Monceiff: 98-108; Grieve: 73-80
by Dennis Abrams
Marcel receives a letter from Gilberte, saying that “…my friends come to tea here every Monday and Friday. Mamma askes me to tell you it will be a great pleasure to us all if you will come too as soon as you are well again…” Marcel’s nervous system receives the news of his happiness before his mind registers it. “Happiness, happiness through Gilberte, was a thing I had never ceased to think of, a thing wholly in my mind…” The unexplainable miracle of the letter. Marcel realizes it happened because, one day when Bloch and Dr. Cottard were visiting him, Bloch mentioned that he had been told by a lady friend of his that Mme. Swann was very fond of Marcel. And while this wasn’t true (they had never met), Dr. Cottard, who was Mme Swann’s doctor, used the information to assure Odette that he, too, knew Marcel, who was a charming young man and a great friend of his as well. “Thus at length I came to know that house from which was wafted even onto the staircase the scent that Mme Swann used, but which was more redolent still of the peculiar, disturbing charm that emanated from the life of Gilberte.” Tea parties with Gilberte and her friends. Marcel allows special attributes to the Swann’s staircase.
Before taking our New Year’s break, I wanted to share with you three sections from poet Howard Nemerov’s study of Proust, The Oak in the Acorn.
The first paragraph discusses a section we’ve already read: the very beginning of “Mme. Swann at Home,” beginning with having Norpois to dinner, the discussion of the fall of Swann’s reputation and the rise of Cottard’s, the brief history of Norpois’ career, Marcel’s continued unhappiness at Gilberte’s absence from the park, Marcel’s attempt to write something to impress Norpois, his doctor’s advice not to allow him to see La Berma, his parent’s subsequent permission and Marcel’s reflections on whether or not he should go if it makes his mother unhappy, ending with “The doors will be closed at two o’clock.” Nemerov uses this ten pages to look at Proust’s narrative art:
“So. Ten pages have been taken up in a way that no self-respecting novelist ought to do, with reflections on people who are not even to appear in the scene when it gets going (Swann, Cottard), with multiple comparisons, interventions of strange materials, digressions. And yet in this style they are not digressions, they are the action itself. Somewhat as in Shakespeare’s strange and wonderful Troilus and Cressida, the ways in which the action for the most part defers itself and gets lost turn out to be the action.
This is so because for Proust there is almost no such thing as the present; we live only in anticipation and memory, most of our days on earth, and the other names for anticipation and memory are desire and regret. It is anxiety, on the one hand, and remorse, on the other, that are able to unfold whole complex worlds from a single instant, and this — how imagination makes reality before experiencing it, and later tries for the most part vainly to put the two together — is Proust’s real subject: artistic vision, artistic creation, in themselves.”
The following paragraph was written to reflect on the scene of Marcel attending La Berma’s performance of Phedre, and the subsequent dinner with Norpois:
“…you can see something of Proust’s remarkable differences from other novelists. He rarely aims at a single effect, that’s one thing, and when Marcel aims at a single effect (to get M. de Norpois to speak of him to Odette), he fails, as usual. And yet the whole scene, composed of so many elements, has a coherency of its own, and this is partly because, as I observed before, the novel has already become its own memory, and ours as well.
This is so simple a point that it might easily be overlooked; yet it is odd. In most sorts of fictional narrative it would be out of place for the author, even through the voice of a character, to do literary criticism. As Stendhal said of introducing politics, it would be like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. Only there is this difference, that the literary criticism here is of Bergotte, who is already a character in the novel. As the world of the book gradually expands from the room in Combray to take in paris and the great world of society, it does so particularly by this echoing, resonant, returning method, whereby people and their doings are considered from a good many points of view; and by these intermittences and returns Proust is imperceptibly building in our own minds the idea of his world as always enlarging yet always self-contained: it is not too much to say that one law of his composition is this: no matter how exclusive the people — such as Oriane, whose theme song is that she “simply doesn’t know” this one, that one and the other one — everyone in this book either knows everyone else or will know everyone else.”
And finally, Nemerov’s look at Proust’s portrait of Norpois:
“Then there is the figure of Norpois himself, who dominates the action, or inaction, for three-fifths of the time. He is the Polonius of the novel, “full of high sentence, but a little obtuse,” shrewd, short-sighted, pompous, complacent, and drawn with marvelous art. In general, however broad the comic treatment of some of the persons, there is a great subtlety in Proust’s knack of getting their style of talk — when he comes to exhibit (and for a hundred pages or so) the wit of the Guermantes, you observe how neatly Oriane’s examples of the celebrated wit are just witty enough to pass for miraculous in her circle even while they are just plain not witty enough for the reader to be drawn into that circle.
In the midst of the high comedy involved in the presentation of Norpois before the admiration of the father, the suppressed and deferential skepticism of his mother, the deadpan naivety of Marcel as foil to all this, and even before Francoise’s estimate of him on grounds rather of age than of his position as ambassador (“He’s a good old soul, like me,” she says), much that is serious and dark is also going forward. For in the devastating portrait of this old man, this old politician, is also a savage critique of worldliness, of stupidity in power, of the corruption of language liberated from the restraining influence of thought, of the hopelessly triumphant smugness that was all unconsciously leading the nations of Europe into madness during the couple of decades between the Dreyfus case and the World War; for real-life imitations of Norpois you might well look at Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.
This will be my final post until Monday, January 4th. Since it’s a holiday weekend, and to let everybody catch-up, I’m going to “assign” a fairly light reading for the rest of the week.
Moncrieff: Page 108 “Gilberte’s girl friends were not all plunged…” through Page 134 “…should suspect the existence of this new love.”
Grieve: Page 80 “Not all of Gilberte’s other guests were so tipsy…” through Page 99 “…to keep his wife in ignorance of his new affair.”
And…a very happy and healthy new year to all of you. Thank you all again for being part of the experience.