Archive for November, 2009

Davis:  230-248; Moncrieff:  314-339

by Dennis Abrams

The second visit to Odette.  Swann sees Odette as Zipporah, the wife of Moses, as painted by Botticelli in a fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  “He looked at her; a fragment of the fresco appeared in her face and in her body, and from then on he would always to try to find it again, whether he was with Odette or was only thinking of her, and even though he probably valued the Florentine masterpiece only because he found it again in her, nevertheless that resemblance conferred a certain beauty on her too, made her more precious.”  Swann pretends to be angry with Odette in the hope of making her afraid of losing him.  Swann arrives late at the Verdurins’, missing Odette.  Swann’s search for Odette.  The act of physical possession “in which, in fact, one possesses nothing.”  Swann’s  joy at knowing that Odette was waiting for him.


So much packed into just 12 tiny pages.  Swann falls in love with Odette and possesses her physically, through a combination of illusion and absence.  Or, as Howard Nemerov described it in The Oak and the Acorn, “For Swann could not fall in love with Odette, who, we are told first and last, was not his type, until he himself had transformed her, by the disguising, quasi-artistic power of illusion, into a woman mysteriously invested with the charm of art and tradition…And I think it not too much to say that the point about the futility of Swann’s quest to penetrate an illusion he has himself made up is symbolically made by a negation:  he falls in love with her exactly when and exactly because she is not there.”

I will have more to say about this later, but I’d like to backtrack a bit today.  I re-read this section from Proust’s Way the other day, in which Roger Shattuck uses the paragraph that describes Swann’s first meeting with Odette as a way to analyze Proust’s prose, and hope that everyone finds it as interesting as I did:

First the quote from Proust, italics added by Shattuck:

“But, whereas each of these liasions, or each of these flirtations, had been the more or less complete realization of a dream inspired by the sight of a face or body that Swann had, spontaneously, without effort, found attractive, on the contrary, when one day at the theater he was introduced to Odette de Crecy by one of his former friends, who spoke of her as a charming woman with whom he might get along, but painted her as more difficult than she really was in order to seem to have done him a bigger favor in introducing him, she appeared to Swann not unattractive certainly but to have a kind of beauty that was indifferent to him, that did not stir his desire, even inspired a kind of physical repulsion in him, to be the sort of woman, as happens to all of us in different ways,  who is the opposite of what our senses ask for.”

Now, Shattuck’s analysis:

“By linking more than a dozen subordinate clauses to both ends of one principal clause, Proust has composed a difficult sentence.  But the fully articulated syntax and the rhythm it enforces firmly direct the reading.  The emphatic initial But, commands attention.  Immediately following, whereasw projects far out ahead an organizing power that lasts until it is picked up by when and carried on to the central statement.  The construction here is more sturdy than subtle.  Why does Proust write one sentence instead of three or four?  What is the effect?

Had he used several sentences, he would have had to rely on modifiers and rhetorical devices to bring out the central proposition.  Or he would have had to delete details.  In the sentence as written, subordination serves to arrange a large amount of material around the clause:  ‘she appeared…indifferent to him…’  The facts that the introduction took place in the theater, and that she was not presented as a woman of easy virtue, are minor yet revealing details.  Proust uses the nuances and hierarchies of syntax to hold these details in perspective.  Furthermore, the very relationships expressed by the connectives (whereas, when, that, who; in other contexts he concentrates on causative, concessive, or conditional relations) form an essential part of Proust’s subject.  This sentence contrives not only to tell us the circumstances under which Swann first met Odette but also to suggest the whole sinuous course of their love affair.  Before that interlude, his life followed a recognizable pattern; during it, that pattern is so disrupted as to leave a deep mark on Swann; and at its close, he looks back at its surprising beginning (and in effect at this very sentence) to wonder bemusedly how it ever happened.  A great number of complex, half-understood circumstances converge on any significant event, and then diverge toward a future of undivulged possibilities.  The passage just quoted is one example of how Proust’s prose tends to reproduce that plentitude.  He wants to make us see that intersection of lines.”


And one last observation.  When Swann arrives at the Verundins’ after Odette’s departure, he watches them through the window, and sees “the figures of the guests stood out in silhouette, slender and black, screening the lamps, like those intercalated at intervals around a translucent lampshade whose other panels are plain light.”  Similar, perhaps, to the effect of Marcel’s magic lantern?

Today’s Reading

Davis:  Page 248 “He went to her house only in the evening…” through Page 260 “…and precipitated Swann’s fall from grace.”  (That should pique your curiosity!)

Moncrieff:  Page 339 “He went to her only in the evenings…” through page 356 “and precipitated Swann’s fall from grace.”



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Davis:  216-230; Moncrieff:  294-314

by Dennis Abrams

A year before his first visit to the Verdurins’, Swann heard the Sonata for Piano and Violin, and responds to one particular phrase that “led him first this way, and then that, towards a state of happiness that was noble, unintelligible, and yet precise.”  Music and memory.  “It even seemed, for a moment, that this love for a phrase of music would have to open in Swann the possibility of a sort of rejuvenation.”  Swann hears the phrase again at the Verdurins’ “And it was so particular, it had a charm so individual, which no other charm could have replaced, that Swann felt as though he had encountered in a friend’s drawing room a person whom he had admired in the street and despaired of ever finding again.”  Swann learns that the piece is by a composer named Vinteuil, and dismisses the possibility that it is the same Vinteuil who teaches piano at Combray.  Swann reveals that he knows people in high places.  Dr. Cottard’s reaction.  Swann, Odette and the music.  “…the little phrase by Vinteuil that was like the anthem of their love.”  Swann and the young working girl in his carriage.  Swann has tea at Odette’s home.  Oriental furnishings and chrysanthemums.


In his book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom discusses Proust in a chapter entitled “Proust:  The True Persuasion of Sexual Jealousy.”    I thought this might be a good time to begin sharing with you some of Bloom’s thoughts on the subject, to consider and keep in mind as we read deeper into “Swann in Love.”

In Search of Lost Time (herein called Search for short), which, unfortunately may always be known in English by the beautiful but misleading Shakespearean title, Rememberance of Things Past, actually challenges Shakespeare in its powers of representing personalities.  Germaine Bree observed that Proust’s personages, like Shakespeare’s, resist all psychological reductions.  Again like Shakespeare, Proust is a master of tragicomedy:  I wince as I laugh, but I have to agree with Roger Shattuck that the comic mode is central to Proust because it allows him representational distance in exploring the then partly forbidden matter of homosexuality.  Because of Proust’s preternatural comic genius, he also rivals Shakespeare at portraying sexual jealousy; one of the most canonical of human affects for literary purposes, handled by Shakespeare as catastrophic tragedy in Othello and near-catastrophic romance in The Winter’s Tale.  Proust gives us three magnificent sagas of jealousy:  the ordeals, in sequence, of Swann, Saint-Loup, and Marcel (I will call him Marcel, even though the Narrator gives him that name only once or twice in the enormous novel).  These three tragicomic, obsessive anguishes are only one strand in an encyclopedic work, yet Proust, like Freud, can be said to join both Shakespeare and the Hawthorne of The Scarlet Letter in confirming the canonicity of sexual jealousy.  It is hell in human life but purgatorial splendor as materia poetica.  Shelly affirmed that incest was the most poetical of circumstances; Proust teaches us that sexual jealousy may be the most novelistic.

In 1922, the year of Proust’s death (he was just fifty-one), Freud published a powerful, brief essay on sexual jealousy, “Certain Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality.”  There is an opening association between jealousy and grief, and Freud assures us that persons who seem not to manifest these two universal affects have undergone severe repression, so that jealousy and grief become even more active in the unconscious.  With grim irony, Freud divides jealousy into three parts:  competitive, projected, delusional.  The first is narcissistic and Oedipal, the second imputes to the loved one a guilt, whether real or imagined, that belongs to the self; the third, over the border into paranoia, takes as its usually repressed object someone of one’s own sex.  As is cutomary with Freud, the analysis is highly Shakespearean, though more in the mode of The Winter’s Tale, which Freud did not mention, than in the tragic darkness of Othello, where Freud once specifically located projected jealousy.  Leontes in The Winter’s Tale almost systematically works through Freud’s three varieties of jealousy, Proust’s three grand cases of jealousy leap over the normal or competitive variety, dally briefly with the projected sort, and center themselves ferociously in the delusional mode.  But Freud is Proust’s rival, not his master, and the Proustian account of jealousy is very much Proust’s own.  Applying Freud to Proust on jealousy is as reductive and misleading as analyzing Search‘s vision of homosexuality in a Freudian way.”


The reading for the weekend:

Davis:  Page 230 “A second visit he made to her…” through Page 248 “…but possessed by another.”

Moncrieff:  Page 314 “More important, perhaps, was a second visit he paid her a little later.” through Page 339 “…but himself in thraldom to another.”

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Happy Thanksgiving!

I wasn’t planning to post anything for Thanksgiving — WAY too much cooking to do.   But one of our fellow readers, Patricia Nelson, sent this to me and it was too good, and too timely,  not to share.

Some Thanks for Great Translations

Thanks and praise for great translations. I am grateful for William Weaver’s translations of postwar Italian writing, especially Elsa Morante’s great novel History:  A Novel, Gregory Rabassa’s Garcia Marquez, for the extraordinary pleasure of rereading Anna Karenina in the Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky translation, for Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate translated by Robert Chandler, Francis Steegmuller’s Flaubert, Kathleen Raine’s Honore de Balzac, Edith Grossman’s Cervantes. Nabokov translating himself! Even our own language closes to us over time, but we have Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, John Gardner’s Gawain poet, David Wright’s Canterbury Tales. I’m fascinated by texts that are somehow magnets for translation: Rilke translated by Edward Snow, Stephen Mitchell, Robert Hunter; Sappho  by Mary Barnard, Willis Barnstone, Anne Carson; Han Shan by Red Pine, Burton Watson, Gary Snyder. None of us in our Babel can reach very far alone, but great translation is the gift of a very deep contemporary reading, fluency in cultural nuance, brilliant interpretation and the rather miraculous and gracious service to the text which great translators bring.

Richard Sieburth (who translates Walter Benjamin into English, Ezra Pound into French etc) recommended Lydia Davis to Penguin for our translation of Swann’s Way. Sieburth says of Davis’s Proust: “As a translator she is sort of wry and understated and so was Proust. This is the Proust that Beckett was writing about as opposed to the Moncrieff, which was almost flowery. This is minimalist, highly wry and understatedly comic. Lots of people underestimate just how funny Proust is.” (NYT 12/05/03)

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Davis:  204-216; Moncrieff:  277-294

by Dennis Abrams

Odette de Crecy continues to visit Swann.  Swann’s unfinished study of Vermeer.  Odette takes Swann to the Verdurins’.  Dr. and Mme. Cottard:  “Dr. Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to answer someone, whether the person addressing him wanted to make a joke or was serious.”  The Verdurins’ fear of bores.  Swann’s politeness.  Mme. Verdurin on her high Swedish chair of waxed pine.  The Sonata in F-sharp.  Mme. Verdurin’s appreciation of her couch.


An observation.  As much as one is amused by Odette’s response to Swann’s interest in Vermeer, “You’re going to make fun of me, but that painter who keeps you from seeing me –” (she meant Vermeer) “I’ve never heard of him; is he still alive?  Can I see any of his things in Paris…”, one should not take that as a sign of deficient cultural awareness.   As Eric Karpeles points out in the introduction to his book, Paintings in Proust, Vermeer’s “now-indelible images were then only slowly emerging from obscurity.”  He went on to add,

“In the era of Swann’s Way, only a very small circle of cognoscenti would have recognized the name, let alone have been able to identify a work from the hand of Vermeer.  Writing about the Dutch painter, art historian Lawrence Gowing discerned ‘a poetry of brick and vapour, resistance and penetration, a complex pattern of feeling in which the attraction of the tangible world and a rejection of it were at last reconciled.’   With equal conviction, he could have been describing the work of Marcel Proust.”

There will be much more discussion on Vermeer and his influence on Proust in future posts.


Thanksgiving Schedule:

Reading for Wednesday and Thursday:

Davis:  Page 216 “The year before, at a soiree…” through Page 230 “…I would not have let you have it back.”

Moncrieff:  Page 294 “The year before, at an evening party…” through Page 314 “I should never have let you have that back.”

I’ll post again on the morning of Friday, November 27th.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving everybody!

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Davis:  195-204  Moncrieff:  265-277

by Dennis Abrams

The “little circle” of the Verdurins.  Mme. de Crecy (Odette), a demimondaine and member of the “little circle”, meets Swann.  Swann’s interest in women outside his class.  His first impression of Odette:  “…she had seemed to Swann not without beauty, certainly, but of a type of beauty that left him indifferent, that aroused no desire in him, even caused him a sort of physical repulsion, one of those women such as everyone has his own, different for each, who are the opposite of the kind our senses crave.”  Odette visits Swann.  “At an earlier time one dreamed of possessing the heart of the woman with whom was in love; later, to feel that one posseses a woman’s heart may be enough to make one fall in love with her.”


Congratulations all.  We’ve made it through the Combray section, and are now entering Swann in Love, Proust’s first in-depth exploration of love, sex, and the comedy of jealousy.  Plus, we met one of Proust’s most memorable characters, the ever so formidable Mme. de Verdurin.  All in all, perfect holiday reading.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’d like to add the thoughts of a few noted writers on the subject of the scene we read over the weekend of the three steeples.

In his book The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, Howard Moss devotes an entire chapter to the theme of steeples.  After discussing the scene we just read, as well as a later scene when, driving in a carriage with his grandmother near the town of Hudimesnil, Marcel spys three trees and is overwhelmed by a sense of happiness that he relates to the steeples of Martinville, Moss writes:

“The three steeples and the three trees carry a double-weighted meaning.  They each produce a happiness like those Marcel experiences when he has an involuntary memory.  Yet, in the first case, he takes pleasure in the moving objects themselves and in the mystery they conceal; the steeples tell him that time and space may be different from his consciousness of them.  They do not lead him back to any past experience.  In the second case, though the trees remind him of something, he is unable to dredge up any specific memory.  Both the steeples and the trees are tantalizing suggestions of essences sealed up in matter, essences whose meaning Marcel cannot quite discover.  Moreover, the steeples and the trees are directly linked to Marcel’s evolution as a writer.  His great relief, after he sees the steeples, comes from writing a short descriptive essay.  In describing the incident at Hudimesnil, he makes a revealing statement:  ‘that pleasure, the object of which I could but dimly feel, that pleasure which I must create myself…’

The surfaces of reality hold imprisoned something more real than themselves.   The name, the word, the thing — none is sufficient.”


Nabokov in his Lectures on Literature, had this to add on the subject of the essay that Marcel wrote after watching the visual dance of the three steeples:

“Proust now does a most interesting thing:  he confronts the style of his present with the style of his past.  Marcel borrows a piece of paper and composes a description of these three steeples which the narrator then proceeds to reproduce.  It is Marcel’s first attempt at writing and it is charming although some of the comparisons, such as those of the flowers and the maidens, are made deliberately juvenile.  The comparison comes, however, between the steeples which the narrator has just described from his later vantage point and Marcel’s literary attempt, which is surface description without the significance for which he was groping when he first experienced the sensation of these steeples.  It is doubly significant that writing this piece ‘relieved my mind of the obsession of the steeples.’


Today’s reading:

Davis:  Page 204 “Odette de Crecy came to see Swann again…” through page 216 “This is why:”

Moncrieff:  Page 277 “Odette de Crecy came again to see Swann…” through page 294 “…for the following reason.”

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Davis:  pages 178-191; Moncrieff:  pages 245-264

by Dennis Abrams

The marriage of Dr. Percepied’s daughter.  Marcel sees the Duchess de Guermantes.  A pimple at the corner of her nose.  “So that’s Mme. de Guermantes — that’s what she is, that’s all she is!”  But Marcel reunites her with her past: “Glorious since before Charlemange, the Guermantes had the right of life and death over their vassals; the Duchesse de Guermantes is a descendant of Genevieve de Brabant.  She does not know, nor would she consent to know, any of the people here.”  Her gaze meets Marcel’s and he, once again, falls in love.  The perception and perspective of the three steeples.  His first writing.   “And so the Meseglise way and the Guermantes way remain for me linked to many of the little events of that life which, of all the various lives we live concurrently, is the most abundant in vicissitudes, the richest in episodes, our intellectual life.” We end back where we started, with Marcel in bed, arranging and rearranging his mental landscape.


So much to think about and love in this section.  I  find myself reading and re-reading Marcel’s first “encounter” with Mme. de Guermantes, his description of the steeples and his need to write about his experience, and finally, his realization of the importance that the memories of Combray held throughout his life:  “When on summer evenings the melodious sky growls like a wild animal and everyone grumbles at the storm, it is because of the Meseglise way that I am the only one in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the smell of invisible, enduring lilacs.”  What an extraordinarily evocative and beautiful line.

In our weekend’s reading, the Guermantes theme develops as Marcel watches (always the watcher) the duchess at the wedding of Dr. Percepied’s daughter.  And, we see another example of the idea of “Proust’s complaint,” as the reality of the Duchesse de Guermantes collides with Marcel’s dreams of her:

“Suddenly during the wedding service, a movement made by the verger as he shifted his position allowed me to see, sitting in a chapel, a blond lady with a large nose, piercing blue eyes, a full tie of smooth, shiny, new mauve silk, and a little pimple at the corner of nose.”  (I love that little extra note of the pimple.)  “…I was very disappointed.  My disappointment came from the fact that I had never noticed, when I thought of Mme. de Guermantes, that I was picturing her to myself in the colors of a tapestry of a stained-glass window, in another century, of a material different from that of other living people.  I had never realized that she might have a red face, a mauve tie like Mme. Sazerat, and the oval of her cheeks reminded me so much of people I had seen at our house that the suspicion touched me, dissipating immediately, however, that this lady, in her generative principle, in all her molecules, was perhaps not essentially the Duchesse de Guermantes, that instead, her body, unaware of the name applied to it, belong to a certain female type that also included the wives of doctors and shopkeepers.  ‘So that’s Mme. de Guermantes — that’s what she is, that’s all she is’ said the attentive and astonished expression with which I contemplated an image of course quite unrelated to those which under the same name of Mme. de Guermantes had appeared so many times in my daydreams…” (Davis)

Yet despite his initial disappointment, Marcel is able to rebuild his image of her, by carefully linking her to her noble ancestry.  “And as my gaze stopped at her blond hair, her blue eyes, the fastening of her collar, and omitted the features that might have reminded me of other faces, I exclaimed in front of his sketch, deliberately incomplete:  ‘How beautiful she is!  How noble!  What I see before me is indeed a proud Guermantes and a descendant of Genevieve de Brabant!'”  (Davis)

And then, with one glance, “Recalling then, the gaze she had rested on me during the Mass, as blue as a ray of sunlight passing through Gilbert the Bad’s window, I said to myself:  ‘Why, she’s actually paying attention to me.’ I believed that she liked me, that she would still be thinking of me after she had left the church, that because of me perhaps she would be sad that evening at Guermantes.  And immediately I loved her…Her eyes turned as blue as a periwinkle which was impossible to pick, yet which she had dedicated to me; and the sun, threatened by a cloud but still beating down with all its strength on the square and in the sacristy, gave a geranium flesh tint to the red carpets that had been laid on the ground for the solemnities and over which Mme. de Guermantes advanced smiling, and added to their woolly weave a rosy velvet, an epidermis of light, the sort of tenderness, the sort of grave sweetness amid pomp and joy that characterize certain pages of Lohengrin, certain paintings by Carpaccio, and that explain why Baudelaire was able to apply to the sound of the trumpet the epithet delicious.  (Davis)

I’m willing to work my way through any number of pages of descriptions of flowers growing on the banks of the Vivonne for the extraordinary pleasure of reading and re-reading passages like those I quoted above.


In tomorrow’s post, I’m going to have some things to say about the steeple scene from the weekend’s reading, which I think is a crucial passage; but I’d like to close today,as we begin reading “Swann in Love,”  with a quote from Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature on the final paragraphs of the Combray section of Swann’s Way.

“The Combray part of the volume, which is about his childhood impressions, ends with a theme that started in the beginning — the reconstruction of his room in Combray, in which he would lie awake at night.  In later life, when lying awake he would feel himself back in this room:  ‘All these memories, following one after another, were condensed into a single substance, but it had not coalesced completed, and I could discern between the three layers (my oldest, my instinctive memories, those others, inspired more recently by a taste or ‘perfume,’ and those which were actually the memories of another, from whom I had acquired them second hand) not fissures, not geological faults, but at lest those veins, those streaks of colour which in certain rocks, in certain marbles, point to differences of origin, age, and formation.”  Proust is here describing three layers of impressions:  (1) simple memory as a deliberate act; (2) an old memory stirred by a sensation in the present repeating a sensation in the past; and (3) memorized knowledge of another man’s life, though acquired at second hand.  The point is again that simple memory cannot be relied upon to reconstruct the past.

The Combray section has been devoted to Proust’s first two categories; it is the third that is the subject of the second main section of the volume, entitled “Swann in Love,” in which Swann’s passion for Odette leads to an understanding of Marcel’s for Albertine.”


Today’s reading, where we shall meet the dreaded Verdurins:

Davis:  Page 195 “To belong to the “little set,”…through Page 204 “…in the passage where she is waiting for us.”

Moncrieff:  Page 263 “”to admit you to the ‘little nucleus,”…through Page 277 “without hesitation at the appropriate passage.”


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For the weekend’s bonus posting, I’d like to share some more excerpts from Malcom Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars, continuing yesterday’s excerpt on the subject of time.

“From first word to last, Proust’s novel is about time.  Everyone says so, including Proust himself.  Within the dense texture of the narrator’s soliloquy, the theme rings out clamourously.  Inside his accustomed voice, there is a time voice — urgent, serious, elevated, expansive, and given to sudden bursts of semi-philosophical speculation — whose sound is fashioned, as telephone voices are, by a sense of occasion and a need to impress.  The passage of human time is a deadly business, the narrator often reminds his reader, and if the tide of meaning is ever to turn again from ebb to flow the individual must hold himself in readiness to seize time’s wonders.  Time is no laughing matter.  It is the fundamental enigma of living substance, and the artist who solves it has indeed found the philosopher’s stone”


“…What is more, Proust’s plot, while having many strands and many denouements, turns upon a central temporal conundrum to which, in the end, after countless diversions and delays, a convincing answer is found.  On the first page of the novel, Proust takes aim at a very remote target, and with devastating accuracy he eventually strikes it.  In due course, time will be redeemed.  A lost past will be recovered, and the dying creature’s messianic hopes will be fulfilled.”


“…Time matters to the book precisely becuase it is a ‘big’ controlling theme, calls forth an impressive philosophical diction, and offers a satisfying narrative architecture.  His last word (‘Temps’) distills an immutable quintessence from the imperfect world of temporal process to which his first word (‘Longtemps’) had referred…

…The problem, however, is that time as presented by the narrator in his abstractly philosophizing vein is too big for the ordinary time-bound business of reading Proust.  The more instructive time becomes as an overall structuring idea, the more likely it is to disappear from the fabric of individual sentences and paragraphs.  Yet it is here, down among Proust’s intricate propositional structures with their outrageous embeddings, suspensions and redundancies, that his boldest pieces of temporal architecture can be found.  Already in the second sentence of the book, his grammatical building materials are beginning to acquire a promising elasticity:  “Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself:  “I’m falling asleep”‘  Two time-scales are in force at once here, and these set ‘real’ against ‘virtual’ time, things that happened against things that might have happened but did not.  A proposition belong to one time-world nests inside a proposition belong to another, and between them a galvanic spasm passes.”


Bowie goes on to quote Theodor Adorno, from his “Short Commentaries on Proust”

“In Proust, however, the relationship of the whole to the detail is not that of an overall architectonic plan to the specifics that fill in:  it is against precisely that, against the brutal untruth of an subsuming form forced on from above, that Proust revolted.  Just as the temperament of his work challenges notions about the general and the particular and gives aesthetic force to the dictum from Hegel’s Logic that the particular is the general and vice versa, with each mediated through the other, so the whole, resistant to abstract outlines, crystallizes out of intertwined individual presentations.  Each of them conceals within itself constellations of what ultimately emerges as the idea of the novel.   Great musicians of Proust’s era, like Alban Berg, knew that living totality is achieved only through rank vegetal proliferation.  The productive force that aims at unity is identical to the passive capacity to lose oneself in details without restraint or reservation.  In the inner formal composition of Proust’s work, however — and it was not only on account of its long, obscure sentences that Proust’s work struck the Frenchmen of his time as German — there dwells, Proust’s primarily optical gifts notwithstanding and with no cheap analogy to composition intended, a musical impulse.  It is evidenced most emphatically in the paradox that Proust’s great theme, the rescue of the transient, is fulfilled through it’s own transience, time.”


And, finally, Bowie again:

“What I shall be proposing is that the ‘rank vegetal proliferation’ of Proust’s text is the most puzzling and rewarding site for his experiments with time, and that the transient materials which Proust accumulates and adroitly manipulates sentence by sentence as his long tale unfolds are pregnant with meaning of a particularly uncomfortable sort.  Such details not only make the overview difficult to achieve but tell a story about time that is alarmingly at odds with the official story told by Proust’s narrator in his didactic moods.”


Enjoy your weekend all,


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Davis:  Pages 169-178; Moncrieff:  Pages 233-245

by Dennis Abrams

Walking along the Guermantes way.  The Vivonne, water lilies.  The remains of the chateau of the old Counts of Combray.  A young woman burying herself in the ‘vacation house,’  “One sensed that, in her renunciation, she had deliberately withdrawn from places where she might at least have glimpsed the man she loved, in favor of these places which had never seen him.”  The Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes imagined as figures in a tapestry.  The linking of de Guermantes and Combray.  Marcel’s dreams of Mme. de Guermantes lead to the realization that he wants to be a writer, but needs a subject.  The powers of Marcel’s father.


While the last few pages, with its look at Marcel’s feelings for Mme. de Guermantes, his first hint to us that he wants to be a writer, and his faith in his father’s abilities to make everything all right are wonderful, I have to admit that the long description of the walk itself, at least for me, was fairly rough going.  I found myself, probably for the first time in the book so far, wishing that Proust would just get on with it.   But then, after reading the following passage in Malcom Bowie’s book Proust Among the Stars, in which he finds more meaning in one single sentence than I would have imagined possible, I found myself forced to reconsider my position.

“The narrator describes the Vivonne at the moment when its stream begins to accelerate on emerging from the grounds of a local property:

‘How often I have watched, and longed to imitate when I should be free to live as I chose, a rower who had shipped his oars and lay flat on his back in the bottom of his boat, letting it drift with the current, seeing nothing but the sky gliding slowly by above him, his face aglow with a foretaste of happiness and peace!’ (Moncrieff, et al)

The overall design of the plot may be absent from this sentence, but the underlying emotional teleology of the book is not.  The narrator describes his earlier childhood self as driven by an imagined future beatitude.  Once the shackles of parental supervision have been untied, he will enjoy the free exercise of his desires and bask negligently in each new-found bliss.  Literary ambition already has a part to play in thie quest.  Just as Dante hastened to rejoin Virgil when he strode on ahead of him in the Inferno (XXIII, 145-8, so I, the narrator has just announced, would run to catch up with my parents on the towpath.  And Virgil’s destiny later in the Commedia, we may remember, was to be left behind…Such references are common in these early stages of the novel, and one happy vision of the future certainly involves a free and self-replenishing literary creativity, to be exercised perhaps on a Dantesque scale.  But what is striking about this sentence is not so much its pre-echo of a later outcome as its choice in the hear-and-now of a hard path towards ‘happiness and peace.’

At least three time-scales are present.  The oarsman sinks back languorously after hard work with arms and legs; the narrator enjoys himself when he is finally able to break free from a constraining family; and Proust’s sentence arrives at its final visionary affirmation after much syntactic travail.  No problem arises from the fact that two futures — ‘his’ and ‘mine’ — are being narrated simultaneously, nor from their being consigned to an epoch that is already long past at the moment of narration:  we regularly consult other people’s hopes in order to understand our own, and will readily own that our past was as future-driven as our present now is.  The problem — and the pleasurableness — of sentences on this model lies in their insistent intermixing of past, present and future…

The temporality of Proust’s sentence is insistently heterogeneous:  moment by moment, the flow of time is stalled, and unpacked into its backward- and forward-looking ingredients.”


The weekend’s reading:

Davis:  178, “One day my mother said to me…” through 191 , “by the raised finger of the dawn.”  (The end of the section entitled “Combray.)

Moncrieff:  245, “One day my mother said to me:…”through 264, “by the uplifted forefinger of dawn.”


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Davis, pages 158-169; Moncrieff 217-233

Autumn walks.  The inadequacy of expressing one’s feelings.  The desire for a woman to emerge from the countryside.  The relationship between M. Vinteuil’s daughter and her lover.


The contrast between Marcel’s description of his walks along the Meseglise way, and his longing for a woman, who both symbolizes and summarizes the landscapes he both loves and imagines, and the scene of sado-masochistic love between Vineteiul’s daughter and her girlfriend, never fails to shock.


A few favorite passages, from the Davis translation.

“Most of the supposed expressions of our feelings merely relieve us of them in that way by drawing them out of us in an indistinct form that does not teach us to know them.  When I try to count up what I owe to the Meseglise way, the humble discoveries for which it was the fortuitious setting or the necessary inspiration, I recall that it was that autumn, on one of those walks, near the bushy hillock that protects Montjouvain, that I was struck for the first time by this discord between our impressions and their habititual expression.”

“And it was at that moment, too — because of a countryman who was passing by, who seemed rather cross already and was more so when my umbrella nearly went in his face, and who responded without warmth to my “fine weather, isn’t it, perfect for a walk” — that I learned that the same emotions do not arise simultaneously, in a preestablished order, in all men. ”

“I could believe this all the more readily…because I was, and would be for a long time to come, at an age when one has not yet abstracted this pleasure from the posession of the different women with whom one has tasted it, when one has not reduced it to a general notion that makes one regard them from then on as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same.  This pleasure does not even exist, isolated, distinct and formulated in the mind, as the aim we are pursuing when we approach a woman, as the cause of a previous disturbance that we feel.  We scarcely even contemplate it as a pleasure which we will enjoy; rather, we call it her charm; for we do not think of ourselves, we think only of leaving ourselves.  Obscurely awaited, immanent and hidden, it merely rouses to such a paroxysm, at the moment of its realization, the other pleasures we find in the soft gazes, the kisses of the woman close to us, that it seems to us, more than anything else, a sort of transport of our gratitude for our companion’s goodness of heart and for her touching predilection for us, which we measure by the blessings, by the beautitude she showers upon us.”

“…I no longer believed that the desires which I formed during my walks, and which were not fulfilled, were shared by other people, that they had reality outside of me.  They now seemed to me no more than the purely subjective, impotent, illusory creations of my temperament.  They no longer had any attachment to nature, to reality, which from then on lost all its charm and significance and was no more than a conventional framework for my life, as is, for the fiction of a novel, the railway carriage on the seat of which a traveler reads it in order to kill time.”


Regarding the extraordinary scene between Mlle. Vinteuil and her lover, once again, we have the young Marcel as voyeur, watching their mutual seduction through a window, following a scene as described by Howard Moss, “in which Marcel yearns to seduce a peasant girl — one who will be a kind of extension of the countryside itself, a female avatar of the local ground, a precurser to the spectral landscapes locked up in the bodies of Gilberte, the Duchesse, and Albertine…A serious relationship between sex and art is being established, for it is through his love for his daughter, and the misery her lesbian attachment causes him, that Vinteuil, a country tunesmith — our virst impression of him — is transformed into a great composer.”

And as Nabokov elaborates on it, while a young Marcel watched through a window “and saw old Vinteuil lay out a sheet of music — his own music — so as to catch the eye of his approcahing visitors…Some eighty pages lager the narrator is again hidden among the shrubs and again watches the same window.  Old Vinteuil by then has died.  His daughter is in deep mourning.  The narrator sees her place her father’s photograph on a little table, with the same gesture as when her father had prepared that sheet of music.  Her purpose, as it proves, is a rather sinister, sadistic one:  her lesbian friend insults the picture in preparation of their making love.  The whole scene, incidentally, is a little lame from the point of view of actions to come, with the eavesdropping business enhancing its awkwardness.  Its purpose, however, is to start the long series of homosexual revelations and revaluations of characters that occupy so many pages in the later volumes and produce such changes in the aspects of various characters.  Also, later, the possible relations of Albertine with Vinteuil’s daughter will become a form of jealous fixation for Marcel.”


Today’s reading:

Davis:  Page 169 “If it was fairly simple to go the Meseglise way…” through page 178 “…the qualms of his conscience.”  Moncrieff, page 233 “if the Meseglise way was fairly easy…” through page 245 “…is gnawed by secret remorse.”





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Davis:  146-158; Moncrieff:  201-216

by Dennis Abrams

Leonie realizes she will never again see Tansonville.  Marcel’s attempts to get his parents to talk about the Swanns, to say their names.  Hawthorns.  M. Vieuntil’s daughter and her relationship with an older female friend becomes the talk of Combray.  M. Vieuntil’s shame.  Stepping out of the rain during rainy walks onto the porch of Saint-Andre-des Champs.  The death of Aunt Leonie and Francoise’s grief.  Marcel’s attempts to anger Francoise.


With the death of Leonie, we are at the end of the first part, or perhaps the first movement of Swann’s Way.  For the first 150 pages of the book, Leonie, as Nabokov describes her, is the “center in the web from which radiants go to the garden, to the street, to the church, to the walks around Combray, and every now and then back to Aunt Leonie’s room.”  But now, with her death, which rates just a casual mention, “…during the autumn in which we had to come to Combray to settle my aunt Leonie’s estate, because she had at last died…” Marcel’s world will begin to expand further and further away from his childhood paradise — the garden at Combray.

I’d like to expand on this for a moment, with several excerpts from the poet Howard Moss’ book, The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust.

Hawthorn Blossoms

“If, like a botanist, one were to search through Remembrance of Things Past for flowers, one would be surprised at the size of the bouquet.  Swann’s way is a country of lilac and hawthorn; hawthorn, particularly, is to be the flower that reminds Marcel of Combray.  Its pink exquisite version is found on the way to Swann’s house, and it is also a religious flower, whose white species not only decorates the church of Saint-Hillaire at Combray during festivals but ‘arranged upon the alter itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose celebrations it was playing a part, it thrust in among the tapers and sacred vessels its rows of branches.”

“Just as the madeleine dipped in tea — a tiny garden image in itself, for the tea consists of lime blossoms steeped in water — is the magic potion from which all of Combray is to be released, so Aunt Leonie’s garden, so real originally, becomes that ideal ground, the perpetual springtime of childhood.

We have three gardens to begin with:  the one attached to Aunt Leonie’s house; the hawthorn and lilac along the Meseglise way; and the water-lillies and violets that perfume the Vivonne along the Guermantes way.  About each of these gardens, the three ‘families’ cluster:  Marcel’s, Swann’s, and the Guermantes’s.  They are all Combray, and around that magic land, that garden from which a child is expelled — in the same way that Adam was expelled from the garden of Eden, and for much the same reason — a universe began to expand, as magical in its embodiment as the genie escaping from the bottle.”

“Tiny as Aunt Leonie’s garden is, it includes a Gethsemane.   Swann’s ringing of the garden gate bell — a sound which is to re-echo throughout all of Remberance of Things Past — carries the sound of doom to Marcel.  It means he will be sent to bed early; his mother will forego his good-night kiss, that kiss upon which all his security and well-being depend…Watching Swann, his mother, and his father in the garden through his window, waiting for his mother to relieve him of his agony, he becomes a spy, the watcher whose beloved object is kept under surveillance until what he must irrationally possess becomes his.  The full flowering of the implications of this incident is elaborated in his love for Albertine, five volumes lter, but here, at the very beginning, we have all the precipitating influences which will determine Marcel’s emotional life.  Since there is no security in a possession based on anxiety, the act must be repeated over and over again.  Love is not a choice but a desperate reassaurance, and the greatest power love has is the cessation of anxiety.”


Please share your thoughts and opinions regarding this, as well as anything else you’d like to say about  the book so far.   And again, to all lurkers, please don’t be shy — we want to know what you think!

Today’s reading:

Davis:  page 158 “My walks that autumn were all the more pleasant..” through page 169 “…is the terrible and lasting form assumed by cruelty.”

Moncrieff:  pge 217 “My walks, that autumn, were all the more delightful…” through page 233 “is the most terrible and lasting form of cruelty.”

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