Moncrieff: 756-767; Treharne: 549-557
by Dennis Abrams
Arriving at Charlus’ home, Marcel is filled with things he wants to tell him, but is forced to wait, not noticing his surroundings. “The need to speak prevents one not merely from listening but from seeing…” The Baron’s footmen vie for their bosses’ attention. Marcel is brought up to meet with Charlus, “…the door stood open, and I could see the Baron, in a Chinese dressing-gown, with his throat bare, lying on a settee.” The Baron makes no move to greet his guest, does not shake his hand, does not offer him a chair. The cold fury of M. de Charlus’ face, intensified when Marcel asks “whether it was necessary for me to remain standing.” The Baron tells Marcel to “Put yourself in the Louis XIV chair,” but when Marcel takes the closest armchair, erupts, “Ah! so that is what you call a Louis XIV seat! I can see you are a well-educated young man,’ he exclaimed in derision.” Charlus informs Marcel that this meeting will “mark the final point in our relations.” The floral decoration in the Bergotte book he gave Marcel. The Baron continues to rage at Marcel “…you don’t even know what you are sitting on. You offer your hindquarters a Directory fireside chair as a Louis XIV bergere. One of these days you’ll be mistaking Mme de Villeparisis’s lap for the lavatory, and goodness knows what you’ll do in it.” Charlus allows that his religion enjoins patience, that that he will be rewarded for the patience he has shown Marcel. The Baron informs Marcel that he has failed his test, but “I can scarcely reproach you for having undergone it without success, for those who emerge from it triumphant are very few. But at least, and this is the conclusion which I am entitled to draw from the last words that we shall exchange on this earth, at least I intended to protect myself against your calumnious fabrications.” Marcel denies having said anything unflattering about Charlus, allowing that he did tell Mme de Guermantes that he was a friend of Charlus, which brings about another furious attack from Charlus “I think you do yourself an injustice when you accuse yourself of having said that we were friends. I do not look for any great verbal accuracy in one who could all too easily mistake a piece of Chippendale for a rococo chair…” Charlus screams at Marcel for not having written him a letter, Marcel insists he has said nothing that could offend the Baron, which infuriates the Baron even more, “Do you supposed that is within your power to offend me?” Marcel, furious at what he see as the Baron’s pride (and forgetting the possibility of madness), seizes the Baron’s new silk hat, and rips and tramples it to pieces. Marcel tries to leave, opens the door and sees the footmen outside the room, but is brought back in by Charlus, who tells him “Come now…don’t be childish: come back for a minute; he that loveth well chasteneth well, and if I have chastened you well it is because I love you well.” The Baron de Charlus summons a footman “without a trace of self-consciousness to clear away the remains of the shattered hat, which was replaced by another.”
Wild rage. “…while as the palid, frothing snakes twisted and stiffened in his face, his voice became alternately shrill and solemn like the deafening onrush of a storm.” “…he shouted angrily, and indeed his face, vonvulsed and white, differed as much from his ordinary face as does the sea when, on a stormy morning, one sees instead of its customary smiling surface a myriad writhing snakes of spray and foam.”
“…one felt that, whether he was moved by offended pride or disappointed love, whether his motivating force was rancour, sadism, teasing or obsession, this man was capable of committing murder, and of proving by dint of logic that he had been right in doing it and was still head and shoulders above his brother, his sister-in-law, or any of the rest.”
No matter how many times I’ve read this section, I’m always astonished by it, both by the depth of Charlus’ rage (whatever its cause may be) and the way in which Marcel responds: “I seized the Baron’s new silk hat, flung it to the ground, trampled it, picked it up again, began blindly pulling it to pieces, wrenched off the brim, tore the crown in two, heedless of the continuing vociferations of M. de Charlus…”
Marcel finally taking action? How did you respond to this section? What are your thoughts?
In his essay on Proust in his book Axel’s Castle, Edmund Wilson points out the similarities between Proust and a novelist who might not immediately leap to mind as a point of comparison, but which is pertinent to the section we’re reading:
“Proust has been compared to Henry James, who was deficient in precisely those gifts of vividness of humor which Proust, to such an astonishing degree, possessed, we shall look in vain for anything like them outside the novels of Dickens. We have already been struck, in “Du Cote de chez Swann,” with the singular relief into which the characters were thrown as soon as they began to speak or act. And it seems plain that Proust must have read Dickens and that this sometimes grotesque heightening of character had been partly learned from him. Proust, like Dickens, was a remarkable mimic: As Dickens enchanted his audiences by dramatic readings from his novels, so, we are told, Proust was celebrated for impersonations of his friends; and both, in their books, carried the practice of caricaturing habits of speech and of inventing things for their personages to say which were outrageous without ever ceasing to be lifelike to a point where it becomes impossible to compare them to anybody but each other. As, furthermore, it has been said of Dickens that his villains are so amusing — in their fashion, so enthusiastically alive — that we are reluctant to see the last of them, so we acquire a curious affection for even the most objectionable characters in Proust…This generous sympathy and understanding for even the monstrosities which humanity produces, and Proust’s capacity for galvanizing these monstrosities into energetic life, are at the bottom of the extraordinary success of the tragi-comic hero of Proust’s Sodom, M. de Charlus. But Charlus surpasses Dickens and, as has been said, is almost comparable to Falstaff. In a letter in which Proust explains that he has borrowed certain traits of Charlus from a real person, he adds that the character in the book is, however, intended to be ‘much bigger,’ to ‘contain much more of humanity’; and it is one of the strange paradoxes of Proust’s genius that he should have been able to create in a character so special a figure of heroic proportions.
Nor is it only in these respects that Proust reminds us of Dickens. Proust’s incidents, as well as his characters, sometimes have a comic violence almost unprecedented in French: Mme. Verdurin dislocating her jaw through laughing at one of Cottard’s jokes, the furious smashing by the narrator of Charlus’s hat and the latter’s calm substitution of another hat in its place, are strokes which no one but Dickens would have dared. This heightening in Dickens is theatrical; and we sometimes — though considerably less often — get the same impression in Proust that we are watching a look or a gesture deliberately underlined on the stage — so that Charlus’s first encounter with the narrator, when the former looks at his watch and makes ‘the gesture of annoyance with which one aims to create the impression that one is tired of waiting, but which one never makes when one is actually waiting,’ and Bloch’s farwell to Mme de Villeparisis, when she attempts to snub him by closing her eyes, seem to take place in the same world as Lady Dedlock’s swift second glance at the legal papers in her lover’s handwriting and Mr. Merdle’s profound stare into his hat “as it it were some twenty feet deep,” when he has come to borrow the penknife with which he is to open his veins…”
The above from Edmund Wilson, strongly linking Dickens to Proust brings to mind Borges’ statement in “Kafka and His Precursors,” “The fact is that every writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”
And yes, (I know this is a long post, but it’s weekend), Charlus was based, in part on a real person. I’ll have more about him as we proceed, but here’s the quick version from Wiki.
Robert de Montesquiou
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
With many homosexual friends, he is reputed to have been the inspiration both for des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans‘ À rebours and, most famously, for Baron de Charlus in Proust‘s À la recherche du temps perdu. He wrote the verses found in the optional choral parts of Gabriel Fauré‘s Pavane.
Robert de Montesquiou was a scion of the famous French Montesquiou-Fezensac Family. He was a distant nephew of Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan, the model for Dumas’ Musketeer. His paternal grandfather was Count Anatole d’Montesquiou, and Aide-de-camp to Napoleon and grand officer of the Légion d’honneur; his father was Anatole’s third son, Thierry, who married Pauline Duroux, an orphan, in 1841. With his wife’s dowry, Thierry bought a Charnizay manor, built a mansion in Paris, and was elected Vice-President of the Jockey Club. He was a successful stockbroker who left a substantial fortune. Robert was the last of Count Thierry’s children, brothers Gontran and Aymery, and sister Élise. His cousin, Élisabeth, comtesse Greffulhe, was one of Marcel Proust‘s models for the duchesse de Guermantes.
A well-known poem in Prières de tous entitled La Prière de Serviteur.
- The house is set in order, I have barred its doors:
- But still I guard its treasures while my master lies
- In sleep. Like me, the hound which on the flagstone snores
- Dreams through the long, slow night with only half-closed eyes.
- The fountain now is silenced and the lamp alight,
- The clothes are folded and the cups and plates are cleared
- Where in the dark the stair-rails vanish out of sight
- Tears force their silent runnels down on to my beard.
- Except at last beneath my gravestone, master dear,
- I shall not know repose. There like the dew
- A summons will for once fall sweet, and from my bier
- ‘Master!’ I shall reply — and it will then be you!
His poetry has been called untranslatable, and was poorly received by critics at the time. His portrait Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac was painted by his close friend, and model for many of his eccentric mannerisms, James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1891-1892. Antonio de La Gandara produced several portraits of the Comte.
He had a strong influence on Émile Gallé, a glass artist he collaborated with and commissioned major works from, and from whom he received hundreds of adulatory letters.
He had social relationships and collaborations with many celebrities of the Fin de siècle period, including Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Luisa Casati, Jean Cocteau, and Maurice Barrès.
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: Page 767 “If you will tell me, Monsieur, who it is that has treacherously maligned me…” through Page 792 “Mme la Duchesse wishes to know if M. le Duc will be so good as to see M. Swann, as Mme la Duchesse is not quite ready.”
Treharne: Page 557 “If you will be good enough to tell me who it is has treacherously maligned me…” through Page 575 “Mme la Duchesse wishes to know if M. le Duc will be good enough to see M. Swann, since Madame is not quite ready.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.