Moncrieff: 83-91; Clark: 59-64
by Dennis Abrams
At the end of the day, “when I got up to fetch a book from my father’s study, my mistress, having asked my permission to lie down while I was out of the room, was so tired after her long outing in the morning and in the open air that, even if I had been away for a moment only, when I returned I found her asleep and did not wake her.” “…she reminded me of a long blossoming stem that had been laid there, and so in a sense she was: the faculty of dreaming, which I possessed only in her absence, I recovered at such moments in her presence, as though by falling asleep she had become a plant.” “By shutting her eyes, by losing consciousness, Albertine had stripped off, one after another, the different human personalities with which she had deceived me ever since the day when I had first made her acquaintance.” Her breath as the sea. “I spent many a charming evening talking and playing with Albertine, but none so sweet as when I was watching her sleep.” “I would run my eyes over her…” “I, who was acquainted with many Albertines in one person, seemed now to see many more again reposing by myside.” “I seemed to possess not one but countless girls.” Marcel, once certain that Albertine was asleep, “that the tide of her sleep was full,” would “climb deliberately and noiselessly on to the bed, lie down by her side, clasp her waist in one arm, and place my lips upon her cheek and my free hand on her heart…” “I chose, in gazing at her, the aspect of her face which one never saw and which was so beautiful.” “I savoured her sleep with a disinterested, soothing love, just as I would remain for hours listening to the unfurling of the waves.” “Perhaps people must be capable of making us suffer intensely beforethey can procure for us, in the hours of remission, the same soothing calm as nature does.” Marcel comes close but does not look into the pocket of Albertine’s discarded kimono to look through the letters he knows are there. Albertine wakes, Marcel’s name (or is it?) on her lips.
A truly astonishing section.
1. Did you notice just how many times the word “possess” was used?
2. Why didn’t Marcel look through the letters in Albertine’s pocket?
3. This line: “In keeping her in front of my eyes, in my hands, I had an impression of possessing her entirely which I never had when she was awake. Her life was submitted to me, exhaled towards me its gentle breath.”
4. And this: “The sound of her breathing, which had grown louder, might have given the illusion of the panting of sexual pleasure, and when mine was at its climax, I could kiss her without having interrupted her sleep. I felt at such moments that I had possessed her more completely, like an unconscious and unresisting object of dumb nature.”
Disturbing to say the least.
5. And finally, at last…
“Then she would find her tongue and say: ‘My—‘ or My darling—“followed by Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the sane name as the author of this book, would be ‘My Marcel,’or “My darling Marcel.'”
From The Proust Project, Susan Minot’s essay on today’s reading:
“I was in the woods in western Massachusetts. It was late November. Yellow and brown leaves covered the ground like a Turkish rug with the branch shadows making patterns on the light. The forest was pillared with bare white birches. I was sitting on the forest floor leaning against a tree trunk, waiting for my boyfriend. He was rock climbing on a nearby cliff with a friend, I can’t remember who the friend was. I don’t remember the drive getting there or what we did later when we drove away that night. But I remember the afternoon vividly. It was cold, I was smoking cigarettes. I was alone. The reason I remember it so well is that I was reading. For a college course — The Captive by Proust. As I read, I was keenly aware of my surroundings and yet also felt as if I were gliding on a flying carpet.
That I was so thoroughly transported to a bedroom in Paris at the turn of the century and can still remember its bed with the girl lying on it, its curtained windows and the muted sounds of the carriages in the streets, as well if not better than the setting in those woods, is just one version of the strange and unpredictable nature of memory. Why do we lodge one image in our mind when so many are sent floating down the river and forgotten?
I was reading the section near the beginning of this fifth volume when Marcel, having finally secured Albertine in a secret domestic arrangement, is looking over her sleeping body, which is ‘animated now only by the unconscious life of plants, of trees.’ She reminds him of ‘a long blossoming stem that had been laid there.’ As he watches his sleeping mistress in this relatively short section of six pages, he finds occasion to muse about love, jealousy, mistrust, self-consciousness, suffering, the unfathomability of another, sexual politics, the evolution of relationships (‘At one time I had been carried away by excitement when I thought that I saw a trace of mystery in Albertine’s eyes, now I was happy only…when I succeeded in expelling every trace of mystery’), the quality of eyes (‘There are people whose faces assume an unaccustomed beauty and magic the moment they cease to look out of their eyes’), letter writing (“[T]he letters which we receive from a person should be more or less similar to one another and combine to trace an image of the writer sufficiently different from the person we know to constitute a second personality’), and how like the sea, if not a plant, is a woman sleeping. He even describes why he can muse.:
‘[T]he faculty of dreaming, which I possessed only in her absence, I recovered at such moments in her presence, as though by falling asleep she had become a plant. In this way, her sleep realised to a certain extent the possibility of love: alone, I could think of her, but I missed her, I did not possess her; when she was present, I spoke to her, but was too absent from myself to be able to think of her; when she was asleep, I no longer had to talk, I knew that I was no longer observed by her, I no longer needed to live on the surface of myself.’
We see only the outer surface. I was mesmerized by Marcel’s obsession to penetrate the minds of others. I, too, spent a lot of time wondering what went on in someone else’s mind. I followed his every nuance. Each sentence seemed to lift off the page with a kind of divine truth. Proust is best when you in a state of rapt willingness to follow him wherever he takesyou. His meandering, detailed sentences test the attentive reader. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘If you follow along with me, then your attention will be sharp enough to see the subtlety of what I am conveying.”
Proust is unfairly maligned for being wordy. His detractors feel that he rambles. In truth, he does quite the opposite. He zeroes in. His logic may be elaborate — I think wonderfully so — but if you follow it, there is always soon a reward of stunning insight at the end.
Looking back to the fall when I read In Search of Lost Time, I find my memory seems to be as peppered with as many images from the book as from life. In fact, the images of life are more of a blur, and those from the book remain crystal clear.”
And finally, I’d like to recommend as bonus reading the book Proust’s Overcoat: One Man’s Quest for All Things Proust by Lorenza Foschini, and translated by this site’s great and good friend, Eric Karpeles. It’s a beautiful book, well worth your time.
Moncrieff: “No more than my own progression in time…” through “…there is the permanent possibility of danger.” Pages 91-100; Kindle locations 1204-11/1309-15
Clark: “But it was not my movement in time…” through “…there lies an abiding sense of danger.” Pages 64-70; Kindle locations 1530-37/1631-68