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 Palam├ęde 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.