicious to me, different from the rest of the world, what was beginning to become so precious to me that the hope of encountering it again the next day was the greatest joy of my life, was rather the whole group of girls, taken as they were all together on those afternoons on the cliffs, during those wind-swept hours, upon the strip of grass on which were laid those forms, so exciting to my imagination, of Albertine, of Rosemonde, of Andree; and that without my being able to say which of them it was that made those scenes so precious to me, which of them I most wanted to love... Besides, as my perception of them was not yet dulled by familiarity, I still had the faculty of seeing them, that is to say of feeling a profound astonishment every time I found myself in their presence."

"Meanwhile, I had been thinking of the little page torn from a scribbling block which Albertine had handed me. 'I like you,' she had written. And an hour later, as I scrambled down the paths which led back, a little too vertically for my liking, to Balbec, I said to myself that it was with her that I would have my romance."

Friends and lovers

The photograph that scandalized Proust's mother: Marcel Proust (seated), Robert de Flers (left) and Lucien Daudet (right), ca. 1894.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The inner darkroom of our mind

Marcel has just met Albertine, and delays his elation until he can be alone.

'This is not to say that the introduction which followed did not give me any pleasure and did not assume a certain solemnity in my eyes. But so far as the pleasure was concerned, I was naturally not conscious of it until some time later, when, back at the hotel, and in my room alone, I had become myself again. Pleasure in this respect is like photography. What we take, in the presence of the beloved object, is merely a negative, which we develop later, when we are back at home, and have once again found at our disposal that inner darkroom, the entrance to which is barred to us so long as we are with other people."

The state of our own soul

Marcel sees Albertine and her circle of friends one day on the boardwalk, and his interest in them is piqued by the unlikely event that they will ever meet. Still, his imagination creates a personality for her and over days he falls in love with the image he has made for her.

"I had guessed long ago, in the Champs-Elysées, and had verified since, that when we are in love with a woman we simply project on to her a state of our own soul; that consequently the important thing is not the worth of the woman but the profundity of the state."

Friday, May 18, 2012

Finally, a smile

Good to see Marcel's lighter side. We know he had one, and this is the first picture I've ever seen to show it. 

This rare photo was recently unearthed by the people over at the Proust page on Facebook. I stole it. Sorry and thanks.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Secrets which other men did not carry in their breasts

It bears repeating from my last post: we are introduced to the Baron Palaméde de Charlus, born to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, as haughty, eccentric, in his 40s, who blatantly stared at M. 

"[T]he circumspect and unceasingly restless expression of those eyes, with all the signs of exhaustion which the heavy pouches beneath them stamped upon his face, however carefully he might compose and regulate it, made one think of some incognito, some disguise assumed by a powerful man in danger, or merely by a dangerous—but tragic—individual. I should have liked to divine what was this secret which other men did not carry in their breasts and which had already made M. de Charlus stare seem to me so enigmatic when I had seen him that morning outside the Casino."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Baron de Charlus: an introduction

Foreshadowing the introduction of the Baron de Charlus, Proust writes, "If, when we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture-chambers or skeletons..."

The narrator first spots the Baron as a stranger who is staring at him. "He was staring at me, his eyes dilated with extreme attentiveness," and likened him to a "madman or a spy."

"He threw his shoulders back with an air of bravado, pursed his lips, twisted his moustache, and adjusted his face into an expression that was at once indifferent, harsh, and almost insulting. So much that I took him at one moment for a thief and at another or a lunatic."

When M. learns of the Baron's identity, upon meeting him later, "Swift as a lightning-flash his look shot through me, just as at the moment when I had first noticed him." The Baron 's expression had "the devout and sanctimonious look that we see on the faces of certain hypocrites, the smug look of on those of certain fools."

Thus we are introduced to the Baron de Charlus as a haughty, eccentric man in his 40's who stares at boys like M. with intensity. But there is more:

"[T]he circumspect and unceasingly restless expression of those eyes, with all the signs of exhaustion which the heavy pouches beneath them stamped upon his face, however carefully he might compose and regulate it, made one think of some incognito, some disguise assumed by a powerful man in danger, or merely by a dangerous—but tragic—individual. I should have liked to divine what was this secret which other men did not carry in their breasts and which had already made M. de Charlus stare seem to me so enigmatic when I had seen him that morning outside the Casino."

Friday, April 6, 2012

Seeing others through a spyglass

Proust spends time pondering the nature of people's shortcomings, for he says, "Each of our friends has his defects..." and adds, "...the variety of our defects is no less remarkable than the similarity of our virtues."

Proust reflects on self-awareness and appearances.

"Since the risk of giving offense arises principally from the difficulty of appreciating what does and what does not go unnoticed, we ought to at least, from prudence, never to speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people's views are never in accordance with our own."

"Moreover it seems that our attention, always attracted by what is characteristic of ourselves, notices [defects] more than anything else in other people. One short-sighted man says of another: 'But he can scarcely open his eyes!'; a consumptive has his doubts as to the pulmonary integrity of the most robust; an unwashed man speaks only of the baths that other people do not take; an evil-smelling man insists that other people smell; a cuckold sees cuckolds everywhere. Then, too, every vice, like every profession, requires and develops a special knowledge which we are never loathe to display. And it is not only when we speak of ourselves that we imagine other people to be blind; we behave as though they were."
(emphasis mine)

Any page now, we will meet the Baron De Charlus, of the Guermantes family, and the meaning will become clear.

There is a passage I didn't quote where Proust says of homosexuality, "The inverts sniff out inverts." Proust was the first modern novelist to write openly about gays and lesbians.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An incapacity for rancour

M. is very discreet when he learns of Odette's past, and never discusses it or holds it against her.

In the volumes to follow, M. will be singled out — and his friendship valued — for his laid back attitude.

Proust is very quietly foreshadowing what is to come when he writes:

"I did not believe what [Bloch] was saying, but I bore him no ill-will on that account, for I had inherited from my mother and grandmother their incapacity for rancour even against the worst offenders, and their habit of never condemning anyone."

We are about to meet the Baron de Charlus, who is quite a memorable character all the way through to the end of the last volume.

How to win friends and influence people is simply a matter of keeping their secrets.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Marquis de Saint-Loup-en-Bray

While vacationing at the seaside resort of Balbec with his grandmother, M. makes friends with Robert Saint-Loup who is close to his own age. Saint-Loup is on leave from the army and is in Balbec visiting his great-aunt, Mme de Villeparisis.

M. is foretold of Saint-Loup's arrival, and he is so lonely he fantasizes about it. Saint-Loup and M. become best friends.

"It was promptly settled between us that he and I were going to be great friends forever, and he would say 'our friendship' as though he were speaking of some important and delightful thing which had an existence independent of ourselves, and which he soon called...the great joy of his life."

Robert Saint-Loup becomes a central character in the novel. Mme de Villeparisis and Saint-Loup are residents of the Faubourg Saint Germain neighborhood, are the epitome of society, and are related to the Guermantes, the highest aristocratic bloodline in France.

M. has his foot in the door of the great society he has admired since his youth in Combray.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The three trees

M. has another one of his mystical experiences while on a carriage ride in the countryside with Mlle de Villeparisis. He sees three trees which recall a happiness that he cannot remember, or put into thought.

"I looked at the three trees; I could see them plainly, but my mind felt that they were concealing something which it could not grasp, as when an object is placed out of our reach... Where had I looked at them before? Were they not numbered among...dreamscapes...?"

"...They were inviting me to probe a new thought, [and] I imagined that I had to identify an old memory... I chose rather to believe they were phantoms of the past."

"I watched the trees gradually recede, waving their despairing arms, seeming to say to me: 'What you fail to learn from us today, you will never know.'"

"And when, the road having forked and the carriage with it, I turned my back on them and ceased to see them, while Mme de Villeparisis asked me what I was dreaming about, I was as wretched as if I had just lost a  friend, had died myself, had broken faith with the dead or repudiated a god."

It is these kinds of associations and memories that Proust explores in the final volume, the "truths" of the past that were never clear to him; at last, at the very end, the past becomes real.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The wretched boy who was myself

M. is lonely in Balbec without a friend. He pities himself.

"Even though I knew that the young men who went past the hotel every day on horseback were the sons of the shady proprietor of a fancy goods shop whom my father would never have dreamed of knowing, the glamour of 'seaside life' exalted them in my eyes to equestrian statues of demi-gods, and the best thing I could hope for was that they would never allow their proud gaze to fall upon the wretched boy who was myself, who left the hotel dining-room only to sit upon the sands."

Sneering with rage at the new people

M. discovers an unknown world as he and his grandmother lunch on their first day at the Grand Hotel. He sees multiple layers of society comingle at the seaside, and he devotes many pages to describe the snobbery he encounters there.

He and his grandmother are scrutinized by people using their "lorgnettes" (theatre glasses) to stare at them, "...because we were eating hard-boiled eggs in salad, which was considered common and was not done in the best society."

He accuses people of having "pretensions to aristocracy," and describes a large table of people that are "inexhaustibly sarcastic," and who "sneer with rage at new people."

"It was their haughtiness that preserved them intact from all human sympathy, from arousing the least interest in the strangers seated round about them, among whom M. de Stermaria kept up the glacial, preoccupied, distant, stiff, touchy and ill-intentioned air that we assume in a railway refreshment room..."

"I was not yet old enough, and was still too sensitive to have outgrown the desire to find favor in the sight of other people and to possess their hearts. Nor had I acquired the more noble indifference which a man of the world would have felt towards the people who were eating in the dining room..."

"Alas for my peace of mind, I had none of the detachment that all these people showed."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The knocking game at Balbec

One of the more charming episodes in the book occurs at the hotel in Balbec when M's and his grandmother must part for the evening.

She says to him: "And be sure you knock on the wall if you want anything in the night. My bed is just on the other side, and the partition is quite thin. Just give a knock now, as soon as you're in bed, so that we should know where we are."

"And sure enough, that evening, I gave three knocks — a signal which, a week later, when I was ill, I repeated every morning for several days, because my grandmother wanted me to have some milk early..."

"Then when I thought I could hear her stirring I would venture three little taps, timidly, faintly, for I was afraid of disturbing her... And scarcely had I given my taps than I heard three others, in a different tone from mine, stamped with a calm authority, repeated twice over so that there should be no mistake, and saying to me plainly: 'I've heard you; I shall be with you in a minute!' and shortly afterwards my grandmother would appear."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I threw myself into the arms of my grandmother

M. is close to his grandmother and kisses her with abandon. He did the same thing to his mother. M.'s relationships with women is complicated, but that's a story for a later post.

Right now M. and his grandmother are staying alone at The Grand Hotel in the seaside resort of Balbec. She comes into M.'s room to say goodnight.

"I knew, when I was with my grandmother, that however great the misery that there was in me, it would be received by her with a pity still more vast, that everything was mine, my cares, my wishes, would be buttressed, in my grandmother, by a desire to preserve and enhance my life that was altogether stronger than my own; and my thoughts were continued and extended in her without undergoing the slightest deflection, since they passed from my mind into hers without any change of atmosphere or of personality..."

"I threw myself into the arms of my grandmother and pressed my lips to her face as though I were thus gaining access to that immense heart which she opened to me. And when I felt my mouth glued to her cheeks, to her brow, I drew from them something so beneficial, so nourishing, that I remained motionless, as solemn, as calmly gluttonous as a babe at the breast."

"Afterwards I gazed inexhaustibly at her large face, outlined like a beautiful cloud, glowing and serene, behind which I could discern the radiance of her tender love."

Otherwise I should have too violent an attack

If you are humor impaired like I am, you may not find much to laugh about in Proust's work. But someone pointed out to me the abundance of humor in the novel, and now I am seeing it everywhere.

Here's an example, M. is on the train to Balbec with his grandmother. The doctor told M. to drink alcohol if he felt an attack of asthma coming on.

"To prevent the suffocating fits which the journey might bring on, the doctor had advised me to take a stiff dose of beer or brandy at the moment of departure, so as to begin the journey in a state of what he called 'euphoria'..."

Once the journey began, the teenage M. was quick to circumvent his grandmother's "air of reproach" by faking illness.

"'What!' I cried, suddenly resolving upon this action of going to get a drink, the performance of which became necessary as a proof of my independence... 'You know how ill I am, you know what the doctor ordered, yet look at the advice you give me!'"

"When I had explained to my grandmother how unwell I felt, her distress, her kindness were so apparent as she replied, 'Run along then, quickly; get yourself some beer or liqueur if it will do you good,' that I flung myself upon her and smothered her with kisses. And if after that I went and drank a great deal too much in the bar of the train it was because I felt that otherwise I should have too violent an attack, which was what would distress her most."


Without wasting any more time, I am going to skip ahead four volumes and reveal that the narrator's name is Marcel, or just M.

I don't know why Proust makes us wait until Volume VI, The Fugitive, to learn the narrator's name, but he mentions it only once, and very briefly. You'll miss it if you are not alert.

Right now we are in the middle of Volume II, Within a Budding Grove, and M. is not a boy anymore — he's around 16 when he leaves Paris with his grandmother to spend the summer at a seaside resort called Balbec.

For expediency, I think it's time I refer to him as M. and get on with it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

We might have loved a little sooner had we known

While the narrator struggles to end his relationship with Gilberte, he passes up an opportunity to meet Mme Bontemps' niece, Albertine, who becomes a central figure through the rest of the novel.

 "There was a scene at home because I did not accompany my father to an official dinner at which the Bontemps were to be present with their niece Albertine, a young girl still hardly more than a child. So it is that the different periods of our lives overlap one another. We scornfully decline, because of one whom we love and who will some day be of so little account, to see another who is of no account today, whom we shall love tomorrow, whom we might perhaps, had we consented to see her now, have loved a little sooner and who would thus have put an end to our present suffering..."