Moncrieff: 325-336; Grieve: 240-247
by Dennis Abrams
Marcel takes the train to Balbec-Plage with his grandmother, and does not let her know his disappointment with the church at Balbec. The names of the stations along the way sound “outlandish, whereas if I had come upon them in a book I should at once have been struck by their affinity to the names of certain places in the neighbourhood of Combray.” Marcel does not do well when he arrives at the hotel, embarrassed by his grandmother’s haggling over the cost, alarmed by the newness and difference of everything surrounding him, comparing it to both Dante’s Paradise and Hell. Waiting for his grandmother, Marcel explores the area around the hotel. “I was astonished to find that there were people so different from myself that this stroll through the town had actually been recommended to me by the manager as a diversion, and also that the torture chamber which a new place of residence is could appear to some people a ‘delightful abode,’ to quote the hotel prospectus, which might exaggerate but was none the less addressed to a whole army of clients to whose tastes it must appeal.” Marcel takes the lift to his room at the top of the hotel, but is unable to to relax. “I was tormented by the presence of some little bookcases with glass fronts which ran along the walls, but especially by a large cheval-glass which stood across one corner and before the departure of which I felt there could be no possibility of rest for me there…Having no world, no room, no body now that was not menaced by the enemies thronging round me, penetrated to the very bones by fever, I was alone and longed to die. Then my grandmother came in and to the expansion of my constricted heart there opened at once an infinity of space.” Marcel is soothed by his grandmother, who tells him, “And be sure to knock on the wall if you want anything in the night. My bed is just on the other side, and the partition is quite thin. Just give a knock now, as soon as you’re in bed, so that we shall know where we are.”
I’m struck once again (and how can one not be?) by Marcel’s “agelessness.” That the same…young man?…who goes to prostitutes also needs his grandmother’s love and familiarity in order to relax and calm himself in a new environment.
Last night, one of our fellow readers posted the following question:
?I’m just wondering why this entire section is called “Place Names – The Place.” It’s the same name, I believe, as the last section in Swann’s Way. There it made sense, since a big chunk of it discussed place names. It seems this section should just be called “Balbec” or something?”
An excellent question. Howard Moss discusses this very topic in his book The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust. (Before I give you the excerpt, I do want to point out that in “Swann’s Way” the section is called “Place Names – The Name,” and in Within a Budding Grove it’s called “Place Names – The Place.”
“If there is a duality in the viewpoint of the novel (Marcel, the observer; Marcel, the observed), in its structure (the two ‘ways’), and its theme (the problem of a reality equally perceptible in the opposed dimensions of the microscope and the telescope, the present and the eternal), there is also a duality in its subject matter in plain terms of human consciousness. And that is the important distinction Proust makes between ‘the name’ and ‘the place’ — or, more appropriately, ‘the thing’ — for this distinction bears, finally, upon everything. In the Proustian universe, nothing is what it first appears to be: there is a prevision that attached itself to the mere names of places, people, and events. this early vision is pre-verbal — not involved with the word per se but the sound of the word.
To a child names are magical sounds that precede and then identify objects of reality. these must, of necessity, be in the immediate vicinity: familial figures, domestic objects, personal effects. (This childhood fascination with sound is repeated when Marcel is an adult in his descriptions of the cries of the street hawkers of Paris, the names of the railway stops on the ‘little crawler’ that connects Balbec with Douville, and his interest in the etymology of place names and titles.) The magic of a sounded word identifying object is in direct proportion to the distance of the object, for, imagination intervening, the object may be shaped to the sound in any number of fantastic ways. Thus, though it is his mother’s kiss that Marcel excruciatingly needs, the sound of the word ‘Swann’ has more magic than the word ‘mother.’ Swann is at a further remove. Phantasy, conjecture, and reverie are fed by the partially known, the barely glimpsed, the overheard. Need, physical and direct, is too painful to be magical and carries no sound. Desire, mental and distant, admits of any possibility. Venice and Parma sound all depths. Francoise is in the kitchen.
The sense of place is never disinterested. Wherever one is seems permanently fixes; wherever one is not is invested with glamour. Both notions are illusory. The sense of place merely precedes the sense of dislocation. The security of Combray produces the romance of Balbec, the boredom of Balbec the excitement of Venice. Susceptibility is the key to interest.
Before Marcel sees Balbec he imagines it as a stormy, northern coast of mist and cold, on the edge of which a church built in the Persian style is perched. This notion comes to him from Swann, who acts, for Marcel, as a kind of sinister travel agent, imbuing foreign places with the phantasies of nostalgia rather than the limitations of fact. When Marcel arrives at Balbec, he makes a pilgrimage to the church before he gets to the town proper, and finds it in a square as pedestrian as the one at Combray. A sign across the street reads ‘Billiards’. Balbec itself is a bustling seaside resort with a grand hotel. Actuality contends with the hauanted coastline of the imagination, the exotic image of the Persian church.
Obstructed by a vision he created out of the sound of words, Marcel misses also something of the reality before him. In a typical Proustian twist, Elstir, in a later scene, explaining the carvings of the Balbec church to Marcel, confirms the presence of a Persian sculpture that Marcel failed to see:
‘Some parts of it are quite orinetal; one of the capitals reproduces so exactly a Persian subject that you cannot account for it by the persistance of oriental traditions. The carver must have copies some casket brought from the East by explorers.’
Place, then, is one of the first instigators of expectation and, as such, one of the cornerstones of disenchantment. It is merely one link in a chain of similar circumstances. Marcel’s notion of what Berma’s performance of Phedre will be like is utterly different from what he sees. Around the billboard announcing the presentation of the play, Marcel constructs his own performance. The real thing disappoints him; it takes him years to discover the true nature of Berma’s genius. Similarly, the railway time-table is, in Swann’s Way, ‘the most intoxicating romance in the lover’s library.’ by the time we get to the second volume of Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gomorrah), Marcel can say ‘in the time-table itself, I could have consulted the page headed: Balbec to Douville via Doncieres with the same happy tranquility as a directory of addresses.'”
In Proust’s world, inevitably, the ‘thing’ or ‘place’ becomes separated from ‘the name.’
I’m going to be out of town January 21 through the 25th, to celebrate (as it were) my 50th birthday. My next post will be for the morning of Tuesday, January 26th.
A long weekend’s reading:
Moncrieff: Page 336 “And, sure enough, that evening…” through Page 371 “…had become a friend of the person who heated it.”
Grieve: Page 247 “So, that evening, I did give three knocks…” through Page 273 “…a friend of the man whose job it was to heat it.”