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.”
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.”