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Archive for April, 2010

Moncrieff:  603-615; Treharne:  436-445

by Dennis Abrams

A Guermantes who forged cheques, who cheated at cards “and was the most delightful of them all…”  The rivalry between the Guermantes and the Courvoisiers.  “Not only did the Courvoisiers not assign to intelligence the same importance as the Guermantes, they had a different notion of it.”  The value the Guermantes placed on a sharp tongue, saying scathing things, and knowledge of painting, music, architecture and the English language.  The distrust that the Courvoisiers placed on intelligence, seeing it as “a sort of burglar’s jemmy by means of which people one did not know from Adam forced the doors of the most reputable drawing-rooms,” and their knowledge of the price paid for having “those sort” of people in your house.  But compared to the Guermantes, the Courvoisiers, “maintained in a certain sense the integrity of the titled class thanks at once to the narrowness of their minds and the malevolence of their hearts.”  The unhappiness of the Courvoisiers when forced to mix with people they didn’t want to mix with.  Mme de Villebon’s snubbing of the charming Comtesse G—”  The art of keeping one’s distance, common to both the Guermantes and the Courvoisiers.  The cold, searching gaze of the Guermantes before the handshake, the “haughty stiffness or hurried negligence” of the Courvoisiers.  The affability of a letter from the Guermantes, lodged between a cold salutation and sign-off.  The different styles of sub-groups among the Guermantes.  The dislike of the Courvoisiers of the Duchesse de Guermantes.  Their jealousy of her ability to marry well.  The lack of public style of the Courvoisiers as compared to the Guermantes.  “Whereas Saint-Loup who was up to the eyes in debt, dazzled Doncieres with his carriage-horses, a Courvoisier who was extremely rich always went by tram.  Similarly (though of course many years earlier), Mlle de Guermantes (Oriane) who had scarcely a penny to her name, created more stir than all the Courvoisiers put together.”  “She had the audacity to say to the Russian Grand Duke:  ‘Well sir, it appears you would like to have Tolstoy assassinated.'”  The disdain of the Dowager Duchesse de Gallardon, who, not having had a visit from Mme de Guermantes in years, explained that it was because  “It seems she recites Aristotle,” (meaning Aristophanes) “in society.  I won’t tolerate that sort of thing in my house!”  The delight of the Guermantes in Oriane’s wit.  Because of the Guermantes general affability, “there entered into the substance of stylish manners, hitherto rather hollow and dry, everything that one would naturally have liked and had force oneself to eschew, a genuine welcome, the warmth of true friendliness, spontaneity.”

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Got to admit — loved this section.  Proust’s analysis of the differences (and similarities) between the Guermantes and the Courvoisiers, the reasons why the Courvoisiers dislike Oriane and why the Guermantes embraced her was wonderfully done.

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I recently read this in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, and thought you might enjoy it.

“In Proust, there are few figures that the narrator finds lasting cause to trust, but Elstier, the veteran and venerable painter, is one of them.  the sage, said Elstir, must forgive himself his past faults.  Elstir forgot to add that the sage should also correct them.  Proust says it for him elsewhere:  those we like least are those most like us, but with the faults uncured.   It is always dangerous to say ‘This is what we read Proust for.’  There are people who read Proust just for the clothes.  But those of us who read Proust for his remarks about life will always be wondering whether A la recherche du temps perdu is really a work of art at all.  A work of imagination:  yes, of course, and supremely.  But is it a novel?  Isn’t it a book of collected critical essays, with the occasional fictional character wandering in and out of it?  After the composer Busoni read Du cote de chez Swann, he complained to Rilke that although he had quite enjoyed the opinions about music, he thought the rest of the book was a bit like a novel.  Isn’t it a work of encyclopedic synthesis?  Thomas Mann, in his diaries, took notes on the way that Proust had taken notes.  He especailly praised the detail of Proust’s interest in flying beetles.  Isn’t it a work of philosophy?  Jean-Francoise Revel, in his brief book Sur Proust — the commentary on Proust that almost gives you the courage to do without all the others — is clearly fascinated with the possibility that Proust might have restored philosophy to its position of wisdom.  Often, in the long shelf of his writings, Revel argues that philosophy, having ceased in the eighteenth century to be queen of the sciences, has, in modern times, no other role except to be wise.  In Sur Proust he casts his author as a character in a drama:  the drama of philosophy reborn.  Revel calls A la recherche one of the rare books that even in their weaknesses offer an example of ‘totally adult thought.'”

What’s your opinion?  Is it a novel?  A collection of essays?  An encylopedia?  A work of philosophy?  Or is it, and it is in this, I think, that is one of the many reasons for its greatness, all of the above?

The Weekend’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 615 “Authentic or not, Mlle de Guermantes’s apostrophe to the Grand Duke…” through Page 644 “…and at a pinch that the true Phedre is that of Pradon.”

Treharne:  Page 445 “Whether it was authentic or not, Mlle de Guermantes’s heckling remark to the Grand Duke…” through Page 466 “…and at a pinch that the true Phedre is the one by Pradon.”

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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Moncrieff:  592-603; Treharne: 428-436

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel asks M. de Guermantes to introduce him to the Prince d’Argigente.  “What!  do you mean to say you don’t know the good Gri-gri!”  “…I had not the least doubt that the Prince — …was himself, as luminously Sicilian and as glorious weathered, the absolute sovereign.  Alas, the vulgar drone to whom I was introduced, and who wheeled round to bid me good evening with a ponderous nonchalance which he considered elegant, was as independent of his name as a work of art that he owned without betraying in his person any reflexion of it, without, perhaps, even looking at it.”  Mme de Guermantes, fearing that Marcel would tire, takes him away from Basin, who gives the signal for dinner to be served.  M. de Grouchy, the husband of a Guermantes, who “came of an excellent family which, however, was not good enough in the eyes of certain fanatics for blue blood,” has not yet arrived.  Dinner is served, and the guests enter the dining room.  “Mme de Guermantes advanced towards me to be taken into dinner, without my feeling the least shadow of the timidity that I might have feared, for, like a huntress whose muscular dexterity has endowed her with natural ease and grace, observing no doubt that I had placed myself on the wrong side of her, she pivoted round me so adroitly that I found her arm resting on mine and was at once naturally attuned to a rhythm of precise and noble movements.”  The Duke, with a timid signal, starts the “vast, ingenious, subservient and sumptuous clockwork, mechanical and human,” that brings dinner to the table.  The desire of the Guermantes to show deference towards their guest.  The manners of the Court of Louis XIV has made their way down to the Guermantes, so “in the manners of M. de Guermantes, a man who was heart-warming in his graciousness and revolting in his hardness, a slave to the pettiest obligations and derelict as regards the most solemn pacts, I found still intact after more than two centuries that aberration, peculiar to the life of the court under Louis XIV, which transfers the scruples of conscience from the domain of the affections and morality to questions of pure form.”  The other reason for the kindness of the Princesse de Parme to Marcel is settled:  “She was convinced beforehand that everything she saw at the Duchesse de Guermantes’s, people and things alike, was of a superior quality to anything she had at home.”  And, as Marcel/the Narrator points out, “To a certain extent it is true, though not nearly enough to justify this state of mind, the Guermantes were different from the rest of society, they were more precious and rare.”  Again, Marcel who had initially seen the Guermantes merely as names and all that their names represented, was disappointed when he first saw them, finding them “vulgar, similar to all other men and women,” but “after first disappointing the imagination because they resembled their fellow-men rather more than their name, could subsequently, though to a lesser degree, hold out to one’s intelligence certain distinctive characteristics.”  The distinctive look physique, and grace of the Guermantes, that leads them, when they see others to think “These people are of a different breed from us, and we are the lords of creation.”  The theories of the Duchesse de Guermantes, who insists on putting intelligence above all else and whose politics were so socialistic “that one wondered where in her mansion could be the hiding-place of the genie whose duty it was to ensure the maintenance of the aristocratic way of life and who, always invisible but evidently lurking at one moment in the entrance hall, at another in the drawing room, reminded the servants of this woman who did not believe in titles to address her as ‘Madame la Duchesse.'”

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Another lovely section as we settle in for a nice long dinner at the Guermantes.  I loved the section describing the rituals at the Court of Louis XIV and how they were passed down to the Guermantes, and especially the line describing their manners as “intact after more than two centuries that aberration, peculiar to the life of the court under Louis IV, which transfers the scruples of conscience from the domain of the affections and morality to questions of pure form.”

Thoughts?

And, finally, this from Howard Moss:

“What Proust has to say about society is not new but incomparable.  His ability to dramatize, the reproduction of speech, attitude, and manner, and the accurate observation of every social appurtenance — clothes, rooms, jewels, monocles, beards, furniture — all have the authority of a master — a master mimic as well as observer.  The maliciousness and wit of the Duchesse, the bad punning of Cottard, the foredoomed timidity of Saniette, the academic tiresomeness of Brichot, the migranes, dislocated jaw, and music-induced neuralgia of Mme Verdurin, the painted flowers above which Mme de Villeparisis greets her guests — all of it set down with the double felicity of a great portrait painter and a first-rate playwright…

Exact, comic, merciless, Proust’s social satire has the deadly accuracy of Daumier and the vitality of Hogarth.  Imperative to the scheme of his novel, fascinating as documentary in themselves, Proust’s social exhibitions lead us to two great catastrophes that have their initial germinations in the groups of people we have been watching — the Dreyfus case and World War I.  Society is, after all, social.”

Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 603 “The family genie had other occupations as well…” through Page 615 “…to admire in les Diamants de la Couronne.”

Treharne:  Page 436 “The family genie had other functions as well…” through Page 445 “…to enjoy in Les Diamants de la couronne.

Enjoy.

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Moncrieff:  580-592; Treharne:  420-428

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel is introduced to a woman who “had begun to flash at me continuously from her large, soft, dark eyes the sort of knowing smiles which we address to an old friend who perhaps has not recognized us.  As this was particularly the case with me and I could not for the life of me remember who she was…”  Because M. de Guermantes bungles the introduction, Marcel does not know who he is talking to, despite the fact that she speaks to him of how sorry her son would be to have missed seeing him, asks whether his father was working too hard, and, after inquiring about his health, “pushed forward a chair for me herself, putting herself out in a way to which I had never been accustomed by my parents’ other friends.”  Finally, after the Duke murmurs into his ear, ‘She thinks you’re charming,” Marcel realizes, remembering hearing the same phrase years before from the Princesse de Luxembourg, that he is speaking with royalty.  “She was a royal personage.  She had never heard of either my family or myself, but, a scion of the noblest race and endowed with the greatest fortune in the world (for, a daughter, of the Prince de Parme, she had married an equally princely cousin), she sought always, in gratitude to her Creator, to testify to her neighbour, however poor or lowly he might be, that she did not look down upon him.”  The initial amiability of royalty often changes abruptly, “like the people who, having once given somebody a soverign, feel that this has released them from any further obligation towards him.”  The magic of the name Parma, with all of its Stendhalian fragrance, changes when faced with the reality “of a little dark woman taken up with good works and so humbly amiable that one felt at once in how exalted a pride that amiability had its roots.”  There is another reason for the amiability shown to Marcel by the Princesse, “But, for the moment I did not have time to get to the bottom of it.”  Marcel is introduced to another of the flower-maidens, who, learning that he had often passed by her country home in Balbec, tells him how pleased she would have been to show him her house, as would her aunt Branca, “It was built by Mansard and it’s the jewel of the province.”  Marcel/the Narrator notes that “this lady who evidently thought that…it was important that the great should keep up the lofty traditions of lordly hospitality, by speeches which did not commit them to anything.  It was also because she sought, like everyone in her world, to say the things that would give most pleasure to the person she was addressing.”  Marcel is observed by the Comte Hannibal de Breaute-Consalvi who, sure that Marcel must be somebody interesting because he was invited by Mme de Guermantes, “lavished on me an endless series of bows, signs of mutual understanding, smiles filtered through the glass of his monocle, either in the misapprehension that a man of standing would esteem him more highly if he could manage to instill into me the illusion that for him, the Comte de Breaute-Consalvi, the privileges of the mind were no less deserving of respect than those of birth, or simply from the need to express and the difficulty of expressing his satisfaction, in his ignorance of the language in which he ought to address me, precisely as if he had found himself face to face with one of the ‘natives’ of an undiscovered country on which his raft had landed, from whom, in the hope of ultimate profit, he would endeavour, observing with interest the while their quaint customs and without interrupting his demonstrations of friendship or forgetting to utter loud cries of benevolence like them, to obtain ostrich eggs and spices in exchange for glass beads.”  the Prince de Foix.  The oddness of nicknames.

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I loved this section a whole lot.  Proust’s ironic handling of the pretensions of the first meetings made me laugh out loud several times.  Perhaps my favorite passage was this, Marcel/the Narrator’s imagining of what the lesson the Princesse de Parma must have received from her mother to account for amiability, which, for some reason, struck me as a parody of Polonius’ instructions to Laertes in Hamlet.

“Remember that if God has caused you to be born on the steps of a throne you ought not to make that a reason for looking down upon those to whom Divine Providence has willed (wherefore His Name be praised) that you should be superior by birth and fortune.  On the contrary, you must be kind to the lowly.  Your ancestors were Princes of Cleves and Juliers from the year 647; God in his bounty has decreed that you should hold practically all the share in the Suez Canal and three times as many Royal Dutch as Edmond de Rothschild; your pedigree in a direct line has been established by genealogists from the year 63 of the Christian era; you have as sisters-in-law two empresses.  Therefore never seem in your speech to be recalling these great privileges, not that they are precarious (for nothing can alter the antiquity of blood, and the world will always need oil), but because it is unnecessary to point out that you are better born than other people or that your investments are all gilt-edged, since everyone knows these facts already.  Be helpful to the needy.  Give to all those whom the bounty of heaven has been graciously please to put beneath you as much as you can give them without forfeiting your rank, that is to say help in the form of money, even caring for the sick, but of course never any invitations to your soirees, which would do them no possible good and, by diminishing your prestige, would detract from the efficacy of your benevolent activities.”

Where to start?  “God in His bounty has decreed that you should hold practically all the shares in the Suez Canal and three times as many Royal Dutch as Edmond de Rothschild?”  “for nothing can alter the antiquity of blood, and the world will always need oil?”  Brilliant.  And hilarious.

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Wednesday’s Reading

Moncrieff:  Page 592 “I then asked the Duke to introduce me to the Prince d’Agrigente.” through Page 603 “…”Remind Monsieur le Duc___”

Treharne:  page 428 “I then asked the Duc to introduce me to the Prince d’Agrigente.” through Page 436 “…Remind M. le Duc…”

Enjoy.

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Moncrieff:  570-580; Treharne:  412-420

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel arrives at the Guermantes’, where he is greeted kindly by M. de Guermantes, “And the Duke was such a bad husband, so brutal even (people said), that one felt grateful to him, as one feels grateful to wicked people for their occasional kindness of heart.”  M. de Guermantes charms Marcel as “a survival of habits many centuries old, habits of the seventeenth century in particular.”  Marcel/the Narrator observes that, because “the people of bygone ages seem infinitely remote from us…we are amazed when we come upon a sentiment akin to what we feel today in a Homeric hero, or a skillful tactical feint by Hannibal during the battle of Cannae…it is as though we imagined the epic poet and the Carthaginian general to be as remote from ourselves as an animal seen in the zoo.”  “The past is not fugitive, it stays put.”  Marcel asks to see the Guermantes’ Elstirs, and is obliged by the Duke, who leaves him to see the paintings in peace.  “Among these pictures, some of those that seemed most absurd to people in fashionable society interested me more than the rest because they re-created those optical illusions which prove to us that we should never succeed in identifying objects if we did not bring some process of reasoning to bear on them.”  Time changes the way we view art:  “Nor did these society people add to Elstir’s work in their mind’s eye that temporal perspective which enabled them to like or at least to look without comfort at, Chardin’s painting.  And yet the older among them might have reminded themselves that in the course of their lives they had gradually seen, as the years bore them away from it, the unbridgeable gulf between what they considered a masterpiece by Ingres and what they had supposed must for ever remain a ‘horror’ (Manet’s Olympia, for example), shrink until the two canvases seemed like twins.”  The painting of the seaside festival, “the river, the women’s dresses, the sails of the boats, the innumerable reflexions of one thing and another jostled together enchantingly in this little square panel of beauty which Elstir had cut out of a marvelous afternoon.”  The difference in Elstir’s periods.  Lost in Elstier’s art, Marcel hears a bell calling him back, and enters the drawing room to discover that his absence has delayed dinner for forty five minutes, but, to his surprise, the Duc de Guermantes is still all kindness.  The difference between the salons Marcel had previously attended and the Guermantes’, where he finds himself surrounded by women, “their neck and shoulders entirely bare (the naked flesh appearing on either side of a sinuous spray of mimosa or the petals of a full-blown rose), accompanied their salutations with long, caressing glances, as though shyness alone restrained them from kissing me.”  M. de Guermantes lavishes his attention on Marcel.

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I loved this:

Just as, in one of the pictures I had seen at Balbec, the hospital, as beautiful beneath its lapis lazuli sky as the cathedral itself, seemed (more daring than Elstir the man of taste, the lover of things mediaeval) to be intoning:  ‘There is no such thing as Gothic, there is no such thing as a masterpiece, a hospital with no style is just as good as the glorious porch,’ so I now heard:  ‘The slightly vulgar lady whom a man of discernment wouldn’t bother to look at as he passed her by, whom he would exclude from the poetical composition which nature has set before him — she is beautiful too; her dress is receiving the same light as the sail of that boat, everything is equally precious; the commonplace dress and the sail that is beautiful in itself are two mirrors reflecting the same virtue is all in the painter’s eye.’  This eye had succeeded in arresting for all time the motion of the hours at the luminous instant when the lady had felt hot and had stopped dancing, when the tree was encircled with a perimeter of shadow, when the sails seemed to be gliding in a golden glaze.  But precisely because that instant impressed itself on one with such force, this unchanging canvas gave the most fleeting impression:  one felt that the lady would presently go home, the boats drift away, the shadow change place, night begin to fall; that pleasure comes to an end, that life passes and that instants, illuminated by the convergence at one and the same of so many lights, cannot be recaptured.”

“The luminous instant when the lady had felt hot and had stopped dancing.” Brilliant.

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Tuesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 580 “At the very outset, indeed, there was a little twofold imbroglio,” through Page 592 “…and explain some of them.”

Treharne:  Page 420 “And the very thing that happened was a miniature twofold imbroglio,” through Page 428 “…and explain some of them.

Enjoy.

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Moncrieff:  540-570; Treharne:  390-412

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel reflects on friendship and, once again, finds it lacking, even wondering how Nietzsche can “ascribe to it a certain intellectual merit,” while at the same time conceding that “…whatever might be my opinion of friendship…there is no brew so deadly that it cannot at certain moments become precious and invigorating by giving us just the stimulus that was necessary, the warmth that we cannot generate ourselves.”  Marcel and Saint-Loup set off for the restaurant, reviving memories of previous inns and dinners.  A foggy night, memories of Combray and “an enthusiasm which might have borne fruit had I remained alone and would thus have save me the detour of many wasted years which I was yet to pass…”  Saint-Loup mysteriously informs Marcel that “I told Bloch that you didn’t like him all that much, that you found him rather vulgar at times.  I’m like that, you see.  I like clear-cut situations.”  The cafe, with its two very distinct crowds:  young aristocrats in search of a rich marriage and pro-Dreyfus intellectuals.  While Saint-Loup gives instructions to the driver, Marcel enters the cafe through the revolving door, gets stuck, and because it is assumed that he’s a “nobody” is given a seat in the room with the Dreyfusards, next to “the door reserved for the Hebrews which, since it did not revolve, opened and closed every other minute and kept me in a horrible draught.”  As new customers arrive, they each have stories about getting lost in the fog.  M. le Prince de Foix, who got lost three time “imagine that!” and, because he’s still young, “belonged to an aristocratic group for whom the practice of rudeness, even at the expense of their fellow-nobles when these were not of the very highest rank, seemed to be the sole occupation,” a rudeness that dissipates when one discovers “that there are also such things as music, literature, even standing for parliament.”  The group of 12-15 young men, always in debt, and thus in search of a wealthy girl to be their wives.  The smaller group of four, more exclusive and inseparable, which includes Saint-Loup, known as the “four gigolos,” of whom “rumours were current as to the extent of their intimacy.”  The cafe proprietor’s tendency to repeat the phrases he’d heard his customers say.  Saint-Loup finally arrives, and the cafe manager is suddenly all kindness to Marcel, going so far as to block off the door of the Hebrews so that he wouldn’t be sitting in a draft.  Marcel considers the other customers “they repelled — the Jews among them principally, the unassimilated Jews, that is to say, for which the other kind we are not considered…Generally speaking, one realised afterwards that, if it could be held against them that their hair was too long, their noses and eyes were too big, their gestures abrupt and theatrical, it was puerile to judge them by this, that they had plenty of wit and good-heartedness, and were men to whom, in the long run, one could become closely attached.”  M. le Prince Foix asks if he can dine at the table adjoining Marcel and Saint-Loup, but Marcel prefers to have Saint-Loup to himself.   Saint-Loup excuses himself and “While waiting for Saint-Loup to return I asked the restaurant proprietor for some bread.  ‘Certainly, Monsieur le Baron!’ “I am not a baron,’ I gold him a tone of mock sadness.  ‘Oh, beg pardon, Monsieur le Comte!’ I had not time to lodge a second protest which would certainly have promoted me to the rank of marquis…”  Saint-Loup returns, having borrowed M. le Prince Foix’s shawl to keep Marcel warm, and unable to get directly to the table “he sprang lightly on to one of the red plush benches which ran round its walls…between the tables and the wall electric wires were stretched at a certain height; without the slightest hesitation  Saint-Loup jumped nimbly over them like a steeplechaser over a fence…”  Applause erupts over Saint-Loup’s graceful balancing act.   Saint-Loup tells Marcel that Charlus wants to see him the next evening and, learning that Marcel will be dining at the Guermantes, warns Marcel not to tell Charlus that he’s going, but to be sure to see him after the dinner.  Saint-Loup needs to talk to his aunt Oriane about helping him get a transfer from Morocco.  Marcel, in retrospect, enjoys his time talking with Saint-Loup “And yet the friendship that I felt for him at this moment was scarcely, I feared (and felt therefore some remorse at the thought) what he would have liked to inspire.”  Saint-Loup’s naturally aristocratic style, grace, and physicality as a work of art.

I’ll admit it:  It was probably my mood, but at first I had a difficult time getting into this section.  Too much fog, too much reflection — it wasn’t what I needed.  However, once we arrived at the cafe…loved it.

A couple of things:

1.  Why do you think Saint-Loup told Bloch that Marcel didn’t like him very much?  It seems to go so much against Saint-Loup’s normal behavior…

2.  Who knew could Proust could do the physical shtick of Marcel getting stuck in a revolving door?

3.  Two lines that made me laugh out loud.  One, when Marcel is discussing the Prince de Foix and the group of four and remarks, “A fifth (for in groups of four there are always more than four)…” and while discussing the propensity for the young aristocrats to go to their banker which “leaves him the poorer by a hundred thousand francs, which does not prevent the man about town from at once repeating the process with another.  We continue to burn candles in churches and to consult doctors.”  Brilliant.

4.  And again, the mixed signals Marcel/the Narrator continues to give about Jews.  The attitude today seemed to be one of , “well, they are kind of physically repulsive, with their big noses and hair and bad manners, but if you can look beyond that, they do have some redeeming features.”  Any thoughts on this?

5.  In the Moncrieff translation, note the paragraph that begins “A certainty of taste…” and go through “a marble frieze.”  That’s one sentence that goes on for approximately 400 words.  I have to confess I had to read it a few times to get its complete flow and meaning.

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Monday’s Reading:  We’re about to start another of Proust’s major set pieces, the dinner with the Guermantes that goes on for the next 200 pages.  It’s a GREAT scene.

Moncrieff:  Page 570 “The Duchess having made no reference to her husband…” through Page 580 “…thinking only of the impression they would make on me.”

Treharne:  Page 412 “Since the Duchesse had made no mention of her husband…” through Page 420 “…he was thinking only of the impression they would make on me.”

Enjoy.

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Moncrieff:  528-540; Treharne:  382-390

by Dennis Abrams

Mme de Stermaria calls to mind the mists of Brittany.  While shaving and getting ready to go to the island to reserve the room and select the menu for his dinner with Mme de Stermaria, Albertine arrives unexpectedly.  Marcel invites her to go with him to choose the menu, “for I attached the utmost importance to having with me a young housewife who would know a great deal more than me about ordering dinner.”  Marcel, thinking about Albertine’s body, considers the possibility that if Saint-Loup was incorrect about Mme de Stermaria’s intentions, that he might ask Albertine to see him later in the evening as a backup.  “Shall it be this woman or another?”  The quiet of the nearly empty island.  An excursion to Saint-Cloud.  “When I found myself alone again at home, remembering that I had been for an expedition that afternoon with Albertine, that I was to dine in two days’ time with Mme de Guermantes and that I had to answer a letter from Gilberte, three women I had loved, I said to myself that our social existence, like an artist’s studio, is filled with abandoned sketches in which we fancied for a moment that we could set down in permanent form our need of a great love, but it did not occur to me that sometimes, if the sketch is not too old, it may happen that we return to it and make of it a wholly different work, and one that is possibly more important than what we had originally planned.”  Marcel receives a letter from Mme de Stermaria, canceling their evening plans.  The carpets being laid out, signaling that winter is coming, that Marcel’s parents are returning home, and which were “the first installations of the wintry prison from which, obliged as I should be to live and take my meals at home, I should no longer be free to escape when I chose.”  Marcel’s despair, his desire to see her again to renew his feelings, but “Circumstances decided against me; I did not see her again.  It was not she that I loved, but it might well have been.”  But what is most painful for Marcel is the knowledge that if the evening had been different, and his love had gone to Mme de Stermaria, that the great love that came to him might never have occurred, that “it was not therefore — as I longed, so needed to believe — absolutely necessary and predestined.”  Marcel sobs, and Saint-Loup unexpectedly arrives.

—–

And, for the weekend, one last look at the death of Marcel’s grandmother, this time by Mary Ann Caws from The Proust Project

“Above all the other figures in Proust’s novel, the grandmother — based on Proust’s own mother — is the one I’d most like to take a stroll with.  She’s the one who turns up her face to the rain, who can’t bear reproductions of things, and whose death is as heartrending as anything in Proust’s work.  I’d have loved to walk with her on Belle-Ile in Brittany, where Proust went in the hopes of meeting Sarah Bernhardt, who might be sitting on her favorite rock.  Or in Cabourg (“Balbec”), where my children went to camp, or just about anywhere else.  She’s the real one.

Walking together.  In Proust, many contraries do just this.  Cover-up and revelation walk side by side, as do guilt and spite, blindness and insight.  The entire passage describing the grandmother’s death balances the hidden with the clear, the overlooked with the unsuspected, and, above all, piercing love with seeming indifference.

If, initially, Marcel has to keep from his grandmother his anxiety over her sudden illness, she has no less a desire to veil it over, thus concealing from him the signs of her stroke in her disheveled appearance, all the while clenching her teen so as not to vomit.  He has lived inside her mind, and so her perishing deprives him of place and benchmark, abandoning him to his own living solitude.

Dying, the grandmother will try not to fail her daughter in her hour of greatest need before their eternal separation, and so will pretend that her own intense pain is only indigestion, even as her daughter will promise to cure her of it.  This is, say’s Proust, one of ‘those false promises we swear but are unable to keep,’ thus drawing us all, by the collective pronoun, into the emotion of the excruciating moment.  Truthtelling has no place here, in the home of such ardent love.  Yet, like the spectators in Bernini’s unforgettable sculpture of Saint Teresa stabbed by the dart of the angel, Francoise as truth-seeing onlooker fastens on the grandmother a ‘dumbfounded, indiscreet and ominous” gaze.  Such high drama deserves such terrible tribute.

Other instances of social witness against individual truth abound:  ‘[I]t might have said’ that the grandmother rested on a beach, that she rode past, in fine weather, at six o’clock, or then that she was — against her custom — sliding down in her seat and clinging to the cushions, while Marcel, still attached to life, is mindful of Legrandin’s sensitivity and the courtesies owed to any passerby.  The grandmother knows, as always, what matters.  During the examination, the doctor will quote poetry, make a few jokes at which he will laugh loudly, and will rage at his maid for forgetting to cut and hem the buttonhole for his decoration even as Marcel gazes at his doomed grandmother.

The mortal scene is now cast in black shadow on the wall against the rust of sunset, as all ages and places are summoned into a historic background for the tragic truth:  the carriage is “like a hearse on some Pompeian terra-cotta.”

Yet even to the end, both life and death can walk together, can play a role more gentle than honest.  ‘Life, in withdrawing from her, had taken with it the disillusionments of life.  A smile seemed to be hovering on my grandmother’s lips.  On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl.’  And since in Proust’s great work, things true and untrue coexist in the complexity of mutual completeness, this ending resounds in perfect pitch.”

—-

To my mind, Marcel’s grandmother was (and is) the moral center of the book, of Marcel’s world.  And now, without her, he is, in a sense, lost.

—-

Weekend’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 540 “I have already said…” through Page 570 “…inponderable as it was.”

Treharne:  Page 390 “I have already said…” through Page 412 “…in all its incomprehensible mystery.”

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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Moncrieff:  518-528; Treharne:  374-382

by Dennis Abrams

Still at Mme de Villeparisis’, Marcel mentions to Mme de Guermantes that he knows M. de Charlus, “who had been very kind to me at Balbec and Paris,” much to her surprise, because Charlus had previously told her “he would be delighted to make your acquaintance, just as if he had never set eyes on you.”  Marcel, naturally is confused by this, “That M. de Charlus should have blushed to be seen with me by M. d’Argencourt was all very well.  But that to his own sister-in-law, who had so high an opinion of him besides, he should deny all knowledge of me, a knowledge that was perfectly natural since I was a friend of both his aunt and nephew, was something I could not understand.”  M. de Charlus’ dislike of being called “Meme.”  Mme de Guermantes says of her cousin and brother-in-law, “You must admit he’s odd, and — though it’s not very nice of me to say such a thing about a brother-in-law I’m devoted to and really do admire immensely — a trifle mad at times.”  Marcel accepts that this last epithet “…might perhaps account for certain things, such as his having appeared so delighted with his proposal that I should ask Bloch to beat his own mother.”  (Confession — this made me laugh out loud.)  Mme de Guermantes’ ability to obliterate from her memory what she desires to obliterate, such as Marcel’s previous daily salute and adoration of her.  Marcel/the Narrator recounts an episode that takes place a few days later:  It appears that Charlus, on several occasions, had seriously cruised Bloch, who remarked to Marcel that Charlus had given him “friendly attentions.”  Some time later, at the theater, Marcel introduces Bloch to Charlus, but Charlus, obviously embarassed at seeing Bloch, treats him rudely, leading to a breach of friendship between Marcel and Bloch.  Marcel’s thoughts turn to his upcoming dinner with Mme de Stermaria; to his desire to possess her, and the unbearable wait.  “For as a general rule, the shorter the interval that separates us from our planned objective the longer it seems to us, because we apply to it a more minute scale of measurement, or simply because it occurs to us to measure it.”  The Bois de Boulougne, and previous excursions hoping “of seeing the girl with whom one fell in love at the last ball of the season, whom one will not have a chance of meeting again on any evening until the following spring.”

I’d like to go back in time a bit today, and give you an excerpt from J.D. McClatchy’s essay in The Proust Project, discussing the chapter we just finished reading about the grandmother’s death:

“There is the moment, months and pages earlier, when Marcel, returning from barracks life and discovering his grandmother reading in her drawing room, realizes for the first time that hitherto he had only seen her through love’s animating lens, so that the woman is indistinguishable from his idea of her:  “I, for whom my grandmother was still myself, I who had never seen her save in my own soul, always in the same place in the past, through the transparency of contiguous and overlapping memories, suddenly [saw]…an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.”  Time has a life of its own, and mortality — relentless in its course of change and meaninglessness, uncontrollable by desire or habit — has forced a renunciation and isolated both marcel and his grandmother into lives that will end.  from this moment on, the mirror having been shattered, the old woman sickens, and the physical overwhelms the emotional.  ‘It is in sickness,’ Marcel now eerily realizes (and who better to write of this than Proust himself?), ‘that we are compelled to recognise that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood:  our body.’

(My friend the writer and Proustian Patrick Giles, when I mentioned to him that I was writing on this subject, remarked that in the novel death always enslaves Marcel ‘with the same combination of sexual excitement and metaphysical amplitude we associate with Emily Dickinson.’  And then he doubled back to the author:  ‘Proust was a beloved memorialist.  Even casual acquaintances cherished the long, patient, searching understanding letters of condolence he sent them in the wake of a mortal loss.  Unlike Dickinson, who derived her most intense sensual contact with death by touching [at least through words] those whom death had most recently scalded in its vicinity, Proust wrote from a compassionate sense of agency.  He understood death and its place in every moment of live so thoroughly, he could share the burden of death and lighten it with sympathy and his own deeper powers of illumination — there is no time without death, and thus, no life.’)

Proust knew well the grotesque low comedy of the physical.  Scenes just before and a while after [the] episode with Dr. E—- testify to his unsparing attention to the farce of flesh.  The grandmother’s stroke in the public lavatory (the attendant ‘Marquise’ a character like the porter in Macbeth) or the leeches later applied to her body all have a grisly fascination, eliciting from any reader the weak grin of suppressed horror…We all have somthing better to do than die, no?  In the doctor’s palaver, language is all lies, all mercy; memory is a routine and a surgical instrument; literature is a ruse and a comfort.  No matter by choice or fate, each of is alone.”

—-

Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 528 “But to this island…” through Page 540 “…when I imagined him to be still in Morocco or on the sea.”

Treharne:  Page 382 “But to this island…” through Page 390 “…when I thought he was in Morocco or on his way back by sea.”

Enjoy.

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