A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 43

Where this began
Day 42

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 171-183.

The narrator acts as eavesdropper in most of this section, listening in on the chat and cattiness of Mme. Swann's "at home" while still playing his little games of strategy to win back Gilberte. When Odette says that Gilberte has written to invite him to come see her tomorrow, he replies, "Gilberte and I can't see each other anymore."
"You know she's very fond of you," Mme Swann said. "Are you sure tomorrow's not possible?" A sudden surge of joy went through me, and I thought: "Well, why not? I mean, it's her mother who's asking me!" But my dejection returned at once. I was afraid Gilbert might deduce from my presence that my recent indifference toward her had been only for show, and I decided that the separation should continue.

Meanwhile, he overhears Mme. Bontemps talking about her niece Albertine, whom she describes as "as artful as a bunch of monkeys." And he witnesses the sparring between the rival leaders of salons, Odette and Mme. Verdurin. "On marrying Odette, Swann had asked her to resign from 'the little set'" and "had permitted Odette to exchange only two visits a year with Mme Verdurin," who has become known as "the Patronne." Odette tells her own set that "M. Swann is not overfond of old Mother Verdurin.... And I'm a very dutiful wife, you know."

And so when Mme. Verdurin shows up for Odette's "at home," there's some jockeying for position, especially where Mme. Cottard, who belongs to both groups, is concerned. Mme. Verdurin also has her eye on Odette's friend Mme. Bontemps. So Mme. Verdurin goes out of her way to "accidentally" refer to Odette as "Mme de Crécy," following it up with "oh, goodness me, what have I said? I'll never get into the habit of saying 'Mme Swann'!" This, it seems, is an in-joke among the "little set." Mme. Verdurin even goes so far as to criticize Odette's neighborhood ("such a godforsaken part of town"), to worry that the damp is bad for Swann's eczema, and to ask if the house had rats. "'You're not very good at arranging chrysanthemums, are you?' she added on the way out, as Mme Swann was moving toward the door with her."

When she's gone, Mme. Bontemps suggests that before attending Mme. Verdurin's salon, she and Odette and Mme. Cottard have dinner together. "Then, after dinner, all three of us could go and Verdurinate together, I mean Verdurinize." Mme. Cottard, still trying to play both sides, passes along the news that "the house that Mme Verdurin has just bought is going to have the electric light in it" and reports that "The sister-in-law of a friend of mine has actually got a telephone installed in her house!"

Meanwhile, the narrator is brooding on the game he is playing with Gilberte. "I had achieved the aim of my visit: Gilberte would know I had been to her house during her absence" and "would be told I had spoken about her affectionately, as I could not help doing; and she would know I did not suffer from the inability to live without her, which I felt was the source of her recent discontents with me."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 42

Where this began
Day 41

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 161-171.

The split with Gilberte puts the novel into a kind of narrative paralysis as the narrator tries to work out how he's going to get her back. He imagines several strategies, including different kinds of letters.
But since we are unable, while we love, to act as the worthy predecessor to the next person we are going to be, the one who will no longer be in love, how could we accurately imagine the state of mind of a woman who, even though we knew we meant nothing to her, has always figured in our sweetest daydreams, a figment of our illusive wish to fancy a future with her, or of our need to heal the heart she has broken, whispering to us things she would have said only if she had been in love with us?

That kind of tortured and convoluted back-and-forth persists through the next several pages. He does have access to the Swanns' house, but when he goes there the butler tells him, "Mademoiselle is out, monsieur. I swear to Monsieur I am telling the truth. If Monsieur would like to check what I am saying, I can fetch the maid. As Monsieur well knows, I would do anything for him, and if Mademoiselle was in, I would take Monsieur straight to her." The realization that even the household knows he's been dumped provokes the narrator to anger -- not against Gilberte, but against the well-meaning butler.

When he visits Odette, he fancies that it bettered his image with Gilberte: "If we are to make reality endurable, we must all nourish a fantasy or two." And so he finds himself turning up at Odette's "at home" hours, giving us a glimpse of the artificial elegance of a "winter garden" room, which also evokes for him Odette's earlier life:
The life of a high-class courtesan, such as she had been, being much taken up by her lovers, is largely spent at home, and this can lead such a woman to live for herself.... The climax of her day is not the moment when she dresses for society, but when she undresses for a man. She has to be as elegant in a housecoat or a nightgown as in a walking-out dress. ... It is a type of life that demands, and eventually gives a taste for, the enjoyment of secret luxury -- that is, a life which is almost one of disinterest. This taste Mme Swann extended to flowers.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 41

Where this began
Day 40

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 150-161.

Bloch turns up again, this time to take the narrator to his first brothel, and to give him "the truly divine gift ... which can acquired only from reality: the charm of the individual." One individual that a madam thrusts upon him is "a Jewess" whom she calls Rachel, and whom the narrator nicknames "Rachel, when of the Lord," a rather arch allusion to an aria in Halévy's opera La Juive: "Rachel, quand du seigneur."

The madam doesn't get the joke. And the narrator doesn't get the girl -- she is "busy" on later visits, and he stops visiting the brothel, though not before giving the madam several pieces of furniture, including "a large couch," that he has inherited from his Aunt Léonie. "But as soon as I set eyes on them again in that brothel, put to use by those women, I was assailed by all the virtues that had perfumed the air in my aunt's bedroom at Combray, now defiled by the brutal dealings to which I had condemned the dear, defenseless things. I could not have suffered more if it had been the dead woman herself being violated." And here Proust plays an ironic memory trick -- ironic, given that it was the madeleine soaked in tea that caused the memory of Aunt Léonie and of Combray to surface so dramatically earlier in the novel -- by noting that "memory does not usually produce recollections in chronological order, but acts more like a reflection inverting the sequence of parts," so that "it was not until much later that I remembered this was the couch on which, many years before, I had been initiated into the pleasures of love by one of my cousins."

Meanwhile, he is also selling off his aunt's silverware so he can buy flowers for Mme. Swann. However, things are not going so well with Gilberte. He notes that he gave up the idea of becoming a diplomat because the career might have separated him from Gilberte, but his obsession with her and the Swanns has also distracted him from his writing -- to the dismay of his parents and his grandmother. He details the long chain of excuses and rationalizations
-- familiar to any procrastinator -- that keep him from putting off sitting down to write.

Moreover, he begins to sense that Gilberte is not quite so enamored of him as he is of her.
In love, happiness is an abnormal state, capable of instantly conferring on the pettiest-seeming incident, which can occur at any moment, a degree of gravity that in other circumstances it would never have. What makes one so happy is the presence of something unstable in the heart, something one contrives constantly to keep in a state of stability, and which one is hardly even aware of as long as it remains like that. In fact, though, love secretes a permanent pain, which joy neutralizes in us, makes virtual, and holds in abeyance; but at any moment, it can turn into torture, which is what wold have happened long since if one had not obtained what one desired.

The Swanns, "who were more and more convinced I was an improving influence on" Gilberte, don't help when they stop her from going to a dancing class and instead make her stay to entertain the narrator. "Gilberte's face was devoid of all joy, laid waste, a blank, melancholy mask, which for the rest of the afternoon seemed to grieve privately for those foursome reels being danced without her, because of my presence here." And so he finds himself "on the threshold of one of those difficult junctures which most of us encounter several times in our lives," when pride and self-indulgence cause an avoidable pain.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 40

Where this began
Day 39

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 138-150.

Gilberte, we learn, is "golden-skinned" with "fairish hair," unlike Odette, who is "dark." She "resembled a portrait of her mother, verging on a good likeness, but done by a fanciful colorist who had made her pose in semi-disguise." Sometimes, she has "the frankness of her father's fine, open gaze on the world." But "if you inquired about what she had been doing, those same eyes filled with the devious, forlorn embarrassment that used to cloud Odette's as, in answer to a question from Swann about where she had been, she told one of those lies which had once reduced her lover to despair, but which now made her husband, a prudently uninquiring man, quickly change the subject."
Swann was one of those men whose lives have been spent in the illusions of love, who, having afforded comforts and, through them, greater happiness to many women, have not been repaid by gratitude or tenderness toward themselves; but in their child they believe they can sense an affection which, by being materialized in the name they bear, will outlive them.

The dinner with Bergotte goes well: Swann compliments the narrator for raising the tone of the conversation, which the narrator takes to mean that their usual entertainment of Bergotte is more casual. It makes him realize that he had not been at all shy about sharing his opinions and feelings freely with the writer, and that "both my great attraction to the works of Bergotte and the unaccountable disappointment I had experienced at the theater were sincere, spontaneous reactions of my own mind," and that Bergotte "was very likely not so utterly alien and hostile to my disappointment, or to my inability to articulate it."
Just as the priests with the broadest knowledge of the heart are those who can best forgive the sins they themselves never commit, so the genius with the broadest acquaintance with the mind can best understand ideas most foreign to those that fill his own works.

When they share a carriage home after the dinner, Bergotte says he's sorry to hear from the Swanns that the narrator is "not in the best of health.... Although I must say I am not too sorry for you, as I can see you must enjoy the pleasures of the intellectual life." This strikes the narrator as at odds with de Norpois's attitude toward his intellectual and artistic pursuits:
M. de Norpois's words had made me see my moments of idle reflection, enthusiasm, and self-confidence as being purely subjective, devoid of reality. Yet Bergotte, who seemed quite familiar with the situation I found myself in, seemed to be implying that the symptoms to ignore were actually my self-disgust and doubts about my abilities.

Moreover, Bergotte has a radically different view of Dr. Cottard as physician from de Norpois's. Bergotte has met Cottard at the Swanns' and recognized him as "a prize idiot!"
"Cottard will bore you, and boredom alone will prevent his treatment from working. ... With intelligent people, three-quarters of the things they suffer from come from their intelligence. The thing they can't do without is a doctor who's aware of that form of illness. How on earth could Cottard cure you?"
The narrator remains skeptical of this advice, however.

Bergotte also suggests that Swann is in need of a good doctor because "here is a man who married a trollop, who accepts being snubbed every day of the week by women who choose not to know his wife, or looked down on by men who have slept with her."

The narrator decides that one reason Swann has introduced him to Bergotte was to impress his parents, who are among those who have been unwilling to receive Odette. But when he mentions to his parents that the Swanns introduced him to Bergotte, his father is scornful -- the more so when the narrator tells him that Bergotte "had nothing good to say about M. de Norpois." His father says that opinion shows "what a nasty and bogus mind" Bergotte has. Fortunately, the narrator is able to mention that Odette reported to him that Bergotte "thought I was highly intelligent." This of course delights his parents, even causing his father to admit that de Norpois is "not always full of goodwill."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 39

Where this began
Day 38

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 119-138.

The narrator's intimacy with the Swanns continues, to the point that Odette sometimes in restaurants confides things to him in English that she doesn't want others to hear. The problem, he notes, is that "everybody could speak English -- except me," so that remarks about other people, including the waiters, that even he "could tell were insulting" were "lost on me, if not on the people insulted."

His adulation of the Swanns even causes friction with Gilberte, who quarrels with her father because she wants to go to theater. Swann opposes her doing so because it is the anniversary of his father's death, but lets her have her way. When the narrator suggests to her that it might look odd to others if they went to the theater on a day of mourning, she retorts, "Look, what do I care about what other people think! I think it's preposterous to worry about other people when feelings are involved. You feel things for yourself, not for an audience." And when he sugests that it would please her father if she stayed home, "'Don't you start!' she snapped, snatching her arm away."

And then comes a big surprise: Odette invites him to a luncheon at which his idol Bergotte, so recently criticized by the Marquis de Norpois, is present. And characteristically, the narrator is initially disillusioned:

I saw a stocky, coarse, thickset, shortsighted man, quite young, with a red bottle-nose and a black goatee. I was heartbroken: it was not only that my gentle old man had just crumbled to dust and disappeared, it was also that for those things of beauty, his wonderful works, which I had once contrived to fit into that infirm and sacred frame, that dwelling I had lovingly constructed like a temple expressly designed to hold them, there was no room in this thick-bodied little man standing in front of me, with all his blood vessels, his bones, his glands, his snub nose, and his little beard.

But as usual, his disillusionment is temporary, and pages of analysis of the voice and style of the "real" Bergotte follow. Bergotte, he observes, can be distinguished from the many

insipid imitators who kept touching up their prose, in newspapers and books, with pseudo-Bergottisms in imagery and ideas. This difference in style came from the fact that the real thing was first and foremost some precious, genuine element lying concealed within each object, waiting to be drawn out by the great writer with his genius; and it was this drawing out that was the aim of the soft-voiced Bard, not to toss off a page or two in the manner of Bergotte. ... [E]ach new touch of beauty in his work was the particle of Bergotte hidden inside a thing, which he had drawn out of it. ... All the great writers are like that: the beauty of their sentences, like the beauty of a woman one has not yet met, is unforeseeable; it is a creation, since its object is an external thing rather than themselves, something in their minds but not yet put into words.

So the artist not only searches for the essence of the thing, he also finds some "particle" of himself within it. Even Bergotte's conversation betrays this search: "the reason why there was something too matter-of-fact and overrich in his speech was that he applied his mind with precision to any aspect of reality that pleased him." Avoiding clichés and stereotypes can be fatiguing to the listener who wishes "for the firmer footing of something more concrete, by which one meant something one was more used to."

But Bergotte's style has its limitations:

In his urge never to write anything of which he could not say, "It's smooth," there was a kind of strictness of taste which, though it had caused him to be seen for so many years as an artist of sterile preciosity, a finicking minimalist, was actually the secret of his strength.

All of the long disquisition on Bergotte is in the voice of the mature narrator, and the reader is probably glad when the point of view of the young and naive narrator returns to talk with Bergotte about his recent experience of watching La Berma in Phèdre. When Bergotte issues some exquisite praise of a gesture made the actress, the narrator comments, "The trouble was, I thought, that these assurances could have convinced me of the beauty of La Berma's gesture only if Bergotte had primed me with them before the performance." He still retains his sense of inadequacy in judging the artistry himself.

And yet he's not abashed when he mentions a stage effect he particularly admired and discovers that Bergotte disagrees: "When Bergotte's view on something differed in this way from my own, it never reduced me to silence, or deprived me of a possible rejoinder as M. de Norpois's opinion would have done. ... The arguments advanced by M. de Norpois (on questions of art) were indisputable because they were devoid of reality." So the narrator mentions de Norpois, whom Bergotte dismisses as "an old parrot." Odette interjects that he's "a dreadful old bore," but Swann, "whose job at home was to be the man of sound common sense" says that Bergotte and Odette "are being rather hard on M. de Norpois."

In defending de Norpois, however, Swann confides in the narrator about the ambassador's mistresses, leading to a moment of embarrassment:

"High-strung people should always choose objects of their affections who are 'beneath them,' as the saying goes, so that the self-interest of the woman one loves ensures that she will always be available." At that moment, Swann realized the connection I might make between this verity and his own love for Odette.

Then, recovering from his irritation at having said too much to the narrator,

Swann ... rounded off his idea in words that I later come to remember as a prophecy, a warning I would be unable to heed: "But the danger of such liaisons is that, though the subjection of the woman may briefly allay the jealousy of the man, it eventually makes it even more demanding. He reaches the point of treating his mistress like one of those prisoners who are so closely guarded that the light in their cell is never turned off. The sort of thing that usually ends in alarums and excursions."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 38

Where this began
Day 37

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 107-119.

Swann, we learn, will apparently always associate Vinteuil's sonata with the Bois de Boulogne, and "the charm of certain nights" there, "about which it would have been pointless to ask Odette." Indeed, we have already seen Odette in her element in the Bois. She proposes that the narrator join them on an outing to the Zoo in the Bois, which also reminds her of Mme. Blatin, giving her occasion to make fun of the narrator's misapprehension that that the Swanns were friends of hers. "Even nice Dr. Cottard, who wouldn't speak evil of a soul, says the woman's a pest." And she tells the story of Mme. Blatin calling a "Singhalese" man a "blackie," to which the man retorted, "'Me blackie,' he bellowed at Mme Blatin, 'you camel!'" For the reader, however, Mme. Blatin remains an odd enigma.

While Gilberte is readying herself for their outing, the Swanns enjoyed "telling me about the rare virtues of their daughter," whose "thoughtful kindness" and "desire to please" he had already observed. He also notes that, "Young as she was, she seemed much more sensible than her parents," and that when he mentioned Mlle. Vinteuil to her, Gilberte replies, "She's a person I'll never have anything to do with. Because she wasn't nice to her father -- I've heard she made him unhappy."

His infatuation with the Swanns and their household continues, and he observes,
For years I had been convinced that to go to the house of Mme Swann was a vague pipe-dream that would never come to pass; a quarter-hour after I first stepped into her drawing room, it was all the former amount of time I had spent not knowing her that had become the pipe-dream, as insubstantial as a mere possibility which has been abolished by the fulfillment of a different possibility.

In the Bois, the Swanns encounter the Princesse Mathilde, whom Swann identifies to the narrator as "the friend of Flaubert, Sainte-Beuve, and Dumas. Just think, a niece of Napoleon I! Both Napoleon III and the Tsar of Russia wanted to marry her." While they are chatting with the Princesse, listening to her say that Hippolyte Taine "behaved like a pig" and that Alfred de Musset once arrived an hour late and "dead drunk" when she invited him to dinner, the narrator's friend Bloch makes an appearance. But Mme. Swann is under the impression that Bloch, who has "been introduced to her by Mme. Bontemps" is "on the minister's staff, which was news to me ... and that his name was M. Moreul."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 37

Where this began
Day 36

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 93-107.

Swann's marriage to Odette is built on denial -- on both sides. He "was blind not only to the gaps in Odette's education, but also to her poverty of mind." For her part, her "inveterate way was to lend a perfunctory ear, bored or impatient, to anything subtle or even profound that he might say." It's a marriage of "subservience of the outstanding to the vulgar."

Except that Swann has indulged his own vulgar streak, setting up "experiments in the sociology of entertainment" in which he brings together "people from very different backgrounds." When he announces that he's going to have the Cottards come to dinner with the Duchesse de Vendôme, he looked "like a gourmet whose mouth waters at the novel undertaking of adding cayenne pepper to a particular sauce instead of the usual cloves." But by doing so he annoys Mme. Bontemps, who has recently been introduced to the Duchesse and is upset that someone else of her acquaintance also has that privilege.

(Here there seems to be a typographical error: "Would she even have the heart to tell her husband that Professor Cottard and his wife were not to partake of the very pleasure that she had assured him was unique to themselves?" The
not [my italics] in that sentence contracts its apparent meaning -- that the Cottards were going to partake of the same pleasure. I think the intended word must be now. Unfortunately, I don't have another text handy to cross-check.)

We also learn that Swann is no longer jealous of Odette, that he was "now almost indifferent to whether she had someone with her or whether she had gone out somewhere." He realizes that when he was jealous in the past, he fell into another kind of denial, determined to believe "that Odette's daily doings were quite innocent." Now he realizes that "she had ... been much more often unfaithful to him than he had liked to believe." And now he is carrying on an affair of his own, with
a woman who, though she gave him no grounds for jealousy, made him jealous all the same, since in his inability to find new ways of loving he put to use again with the other woman the way that had once served him with Odette.... And the Swann who, when he suffered because of Odette, had wished for the day when he might let her see him in love with someone else, took ingenious precautions, now that this was possible, to keep his wife in ignorance of his new affair.
Proust also slips one of his foreshadowings in here, telling us that "the pain of jealousy, as a cruel counterdemonstration will show in a later part of this book, is proof even against death."

At the Swanns' the narrator gets -- though he's unaware of it at this time -- another link to the couple's past, when he hears Odette play the theme from the Vinteuil sonata that used to be their theme song. The music allows the narrator to reflect on the interlocked nature of time, memory, and music:
Listening for the first time to music that is even a little complicated, one can often hear nothing in it. And yet, later in life, when I had heard the whole piece two or three times, I found I was thoroughly familiar with it. ... What is missing the first time is probably not understanding but memory.... This length of time that it takes someone to penetrate a work of some depth, as it took me with the Vinteuil sonata, is only a foreshortening, and as it were a symbol, of all the years, or even centuries perhaps, which must pass before the public can come to love a masterpiece that is really new.... Which is why the artist who wishes his work to find its own way must do what Vinteuil had done, and launch it as far as possible toward the unknown depths of the distant future.

This is the shrewd comment of the mature narrator, of course, and not of the young narrator who is willing to capitulate to received opinion rather than to trust his own disappointment at the performance of La Berma. Of course, he also adds, "It is possible that even a genius may have disbelieved that railways or airplanes had a future, and it is possible to be an acute psychologist yet disbelieve in the infidelity of a mistress or the deceit of a friend, whose betrayals can be foreseen by someone much less gifted."

Is the narrator, who has already demonstrated himself to be "an acute psychologist," talking about himself here?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 36

Where this began
Day 35

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 82-93.

Proust's detailed account of the way late 19th-century French society functioned is probably one of the reasons contemporary readers give up on him, and today's section is particularly slow-going. (Though it may just be pre-holiday exhaustion setting in here; someone remind me next year that I'm not 40 -- or even 50 -- anymore and can't leave everything to the last minute.)

We switch from the young narrator to the mature one in mid-stream here, as the former admits that his "state of emotional turmoil" at being in the presence of the Swanns prevented him from understanding much that Swann said to him. So it must be the mature narrator who outlines for us the social nuances that inform their behavior, particularly Mme. Swann's. But Swann himself remains quite taken with people with whom he would not have associated before his marriage to Odette. For example, there are the Bontemps. Swann regards M. Bontemps as "a really distinguished person," although the narrator describes him as having "a silky fair beard, a pretty face, an adenoidal pronunciation, bad breath, and a glass eye."

But what should draw our attention to Bontemps is that Gilberte tells us,
"He's the uncle of a girl that used to go to my school. She was in one of the classes well below mine -- 'that Albertine,' everybody used to call her. I'm sure she'll be very 'fast' one of these days, but at the moment she's the funniest-looking thing."
Proust regards society as kaleidoscopic, constantly changing its standards of who's acceptable. The narrator tells us, "By the time I had taken my first communion, prim and proper ladies were being confronted, to their astonishment, with elegant Jewesses in some of the houses they frequented." But with the Dreyfus Affair ("slightly later than my first entry into the world of Mme Swann," the narrator tells us, suggesting that his "entry" took place before 1894), "All things Jewish were displaced, even the elegant lady, and hitherto nondescript nationalists came to the fore. ... If instead of the Dreyfus Affair there had been a war with Germany, the kaleidoscope would have turned in a different direction." But at this time, the influential Jews in French society included Sir Rufus Israels, whose wife was Swann's aunt. And "Lady Israels, who was hugely wealthy and very influential, had contrived to make sure that no one of her acquaintance would ever be at home to Odette."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 35

Where this began
Day 34

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 71-82.

Concerned by his "attacks of breathlessness," the narrator's parents call in Dr. Cottard, who prescribes "Drastic, violent purgatives. Milk and nothing but milk for several days. No meat. No alcohol." Quite sensibly, they reject this seemingly absurd treatment, but when the narrator keeps getting worse, they give in and follow Cottard's advice. And it works. "So it was that we realized that Cottard the buffoon was a great doctor."

When he gets better, however, they are convinced that the air of the Champs-Élysées is "unhealthy," endangering his meetings with Gilberte. But to his surprise, even disbelief, Gilberte invites him to tea at her house.
In love, it is not only the causes of catastrophe that may lie forever beyond our grasp: just as often we remain in ignorance of the whys and wherefores of sudden outcomes that are happier -- such as the one that Gilberte's letter brought to me -- or, rather, outcomes which appear to be happy, as there are few truly happy outcomes in the life of a feeling, which can generally look for no better reard than a shift in the side of the pain it entails.

The invitation is an accident: The narrator's friend Bloch is present one time when Cottard is making a call and comments that Mme. Swann is very fond of the narrator -- which is, as far as either of them knows -- untrue. But Cottard, always on the lookout to ingratiate himself, apparently speaks favorably of him to Odette, and the narrator becomes a regular visitor, welcomed cordially by the Swanns -- who have apparently forgotten their previous animus toward him (if it ever existed).

Such is the narrator's adulation of the Swanns that, when he reports to his parents that the staircase in the Swanns' home is a Renaissance antique and his father replies that it's a copy in a commonplace building where he once considered renting an apartment, the narrator clings to his faith: "I exercised the authority of my inner self and, despite what I had just heard, put behind me once and for all, as a true Catholic might shun Renan's Life of Jesus, the corrosive notion that the Swanns' apartment was a perfectly ordinary apartment, an apartment that we ourselves might have lived in."

And so the narrator is swept up in his adulation of the Swanns and his passion for Gilberte.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 34

Where this began
Day 33

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 59-70.

This was one of those hectic pre-holiday days (maybe because it's the shortest day of the year), so this post may be a little perfunctory.

Having vowed that January 1 would be the start of "a new friendship" with Gilberte, the narrator nevertheless realizes that there's no intrinsic reason why it should become one. "I was aware that this day did not know it was called New Year's Day, and that it was coming to an end in the twilight in a way that was not unknown to me." He recognizes instead "the reappearance of former times, with the never-ending unchangingness of their substance, their familiar dampness, their ignorant fluidity." In short, he's in the same mood as yesterday, when his father's remark -- "he's probably not going to change" -- cast him in such a funk. "Our desires interweave with each other; and in the confusion of existence, it is seldom that a joy is promptly paired with the desire that longed for it."

Moreover, in Gilberte's absence, he is tormented by the realization that he "could not even remember her face." But then Gilberte returns to the park, and "Each time she came, she left me with new things to desire for the following day." And then Gilberte taunts him with the information that her parents "don't fancy you very much, you know!" He writes Swann a sixteen-page letter assuring him of his sincerity and trustworthiness and asks Gilberte to take it to him. But the result is devastating: Gilberte informs him that her father didn't believe what he had written.

The obvious question here is, since the narrator has given up superimposing his mature voice on that of the young narrator, whether Gilberte is telling the truth. Did she even give her father the letter? Is she tormenting the narrator out of some perverse impulse to power? But Proust has stopped tipping his hand, at least for now.

He and Gilberte are interrupted by Françoise, who wants him to accompany her to the "green-trellised pavilion" that houses the restrooms. While he's there, he recognizes, or perhaps imagines, the attentions of the woman who tends the restroom as having a sexual overtone. When he returns, Gilberte offers to return the letter to him, but, "attracted by her body," he improvises a game in which she will try to keep the letter from him:
I had her pinned between my legs as though she were the bole of a little tree I was trying to climb. In the middle of all my exertions, without my breathing being quickened much more than it already was by a muscular exercise and the heat of the playful moment, like few drops of sweat produced by the effort, I shed my pleasure, before I even had time to be aware of it.

This bit of "pleasure-shedding" turns into a somewhat unsavory version of the madeleine scene: the experience links itself with "the cool, almost sooty air of the little trellised booth," which reminds him of the "dampish redolence" of his uncle Adolphe's room at Combray, the one in which he masturbated, leaving "a
natural trail like that left by a snail." He is overcome with a sense of shame because "I had experienced a moment of genuine rapture, not from some idea of importance, but from a musty smell."

As this section ends, he has fallen ill. "Neurotics ... are so used to detecting disorders in themselves, which they later come to realize were quite harmless, that they reach the stage of paying no attention to any of them." And even when he is not really ill, he masters the art of faking it because one of the medicines the doctor prescribes for him is "a drink of beer, champagne, or brandy" whenever he feels an attack coming on.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 33

Where this began
Day 32

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 44-59.

M. de Norpois continues to hold sway over the narrator and his parents. When the narrator asks about Swann and the Comte de Paris, de Norpois recalls an occasion when the Comte saw Odette:
Now, of course, no one in his entourage saw fit to ask His Highness what he thought of her. ... But when the vagaries of conversation happened subsequently to bring up her name, His Highness appeared not averse to bring up her name, by means of certain signs, you understand, which, though they may verge on the imperceptible, are withal quite unambiguous, that his impression of the lady had been far from, in a word, unfavorable.

The "in a word" is a nice touch. No word in de Norpois' discourse ever goes it alone, always being accompanied by qualifiers and litotic undercuttings. No word, that is, until we get to the question of the narrator's cherished writer Bergotte. De Norpois dismisses the narrator's favorite as "a flute-player," a writer without substance whose "works are so flaccid that one can never locate in them anything one could call a framework." Worse still, he uses the narrator's enthusiasm for Bergotte to issue a harsh critique of the narrator's own writing -- "that little thing you showed me before dinner, about which, by the way, the less said the better." He dismisses it as, using the narrator's own words (which the narrator intended as a show of modesty), "mere childish scribbling." Returning to Bergotte, de Norpois comments,
"Nowadays, a chap sets off a few verbal fireworks and everyone acclaims him as a genius.... Believe you me, he's the perfect illustration of the idea of that clever fellow who once said that he only acquaintance one should have with writers is through their books."

Here the general reader can be grateful for Grieve's note that the "clever fellow" is Proust himself, in his essay "Contre Sainte-Beuve." (Grieve is not as thorough in annotating this volume, I think, as Davis was in hers, but here he gives us some essential information.)

The narrator is, of course, "devastated": "I became once more acutely aware of my own intellectual poverty and of the fact that I had no gift for writing." Feeling "deflated and dumbfounded," he changes the subject by asking if Gilberte was at the dinner where de Norpois met Odette. De Norpois recalls "A young lady of fourteen or fifteen" -- the first more or less precise indication we've had of the age of Gilberte (and the narrator) at this point in the novel. And so the narrator presses de Norpois to speak about him to Gilberte and Odette, and when de Norpois agrees, "I was suddenly so overcome by tender feelings for this important man, who was going to exercise on my behalf the great prestige he must enjoy in the eyes of Mme Swann, that I had to retrain myself from kissing his soft hands." But his enthusiasm "was so chilling in its effect that ... I caught a glimpse of hesitancy and annoyance flitting across the ambassador's face." He has gone too far with this overinflated egotist.

Still, despite the harshness of de Norpois' criticism of his work, and of his idol Bergotte, the narrator is so awed by the man's reputation that he assumes that his own opinions are worthless. His sense of his own inadequacy is reinforced when his father shows him a newspaper review of La Berma's performance, which accords with de Norpois' conventional opinion of the actress. The narrator learns that the newspaper critic regards the performance he has seen, and been disappointed by, as "a triumph than which, in the whole course of her illustrious career, she has rarely had a greater," that it was "a veritable milestone in the theater," and that "the best-qualified judges are as one" in acclaiming it "as the finest, highest achievement in the realm of art that any of us have been privileged to witness in this day and age." Too naive to recognize the critique for what it is -- vapid and banal -- the narrator is all too ready to convince himself that he agrees with it.

Moreover, he now begins to have serious doubts about his vocation as a writer, which his father has endorsed for the wrong reasons. His father's statement -- "He's not a child anymore, he knows that he likes, he's probably not going to change, he's old enough to know what'll make him happy in life" -- depresses him. It implies that "the years to come would not be very different from the years already elapsed." And more important for the theme of the novel is the implication "that I did not live outside Time but was subject to its laws." His father's statement "suddenly showed me myself living inside Time; and he filled me with sadness."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 32

Where this began
Day 31

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 30-44.

Proust pulls several narrative tricks in this section.

First, he wears us down with several pages of the ineffably boring M. de Norpois, about whom the narrator comments, "The only deduction I could draw was that, in politics, it was a mark of superiority rather than inferiority to repeat what everybody else thought." And then, just as we are tempted to begin to skim, he allows M. de Norpois to deliver a small bombshell at the dinner table:
"I dined [last night] at the house of a lady of whom you may have heard -- the beautiful Mme Swann."

My mother all but trembled. ... However, she was curious to know what sort of people went to the Swanns', and inquired of M. de Norpois about his fellow guests.

"Well, now .... to tell you the truth ... I must say it's a house at which most of the guests appear to be ... gentlemen. There were certainly several married men present -- but their wives were all indisposed yesterday evening, and had been unable to go," the ambassador replied, with a crafty glance masked by joviality, his eyes full of a demure discretion that pretended to moderate their mischievousness while making it more obvious.

And he goes on in this vein, remarking on Swann's fallen state in society, until he finally delivers the second narrative coup, answering the question that has lurked in the reader's mind about why Swann has married Odette when the last time we saw him, he was convinced he no longer loved or was obsessed by her:
"And yet, you know, I don't think the man's unhappy. It's true that the woman stooped to some pretty nasty things in the years before the marriage, some quite unsavory blackmail -- if he ever declined to satisfy her something or other, she just forbade him access to the child."

And having let us know that Odette had conceived a child -- Gilberte, the reader assumes at this point -- who was used to bind Swann to her permanently, Proust does something that would be considered a flaw in most contemporary fiction writing: He superimposes the mature narrator on the point of view of the young narrator. It's as if this section of the novel is being narrated by two voices. It's the mature narrator who takes over to tell us how Odette manipulated Swann into a marriage which "came as a surprise to almost everybody, which is a surprise." It is the mature narrator, after all who is privy to the information that "when it occurred to [Swann] that he might one day marry Odette, there was only one person in society whose opinion he would have cared for, the Duchesse de Guermantes." And that the Duchesse, whom we saw through the young narrator's eyes earlier in the novel , is someone we have also seen in the "Swann in Love" section, when she was the Princesse des Laumes.

And here we get another narrative trick: imparting information to us about what is to come in the novel, a kind of "spoiler" that might even be considered a narrative flaw in the hands of a lesser writer.
[I]t can be said that the purpose of Swann's marrying Gilberte was to introduce her and Gilberte, even though no one else might be present, even though no one else might ever know of it, to the Duchesse de Guermantes. As will be seen, the fulfillment of this social ambition, the only one he had ever harbored for his wife and child, was the very one that was to be denied him; and the veto preventing it was to be so absolute that Swann was to die without imagining that the Duchesse would ever meet them. It will be seen too that the Duchesse de Guermantes did come, after Swann's death, to be acquainted with Odette and Gilberte.

So why does Proust drop these as-will-be-seens on us, including the death of a major character, thereby eliminating at least one element of narrative suspense from his novel? We can only assume that Proust has bigger things in mind than mere plot.


First period: That's a Chair, This Is Your Scratching Post


Second period
: Where Are My Socks? They Were Here on the Bed a Moment Ago


Third period
: There's Nothing in That Closet/Cabinet/Drawer/Package for You


Fourth period
: Get Down From There! Now!


Fifth period
: No. No! NO! NOOOOO!


Sixth period
: Awww, That's So Cute

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 31

Where this began
Day 30

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 3-30.

The narrator's comment in Swann's Way about "the mystery of personality" seems to apply particularly well here at the opening of the second volume, in which we learn that the foolish Dr. Cottard we met at the Verdurins in the first volume has now become "a scientific man of some renown," and that Swann is now regarded as "nothing but a vulgar swank," at least by the narrator's father. "This statement of my father's may require a few words of explanation," the narrator interjects, "as there may be some who remember Cottard as a mediocrity and Swann as the soul of discretion."

Both men have reinvented themselves -- in Swann's case an adaptation to "a new position for himself, ... far below the one he had formerly occupied, but suited to the wife with whom he must now share it." The narrator notes that there is some anti-Semitism in the current view of the sudden vulgarity of "this man (who in former days, and even now, could show exquisite tact in not advertising an invitation to Twickenham or Buckingham Palace) braying out the fact that the wife of an undersecretary's undersecretary had returned Mme. Swann's visit."
In his gushing ways with these new friends and his boastful citing of their exploits, Swann was like the great artist who takes up cooking or gardening late in life and who, though modest enough to be untroubled by criticism of his masterpieces, cannot bear to hear faint praise of his recipes or flower beds.

As for Cottard, now "Professor Cottard," "it is possible to be unread, and to like making silly puns, while having a special gift that outweighs any general culture, such as the gift of the great strategist or the great clinician." And Cottard has apparently emerged as a gifted diagnostician. The narrator observes that "the nature we display in the second part of our life may not always be, though it often is, a growth from or a stunting of our first nature, an exaggeration or attenuation of it. It is at times an inversion of it, a turning inside out." So Cottard has shaved his beard and mustache and cultivated a cold and taciturn manner -- except when he's with the "little circle" at the Verdurins "where he instinctively became himself again."

These transformations of personality are, I think, central to the novel, which is not only a search for lost time but often also a search for the lost self that time has carried away. In his introduction, Grieve notes how often Proust switches point of view from the narrator as a young man to the narrator in his later years, sometimes to the confusion of the reader. And that Proust doesn't specify the narrator's age, so that we're never quite sure how old he is at any given time in his remembrances of things past. I think this is key to Proust's examination of memory. We assume that the narrator is a mature man, telling us about what it was like to be a child anxiously awaiting his mother's goodnight kiss, but in telling us the story he becomes that child again, giving us more than any mere scouring of our memories could really supply. We are what we create ourselves to be.

But we are not the sole creators of ourselves. One theme apparent in the opening pages of this volume is the influence of others, not only family and friends, but of society as a whole in shaping the person. Both Swann and Cottard are who are they have become because they are responding to the expectations of others. And the pompous Marquis de Norpois, the narrator's father's new friend, holds sway over the narrator's parents.
By strengthening in my father's mind the high opinion he had of M. de Norpois, and thereby also fostering in him a higher opinion of himself, she felt she was fulfilling the wifely duty of making life sweet for her husband, just as she did when she saw to the excellence of the cooking and the quietness of the servants.

M. de Norpois also plays a key role in fulfilling the narrator's desire to see the actress La Berma. Although the doctor has forbidden him from going to the theater, fearing that the overexcitement would be hazardous to his health, the narrator, under the influence of the praise of the writer Bergotte (in the little book given him by Gilberte), continues to plead for the opportunity: "By day and night my mind was haunted by the knowledge of the divine Beauty which her acting would be bound to reveal." And it is de Norpois who sanctions his going to see La Berma perform in two acts from Phèdre.

But the experience is disillusioning, not at all the transport that the narrator has been expecting: "I sat there and listened to her as I might have read Phèdre, or as though at that moment Phèdre herself was saying the things I was hearing, without La Berma's talent seeming to add anything at all to them.... [S]he blurred the whole speech into a toneless recitative, blunting the keen edges of contrasts which any semi-competent performer, even a girl in a school production, could hardly have failed to bring out." When the applause breaks out, he is momentarily lifted out of his disappointment:
I let the cheap wine of this popular enthusiasm go to my head. Even so, once the curtain had fallen, I was aware of being disappointed that the enjoyment I had longed for had not been greater, but also of wishing that, such as it was, it would continue, and that I was not obliged to leave behind me forever, as I walked out of the auditorium, this life of the theater in which I had just shared for a few hours.

We've seen the narrator disappointed before: in his first sight of the Duchesse de Guermantes. But he conquered that disappointment quickly, overcoming the ordinariness of her appearance by dwelling on the cultural and historical significance of the family she represents. Now he hopes that de Norpois will illuminate him on the excellence of La Berma. But he receives only platitudes and received opinions from the Marquis:
"I have never seen Mme. Berma in Phèdre, but I have been told she is outstanding. It must, of course, have been quite a thrill for you.

M. de Norpois, being incomparably cleverer than I was, must be in possession of the truth that I had been unable to derive from La Berma's acting.... Concentrating my whole attention on my impressions, which were hopelessly confused, with no thought of shining or finding favor, but in the hope of gaining from him the truth I sought, I made no effort to substitute set phrases for the words that failed me, I made no sense, and eventually, so as to have him say straight out what was so admirable about La Berma, I owned up to my disappointment.

"What's that?" exclaimed my father, appalled at the poor impression my ineptness might make on M. de Norpois. "How can you say you didn't enjoy it? Your grandmother told us you didn'[t miss a word, that you just stared and stared at her, that nobody else in the whole auditorium lapped it up the way you did!"

"Well, yes, I was listening as hard as I could, to see what was so great about her. I mean, she's very good..."

"Well, then, if she's very good, what more do you want?"

And after de Norpois delivers himself of some more inanities about the reputation of La Berma, the narrator finally concludes, "He's right, you know! ... What a lovely voice, what simple costumes! How clever of her to think of doing Phèdre! Of course I'm not disappointed!"

On the one hand we have here an amusing but fairly commonplace bit of satire on bourgeois received opinions and their potentially deleterious effect on the bright and inquisitive mind of an original and aspiring artist. But what makes this more than just a comic moment is the way the experience of disillusionment works on the narrator. Just a few pages earlier, his father has touted de Norpois as an authority on becoming a published writer. We have learned that the narrator inherited Aunt Léonie's estate, so he has the wherewithal to make his way in whatever career he chooses. So his father urges him to show de Norpois something he has written. What he produces is the piece about the three steeples that he wrote on their ride back from a walk on the Guermantes way. "I had written it in a state of exhilaration which I felt it must convey to anyone who read it. But my exhilaration must have failed to touch M. de Norpois; and he handed it back to me without a word."

What we have here is failure to communicate.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 30

Where this began
Day 29

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 423-444.

The narrator develops an obsession with Gilberte's parents. He knows that Swann has "quarreled" with his family and that they don't accept Mme. Swann into their circle of friends, but this hardly matters to him: "for me Swann was preeminently her father, and no longer Swann of Combray." But now he must prepare for a separation from Gilberte, who prattles on about the various things that will be occupying her in the coming days, including the fact that they may be leaving Paris for the holidays. He is devastated by the way "in which Gilberte had exploded with joy at the prospect of not coming back to the Champs-Élysées for such a long time."

Like Swann suffering Odette's absence, he relishes his sorrow, clinging to the gifts she has given him: a book by Bergotte and an agate marble. He wallows in "the perpetual concern I felt to show myself to advantage in her eyes, because of which I tried to persuade my mother to buy Françoise a waterproof coat and a hat with a blue ostrich feather" like Gilberte's governess. And although he realizes "that in my friendship with Gilberte, I was the only one who loved," he is determined to "ask Gilberte to give up our old friendship and lay the foundations of a new one."

His parents, by not indulging his infatuation with the Swanns -- he pulls at his nose and rubs his eyes in an effort to make himself look like Swann, causing his father to say, "The child has no sense, he'll make himself quite hideous" -- are a source of constant frustration, and sometimes of disillusionment, as when his mother identifies the old lady who is always in the park as Mme. Blatin, and as "horrible," "rather mad," "frightfully vulgar, and a troublemaker into the bargain." On the other hand, when his mother reports that she ran into Swann at the umbrella counter in Trois Quartiers and that he mentioned that the narrator played with his daughter, he is stunned "with the prodigious fact that I existed in Swann's mind."

Of the household, only Françoise is a source of any consolation, as when she reports what the governess has told her about Mme. Swann, that "she puts a good deal of trust in her medals. You won't find her going off on a trip if she's heard an owl hooting, or something ticking like a clock inside the wall, or if she's seen a cat at midnight, or if the wood furnniture creaks. Oh, yes! She's a person of great faith!" And so he's able to persuade Françoise to take him on walks in the Swanns' neighborhood and in the Bois de Boulogne.

It's in the Bois that he sees Mme. Swann in her element, among the "famous Beauties" who rode and strolled there. And here the narrator begins his shift from the boy's point of view to his current one, reconstructing the conversations that might have been had by on-lookers, which the boy simply perceived as "the indistinct murmur of celebrity":
"Do you know who that is? Mme. Swann! That means nothing to you? Odette de Crécy?"

"Odette de Crécy? Why in fact I was just wondering. ... Those sad eyes. ... But you know she can't be as young as she once was! I remember I slept with her the day MacMahon resigned."

"You'd better not remind her of it. She's now Mme. Swann, wife of a gentleman in the Jockey Club who's a friend of the Prince of Wales. But she's still superb."

"Yes, but if only you'd known her then -- how pretty she was. She lived in a very strange little house filled with Chinese bric-a-brac. I remember we were bothered by the newsboys shouting outside, in the end she made me get up."

And so the identity of Mme. Swann, which the reader has probably already surmised, is confirmed, along with the knowledge that Gilberte is the daughter of a "woman whose reputation for beauty, improper behavior, and elegance was universal." (The narrator has already hinted that, "as will be seen," his parents "did not like my playing with her.")

In the final section of the novel, the narrator shifts into his present-day voice, an extended and nostalgic reverie on the beauty -- and the Beauties -- of the Bois de Boulogne: "My consolation is to think about the women I once knew, now that there is no more elegance." The motorcar has replaced the carriages, and the women who stroll there are "ordinary women, in whose elegance I had no faith and whose dress seemed to me unimportant.... Nature was resuming its rule over the Bois, from which the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Women had vanished."

And so the novel concludes with a kind of realization about the search for lost time:
what a contradiction it is to search in reality for memory's pictures, which would never have the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from not being perceived by the senses. The reality I had known no longer existed.... The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions whch formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 29

Where this began
Day 28

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 410-423.

What's in a name? Quite a lot if that name is Gilberte, which the narrator hears in the park on the Champs-Élysées. He has not seen Mlle. Swann since the day of the "indecent gesture," yet his infatuation with her has simmered and now comes to a furious boil. Even the fact that her governess wears "a blue ostrich feather" becomes part of his obsession, to the detriment of his own governess, Françoise, whom he now "noticed for the first time with irritation that she had a vulgar way of speaking, and alas, no blue feather in her hat." He is jealous of those who keep her company, including "a lady of a certain age" who is always in the park, whom Gilberte greeted every day and who "asked Gilberte for news of 'her love of a mother.'"

But he is invited to play with Gilberte and her friends, and soon becomes a regular part of their group. The day on which he fears that a snowfall will prevent his seeing her, and which in fact delays the arrival of her friends, leaving the narrator alone for a while with Gilberte "caused my love to progress, for it was like a first sorrow that she had shared with me." And when the friends arrive, "That day which I had so dreaded was in fact, one of the only ones on which I was not too unhappy."

We're beginning to see the parallels between the narrator/Gilberte and Swann/Odette. (I keep leaving the final e off of "Gilberte," and if I fail to correct it, don't assume that I'm one of those who insist that Gilberte really is a Gilbert, or Albertine an Albert.) But Swann and Odette, we are reminded, were adults. What we have here is a case of puppy love (between some rather precocious puppies, to be sure). As the narrator says,
I still believed that Love really existed outside of us; that, allowing us at the very most to remove obstacles in our way, it offered its joys in an order which we were not free to alter; it seemed to me that if I had, on my own initiative, substituted for the sweetness of confession the simulation of indifference, I would not only have deprived myself of one of the joys of which I had dreamed most often but that I would have fabricated for myself in my own way a love that was artificial and without value, without any connection to the real one, whose mysterious and preexisting paths I would have had to forgo following.

Or as Lorenz Hart put it: "Falling in love with Love is falling for make-believe."

When Gilberte finally speaks the narrator's given name (which he coyly keeps from us), the effect is startlingly sensual. He had "the impression that I had been held for a moment in her mouth, I myself, naked, ... her lips ... seemed to strip me, undress me." What's in a name, indeed.

The friendship with Gilberte also gives the narrator a new perspective on Swann, hitherto not much more to him than the man who came to dinner.
For he and Mme. Swann -- because their daughter lived in their home, because her studies, her games, her friendships depended on them -- contained for me, like Gilberte, perhaps even more than Gilberte, as was proper for gods all-powerful with respect to her, in whom it must have had its source, an inaccessible strangeness, a painful charm.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 28

Where this began
Day 27

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 399-410.

The section called "Place-Names: The Name" begins with ... a meditation on place names. Well, actually, it begins with the narrator thinking about the Grand-Hôtel de la Plage, at Balbec, and his
desire to see a storm at sea, not so much because it would be a beautiful spectacle as because it would be a moment of nature's real life unveiled; or rather for me there were not beautiful spectacles except the ones which I knew were not artificially contrived for my pleasure, but were necessary, unchangeable -- the beauties of landscapes or of great art.

He's in search of "those things which I believed to be more real than myself," things "most opposite to the mechanical productions of men." A pretty good definition of the Romantic temperament.

Place names embody what he's searching for:
Even in spring, finding the name of Balbec in a book was enough to awaken in me the desire for storms and Norman Gothic; even on a stormy day the name of Florence and Venice gave me a desire for the sun, for lilies, for the Palace of the Doges, and for Saint-Mary-of-the-Flowers.

Names have a synaesthetic effect on the narrator:
Bayeux, so lofty in its noble red-tinged lace, its summit illuminated by the old gold of its last syllable; Vitré, whose acute accent barred its ancient glass with black wood lozenges; gentle Lamballe, whose whiteness goes from eggshell yellow to pearl gray; Coutances, a Norman cathedral, which its final, fat, yellowing diphthong crowns with a tower of butter....

... and so on. It's a passage that links Proust with Rimbaud, who colorized the vowel sounds in "Voyelles":

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes.
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d'ombre ; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d'ombelles;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes ;

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d'animaux, paix des rides
Que l'alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;

O, suprême Clairon plein de strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges:
-- O, l'Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux !

Unfortunately, when the narrator's parents give him the opportunity to travel, to visit Florence and Venice, which he imagines in terms derived from Ruskin (whom Proust translated), the excited youth falls ill and, on the doctor's advice not only has to cancel the trip but also miss a consolation prize: going "to the theater to hear La Berma; the sublime artist whom Bergotte had regarded as a genius."

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 27

Where this began
Day 26

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 369-396.

A poison-pen letter arrives, accusing Odette of numerous affairs, including some with women, and even frequenting "houses of ill-repute." But Swann is not outraged so much by the accusation as he is by the anonymity of the letter-writer, and begins to compile a list of suspects, starting with M. de Charlus, M. des Laumes, and M. d'Orsan, and eventually including his coachman Rémi, the writer Bergotte, the Verdurins and their friend the painter, and even the narrator's grandfather. But he remains unconvinced that any of these is guilty.

He is initially less concerned by the charges included in the letter because "Swann, like many people, had a lazy mind and lacked the faculty of invention." That is, he tended to assume that people were the same in moments when he wasn't in their company as they were when he was. But the allegations gradually nag at him, especially the ones "that she went to procuresses, took part in orgies with other women, that she led the dissolute life of the most abject of creatures." His suspicions, reinforced by some suddenly surfacing memories of things she had done or said, eventually lead him to question Odette, though he tries to find ways at first of introducing the subject casually or obliquely.
"Odette," he said to her, "my dear, I know I'm being hateful, but there are a few things I must ask you. Do you remeber the idea I had about you and Mme. Verdurin? Tell me, was it true, with her or with anyone else?"

She shook her head while pursing her lips.... When he saw Odette make this sign to him that it was untrue, Swann understood that it was perhaps true.

And he tries to make her swear on her medal of Our Lady of Laghet that she has never been sexually involved with other women, because he knows she's pious enough not to bear false witness on the medal. Hesitating, she finally blurts out that she may have done so "a very long time ago, without realizing what I was doing, maybe two or three times." And under Swann's scrutiny, she recalls an incident in the Bois de Boulogne involving a woman she says she rejected.

Swann is startled by his own homophobia: "He marveled that acts which he had always judged so lightly, so cheerfully, had now become as serious as a disease from which one may die." And in the days that followed, he finds more fuel for his disillusionment with Odette. When he asks her "if she had ever had any dealings with a procuress," she replies, "'Oh, no! Not that they don't pester me,'... revealing by her smile a self-satisfied vanity which she no longer noticed could not seem justified to Swann." She also admits that she had lied to him once, not admitting that she had been to Forcheville's because he "asked me to come and look at his engravings." (I almost wrote "etchings.") But Swann doesn't break things off with Odette, and her presence "continued to sow Swann's heart with affection and suspicion by turns." Though they continue to "make cattleya," Swann visits brothels, thinking he may find her name mentioned there.

They are also separated by Odette's frequent voyages with the Verdurins. "Each time she had been gone for a little while, Swann felt he was beginning to separate from her, but as if this mental distance were proportional to the physical distance, as soon as he knew Odette was back he could not rest without seeing her." But Swann discovers that, "corresponding to the weakening of his love there was a simultaneous weakening of his desire to remain in love." And after a dream, a nightmare in which he symbolically yields Odette to Forcheville, he decides to leave Paris for Combray, "having learned that Mme. de Cambremer -- Mlle. Legrandin -- was spending a few days there."

He now decides that he's cured.
And with the intermittent coarseness that reappeared in him as soon as he was no longer unhappy and the level of his morality dropped accordingly, he exclaimed to himself: "To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 26

Where this began
Day 25

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 356-369.

Swann is attempting to leave the party when the musicians begin a familiar piece:
And before Swann had time to understand, and say to himself: "It's the litte phrase from the sonata by Vinteuil; don't listen!" all his memories of the time when Odette was in love with him, which he had managed until now to keep out of sight in the deepest part of himself, deceived by this sudden beam of light from the time of love which they believed had returned, had awoken and flown swiftly back up to sing madly to him, with no pity for his present misfortune, the forgotten refrains of happiness.
("Nessun maggior dolore / Che ricordarsi del tempo felice / Nella miseria.")

And so Proust (or "the narrator") launches into an examination of the nature of music, as an entity with a life of its own (just as Swann's memories have an autonomous life -- they believe that "the time of love ... had returned"). Swann feels that "the little phrase was addressing him, was talking to him in a low voice about Odette. For he no longer felt, as he once had, that the little phrase did not know him and Odette." In Swann's/Proust's/the narrator's formulation music "belonged to an order of supernatural creatures whom we have never seen." The composer (and the performer) is an "explorer of the invisible" who captures the creature.

The concert is also a turning point. "From this evening on, Swann realized that the feeling Odette had had for him would never return, that his hopes of happiness would never be realized now." But although he has resumed his study of Vermeer, and needs to travel to see some of the paintings he has under consideration, he can't bring himself to leave Paris.
One day he dreamed he was leaving for a year; leaning out the door of the railway car toward a young man on the platform who was saying good-bye to him, weeping. Swann tried to convince him to leave with him. The train began to move, his anxiety woke him, he remembered that he was not leaving, that he would see Odette that evening, the next day, and almost every day after.
It's unclear here what significance needs to be attached to the fact that in the dream, the surrogate for Odette is a young man.

He has become so desperately entrapped in his infatuation that he wishes for her accidental death, likening himself to Mohammed II (the subject of a favorite painting by Bellini, whom Swann once found the narrator's friend Bloch resembled), "who, realizing that he had fallen madly in love with one of his wives, stabbed her in order ... to recover his independence of mind." Murder doesn't yet seem to be in Swann's repertoire, but "the dread ... of causing her to hate him, had vanished now that he had lost all hope of ever being loved by her."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What I'm Watching

Star Trek

Now that's a movie. A smartly made movie, with an excellent cast of young actors who evoke the originals without undue mimicry or excessive tongue-in-cheek. J.J. Abrams knows that the original is camp, and he doesn't try to de-camp it -- he puts all the women crew members in those ridiculous minidress uniforms, for example. But he freshens it, too, with special effects that don't look too easy, that have rough edges, unlike a lot of the CGI stuff today. Compare the three most recent Star Wars movies, for example, in which everything has the lifelessness that comes from computerized effects. The extra on the making of the movie on the DVD shows the effort that went into using real locations and real sets, instead of green-screening everything.

The Proust Project, Day 25

Where this began
Day 24

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 340-356.

Proust remains in satiric mode, giving us a portrait of those gathered at Mme. de Saint-Euverte's soiree, including the Marquise de Cambremer and the Vicomtesse de Franquetot, and the various layers of snobbery on display. We also learn that Swann is the object of some anti-Semitism:
"It's funny that he should go to old Saint-Euverte's," said Mme de Gallardon. "Oh, I know he's intelligent," she added, meaning he was a schemer, "but still and all, a Jew in the home of the sister and sister-in-law of two archbishops!"

"I confess to my shame that I'm not shocked," said the Princess des Laumes.

"I know he's a convert, and even his parents and grandparents before him. But they do say converts remain more attached to their religion than anyone else, that it's all just a pretense."
(One thinks of the insistence that Obama is still a Muslim.)

The Princesse de Laumes reveals why Swann is so attached to her when Mme. de Gallardon persists in observing that "people claim that M. Swann is someone whom one can't have in one's house, is that true?" The Princesse replies, "Why ... you ought to know, ... since you've invited him fifty times and he hasn't come once."

The Princesse is herself no stranger to the sexual vagaries of high society, "because everyone knew that the very day after the Prince des Laumes married his ravishing cousin, he had deceived her, and he had not stopped deceiving her since." No wonder then that
Swann liked the Princesse des Laumes very much, and the sight of her also reminded him of Guermantes, the estate next to Combray, the whole countryside which he loved so much and had ceased to visit so as not to be away from Odette.

He can talk to the Princesse in ways that he is unable to do with others: "Swann, who was accustomed, when he was in the company of a woman whom he had kept up the habit of addressing in gallant language, to say things so delicately nuanced that many society people could not understand them.... Swann and the Princesse had the same way of looking at the small things of life, the effect of which -- unless it was the cause -- was a great similarity in their ways of expressing things and even in their pronunciation." So he fully understands and agrees that "life is a dreadful thing." When he hears her say this, "he felt as comforted as if she had been talking about Odette."

The Princesse, who senses Swann's unhappiness and its cause, says later to her husband,
"I do find it absurd that a man of his intelligence should suffer over a person of that sort, who isn't even interesting -- because they say she's an idiot," she added with the wisdom of people not in love who believe a man of sense should be unhappy only over a person who is worth it; which is rather like being surprised that anyone should condescend to suffer from cholera because of so small a creature as the comma bacillus.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 24

Where this began
Day 23

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 328-340.

In addition to "the mystery of personality," which I singled out yesterday as one of Proust's great themes, there's also the nexus of pleasure and pain, which is what the past few days' segments have focused on. Swann has carried it to an extreme in what he now recognizes as a "neurotic" state: his obsession with Odette. But it is, of course, the theme that the narrator dealt with in the very opening pages of the novel, in which he dwells on the pleasure of his mother's visits at bedtime and the pain he felt in
both anticipation and aftermath. The absence of pain is not pleasure, of course, as Emily Dickinson noted: "After great pain a formal feeling comes." And Dante was not the first nor the last to observe that pleasure only heightens pain ("Nessun maggior dolore / Che ricordarsi del tempo felice / Nella miseria." -- There's no greater sorrow than remembering happiness in the midst of pain).

Proust puts it like this: Finding out where Odette has gone "would have been enough to soothe the anguish he felt at these times, and for which Odette's presence, the sweetness of being close to her was the only specific (a specific that in the long run aggravated the disease, like many remedies, but at least momentarily soothed his pain)." The thing is, he's beginning to show signs of boredom with the relationship: "if, during this period, he often desired death though without admitting it to himself, it was to escape not so much the acuteness of his sufferings as the monotony of his struggle."

Odette is certainly showing signs of fatigue with the relationship. Proust neatly encapsulates the progress of their affair with two paragraphs in which he contrasts past and present. In the early days, Odette would say "admiringly: 'You -- you will never be like anyone else.'" Now she says, "in a tone that was at times irritated, at times indulgent: 'Oh, you really never will be like anyone else!'" Once she would look at him and think, "He's not conventionally handsome, granted, but he is smart: that quiff of hair, that monocle, that smile!" Now she thinks, "He's not positively ugly, granted, but he is absurd: that monocle, that quiff of hair, that smile!" Earlier she would think, "If only I could know what is in that head!" Now, it's "Oh, if only I could change what's in that head, if only I could make it reasonable."

Well, if the characters are getting bored, what about the reader? I think Proust realizes this when he decides to get out of Swann's feverish head for a while and send him out into society, sans Odette. For Swann, "society as a whole, now that he was detached from it, ... presented itself as a series of pictures." And so we get passages of wit (a footman who "seemed to be showing contempt for his person and consideration for his hat") and description ("The Marquis de Forestelle's monocle was minuscule, had no border, and, requiring a constant painful clenching of the eye, where it was encrusted like a superfluous cartilage whose presence was inexplicable and whose material was exquisite, gave the Marquis's face a melancholy delicacy, and made women think he was capable of great sorrows in love.") This comes as comic relief at a point where the novel needs it, and evokes the earlier parts of the novel when the narrator indulged himself in portraits of his aunts and depictions of hawthorn blossoms as relief from psychological introspection.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 23

Where this began
Day 22

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 317-328.

Disease or addiction? Proust shifts to the latter metaphor for Swann's obsession with Odette in this section, describing Swann's futile attempts "to break the habit of seeing her."
just as a morphine addict or a consumptive, persuaded that they have been prevented, one by an outside event just when he was about to free himself of his inveterate habit, the other by an accidental indisposition just when he was about to be restored to health at last, feel misunderstood by the doctor who does not attach the same importance they do to these contingencies.

The disease metaphor continues to dominate, however: "this disease which was Swann's love had so proliferated ... that it could not have been torn from him without destroying him almost entirely: as they say in surgery, his love was no longer operable." Proust also announces here what is perhaps the central theme of his fiction: "one thing love and death have in common ... is that they make us question more deeply ... the mystery of personality."

At this point, another figure begins to play a significant role: the Baron de Charlus. Proust has already alerted our suspicions about Charlus by showing him in the company of Odette when the narrator first sees Mlle. Swann. But Swann has no such suspicions. Charlus is one of the "distinguished friendships" that bring him "consolation" that his affair with Odette has not been damaged. Indeed, he relies on Charlus, whom he refers to as "my dear Mémé," as a kind of go-between between him and Odette, asking him to "run over to her house" and to reassure him that all is well with her. "He was happy each time M. de Charlus was with Odette. Between M. de Charlus and her, Swann knew that nothing could happen."

The narrator returns, mentioning that his great-uncle Adolphe, the one for whom he would later precipitate a break with his family, was "acquainted with" Odette. Swann asks Adolphe for advice in his relationship with Odette, but this ends badly: "A few days later, Odette tells Swann she had just had the disappointment of discovering that my uncle was the same as every other man: he had just tried to take her by force." But by now, the reader has every reason to doubt Odette's veracity. The break with Adolphe thwarts Swann's plan to ask him about Odette's life in Nice, about which Swann has heard rumors:
He was even given to understand, at one point, that this laxness in Odette's morals, which he would not have suspected, was fairly well known, and that in Baden and in Nice, when she used to spend a few months there, she had had a degree of amorous notoriety.

Unable to get solid confirmation of the rumors, Swann falls back on his usual rationalizations and willful blindness.