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.”
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.”