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.”
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.