Archive for May, 2010

Moncrieff:  81-93;  Sturrock:  63-72

by Dennis Abrams

Another reason Marcel is irritated by the Turkish Ambassadress:  At the Duchesse de Guermantes’ house, she had spoken disparagingly of the Princesse de Guermantes, remarking that “She is stupid.  No, she’s not so beautiful as all that.  That reputation is usurped.  Anyhow…I find her extremely antipathetic.”  But now, armed with an invitation to the Princessess’ she is singing a different tune, “‘Ah!  What a delightful woman the Princess is!  What a superior person!  I feel sure that, if I were a man,’ she went on, with a trace of oriental servility and sensuality, ‘I would give my life for that heavenly creature,'” adding that there is no comparison between her and her cousin the Duchess.  The reason for her change of heart?  “Our judgment remains uncertain:  the withholding or bestowal of an invitation determines it.”  “The real stars of society are tired of appearing there…but women like the Ottoman Ambassadress, a newcomer to society, are never weary of shining there, and, so to speak everywhere at once.  They are of value at entertainments of the sort known as receptions or routs, to which they would let themselves be dragged from their deathbeds rather than miss one.”  The ability of the Duchesse de Guermantes to make her eyes “sparkle with a flame of wit only when she had to greet some friend or other,” and at the party, having decided that it “would be tiring to have to switch off the light at each,” makes “sure that her eyes were sparkling no less brightly than her other jewels.”  The Duchess assures Marcel that of course she knew he would be invited.  Marcel’s success climbing the social ladder and his mastery of the social arts.  Marcel hears M. de Vaugoubert’s voice, and recognizes it as being like that of  Charlus, the voice of an invert.  A conversation between Charlus and Vaugoubert, in which Charlus informs him, always disparagingly,  of the large numbers of inverts surrounding him, up to and including King Theodosius.  “…he has all the little tricks.  He has that ‘my dear’ manner, which I detest more than anything in the world.  I should never dare to be seen walking in the street with him.”  Mme d’Amoncourt, playing her literary connections for all they’re worth,  informs the Duchesse that she has a letter in which D’Annunzio says that he saw her from a box in the theater, and “he says that he never saw anything so lovely.  He would give his life for ten minutes’ conversation with you,” and goes on to add that she has “the manuscripts of three of Ibsen’s plays, which he sent to me by his old attendant.  I shall keep one and give you the other two.”   The azure eyes of the Duchesse de Guermantes.  The people:   Jews, Bonapartists, and Republicans who interested the Duchess but are not allowed to visit the Princesse de Guermantes because of the Prince’s views.  The exception the Prince makes for Swann, because he has convinced himself he is actually the grandson of the Duc de Berry and fully gentile.  The Duchesse praises the splendors of her cousin’s ‘palace” while adding that she preferred her own “humble den,” adding that “I should die of misery if I had to stay and sleep in rooms that have witnessed so many historic events.  It would give me the feeling of having been left behind after closing-time, forgotten, in the Chateau of Blois, or Fontainebleau, or even in the Louvre, with no antidote to my depression except to tell myself that I was in the room in which Mondaldeschi was murdered.  As a sedative, that is not good enough.”  The arrival of Mme de Saint-Euverte.”


What a cornucopia of riches this section was!  One hardly knows where to begin…the Ambassadress…the conversation between Charlus and Vaugobert with the references to the “young secretaries…not chosen blindfold,” and the Racine choruses…the Duke’s concern that Ibsen and D’Annunzio might still be alive and showing up at his house any moment…but I was particularly struck by the lessons learned by Marcel on how to act with the aristocracy, and the Guermantes in particular.

“I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority of those towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that inferiority, for in that it case it would no longer have any raison d’etre.  ‘But you are our equal, if not our superior,’ the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions to be saying; and they said it in the nicest way imaginable, in order to be loved and admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill breeding.”

And of course there’s the scene in which Marcel knows enough to ignore the Duke’s signals to approach him and the Queen of England.  By this stage, Marcel knows enough to give a deep bow and walk quickly in the opposite direction, forever earning the admiration of both the Duke and the Duchesse.  “They never ceased to find in that bow every possible merit, without however mentioning the one which had seemed the most precious of all, to wit that it had been tactful; nor did they cease to pay me compliments which I understood to be even less a reward for the past than a hint for the future…”

And, finally, a bit more from Sean Wolitz’s look at the real French aristocracy in The Proustian Community:

“To live outside the Faubourg, though imitating it, must have been frustrating, not unlike kissing a woman through a veil.  but eventually the bourgeois used his economic means to penetrate first the impoverished noble society and eventually, by social osmosis, the inner Faubourg.  the Lebaudy family, the great sugar merchants, did this, as did the Wendels and the Schneiders, the Carnegies of France; and the French symbol of supreme wealth, the Rothschilds, who even received an Austrian title, though Jewish, and whose daughers in 1900 were married to such distinguished noblemen as the Prince de Wagram and the Duc de Gramont.  Marriage remained the assured way to obtain and secure entrance.

Besides rich Jewish maidens who became ennobled through marriage, there were American girls such as Anna Gould, who married Comte Boni de Castellane, and Mattie Mitchell, who married the Duc de la Rochefoucauld; they offered rich dowries and were absorbed quickly.  (The Princesse de Monaco nee Kelly continues the tradition in our time.)  the name of the families was continued, but the origins of the bearer are radically different.

Proust’s treatment of high society would be in fact a study more of the bearer and how he or she rose to the Faubourg than of the history or mystique of the title.  the great truth which Proust would reveal about society is that it constantly changes within each strata; as an audience does every night in a theater.

Young Proust, on the fringes of high society, held several advantages besides the necessary wealth:  intelligence, urbanity, artistic inclinations, and the exoticism of being half Jewish.  He began the climb early.  Through his lycee friend Jacques Bizet, he entered his first literary salon, that of his friend’s mother, Mme Straus — a rather good beginning.  This salon mixed artists with artistically inclined nobles.  In 1890 he met Gaston de Caillavet, who took him to his mother, Mme Arman de Caillavet, who charmed the leading writer Anatole France to her gilded cage and thus created the leading bourgeois salon of the Belle Epoque.  Through this salon Proust received invitations to other literary bourgeois salons and met enlightened nobles.  He was able to meet the Empire nobles in the salon of the Princesse Mathilde, whose salon was not difficult to enter.  In 1893, Proust met the Comte de Montesquiou at Madeline Lemaire’s salon.  According to Jacques-Emile Blanche, Proust’s friend and portraitist, Proust had not really circulated among the ‘gratin’ of the Faubourg until Montesquiou made it possible.”

The Weekend’s Reading:  (Since it’s a holiday weekend, I won’t be posting a synopsis and notes until Monday night/Tuesday morning, which should give anyone who might be behind a chance to catch up.)

Moncrieff:  Page 93 “As a matter of fact, Mme de Saint-Euverte had come this evening…” through Page 123 “I was just crossing the room to speak to Swann when unfortunately a hand fell upon my shoulder.”

Sturrock:  Page 72 “In point of fact, Mme de Saint-Euverte had come there that evening…” through Page 93 “I was about to cross the smoking room to talk to Swann when, unfortunately, a hand came down on my shoulder.”

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.


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Moncrieff:  70-81; Sturrock:  56-63

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel goes back inside to ask Charlus to introduce him to the Prince de Guermantes, noting the “artful simplicity of his evening coat which, by the merest trifles which only a tailor’s eye could have picked out, had the air of a ‘Harmony in Black and White’ by Whistler; black, white and red, rather, for M. de Charlus was wearing, suspended from a broad ribbon over his shirt-front, the cross, in white, black and red enamel, of a Knight of the religious Order of Malta.”  Mme de Gallardon introduces her nephew, “the Vicomte de Courvoisier, a young man with a pretty face and an impertinent air,” to Charlus.  Charlus dismisses the Vicomte with a curt and rude  “Good evening, sir,” whether to assuage Mme de Gallardon’s worries about his morals or “to give himself the advantage of a pre-emptive attack,” Marcel is not certain.  Charlus, despite his unhappiness at Marcel’s being invited to the reception without his say-so agrees to introduce him to the Prince, at least until Marcel assures him that he knows them quite well,  and that “the Princess was very nice to me,” which causes Charlus to dismiss him.  M. de Breaute agrees to introduce Marcel to the Prince.  He is finally introduced to the Prince, and despite his polite aloofness, Marcel “realised at once that the fundamentally disdainful man was the Duke, who spoke to you at your first meeting with him as ‘man to man,’ and that, of the two cousins, the one who was generally simple and natural was the Prince. ”  Swann arrives and is immediately carried off by the Prince to the furthest end of the garden for the purpose, some said, of showing him the door.  The fountain of Hubert Robert, which, because of the breeze, sprays Mme d’Arpajon, who is prowling the garden in search of the Duc de Guermantes and his new lover, Mme de Surgis, with a heavy soaking of water, much to the amusement of Grand Duke Vladimir.  Marcel reenters the house where he is greeted kindly by Charlus “It’s nice to see you here…you know I’m fond of you…” before falling into conversation with the Princesse de Guermantes, who comments that “I gather you’ll be dining with us both to meet the Queen of Italy at the embassy on Thursday.  There’ll be every imaginary royalty — it will be most alarming,” much to Marcel’s surprise, who comments “They could not in anyway alarm the Princesse de Guermantes, whose rooms swarmed with them and who would say ‘my little Coburgs’ as she might have said ‘my little dogs.’  And so she said:  ‘It will be most alarming,’ out of sheer silliness, a characteristic which, in society people, overrides even their vanity.”  Marcel/the Narrator remarks that “the defects of a mere acquaintance, and even of a friend, are to us real poisons, against which we are fortunately immunised,” and “by saying ‘Babal” and ‘Meme’ to indicate people with whom she was not acquainted, the Turkish Ambassadress suspended the effects of the immunisation which normally made me find her tolerable.  She irritated me…”


A couple of reminders for characters who have reappeared after disappearing for a time:

M. de Breaute (who finally introduced Marcel to the Prince de Guermantes) we met back in Swann in Love, during the musical evening at the Marquise de Saint-Euverte’s, where we saw him speaking to General de Froberville wearing a monocle.  Later, Swann received an anonymous letter stating that Breaute had been among Odette’s lovers.  Then, during Mme de Villeparisis’ salon in The Guermantes Way, Odette indicates that he is wittier than Bergotte.

Mme de Gallardon:  (Who we saw introducing her nephew to Charlus) who we also first met in Swann’s Way, at the musical evening at the Marquise de Saint-Euverte’s.  She is a Courvoisier and has made snide remarks about Swann’s Jewishness.  But she is best remembered for this.

“…absorbed in her favorite subject of meditation, namely her kinship with the Guermantes family, from which she derived both public and in private and in private a good deal of glory not unmingled with shame, the most brilliant ornaments of that house remaining somewhat aloof from her, perhaps because she was boring, or because she was disagreeable, or very possibly for no reason at all…At that moment she was pondering the fact that she had never received an invitation, or even a call from her young cousin the Princesse des Laumes during the six years that had elapsed since the latter’s marriage…”  But the Princesse  has nothing other than contempt for her, and brushes off Mme de Gallaradon’s  sad attempt to invite her to a musical evening at her house, even after she pleads that her husband was sick and “would so much like to see you.”


And finally, another excerpt from Sean Wolitz’s The Proustian Community, and his look at the real world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.  (Previous excerpts can be read in my two previous posts.)

“This is the world Mme Verdurin calls ‘the bores’ but desires intensely.  This is the dream world of Marcel; this is the ‘chic’ world of Odette, the world of ‘success’ for Morel and Rachel, and the land of ‘final acceptance’ for Bloch.  The Faubourg remained closed to them during the seventies; but with the fall of aristocratic politlcal power, a slow thaw set in in the eighties and was hastened by the political events of the nineties.  Intimate and isolated, the Faubourg needed new faces, something exotic like Jews and reformed demi-mondaines, artists for cultural inebriations, and selected rich bourgeois who could be watched burning in envy and who made rich marriages.  But did those who were finally allowed to enter become part of the Faubourg, or were they simply in it?  Let us turn to Marcel Proust and observe this society from a different perspective.

Proust came from the high bourgeoisie strata of society, which had a basic prerequisite for possible social advancement:  money.  His father, an Inspector-General of Public Health, had placed his wife’s money so well that Marcel never had to work for an income.  His social group, therefore, was as leisured as the aristocrats were.  Though the individual was generally directed toward the bourgeois disciplines of law or medicine, many preferred the slippery but colorful career of social climbing.  The extremely wealthy bourgeois imitated the aristocratic life:  he owned a chateau, he rode to hounds, he gave cotillions in Paris, he sailed a yacht at Deauville; he had, in short, every accoutrement but position.”

More tomorrow.  And why am I drawn to thoughts of Truman Capote, his life with the aristocracy of New York City, and his rejection by them after publishing the first two stories of Answered Prayers?


Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 81 “But on thinking it over, I found another reason…” through Page 93 “…she would have jumped on a delivery-van rather than not go to it.”

Sturrock:  Page 63 “But, on reflection, I discovered another reason…” through Page 72 “…she’d have climbed into a delivery-van rather than not have gone to it.”


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Moncrieff:  57-70; Sturrock:  46-56

by Dennis Abrams

The Marquis de Vaugoubert, “one of the few men (possibly the only man) in society who happened to be in what is called in Sodom the ‘confidence’ of M. de Charlus.  But, if our minister to the court of King Theodosius had some of the same defects as the Baron, they were only very pale reflexions of them.”  Marcel is introduced to Mme de Vaugoubert “(who on account of her corpulence, her high birth, her masculine air, and above all the mediocrity of her husband, was reputed to be endowed with eminent capacities and to be herself for all practical purposes the minister.)”  by her husband (who seems to have forgotten Marcel’s name) and he hopes she will introduce him to the Prince.  Marcel’s plans with Albertine after the reception.  Which came  first:  Was Mme de Vaugoubert mannish before she married her husband, which is what attracted him to her, or did she become mannish during the marriage in order to please her husband?  Mme de Vagoubert’s interest in Marcel, seeing him “as one of those young men who appealed to M. de Vaugoubert and whom she herself would so much have liked to be now that her aging husband showed a preference for youth.”  The women of the party, for whom the party isn’t really enjoyable, and to a certain extent doesn’t really exist, until they read about it in the papers the next day.  M. de Charlus makes his presence known on the balustrade of the great staircase.  Marcel moves outside: “I recognized beneath the trees various women with whom I was on more or less friendly terms, but they seemed transformed because they were at the Princess’s and not at her cousin’s, and because I saw them seated not in front of Dresden china plates but beneath the boughs of a chestnut-tree.”  Mme de Souvre, and her reluctance to introduce Marcel to the Prince.  Marcel’s difficulty in remembering the name of Mme d’Arpajon, the Duc de Guermantes’ former mistress.  A digression on memory and sleep.  Mme d’Arpajon is even more cowardly than Mme de Souvre.


I am really really enjoying this section.  A little social, a little character analysis, a little digression on memory and how it works…what’s not to love?  In some ways, it reminds me of a scene in a movie, where the camera glides through the party scene (in this case instead of the camera, Marcel) and we see bits and pieces of the ongoing festivities through his eyes.

I was particularly struck by the section in which Marcel/the Narrator discusses memory and his struggle to remember the name of Mme d’Arpajon.

“I remembered quite well having met her at dinner, and could remember things that she had said.  But my attention, concentrated upon the inward region in which these memories of her lingered, was unable to discover her name there.  It was there none the less.  My thoughts began playing a sort of game with it to grasp its outlines, its initial letter, and finally to bring the whole name to light.  It was labour in vain; I could more or less sense its mass, its weight, but as for its forms, confronting them with the shadowy captive lurking in the interior darkness, I said to myself:  ‘That’s not it.’  Certainly my mind would have been capable of creating the most difficult names.  Unfortunately, it was not called upon to create but to reproduce.  Any mental activity is easy if it need not be subjected to reality.  Here I was forced to subject myself to it.  Finally, in a flash, the name came back to me in its entirety:  ‘Madame d’Arapjon.’  I am wrong in saying that it came, for it did not, I think, appear to me by a spontaneous propulsion.  Nor do I think that the many faint memories associated with the lady, to which I did not cease to appeal for help (by such exhortations as:  ‘Come now, it’s the lady who is a friend of Mme de Souvre, who feels for Victor Hugo so artless an admiration mingled with so much alarm and horror’)– nor do I think that all these memories, hovering between me and her name, served in any way to bring it to light.  That great game of hide and seek which is played in our memory when we seek to recapture a name does not entail a series of gradual approximations.  We see nothing, then suddenly the correct name appears and is very different from what we thought we were guessing.  It is not the name that has come to us.  No, I believe rather that, as we go on living, we spend our time moving further away from the zone in which a name is distinct, and it was by an exercise of my will and attention, which heightened the acuteness of my inward vision, that all of a sudden I had pierced the semi-darkness and seen daylight…”

This strikes me as absolutely correct.  Your opinion?  Thoughts?  Experiences?

And a bit more from Sean Wollitz’s look at French society from The Proustian Community:

“Let us observe now some of the constant social activity in the months of May and June of the same year, 1903.  On May 19, a cousin of the Comtesse Greffulhe nee Chimay, Comte Robert de Montessquiou, Proust’s friend and patron in society, partial model of the Baron de Charlus, dandy and social king of his age, held a reception from four to seven at his Pavillon de Muses.  Among those present were the Comtesse Greffulhe nee Chimay, Comte A. de la Rouchefoucauld, Comtesse de Castellane, and Comtesse de Dampierre.  On May 19, Mme Standish nee des Cars, a cousin of the Comte de Montesquiou, gave a charity party for the same people.  On June 4, the Comte and Comtesse de Gabriac reciprocated with a soiree musicale.  The same faces were present.  And on June 1 and on June 8 the Comtesse E. de Pourtales had two magnificent receptions:  present were Ducs de Lunyes, de Noailles, de la Tremoille, Prince Murat, Prince A. de Broglie, Comtesse Greffulhe, Comtes Jean, Boni, Stanislas de Castellane, Comtesse d’Haussonville, Comtes G. and A. de la Rouchefoucauld, and others.  We are with the innermost core of the Faubourg Saint-Germain:  it is one large family constantly meeting — the world of the Guermantes.”


Wednesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 70 “I had no one else to turn to but M. de Charlus…” through Page 81 “…instead of working her way up gradually.”

Sturrock:  Page 56 “My one remaining recourse was to M. de Charlus…” through Page 63 “She had completed her schooling in a few months without seeing it through to the end.”


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Moncrieff:  45-57; Sturrock:  37-46

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel arrives at the reception (following dinner) at the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes’.  The pink nougat Luxor obelisk.  The Duc de Chatellerault, having had sex with an unknown man in the Champs-Elysees (while pretending to be an Englishman who doesn’t speak French and apparently doing the servicing of the older man, much to said older man’s surprise “All the favors that [he] had supposed he would have to bestow on so young a gentleman, he had on the contrary received.”) who, much to his embarrassment, turns out to be the Guermantes’ footman.  The Princesse de Guermantes, despite having, according to the Duc de Guermantes, “a touch of Courvoisier,” has achieved a level of social innovation:  at her receptions, the chairs are arranged in little groups, and the Princesse spends ten minutes with each group, bringing in people from one group to another as might be interested in each other.  The beauty of the Princess, “the face of my hostess was so perfect, stamped like so beautiful a medal, that it has retained a commemorative virtue in my mind.”  The general lack of interest by the Princesse in her guests “How good of you to have come,” followed by “You will find M. de Guermantes by the garden door.”  The Duc de Chatellerault is announced by his sexual partner, the footman.  Huxley and the case of the hallucinating patient.   Marcel, still not certain that he has actually been invited, is announced, and, to his surprise, is cordially greeted by the Princesse, who apologizes that the Duchess has not yet arrived, and “in offering me this greeting, she executed around me, holding me by the hand, a graceful pirouette, by the whirl of which I felt myself swept away,” before informing him where the Prince was to be found.  Marcel is relieved to go and does not approach her again, fearing that all she would be able to say was “You will find the Prince in the garden.”  “Members of the same profession recognise each other instinctively; so do those with the same vice.  M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each of them immediately detected the other’s, which was in both cases that of being monolougists in society, to the extent of not being able to stand any interruption.”  M. de Charlus is furious that, despite warning Marcel that “There is no admission to those houses [those of the Princesse and Duchesse de Guermantes] save through me,” Marcel was invited anyway, proof of the Baron’s diminishing social power.  “M. de Charlus knew all to well that the thunderbolts which he hurled at those who did not comply with his orders, or to whom he had taken a dislike, were beginning to be regarded by many people, however furiously he might brandish them, as mere pasteboard, and had no longer the force to banish anybody from anywhere.”  Marcel is buttonholed by Professor E—–, the doctor who briefly looked at his grandmother when she was stricken ill, before having to leave for his dinner, asks to find out whether the grandmother had died, as he had predicted.   “‘Your grandmother is dead, isn’t she?’ he said to me in a voice in which a semi-certainty calmed a slight apprehension.  ‘Ah!  indeed!  Well, from the moment I saw her my prognosis was extremely grave.  I remember it quite well.'”   Doctors are more displeased by the invalidation of their verdicts than they are pleased by their execution.  “Medicine is not an exact science.”


Whew.  As much as I enjoyed Proust’s analysis (although I’m not altogether certain that “enjoyed” is the right word) of the variety gay men in Paris at the turn of the century, I’m glad to return to the social scene, and finally get to the much promised, highly anticipated reception of the Princesse de Guermantes.


Who didn’t love the story of the patient of Dr. Huxley (the grandfather of the famous author) whose patient refused to go out socially, “because often, on the very chair that was offered to her with a courteous gesture, she saw an old gentleman already seated.  She was quite certain that either the gesture or the old gentlemen’s presence was a hallucination, for no one would have offered her a chair that was already occupied.”

From The Proustian Community by Sean Wolitz:

“On June 23, 1903, the following item was recorded in the ‘Mondanites,’ the social column of the popular society newspaper, Le Gaulois:

‘A small gathering but of supreme elegance the night before last at the home of Comtesse Greffulhe, nee La Rochefoucauld, who did the honors, aided by her daughter-in-law, Comtesse Greffulhe, nee Caraman-Chimay, and her granddaughter Mlle Elaine Greffulhe.  Present:  Prince Murat, Duc de Gramont, Duc d’Harcourt, Prince Borghese, Comte de Dampierre, Comtresse de Guerne, Duchesse de Trevise, Comte A. de la Rouchefoucauld, Comte Albert de Mun, Comtesse d’Hinnisdal, Duc de Bassano, Comte de Castellane, Comte H. de Segur, Princesse G. de Caraman-Chimay, Comtesse Murat, Comtesse de Gabriac…’

The people at this little party, according to all memoirs of the age, are certainly the cream of French aristocratic Society.  The newspaper, in its very choice of words, underlines the importance of the people present:  ‘a small gathering’ means not only ‘small’ and ‘limited’ but highly ‘selected’ (another key word.  And when ‘of supreme elegance’ is added, this means we are in the presence of the finest element, the ‘ne plus ultra‘ of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

Let us analyze the Faubourg from just this one social event.  Notice that the gathering is given by the Comtesse Greffuhle nee La Rouchefoucauld.  She and her daughter-in-law particularly were considered queens of society by memorialists of the time.  We have here, I believe, an ‘ideal type’ in Weberian terminology.  Their salon was truly ‘smart’ and ‘elegant’ because it integrated — a new fashion in 1900 — the ‘pick of Legitimist, Orleanist, and Empire nobilities (as well as visiting high European nobility).  Obviously Prince Murat, Duc de Bassano, and the Duc de Trevise are First Empire titles; Prince de Caraman-Chimay, Duc de Gramont, Duc de Luynes, and Comte A. de la Rouchefoucauld are ancien regime titles, the families of which have medieval sources.  But a great salon in the Faubourg Saint-Germain is more than a gathering of the great names of Europe; it is also one continuous family gathering of ‘my cousins’ as Oriane de Guermantes would say — a sign of acceptance.  Comtesse Greffulhe nee La Rochefoucald is a cousin of Comte Aymery de la Rouchfoucauld; Comtesse Greffulhe nee Carman-Chimay is the sister of the Prince de Caraman-Chimay, who himself married the Princesse Helene de Brancovan (a Romanian House), who herself is the sister of the poetess Anna de Noailles nee Brancovan-Bibesco (a friend of Proust’s).  The Comte H. de Noailles (not present) married the sister of the Duc de Gramont (present) whose son, the Duc de Guiche (Proust’s friend) married Mlle Elaine Greffulhe a year later.  And so on.  Everyone is related by blood, marriage, and genealogy.  Broglie, Uzes, Gramont, Brissac, Guermantes, Lunyes, La Tremoille form one vast clan, a little community.  Unconcerned with economics, inactive though devoted to a lost political cause, they had leisure, enough leisure to develop the most intense social life seen since the court of Louis XIV.  Etiquette, precedence, and status, followed the traditions of the royal court.  They lacked only a king, who was in exile at Twickenham.


More to come tomorrow.  And, just to note, it is said that Comtesse Greffulhe nee Caraman-Chimay was one of the inspirations for the Princesse de Guermantes.

Tuesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 57 “Clinging on to me, Professor E—” through Page 70 “…one saw the supple form of a winged victory.”

Sturrock:  Page 46 “Now that he had hold of me, Professor E—” through Page 56  “…could be seen the supple body of a Winged Victory.”


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Moncrieff:  24-22; 19-33

by Dennis Abrams

The lives of gay men who move to the city from the country, living in the Latin Quarter, “modelling themselves on what they observe among those who have already arrived,” in these their special predisposition, unconsciously inherited like a proclivity for drawing, for music, a tendency towards blindness,” on occasion miss an important meeting at work to spend time “with people whose ways of speaking, thinking, dressing, parting their hair, they otherwise adopt.”  And while they generally mix with their fellow students and teachers, “they have speedily discovered other young men who are drawn to them by the same special inclination, as in a small town the assistant and the solicitor are brought together by a common interest in chamber music or mediaeval ivories.”  The occasional slip which lets their true identity come out “a bracelet to slip down from beneath a cuff…who by their persistent stares, their cooings, their laughter, their mutual caresses, oblige a band of students to depart in hot haste,” the willingness of their waiter to pocket their tips.  The solitaries who try to avoid the company of their own kind, but who eventually give in.  The heavy burden of social restraint.  A brief look at the gay men who consider themselves superior to women, “look down on women, regard homosexuality as the appurtenance of genius and the great periods of history, and, when they wish to share their taste with others, seek out not so much those who seem to them to be predisposed to it, like drug-addicts with their morphine, as those who seem to them to be worthy if it, from apostolic zeal, just as others preach Zionism, conscientious objection, Saint-Simonianism, vegetarianism or anarchy.”  The feminine ones, including one “who was so evidently a woman that the women who looked upon him with desire were doomed (failing a special taste on their part) to the same disappointment as those who in Shakespeare’s comedies are taken in by a girl disguised as a youth.”  The Narrator remarks that we need not consider here “those young fools who out of childishness, to tease their friends or to shock their families, obdurately choose clothes that resemble women’s dresses, redden their lips and blacken their eyelashes…[and] let us, finally, leave until later the men who have sealed a pact with Gomorrah.”  The solitaries, “supposing their vice to be more exceptional than it is, they have retired into a solitude from the day on which they discovered it…”  How does a young gay man learn that he desires Rob Roy and not Diana Vernon?   The exemplary history of one such case, who occasionally fools around with a neighbor, “will go out of the way to set a drunkard on the right road or to ‘adjust the dress’ of a blind man,” or else “stands idly on the platform until his train leaves, casting over the crowd of passengers a look that will seem indifferent, disdainful or abstracted to those of another race, but, like the luminous glow with which certain insects bedeck themselves in order to attract others of their species, or like the nectar which certain flowers offer to attract the insects that will fertilise them, would not deceive the connoisseur (barely possible to find) of a pleasure too singular, too hard to place, which is offered him, the confere with whom our specialist could converse in the strange tongue…”  Marcel’s initial disgust of jellyfish  before being able to see them “from the standpoint of natural history and aesthetics.”  M. de Charlus is an exceptional man.  In many ways, the encounter between M. de Charlus and Jupien is a miracle of nature, comparable to the right insect finding and pollinating the right flower; this ‘miracle’ brings to the men a sense that “if they should happen to have an encounter which is really fortunate, or which nature makes appear so to them, their happiness is somehow far more extraordinary, selective, profoundly necessary than that of the normal lover.”  Marcel considers what he has witnessed:  “M. de Charlus had distracted me from looking to see whether the bumble-bee was bringing to the orchid the pollen it had so long been waiting to receive, and no chance of receiving save by an accident so unlikely that one might call it it a miracle.  But it ws a miracle that I had just witnessed, almost of the same order and no less marvellous.  As soon as I considered the encounter from this point of view, everything about it seemed to me instinct with beauty.”  Marcel reconsiders Charlus, and see his violent diatribes as a sexual release.  Charlus becomes Jupien’s protector, finally making him his secretary, much to the pleasure of Francoise, who says if she had a marriageable daughter, she’d be proud to have her marry either Charlus or Jupien, “they’re just the same sort of person.”  The escape of the Sodomites from Sodom, and their numerous descendants, “Certainly they form in every land an oriental colony, cultured, musical, malicious, which has charming qualities and intolerable defects.”  There is no need to create “(just as people have encouraged a Zionist movement) to create a Sodomist movement and to rebuild Sodom.”  Marcel has missed the opportunity of witnessing “the fertilisation of the blossom by the bumble-bee.”

Fascinating, distressing, and a glimpse at a world that has largely disappeared — this section struck me as a kind of Petersen’s Guide to gay men in turn of the century France.  Much of it foreign to me, much of it (the idea of the sexual encounter as a kind of miracle of nature and recognition) all to familiar.  It will be interesting to see how future generations, as life in the closet inevitably becomes just a historic memory, reads this section.  For me, who grew up as the closet doors began to open, it’s all too recognizable, and the “types” that Proust describes, are, of course, still with us in one form or another.   A fascinating section.  (And of course, at the end, there’s the continued linkage of Jews and gays as exiles from Zion and Sodom.)

The conclusion of Edmund White’s essay on this section from The Proust Project:

“The nastiness and despair inherent in these paragraphs camouflage the radical notion that homosexuals constitute a ‘race’; only a step away is the idea that to reject homosexuals is to be guilty of ‘racism.’  While Proust overtly subscribes to the prejudices of his day, he covertly undermines them.  In an early short story a Proustian character argues that homosexuality might be due to an artistic hypersensitivity to beauty.  Now in this passage he drops that defense in favor of a more potent one:  ‘There were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ,’ since ‘the opprobrium alone makes the crime.’  This is Proust’s most extreme idea, that the triumph of Christianity has engendered two accursed races, Jews and homosexuals.

As if dismayed by his own words, Proust immediately goes on to argue, and rather unconvincingly, that if homosexuals were beyond reproach in pagan times, they are reprehensible now since only the most hardened cases persist in practicing their vice in such unfriendly Christian times.

Even this thought, however, is instantly softened by the next reflection:  those who persist in homosexuality do so because of their ‘innate disposition.’  They have no choice — and Proust has come full circle to a theory of biological determinism that only the most irrational bigot could possibly stigmatize.  This stigma exists, however, and, as in old-fashioned “anachronistic’ adventure stories, in Proust’ novel nobles fraternize across class lines with felons, made complicit by their sexual tastes.  The notion of such a queer freemasonry had been popularized during the various trials of Philipp von Eulenberg, a German diplomat and friend to the kaiser.  This trial — which suggested that the kaiser was surrounded by homosexuals in high places — occured shortly before Proust wrote the original 1909 version of these pages.

Proust’s ambivalence about homosexuality and its causes is very rich and productive.  As Luc Fraisse writes in Sodome et Gomorrhe de Marcel Proust, ‘To dissect a vice and to reveal a sickness remain linked in his attitude:  inversion is a sickness, he asserts in a sketch, a nervous taint, says the final text, an innate vice, since  the last paragraph of the novel observes in Albertine ‘the predisposition of vice,’ the first term cancelling out the second.  Although normal in antiquity, inversion would lead to a reproach which is a cultural invention; a cause for guilt in human beings, it exists in a state of innocence in plants:  such is the role of the vegetable metaphor in the first part of Cities of the Plain, as Giles Deleuze has underlines.  In another passage inversion is reduced to a subcategory in the most general laws of desire; or, on the contrary, it allows the study of passion to be pushed to an extreme and accentuates the alienation of the beloved and proves that love is an illness.”  In other words, it’s not just homosexuality that is an illness in Proust but love itself in all its forms.  Homosexuality is a rich, ambiguous subject for Proust to investigate precisely because it is as open to interpretation as love (or live) itself.”

What are your thoughts/reactions to all this?  Reading Part One of Sodom and Gomorrah, where to you feel Proust’s feelings lie?


Monday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 45 “As I was in no hurry to arrive at the Guermantes reception…” through Page 57 “Medicine is not an exact science.”

Sturrock:  Page 37 “As I was not in any hurry to arrive at the Guermantes soiree,” through Page 46 “Medicine is not an exact science.”

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Moncrieff:  11-24; Sturrock:  10-19

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel considers climbing up on a ladder to listen in on Charlus and Jupien through the shops fanlight, but thinks better of it.   “I heard at first in Jupien’s quarters…a series of inarticulate sounds.  I imagine that few words had been exchanged.  It is true that these sounds were so violent that, if they had not always been taken up an octave higher by a parallel plaint, I might have thought that one person was slitting another’s throat within a few feet of me, and that subsequently the murderer and his resuscitated victim were taking a bath to wash away the traces of the crime.  I concluded from this later on that there is another thing as noisy as pain, namely pleasure…”  After 30 minutes, Charlus and Jupien step out into the courtyard.  Charlus asks Jupien about other men in the neighborhood he could introduce him to, angering him “I can see you’re a regular flirt.”   Charlus tries to assuage Jupien’s feelings, speaking to him in a low voice, obviously offering to go another round.  Charlus tells Jupien about the pleasures of the chase, “like the Caliph who use to roam the streets of Baghdad in the guise of a common merchant, to condescend to follow some curious little person whose profile may have taken my fancy,” and following a tram conductor to the end of the line, changing trams several times even if it means risking the germs of the plague by taking a transfer, only to find that the conductor’s family was waiting for him (or her in Charlus’ language) on the platform at Les Aubrais!  But, Charlus admits, “at the present moment my head has been turned by a strange little fellow, an intelligent little cit who shows with regard to myself a prodigious lack of civility.  He has absolutely no idea of the prodigious personage that I am, and of the microscopic animalcule that he is in comparison.”  (Marcel?)  The jealousy of the room waiter for the “interesting little page,” and of the night porter “who was in love with the little page, and used to couch with hm at the hour when Dian rose.”   Marcel understands who Charlus is.  “Until then, because I had not understood, I had not seen.  Each man’s vice…accompanies him after the manner of the tutelary spirit who was invisible to men so long as they were unaware of his presence.  Kindness, treachery, name, social relations, they do not let themselves be laid bare, we carry them hidden.”  The life of homosexuals:  “He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly precisely because their temperament is feminine, and who in ordinary life resemble other men in appearance only…a race upon which a curse is laid and which must live in falsehood and perjury because it knows that its desire, that which constitutes life’s dearest pleasure, is held to be punishable, shameful, an inadmissible thing…”  Gays and their secret lives.  The self-loathing of gays, their wanting  of the unattainable “the type of man who has nothing feminine about him, who is not an invert and consequently cannot love them in return,” and their “shunning one another, seeking out those who are most directly their opposite, who do not want their company…but are also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism to which they are subjected.”  Gays are everywhere.


An amazing section.  What strikes me as essential to not only this section, but our understanding of Proust is the linking of Jews and gays.

“…having finally been invested, by a persecution similar to that of Israel, with the moral characteristics of a race, sometimes beautiful, often hideous…”

and, a key passage,

“taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves, as the Jews claim that Jesus was one of them without reflecting that there were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ…”  (italics mine)

In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom points out that

“There is no subtler ironist than Proust in our century, and his novel’s mythological likening of Jews to homosexuals does not exactly dispraise either group.  Proust was neither an anti-Semite or homophobe.  His love for his Gentile father was real, but his passion for his Jewish mother was overwhelming, and his love affairs with the composer Reynaldo Hahn and with Alfred Agostinelli, the prototype of Albertine, were very authentic relationships.  The refugees from Sodom and Gomorrah are compared by Proust to the Jews of the Disapora, and more explicitly to Adam and Eve exiled from Eden.  j.E. Rivers emphasizes that this parallel of Sodom, Jerusalem, and Eden is at the heart of Proust’s novel and fuses the Jewish power of survival with homosexual endurance throughout the ages, so that both Jews and homosexuals achieve representative status as instances of the human condition since, as Proust says, ‘the true paradises are the paradises we have lost.’  Proust’ humor can seem harsh in regard to the masochistic homosexuality of Charlus or the Jewish insecurities of the unpleasant Bloch, but we do Proust violence if we judge him to be chagrined  by either his Jewish ancestry or his homosexual orientation.”

I’d also like to share with you, for a very different perspective, part of Edmund White’s essay on this section from Andre Aciman’s collection The Proust Project:

“In these pages, Proust alludes to so many conflicting theories of homosexuality that they end up by casting doubt on one another — and on all such theories.  In fact they suggest, finally, that only the conventions of a few cultures (but not all or even most cultures) determine the definition of normality; mere convention and nothing more absolute defines the status of homosexuality.

On the fact of it nothing could seem further from the Proustian position.  He starts out with the most extreme (and the most offensive) theory; that male homosexuals are inverts, i.e., women disguised as men.  this whole initial disquisition on homosexuality is triggered by Marcel’s realization that Charlus’s face in repose is that of a woman since ‘he was one.’  This is the thoery of ‘the soul of a owman enclosed in the body of a man’ first worked out by the German sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1868.

As Elisabeth Ladenson, a contemporary American Proust critic, has put it, ‘According to this paradigm, to which Proust largely adheres in his depiction of male inverts,’ a man who desires another man does so insofar as he is himself in some essential way a woman.  Desire even for a member of the same biological sex is thus seen as inherently heterosexual, as it were, and it is at leas tin part for this reason that Proust eschews the term ‘homosexuality,’ preferring ‘inversion.’

But Proust, so often given to classicizing, discussed ‘inversion” not in contemporary medical terms but by citing the neo-Platonic notion that the desired form, male or female, is inscribed at birth on a facet of the pupil of the — in this case an ‘ephebe’ rather than a ‘nymph.’  Since this very duality harks back to a very long tradition of Greek and Roman boy-love, often enjoyed in alternation with the love of women, the nineteenth-century medicalization of homosexuality is already undermined by classical tolerance, juas it is in the deliberately anticlimatic series of shock words:  ‘punishable, shameful, an inadmissible thing.’

Before the beginning of gay liberation in 1969, even the most staunch defenders of homosexuality (and there weren’t many) were forced to define it as a sickness or a crime or a sin (thereby introducing three other etiologies — medical, judicial, and religious).  Proust in this passage has already employed the psuedomedical term ‘invert” now in elaborate and venomous and confusing sentences he invokes the judge as well as God and Christ (law and religion).

But these invocations are embedded in a comparison of inverts to Jews, disobliging to both.  These pages were ones that Proust had had many years to think over.  He had first written in 1909 a chapter on ‘The Accursed Race,’ which was part of what was eventually published posthumously in the 1950s as Contre Sainte-Beuve.  These old pages were recycled almost intact here in Cities of the Plain (first published in 1921).  Proust sets out to show the similarities between the self-hating homosexual and the anti-Semitic Jew.  Just as the Jew who has converted to Christianity must deny his original faith before the bar of justice (the Inquisition), in the same way the homosexual can enjoy the love of his parents and the camaraderie of his friends only be denying his ‘very life,’ i.e., his real desires.

Although Proust takes an abstract, generic stance in this passage, it coincides with the dismissal of friendship as worthless found through the Search and a strange ambivilance towards his parents.  In his vast novel, which he began only after his parent’s death, he devotes hundreds of pages to the theme of male homosexuality and even more to lesbianism.  Just as Vinteiul’s daughter and her girlfriend profane her father’s photograph, in the same way Proust installed his parent’s furniture in a male brothel (and gave his father’s clothes to a servant).  Was this frankness about the shocking subject of homosexuality in his novel, were these acts of profanation in real life Proust’s ways of avenging himself on parents to whom he could never reveal the truth about his sexual identity?  Is he one of those ‘sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie even in the hour when they close her dying eyes?’  Perhaps to divert attention from his own parti pris, Proust rendered loathsome most of the male homosexual characters in his book while carefully preserving the heterosexuality of Marcel; it was this grotesquerie that Andre Gide complained about to Proust himself.

Proust’s apparent homophobia is matched by his apparent anti-Semitism.  Proust may have made fun of the Bloch family by showing how venal and vulgar its members were, but he was also the man who stood by Dreyfus and who would ask his friends to curb anti-Semetic jibes in his presence, because his mother was Jewish.  Homosexuals, however, are even more self-hating in Proust’s account.  He says that whereas Jews in an extreme case (the Dreyfus affair) will band together, homosexuals are so self-hating they will not close ranks around one of their pariahs (Oscar Wilde.)  If these parallels and contrasts are negative, they conceal a hidden suggestion that homosexuality isnot really a sickness after all but that inverts constitute something like a minority…”  (I’ll post the rest of the essay on Sunday night.)

Two very different perspectives indeed.  Thoughts?  Reactions?


The Weekend’s Reading

Moncrieff:  Page 24 “This is noticeable in those who are poor…” through the end of Part One, Page 44 “…I had missed perhaps an opportunity of witnessing the fertilisation of the blossom by the bumble-bee.”

Sturrock:  Page 19 “This is striking among those who are poor…” through the end of Part One, Page 33 “…perhaps missed the fertilization of the flower by the bumblebee.”

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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Moncrieff:  1-11; Sturrock:  3-10

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel reflects on the day of the reception at the Princesse de Guermantes, when he was looking out into the courtyard, waiting for the Duke and Duchess to return.   It is the hour “immediately after lunch,” and Marcel is watching the precious plant of the Guermantes’, brought outside in the hope that an “unlikely insect would come, by a providential hazard, to visit the offered and neglected pistil.”  M. de Charlus enters the courtyard to pay a call on the ailing Mme de Villeparisis, despite the fact that he “paid calls only between four and six in the evening.”  Marcel contemplates the “laws of the vegetable kingdom,” and the necessity of a visiting insect to transport the seed and fertilize the flower.  M. de Charlus leaves Mme de Guermantes’, “relaxed…softened…pale as a marble statue, his fine features with the prominent nose…no more now than a Guermantes, he seemed already carved in stone, he, Palamede XV, in the chapel at Combray…I found in his face seen thus in repose and as it were in its natural state something so affectionate, so defenceless, that I could not help thinking how angry M. de Charlus would have been could he have known that he was being watched; for what was suggested to me by the sight of this man who was so enamoured of, who so prided himself upon, his virility, to whom all other man seemed odiously effeminate, what he suddenly suggested to me, to such an extent had he momentarily assumed the features, the expression, the smile there of, was a woman.”  Charlus is still there when Jupien leaves his shop after lunch to return to the office — because of their very different schedules, this is the first time they’ve ever seen each other.  Eye contact, shifting body positions — the courtship dance begins, one that despite occurring between strangers “seemed to have been long and carefully rehearsed; one does not arrive spontaneously at that pitch of perfection except when one meets abroad a compatriot with whom an understanding then develops of itself, the means of communication being the same, even without having seen each other before.”  Glances exchanged.  Jupien, having captured Charlus’ attention, goes out into the street, followed by Charlus.   At the same time that “M. de Charlus disappeared through the gate humming like a great bumble-bee, another, a real one this time, flew into the courtyard,” perhaps the one “so long awaited by the orchid.”  Jupien returns followed by Charlus; Charlus asks Jupien for a light, who, while he does not have one with him asks him to “Come inside, you shall have everything you wish,” and the door of the shop closes behind them.   Marcel sneaks downstairs to allow him to continue spying on Charlus and Jupien.


Wow.  It’s all out in the open now.  The scene still contains its power to shock — I can’t quite imagine what readers thought when the book was first published in 1921.  According to Edmund White in his biography, Proust was “almost disappointed by the lack of scandal.  Perhaps his olympian style, with its coolness and philsophical compulsion to find general truths even in the most exotic (and trashy) particulars, tranquilized his readers’ moralistic expectations.

A couple of observations:

1.  Marcel as voyeur/observer.  As the narrator remarks, once again Marcel, watching while hidden, observes a scene of sexual…irregularity.   But what was that with him scurrying downstairs to continue his observations, and even comparing himself (albeit unfavorably) to Boers fighting the British?

2.  Who knew that “Do you have a light?” was even then used as a pick-up line?

3..  From Roger Shattuck in Proust’s Way:

“Proust warned his prospective editors that the scene was shocking — as it was over seventy-five years ago.  Out of sight in the stairway, Marcel watches Charlus and Jupien identify and approach each other in the courtyard and finally retire for half an hour to an inside room.  Comic details and lines keep cropping up, though they remain a quiet obbligato.  (At one point Jupien, suspecting Charlus may be a bishop, is himself scandalized.)  Proust asks us to see the scene in three perspectives: as the demonstration of a set of scientific laws of attraction, here presented in precise botanical terminology; as a scene having a special kind of aesthetic tone, comparable to the music of Beethoven; and as a comedy of shifting identities.  The weave is very tight, and he maintains a careful balance among the three.  The Narrator is more explicit than usual.  “This scene, moreover, was not positively comic, it was overlaid with a strangeness or, if you will, with a naturalness, whose beauty kept growing.”

4.  Was anybody surprised by Charlus’ behavior?  I can imagine that those who read it when the book was first published may not have read Proust’s rather subtle signals about the Baron.  And of course, with his furious denounciations of effeminate men, he calls to mind every anti-gay politician/religious leaders etc., who busily denouncing gays, gay marriage and all the rest, are inevitably caught with a wide stance, with a Congressional page, or taking a rentboy to Europe as their baggage handler.

What was your reaction to this scene so far?

4.  And, finally, a sentence that is included in the Penguin edition (translated by John Sturrock) on the page that says “Part One” — “First appearance of the men-women, descendants of those inhabitants of Sodom who were spared by the fire from heaven.”



Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 11 “I did not dare move.” through Page 24 “…is composed exclusively of persons similar to themselves.”

Sturrock:  Page 10:  “I did not dare move.” through Page 19 “…which is made up exclusively of people like themselves.”


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