Moncrieff: 226-236; Sturrock: 165-173
by Dennis Abrams
Marcel turns down an invitation to an afternoon party at Mme de Cambremer’s, an invitation he would have jumped at just two days earlier. Marcel compares the differences his grief and his mother’s. Marcel warns that he will, later in the course of this narrative, “experience a grief as profound as that of my mother…” Marcel, in spite of their differences, is finally able to share in his mother’s grief at the death of his grandmother. Marcel’s mother, still in deep mourning, had changed, “I realised — something that had escaped me in Paris — that it was no longer my mother that I had before my eyes, but my grandmother.” Marcel wonders whether the change in his mother is because death “hastens the metamorphosis and the appearance of a being whom we carry within us and who, but for this crisis which annihilates time and space, would have emerged more gradually,” or if “in our regret for her who is no more, there is a sort of auto-suggestion which ends by bringing out in our features resemblances which potentially we already bore, and above all a cessation of our most characteristically individual activity…which, so long as the beloved person was alive, we did not shrink from exercising, even at her expense, and which counterbalanced the traits that we derived exclusively from her. Once she is dead, we hesitate to be different…” The dead act upon us “even more than the living because, true reality being discoverable only by the mind, being the object of a mental process, we acquire a true knowledge only of things that we are obliged to re-create by thought, things that are hidden from us in everyday life.” In our grief for the dead, ‘we pay an idolatrous worship to the things they loved.” Marcel’s mother can’t bear to be separated from grandmother’s bag, her muff, her garments, “even …the volumes of Mme de Sevigne which my grandmother took with her everywhere…” The “alternative ways of expressing that indifference which we feel towards the dead,” as expressed by the judge and the president’s widow. Mme Poussin. At his mother’s urging, Marcel finally leaves his room, encountering for the first time the hotel’s new employees. The young page and his talent at doffing his hat. The Polish brothers and their protectors. The hotel’s staff is compared to the young Israelites of the chorus of Racine’s Athalie, “they led the same ecclesiastical existence as the Levites in Athalie, and as I gazed at that ‘young and faithful troop’ playing at the foot of the steps draped with sumptuous carpets, I felt inclined to ask myself whether I was entering the Grand Hotel at Balbec or the Temple of Solomon.”
From Marcel’s musing on grief:
“…in reality there is a world of difference between real grief, like my mother’s — which literally crushes the life out of one for years if not for ever, when one has lost the person one loves — and that other kind of grief, transitory when all is said, as mine was to be, which passes as quickly as it has been slow in coming, which we dod not experience until long after the event because in order to feel it we need first to ‘understand’ the event; grief such as so many people feel, from which the grief that was torturing me at this moment differed only in assuming the form of involuntary memory.”
“It in this sense (and not in that other sense, so vague, so false, in which the phrase is generally understood) that we may say that death is not in vain, that the dead continue to act upon us. They act upon us even more than the living because, true reality being discoverable only by the mind, being the object of a mental process, we acquire a true knowledge only of things that are hidden from us in everyday life…”
Is this true? Really? I have my doubts.
And…I have to say that I find myself unable to get the image of Marcel’s mother,dressed in black, sitting on the beach as her mother had done, reading “her two favourite books, the Memoirs of Mme de Beausergent and the Letters of Mme de Sevigne,’ out of my mind.
And finally, Andre Aciman writing about Proust from the collection of essays, “The Proust Project,” from his own essay entitled “Upheaval of My Entire Being.”
“The little phrase I am think of is conjured by marcel when he is suddenly reminded of his grandmother during his second stay at Balbec. He had stayed at the same beach resort in Balbec with her once, but now, more than a year after her death, he is back to the very same hotel. What he finds, as Proustian characters always find when they expect maximum emotion, is minimum sensation. He encounters more or less what he experienced at the time of her death: a complete surprise at feeling so singularly numb, almost indifferent, blase. All of it is colored by Marcel’s overloaded feeling of not feeing enough and by the hope that this shamed admission of emotional inadequacy might itself pass for genuine emotion.
Now, surrounded by the ‘indolent charm’ of the Grand Hotel, what the young adult Marcel thinks of as he arrives at Balbec is not his grandmother, but the social life awaiting him, the band of young girls he had met there once before, and that vague, tantalizing thing Marcel always longs for: something exotic, something new, unexpected, different who might ultimately lure him out of his humdrum bookish cocoon into what Proust calls a new life. As for his grandmother — well, if bereavement is the toll the living must pay for the loss of a loved one, then clearly, Marcel, to use Jane Austen’s words, ‘has been let off easily.’
But we are, of course, being set up. For as soon as Marcel is in his hotel room and bends down to undo one of his boot buttons — something his grandmother had helped him with in this very same room — he suddenly bursts out sobbing, vehemently. What hits him is not just that he misses her terribly but that he will never, ever see her again, because for the first time in his life, and in a manner that totally devastates Marcel the arch-premeditator, it finally sinks in, long after it happened, that his grandmother is dead.
Yet, come to think of it, this shouldn’t be surprising. Emotion, as every reader of Proust knows after about thirty pages, always comes unannounced, obliquely, inadvertently, just as it does, say, in Freud. The more unexpected and less rehearsed, the more genuine and more poignant it is. This is how life works in Proust. Conversely, one may bump into the right people, but never when one wants to; one may get what one wants, but only after giving up on it or wanting something else instead. We reach out to seize precious moments not as they’re happening but once we’ve lost them.
So far so good. The set up is familiar enough. Proust, the cross between Freud, Woody Allen, and Murphy of Murphy’s Law is one of us; how well we know him and how well he knows us. How well he understands repression. And how simple and direct that outburst of earnest grief, and how admirable his knowledge that it is always better to feel something, anything, than to feel nothing at all, that human beings should and want to feel things, and that we are each of us heat-seeking subjects starved for feeling, which is why, even at the risk of getting hurt or making tremendous fools of ourselves, we will not shirk from being drawn to certain places, to certain objects, certain odors, to art, to tears, to plants, to writing, to memory, to music, to vice, and, of course, to other human beings, because by so doing each of us finds a secret, private conduit to an inner life that is not just our new life but our true life.
How magnificently…and predictably modern Proust is. So, for the sake of argument, let me overturn everything I’ve been saying and ask: What if this true, inner life is nothing more than a life made to be lost, but lost before it was ever possessed, or even glimpsed, though it seems to have been lived because it claims to be remembered? What if this true, inner life hovers on the horizon like a ghost ship that never materializes but never vanishes either? What if this other life were an ancillary life called…paper: an unlived life made on paper, lived for paper, by a man raised and fed on paper, who has learned that life itself can be so drearily unimaginative sometimes that, by a sort of miracle that justifies his lifelong confinement to paper, life will mimic what could only have happened on paper? Where else but on paper does a man, desperately seeking a woman among millions in Paris, actually bump into her on the streets very late at night? Proust’s bookish eye is transfixed by those moments in life that are stunning, not because of their inherent beauty, but because they cry out to be committed — i.e., returned — to paper, to literature, to fiction, the ultimate seat of the inner life.”
To be continued…
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: Page 236 “I went straight up to my room.” through Page 262 “…in any case she would be with me before one o’clock in the morning.”
Sturrock: Page 173 “I went directly up to my room.” through Page 192 “…and she would at all events be with me before 1 a.m.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.