Moncrieff: 311-325; Grieve: 230-240
by Dennis Abrams
Told by his doctor to “take a stiff dose of beer or brandy at the moment of departure, so as to begin the journey in a state of what he called ‘euphoria,'” Marcel proceeds to get drunk, and finds pleasure in all parts of the train ride, telling his grandmother how comfortable the train was, how friendly the attendants and barman were, and how much he’d like to make the journey often so as to have the pleasure of seeing them again. Marcel’s grandmother, however, is not amused by his ‘euphoria,’ “…she did not appear to be quite so overjoyed at all these good tidings. She answered, without looking me in the face: ‘Why don’t you try to get a little sleep?’ and turned her eyes to the window…” The letters of Mme de Sevigne. After accompanying his grandmother to her friend’s house, Marcel returns to take the train to Balbec alone, and, perhaps surprisingly, “I found nothing to distress me in the night which followed; this was because I did not have to spend it imprisoned in a room whose somnolence would have kept me awake; I was surrounded by the soothing activity of all those movements of the train which kept me company…” Marcel watches the sunrise from the train, “running from one window to the other to reassemble, to collect on a single canvas the intermittent, antipodean fragments of my fine, ever-changing morning, and to obtain a comprehensive view and a continuous picture of it.” When the train stops at a small rural station, Marcel falls briefly in love with a tall girl going from window to window selling coffee and milk, and is able to do so partially because “…completely unrelated to the models of gbeauty which I was wont to conjure up in my mind when I was by myself, this handsome girl gave me at once the taste for a certain happiness (the sole form, always different, in which we may acquire a taste for happiness), for a happiness that would be realised by my staying and living there by her side.” and, no longer in a familiar place, Habit had ceased to exist, allowing him to see things differently. Marcel arrives: “I read the name — almost Persian style — of Balbec.” Marcel’s vision of the church versus the reality. The Virgin of Balbec, now “transformed, as was the church itself, into a little old woman in stone whose height I could measure and whose wrinkles I could count.” “And casting the blame for my disappointment upon various accidental causes, such as the state of my health, my exhaustion after the journey, my incapacity for looking at things properly, I endeavored to console myself with the thought that other towns still remained intact for me…”
How could Marcel not be disappointed at his initial view of the church, given how he had built it up (with help from M. Swann) in his imagination?
“I strode buoyantly through the station and across the avenue that led up to it, and asked the way to the shore, so as to see nothing in the place but its church and the sea. People seemed not to understand what I meant. Old Balbec, Balbec-en-Terre, at which I had arrived, had neither beach nor harbour. True, it was indeed in the sea that the fishermen, according to the legend, had found the miraculous Christ, a discovery recorded in a window in the church a few yards away fro me; it was indeed from cliffs battered by the waves that the stone of its nave and towers had been quarried. But this sea, which for those reasons I had imagined as coming to expire at the foot of the window, was twelve miles away and more, at Balbec-Plage, and, rising besides its cupola, that steeple which, because I had read that it was itself a rugged Norman cliff round which the winds howled and the sea-birds wheeled, I had always pictured to myself as receiving at its base the last dying foam of the uplifted waves, stood on a square which was the junction of two tramway routes, opposite a cafe which fore, in letters of gold, the legend ‘Billiards,’ against a background of houses with the roofs of which no upstanding mast was blended.”
One isn’t sure whether to laugh at Marcel’s mistake, or cry at his disappointment. The sign bearing the legend ‘Billiards’ is the ultimate touch.
In Andre Aciman’s collection of essays The Proust Project, Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, wrote about Proust’s depiction of the train trip to Balbec. I’d like to share part of it with you.
“The Proust that has always most appealed to me is the ‘intimate’ Proust, by which I mean the Proust who describes small, unheroic aspects of experience that other authors rush past in their hurry to construct a plot: the sensation of linen against your cheek, the smell of hotel corridors, the appearance of the sky by the seashore. Pages are lavished on these small moments. Proust is often thought of as a quintessentially nineteenth-century author, but I enjoy the number of modern experiences he describes: the sound of car gears changing, the sight of a plane in the sky, a conversation with a phone operator. Going on a train is something that all of us do, but that most novelists have sketched it only in the broadest strokes. We’ve all heard the train wheels beat against the wheels, but it takes Proust to rescue the sound from our customary inattention and to pin it down in words that carry over the emotional charge of the original experience. The value of Proust’s novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own but could not have formulated on our own. An effect of reading a book that has devoted attention to noticing such faint yet vital tremors is that once we’ve put the volume down and resumed our life, we may attend to precisely the things which the author would have responded to had he or she been in our company. Our mind will be like a radar newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness. The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity.”
Moncrieff: Page 325 “I found my grandmother…” through Page 336 “…so that we shall know where we are.”
Grieve: Page 240 “I did meet my grandmother…” through Page 247 “…we’ll see how easy it is to communicate.”