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.
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.