by Dennis Abrams
Davis 33-48/Moncrieff 44-64
It was an eventful, essential, fifteen or so pages. Mama gives in to Marcel and ends up spending the night reading him George Sand’s Francois le Champi (The Country Waif), an early Saint’s Day gift from his grandmother. (I love the fact the grandmother, whose earlier purchases of Rousseau and Sand’s far racier novel Indiana had been rejected by Marcel’s father, goes out on a burning hot day to exchange them for four of Sand’s pastoral novels instead, telling Mama “I could not bring myself to give the boy something badly written.”)
And, of course, we read one of the most famous scenes in all of literature: the dipping of the madeleine.
I’ll discuss the madeleine scene in greater detail in my weekend post. For today, I’d like to explore the scene of Mama’s capitulation, a scene which, according to Roger Shattuck, sets into motion one of the main elements of Marcel’s character, his idea of an “infirmity in my nature.”
As the Narrator recalls the scene:
Davis: “It seemed to me that my mother had just made me a first concession which must have been painful to her, that this was a first abdication on her part from the ideal she conceived for me, and that for the first time she, who was so courageous, had to confess herself beaten.”
Moncrieff: “It struck me that my mother had just made a first concession which must have been painful to her, that it was a first abdication on her part from the ideal she had formed for me, and that for the first time she who was so brave had to confess herself beaten.”
Shattuck from Proust’s Way: “We are dealing again, I believe, with a quirk of mind that begins very early in the story as a kind of contrariness, of perverseness in a spoiled boy.
As a child in Chombray, Marcel goes to Machiavellian lengths to lure his mother up to his bedroom to say good night when she should be downstairs attending to her guests. The scene is justly celebrated, for it sets the novel in motion and anticipates many themes to be developed later. The close of the incident brings its most revealing moment. When finally his mother does come, Marcel’s father indulgently persuades her to spend the night in Marcel’s room and read him to sleep — thus compromising her principles and her authority. Marcel cannot cope with so great a success and inwardly reverses himself: ‘If I had dared to now, I would have said to maman: ‘No, I don’t really want you to, don’t sleep here with me.’
From this seed will grow a vine of constructive experience, a veritable tree of forbidden knowledge. In a letter to the Princesse Bibesco, Proust generalized the same reaction. ‘A sensation, no matter how disinterested it may be, a perfume, or an insight, if they are present, are still too much in my power to make me happy.'”
Shattuck calls this “Proust’s Complaint.” It is a theme we will see throughout the book, as “His very presence discredits, in his own eyes, whatever he does. After the most elaborate efforts, he attains goals that turn out to be valueless — precisely because he has reached them.”
We will discuss this in greater depth as we proceed. In the meantime, now that we’ve made our way through the introductory chapter — what’s your reaction so far? Is it what you thought it would be, or something completely different?
And to all you lurkers out there — share your thoughts and ask questions!
For the weekend’s reading: Beginning of Chapter Two through to the line “but…I am doing so in my heart…” — Davis, pages 49-68, Moncrieff et al., 65-91.