Moncrieff: 549-563; Grieve: 404-414
by Dennis Abrams
Marcel is able to find out nothing about the girls he had seen walking by the sea. Later, shown a photograph of them at a younger age, he is barely able to recognize them. “Doubtless often enough before, when pretty girls went by, I had promised myself that I would see them again. As a rule, people thus seen do not appear a second time; moreover our memory, which speedily forgets their existence, would find it difficult to recall their features, our eyes would not recognise them, perhaps, and in the meantime we have seen others go by, whom we shall not see again either. But at other times, and this was what was to happen with the pert little band at Balbec, chance brings them back insistently before our eyes. Chance seems to us then a good and useful thing, for we discern in it as it were the rudiments of organisation, of an attempt to arrange our lives…” Marcel and Saint-Loup, at Rivebelle, send a note to the artist Elstir, wanting to meet him even though “neither of us had ever seen anything that he had painted; our feeling might have had as its object the hollow idea of a ‘great artist,’ but not a body of work which was unknown to us.” Elstir invites Marcel to visit him at his studio. Marcel sees “a girl who, hanging her head like an animal that is being driven reluctant to its stall, and carrying golf clubs…who…resembled the member of the little band who, beneath a black polo-cap, had shown in an inexpressive chubby face a pair of laughing eyes. However, although this one had a black polo-cap, she struck me as being even prettier than the other…” “From that moment, whereas for the last few days my mind had been occupied chiefly by the tall one, it was the one with the golf-clubs, presumed to be Mlle Simonet, who began once more to absorb my attention.” “But it was perhaps yet another, the one with geranium cheeks and green eyes, whom I should have likes most to know. And yet, whichever of them it might be, on any given day, that I preferred to see, the others, without her, were sufficient to excite my desire which, concentrated now chiefly on one, now on another, continued — as, on the first day, my confused vision had done — to combine and blend them, to make of them the little world apart…” Marcel’s grandmother is pleased about Elstir’s invitation, disappointed that Marcel doesn’t take immediate advantage of it. The irregular schedule of the little band makes it difficult for Marcel to see them when he’d like. “I loved none of them, loving them all, and yet the possibility of meeting them was in my daily life the sole element of delight, alone aroused in me those hopes for which one would break down every obstacle, hopes ending often in fury if I had not seen them.”
I’m struck by a couple of things:
1. The interchangability of the girls, as Marcel’s affections move from one to another.
2. The role of chance, which is a subject I think about a lot. I have long been fairly convinced that our lives (as Marcel seems to indicate) are largely ruled by chance. If Marcel hadn’t been where he was, if the light hadn’t been just so, would he have noticed the girls? If I hadn’t left my apartment when I did, and if my future partner hadn’t done the same, and if our pace hadn’t meant we’d see each other on “x” street corner on a sunny day when we both happened to be looking at the right direction at the right time, would we have met? Would my life have taken me in the direction where I would now be hosting “The Cork Lined Room?”
And, in case you were wondering where we had encountered Elstir before: It was back in Swann’s Way, at the Verdurin’s salon.
“The painter at once invited Swann to visit his studio with Odette; Swann thought him very civil. “Perhaps you will be more highly favoured than I have been,’ said Mme Verdurin in a tone of mock resentment. ‘perhaps you’ll be allowed to see Cottard’s portrait!” (which she had commissioned from the painter). ‘Take care, Master Biche,’ she reminded the painter, whom it was a time-honoured pleasantry to address as ‘Master,’ ‘to ctach that nice look in his eyes, that witty little twinkle. You know what I want to have most of all is his smile, that’s what I’ve asked you to paint — the portrait of his smile.'”
“Both he, however, and Mme. Cottard, with a kind of common sense which is shared by many people of humble origin, were careful not to express an opinion, or to pretend to admire a piece of music which, they confessed to each other, once they were back at home, that they no more understood than they could understand the art of ‘Master’ Biche. Insasmuch as the public cannot recognise the charm, beauty, even the outlines of nature save in the stereotyped impressions of an art which they have gradually assimlated, while an original artist starts by rejecting those stereotypes, so M. and Mme Cottard, typical, in this respect, of the public, were incapable of finding, either in Vinteuil’s sonata or in Biche’s portraits, what constituted for them harmony in music or painting. It appeared to them as though…M. Biche had not known how the human shoulder was constructed, or that a woman’s hair was not ordinarily purple.”
And finally, there’s the scene at the Verdurins’ where Swann asked ‘the painter’ his opinion about an artist who had recently died, and in whom Swann “wished to find out from him (for he valued his discrimination) whether there had really been anything more in [his] last works than the virtuosity which had struck people so forcibly in his earlier exhibitions…But the painter, instead of replaying in a way that might have interested Swann, as he would probably have done had they been alone together, preferred to win the easy admiration of the rest with a witty dissertation on the talent of the deceased master.
‘I went up to one of them,’ he began, ‘just to see how it was done. I stuck my nose into iit. Well, it’s just not true! Impossible to say whether it was done with glue, with rubies, with soap, with sunshine, with leaven, with cack!…It looks as though it was done with nothing at all…No more chance of discovering the trick than there is in the ‘Night Watch’ or the ‘Female Regents,’ and technically it’s even better than Rembrandt or Hals. It’s all there — but really, I swear it!’
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: Page 563 “Meanwhile my grandmother…” through Page 591 “…are more valueless even than my own.”
Grieve: Page 414 “My grandmother, because I…” through Page 433 “…when a bomb drops are even less valuable than my own.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.