Moncrieff: 456-471; Treharne: 331-341
by Dennis Abrams
Marcel’s mother wakes him up to inform him “My poor child, you only have your Papa and Mamma to rely on now.!” Arriving at the sickroom Marcel finds “Bent in a semi-circle on the bed, a creature other than my grandmother, a sort of beast that had put on her hair and crouched among her bedclothes, lay panting, whimpering, making the blankets heave with its convulsions.” The Duc de Guermantes arrives, determined to do the right thing and shake Marcel’s father by the hand, and is quite put off when he is ignored by the family, and Marcel’s mother ignored his greeting, deciding that she was “as disagreeable as my father was civil…and that in his opinion she was out of sorts and perhaps even not quite ‘all there.'” The Duc is saved from being left alone by the arrival of Saint-Loup. Marcel’s grandmother’s brother-in-law, a monk arrives. “He joined his hands in front of his face like a man absorbed in sorrowful meditation, but, on the assumption that I would then cease to watch him, left, as I observed a tiny chink between his fingers. And just as I was looking away, I saw his sharp eye, which had been taking advantage of the shelter of his hands to observe whether my sympathy was sincere.” Grandmother is given morphine and oxygen, and the sound of her breathing changes. Francoise makes the announcement, “‘I feel quite upset,'” in the same tone in which, she would say, when she had taken too large a plateful of cabbage broth: ‘I’ve got a sort of weight on my stomach,’ sensations both of which were more natural than she seemed to think.” Grandfather and the cousins discuss the weather in Combray vs. that in Paris. Dr. Dieulafoy arrives in his role of certifying that a patient was in extremis. Grandmother dies, and “Francoise was able for the last time, and without causing it any pain, to comb that beautiful hair which was only tinged with grey and hitherto had seemed less old than my grandmother herself.” And, now that grandmother had died and her painful struggle was over, “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.”
There really isn’t much to say about the section we just finished — it’s an extraordinary piece of writing. I think one of our fellow readers, Robin, summed it up in a post she left today:
Chapter One is the most shattering piece of prose I’ve ever read. There have been a few times in my life when at the conclusion of a great book I’ve been moved to tears. But I can’t ever remember reading a passage in a book and having to put the book down because I was overcome. And overcome again re-reading it. And I’m not a crier.
It’s fascinating that Chapter One stands on its own as a complete, intact entity — a jewel. Amazing that Proust gave this section such a tight, disciplined structure. I could see it published as a stand-alone novella, beautifully designed. In the future, when I meet a skeptic who thinks of Proust as a wordy, self-indulgent, rambling windbag, I’ll tell him “Read Chapter One.”
But I do have to add that, despite the painfulness of the section, I did laugh out loud when the Duc came in and announced, “I have just, my dear sir, heard your macabre news. I should like, as a mark of sympathy, to shake your father by the hand.” Hilarious.
So, to finish off Roger Shattuck’s discussion of black humor in this section,
“Meanwhile, Proust keeps wheeling in unlikely visitors. When the still articulate grandmother refuses to see the specialist, he insists on examining everyone else in the household instead — and infects them all with head colds. Francoise is then distracted by an electrician, whom she cannot bear to send away. She talks to him for a quarter of an hour at the back door just when she is needed in the sick room. The Duc de Guermantes arrives, insisting on speaking to Marcel’s stricken mother, and is unable to get over his own graciousness in visiting this bourgeois family. A mysterious and distantly related priest comes to read and meditate by the bedside; Marcel catches him peeking between the fingers he holds folded over his face. Finally, when the celebrated consultant, Dr. Dieulafoy, makes his ceremonial entrance in extremis, the text blurts it right out: ‘We thought we were in a Moliere play.’ Indeed they are — in a Moliere play written by Proust. Right up to the time one reaches the sudden surge of stage movements and missed cues that surrounds the actual death, laughter is one among the strong conflicting responses.”
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: Page 472 “Although it was simply a Sunday in autumn…” through Page 493 “…That would be a happy misfortune.”
Treharne: Page 342 “Athough it was simply a Sunday in autumn…” through Page 357 “What a lucky misfortune that would be.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.