A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Proust Project, Day 54

Where this began
Day 53


In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 325-339.

Bloch badmouths the narrator to Saint-Loup, and Saint-Loup to the narrator, and when each shows no sign of having told the other about his slanders, confesses to them that he did it to get each of them on his side. The narrator's reaction to this perverse little trick is curious:
I bore him no ill will, as my mother and grandmother had handed down to me not only their inability to bear a grudge, even against those who deserved it more than he did, but their reluctance to condemn anybody.

This is ironic (and may be meant ironically), because the narrator is gifted at condemnation by satire. He goes on further to observe that these days -- as contrasted with the idealized image he retains from his childhood -- "one's choice among men is more or less reduced, on the one hand, to uncomplicated troglodytes, unfeeling, straightforward creatures ... and, on the other, a race of men who, while they are in your company, can sympathize with you, cherish you, be moved to tears by you, and then, a few hours later, contradict all this by making a cruel joke about you.... I prefer men of the latter breed, if not for their human value, at least for their company."

Bloch's father invites the narrator and Saint-Loup to dine with him, but the invitation is delayed because of the anticipated arrival of Saint-Loup's Uncle Palamède. In talking about his uncle, Saint-Loup naively describes him as a man who in his youth, when someone made homosexual advances toward him, had his friends beat the man to a bloody pulp. But these days, Saint-Loup insists, his uncle would never do anything so brutal. Why, he even takes an interest in men of the working classes: "A footman who attends him in a hotel somewhere and whom he'll set up in Paris; a peasant lad whom he gets apprenticed to a trade -- that sort of thing. It's just this rather nice side of his nature, as opposed to his society side."

Uh-huh.

The next day, the narrator is returning to the hotel when he feels himself being watched, and finds that he is being stared at, "with eyes dilated by the strain of attention," by "a very tall, rather stout man of about forty, with a black mustache." When he returns the gaze, the man pretends to look at other things and makes "the gesture of irritation that is meant to suggest one has had enough of waiting, but which one never makes when one has really been waiting" and breathes "out noisily, as people do, not when they are too hot, but when they wish it to be thought they are too hot."

Later, when he and his grandmother have gone for a walk, they meet the man in the company of Saint-Loup and Mme. de Villeparisis, who introduces him as the Baron de Guermantes, her nephew, then corrects herself: "What am I saying? Baron de Guermantes indeed! Allow me to introduce my nephew, the Baron de Charlus!" The baron shakes hands -- proffering two fingers -- with the narrator in a chilly fashion. And so the narrator learns that his uncle is Palamède de Guermantes, the brother of the owner of the château at Combray.

The narrator now realizes "that the fierce stare that had attracted my attention ... was the one I had seen at Tansonville, when Mme Swann had called out the name of Gilberte." He asks Saint-Loup if Mme. Swann had been one of Charlus's mistresses, and Saint-Loup denies it emphatically: "'You would create consternation in the ranks of society if it was thought you believed that.' I did not dare reply that I would have created greater consternation in Combray if it was thought I did not believe it."

The narrator's grandmother is quite taken with Charlus, who doesn't seem to fit under the rubric of "naturalness." "But there were things in M. de Charlus, such as intelligence and sensibility, which one sensed were of acute potency, distinguishing him from the many society people whom Saint-Loup found painfully amusing; and it was especially these things that made my grandmother so indulgent toward his aristocratic bias." That bias extends to women:
In the view of M. de Charlus, a pretty woman of the middle classes, in relation to any of these women [whose ancestry traced to the ancien régime], was like a contemporary painting of a road or a wedding party in relation to an old master, the history of which we know, from the pope or the king who commissioned it. ... M. de Charlus drew comfort too from the fact that a similar bias to his own prevented these few great ladies from frequenting other women of lesser breeding, thus enabling him to worship them in their unimpaired nobility.

The narrator's grandmother responds to this attitude because "she was susceptible to something masquerading as a spiritual superiority, which was why she thought princes were the most blessed of men, in that they could have as their tutor a La Bruyère or a Fénelon."

Then Charlus surprises the narrator, to whom he has "not spoken a syllable" after that chilly handshake, by inviting him and his grandmother to tea.