Moncrieff: 163-176; Grieve: 120-129
by Dennis Abrams
Mme Swann invites Marcel to a luncheon party. “Mme Swann seldom missed an opportunity of adopting any of those customs which are thought fashionable for a season, and then, failing to catch on, are presently abandoned…” Mme Swann leaves a card for Marcel, who “felt at once so much pride, emotion and gratitude that, scraping together all the money I possessed, I ordered a superb basket of camellias and sent it round to Mme Swann.” Arriving at the luncheon, the butler hands Marcel a thin oblong envelope, not knowing what to do with it, he puts it in his pocket unopened. Marcel is introduced to Bergotte, and is confronted by a “youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man, with a red nose curled like a snail-shell and a goatee beard. Marcel’s disappointment at the reality of Bergotte, who does not seem like the kind of man who had written the books Marcel loved so much. “Names, no doubt, are whimsical draughtsmen, giving us of people as well as places sketches so unlike the reality that we often experience a kind of stupor when we have before our eyes, in place of the imagined, the visible world (which, for that matter, is not the real world, our senses being little more endowed than our imagination with the art of portraiture — so little, indeed, that the final and approximately lifelike pictures which we manage to obtain of reality are at least as different from the visible world as that was from the imagined.” Sitting at the table for lunch, each male guest finds a “carnation, the stalk of which was wrapped in silver paper, ” to be placed in their buttonholes. Bergotte’s manner of speaking compared to his writing style. Bergotte’s pronunciation, his siblings.
Of course Marcel was disappointed at meeting Bergotte. How could he not be? Bergotte was the writer most important to him, the one who opened up new possibilities of what a writer could do with words. Like seeing La Berma for the first time, there was no way that the reality could live up not only to his expectations, but to the image he had created of Bergotte through Bergotte’s writing.
The luncheon scene and more about Bergotte continues in Wednesday’s reading, so I thought this might be a good time to discuss briefly the real writer that Proust is thought to have modeled him on.
From the novelist and short-story writer William Sansom’s short (and highly recommended) biographical sketch of Proust.
“At eighteen, at Mme Arman de Caillavet’s, he met Anatole France, and in him the beginnings of his writer-character Bergotte. France was physically disappointing, an example of life not living up to imagined expectations, and echoing a favourite theme that to travel is better than to arrive.”
And, to continue a bit, from Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide
“Although Bergotte’s written works are referred to throughout the seven volumes of the novel, we are never given any direct quotes or outlines of his plots. In some ways we know less about his actual books than we do the music of Vinteuil or the paintings of Elstir. Norpois and Legrandin suggested that his writings were decadent, fin-de-siecle symbolism, perhaps in the style of Huysman’s A Rebourse. Certainly he was a stylist, using words and images in a harmonious manner and Marcel speaks of his books in terms more evocative of a poet than a novelist.
Although a compilation of several writers, including Proust, Bergotte was most closely based upon Anatole France. France was already a distinguished author when he befriended the eighteen year old Proust at the salon of Mme Arman de Caillavet. Not only did Anatole France have a red nose ‘curled like a snail shell’ and a goatee beard, but the hero of his tetraology, ‘L’Historie contemporaine‘ was named Bergotte. France wrote a preface to Proust’s first book Les Plaisirs et les Jours in 1896 and he also worked with himon the ‘Petition des Intellectuals’ in defense of Zola during the Dreyfus Affair.”
Now, does it matter if the fictional Bergotte was perhaps inspired by the real-life Anatole France? Not in the least. Bergotte is not Anatole France — he is a fictional character, created and brought to life by Marcel Proust. Is it interesting that France may have been the inspiration for Bergotte? Certainly, but, at least in my opinion, nothing more than that. While it may be interesting to know the real-life inspirations for Proust’s characters (and keep in mind that they are Proust’s characters), and I will point them out when necessary, the idea that whole books are written looking for the real-life counterparts to Proust’s creations strikes me as besides the point all together.
Moncrieff: Page 176 “There were other characteristics of his elocution…” through Page 188 “…stop her before she went to far.”
Grieve: Page 130 “Other features of his diction…” through Page 138 “…something to say behind hers.”