Archive for February, 2010

Moncrieff:  692-710; Grieve:  505-518

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel makes a show of preferring Andree to Albertine.  “I arranged in this way to have her entirely to myself every evening, not with the intention of making Albertine jealous, but of enhancing my prestige in her eyes, or at any rate not imperiling it by letting Albertine know that it was herself and not Andree that I loved.”   Marcel feigns indifference in meeting Mme Bontemps, Albertine’s aunt, although he secretly asks Eltsir to introduce them.  Andree’s knowledge that Marcel loves Albertine, and her unhappiness at that fact.  Albertine tells Marcel that she’ll be spending the night in the Grand Hotel alone, “…and in fact as I’ve got a bit of a cold I shall be going to bed before dinner.  You can come and sit by my bed and watch me eat if you like, and afterwards we’ll play at anything you choose…”  Marcel’s excitement at coming to Albertine’s room, “Then suddenly I reflected that I was wrong to be in any doubt; she had told me to come when she was in bed.”  But, when Marcel makes his move, “Stop it or I’ll ring the bell!’ cried Albertine, seeing that I was flinging myself upon her to kiss her.  But I told myself that not for nothing does a girl invite a young man to her room in secret,arranging that her aunt should not know…Albertine’s round face, lit by an inner flame as a night-light, stood out in such relief that, imitating the rotation of a glowing sphere, it seemed to me to be turning, like those Michelangelo figures which are being swept away in a stationary and vertiginous whirlwind.  I was about to discover the fragrance, the flavour which this strange fruit concealed.  I heard a sound, abrupt, prolonged and shrill.  Albertine had pulled the bell with all her might.”  One week later Albertine tells Marcel “I forgive you; in fact, I’m sorry to have upset you, but you must never do it again.”  With that, Marcel abandons hope of being loved by her, and decides to transfer his feelings to one of Albertine’s friends, perhaps Andree first of all.  We learn that Albertine spends a few weeks every year with the family of one of the Governors of the Bank of France, who was also Chairman of the Board of Directors of a railway company — this fact impresses Andree’s mother to no end, as well as the other middle-class social climbing families of their circle.  Albertine finds herself popular beyond her wishes, and attempts to please others while at the same time winning favor for herself.  In this way she’s very similar to Norpois, “And often at the Ministry he would make use of my father, who was a simple soul, while making him believe that it was he, M. de Norpois, who was being useful to my father.”


1.  The comedy of the kiss.  For Marcel, once again, disaster.  Who is misreading who?  Is Albertine leading Marcel on?

2.  And again, on the topic of misreading.  I was struck by Octave’s statement explaining why Mme De Villeparisis complained that someone hit her in the face during a game of diabolo while Mme de Cambremer did not:  “I’ll explain the difference, replied Octave gravely, striking a match as he spoke.  “It’s my belief that Mme de Cambremer is a society lady, and Mme de Villeparisis is just an upstart.”  Mme de Villeparisis, a true aristocrat, an upstart, while Mme de Cambremer, Legrandin’s sister, who while seeming to be “somebody” in Balbec is a nobody in Paris, is a “society lady.”  Appearances, appearances, appearances.

3.  And finally, the events in Berkeley on the 24th, Eric Karpeles’ talk on “Proust, Paintings, and the Making of A la recherche du temps perdu,” in which he brilliantly showed to a standing room only crowd, in words and pictures, how Proust transformed his visual experiences into words;  followed by a concert of the music that inspired Vinteuil’s sonata;  followed by a “Proustian” inspired dinner (and an inspired dinner it was) at Chez Panisse, was an evening to remember.  And, it was great meeting and spending time with Robin and Judy — two of our more prolific posters.  Thank you both for being there, and for helping to make The Cork Lined Room an ongoing discussion of Proust.

The Weekend’s Reading:

The same for both translations:  This weekend, we finish reading Within a Budding Grove, and on Monday we’ll start Volume Three, The Guermantes Way.  I promise that this is a volume to treasure:  drama, witty dialogue, and parties galore.

Enjoy the rest of Within a Budding Grove.  And enjoy your weekend.


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Moncrieff:  680-692; Grieve:  496-505

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel plays a game of “ferret” (also called “hunt the slipper,” or, in the Grieve translation, “ring-on-a-string.”) with the band of girls and others.  Marcel’s fascination with Andree’s hands and then Albertine’s hands.  “The act of pressing Albertine’s hand had a sensual sweetness which was in keeping with the pink, almost mauve colouring of her skin.  This pressure seemed to allow you to penetrate into the girl’s being, to plumb the depths of her senses, like the ringing of her laughter, indecent in the way that the cooing of doves or certain animal cries can be…If the arbitrary code of good manners had replaced the hand-shake by some other gesture, I should have gazed, day after day, at the untouchable hands of Albertine with a curiosity to know the feel of them as ardent as was my curiosity to learn the savour of her cheeks.”  While Marcel contemplates and observes Albertine, certain that she’s taking advantage of the game to let him know she likes him, he spoils the game, angering her.  “People shouldn’t play if they won’t pay attention and spoil the game for others.  We shan’t ask him again when we’re going to play, Andree, or else I shan’t come.”  Andree, to console Marcel, takes him for a walk to the Creuniers, the scene that Elstir had painted.  Along the way, the hawthornes that the two walk through stir a childhood memory in Marcel.  Andree’s kindness to Albertine, and to Marcel.  Marcel works to make certain that Albertine doesn’t know he loves her.  “For one thing, the avowal, the declaration of my passion to her whom I loved no longer seemed to be one of the vital and necessary stages of love, nor love itself an external reality, but simply a subjective pleasure.  And I felt that Albertine would do what was necessary to sustain that pleasure all the more readily if she did not know that I was experiencing it.”

An excerpt from a marvelous book I’m reading, The Proustian Community by Seth L. Wolitz

“Having known his first love in Paris, Marcel sets out for his first fabled city, Balbec, which he will visit twice in his career.  Balbec wil disappoint him, for whoever has been to a French resort bordering the English Channel knows how tame the area appears.  Just as the steeple of Combray attracted Marcel, so the first thing he must see in Balbec is the Persian church — and it is no Taj Mahal.  External reality continues to erode the dream.

Marcel finally settles in the Grand Hotel of Balbec.  This hotel parallels Aunt Leonie’s house as a symbol.  Marcel’s life is spent coming and going from it, and the building serves as the social center of the resort.  It contains every level of society, each member of which is trying either to climb or to fend off an arriviste.  The building’s very location is symbolic — like Balbec it is on the shore, where land meets sea as well as where bourgeoisie and aristocracy merge.  Here Marcel meets Mme de Villeparisis and Saint-Loup.  In Balbec Marcel enters into his first real love affair with Albertine and makes his first attempt at social climbing.  But the trip to Balbec offers a third alternative:  Art.  The visit to the studio and home of Elstir is one of the great moments in the book.  In Elstir’s painting of Carquethuit Marcel learns how mistaken his view of life had been until then.  There are no distinct separate worlds but a blending of elements into a totality:  ‘no fixed boundary between earth and ocean.’

The rides into the country in Mlle de Villeparisis’ carriage extend the limits of the geographical world for Marcel.  Proust also develops an interesting parallel between this carriage ride, with the sudden memory evoked by the three trees, and the ride in Dr. Percepied’s carriage, when Marcel saw the steeples.  He saw both at the extreme outskirts of the little worlds of Combray and Balbec, and both memories revealed to Marcel that seemingly distinct worlds can be combined into one.  Proust had Marcel experience the two memories at the frontiers of these two worlds to symbolize the greater world which he must yet discover within himself.”

I’ll be in Berkeley on Wednesday the 24th, returning home to Houston on the 25th, so my next post won’t be until Thursday night/Friday morning.

Wednesday and Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 692 “In the week the followed…” through Page 710 “…who was being useful to my father.”

Grieve:  Page 505 “Throughout the following week…” through Page 518 “…while letting him think he was being of use to him.”


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Moncrieff:  669-680; Grieve:  489-496

by Dennis Abrams

Albertine gets a pencil from Andree, a piece of paper from Rosamunde, and writes Marcel a brief note:  “I like you.”  Albertine praises Gisele’s examination essay on the theme “Sophocles, from the Shades, writes to Racine to console him for the failure of Athalie.”  Andree patiently explains to Albertine what she would do differently in the essay, but all Marcel can think about is the fact that Albertine likes him.  Marcel has all the signs that are characteristic of being in love, yet, “Such for me was this state of love divided among several girls at once.  Divided, or rather undivided, for more often than not what was so delicious…was rather the whole of the group of girls, taken as they were all together on those afternoons on the cliffs, during those wind-swept hours, upon the strip of grass on which were laid those forms, so exciting to my imagination, of Albertine, of Rosemonde, of Andree; and that without my being able to say which of them it was that made those scenes so precious to me, which of them I most wanted to love.”  Marcel’s perception of the girls is not yet dulled by familiarity.  “No doubt this astonishment is to some extent due to the fact that the other person on such occasion presents some new fact; but so great is the multiformity of each individual, so abundant the wealth of lines of face and body, so few of which leave any trace…”  “And this inevitable astonishment is not the only one; for side by side with it comes another, born of the difference, not now between the stylisations of memory and the reality, but between the person whom we saw last time and the one who appears to us to day from another angle and shows us a new aspect.”  The faultiness of memory.


1.  To continue Proust’s examination of memory, I was struck by this passage:

“But to a great extent our astonishment springs from the fact that the person presents to us also a face that is the same as before.  It would require so immense an effort to reconstruct everything that has been imparted to us by things other than ourselves — were it only the taste of a fruit — that no sooner is the impression received than we begin imperceptibly to descend the slope of memory and, without realising it, in a very short time we have come a long way from what we actually felt.  So, that every fresh glimpse is a sort of rectification, which brings us back to what we in fact saw.   Already we no longer had any recollection of it, to such an extent does what we call remembering a person consist really in forgetting him.”

I suspect Proust is on to something here.  (Of course, I’m of the mind that Proust is nearly on to something whatever he is talking about.)  Try this.  Picture in your mind’s eye someone close to you, someone you love, maybe even your partner or someone you live with.  Really try to picture them in great detail.  How complete a picture is it?  If you’re like me, even picturing my partner, the picture is rather vague, changing…nebulous.  But when you see them again in person, the outlines, the shadows are filled in.


And a question for the group.  Proust devotes several pages to Albertine and Andree’s analysis of Gisele’s exam report.  I’m sure there’s some larger purpose here (besides having the opportunity to get a little dig in at the critic Saint-Beuve), but for the life of me, I’m just not seeing it.   Any takers?


Tuesday’s Reading

Moncrieff:  Page 680 “As for the harmonious cohesion…” through page 692 “…rich in expected surprises, which is romance.”

Grieve:  Page 496 “The various waves of feeling…” through Page 505 “…which is romantic readiness.”


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Moncrieff:  636-669; Grieve:  464-489

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel asks Andree if he can see her again the next day, but she lies and says she had to stay with her sick mother.  “Although this falsehood was of no real significance since Andree knew me so slightly, I ought not to have continued to seek the company of a person who was capable of it.   For what people have once done they will go on doing indefinitely…”  Albertine is compared to Giotto’s “Idolatry.”  Marcel meets Gisele, the girl “whose expression I had thought so cruel when I heard her say:  ‘Poor old boy, I do feel sorry for him,'”  Based on her handshake, smile, and confiding eyes, Marcel makes plans to run away with Gisele.  “And yet, what would she have thought of me had she known that I had hesitated for a long time between her and her friends, that quite as much as with her I had contemplated falling in love with Albertine, with the girl with the bright eyes, with Rosemonde.”  Marcel meets the rest of the girls, and began to spend all of his time with them.  Watching the girls, Marcel gets hints of what is to come.  “Alas!  in the freshest flower it is possible to discern those just perceptible signs which to the instructed mind already betray what will, by the desiccation or fruitification of the flesh that is today in bloom, be the ultimate form, immutable and already predestined, of the autumnal seed…Human faces seem not to change while we are looking at them, because the revolution they perform is too slow for us to perceive it.  But one had only to see, by the side of any of these girls, her mother or her aunt, to realize the distance over which, obeying the internal gravitation of a type that was generally frightful, these features would have traveled in less than thirty years, until the hour when the looks have begun to wane, until the hour when the face, having sunk altogether below the horizon, catches the light no more.”  Marcel, wanting to spend all of his time with the girls, neglects Mme de Villeparisis, Elstir, and even Saint-Loup.   Rainy days are spent in the casino, where Marcel joins the gang of girls in their games, tricks, and contempt for the Ambresac sisters.  Andree’s kindness to Marcel.  Similarities between Albertine and Gilberte, “that is because a certain similarity exists, although the type evolves, between all the women we successively love…”  Andree’s generosity towards Albertine.  Through Elstir’s eyes, Elstir’s art, Marcel views Balbec in an entirely new light, willing to accept the existence of modern life, of yachts, and women with parasols in his view of the sea.  Albertine and Andree’s contempt for Bloch’s sisters:  “‘I’m not allowed to play with Israelites’….’Besides, they’re shocking bad form, your friends’, said Andree with a smile which implied that she knew very well that they were no friends of mine.  ‘Like everything to do with the tribe,” added Albertine, in the sententious tone of one who spoke from personal experience.”  But Marcel adds, “To tell the truth, Bloch’s sisters, at once overdressed and half naked, with their languid, brazen, ostentatious, slatternly air, did not create the best impression.”  The admiration of Bloch’s fifteen year old cousin for Mlle Lea, “whose talent as an actress M. Bloch senior rated very high, but whose tastes were understood not to be primarily directed towards gentlemen.”  Picnics and games at Marie-Antoinette farm.  Marcel’s friendship with Marcel causes him “to be cosily preserved from solitude, nobly desirous of sacrificing myself for him, in short incapable of realising myself.  With the girls, on the other hand, if the pleasure which I enjoyed was selfish, at least it was not based on the lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone and prevents us from admitting that, when we chat, it is not longer we who speak, that we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people and not of a self that differs from them.”   Marcel is charmed by the girls’ ways of speaking.

1.  I was struck and bemused by Marcel’s brief infatuation with Gisele.  Based on nothing, Marcel decides that she loves him and wants to be with him, and he can certainly fall in love with her, and then, in a brief sentence “except Gisels, whom, owning to a prolonged delay at the level crossing by the station and a change in the time-table, I had not succeeded in meeting on the train, which had left some minutes before I arrived, and to whom in any case I never gave another thought” is immediately forgotten.  The absolute fickleness and arbitrariness of love.  Of course, to confess, I know of myself as well that based on as little as a smile and a look, I’m quite capable of behaving in a similar fashion.

2.  I do find myself constantly disturbed by Marcel’s (or is it the Narrator’s?) feelings about friendship.   I suspect what disturbs me is that when Marcel says things about friendship such as “…at least it was not based on the lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone and prevents us from admitting that, when we chat, it is no longer we who speak, that we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people and not of a self that differs from them,” that he is right.  Are in essence alone?  Is friendship a distraction from ourselves?

3.  If any of you are in the San Francisco area, I’m going to be in Berkeley this Wednesday the 24th attending Eric Karpeles’ lecture at UC Berkeley on Paintings in Proust, to be followed by a concert of the music that inspired Vinteuil’s sonata, followed by a Proustian inspired dinner at Chez Panisse.  I’ll be writing about it both for The Cork-Lined Room and for our sponsor, Publishing Perspectives.  The lecture and concert are free, so if any of you are in the area, I hope you can attend — I have a feeling it’s going to be great.  Here’s the basics:

Talk by Eric Karpeles:  5:00, Townsend Center for the Humanities, Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley Campus

A musical interlude of passages that inspired the Vinteiul sonata, 6:30, 125 Morrison Hall, UC Berkley Campus.

Additional information needed?  510-643-9670

Monday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 669 “Now and then a pretty attention…” through Page 680 “…or singing-masters as of a draughtsman.”

Grieve:  Page 489 “Now and then one or another of the girls…” through Page 496 “…or a singing teacher as of a draftsman.”


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Weekend Miscellany

by Dennis Abrams

I don’t normally post on weekends (I figure I’ve given you more than enough to read during the week), but I had a couple of things to say that didn’t really fit into the normal week’s schedule.

1.  A reminder that not everybody is as enamored of Proust as our community is.  I’ve been reading H.G. Wells’ autobiography (research for a biography I’m writing), and came across this paragraph, in which  he is comparing his literary tastes to those of his second wife:

“We belonged to different schools.  Her admiration for Katherine Mansfield, for instance, was unbounded while my appreciation was tempered by a sense of that young woman’s limitations; and she had a leaning towards Virginia Woolf, whose lucubrations I have always regarded with a lack-lustre eye.  She liked delicate fantasy after the manner of Edith Sitwell, to whom I am as appreciatively indifferent as I am to the quaint patterns of old chintzes, the designs on dinner plates or the charm of nursery rhymes.  Again, she found great interest in Proust who for me is far less documentary and entertaining than, let us say, Messrs. Shoolbred’s catalogue of twenty-years ago, or an old local newspaper, which is truer and leaves the commentary to me.”

2.  On our sponsor’s website, http://publishingperspectives.com/, there was a recent article about what could become a new trend:  literary masterpieces turned into videogames.  The evidence?  Dante’s Inferno:  the game.


So my question to you is this:  How would you turn In Search of Lost Time into a videogame?

Enjoy your weekend!

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Moncrieff:  625-636; Grieve:  457-464

by Dennis Abrams

Walking with Marcel, Albertine talks with Octave, a young man carrying a bag of golf clubs, and a self-professed “wash-out,” but does not introduce him to Marcel.  “Come, come, she exclaimed, “I can’t introduce you to a gigolo!  This place simply swarms with them!  but what on earth would they have to say to you?”  (Interestingly, Grieve translates “gigolo” as “lounge lizard.”)  Marcel and Albertine encounter Bloch, who Marcel does not introduce to Albertine.  Bloch informs Marcel that he is going to go to Doncieres to see Saint-Loup, but Marcel is far too interested (or obsessed) in Albertine and her friends to consider making the trip.  Albertine admits that Bloch is “not a bad-looking boy…but he makes me feel quite sick.”  And then, “When I told her on this first day that his name was Bloch, she exclaimed:  ‘I would have betted anything he was a Yid.  Typical of their creepy ways.”  Marcel is not sure whether his conversation means anything to her, “without being any more conscious of where my words were falling, of what became of them, than if I were dropping pebbles into a bottomless pit.”   Albertine’s hardness, insensitivity, and rudeness for anyone outside of her little group.   Marcel meets Andree, the tall one “who had jumped over the banker…”  The sisters d’Ambresac.  Albertine praises Mme Elstir’s dress, “She’s very simply turned out, I admit, but she dresses wonderfully, and to get what you call simplicity costs her a fortune.”  From Elstir, Albertine’s taste in clothing and art has improved, but not yet her taste in music, evidenced by her enthusiasm for Cavalleria Rusticana.  Albertine explains that in her group of friends, “Andree, I must say,  is remarkably clever.  She’s a good girl, though perfectly weird at times, but the others are really dreadfully stupid.”


What struck me from this section (besides the realization that both Albertine and Bloch have friends that they are embarrassed of) was this paragraph, which relates closely to one I cited yesterday.

“That our words are, as a general rule, filled by the people to whom we address them with a meaning which those people derive from their own substance, a meaning widely different from that which we had put into the same words when we uttered them, is a fact which is perpetually demonstrated in daily life.”

If the way we see and understand other people can’t be trusted, if our very words are bound to be misinterpreted by the people we’re trying to communicate with…


The Weekend’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 636 “When I had left Albertine…” through Page 669 :…a vague dazzlement that had spread from brain to eyes.”

Grieve:  Page 464 “As soon as Albertine had gone…” through Page 489 “…an unfocused daze of the delighted eyes.”

Enjoy your weekend.  And enjoy.

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Moncrieff:  615-625; Grieve:  450-457

by Dennis Abrams

My apologies for the late post — I thought I had published this last night, but obviously it didn’t go up.

Marcel arrives at Elstir’s party, doesn’t immediately recognize Albertine.  Marcel eats a strawberry tart and a coffee eclair, postponing his introduction to Albertine.  “But so far as the pleasure was concerned, I was naturally not conscious of it until some time later, when, back at the hotel, and in my room alone, I had become myself again.  Pleasure in this respect is like photography.   What we take, in the presence of the beloved object, is merely a negative, which we develop later…”  “As I drew closer to the girl and began to know her better, this knowledge developed by a process of subtraction, each constituent of imagination and desire giving place to a notion which was worth infinitely less, a notion to which, it is true, there was added presently a sort of equivalent, in the domain of real life, of what joint stock companies give one, after repaying one’s original investment, and call dividend shares.”  “Confronted with the common-place and touching Albertine to whom I had spoken that afternoon, I still saw the other mysterious Albertine outlined against the sea. ”  Albertine’s beauty mark.  Marcel’s disappointment at not yet meeting the other girls in the gang.


I love this paragraph:  for me, it’s one of those moments reading Proust when all I can do is nod and say to myself “of course.”

“Thus it can be only after one has recognised, not without some tentative stumblings, the optical errors of one’s first impression that one can arrive at an exact knowledge of another person, supposing such knowledge to be ever possible.  But it is not:  for while our original impression of him undergoes correction, the person himself, not being an inanimate object, changes his part too:  we think that we have caught him, he shifts, and when we imagine that at least we are seeing him clearly, it is only the old impressions which we had already formed of him that we have succeeded in clarifying, when they no longer represent him.”

What does this quote leave you with?  Do you think it’s accurate?  And if it is (and I think that it is), what does it mean when it comes to all of our friendships and relationships?


And then, there’s the comedy of Marcel and Albertine’s beauty mark:

“Finally, to conclude this account of my first introduction to Albertine, when trying to recapture that little beauty spot on her cheek, just under the eye, I remembered that, looking from Elstir’s window when Albertine had gone by, I had seen it on her chin.  In fact, when I saw her I noticed that she had a beauty spot, but my errant memory made it wander about her face, fixing it now in one place, now in another.”

Before finally…

“I took advantage of this immobility to look again and discover once and for all where exactly the little mole was placed.  then, just a phrase of Vinteuil which had delighted me in the sonata, and which my recollection allowed to wander from the andante to the finale, until the day when, having the score in my hands, I was able to find it and to fix it in my memory in its proper place, in the scherzo, so this mole, which I had visualised now on her cheek, now on her chin, came to rest for ever on her upper lip, just below the nose.”

Who else would find a link between a beauty mark and a phrase of Vineteuil’s sonata?

And finally, from Malcolm Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars:

“Two new features of Proust’s temporality begin to emerge, then, when we look beyond the retrospective and prospective dispositions of the individual complex sentence.  First, within paragraphs, the propulsive energy of the writing, the living sense of futurity that drives the narration on, comes from an astonishing power of recapitulation.  An ambiguity in sexual identity refashions earlier ambiguous relations — between, say, light that shines and light that dances, or between smooth and rough in the painterly representation of fabrics.  The way forward into a clear new future always involves revisiting the past.  Secondly, within extended episodes, continuities of this sort are at work even when the narration insists upon irreversible change.  Uncovering Elstir’s secret, or meeting the little band face to face for the first time, changes for ever the way the world looks.  The whole map has to be redrawn.  But the text carries along, from the before of unknowing into the afterwards of knowledge, not just a lively memory of key events and their affective colouring but the imprint of mental structures that have already proved themselves and can be expected to see active service again.  The appetite to know survives the moment of its own satiation, and the instruments by which the world is made intelligible, far from being thrown away after use, remain importunately in place and demand further exercise.  Whatever the ‘open’ future holds, its broad contours have already been foretold.

Yet when the large-scale temporal patterning of Proust’s text is described solely in these terms an important quality is still missing from the overall picture.  for although recapitulation and recurrence give the narrative a range of capitaving refrains — here in La Prisonniere are the tribulations of jealousy, as acute now, in the narrator’s manhood, as they were before his birth, and here in Albertine disparue is Legrandin being Legrandin, unchanged after all these years and pages — the past is not always treated as kindly as this, and simply revisited or revived at the narrator’s leisure.  Retroaction rather than simple retrospection sometimes occurs.  The past is not just subjected to an indefinite process of reinterpretation, but can be materially altered by the desiring intelligence of the narrator:  armed with new information and switching the direction of his gaze, he can give the past new contents.  That Miss Sacripant should be Odette rather than an anonymous actress for ever lost behind the name of a stage character, that she should be Odette rather than a fantasy figure in one of Elstir’s youthful caprices, changes the way the light had fallen, moments ago, in Elstir’s studio.  In the wake of the narrator’s discovery, new sexual predilections spring into being for Elstir, Swann, and Odette herself, and a new element is added to the already trouble prehistory of the Swann-Odette marriage.  A catalytic reaction spreads backwards from the very recent past of the narrator himself into the barely recoverable recesses of other people’s lives. All is altered.”


Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 625 “A young man with regular features…” through Page 636 “…but the others are really dreadfully stupid.”

Grieve:  Page 457 “A young man with regular features and tennis racquets…” through Page 464 “But honestly, the others are just silly.”


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Moncrieff:  604-615; Grieve; 442-450

by Dennis Abrams

Elstir is M. Biche.  “Could it possibly be that this man of genius, this sage, this recluse, this philosopher with his marvellous flow of conversation, who towered over everyone and everything, was the ridiculous depraved painter who had at one time been adopted by the Verdurins?”   Now that Marcel knows with certainty that he can meet the girls through Elstir, he is content to let that pleasure be postponed.  Saint-Loup leaves Balbec for his barracks at Doncieres; Marcel’s grandmother gives him a present of a collection of autographed letters from Proudhon, much to Saint-Loup’s pleasure.  Saint-Loup’s half hearted invitation to Bloch to visit him at Donceires.  Saint-Loup’s letters to Marcel, expressing his strong feelings of friendship, and his desire that Marcel meet his mistress.  Elstir has taught Marcel a new way of looking at the physical world.  “I tried to find beauty there where I had never imagined before that it could exist, in the most ordinary things, in the profundities of ‘still life.'”  Elstir agrees to give a small party where Marcel can meet Albertine.

Much to say.  I’m never certain whether my posts are going too long, but I am constantly fighting the desire to add more from other sources, more of my own thoughts, more of “oh, this will be interesting.”  I’m going to limit myself today to two longish things.

First and foremost:  Elstir’s response to Marcel’s discovery that he was, in fact, M. Biche, the rather ridiculous painter from the early days of the Verdurins’ “little group.”  His response to what is Marcel’s obvious disillusionment is, extraordinarily wise, and an illumination of one of the book’s major themes.

“There is no man,’ he began, ‘however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it.  And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man — so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise — unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded.  I know that there are young people, the sons and grandsons of distinguished men, whose masters have instilled into them nobility of mind and moral refinement from their schooldays.  They may perhaps have nothing to retract from their past lives; they could publish a signed account of everything they have ever said of done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile.  We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.   The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed about them.  They represent a struggle and a victory.  I can see that the picture of what we were at an earlier stage may not be recognisable and cannot, certainly, be pleasing to contemplate in later life.  But we must not repudiate it, for it is a proof that we have really lived, that is in accordance with the laws of life and of the mind that we have, from the common elements of life, of the life of studios, of artistic groups — assuming one is a painter — extracted something that transcends them.”


And secondly, another section from Malcom Bowie’s book, Proust Among the Stars:

“The typical thought-shapes that Proust’s long sentences endlessly mobilise provide secure bridges between the markedly different kinds of writing tha this novel yokes together.  by the time we reach the following passage, for example, the secret of Miss Sacripant’s identity and of her former relations with Elstier have been reveleaed, and reflections on the perceptual rather than the sexual dealings between artist and model are apparently in order:

‘But in any case, even if the portrait had been, not anterior, like Swann’s favourite photograph, to the systematisation of Odette’s features into a new type, majestic and charming, but subsequent to it, Elstir’s vision would have sufficed to discompose that type.  Artistic genius acts in a similar way to those extremely high temperatures which have the power to split up combinations of atoms which they proceed to combine afresh in a diametrically opposite order, corresponding to another type.  All that artificial harmony which a woman has succeeded in imposi9ng upon her features, the maintenance of which she oversees in her mirror every day before going out, relying on the angle of her hat, the smoothness of her hair, the vivacity of her expression, to ensure its continuity, that harmony the keen eye of the great painter instantly destroys, substituting for it a rearrangement of the woman’s features such as will satisfy a certain pictorial ideal of femininity which he carries in his head.’

Artist and model are both masters of artifice, but where the model’s first move is to quell the disorder of her past conduct and present appearance by constructing a smooth social persona, the artist’s is to introduce disorder into the unreally tranquillised scene offered by the model’s face, hair and clothes.  His aggression, however, comes not from a simple preference for the wild over the tame, or for energy over repose, but from a wish to install on the canvas a smooth construction of his own.  One fabrication must be dismantled and cleared away to make room for another, and the newcomer is still more obsessionally preserved from ruin than the original:  where the woman simply checks herself in the mirror to make sure that each effect of art is in place, the artist, we are soon to be told, pursues his ‘pictorial ideal of femininity’ with crazed consistency from one model to the next.

On the face of it, this passage simply moves discussion of the artist’s passions from the sensuous to the conceptual plane and begins to speak of new things.  We now read of systematisation, dissociation, harmony and continuity where before we were offered velvet, mother-of-pearl, bristles, and tousled heads.  But the relationship between the two paragraphs is in fact much closer than their divergences of diction would suggest.   The second remembers and reinflects exactly the interplay between orderliness and an exciting, irruptive disorder that had given the first its clarity and strength.  There is a rhythm here, or a thought-shape, or a paradigmatic tension, that is preserved from one occasion to the next.  The special virtuosity that Proust ascribes to his narrator allows him to begin his own thinking with hair and prickles, to pursue it with cognitive concepts and to give both dimensions of the same underlying structure of articulate hesitation.  Inside the sentence we are currently reading earlier sentences continue to sound.  Present reading time is haunted by reading times past.  (My italics)


Wednesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 615 “When I arrived at Elstir’s a few minutes later…” through Page 625 “…hoping that we might all walk together.”

Grieve:  Page 450 “On arriving at Elstir’s a little later…” through Page 457 “…in the hope that we might all go for a walk together.”


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Moncrieff:  591-604; Grieve:  433-442

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel goes for a walk with Elstir, hoping to meet the girls.  The girls appear, and Marcel suddenly does what he can to avoid meeting them, or at least to pretend that he hasn’t noticed them.  “…I was already dimly aware that when Elstir did call me up to introduce me to them I should wear that sort of inquiring expression which betrays not surprise but the wish to look surprised…such bad actors are we all…”  “The certainty of being introduced to these girls had had the effect of making me not only feign indifference to them, but actually feel it.”   Marcel avoids meeting the girls.  “I have said that Albertine had not seemed to me that day to be the same as on previous days, and that each time I saw her she was to appear different…And if suddenly, as at the moment when I had seen Elstir stop to talk to the girls, we cease to be uneasy, to suffer anguish, since it is this anguish that is the whole of our love, it seems to us as though our love had abruptly vanished at the moment when at length we grasp the prey to whose value we had not given enough thought before.  What did I know of Albertine?  One or two glimpses of a profile against the sea, less beautiful, assuredly, than those of Veronese’s women whom I ought, had I been guided by purely aesthetic reasons, to have preferred to her…Since my first sight of Albertine I had thought about her endlessly, I had carried on with what I called by her name an interminable inner dialogue in which I made her question and answer, think and act, and in the infinite series of imaginary Albertines which followed one after the other in my fancy hour by hour, the real Albertine, glimpsed on the beach, figured only at the head…That Albertine was scarcely more than a silhouette, all that had been superimposed upon her being of my own invention, to such an extent when we love does the contribution that we ourselves make out weigh — even in terms of quantity alone — those that come to us from the beloved object.”  Miss Sacripant is Mme Swann before her marriage.  Elstir’s eye, like that of any other artist, remakes the woman he is painting.


Wow.  For me, the above passage, Marcel/the Narrator talking about Albertine, the fact that she always appears different, and the superimposition of himself upon what is merely a ‘silhouette’ to create the Albertine he loves, is extraordinary in its understanding, and strikes me as being startlingly realistic in its depiction of Marcel’s ‘creation’ of Albertine.  What are your thoughts?

And…there is, naturally, much to say about the ‘revelation’ that Miss Sacripant is a young Odette.  There will be more on this tomorrow, but I’d like to leave you with this, again from Malcolm Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars:

“The image of ‘Miss Sacripant’ — who, it emerges after a long delay, is the youthful Odette dressed as a boy — is subjected to a barrage of reinterpretations, and gradually becomes a hypnotic sexual icon.  The initial description of the portrait already hints at the uncontainable fecundity of the image:

‘The whiteness of the shirt-front, as fine as soft hail, with its gay pleats gathered into little bells like lilies of the valley, was spangled with bright gleams of light from the room, themselves sharply etched and subtly shaded as if they were flowers stiched into the linen.  And the velvet of the jacket, with its brilliant sheen, had something rough, frayed and shaggy about it here and there that recalled the crumpled felt that Elstir, heedless of any impression of immorality that might be given by this transvestite cotume worn by a young actress for whom the talent she would bring to the role was doubtless of less importance than the titillation she would offer to the jaded or depraved senses of some of her audience, had on the contrary fastened upon this equivocal aspect as on an aesthetic element which deserved to be brought into prominence, and which he had done everything in his power to emphasise.’

Elstir was particularly attracted, the narrator suggests, by the undecidablity of this girl-boy, but he has prepared the way for the exquisite indecision that his figure provokes in the spectator by sexualising the entire space of his picture.  Light itself has two separate pictorial roles.  On the one hand it is a uniform radiance emanating from objects, or an elucidating flow of energy passing across their surface and removing disparities as it goes.  On the other hand, here and on numerous occasions elsewhere in the novel, light plays upon surfaces and inscribes them with its momentary messages:  the outside world survives into the domestic interior as a series of ghostly reflections; a wide roomful of light is concentrated into a pattern of dancing flecks upon a bodice.  Then again, Elstir’s brush has located tangles and raggedness where other artists, less daring and less ingenious in their sexual explorations, would have settled for a simple sheen:  inside the close-cropped fabric of a jacket, or between smoothly enfolded carnation-petals, secret places with an unkempt covering of hair have been found.  The figure of ‘Miss Sacripant’, ,so exhaustively boyish and girlish at the same time, and by way of the same sequence of brush-strokes, reclaims for the human body and for the arts of coutour, an eroticism that is everywhere anyway, as readily available as light and air in the natural world.

Proust turns an imaginary painting into a tableau vivant; the central image and its accompanying furniture are motionless yet constantly reanimated by the narrator’s observing eye.  He tells stories as he looks.  He free-associates, and, from a purely iconographical viewpoint, behaves badly:  the art object is casually folded back into the ‘ordinary life’ of the narrator’s nascent sexual desires, and then abandoned with equal nonchalance for a semi-theoretical reverie on questions of artistic method.   Yet what is remarkable in all this seeming flouting of the rules — whether of story-telling, or art history, or inferential argument — is that something strict and rule-governed is still going on sentence by sentence.  Distinctions have to be clear if a coherent play of ambiguity, as distinct from mere semantic havering or fuss, is to be sustained.  The machinery for making such distinctions is to be found in the bifurcating syntax of the long Proustian sentence, and it is the perculiar property of these sentences, placed end to end and seemingly so autonomous, to organise long stretches of text around relatively few underlying structural schemes.   The sentences do many unruly things, of course:  their syntax ramifies and proliferates; their meanings are sometimes amplified and embellished to the point of distraction.  Yet they studiously repeat, almost in the manner of intellectual home truths, certain characteristic patterns of thought.  Antithetical qualities are held against each other in equipose.  The alternative potentialities of a single situation are expounded.  Surprising details yield large insights, and large insights, once they have been naturalised, seize upon the further surprising details they require to remain credible.  Expectations are now confounded and now confirmed.  Attention is dispersed and reconcentrated; increasing speed of perception leads to a plateau of immobilised absorption.  And so forth.”

More tomorrow…


Tuesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 604 “It was along this train of thought…” through Page 615 “…they would have been properly had.”

Grieve:  Page 442 “These thoughts, which I ruminated silently…” through Page 450 “…they would have been in a state of panic.”


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Moncrieff:  563-591; Grieve:  414-433

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel reluctantly visits Elstir at his studio.  “Elstir’s studio appeared to me like the laboratory of a sort of new creation of the world…”  The different phases of Elstir’s art.  The seascapes done at Balbec:  “But I was able to discern from these that the charm of each of them lay in a sort of metamorphosis of the objects represented, analogous to what in poetry what we call metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their names or giving them other names that Elstir created them anew.”  “One of the metphors that occured most frequently in the seascapes which surrounded him here was precisely that which, comparing land with sea, suppressed all demarcation between them.”   Perspectives can seem different in photographs, as buildings can appear larger, etc.  “Now the effort made by Elstir to reproduce things not as he knew them to be but actually according to the optical illusions of which our first sight of them is composed, had led him precisely to bring out certain of these laws of perspective…”  “the effort made by Elstir to strip himself, when face to face with reality, of every intellectual notion, was all the more admirable in that this man who made himself deliberately ignorant before sitting down to pain, forgot everything that he knew in his honesty of purpose (for what one knows does not belong to oneself), had in fact an exceptionally cultivated mind.”  Elstir explains to Marcel the beauty of the porch at Balbec, and explains to him the Persian influence that he did not or could not see.  “The young cyclist of the little band, with her polo-cap pulled down over her dark hair towards her plump cheeks, her eyes gay and slightly challenging,” with a “tiny beauty mark on her chin,” goes past Elstir’s studio.  Elstir says that she is Albertine Simonet and it is revealed that he is friends with all of  little band.  Marcel is surprised to learn that she is from the moneyed middle-class, and not from the shadier milieu that he had imagined.  The importance of spelling “Simonet” with only one “n.”  Because Marcel was becoming more familiar with Albertine, “…that girl with the plump cheeks who stared at me so boldly from the corner of the little street and from the beach, and by whom I believe that I might have been loved, I have never, in the strict sense of the words, seen again.”  Marcel finds the watercolor of ‘Miss Sacripant.’  (More on this tomorrow.)  Elstir, wanting to complete his work, denies Marcel the opportunity of being introduced to Albertine.  The subtle beauty of Mme Elstir.  Marcel’s willingness for self-sacrifice.


I loved this section, but I am beginning to get the feeling that for some readers, the last week or so, in which Proust has slowed the narrative down considerably, has been a little rough.  I urge you to keep going — as in Marcel’s life, this too shall pass, and everything that we read about and learn here becomes startlingly important to the book as a whole.

Also, I urge you to read the following section from Malcom Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars, which helps to explain exactly what Proust is up to in his use of time and narrative:

“I have chosen from among the numerous scenes of sexual enquiry that are to be foundin the early volumes of the an elaborate intellectual comedy which prefigures much that is to be fully explored later.  This is the episode in A l’ombre des jeunnes filles en fleurs where the narrator discovers a watercolour portraitn of ‘Miss Sacripant’ in Elstier’s studio and is thwarted in his desire to be introduced to the ‘little band’ of young girls.  At least four currents of feeling are running in parallel here; the narrator wants:  to meet the girls, and expects Elstire to help him do so; to find out more about Elstir’s art, and about the subject of the portrait; to respect the rhythm of Elstir’s working day rather than press his own claims upon the painter’s time; and, above all, to seem casual and disengaged in the eyes of the girls themselves.  The attempt to achieve some sort of equilibrium between these incompatible wishes involves him in a distended cost-benefit analysis, and a delirium of excuses and explanations.  Four stories are being told simultaneously in this episode, which is a tour de force of polyphonic invention, and any of them may suddenly gather bulk at the expense of the others.  Slowness in one narrative may permit a new access of speed in another; opening up a gap in one causal sequence may permit a gap in another to be closed.  For example, between the last rekindling of the narrator’s hope that an introduction can be arranged and the definitive extinction of that hope, for today at least, Elstir proceed with tiresome deliberation to complete his own work; he alone has the power to usher the narrator into the force-field of the eternal feminine; but devotes himself instead to the lesser magic that is his painting.  The narrator not only describes thie sdlay, but performs a complementary delaying manoeuvre of his own:  a long excursus on self-love and altruism, and on the little heroisms of ordinary life, intervenes between Elstir’s last brush-stroke and the beginning of their walk together.  Material that is in itself dignified and serious-minded intrudes hilariously upon the narrator’s sentimental adventure; within the unfolding drama; an elaborate moral discussion has the status of a simple accidental misfortune.

By now, Proust’s narrative architecture has become dangerously elastic.  Time may be measured as a connected series of physical events, sense-perceptions, and mental promptings — or by the key ideas which fuel speculation, rumination or reasoning, or by the inflections of prose discourse itself…Thinking, sensing, acting, writing are given a common pulse, and made into the co-equal modes of a single, encompassing transformational experiment…The discrepancy between public time, measurable by events, and mental time, measurable by the development of an individual’s ideas or by his changing intensities of feeling, is laid bare by Proust.  Dramatic opportunities abound in the disputed territory between outside and inside, and Proust’s fluid transpositions between outer and inner time-scales are thoroughly ironic in character.  These are the events, the narrator says; this, he adds, is how they look if you change your viewpoint on the scene; and this again is how they look if you remove yourself from the scene altogether and concentrate on the larger tendency of my tale.  (MY ITALICS)  Yet, despite all the attention paid by the narrator to those local repositionings of himself and his addressee, Proust’s reader is still encouraged to read for ‘the plot’, to find things out, and still invited to be seduced by secrets in the footsteps of the hero.  And the scale on which this kind of reading occurs is, as I have said, very large indeed.  Elstir’s painting travels back and forth both in event-time and in mind-time; it is a tight cluster of time-effects, and a time-measuring device for use in the book as a whole.”


Monday’s Reading — and I guarantee you’re all going to love this section:

Moncrieff:  Page 591 “However, on the day of this first visit to Elstir…” through Page 606 “…extracting something that transcends them.”

Grieve:  Page 433 “Anyway, at the time of…” through Page 444 “…something that surpasses them.”


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