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..."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Summarize Proust in 5 words or less

(Written by me)

 Love and society are illusory.

Time changes everything.

 A bygone era is remembered.

Newcomers who were ignorant of the past

Odette's afternoon teas are increasingly popular and growing more respectful, in spite of her wild past. There to witness the transition from an "old" parlor to a new, ascending one, are Mme Verdurin and her "faithful." 

Proust's use of "newcomers" who are unaware of Odette's past is important here, as it relates to the passage of Time in the final volume. Proust also changes course with character development, upsetting and shifting the social order. His demotion of Mme Verdurin is notable.

"Odette would begin to come home with the utmost punctuality for tea...She had succeeded in gaining credit among newcomers who were ignorant of the past."

"Mme Verdurin did indeed entertain the idea of 'society' as her final objective, but her zone of attack was as yet so restricted, and moreover so remote from that by way of which Odette stood some chance of arriving at an identical goal, of breaking through, that the latter remained in total ignorance of the strategic plans which the Mistress was elaborating."

"And it was with the most perfect sincerity that Odette, when anyone spoke to her of Mme Verdurin as a snob, would answer, laughing: 'Oh, no, quite the opposite! For one thing she hasn't the basis for it: she doesn't know anyone.'"

"At all events Mme Swann's friends were impressed when they saw in her house a lady of whom they were accustomed to think only as in her own, in an inseparable setting of guests, in the midst of her little group which they were astonished to behold thus evoked, summarised, compressed into a single armchair in the bodily form of the Mistress, the hostess turned visitor...Mme Verdurin."

As she is leaving the Swann's, the petulant Mme Verdurin says, "'You don't know how to arrange chrysanthemums...They are Japanese flowers; you must arrange them the same way as the Japanese.'"

And thus begins Odette's success as a hostess. Charles Swann is to play a minor role in the rest of the novel.

An empty phial of morphia

Our narrator hoped to win back Gilberte's affection by feigning indifference to her. The plan backfires, and our hero's remorse is likened to the pangs of an addict's withdrawal.

"New Year's Day went by, hour after hour, without bringing me that letter from Gilberte...On the days that followed I wept a great deal. True, this was due to the fact that, having been less sincere than I thought in my renunciation of Gilberte, I had clung to the hope of a letter from her in the New Year. And seeing that hope exhausted before I had time to shelter myself behind another, I suffered like an invalid who has emptied his phial of morphia without having another within his reach."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Typical of a man who has married a whore

Having just left Swann's house with his literary idol, Bergotte, our narrator learns the truth about Odette's past.

"'I'll tell you who does need a good doctor, and that's our friend Swann,' said Bergotte. And upon my asking whether he was ill, 'Well, don't you see, he's typical of the man who has married a whore, and has to pocket a dozen insults a day from women who refuse to meet his wife or men who have slept with her. Just look, one day when you're there, at the way he lifts his eyebrows when he comes in, to see who's in the room.'"

It's a rather shocking comment made to a young teenager he has just met. The narrator says to himself, "Certainly a person like my great-aunt, for instance, would have been incapable of treating any of us to the blandishments which I had heard Bergotte lavish upon Swann."

"I bowed my head in silence." And he mentions it no further.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Proustian insight into human nature

"...a cordial nature exaggerates a friend's qualities with as much pleasure as a mischievous one finds in depreciating them."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Conscious once again of my intellectual nullity

One of the major themes of the novel is taken up again in the second volume as the narrator questions his intelligence, and therefore, his ability, to devote his life to writing.

   "'Was there a writer of the name of Bergotte at this dinner, Monsieur?' I asked timidly.
   "'My son does not know him but admires his work immensely,' my mother explained.
   "'Good heavens!' exclaimed M. de Norpois, inspiring me with doubts of my own intelligence far graver than those that ordinarily tormented me, when I saw that what I regarded as the most exalted thing in the world, was for him at the bottom of the scale of admiration.
   "Shattered by what M. de Norpois had just said to me with regard to the fragment which I had submitted to him, and remembering at the same time the difficulties that I experienced when I attempted to write an essay or merely to devote myself to serious thought, I felt conscious once again of my intellectual nullity and that I was not cut out for the literary life."

He was "shattered" — what a descriptive word.

This is the second time Proust uses "nullity" to describe his intellectual prowess. Definitions of "null" include: "of no consequence, effect, or value; insignificant; amounting to nothing; absent or nonexistent." (The Free Dictionary)

This theme becomes important in the final volume.

Cathedral spires and allegorical figures

As a boy, our narrator is fascinated by the stock certificates he sees for the first time when his father pulls some out of a desk drawer.

"The sight of them enchanted me. They were ornamented with cathedral spires and allegorical figures, like some of the old romantic editions that I had pored over as a child...The artists who illustrate the poetry of their generation are the same artists who are employed by the big financial houses. And nothing reminds me more strongly of the instalments (sic) of Notre-Dame de Paris and of various works of Gérard de Nerval...than does, in its rectangular and flowery border, supported by recumbent river-gods, a registered share in the Water Company."

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest

In the last few pages that end Swann's Way, the narrator is now much older. Proust takes us forward in time and lets the narrator reminisce about the past.

He walks down the streets he used to know as a boy, and where he watched elegant ladies, like Mme Swann, promenade.

"...they recalled to me the happy days of my unquestioning youth, when I would hasten eagerly to the spots where masterpieces of female elegance would be incarnate for a few moments beneath the unconscious, accommodating boughs."

"...[I was] smitten by a desire to see again what I had once loved, as ardent as the desire that had driven me many years before along the same paths...Alas! there was nothing now but motor-cars..."

"In place of the beautiful dresses in which Mme Swann walked like a queen...they passed before me in a desultory, haphazard, meaningless fashion, containing in themselves no beauty which my eyes might have tried, as in the old days, to re-create. They were just women, in whose elegance I had no faith, and whose clothes seemed to me unimportant."

"Nature was resuming its reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Women...[It] seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest, and helped me to understand how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory..."

"The reality that I had known no longer existed...and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years."

Friday, March 16, 2012

A reputation for beauty, misconduct and elegance

In the last chapter of Swann's Way we move forward in time about 10 years. The narrator is again a young boy, this time in Paris, engaged in playing outdoor games with his new friend, Gilberte Swann.

Proust has used the intervening time to turn the tables on us: the loathsome Odette is now the well-respected Mme Swann, mother of Gilberte, and who is now a rising star in Paris. The narrator is devoted to watching her take daily walks along the Bois. The city is spellbound by her.

"...I saw Mme rich finery such as no other woman wore...paying scant attention to the passers-by, as though her sole object was to take exercise, without thinking she was being observed and that every head was turned towards her... "

"Even those that did not know her were warned by something singular, something exorbitant about her...that she must be well known. They would ask one another, 'Who is she?', or sometimes would interrogate a passing stranger..."

"I could feel all about her the indistinct murmur of fame...whose reputation for beauty, misconduct and elegance was universal."

"I doffed my hat to her with so lavish, so prolonged a gesture that she could not repress a smile. People laughed. As for her, she had never seen me with Gilberte, she did not know my name, but I was for her — like one of the keepers in the Bois, or the boatman, or the ducks on the lake to which she threw scraps of bread — one of the minor personages, familiar, nameless, as devoid of individual character as a stage-hand in the theatre, of her daily walks in the Bois."

"...She would not be alone for long, being soon overtaken by some friend, often in a grey 'topper,' whom I did not know, and who would talk to her for some time, while their two carriages crawled behind."

"...[she] acknowledg[ed] with a wink the greetings of the gentlemen in carriages, who, recognising her figure at a distance, raised their hats to her and said to one another that there was never anyone so well turned out as she."

"...on her lips [was] an ambiguous smile in which I read only the benign condescension of Magesty, although it was pre-eminently the smile of a courtesan, which she graciously bestowed upon the men who greeted her. This smile was in reality saying, to one: 'Oh yes, I remember very well; it was wonderful!'"

"And for certain men only she had a sour, strained, shy, cold smile which meant: 'Yes, you old goat, I know that you've got a tongue like an old viper, that you can't keep quiet for a moment. But do you suppose I care what you say?'"

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mme Cottard and the omnibus of deliverance

As the chapter ends and some time has passed, Swann runs into Mme Cottard on the Paris omnibus, of all places, and hears news of the old "little faithful."

Dressed with "a plume in her hat, a silk dress, a muff, an umbrella-sunshade, a card case, and a pair of white gloves fresh from the cleaners," she was bound for the Rue Bonaparte to make social calls.

"'Your ears must have been burning...while we were on the yacht with Mme Verdurin. We talked about you all the time.' Swann was genuinely astonished, for he supposed that his name was never uttered in the Verdurin's presence. 'You see,' Mme Cottard went on, 'Mme de Crécy was there; need I say more? Wherever Odette is, it's never long before she begins talking about you...Why she adores you! No, indeed, I am sure it would never do to say anything against you when she was about; one would soon be put in one's place! Whatever we might be doing, if we were looking at a picture, for instance, she would say, "If only we had him here, he's the man who could tell us whether it's genuine or not." No, I assure you, I am not saying it just to flatter you; you have a true friend in her, such as one doesn't find often. I can tell you, besides, that if you don't know it you're the only one who doesn't.' And Swann felt himself overflowing with affection towards her, as well as towards Mme Verdurin (and almost towards Odette...)"

"To counterbalance the morbid feelings that Swann cherished for Odette, Mme Cottard, a wiser physician, in this case, than ever her husband would have been, had grafted on to them others more normal, feelings of gratitude, of friendship, which in Swann's mind would make Odette seem more human..."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Falling from the nethermost circle of Dante

Swann has just blown it with the Verdurins —  he's been kicked out of the "little clan," and now he is on the skids with Odette who he suspects of having an affair.

Charles once enjoyed the company of the Verdurins, but made the fatal mistake of revealing his aristocratic background. Rejected by people beneath him, he lashes out.

"'[They really are]...beneath the lowest rung of the social ladder, the nethermost circle of Dante...Thank God, it was high time that I stopped condescending to promiscuous intercourse with such infamy, such dung...'" 

"And so that drawing-room which had brought Swann and Odette together became an obstacle in the way of their meeting."

Now Odette is treating him with a cold shoulder, and he vacillates between jealous suspicion and passionate affection.

"This new manner, indifferent, offhand, irritable, which Odette now adopted with Swann, undoubtedly made him suffer; but he did not realize how much he suffered; since it was only gradually, day by day, that Odette had cooled towards him..."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Verdurins: we're all good pals

Proust casts the Verdurins as a counterbalance to the aristocracy in Paris. The Verdurins have money but they have no title. Instead, with their "little clan," they create their own wealthy aristocracy, and have appointed themselves king and queen. They've turned their drawing room into a Bohemian hangout for painters, pianists, professors and gentlemen of the Belle Epoque who gather under the patronage of Mme Verdurin and rail against the "bores" who would never stoop so low as to attend one of her parties.

Mme Verdurin has no first name in the novel, and she is a major character through the last volume, Time Regained.

Proust writes the Verdurins as self-loving egotists.

"Each 'new recruit' that the Verdurins failed to persuade that the evenings spent by other people, in other houses than theirs, were as dull as ditch-water, saw himself banished forthwith."

"...the Verdurins, who were not in the least afraid of a woman's having a lover, provided she had him in their company, loved him in their company and did not prefer him to their company, would say, 'Very well, then, bring your friend along.' And he would be engaged on probation, to see whether he was willing to have no secrets from Mme Verdurin, whether he was susceptible of being enrolled in the "little clan.'"

"Evening dress was barred, because you were all 'good pals' and didn't want to look like the 'boring people' who were to be avoided like the plague and only asked to the big evenings, which were given as seldom as possible and then only if it would amuse the painter or make the musician better known."

Swann, one of the "boring" aristocrats, penetrates the Verdurin empire to court Odette, who Proust calls a "demi-mondaine," a woman supported by a wealthy lover.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The weighing of evidence: in search of the truth

Swann hears rumors about Odette and how she passes her time, but he fails to believe it.

"Reflections of this sort had brought him back to the memory of a time when someone had spoken to him of Odette as of a kept woman, and he was amusing himself once again with contrasting that strange personification, the kept woman...with the Odette on whose face he had seen the same expression of pity for a sufferer, revolt against an act of injustice, gratitude for an act of kindness, which he had seen in earlier days on his own mother's face and on the faces of his friends... If gossip about such things were repeated to him, he would dismiss it as insignificant."

"He was not jealous, at first, of the whole of Odette's life, but of those moments only in which an incident, which he had perhaps misinterpreted, had led him to suppose that Odette might have played him false."

Swann cannot ignore her strange behavior and her inability to account for her time. He presses her.

"As soon as she found herself face to face with the man to whom she was obliged to lie, she became uneasy, all her ideas melted like wax before a flame, her inventive and her reasoning faculties were paralysed, she might ransack her brain but could only find a void; yet she must say something, and there lay within her reach precisely the fact which she had wished to conceal and which, being the truth, was the one thing that remained."

Swann wishes to procure the truth.

"...the curiosity which [Swann] now felt stirring inside him with regard to the smallest details of [Odette's] daily life was the same thirst for knowledge with which he had once studied history. And all the manner of actions from which hitherto he would have recoiled in shame, such as spying, tonight, outside a window, tomorrow perhaps, for all he knew, putting adroitly provocative questions to casual witnesses, bribing servants, listening at doors, seemed to him now to be precisely on a level with the deciphering of manuscripts, the weighing of evidence, the interpretation of old monuments — so many different methods of scientific investigation with a genuine intellectual value and legitimately employable in the search for truth."

Friday, March 9, 2012

Swann likens Odette to a Botticelli fresco

Proust has given us a glimpse of Odette's likeness in the form of a famous Botticelli fresco in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Swann's infatuation is heightened by her resemblance to Jethro's daughter, Zipporah, above. Swann has a picture of the painting on his table.

"He stood gazing at her, traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and body... And when he was tempted to regret that...he had done nothing but see Odette, he would assure himself that he was not unreasonable in giving up much of his time to an inestimably precious work of art... When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed even lovelier still, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine he was holding Odette against his heart."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The insensate, agonizing need to possess exclusively

Proust describes Swann's love for Odette:

"Among the modes by which love is brought into being, among all the agents which disseminate that blessed bane, there are few so efficacious as this gust of feverish agitation that sweeps over us from time to time...All that was needed was that our predilection should become exclusive. And that condition is fulfilled when — in this moment of deprivation — the quest for the pleasures we enjoyed in his or her company is suddenly replaced by an anxious, torturing need, whose object is the person alone, an absurd, irrational need which the laws of this world make it impossible to satisfy and difficult to assuage — the insensate, agonizing need to possess exclusively."

Chapter 2: Swann In Love: Odette de Crécy and the Verdurins

We go back in time, to about the time our hero was born, and we move to Paris to begin the second chapter, "Swann In Love."

Right away we are introduced to Mme Verdurin and her "little clan" of Bohemians.

Of the group we are introduced to Odette de Crécy, whom Proust calls a "demi-monde." That term, used in France during the Belle Epoque, refers to a woman who is kept as a mistress, a hedonist, a sexually promiscuous person, or a prostitute of the upper classes.

We are also introduced to M. Swann as a young social elite bored with the women in his own class, and who seeks out the company of what Proust calls, "the distinctive vulgar type."

Odette asks Mme Verdurin if she can bring her new friend Swann to the next gathering of the little clan. There we learn more about M. Swann and the kind of idle, aristocratic life he leads.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gnawed by secret remorse

Throughout the novel our hero laments that he possesses no talent for writing, and here for the first time he expresses his displeasure.

"It seemed to me then that I existed in the same manner as all other men, that I must grow old, that I must die like them, and that among them I was to be distinguished merely as one of those who have no aptitude for writing. And so, utterly despondent, I renounced literature forever..."

"This intimate, spontaneous feeling, this sense of nullity of my intellect prevailed against all the flattering words that might be lavished upon me, as a wicked man whose good deeds are praised by all is gnawed by secret remorse."

Above the tombs of dead ancestors

Our young hero realizes his dream of seeing the celebrated Duchesse de Guermantes with his own eyes while she is visiting Combray for a family wedding. She resides in Paris at the center of society.

"...while Mme Guermantes sat in the chapel above the tombs of her dead ancestors...her gaze...rested momentarily upon myself, like a ray of sunlight straying down the nave..."

"I felt it important that she should not leave the church before I had been able to look at her for long enough, reminding myself that for years past I had regarded the sight of her as a thing eminently to be desired."

"I cried out within myself: 'How lovely she is! What true nobility! It is indeed a proud Guermantes, the descendant of Geneviéve de Brabant, that I have before me!'"

"I fancied that I had found favor in her eyes, that she would continue to think of me after she had left the church...And at once I fell in love with her..."

The Duchesse and our young hero will in the future become acquainted, and their story lasts through all six volumes.

Aunt Léonie really was sick!

She dies quickly and unceremoniously. Proust devotes just a few sentences to her passing. I thought she lived longer than that.

But remember, it was she who gave our hero tea and madeleine cakes. Important.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Guermantes way

Proust waits until page 263 of Swann's Way to embark the family on a walk down the Guermantes way.

Family walks around Combray so far have always followed the Méséglise way, which is also Swann's way, the shorter route that passes the grounds of Tansonville.

But on this day the family takes the much longer Guermantes way for their walk, which is the first time we learn about the Guermantes family, and how much they will come to mean in this book.

Foreshadowing: Odette

We have been twice introduced to Odette without Proust revealing her name; both brought her morality into question.

First, uncle Adolphe scandalizes his family by getting caught with a nameless woman of a lower sort, and with whom our hero falls in love and gives her the pet name, the "lady in pink."

Second, she is the "woman in white" who calls for Gilberte to come to the house when our hero's family walks by.

Our hero does not recognize her as the same woman he met at uncle Adolphe's.

I can't remember when or how our hero figures out Gilberte's mother, the "lady in white," is also the "lady in pink," but I know it's coming. How fun to look forward to it. In what beautiful way will Proust unfold the truth?

Marcel Proust as a boy

He was born in 1871, and assuming he is maybe 10 years old in this picture, we can estimate this photo to have been taken around 1881, or thereabouts.

Early gossip about Swann's wife

After our hero spots Gilberte for the first time, and sees the "woman in white" call her back to the house, it is divulged that the woman is Swann's wife and that she is unfaithfully standing next to a man in the yard identified as Charlus."

"...(as we moved grandfather murmured: 'Poor Swann, what a life they are leading him — sending him away so that she can be alone with her Charlus — for it was he, I recognized him at once! And the child, too; at her age to be mixed up in all that!')"

Proust has planted an important seed in the plot line that will unfold in the rest of the novel — that Swann's wife is unfaithful, and that her lover is a man named Charlus.  Both play major roles through the entirety of ISOLT.

Aunt Léonie: grief, debility, illness, obsession and piety

Proust attributes Aunt Léonie's physical incapacitation to hypochondria. Could it be that the basis of her problem was agoraphobia, the fear of leaving the house? Perhaps the hypochondria gave her an excuse, a reason for her seclusion.

"...aunt Léonie...since her husband's (my uncle Octave's) death, had gradually declined to leave, first Combray, then her bedroom, and finally her bed, and now never 'came down,' but lay perpetually in a state of grief, physical debility, illness, obsession and piety."

Although later he writes, in the same paragraph, "My aunt's life was now practically confined to two adjoining rooms, in one of which she would spend the afternoon while the other was being aired."

And she never actually complains of a specific ailment in the pages devoted to her, that I can recall.

While we are on the subject of aunt Léonie, remember it was she who served the tea and madeleine cake to our hero, the significance of which is a major theme in the final volume, Time Regained.

You're hideous, grotesque; how I loathe you!

Our hero's first encounter with Gilberte Swann in the garden at Tansonville amid the hawthorn blossoms is ruined by what he misinterprets as a smile of scorn for him: "...a half-hidden smile which I could only a mark of infinite contempt."

In a telling precursor to his relationship with women throughout the novel, our hero is tormented.

"I loved her; I was sorry not to have had the time and the inspiration to insult her, to hurt her, to force her to keep some memory of me. I thought her so beautiful that I should have liked to be able to retrace my steps so as to shake my fist at her and shout, 'I think you're hideous, grotesque; how I loathe you!'"

Monday, March 5, 2012

Weep henceforth without sin

I want to go back in Swann's Way to the evening when the young hero risks displeasing his parents by tearfully begging his mother to kiss him goodnight on the staircase, in full view of his father. His tears won his parents' hearts and he is rewarded with his mother's affection.

"And thus for the first time my unhappiness was regarded no longer as a punishable offense but as an involuntary ailment which had been officially recognized, a nervous condition for which I was in no way responsible... I could weep henceforth without sin." 

"It struck me that my mother had just made a first concession...a first abdication...for the first time she who was so brave had to confess herself beaten... I felt that I had with an impious and secret finger traced a first wrinkle upon her soul and brought out a first white hair on her head."

Beneath the arch of the pink hawthorn

Our hero's love of hawthorn blossoms begins at St. Hilaire church. "It was in the 'Month of Mary' that I remember having first fallen in love with hawthorns. Not only were they in the church, where, holy ground as it was, we had all of us a right of entry, but arranged upon the altar itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose celebration they participated..."

Later we learn that hawthorn hedges adorn the grounds of Tansonville, Swann's manor house, and where Mlle Swann is first discovered by our hero. "I lingered beside the hawthorns — breathing in their invisible and unchanging odour, trying to fix it in my mind (which did not know what to do with it), losing it, recapturing it, absorbing myself in the rhythm which disposed the flowers here and there with a youthful light-heartedness... I turned away from them for a moment... And then I returned to the hawthorns, and stood before them as one stands before...masterpieces... Thus was wafted unto my ears the name Gilberte...unfolding beneath the arch of the pink hawthorn."

The Church and Time

Early in Swann's Way Proust talks about the church in Combray, St. Hilaire, and dwells for the first time on a major theme that he later explores in the final volume: "...all this made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town: an edifice occupying, so to speak, a fourth dimensional space — the name of the fourth being Time..." The history of St. Hilaire enthralls the young hero, and he is left stunned by the glamour and mystery of the past contained within its Gothic walls and stained-glass windows to such an extent that it becomes alive for him, another dimension of reality.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Uncle Adolphe is a naughty boy

We get our first glimpse of the lady in pink when our young hero barges into Uncle Adolphe's house and embarrasses him with a woman of an "other class of acquaintance." She remains unnamed but our hero falls madly in love with her. How long will it take Proust to tell us who she is? And how will he reveal the truth of her identity? What webs will he weave to get us there?

My own tale

In the decade between my mid-20s and mid-30s I tried to read Swann's Way several times but found the first 50 pages difficult. However, I kept picking it up and reading until one day it just clicked — I saw the talent and the beauty of Proust's writing and never looked back. I read In Search of Lost Time all the way through non-stop.

When I finished the last volume, Time Regained, there was so much I wanted to go back and reread that I read the first three volumes a second time.

I was very proud of myself, and thought I was conversational in Proust.

Now I realize that I have forgotten everything. I want to read ISOLT all over again. Last month I started with a guide by Patrick Alexander titled, "A Reader's Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past," and I can't recommend it highly enough, even though it bears an outdated title.

This time I started at the end and read Time Regained first, I underlined most of the second half of the volume and said "wow" on nearly every page.

I wanted to share what I was reading with someone who knew what I was talking about, but there was no website I could find that would let me express myself.

Now I have moved on to Swann's Way, and I'm about 160 pages into it. I am reading with much more comprehension this third time.

I intend to read all the volumes again and document here some thoughts and observations which may come to mind.

I am just an average person, no scholar. But I hope to attract other like-minded readers of ISOLT to come here and play in the sandbox with me.

Leave me a message, and I'll write back.

Welcome Proust fans

Let's talk about Proust and his masterwork, In Search of Lost Time.