Moncrieff: 69-82; Treharne: 52-61
by Dennis Abrams
Marcel begins stalking Mme de Guermantes, finding a way to “run into” her on a daily basis on the street. He finds himself stirred by the possibility of finding love — with the Duchess, or perhaps with a schoolgirl, or a white-sleeved dairy maid. “No matter, I was less depressed now at the thought of my own ill-health, of my never having summoned up the energy to set to work, to begin a book, for the world appeared to me a pleasanter place to life in, life a more interesting experience to go through, now that I had learned that the streets of Paris, like the roads round Balbec, were in bloom with those unknown beauties whom I had so often sought to conjure from the woods of Meseglise, each of whom aroused a voluptuous longing which she alone seemed capable of assuaging.” Mme de Guermantes (like Albertine before her) seems to looks different each time Marcel sees her. “…for whenever I saw Mme de Guermantes I realised the disparity — always, at it happened different — between what I had imagined and what I saw.” Mme de Guermantes sometimes seems to have “a smooth face whose charms are symmetrically arranged about a pair of blue eyes and into which the curve of the nose seemed to have been absorbed…” and at other times, “…in appearance in profile in a side street, beneath a navy-blue toque, of a beak-like nose alongside a red cheek with piercing eye, like some Egyptian diety…,” and at other times, “it was not merely a woman with a bird’s beak that I saw but almost the bird itself…” But appearances not withstanding, “…I felt that it was still Mme de Guermantes. What I loved was the invisible person who set all this outward show in motion, the woman whose hostility so distressed me, whose approach threw me into a turmoil, whose life I should have liked to make my own, chasing away her friends. She might flaunt a blue feather or reveal an inflamed complexion, and her actions would still lose none of their importance for me.” Marcel learns from Francoise’s face that “Mme de Guermantes was irritated at meeting me day after day.” “In her way of feeling things, of being kind and compassionate, harsh and disdainful, shrewd and narrow-minded, of combining a white skin with red hands, she was still the village girl…” Francoise does not reveal the truth through her words. “…she was the first person to prove to me by example (which I was not to understand until long afterwards, when it was given me afresh and more painfully, as will be seen in the later volumes of this work, by a person who was dearer to me) that the truth has no need to be uttered to be made apparent…” Francoise’s puzzling attitude towards Marcel. “Jupien, who had lapses into indiscretion of which I learned only later, revealed to me that she had told him that I was not worth the price of the rope to hang me, and that I had tried to do her every conceivable harm.” “At any rate I realised the impossibility of obtaining any direct and certain knowledge of whether Francoise loved or hated me.”
To add to this, I’d like to quote the last paragraph of this section, which once again, illustrates Marcel’s (and the Narrator’s) belief in the unknowability of people.
“And thus it was she [Francoise] who first gave me the idea that a person does not, as I had imagined, stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves (like a garden at which we gaze through a railing with all its borders spread out before us), but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge, with respect to which we form countless beliefs, based upon words and sometimes actions, neither of which can give us anything but inadequate and as it proves contradictory information — a shadow behind which we can alternately imagine, with equal justification, that there burns the flame of hatred and of love.”
As you might recall, I asked the question last week of what exactly Proust was up to in the long discussion between Albertine and Andree about Gisele’s examination answer on the topic of Sophocles writing a letter to Racine regarding the failure of his play, Athalie. Eric Karpeles, author of Paintings in Proust and translator of Lorenza Foschini’s wonderful book Proust’s Overcoat: The True Story of One Man’s Passion for all Things Proust (which will be published in August) sent me his response:
“I must say I was always aware of Gisele’s essay being somehow coupled with the note Albertine scribbles and hands over, in which she announces “je vous aime bien.” Then, immediately upon the Narrator’s having read it, she exclaims, “Instead of writing nonsense, I should be showing you what I got from Gisele.” I wonder about the parallel set-up, such a familiar device in Proust. Instead of writing love letters (nonsense) she should be writing exam essays which will give the committee of teachers what they want to read (more nonsense). The actual content of the reply to the set test question seems to have no more relation to truth or sincerity than does the impetuous teasing note she hands over to the Narrator.
Readers today get blinded by the essay and its degree of sophistication coupled with shrewdness. It reveals the exacting levels of education and literacy far beyond the norm any of us had to live up to. But for Proust’s generation, that would have been fairly amusing, evoking the kind of standard test any lycee student might have to prepare for. So we shouldn’t get too derailed by the content of Gisele’s essay or Andree’s commentary– Proust loved both Sophocles and Racine, studied them as the characters in his novel are– but rather see their manipulation and their clear comprehension of what is expected of them, versus whatever their real inclinations might be. So I read this scene as an exposee of the girls’ slithery deceitfulness, of their having learned from an early age to give what is wanted, to provide the right response. Albertine later on in the novel is perpetually forced to give the Narrator answers, and she wants to make sure she knows what is the right thing to say. This is part of her early training, this fly-on-the-wall privileged position allows us to see how calculating the girls have been trained to be, how knowing they are, how hardened they have to be to what is expected of them.”
Moncrieff: Page 82 “I was genuinely in love Mme de Guermantes,” through Page 93 “…but our capacity for suffering through that being.”
Treharne: Page 61 “I was really in love with Mme de Guermantes,” through Page 69 “…but our capacity to suffer on account of the loved one.”