Moncrieff: 85-98; Grieve: 63-75
by Dennis Abrams
Gilberte returns to play in the Champs-Elysees, and reveals to Marcel of her mother and father that, “You know, they can’t stand you!” Marcel writes a sixteen page letter to Swann, who doesn’t trust his intentions,to try and change his mind; but Gilberte reveals that his response was simply “All this means nothing: it only goes to prove how right I was.” While waiting for Francoise outside the public “water-closet,” Marcel notices that its “cool, fusty smell,” brings him pleasure he does not understand; later he recognizes that the smell reminded him of his uncle Adolphe’s sitting-room at Combray, but still does not understand his happiness. Marcel “wrestles” with Gilberte to gain possession of his letter to Swann, and achieves his first orgasm. “I felt, like a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyse: immediately I snatched the letter from her.” Marcel becomes ill, has what seems to be asthmatic attacks, and is treated by his parents with alcohol, much to his grandmother’s unhappiness. Not responding, Marcel is visited by Dr. Cottard who prescribes “Purges, violent and drastic purges: milk for some days, nothing but milk. No meat. No alcohol.” Marcel’s parents resist the treatment, but when Marcel’s health deteriorates, they follow his prescription to the letter: “In three days my rattle and cough had ceased, I could breathe freely…And we realised that this imbecile was a great physician.”
For some time now, there has been much discussion regarding exactly what age Marcel and Gilberte are supposed to be at this stage of the book. Now that we’ve read the “emission” scene, I can safely post a response to this question that I received from Eric Karpeles, the author of Paintings in Proust.
“My answer to your question is 14– but– and in any attempt to pin down Proust there is ALWAYS a but– Marcel and Gilberte are also as young as 13 and as old as 16. That is quite a spread of years. But think about what we have just read. We have just had described for us sexual behavior in two adolescents ranging from the entirely innocent to the shockingly graphic. In one passage Marcel is acting like a baby boy in a little sailor suit with his nanny in tow, in another he is voraciously thrusting himself upon a young female and experiences the unexpected thrill of his first coupling orgasm. Yes, dear reader, in case you missed it, in 1913 this brief “emission” was buried in the text and must have been astonishing to those who knew it for what it was.