Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for January, 2010

Moncrieff:  397-408; Grieve:  292-299

by Dennis Abrams

Glimpses of girls seen from Mme de Villeparisis’s carriage, and the impossibility of meeting them.  “Was it because I had caught but a momentary glimpse of her that I had found her so attractive?  It may have been.  In the first place, the impossibility of stopping when we meet a woman, the risk of not meeting her again another day, give her at once the same charm as a place derives from the illness or poverty that prevents us from visiting it, or the lustreless days which remain to us to live from the battle in which we shall doubtless fall.  So that, if there were no such thing as habit, life must appear delightful to those of us who are continually under the threat of death — that is to say, to all mankind.”  On one occasion, jumping from a carriage to chase a woman he’d only glimpsed, Marcel is unpleasantly surprised when it turns out to be Mme Verdurin.  Marcel hopes to get a letter from the milk-girl, but is disappointed when it is “only” a letter from Bergotte.  The ivy-covered church at Carqueville.  The fisher-girl.  The three trees.

—-

I kept today’s synopsis short, so that I could share with you an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien entitled “Where Had I Looked at Them Before,” found in the marvelous collection The Proust Project.

“The passage — already marked off by an ellipsis from what precedes it — kicks in with the starkness of an episode in a medieval chanson de geste:

We came down towards Hudimensil

and with an equal abruptness — a semicolon the only buffer — “suddenly I was overwhelmed with that profound happiness which I had not often felt again since Combray, a happiness analogous to that which had been given me by — among other things — the steeples of Martinville.”  The steeples had imparted, through Marcel’s verbal formulation of the experience of seeing them, a full realization of the act of writing:  a pleasure so intense and unexpected that he burst into song.  In this present instance, however — which occurs as Marcel is driving in a carriage on an excursion into the countryside near Balbec with his grandmother and Madame de Villeparisis — the happiness “remained incomplete.”  The passage which describes it is therefore itself a fragment, a detached although perfectly shaped shard.

The happiness comes from his noticing three trees that presumably serve as an entrance to a covered alley:  they make a pattern he has seen before in a place he can no longer identify.  (Neither the nature of the pattern nor the genus of the trees is sufficiently relevant to be noted.)  A fissure opens between the place he is in and the unidentifiable place in which he once was, an in that instant his immediate surroundings and all the people attached to them become less real than those in other and remote times.  It’s as if he had roused himself from a book he was reading (the book that is his life in the present, and the people who are part of it) to be brought back into the real world evoked by the three trees.  This figure of the reader looking up from a book reenacts in minute and stunningly casual fashion the whole metaphysical machinery for whose expression Calderon, for example, required dungeons, palaces, ancient curses, and dispossessed dynasties.  As easily as looking away from the page you are reading, the universe is redefined and disassembled.

Marcel will never grasp what the three trees connect him to, perhaps only because circumstances — the carriage moving irresistibly onward, the company he cannot escape from — deny him the possibility of pausing and retreating into himself.  The trees function as a kind of indecipherable Symbolist poem — anticipating the Imagism that Pound has not yet formulated — containing a single line, consisting finally only of the words ‘three trees'”  an opaque ideogram marking the limits of consciousness.   What cannot be doubted is their power over him, a power that (given the incompleteness of the experience)  he can approach only through questions, a series of what-ifs that lay out, to no real avail, possible definitions of what his perception of the trees might amount to.

It might be a memory of so remote a period of childhood that he cannot even locate its geographic context; it might belong to a dream landscape (with the proviso that for Marcel a dream landscape is itself a distillation of the mystery underlying a landscape seen in waking life); it might be something dreamt the night before and forgotten, thus acquiring an illusory aura of remoteness in time; it might on the contrary be something so entirely new that the shock of its unfamiliarity is indistinguishable from the effect of a half-forgotten memory.  Or maybe Marcel is just tired and experiencing a fatigue-induced double vision — not of space but of time.  ‘I couldn’t tell.’  The baldness of the sentence again marks the absolute closure that can only pertain to an incomplete experience.

And at this point — with the failure of knowledge — all hell, metaphorically, breaks loose:  we are dealing no longer with trees but with Norns, witches, prophetesses, ghosts demanding resurrection.  But their gesticulations are those of an invalid who has lot the use of his voice and despairs, knowing that his friends will never grasp what he intends to say.  It is too late in any case, because the carriage has moved and taken Marcel not only from the trees but from ‘everything that would have made me truly happy.’  The trees, sounding now truly like the chorus from some mythological drama of the fin de siecle, chant to him:  ‘What you fail to learn from us today, you will never know.’  In fact he will never know:  and by not knowing will lose some crucial part of himself, even if — ‘one evening — too late, but then for all time’ — he will recover in the spiritual and erotic bondage of his relationship with Albertine an analogue of what he lost.

The carriage turns a corner and the trees vanish for all time:  an act (not the passive fact of being carried away but the act of turning his back on them) so harsh that Proust can liken it only to grief, death, betrayal, or apostasy.  The party will return from its outing precisely as if nothing had happened.”

—-

Comments?  Thoughts?

—-

The Weekend’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 4o8 “Once we had got to know this road…” through Page 434 “…to make them shut up, and to let you know at once.”

Grieve:  Page 299 “For the sake of variety…” through Page 319 “…to make them be quiet and inform you without further ado of my presence.”

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

Read Full Post »

Moncrieff:  385-397;  Grieve:  283-293

by Dennis Abrams

The changing seascape outside Marcel’s window.  “But before all of this I had drawn back my curtains, impatient to know what Sea it was that was playing that morning by the shore, like a Nereid.  For none of those Seas ever stayed with us longer than a day.  The next day there would be another, which sometimes resembled its predecessor.  But I never saw the same one twice.”  Waiting for Mme de Villeparisis, “a young page who attracted the eye no less by the unusual and harmonious colouring of his hair than by his plant-like epidermis…To stand by her carriage and to help her ought perhaps to have been part of the young page’s duties.  But he knew that a person who brings her own servants to an hotel expects them to wait on her and is not as a rule lavish with her tips…”  Apple blossoms.  Mme de Villeparisis’ views on art and politics.  “We were astonished, my grandmother and I, to find how much more ‘liberal’ she was than even the majority of the middle class…When we heard these advanced opinions — though never so far advanced as to amount to socialism, which Mme de Villeparisis held in abhorrence — expressed so frequently and with so much frankness precisely by one of those people in consideration of whose intelligence our scrupulous and timid impartiality would refuse to condemn outright the ideas of conservatives, we came very near, my grandmother and I, to believing that in the pleasant companion of our drives was to be found the measure and the pattern of truth in all things.”  Mme de Villeparisis’ personal intimacy with artists and writers.  Glimpses of young girls.  “As to the pretty girls who went past, from the day on which I had first known that their cheeks could be kissed, I had become curious about their souls.  And the universe had appeared to me more interesting.”

Who wouldn’t love to be the fourth passenger in that carriage, listening to Mme de Villeparisis speak about the writers she had known.

“Mme de Villeparisis, questioned by me about Chateaubriand, about Balzac, about Victor Hugo, each of whom in his day had been the guest of her parents and had been glimpsed by her, smiled at my reverence, told amusing anecdotes about them such as she had been telling us about dukes and statesmen, and severely criticised those writers precisely because they had been lacking in that modesty, that self-effacement, that sober art which is satisfied with a single precise stroke and does not over-emphasise, which avoids above all else that absurdity of grandiloquence, in that aptness, those qualities of moderation, of judgment and simplicty to which she had been taught that real greatness aspired and attained…

‘Like those novels of Stendhal which you seem to admire.  You would have given him a great surprise, I assure you, if you had spoken to him in that tone.  My father, who used to meet him at M. Merimee’s — now he was a man of talent, if you like — often told me that Beyle (that was his real name) was appallingly vulgar, but quite good company at dinner, and not in the least conceited about his books.  Why, you must have seen for yourself how he just shrugged his shoulders at the absurdly extravagant compliments of M. de Balzac.  There at least he showed that he knew how to behave like a gentleman.’

She possessed the autographs of all these great men, and seemed, presuming on the personal relations which her family had had with them, to think that her judgment of them must be better founded than that of young people who, like myself, had had no opportunity of meeting them.  ‘I think I have a right to speak about them, since they used to come to my father’s house, and as M. Sainte-Beuve, who was a most intelligent man, used to say, in forming an estimate you must take the word of people who saw them close to and were able to judge more exactly their real worth.'”

I find her name-dropping charming, despite the fact that what she says about needing to know the author personally to understand their true worth flies in the face of what we know or at least believe to be true (Bergotte for our prime example).  Still, Brian Rogers in his essay “Proust’s Narrator,” from The Cambridge Companion to Proust, had this to say about her, which contains references to some things that will be coming up shortly in our reading.

“Many of the portraits in A la recherche, like the description of places and events, contain coded references to writers the Narrator is reading or has read and to painters and musicians to whom he is drawn.  One of the functions of the subterranean language of quotation in the novel is to highlight the influence, good or bad, the predecessors of the future novelist exert on his vocation and, in particular, on the evolution of the style which will express his vision.  The venerable Marquise de Villeparisis, for example, is a mirror containing among other things the dangerous reflection of Sainte-Beuve’s criticism and his false conception of art.  Her advice to the Narrator during their rides in the countryside around Balbec to be wary of Vigny, Balzac and Musset is a parody of the nineteenth century critic’s Causeries du lundi, while the tone of her rebuke and the inflexions of her voice are a pastiche of Sainte-Beuve’s friend and admirer, Mme de Boigne, whose Memoires Proust had read and criticised in 1907.   The verve with which the old lady debunks Chateubriand is a mixture of the anecdotal criticism Proust condemned in his Contre Sainte-Beuve and the spiteful reminiscences of Mme de Boigne.  The story the Marquise tells of Chateaubriand’s celebrated evocations of moonlight is the rewriting of the latter’s ironic chronicle of a real social occasion on which the poet gave a reading of Les Abencerages…her intention being like that of Sainte-Beuve and Mme de Boigne, to destroy the reputation of the artist by criticising the man.  This aspect of the Narrator’s aesthetic evolution through pastiche and cryptic allusion is still one of the least appreciated or researched features in A la recherche.

—-

Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 397 “Mme de Villeparisis’s carriage moved fast.” through Page 408 “…which we thought magnificent.”

Grieve:  Page 292 “Mme de Villeparisis’s carriage went to quickly…” through Page 299 “and where one rarely saw anyone.”

Enjoy

Read Full Post »

Moncrieff:  371-375; Grieve:  273-283

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel’s grandmother and Mme de Villeparisis reestablish their friendship.   Marcel only notices what’s on the table “when there was set on it some gigantic fish, some marine monster, which unlike the knives and forks was contemporary with the primitive epochs in which the Ocean first began to teem with life, at the time of the Cimmerians, a fish whose body with its numberless vertebrae, its blue and pink veins, had been constructed by nature, but according to an architectural plan, like a polychrome cathedral of the deep.”   Francoise, after recognizing Mme de Villeparisis’ kindness to Marcel, his grandmother, and herself, forgives her for being a Marquise.  Marcel doesn’t like oysters.   Marcel and his grandmother are introduced to the Princesse de Luxembourg, who “while she chatted to the Marquise, turned to bestow a kindly glance on my grandmother and myself, with that embryonic kiss which we put into our smiles when they are address to a baby out with its ‘Nana.’  Indeed, in her anxiety not to appear to be enthroned in a higher sphere than ours, she had probably miscalculated the distance, for by an error in adjustment her eyes became infused with such benevolence that I foresaw the moment when she would put out her hand and stroke us like two lovable beasts who had poked our heads out at her through the bars of our cage in the Zoo.   And immediately, as it happened, this idea of caged animals and the Bois de Boulogne received striking confirmation.  It was the time of day when the beach is crowded with itinerant and clamorous vendors, hawking cakes and sweets and biscuits.  Not knowing quite what to do to show her affection for us, the Princess hailed the next one to come by:  he had nothing left but a loaf of rye bread, of the kind one throws to the ducks.  The Princess took it and said to me:  “For your grandmother.”  The judge’s wife misjudges the Princesse de Luxembourg.  “Just listen to this.  A woman with yellow hair and six inches of paint on her face and a carriage which reeked of harlot a mile away — which only a creature like that would dare to have — came here to day to call on the so-called Marquise…She trades under the name of the ‘Princesse de Luembourg!'”  The middle-class does not understand the aristocracy.  “Nine tenths of the men of the Faubourg Saint-Germain appear to a large section of the middle classes as crapulous paupers (which, individually, they not infrequently are) whom no respectable person would dream of asking to dinner.  The middle classes pitch their standards in this respect too high, for the failings of these men would never prevent their being received with every mark of esteem in houses which they themselves will never enter.”

—-

How, I ask you, can one not love this section?  The first time Mme de Villeparsis and Marcel’s grandmother “meet,” the attitude of  Princesse de Luxembourg, the outrageously funny way the provincials see Mme de Villeparsis and the Princesse, “It must not, however, be supposed that this misunderstanding was merely temporary, like those that occur in the second act of a farce to be cleared up before the final curtain.  Mme de Luxembourg, a niece of the King of England and of the Emperor of Austria, and Mme de Villeparisis, when once called to take the other for a drive, always appeared like two “old trots” of the kind one has always such difficulty in avoiding at a watering-place.”  Marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.  (And who says Proust isn’t funny?)

—-

Since it’s been a while, I thought I’d remind you of when we first met Mme de Villeparisis, way back in the “Combray” section of Swann’s Way.  (Page 20 of the Lydia Davis translation.)

“Yet one day when my grandmother had gone to ask a favor from a lady she had known at the Sacre-Coeur (and with whom, because of our notion of the castes, she had not wished to remain in close contact despite a reciprocal congeniality), this lady, the Marquise de Villeparisis of the famous de Bouillon family, had said to her:  ‘I believe you know M. Swann very well; he is a great friend of my nephew and niece, the des Laumes.’  My grandmother had returned from her visit full of enthusiasm for the house, which overlooked some gardens and in which Mme. de Villeparisis had advised her to rent a flat, and also for a waistcoat maker and his daughter, who kept a shop in the courtyard where she had gone to ask them to put a stitch in her skirt, which she had torn in the stairwell.  My grandmother had found these people wonderful, she declared that the girl was a gem and the waistcoat maker was most distinguished, the finest man she had ever seen.  Because for her, distinction was something absolutely independent of social position.  She went into ecstasies over an answer the waistcoat maker had given her, saying to Mama:  ‘Sevigne couldn’t have said it any better!’ and, in contrast, of a nephew of Mme. de Villeparisis whom she had met at the house:  ‘Oh, my dear daughter, how common he is!’

Now the remark about Swann had the effect, not of raing him in my great-aunt’s estimation, but of lowering Mme. de Villeparisis.  It seemed that the respect which, on my grandmother’s faith, we accorded Mme. de Villeparisis created a duty on her part to do nothing that would make her less worthy, a duty in which she had failed by learning of Swann’s existence, by permitting relatives of hers to associate with him.  ‘What!  She knows Swann?  A person you claim is a relation of the Marechal de MacMahon?'”

——

Wednesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 385  “The Balbec doctor, called in to cope…” through Page 397 “And the universe had appeared to me more interesting.”

Grieve:  Page 283 “The Balbec doctor, summoned to my bedside…” through Page 292 “…and the whole universe had begun to seem more interesting.”

Enjoy.

Read Full Post »

Moncrieff:  336-371; Grieve:  247-273

by Dennis Abrams

Three knocks, and Marcel’s grandmother brings him his morning milk.  “I would explain to her that I had been afraid she would not hear me, or might think that it was someone in the room beyond who was tapping:  at which she would smile:  ‘Mistake my poor pet’s knocking for anyone else’s!  Why, Granny could tell it a mile away!  Do you suppose there’s anyone else in the world who’s such a silly-billy, with such febrile little knuckles, so afraid of waking me up and of not making me understand?  Even if it just gave the tiniest scratch, Granny could tell her mouse’s sound at once, especially such a miserable little mouse as it is…”  The view from his window.   Marcel’s unhappiness at his new surroundings is caused by a mental resistance to the possibility of forgetting his past surroundings, of losing his former self.   “Not that the heart, too, is not bound in time, when separation is complete, to feel the analgesic effect of habit; but until then it will continue to suffer.”   Hot water and “the stiff starched towel with the name of the hotel printed upon it, with which I was making futile efforts to dry myself.”  The changing ocean.  The social significance of the dining room at Combray.  “At Combray, since we were known to everyone, I took heed of no one.  In seaside life, one does not know one’s neighbors.  I was not yet old enough, and was still too sensitive to have outgrown the desire to find favour in the sight of other people and to possess their hearts.”  Eminent (at least in their own minds’) provincial personalities, who meet at Balbec regularly, and are unwilling to meet others.  The King of the South Seas and his mistress “Long live the Queen!”  A wealthy old lady of title, dressed in black dress and bonnet, who keeps to herself “having placed, between herself on the one hand and the hotel staff and the tradesmen on the other, her own servants who bore instead of her the shock of contact with all this strange humanity and kept up the familiar atmosphere around their mistress, having set her prejudices between herself and the other visitors, indifferent whether or not she gave offence to people whom her friends would not have had in their houses, it was in her own world that she continued to live…”  Two smart young men and an actress.  Invitations to Sunday parties held by M. de Cambremer are much in demand.  Marcel is attracted to the daughter of M. de Stermaria, but is unable to meet her.  Marcel is astonished to learn that the old lady in black is the Marquise de Villepairis, who is an old friend of his grandmother’s.   Marcel’s grandmother, however, holds to the principle that “when away from home, one should cease to have any social intercourse, that one did not go to the seaside to meet people, having plenty of time for that sort of thing in Paris, that they would make one waste in polite exchanges, in pointless conversation, the precious time which ought all to be spent in the open air; beside the waves; and finding it convenient to assume that this view was shared by everyone else, and that it authorised, between old friends whom chance brought face to face in the same hotel, the fiction of a mutual incognito, on hearing her friend’s name from the manager she merely looked the other way and pretended not to see Mme de Villeparisis, who, realising that my grandmother did not want to be recognised, likewise gazed into space.”   Marcel fantasizes about getting introduced to Mlle. de Sternmaria via Mme de Villeparasis, “And for a whole month during which she would be left alone without her parents in her romantic Breton castle, we should perhaps have been able wander by ourselves at evening, she and I together in the twilight through which the pink flowers of the bell heather would glow more softly above the darkening water, beneath oak trees beaten and stunted by the pounding of the waves.”  Marcel is intimidated by “the proprietor (or he may have been the general manager, appointed by a board of directors) not only of this palace but of seven or eight more besides…”   Francoise has more friends at the hotel than Marcel does, and because she is friends with the staff, she is reluctant to ask them to do their jobs, thereby inconveniencing Marcel and his grandmother.  “So that what it amounted to was that we could no longer have any hot water because Francoise had become a friend of the person who heated it.”

—-

Since today’s synopsis is rather lengthy, I’ll try to keep this short.  First of all, thank you for the birthday wishes.  It was perfect timing for me — reading Marcel’s adjustment to life in a hotel, while I myself was busy at a new hotel in Mexico City.  It brought me that much closer to Proust’s (or is it Marcel’s?) realisation that,

“Perhaps this fear that I had — and that is shared by so many others — of sleepig in a strange room, perhaps this fear is only the most humble, obscure, organic, almost unconscious form of that great and desperate resistance put up by the things that constitute the better part of our present life against our mentally acknowledging the possibility of a future in which they are to have no part; a resistance which was at the root of the horror that I had so often been made to feel by the thought that my parents would die some day, that the stern necessity of life might oblige me to live far from Gilberte, or simply to settle permanently in a place where I should never see any of my old friends; a resistance which was also at the root of the difficulty that I found in imagining my own death, or a survival such as Bergotte used to promise to mankind in his books, a survival in which I should not be allowed to take with me my memories, my frailties, my character, which did not easily resign themselves to the idea of ceasing to be, and desired for me neither extinction nor an eternity in which they would have no part.”

Not that I’m afraid of sleeping in strange rooms mind you, but I was, while reading this section, living his point — that when in a new place, it quickly becomes your reality, and the one you just left, even after a short time, becomes…something else.

I’ll probably have more on this tomorrow.

—-

Tuesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 371 “In the end we too made a social connexion…” through Page 385 “…the splendours of Rivebelle are almost wholly invisible.”

Grieve:  Page 273 “We, too, eventually, found a friend…” through Page 283 “…when they are more or less invisible.”

Enjoy.

Read Full Post »

Moncrieff:  325-336; Grieve:  240-247

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel takes the train to Balbec-Plage with his grandmother, and does not let her know his disappointment with the church at Balbec.  The names of the stations along the way sound “outlandish, whereas if I had come upon them in a book I should at once have been struck by their affinity to the names of certain places in the neighbourhood of Combray.”   Marcel does not do well when he arrives at the hotel, embarrassed by his grandmother’s haggling over the cost, alarmed by the newness and difference of everything surrounding him, comparing it to both Dante’s Paradise and Hell.  Waiting for his grandmother, Marcel explores the area around the hotel.  “I was astonished to find that there were people so different from myself that this stroll through the town had actually been recommended to me by the manager as a diversion, and also that the torture chamber which a new place of residence is could appear to some people a ‘delightful abode,’ to quote the hotel prospectus, which might exaggerate but was none the less addressed to a whole army of clients to whose tastes it must appeal.”  Marcel takes the lift to his room at the top of the hotel, but is unable to to relax.  “I was tormented by the presence of some little bookcases with glass fronts which ran along the walls, but especially by a large cheval-glass which stood across one corner and before the departure of which I felt there could be no possibility of rest for me there…Having no world, no room, no body now that was not menaced by the enemies thronging round me, penetrated to the very bones by fever, I was alone and longed to die.  Then my grandmother came in and to the expansion of my constricted heart there opened at once an infinity of space.”  Marcel is soothed by his grandmother, who tells him, “And be sure to knock on the wall if you want anything in the night.  My bed is just on the other side, and the partition is quite thin.  Just give a knock now, as soon as you’re in bed, so that we shall know where we are.”

—–

I’m struck once again (and how can one not be?) by Marcel’s “agelessness.”  That the same…young man?…who goes to prostitutes also needs his grandmother’s love and familiarity in order to relax and calm himself in a new environment.

——

Last night, one of our fellow readers posted the following question:

?I’m just wondering why this entire section is called “Place Names – The Place.” It’s the same name, I believe, as the last section in Swann’s Way. There it made sense, since a big chunk of it discussed place names. It seems this section should just be called “Balbec” or something?”

An excellent question.  Howard Moss discusses this very topic in his book The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust.  (Before I give you the excerpt, I do want to point out that in “Swann’s Way” the section is called “Place Names – The Name,” and in Within a Budding Grove it’s called “Place Names – The Place.”

“If there is a duality in the viewpoint of the novel (Marcel, the observer; Marcel, the observed), in its structure (the two ‘ways’), and its theme (the problem of a reality equally perceptible in the opposed dimensions of the microscope and the telescope, the present and the eternal), there is also a duality in its subject matter in plain terms of human consciousness.  And that is the important distinction Proust makes between ‘the name’ and ‘the place’ — or, more appropriately, ‘the thing’ — for this distinction bears, finally, upon everything.  In the Proustian universe, nothing is what it first appears to be:  there is a prevision that attached itself to the mere names of places, people, and events.  this early vision is pre-verbal — not involved with the word per se but the sound of the word.

To a child names are magical sounds that precede and then identify objects of reality.  these must, of necessity, be in the immediate vicinity:  familial figures, domestic objects, personal effects.  (This childhood fascination with sound is repeated when Marcel is an adult in his descriptions of the cries of the street hawkers of Paris, the names of the railway stops on the ‘little crawler’ that connects Balbec with Douville, and his interest in the etymology of place names and titles.)  The magic of a sounded word identifying object is in direct proportion to the distance of the object, for, imagination intervening, the object may be shaped to the sound in any number of fantastic ways.  Thus, though it is his mother’s kiss that Marcel excruciatingly needs, the sound of the word ‘Swann’ has more magic than the word ‘mother.’  Swann is at a further remove.  Phantasy, conjecture, and reverie are fed by the partially known, the barely glimpsed, the overheard.  Need, physical and direct, is too painful to be magical and carries no sound.  Desire, mental and distant, admits of any possibility.  Venice and Parma sound all depths.  Francoise is in the kitchen.

The sense of place is never disinterested.  Wherever one is seems permanently fixes; wherever one is not is invested with glamour.  Both notions are illusory.  The sense of place merely precedes the sense of dislocation.  The security of Combray produces the romance of Balbec, the boredom of Balbec the excitement of Venice.  Susceptibility is the key to interest.

Before Marcel sees Balbec he imagines it as a stormy, northern coast of mist and cold, on the edge of which a church built in the Persian style is perched.  This notion comes to him from Swann, who acts, for Marcel, as a kind of sinister travel agent, imbuing foreign places with the phantasies of nostalgia rather than the limitations of fact.  When Marcel arrives at Balbec, he makes a pilgrimage to the church before he gets to the town proper, and finds it in a square as pedestrian as the one at Combray.  A sign across the street reads ‘Billiards’.  Balbec itself is a bustling seaside resort with a grand hotel.  Actuality contends with the hauanted coastline of the imagination, the exotic image of the Persian church.

Obstructed by a vision he created out of the sound of words, Marcel misses also something of the reality before him.  In a typical Proustian twist, Elstir, in a later scene, explaining the carvings of the Balbec church to Marcel, confirms the presence of a Persian sculpture that Marcel failed to see:

‘Some parts of it are quite orinetal; one of the capitals reproduces so exactly a Persian subject that you cannot account for it by the persistance of oriental traditions.  The carver must have copies some casket brought from the East by explorers.’

Place, then, is one of the first instigators of expectation and, as such, one of the cornerstones of disenchantment.  It is merely one link in a chain of similar circumstances.  Marcel’s notion of what Berma’s performance of Phedre will be like is utterly different from what he sees.  Around the billboard announcing the presentation of the play, Marcel constructs his own performance.  The real thing disappoints him; it takes him years to discover the true nature of Berma’s genius.  Similarly, the railway time-table is, in Swann’s Way, ‘the most intoxicating romance in the lover’s library.’  by the time we get to the second volume of Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gomorrah), Marcel can say ‘in the time-table itself, I could have consulted the page headed:  Balbec to Douville via Doncieres with the same happy tranquility as a directory of addresses.'”

In Proust’s world, inevitably, the ‘thing’ or ‘place’ becomes separated from ‘the name.’

—–

I’m going to be out of town January 21 through the 25th, to celebrate (as it were) my 50th birthday.  My next post will be for the morning of Tuesday, January 26th.

A long weekend’s reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 336 “And, sure enough, that evening…” through Page 371 “…had become a friend of the person who heated it.”

Grieve:  Page 247 “So, that evening, I did give three knocks…” through Page 273 “…a friend of the man whose job it was to heat it.”

Enjoy.

Read Full Post »

Moncrieff:  311-325; Grieve:  230-240

by Dennis Abrams

Told by his doctor to “take a stiff dose of beer or brandy at the moment of departure, so as to begin the journey in a state of what he called ‘euphoria,'” Marcel proceeds to get drunk, and finds pleasure in all parts of the train ride, telling his grandmother how comfortable the train was, how friendly the attendants and barman were, and how much he’d like to make the journey often so as to have the pleasure of seeing them again.   Marcel’s grandmother, however, is not amused by his ‘euphoria,’   “…she did not appear to be quite so overjoyed at all these good tidings.  She answered, without looking me in the face:  ‘Why don’t you try to get a little sleep?’ and turned her eyes to the window…”  The letters of Mme de Sevigne.  After accompanying his grandmother to her friend’s house, Marcel returns to take the train to Balbec alone, and, perhaps surprisingly, “I found nothing to distress me in the night which followed; this was because I did not have to spend it imprisoned in a room whose somnolence would have kept me awake; I was surrounded by the soothing activity of all those movements of the train which kept me company…”  Marcel watches the sunrise from the train, “running from one window to the other to reassemble, to collect on a single canvas the intermittent, antipodean fragments of my fine, ever-changing morning, and to obtain a comprehensive view and a continuous picture of it.”  When the train stops at a small rural station, Marcel falls briefly in love with a tall girl going from window to window selling coffee and milk, and is able to do so partially because “…completely unrelated to the models of gbeauty which I was wont to conjure up in my mind when I was by myself, this handsome girl gave me at once the taste for a certain happiness (the sole form, always different, in which we may acquire a taste for happiness), for a happiness that would be realised by my staying and living there by her side.” and, no longer in a familiar place, Habit had ceased to exist, allowing him to see things differently.  Marcel arrives:   “I read the name — almost Persian style — of Balbec.”  Marcel’s vision of the church versus the reality.  The Virgin of Balbec, now “transformed, as was the church itself, into a little old woman in stone whose height I could measure and whose wrinkles I could count.”  “And casting the blame for my disappointment upon various accidental causes, such as the state of my health, my exhaustion after the journey, my incapacity for looking at things properly, I endeavored to console myself with the thought that other towns still remained intact for me…”

—-

How could Marcel not be disappointed at his initial view of the church, given how he had built it up (with help from M. Swann) in his imagination?

“I strode buoyantly through the station and across the avenue that led up to it, and asked the way to the shore, so as to see nothing in the place but its church and the sea.  People seemed not to understand what I meant.  Old Balbec, Balbec-en-Terre, at which I had arrived, had neither beach nor harbour.  True, it was indeed in the sea that the fishermen, according to the legend, had found the miraculous Christ, a discovery recorded in a window in the church a few yards away fro me; it was indeed from cliffs battered by the waves that the stone of its nave and towers had been quarried.  But this sea, which for those reasons I had imagined as coming to expire at the foot of the window, was twelve miles away and more, at Balbec-Plage, and, rising besides its cupola, that steeple which, because I had read that it was itself a rugged Norman cliff round which the winds howled and the sea-birds wheeled, I had always pictured to myself as receiving at its base the last dying foam of the uplifted waves, stood on a square which was the junction of two tramway routes, opposite a cafe which fore, in letters of gold, the legend ‘Billiards,’ against a background of houses with the roofs of which no upstanding mast was blended.”

One isn’t sure whether to laugh at Marcel’s mistake, or cry at his disappointment.  The sign bearing the legend ‘Billiards’ is the ultimate touch.

—-

In Andre Aciman’s collection of essays The Proust Project, Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, wrote about Proust’s depiction of the train trip to Balbec.  I’d like to share part of  it with you.

—-

“The Proust that has always most appealed to me is the ‘intimate’ Proust, by which I mean the Proust who describes small, unheroic aspects of experience that other authors rush past in their hurry to construct a plot:  the sensation of linen against your cheek, the smell of hotel corridors, the appearance of the sky by the seashore.  Pages are lavished on these small moments.  Proust is often thought of as a quintessentially nineteenth-century author, but I enjoy the number of modern experiences he describes:  the sound of car gears changing, the sight of a plane in the sky, a conversation with a phone operator.  Going on a train is something that all of us do, but that most novelists have sketched it only in the broadest strokes.  We’ve all heard the train wheels beat against the wheels, but it takes Proust to rescue the sound from our customary inattention and to pin it down in words that carry over the emotional charge of the original experience.  The value of Proust’s novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own but could not have formulated on our own.  An effect of reading a book that has devoted attention to noticing such faint yet vital tremors is that once we’ve put the volume down and resumed our life, we may attend to precisely the things which the author would have responded to had he or she been in our company.  Our mind will be like a radar newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness.  The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity.”

—-

Wednesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 325 “I found my grandmother…” through Page 336 “…so that we shall know where we are.”

Grieve:  Page 240 “I did meet my grandmother…” through Page 247 “…we’ll see how easy it is to communicate.”

Enjoy.

Read Full Post »

Moncrieff:  299-311; Grieve:  221-230

by Dennis Abrams

Two years later, Marcel is almost completely indifferent to Gilberte, except for occasional moments when, “The self that had loved her, which another self had already almost entirely supplanted, would reappear, stimulated far more often by a trivial than by an important event.”  Hearing the words “the head of the Ministry of Posts and his family,” reminds him of hearing those words when with Gilberte and Swann.  “Now the memories of love are no exception to the general law of memory, which are governed by the more general laws of Habit.”   “But this pain and this recrudescence of my love for Gilberte lasted no longer than such things last in a dream, and this time, on the contrary, because at Balbec the old Habit was no longer there to keep them alive.”  The trip, which as the Narrator explains would ‘today’ be taken by motor-car, will be taken by train.  “But after all the specific attraction of a journey lies not in our being able to alight at places on the way and to stop altogether as soon as we grow tired, but in its making the difference between departure not as imperceptible but as intense as possible…”  “Unhappily those marvellous places, railway stations, from which one sets out for a remote destination, are tragic places also, for if in them the miracle is accomplished whereby scenes which hitherto have had no existence save in our minds are about to become the scenes among which we shall be living, for that very reason we must, as we emerge from the waiting-room, abandon any thought of finding ourselves once more in the familiar room which but a moment ago still housed us.”  The vast roof of Saint-Lazare compared to skies painted by Mantegna or Vernonese, “beneath which only some terrible and solemn act could be in process, such as a departure by train or the erection of the Cross.”   The plan is for Marcel to travel with his grandmother, who, not willing to “purely and simply” to Balbec, will stop half-way to spend the night with friends, leaving Marcel to travel on to Balbec alone, arriving by daylight to see the Balbec church.  A teary farewell with his mother.   Francoise, dressed to travel, compared to those “miniatures of Anne of Brittany painted in Books of Hours by an old master, in which everything is so exactly in the right place, the sense of the whole is so evenly distributed throughout the parts, that the rich and obsolete singularity of the costume expresses the same pious gravity as the eyes, the lips and the hands.”

What a marvelous beginning for “Place-Names — The Place.”  Love, memory, travel, farewells…all that and more in just eleven short pages.  I could go on happily quoting paragraph after paragraph with no commentary from me necessary, but these struck me on both a personal level, as well as being important for understanding Marcel and the book itself.

“I said to myself sadly that this love of ours, in so far as it is a love for one particular creature, is not perhaps a very real thing since, though associations of pleasant or painful musings can attach it for a time to a woman to the extent of making us believe that it has been inspired by her in a logically necessary way, if on the other hand we detach ourselves deliberately or unconsciously from those associations, this love, as though it were in fact spontaneous and sprang from ourselves alone, will revive in order to bestow itself on another woman.”

—–

“And as Habit weakens everything, what best reminds us of a person is precisely what we had forgotten (because it was of no importance, and we therefore left it in full possession of its strength).  That is why the better part of our memories exists outside us, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate:  wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again.  Outside us?  Within us, rather, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged.  It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the person that we were, place ourselves in relation to things as he was placed, suffer anew because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what now makes us indifferent.  In the broad daylight of our habitual memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never recapture it.  Or rather we should never recapture it, had not a few words (such as this ‘head of the Ministry of Posts’) been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of book which might otherwise become unobtainable.”  {My emphasis]

And, finally, Marcel realizes that he will probably be disappointed by Balbec:

“But I had already learned the lesson — long before I was taken to see Berma — that, whatever it might be that I loved, it would never be attained, save at the end of a long and painful pursuit, in the course of which I should have first to sacrifice my pleasure to that paramount good instead of seeking it therein.”

—-

Tuesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 311 “To prevent the suffocating fits…” through Page 235 “never cease to contain them.”

Grieve:  Page 230 “To prevent the fits of breathlessness…” through Page 240 “…and would never again be rid of them.”

Enjoy.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34 other followers