A blog 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 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.

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