A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Proust Project, Day 53

Where this began
Day 52


In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 314-325.

The narrator gives us a portrait of two of his friends, Robert de Saint-Loup and Bloch, who could hardly be more different from each other, and in the middle of it extended thoughts on conventional manners and snobbery.

Saint-Loup becomes a favorite of the narrator's grandmother because of his "naturalness," which we remember from long ago, when the narrator
commented on her distaste for the gardener's too-symmetrical flowerbeds. "But in nothing was the naturalness of Saint-Loup so endearing to my grandmother as in the open way he expressed his liking for me," declaring it "apart from his love for his mistress, ... the greatest joy in his life." But the narrator is not so generous in returning his friendship: "I felt none of the happiness I was capable of deriving from being without company" or from "the pleasure that could come from finding something deep within myself, from bringing it out of its inner darkness and into the light of day."

This solitary self-absorption is what allows the narrator time to reflect on Saint-Loup's character as an aristocrat who rejects the attitudes of his class. "It was because he was a noble that his passion for ideas and his attraction to socialism, which made him seek the company of young, pretentious, and badly dressed students, attested to something genuinely pure and disinterested in him, though the same could not be said about them."

Or about Bloch, who turns up at Balbec, whom they first overhear railing about the "glut" of Jews there. "Eventually, the man who found Jews so distasteful stepped out of the tent, and we glanced up to look at the anti-Semite: it was my old school friend Bloch." Saint-Loup's attitude toward Bloch is more tolerant than that of the narrator, who comments on Bloch's "more picturesque than pleasant" retinue of sisters, relatives, and friends:
It is quite likely that this Jewish community, like any other, perhaps more than any other, could boast of many charms, qualities, and virtues. The enjoyment of these, however, was restricted to its members. The fact was they were disliked; and this, once they became aware of it, became a proof in their eyes of anti-Semitism, against which they ranged themselves in a dense phalanx, closing ranks in the face of a world that was, in any case, of no mind to join their group.

The narrator notices that Bloch refers to the lift as "lyfte" and to "The Stones of Venyce by Lord John Ruskin," apparently under the impression that "in England not only all individuals of the masculine gender were lords, but that the letter i was always pronounced like y." Saint-Loup worries that Bloch will be embarrassed when he learns the truth and will think him inconsiderate for not setting him straight -- which good manners forbid him from doing. But when the narrator pronounces "lift" correctly, Bloch notices the correct pronunciation: "'I see -- so it's "lift,"' To which, in a sharp and supercilious tone, he added, Ányway -- doesn't matter.'" Which reveals "how much the thing that is said not to matter does matter to the speaker."

Bloch then accuses the narrator of "snobbery" in his association with Saint-Loup, launching the narrator into reflections about how the thing of which we accuse others is often the thing of which we are most guilty ourselves. This long, essay-like paragraph includes such aphoristic observations as, "we should make a rule of never speaking of ourselves, given that it is a subject on which we may be sure our own view and that of others will never coincide."
Bloch was a bad-mannered, neurotic snob; and since he belonged to a family of no note, he suffered, as though at the bottom of the ocean, from the incalculable pressures bearing upon him from not just the Gentiles on the surface, but the superimposed layers of Jewish society, all more estimable than the one he belonged to, and each of them pouring scorn on the one immediately below itself.... When Bloch spoke of the fit of snobbery I must be having and invited me to own up to being a snob, I could have answered, "If I were a snob, I wouldn't be mixing with you."