Archive for October, 2010

Moncrieff:  130-165; Patterson: 88-112

by Dennis Abrams

Charlus meets Morel in the street:  Morel works to “inflame his jealousy,” (and is sometimes kind sometimes cruel on other occasion) — Charlus, trying to cover, tells Marcel “He is a boy who is mad about women and thinks of nothing else,” not realizing that Morel, despite his disreputable past, had fallen in love with a woman who “managed to impose upon him an absolute fidelity.”  Charlus on the war:  Norpois and his admiration for the war, “But what a singular manner he has of writing about it!”  (Marcel tells the reader that the Duc de Guermantes “by no means shared his brother’s pessimism.  The treachery of Caillaux, and a change of opinion due to a cultivated Englishwoman.)   Norpois and the future tense; Norpois and predictions that “Norpois has to revise..every six months.”  Charlus defends his friendship with the Emperor Franz Joseph, and says he’s “shocked now to see all Frenchmen execrate…”  “There is only one point in the conduct of the old monarch that I would wish to criticise at all severely, and that is that a nobleman of his rank, head of one of the most ancient and illustrious houses of Europe, should have allowed himself to be led astray by a petty landowner — a very intelligent man, of course, but still a complete upstart!  like William of Hohenzollern.  It is one of the more shocking anomalies of this war.”  Genealogy and precedence.   Newspapers and public opinion.  Charlus’s speculations on the homosexual activities of Constantine of Greece, Emperor Nicholas, as well as “The Tsar of the Bulgars, he is an out-and-out nancy and a monstrous liar, but very intelligent, a remarkable man.  He likes me very much.”  “M. de Charlus, who would be so delightful, became horrid when he touched on these subjects.”  Mme de Forcheville and her admiration for the English.  Mme Verdurin and Brichot:  Brichot’s articles on the war become fashionable, but “Brichot had become for the Verdurins, instead of the great men that he had once been in their eyes, if not actually a scapegoat like Saniette at any rate a target for their scarcely disguised ridicule.”  Brichot’s articles are a mix of “images which had absolutely no meaning…there were trivialities…Yet mixed with all this, how much knowledge, how much intelligence, what just reasoning!”  “Mme Verdurin, however, never began an article by Brichot without first dwelling upon the enjoyable thought that she was going to find ridiculous things in it…”  Mme Verdurin’s attacks on Brichot, Mme Mole’s defense, “What one must allow him, is that it is well written,” and Mme Verdurin’s fatal jab:  “‘You call that well written?’ said Mme Verdurin.  ‘Personally, I consider that it might have been written by a pig’ — an audacity which always made her fashionable guests laugh, particularly as Mme Verdurin uttered it in a whisper, holding her hands to her lips.”  Her rage against Brichot works its magic, “…it became the fashion to scoff at him as it had previously been to admire him…”  Marcel’s continuing stroll with Charlus:  Charlus speaks of Vandalism, the destruction of statues, “but the destruction of so many marvellous young men, who while they lived were incomparable polychrome statues, is that not also vandalism?”  The decline of attractiveness amongst waiters.  Charlus bemoans the loss of a way of life:  “I am less horrified at the disappearance of a unique monument like Rheims than at that of all the living entities which once made the smallest village in France instructive and charming.”  The Americans.  Combray.  Symbols.  Pyrrhic victories, “we see Germany striving to make peace quickly and France to prolong the war…And the men who wish to continue it are as guilty as the men who began it, more guilty perhaps, for the latter perhaps did not see all its horrors.”  The unintended negative consequences of winning.   France’s militarism:  “…can we say that the man who first began it was the Emperor William?  I am very doubtful about that.   And if it was, what has he done that Napoleon, for instance, did not do — something that I certainly find abominable, but that I am astonished to see also inspiring such horror in those who burn incense before Napoleon…”  The similarities between France and Germany.  Charlus, speaking thus at the top of his voice while walking through the crowded streets, “struck a discordant note there and caused astonishment and, worse than that, rendered audible to the people who turned around to look at us remarks which might well have made them take us for defeatists.”  Suspicious looking individuals emerge from the shadows in the wake of Charlus, “I wondered whether it would be more agreeable to him if I left him alone or remained with him.”  Charlus’s admiration for “the brilliant uniforms which passed before us, which made of Paris a town as cosmopolitan as a part, as unreal as a stage setting…”  Human shooting stars.  Aeroplanes and airmen, Charlus’s admiration for the bravery of French and German airmen, “they are heroes, there is no other word for it.”   Bravery.  Moonlight.  Charlus asks Marcel to help bring about a reconciliation with Morel.

A brilliant section, that reminds us of why M. de Charlus is such a vital character, and of, I think the greatest characters in all of literature.  His humanity, his intelligence, his sense of self and his own importance (a letter to Emperor Franz Joseph?), his avid speculations and gossip on the sex life of others…it was all on display.

I LOVED this:

“Had the Duchesse de Guermantes been shot for trying to make a separate peace with Austria, he would still have considered her no less noble than before, no more dishonoured by this mischance than is Marie-Antoinette in our eyes from having been condemned to the guillotine.”

And this exchange between Marcel and Charlus:

“But recently I had occasion, to settle a matter of business, and in spite of a certain coolness that exists between the young couple and myself, to visit my niece Saint-Loup who lives at Combray.  Combray was simply a small town like hundreds of others.  But the ancestors of my family were portrayed as donors in some of the windows in the church, and in others our armorial bearings were depicted.  We had our church there, and our tombs.  And now this church has been destroyed by the French and the English because it served as an observation post to the Germans.  All that mixture of art and still-living history that was France is being destroyed, and we have not seen the end of the process yet.  Of course I am not so absurd as to compare, for family reasons, the destruction of the church of Combray with that of the cathedral of Rheims, that miracle of a Gothic cathedral which seemed, somehow naturally, to have rediscovered the purity of antique sculpture, or of the cathedral of Amiens.  I do not know whether the raised arm of St. Firmin is still intact today or whether it has been broken.  If so, the loftiest affirmation of faith and energy ever made has disappeared from this world.”

‘You mean its symbol, Monsieur, I interrupted.  ‘And I adore certain symbols no less than you do.  But it would be absurd to sacrifice to the symbol the reality that it symbolises.  Cathedrals are to be adored until the day when, to preserve them, it would be necessary to deny the truths which they teach.  The raised arm of St. Firmin said, with an almost military gesture of command:  ‘Let us be broken, if honour requires.’  Do not sacrifice men to stones whose beauty comes precisely from their having for a moment given fixed form to human truths.'”

And of course, the destruction of the church of Combray brings us back to the beginning, to Swann’s Way, where a young Marcel, going to attend the marriage of the daughter of Dr. Percepied, sees Mme de Guermantes for the first time, “…a fair-haired lady with a large nose, piercing blue eyes, a billowy scarf of mauve silk, glossy and new and bright, and a little pimple at the corner of her nose.” “Now the chapel from which she was following the service was that of Gilbert the Bad, beneath the flat tombstones of which, yellowed and bulging like cells of honey in a comb, rested the bones of the old Counts of Brabant; and I remembered having heard it said that this chapel was reserved for the Guermantes family…”   “…I was picturing her to myself in the colours of a tapestry or a stained-glass window, as living in another century, as being of another substance than the rest of the human race.  Never had it occurred to me that she might have a red face, a mauve scarf like Mme Sazerat…”  “…while Mme de Guermantes sat in the chapel of her dead ancestors, her gaze wandered here and there, rose to the capitals of the pillars, and even rested momentarily upon myself, like a ray of sunlight straying down the nave…”  “And remembering the glance which she had let fall upon me during mass, blue as a ray of sunlight that had penetrated the window of Gilbert the Bad, I said to myself:  ‘She must have taken notice of me.'”

That world is now gone.


Monday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 165-176 “Naturally I was familiar with the credulity,” through “cut from illustrated magazines and reviews.”  Kindle locations 2132-40/2279-86

Patterson:  Pages 112-119 “Of course, I was familiar with the naive or feigned credulity…” through “…brashly decorated with coloured pictures of women cut out of illustrated magazines and reviews.”  Kindle locations 2125-22/2263-69



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Moncrieff:  117-130; Patterson:  79-88

by Dennis Abrams

“…since life with Albertine and with Francoise had accustomed me to suspect in them thoughts and projects which they did not disclose, I now allowed no pronouncement, however specious, of William II or Ferdinand of Bulgaria or Constantine of Greece, to deceive my instinct and prevent it from divining what each of them was plotting…just as there are animal bodies and human bodies, each one of which is an assemblage of cells as large in relation to a single cell as Mont Blanc, so there exist huge organised accumulations of individuals which are called nations:  their life does no more than repeat on a larger scale the lives of their constituent cells, and anybody who is incapable of comprehending the mystery, the reactions, the laws of these smaller lives, will only make futile pronouncements when he talks about struggles between nations.”  Despite the war and the presence of the Germans just outside Paris, life continued unchanged for “many of these who have played a part in this story, and not least for M. de Charlus and the Verdurins, just as if the Germans had not been as near them as they were, since the threat of a danger momentarily checked but permanently alive leaves us absolutely indifferent if we do not picture it to ourselves.”   Mme Verdurin, her headaches,  a prescription for croissants, and the sinking of the Lusitania.  Charlus, “went beyond not passionately desiring the victory of France, he desired rather, without admitting it to himself, that Germany should, if not triumph, at least not be crushed as everybody hoped she would be.”   “M. de Charlus, who had rare moral qualities, who was susceptible to pity, generous, capable of affection and devotion, on the other hand for various reasons — among which the fact that his mother had been a Duchess of Bavaria may have played a part — did not have patriotism.  He belonged, in consequence, no more to the body France than to the body Germany.”  Charlus as spectator.  His critical intelligence and the reasoning of patriots.  His irritation at “the triumphant optimism of people who did not know Germany and Germany’s strength as he did, who believed every month in a crushing victory for the following month, and at the end of the year were as confident in making fresh predictions as though they had never, with equal confidence, made false ones…”  Charlus was merciful, “the idea of a vanquished opponent caused him pain, he was always on the side of the underdog…He was certain in any case that France could not be defeated now, and he knew on the other hand that the Germans were suffering from famine and would be obliged sooner or later to surrender unconditionally.  And this idea too he more particularly disliked owing to the fact that he was living in France.  His memories of Germany, after all, were distant, while the French who spoke of the crushing defeat of Germany with a joy which disgusted him, were people whose defects were known to him, their personalities unsympathetic.”  Newspaper reports gloating over “the Beast at bay,” intoxicated him with rage.  Charlusism.  The murder of Rasputin a la Dostoievsky.  Charlus and Brichot’s militarism.  Is Morel interested in seeing Charlus again?


The war drags on, (I wonder if there was ever the French equivalent of “light at the end of the tunnel?” and Charlus’s humanity shines through.  And Mme Verdurin gets her croissants.

1.  I loved the passage regarding Charlus, the death of Rasputin, and Russian literature:

“In taking sides against the Germans he would have seemed to himself to be acting as he did only in his hours of physical pleasure, to be acting, that is, in a manner contrary to his merciful nature, fired with passion for seductive evil and helping to crush virtuous ugliness.  This too was his reaction at the time of the murder of Rasputin, an event which, happening as it did at a supper-party a la Dostoievsky, caused a general surprise because people found in it so strong a Russian flavour (this impression would have been stronger still had the public not been unaware of aspects of the case that were perfectly well known to M. de Charlus), because life disappoints us so often that in the end we come to believe that literature bears no relation to it and we are therefore astounded when we see the precious ideas that literature has revealed to us display themselves, without fear of getting spoiled, gratuitously, naturally, in the midst of daily life, when we see, for instance, that a supper-party and a murder taking place in Russia actually have something Russian about them.”

Two questions:  What did Charlus know about Rasputin’s murder that the public didn’t?  And…should we take this as a sign to tackle Dostoevsky next?

From William Samson’s biography Proust, another look at Proust’s life in Paris during World War I:

“In August [1914] the German armies broke through Belgium, and then the French and British lines, and arrived thirty miles from a Paris already evacuated by upwards of a million people.  Proust remained day after day, worried about his brother and his friends, and by his own powerlessness.  Finally he took train with Celeste in the habitual direction of Cabourg.  He stayed that September at his old Grand Hotel by the Monet sea, among a scattering of old friends like Mme Straus, and the newly wounded in the local hospital.  In October he returned to Paris where he remained for the rest of the war, working and revising the enormous interstices of his long novel.  He wanted to serve in some way, but was too ill to do so.  Yet he was an avid observer of the war from a tower certainly not of ivory; and his natural effort was to proceed with the only work on hand, which over the momentous cloistered years grew longer and longer, and changed substantially as now his characters were allowed to grow older and the war itself entered and altered the pages.  An immensely improved work, in fact the masterpiece we know, was the end result, an unsought and fortuitous turn of the fortunes of war in that extraordinary cork-lined factory in the Boulevard Haussmann.

One outstanding clue remains to show his progress on the novel.  At the end of 1915 Mme Scheikevitch, a hostess of literary interests, gave him her copy of Swann’s Way to be autographed.  She must have discussed the novel in some detail, for he now returned the book with the blank pages covered in his writing.  This turned out to be a complete resume of the entire story of Albertine, just as it was finally published.  Not only was he thus far ahead with either planning or writing, but he was now concerning himself not so much with distant memories as with the immediate past and his present reaction to it — in fact the loss of Alfred Agostinelli and his feelings first of jealousy surviving death and secondly the slow oblivion of which such a pain was  healed, loss of a loss.

Against the great and violent picture of these years, it seems odd to read of the ordinary matters of life continuing at home in the capital away from the Front.  But continuous, at various levels, they do.  In the course of the years a change of publishers from Grasset to Gide’s N.R.F. was negotiated.  And there are many strange, almost unbelievable episodes related of Proust, like his suddenly increased concentration at music, and the way at midnight he dug out the Quatour Poulet to play for him Cesar Franck’s music alone in his apartment:  Zeppelins and Gothas above, yet driving in a cab round the blacked-out streets picking up ‘cellists and violinists from their beds — a weird effort on the part of a white-faced invalid, almost hilarious had it not so serious a reason, field observation of musical perceptions for the novel’s beautiful, evocative Vinteuil septet.  Compared with our present age of press-button music, this illustrates the importance of performed music — the barrel organ, the ballad sung at the piano, the passing military band were not minor or laughable noises but valued occasions.  The pianola was not enough.

Again and again the invalid Proust had shown these sudden moments of effort.  His persistence was extraordinary — suddenly driving to observe apple trees in blossom outside Paris, or the passing autumnal moments of the trees in the Bois de Boulogne, fits of a novelist’s momentary anxiety that he cannot quite live the memory of such phenomena, and so construct its sensuous essence.  At the same time he risked further illness by such exposures to different atmospheres.  But this kind of sick man was never confined wholly to bed.  He was often up at sundown; or later; and in 1917 began his reputation as Proust of the Ritz, treating that hotel as a second home and escape from the indefatigable work- and sick-room.  The richly appointed Ritz offered a phantom echo of the grand salons of the past, and an atmosphere of discreet and affable servants; and there he found old and new friends, including among the latter the Rumanian-Greek Princess Soutzo, the affianced of Paul Morand, once again a spirited and elegant woman betrothed to a friend, and thus as usual with Proust approachable but unattainable.  Progressively more extraordinary in appearance, iller and his clothes scruffier, he was nevertheless extraordinarily good company, entertaining his friends with long and gifted literary disquisitions far into the night; he was also good company for the staff, whom he tipped extravagantly as always.  Once, for instance, being without ready money at the end of an evening, he asked the doorman at the Ritz whether he might borrow fifty francs from him.  And when the doorman complied, pressed the money back into his hands, saying, ‘Keep them.  They were for you.’  Of course, the debt was repaid the next day.”

The Weekend’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 130-165 “Unfortunately only the next day…” through “…to offer to undertake a reconciliation.”  Kindle locations 1693-1700/2132-40

Patterson:  Pages 88-112 “Unfortunately, the very next day…” through “…to offer to arrange the reconciliation.”  Kindle locations 1703-10/2125-32

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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Moncrieff:  104-117; Patterson:  69-79

by Dennis Abrams

An evening walk by Marcel to the Verdurins:  Daylight savings time.  “Over that whole portion of the city which is dominated by the towers of the Trocadero the sky looked like a vast sea the colour of turquoise…”  Marcel’s oriental vision of Paris:  “and I thought too of the Paris of an earlier age, not now so much of the Paris of the Directory as of the Paris of 1815.  As in 1815 there was a march past of allied troops in the most variegated uniforms, and among them, the Africans in their red divided skirts, the Indians in their white turbans were enough to transform for me this Paris through which I was walking into a whole imaginary exotic city…just as out of the town in which he lived Carpaccio made a Jerusalem or a Constantinople by assembling in its streets a crowd whose marvellous motley was not more rich in colour than that of the crowd around me.”  Marcel sees “a tall, stout man in a soft felt hat and a long heavy overcoat, to whose purplish face I hesitated whether I should give the name of an actor or a painter, both equally notorious for innumerable sodomist scandals…it was M. de Charlus.”  “M. de Charlus had travelled as far as was possible from himself, or rather had was himself but so perfectly masked by what he had become, by what belonged not to him alone but to many other inverts, that for a moment I had taken him for some other invert…”   The quarrel between M. de Charlus and Mme Verdurin “had grown steadily more bitter and Mme Verdurin even took advantage of present events to discredit him further.”  According to Mme Verdurin, Charlus was a man of the past, he was “pre-war.”  He sees “nobody, nobody invites him,” which is true due largely to his own cantankerous personality, “So that what was really the result of his own spleen seemed to be due to the contempt of the people upon whom he vented it.”  Charlus and the Courvoisiers.   The Verdurins  continue their campaign against Charlus:  “‘What is his nationality, exactly, isn’t he Austrian?’ M. Verdurin would ask innocently.  ‘No, certainly not,’ Comtesse Mole would reply, her first reaction being of common sense than of resentment.  ‘No, he is Prussian,’ the Mistress would say.”  Mme de Verdurin proclaims that the Queen of Naples “is a dreadful spy,’ and that “I have not the slightest doubt that for two years Charlus did nothing but spy on us all…Let me tell you, I said to my husband the very first day:  ‘I don’t like the way that man wormed his way into my house.  There’s something shady here.’ We had a property which stood on very high ground, looking down over a bay.  Quite obviously he had been sent by the Germans to prepare a base for their submarines.'”  The unfashionability of M. de Charlus.  Morel has written a series of nasty articles attacking Charlus, including “The Misfortunes of a Dowager ending in -us or the Latter Days of the Baroness,” of which “Mme Verdurin had bought fifty copies in order to be able to lend it to her acquaintances and M. Verdurin, declaring that Voltaire himself did not write better, took to reading aloud.”   Brichot’s pleasure.  Morel’s writing style, stolen from Bergotte’s speaking style.   Mme Verdurin’s attacks on those who left her salon for the war; her attempts to keep those still in her salon from enlisting.   With older men scarce, Charlus’s taste has turned to little boys, as well as the occasional soldier home on leave.  Cottard dies from overexertion.  M. Verdurin dies, “whose death caused grief to one person only and that strangely enough, was Elstir…No doubt young men had come along who also loved painting, but painting of another kind; they had not, like Swann, like M. Verdurin, received lessons in taste from Whistler, lessons in truth from Monet, lessons which alone would have qualified them to judge Elstir with justice.  So the death of M. Verdurin left Elstir feeling lonelier…it was for him as though a little of the beauty of his own work had been eclipsed, since there had perished a little of the universe’s sum total of awareness of its special beauty.”


A beautiful section…

1.  I love (as zungg mentioned in the comments) the descriptions of wartime Paris.  I was struck, in today’s reading by the reiteration of a theme we’ve seen throughout the book — the merging of the sky and the sea.

“Over that whole portion of the city which is dominated by the towers of the Trocadero the sky looked like a vast sea the colour of turquoise, from which gradually there emerged, as it ebbed, a whole line of little black rocks, which might even have been nothing more than a row of fishermen’s nets and which were in fact small clouds– a sea at that moment the colour of turquoise, sweeping along with it, without their noticing, the whole human race in the wake of the vast revolution of the earth, that earth upon which they are mad enough to continue their revolutions, their futile wars, like the war which at this very moment was staining France crimson with blood.  But if one looked for long at the sky, this lazy, too beautiful sky which did not condescend to change its timetable and above the city, where the lamps had been lit, indolently prolonged its lingering day in these bluish tones, one was seized with giddiness:  it was no longer a flat expanse of sea but a vertically stepped series of blue glaciers.  And the towers of the Trocadero which seemed so near to the turquoise steps must, one realised, be infinitely remote from them, like the twin towers of certain towns in Switzerland which at a distance one would suppose to be near neighbours of the upper mountain slopes.”


2.  I know she’s a monster, but am I the only glad to see the return of Mme Verdurin?  Despite her sheer awfulness…(Charlus a Prussian spy?  Members of her salon would be more useful to France if they stayed in Paris?  “…if a man had lost his mother she had not hesitated to try to convince him that there was no objection to his continuing to come to her parties?”)  she’s…fascinating.

3.  The death of M. Verdurin.  What did he die of?  Elstir was the only one to grieve?  (Does that include Mme Verdurin?)  I was, I have to say, extraordinarily touched by Marcel’s description of Elstir’s feelings, self-centered as they might have been. “…it was for him as though a little of the beauty of his own work had been eclipsed, since there had perished a little of the universe’s sum total of awareness of its special beauty.”

Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff: Pages 117-130 “At the time when I believed what people said…” through “I am the older man, it is not for me to make a move.”  Kindle locations:  1524-31/1693-1700

Patterson:  Pages 79-88 “At the time when I believed what people said…” through “…I am the older, it is not up to me to initiate it.”  Kindle locations 1548-55/1703-10


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Moncrieff:  93-104; Patterson:  63-69

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel’s second return to Paris:  Another letter from Gilberte, stating that she had left Paris, “not, as she had written to me in1914, to escape from the Germans and be in a safe place, but on the contrary in order to face them and defend her home against them.”   The destruction of Combray, the German occupation, “…like me, you did not imagine that obscure Roussainville and boring Meseglise, where our letters used to be brought from and where the doctor was once fetched when you were ill, would ever be famous places.  Well, my dear friend, they have become for ever a part of a history, with the same claim to glory as Austerlitz or Valmy.  The battle of Meseglise lasted for more than eight months; the Germans lost in it more than six hundred thousand men, they destroyed Meseglise, but they did not capture it.”  Saint-Loup makes a brief return home from the front.  The disappearance of Francoise’s butcher-boy, “But Paris is large and butcher’s shops are numerous, and although she had visited a great many she had never succeeded in finding the timid and blood-stained young man.”  The supernatural feeling of meeting soldiers on leave, “that impression of something supernatural which was in fact induced by all soldiers on leave and which one feels when one enters the presence of a man suffering from a fatal disease, who still, nevertheless, leaves his bed, gets dressed, goes for walks.”  Morel had treated Saint-Loup as badly as he has treated Charlus; Saint-Loup still wants to see him, Marcel, out of respect for Gilberte, won’t tell him where he can be found.  The beauty of Zeppelin raids.  Sirens and the “Ride of the Valkyries!”  Aeroplanes and searchlights.  Hindenburg imbued with the Napoleonic spirit.   Saint-Loup’s discussion of military strategy demonstrates his brilliance, “a brilliancy which I had never seen in him before…[but] Saint-Loup was far from possessing the sometimes profound originality of his uncle.”  “Through this mixture of humility and pride, of acquired intellectual curiosity and innate authority, M. de Charlus and Saint-Loup, by different paths, and with opposite opinions, had become, with the gap of a generation between them, intellectuals whom every new idea interested and talkers whom no interruption could silence.”

We are, as I mentioned in an earlier post, with the coming of war, in a different world, one in which the rules are changing even more rapidly and society itself is in a state of turmoil, as elaborated by Edward J. Hughes in his essay”Proust and Social Spaces:”

“If the destruction of Venice is a product of the Narrator’s desperate mental projections, it does not prepare the reader for the literal, material destruction of parts of Combray in the First World War, as witnessed and relayed by Gilberte in her letter to the Narrator barely 100 pages later in the novel.  The sites of memory celebrated in ‘Combray,’ such as the way of the hawthorns and the bridge over the Vivonne, have become a battleground, with the Germans occupying one half of Combray and the French the other.  What once appeared fixed social structures have become unceremoniously uprooted.  Yet in addition to signalling radical social change, the destruction of those privileged, affectively charged locations spawns a reaffirmation of cultural affiliation.”

Yet, on the other hand, we have Marcel’s description of the beauty of the Zeppelin raid and of the aeroplanes, all accompanies by the sirens of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

“This was an allusion to a Zeppelin raid which had taken place the previous night and he went on to ask me if I had had a good view, very much as in the old days he might have questioned me about some spectacle of great aesthetic beauty.  At the front, I could see, there might be a sort of bravado in saying:  ‘Isn’t it marvellous?  What a pink?  And that pale green!’  when at any moment you might be killed, but here in Paris there could be no question of any such pose in Saint-Loup’s way of speaking about an insignificant raid, which had in fact looked marvellously beautiful from our balcony when the silence of the night was broken by a display which was more than a display because it was real, with fireworks that were purposeful and protective and bugle-calls that did more than summon on parade.  I spoke of the beauty of the aeroplanes climbing up into the night.  ‘And perhaps they are even more beautiful when they come down,’he said.  ‘I grant that is a magnificent moment when they climb, when they fly off in constellation, in obedience to laws as precise as those that govern the constellations of the stars — for what seems to you a mere spectacle is the rallying of the squadrons, then the orders they receive, their departure in pursuit, etc.  But don’t you prefer the moment, when, just as you have got used to thinking of them as stars, they break away to pursue an enemy or to return to the ground after the all-clear, the moment of apocalypse, when even the stars are hurled from their courses?  And then the sirens, could they have been more Wagnerian, and what could be more appropriate as a salute to the arrival of the Germans?– it might have been the national anthem, with the Crown Prince and the Princesses in the imperial box, the Wacht am Rhein; one had to ask oneself whether they were indeed pilots and not Valkyries who were sailing upwards.”

Wednesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 104-117  “I had gone on walking as I turned over in my mind…” through “he did not altogether lack the company of mature men.”  Kindle locations 1367-73/1524-31

Patterson: Pages 69-79 “You remember our conversations at Doncieres…” through “he was short of sufficiently mature soldiers when they came on leave.”  Kindle locations 1375-82/1548-55


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Moncrieff:  83-93; Patterson:  56-63

by Dennis Abrams

Francoise’s unsuccessful attempts to get her nephew exempted.  The butler torments Francoise regarding the war, attempting to “make her flesh creep,”  “Anyhow, the young men, one and all, will be off to the front and there won’t be many to come back.  In one way it’ll do some good.  A good bloodletting, you know, is useful now and then…And I promise you, if there are any lads who are a bit soft and think twice about it, they’ll be for the firing-squad — bang, bang, bang!”  Francoise’s old faults remain:  her prying into Marcel’s affairs, her “odd remarks which someone of my own class could not have made…”  “But you’re absolutely dripping!”  “Finally, she no longer spoke good French as she had in the past…She no longer slept, no longer ate.  Every day she insisted on the bulletins, of which she understood nothing, being read to her by the butler who understood hardly more of them than she did…”  Her happiness that the new butcher boy was not old enough to be called up.  The butler’s lack of imagination.  During his first stay at the sanitarium, Marcel receives two letters.  One from Gilberte from September 1914, telling him that she (and her little daughter) had fled Paris for Combray, only to find it had been occupied by the Germans, “Whether the German staff had really behaved well, or whether it was right to detect in Gilberte’s letter the influence, by contagion, of the spirit of those Guermantes who were of Bavarian stock and related to the highest aristocracy of Germany, she was lavish in her praise of the perfect breeding of the staff-officers, and even of the soldiers who had only asked her for ‘permission to pick a few of the forget-me-nots growing near the pond…”  The other letter from Robert Saint-Loup, “much more Saint-Loup than Guermantes [which] reflected in addition all the liberal culture which he had acquired.  No discussion of generals, no names mentioned, no strategy discussed.  Saint-Loup praises the working men as soldiers, “…if you could see everybody here, particularly the men of the humbler classes, working men and small shopkeepers, who did not suspect what heroism they concealed within them and might have died in their beds without suspecting it…The epic is so magnificent that you would find, as I do, that words no longer matter.”  The death of Vaugoubert, the Ambassador’s son.  Saint-Loup, despite the war and bloodshed around him, “by nature much more intelligent and an artist, and it was with the greatest good taste that he now recorded for my benefit the observations of landscape which he made if he had to halt at the edge of a marshy forest, very much as if he had been out duck hunting…when at dawn on the edge of the forest he had heard the first twittering of a bird, his rapture had been as great as though he had been addressed by the bird in that ‘sublime Siegfried‘ which he so looked forward to hearing after the war.”

1.  It is nice to see Saint-Loup return to being…himself.  Or, at least the formerly known version of himself.

2.  Reading the bickering between Francoise and the butler brought back strong memories of the old series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” during the war, and the arguments that took place there as well beneath the stairs.

I’d like to give you another excerpt from Celeste Albaret’s Monsieur Proust, giving a glimpse at Proust’s life in Paris during the war.

“But still, though it wasn’t a time for elegance and great receptions, there were enough people he knew in Paris for M. Proust to go out and see friends if he wanted to.  If private houses no longer entertained in style, there were still the fashionable restaurants.  And as people kept talking more and more about [his] recently published book, [Swann’s Way] new acquaintances increased both in number and in importance.  And when M. Proust did feel like going out, it was the same as with Bourdaloue pear and many other things:  neither the hour or the circumstances mattered — nothing could have changed his mind.

I know what people will think if I say this sometimes took a certain amount of courage.  They’ll say it was nothing in comparison with the real dangers faced by the soldiers at the front, or that it showed a certain kind of insensibility on his part.  But I remember a particular example, after the Germans had started bombing Paris and the city was plunged into almost total darkness at night.

One night he wanted to pay a visit to the poet Francis Jammes, one of the first to have written favorably about Du cote de chez Swann.  He lived quite a long way off, near the place des Invalides.  With my husband away at war, M. Proust didn’t have a regular taxi, so I had to go and look for one.  They weren’t always eager to go out in the dark those nights, and it didn’t make my search any easier to know he must be growing impatient waiting.  But at least he got off.  And then, before he would come home again, the antiaircraft guns would start — I can’t remember whether they were shooting at a zeppelin or planes, the Gothas.  I was not myself, what with the noise and the bombs, wondering what he could be doing, where he was, and whether he’d be able to get back.

Once — the second and last time — I went down into the cellar during an attack.  Then suddenly I heard the main doorbell ring.

‘Imagine!” said the concierge.  ‘What’s he doing out?  I’ll have to go up and let him in.’

I ran up to the apartment by the service stairs so as to be there by the time he was.  I can still see him getting out of the lift, tranquil and smiling and obviously very pleased about something.

‘Were you waiting for me, Celeste?’ he said.  ‘But I told you to go down to the cellar.  Go back right away, please.’

I protested that I didn’t want to, knowing he wouldn’t go down because of the dust and smell.  But he insisted that I go and finally I did.  But when I saw Antoine, the concierge, and his wife shaking with fright, I thought:  ‘If a bomb drops we’ll be suffocated whether we’re in the cellar or anywhere else.  I’d sooner die a bit farther up the heap than underneath everything.’  So up I went again.  He laughed when I told him why.  Then I began to put away the things he’d taken off when he came in — coat, gloves…When I got to the hat I couldn’t help exclaiming.  The brim was full of bits of shrapnel.

‘Monsieur, look at all this metal!’ I said.  ‘Did you walk home then?  Weren’t you afraid?’

‘No, Celeste, ‘ he said.  ‘Why should I be?  It was such a beautiful sight.’

And he described the searchlights and the shellbursts in the sky and the reflections in the river.  Then he said he’d had a very pleasant night at Francis Jammes’s — Tristan Bernard was there and was very amusing — and as M. Proust didn’t think there would be a taxi on a night like this, he’d set out to walk.

It was so unlike him, who never set foot in the street, to have trudged so far, that I in all innocence asked him:

‘But how did you find the way?’

He laughed and said, ‘Your celestial protection must have sent me a guardian angel, in place de la Concorde.’

The square was deserted, he told me, and when he entered it a man came up to him in the darkness.

‘He might have been following me already and seen me hesitate or stumble in the dark, because I had only the light of the bursting shells to go by.  He said, ‘You don’t look as if you know your way very well.  Would you like me to come with you?  Where are you going?’  I told him, boulevard Haussmann, and we walked along chatting, side by side.  He asked me what I was doing out in the dark like that.  I told him I was going home after visiting a friend, and he said it wasn’t a very suitable hour for walking the streets.  We took rue Boissy-d’Anglas at the side of the Crillon Hotel, which brought us to boulevard Malesherbes, and he didn’t leave me until he’d seen me across the street.’

He stopped and gave me an amused little look.

‘And do you know, Celeste, to tell you the truth, he was a bad lot.  I guessed it right away, but I didn’t show it until we parted.  I thanked him and said, ‘It was very kind of you to see me home.  Will you allow me to ask you, though — why didn’t you attack me?’  And you’ll never guess what he said.  ‘Oh, not someone like you, monsieur.'”

He was very proud of that.”


Tuesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 93-104 “And now, on my second return to Paris…” through “have found both the one and the other either dazzling or insufferably tedious.”  Kindle locations 1226-33/1360-66

Patterson:  Pages 63-69 “And now, returning to Paris for the second time…” through “…tended to find them both, depending on the situation, either dazzling or a complete bore.”  Kindle locations 1261-68/1375-82


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Moncrieff:  50-83; Patterson:  32-55

by Dennis Abrams

Tall turbaned women and war-time charity, “These ladies in new-fangled hats were young women who had come one did not quite know from where and had been the flower of fashion, some for six months, others for two years, others for four.” The war causes rapid changes in society.  “The ladies of the first Directory had a queen who was young and beautiful and was called Mme Tallien.  Those of the second had two, who were old and ugly and were called Mme Verdurin and Mme Bontemps.”  The Dreyfus Affair, and who was on which side, which had once seemed so important, is now forgotten, “In society (and this social phenomenon is merely a particular case of a much more general psychological law) novelties, whether blameworthy or not, excite horror only as long as they have not been assimilated and enveloped by reassuring currents.  It was the same with Dreyfusism as with that marriage between Saint-Loup and the daughter of Odette which had at first produced such an outcry…The words Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard no longer had any meaning then.  But the very people who said this would have been dumbfounded and horrified if one had told them that probably in a few centuries, or perhaps even sooner, the word Boche would have only the curiosity value of such words as sans-culotte, chouan, and bleu.”  Society pronouncements on the war.  Mme Verdurins’ use of “we” and pleasure in saying “GHQ.”  Mme Verdurin’s salon:  “Come at 5 o’clock to talk about the war.”    Morel is a deserter who had failed to rejoin his regiment, “but nobody knew this.”   Andree’s husband Octave, “I’m a wash-out,” the one-time golf-playing friend of Albertine and her gang at Balbec, is now a star of the Verdurin salon, and “the author of remarkable works of art…”  Octave’s illness,  and unwillingness to waste his time except with “meetings with people whom he did not know, whom his ardent imagination represented to him doubtless as being possibly different from others.”   Mme Verdurin’s failed attempts to get Odette to rejoin her salon.  The hotel where the salon is held, the dining room.  Aeroplanes overhead, blackouts at night.  Thoughts of meeting Albertine in the darkness.  “But alas, I was alone…”  The darkened streets bring memories of Combray.  Marcel’s 1914 visit to Paris:  Saint-Loup, his recent return from Balbec, where he had “made unsuccessful advances to the manager of the restaurant,” the manager being the one-time waiter who had been “protected” in the past by Bloch’s uncle, “but wealth in his case had brought with it virtue and it was in vain that Saint-Loup had attempted to seduce him.  Thus, by a law of compensation, while virtuous young men abandon themselves in their later years to the passions of which they have at length become conscious, promiscuous youths turn into men of principle from whom any Charlus who turns up too late on the strength of old stories will get an unpleasant rebuff.  It is all a question of chronology.”  Saint-Loup, fear, and his secret attempts to get sent to the front.  Bloch’s false patriotism.   Rumors of the Kaiser’s death.   Bloch’s exasperation at hearing “Robert say:  ‘the Emperor William.’  I believe that under the blade of the guillotine Saint-Loup and M. de Guermantes could not have spoken otherwise.”   Saint-Loup’s good breeding “is a symptom of formidable mental shackles.  The man who cannot throw them off can never be more than a man of the world.”   Saint-Loup’s “moral delicacy which prevents people from expressing sentiments that lie too deep within them and that seem to them quite natural.”  Saint-Loup’s courage, and his and other homosexual’s idea of virility:  “M. de Charlus had detested effeminacy.  Saint-Loup admired the courage of young men, the intoxication of cavalry charges, the intellectual and moral nobility of friendships between man and man, entirely pure friendships, in which each is prepared to sacrifice his life for the other…I admired Saint-Loup, for asking to be sent to the point of greatest danger, infinitely more than I do M. de Charlus for refusing to wear brightly coloured cravats.”   The lift-boy and Saint-Loup.

An interesting section…one gets, I think, the impression that with the war, events are speeding up and change is much more rapid.  It’s a very long way that we (and Marcel) have come from Combray, from the slow-moving countryside to Paris during the war, with darkness at night and planes overhead…

I just finished reading a fascinating book, The Delighted States:  A Book of Novels, Romances and their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps…& a Variety of Helpful Indexes. (Highly recommended and on sale at amazon for $4.90 in hardcover.)

The book is a highly personal and idiosyncratic look at the ideas of literary influence and translation, making the argument that style is inherently translatable, “even if its translation is not perfect.”   This section, regarding Proust and Kafka, while not directly connected to the weekend’s reading, was, I thought, fascinating:

“At this point, it is also important to rethink the idea of real life.

One morning, in Prague, in the twentieth century, a man called Joseph k wakes up to discover that his breakfast routine has been unaccountably altered.  Instead of his landlady bringing him breakfast in bed, no breakfast appears:  in his landlady’s place, two men who seem to be guards come into his room.

Joseph K., however, is quick to set things straight.  He establishes friendly terms.  ‘The strange thing is’, says Joseph K., chattily, ‘that when one wakes up in the morning, one generally finds things in the same places they were in the previous evening.  And yet in sleep and in dreams one finds oneself, at least apparently, in a state fundamentally different from wakefulness, and upon opening one’s eyes an infinite presence of mind is required, or rather quickness of wit, in order to catch everything, so to speak, in the same place one left it the evening before.’

Or rather, this is what Joseph K said in the novel Der Prozess (The Trial) before it was deleted by Joseph K.’s creator, Franz Kafka.

The conversation between Joseph K and the guards who have come to take him away, in which K reports what someone once told him, that waking up is the ‘riskiest moment’, because after all, ‘if you can get through it without being dragged out of place, you can relax for the rest of the day’ — this conversation disappeared.

Unbeknown to him, Joseph K would soon have a friend in Paris, someone who thought in the same way he did.

At the beginning of the fourth volume of Marcel Proust’s novel A la recherche du demps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the narrator, whose name is Marcel, rambles into a discussion of sleep.  And Marcel is a connoisseur of sleep: he knows all about the precisions of bedtime.  At one point, therefore, he begins to wonder about the phenomenon of the truly deep sleep, the leaden sleep.  He tries to be true to its perhaps unnoticed surprise:  How is it that after a deep sleep one becomes so effortlessly the person one was the night before?  The self, thinks Marcel, should be seen for what it is:  a perpetual surprise of continuity.  ‘We call that a leaden sleep, and it seems as though, even for a few moments after such a sleep is ended, one has oneself become a simple figure of lead.  One is no longer a person.  How then, searching for one’s thoughts, one’s personality, as one searches for a lost object, does one recover one’s own self rather than any other?  Why, when one begins to think, is it not a personality other than the previous one that becomes incarnate in one?  One fails to see what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings one might be, it is on the being one was the day before that unerringly one lays one’s hand.’

The fourth installment of Proust’s novel was published on 17 August 1920.  Kafka wrote The Trial in 1914.  It was not published until 1925, the year after Kafka died.  As far as I know, Kafka never read any or Proust’s novel.  And Proust definitely cannot have read Kafka’s novel.

This European coincidence is, therefore, a coincidence.  But the coincidence helps to prove a useful point.

There is not much difference between the first draft of Kafka’s story about Joseph K and Proust’s finished novel, narrated by Marcel, considering the nature of sleep, and self.  The moment which institutes the difference is Kafka’s deletion in the second draft.  His second draft is an entirely new way of writing fiction.  Rather than speculating on the fact that falling asleep might be ontologically dangerous, Joseph K now wakes up into a world which is exactly like a dream.  Like a dream, it does not feel like a dream at all.

Rather than explaining the oddity, the unreality, Kafka lets his characters act out unreal situations as if they are totally real.

In this way, Kafka invents a new use for everyday detail.  He creates stories which are literally true, and yet which cannot be literally true.  The subject is still real life; it is just a more unusual version than people had previously described.  It gave a form to the confused, the miniscule, the contradictory.

The same subject, after all, is never the same subject.  That is one consequence of the way in which style works.  Going to sleep, and waking up, are infinite operations.  They vary from person to person.  Each description is unique, and irreplaceable.”

What do you think Proust would make of this coincidence?  Or Marcel?


And again…please keep the suggestions coming for the next project…


Monday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 83-93 “And tell me about poor Francoise…” through “which he so looked forward to hearing after the war.”  Kindle locations 1088-95/1218-25

Patterson:  Pages 56-63 “Well now, what about poor Francoise…” through “…which he very much hoped to hear performed after the war.”  Kindle locations 1139-46/1261-68


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Moncrieff:  39-50; Patterson:  24-32

by Dennis Abrams

After his initial depression from reading the Goncourts’ Journal, Marcel is able to reassure himself:   His incapacity for looking and listening was not total, “There was in me a personage who knew more or less how to look, but it was an intermittent personage, coming to life only in the presence of some general essence common to a number of things…Then the personage looked and listened, but at a certain depth only…what interested me was not what they were trying to say but the manner in which they said it and the way in which this manner revealed their character or their foibles…the goal of my investigations:  the point that was common to one being and another,” — it is this that wakes up Marcel’s interest and intellect.  “I was like a surgeon who beneath the smooth surface of a woman’s belly sees the internal disease which is devouring it.”   The patterns of lines take the form of a collection of psychological laws.  Two portraits:  one concerned with light, volume, movement, another with a thousand details, one showing the subject as beautiful, one as ugly:  “a fact which may be of documentary, even of historical importance, but is not necessarily an artistic truth?”  Marcel is “incapable of seeing anything for which a desire had not already been roused in me by something I had read, anything which I had not myself traced in advance a sketch which I wanted now to confront with reality.”  Regrets:  “How unfortunate in that in those days when I was solely preoccupied with meeting Gilberte or Albertine again I did pay more attention to this gentleman!  I took him for a society bore, a mere dummy.  On the contrary, he was a Distinguished Figure!”  It does not matter that we take little pleasure in the company of a Vinteuil, a Bergotte, an Elstir:  “their genius is manifested in their works.”  The truth found in memoirs is of a different order than that found in works of art.   Commonplace and middle class models in works of art.  Marcel spend years away from Paris receiving treatment in a sanitarium, returning in 1916 to find a city changed by war.  Mme Verdurin and Mme Bontemps are the new queens of wartime Paris.  Changes in fashion.

1.   Life or literature?  Marcel seems to be on the precipice, on the brink of a major crisis (is this why he spends time in a sanitarium?) believing that he’s been wasting his life, yet still convinced that he has no gift for literature, unable to find any meaning in either literature or life.    I’d like to share with you the second half of Roger Shattuck’s thoughts on this scene (the first half was in Wednesday’s post) from his book Proust’s Way:

“When he closes the book [the Goncourts’ Journal], Marcel’s first exclamation to himself is ‘The Prestige of Literature!’  There is something about a literary work — its vision, its transparence, its metaphoric quality — that makes it very strong magic.  Even against our will it can enter our mental system and exert a lasting influence.  Prestige in this sense begins to look little different from snobbery in the social domain.  If the patina of heightened existence that hangs over certain lives can be attributed to the secret power of literature, then we can accept the need for a certain portion of artifice to save reality from triviality and platitude.  But the converse case that Proust puts forward and that troubles Marcel seems far more devastating.  Is there a quality in some people that makes them highly susceptible to the prestige of literature and yet incapable of finding its counterpart in their own existence?

The closing sentences of the scene describe Marcel’s quandary as belonging both to life and literature.

‘…it amounted to wondering if all those people whom one regrets not having known (because Balzac described them in his books of dedicated his works to them in admiring homage, about whom Sainte-Beuve or Baudelaire wrote their loveliest verses) or even more if all the Recamiers and the Pompadours would not have struck me as insignificant people, either because of some infirmity in my nature…or because they owed their prestige to an illusory magic belonging to literature.”

Everything is now in jeopardy.  Either Marcel has misjudged all the apparently tiresome and fraudulent people of fashion he knew and has been blind to their real importance; or else they are indeed as ordinary as they appeared and it is the magnifying, transforming power of literature that has raised them to an imaginary and fraudulent prestige.*  He is unable to reject either alternative.  Both ways, he loses, Marcel perceives that the Goncourts write as snobs, and that at the same time their mannered style affects his sensibility more forcefully than he would like.  The lucid grasp of a contradictory dilemma affords him no comfort.  It is precisely at this point in the story that Marcel takes refuge ‘for long years’ in a maison de sante outside Paris.

The crucial phrase in the last passage quoted, a phrase that opens in Marcel’s line of thought a crevasse falling away to unknown depths beneath is ‘some infirmity in my nature.’  What precisely is this infirmity that makes Marcel incapable of taking full account of and giving full value to the very scenes he has lived through?  The answer will tell us what has made Marcel so prone to the false scents of society, love, and art.”

*Confronted by a similar problem in social relativity theory, Marcel’s great-aunt has no trouble finding a solution.  She discovers that their nice but slightly disreputable neighbor in Combray, Monsieur Swann, is a close friend of the nephews of the Marquise de Villeparisis, her most aristocratic schoolmate.  ‘Now, this information about Swann had the effect, not of raising him in my great-aunt’s estimation, but of lowering Mme de Villeparisis.'”

More to come in future posts…

2.  And as for Marcel’s statements of his inability to “see details,” this excerpt from Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret:

“Admittedly, in the society he knew, friendship must have been a fairly rare thing, often disappearing behind easy manners or formal elegance.  It might have existed in certain people, and if M. Proust, who was perspicacity personified, didn’t discover it, that was perhaps because he didn’t bother to look for it.  What interested him in people, at least during the time I knew him, was the material they might provide for his book.

Yes, the more I thought about it afterward, the more I remember him ready to go out, with his coat on, his smile, his hat shading eyes already lit up in the hope of a ‘good evening,’ and then coming back either beaming or tired and vexed over time wasted, the more it seemed to me he never went out except with his book in mind.

When he set out it wasn’t at random but always with a definite objective — for he was a hunter of details, a pilgrim in quest of his characters.

His characters kept up a continual dance in his memory, each performing his or her own highly organized figures.  He never lost sight of them, and what he sought above all was not feelings but truth.

When he came home pleased I’d say:

“Did you get a good haul, monsieur?  What sort of honey are you going to make for us today?”

One night he said to me:  “You know, Celeste, I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature.  that is why it is never finished.  Even when the construction is completed there is always some decoration to add, or a stained-glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up, with a little statue in the corner.”

And so he would set out on his search.

When he was trying to find out about a dress, he had to know where the embroidery came from and what the stitch was; he stopped short of asking who manufactured the thread.

When he let Charlie, the young English friend of M. Goldsmith of ‘Sodom party,’ come to see him, it was only partly to study his very mannered behavior, and he used to imitate him to me afterward.  He studied everything about him, right down to the last detail of his attire.

“His shirts and waistcoats come fro Charvet’s in place Vendome,” he told me.

What interested him about Charvet’s was that it was the mark of a certain kind of society, a particular brand of elegance.  Similarly, what interested him in Goldsmith himself, who bored him to death as a man, were Goldsmith’s affectations:

“I am sure that even in his dressing gown he looks as if he were in evening dress.”

He always sought to see deeper into people — into their mystery, their relationships, their encounters, the allusions between the sexes, the contacts that take place only in words.  But when he talked about all this, he never dotted the i’s.  He left you do do that for yourself…

The whole point of going out to see so many people was to gather the material, in order to make as realistic a prediction as possible.

He didn’t say this to me openly.  As always it was indirect.

“I went to see the so-and-so’s this evening, as you know, and who do you think I met there?  Madame X?  I was amazed.  Nothing would have induced them to have her in their house in the old days.”

He didn’t even say in what way this was significant — but you could see his gaze looking into the past and making the comparison…

He knew that going out so often was killing him, but he found the energy for it within himself.  These evenings brought him a kind of exaltation, like a young man hurrying to an appointment with the girl of his choice.  He was ill, but he held out in the hope of bringing home what he had been looking for…He might have come home pleased either because of a person or because he’d satisfied his curiosity about a house — because he’d found out whether the person had changed or not, or whether the house still had the same roof, and who lived there, and if there were more or fewer servants than when he used to know the place.

At one time he was anxious about a hat he’d seen the Countess de Chavigne wear a long time ago.

“She was beautiful, and she always had magnificent hats.  There was one, I remember, decorated with poppies and cornflowers, and a marvelous felt toque with Parma violets.”  And then he asked:  “Do you think she might still have it?  And could I ask her to let me see it?”

“Well, monsieur, I said, “the fashion’s changed pretty often since the days when ladies drove around in open carriages in the Bois de Boulogne.   If someone as distinguished as Mme de Chevigne, and as elegant as you say she was, had kept all her hats, she’d have a good pile of them by now!”

Finally he couldn’t rest until he’d cleared the matter up by asking Mme de Chevigne herself.

In his youth he’d done more than admire her:  he’d had the same sort of felling for her as he had had for Mme. Greffulhe when he used to go the Opera just to see her go up the stairs.  In the case of Mme de Chavigne he used to stand on the corner of the Champs-Elysees and avenue de Marigny and watch her drive by in her carriage to the Bois.

“I was in ecstasy,” he said.

Driven by one of his impulses, he even spoke to her once but met with a cool reception.  Afterward he saw her only in society, though she was no doubt flattered by her youthful admirer.

When he went to see her to ask about the toque trimmed with Parma violets he came back crushed.  For one thing, her only answer to his question had been:

“Oh Marcel, how can you expect after all this time…?”

And then, as he had told me about his visit, he asked me to get out again a photograph he had of her when she was still in her beauty.  He pointed out the details to me as usual, then put it down and said:

“She used to be a beauty, and a proud woman.  This evening I found a gray-haired old lady with a cracked voice and a hooked nose, knitting on a chaise lounge with her granddaughter beside her.”

His voice was infinitely sad.  It was during the war.  He saw her again a few time, in particular with Jean Cocteau, who lived in the same house as she on rue d’Anjoy.  Then it was over.  He had no more need for her, except in his portraits of the past.

What he took from her for his Duchesse de Guermantes were her bearing and her clothes; the graceful neck and carriage of the head he took from Countess Greffulhe.  The duchess’ wit was more that of Mme Strauss.  He used to draw a clear distinction in talking about the three models.

While he certainly had a deep feeling for Mme de Chevigne and continued to admire her as in the past, as always this didn’t prevent him from judging her impartially.  I remember his saying with a sigh when he signed a copy of his book for her — I think it must have been Le Cote de Guermantes:

“And to think, Celeste, that she will read these pages full of herself and not understand…”

The Weekend’s Reading:

Moncrieff: Pages 50-83 “As for charity, the thought of all the miseries that had sprung from the invasion…” through “…and was dictated purely by amiability.”  Kindle locations 661-68/1088-95

Patterson:  Pages 32-55 “As for charity, given all the miseries caused by the invasion,” through “…and was prompted simply by friendliness.”  Kindle locations 714-21/1135-39

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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Moncrieff:  27-39; Patterson:  15-24

by Dennis Abrams

From the excerpt of the Goncourts’ Journal read by Marcel on his last night at Tansonville:  M Verdurin, before his marriage, was a critic, author of a book on Whistler, and a morphine addict.  The beauty of the Verdurin’s house and belongings.  Little Dunkirk.  The guests at the dinner:  Cottard, the Polish sculptor Viradobetski “Ski,” “an aristocratic Russian lady, a princess with a name ending in -off which I fail to catch (Cottard whispers in my ear that she is the woman who is supposed to have fired point-blank at the Archduke Rudolf)…” “Princess Sherbatoff,” Brichot, and Swann.  The extraordinary cavalcade of plates, “a meal most subtly concocted.”  M Verdurin, according to Mme Verdurin is a crank who “would get more enjoyment from a bottle of cider drunk in the somewhat plebeian coolness of a Normandy farm.  Summers in Normandy.  Elstir was discovered by the Verdurins:  It was Mme Verdurin, according to her, who taught Elstir about flowers, how to recognize jasmine, how to arrange flowers, how to dress the people in his portraits, who “chose the woman’s velvet down which forms a solid mass amid all the glitter of the bright tones of the carpets, the flowers, the fruit, the little girls’ muslin dresses that look like dancers’ tutus,’ even to paint the woman brushing her hair “an idea for which the artist was subsequently much praised and which consisted simply in painting her not as if she were on show but surprised in the intimacy of everyday life.”  Her continuing anger at Elstir’s “vile marriage.”   The story of the black pearls.  Doctor Cottard’s “keen intelligence,” and “stimulating dissertation.”  Swann praises Robert Louis Stephenson as “a really great writer…a very great writer, equal to the greatest.”  Tobacco stains or licorice?   Marcel stops reading in order to go to sleep, and ponders his inability to look and listen to surface details.  “Prestige of literature! I wished I could have seen the Cottards again, asked them all sorts of details about Elstir, gone to look at the shop called Little Dunkirk, if it still existed, asked permission to visit the Verdurin mansion where I had once dined.  But I felt vaguely depressed.  Certainly, I had never concealed from myself that I knew neither how to listen nor, once I was not alone, how to look.  My eyes were blind to the sort of necklace an old woman might be wearing, and the things I might be told about her pearls never entered my ears.  All the same, I had known these people in daily life.  I had dined with them often, they were simply the Verdurins and the Duc de Guermantes and the Cottards, and each one of them I had found just as commonplace as my grandmother had found that Basin of whom she had no suspicion that he was the darling nephew, the enchanting young hero, of Mme de Beausergent, each of them had seemed to me insipid; I could remember the vulgarities without number of which each of them was composed…”


I’ll have more to say about this section tomorrow.  In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy a review of the Goncourts’ Journals by Adam Hirsch, so that you might have a better sense of who and what Proust is parodying:

Book Review
Pages from the Goncourt Journals
by Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt

In every generation, one city emerges as the capital of the republic of letters. This is not necessarily the place where the best writing is being done: Masterpieces are just as likely to come from Jane Austen’s Hampshire parsonage as from Dr. Johnson’s London coffeehouse. It is, rather, a symbolic homeland of the imagination, a metropolis that sets the terms of critical judgment and literary debate. Such capitals are inevitably temporary, passing away as history and chance assemble other geniuses in other places. But long after they disappear, they retain a peculiar power to seduce the imagination. How many readers have wished they could talk with Goethe and Schiller at Weimar, or go to Greenwich Village parties with Hart Crane and Edmund Wilson?

Of all the cities that have served as literature’s capital, none is more famous or infamous than the Paris of the Second Empire; and no writers deserve more credit for its legend than the Goncourt brothers. Edmond de Goncourt, born in 1822, and his younger brother Jules, born in 1830, formed a partnership that is possibly unique in literary history. Not only did they write all their books together, they did not spend more than a day apart in their adult lives, until they were finally parted by Jules’s death in 1870.

The Goncourts wrote prolifically in every genre, but they never had the kind of success they so desperately wanted. They were less admired than Flaubert, though they shared his devotion to style, and less popular than Zola, though they pioneered the techniques of naturalism. Their plays flopped, while Alexandre Dumas got rich from “La Dame aux Camélias.” Their works on history and art were overlooked, as Hippolyte Taine and Ernest Renan became intellectual demigods. By the time he reached his 60s, Edmond was frantic to do something, anything, to secure his reputation: “My constant preoccupation,” he wrote, “is to save the name of Goncourt from oblivion in the future by every sort of survival: survival through works of literature, survival through foundations, survival through the application of my monogram to all the objets d’art which have belonged to my brother and myself.”

As it turned out, however, it was none of these things that rescued the Goncourts from “oblivion.” It was, rather, their Journals — the scandalous, vain, vengeful, brutally honest diaries in which the two brothers, and then Edmond alone, wrote the secret history of their age. Starting in 1851, the year their first novel was published, and ending just twelve days before Edmond’s death in 1896, the Goncourt Journals helped to immortalize their period as well as their authors. If we are still fascinated by the literary life of Paris in the late 19th century — not just the books but the personalities, the rivalries and friendships, the piquant combination of idealism and brutishness — we have the Goncourts to thank.

Both the idealism and the brutishness are on full display in “Pages from the Goncourt Journals” (New York Review Books, 434 pages, $16.95), a one-volume selection edited by the late scholar and translator Robert Baldick. This edition, which first appeared in 1962,is the latest of many delightful books brought back into print by New York Review Books, whose imprimatur has become a reliable guarantee of reading pleasure. In this case, the pleasure is decidedly of the guilty variety.

The Goncourts belonged to a world where poets mingled with princesses, politicians, and prostitutes, and they faithfully reported gossip from all levels of society, the more lurid the better. Indeed, the most representative sentence in the Journals may be the one that begins the entry for September 25, 1886: “This morning in the garden we talked about copulation.” It was a subject that never got boring. A friend of a friend had a mistress who claimed to have slept with Kaiser Wilhelm II: “She had orders to wait for him naked, stark naked except for a pair of long black gloves coming up above her elbows; he came to her similarly naked, with his arms tied together … and after looking at her for a moment, hurled himself upon her, throwing her onto the floor and taking his pleasure with her in a bestial frenzy.”

Swinburne, the English poet, would entertain visitors with “a collection of obscene photographs … all life-size and all of male subjects.” Zola had a second family that he hid from his wife; Turgenev lost his virginity to one of his serfs at the age of 12. Robert de Montesquiou, the aesthete who was the original of Proust’s Charlus, had his first love affair “with a female ventriloquist who, while Montesquiou was straining to achieve his climax, would imitate the drunken voice of a pimp, threatening the aristocratic client.”

Many of these stories seem to fall into the category of “too good to check.” But they provide a sense of what conversation must have been like at the famous “diners de Magny,” named after the Paris restaurant where the Goncourts, Sainte-Beuve, Gautier, and other writers gathered. It was the world’s most illustrious locker-room, where lechery was ennobled by worldweary romanticism: “Debauchery,” the Goncourts wrote in 1861,”is perhaps an act of despair in the face of infinity.”

But the Goncourts’ Paris was also an intellectual boxing ring, where no one was ever allowed to forget his place in the standings: whose book had sold best, who had gotten a bad review, whose play was booed on opening night. “Coming away from a violent discussion at Magny’s,” the Goncourts write (using the first person singular, as always),”my heart pounding in my breast, my throat and tongue parched, I feel convinced that every political argument boils down to this: ‘I am better than you are,’ every literary argument to this: ‘I have more taste than you,’ every argument about art to this: ‘I have better eyes than you,’ every argument about music to this: ‘I have a finer ear than you.'”

The Goncourts, to their unending frustration, usually wound up at the bottom of the totem pole. They never had the success they thought they deserved, and over the years they became less and less able to tolerate the successes of their friends. It is true that their career was dogged by exceptionally bad luck. The first entry in the journal was made on December 2, 1851, the day the brothers’ first novel was published — and also, it so happened, the day that Napoleon III overthrew the Republic and took power as Emperor. As a result, the novel was completely ignored — “a symphony of words and ideas in the midst of that scramble for office,” as the brothers ruefully put it.

The Goncourts’ next big chance came in 1865, when their groundbreakingly realistic play “Henriette Maréchal” was performed at the Théâtre Français. But once again politics interfered, as protesters drowned the opening-night performance in “a tempest of hisses,” angered by the playwrights’ friendship with the emperor’s cousin. Jules died without ever enjoying a great success, and Edmond spent the rest of his life seething at younger, more talented writers like Zola and Maupassant. The last third of the journal alternates between self-pity (“I am condemned to being attacked and repudiated until the day I die”) and jealous digs at friends: “Maupassant’s success with loose society women is an indication of their vulgarity,” Edmond writes in 1893, “for never have I seen a man of the world with such a red face, such common features, or such a peasant build.”

Many writers think things like this about their rivals, but few have dared to record them for posterity. The Goncourts’ very shamelessness, their refusal or inability to censor their discreditable thoughts, is what makes their journals so absorbing — as Edmond himself knew full well. In his last years, he began to publish the early volumes of the journals, to the fury of certain friends who found old embarrassments dredged up in print. But he refused to be intimidated: “Monsieur Renan calls me an ‘indiscreet individual,'”Edmond told an interviewer in 1890. “I accept the reproach and I am not ashamed of it… For ever since the world began, the only memoirs of any interest have been written by ‘indiscreet individuals.'” The measure of the Goncourts’ indiscretion is that their journals are still so interesting, more than a hundred years later.



Thursday’s  Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 39-50 “But provisionally I decided to ignore the objections against literature…” through “…the tastes and the personal preferences of the individual.”  Kindle locations 526-33/661-68

Patterson:  Pages 24-32 “I resolved provisionally to set aside the objections to literature…” through “…taste and personal preference of each individual.”  Kindle locations 577-84/714-21


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Moncrieff:  16-27; Patterson:  7-15

by Dennis Abrams

Saint-Loup informs Marcel that his visit to Tansonville has done much to cheer up Gilberte, and asks him to persuade her of his continuing love.  Gilberte’s physical similarity to Rachael, and her attempts to use that to keep Saint-Loup’s love.  Her fear of receiving a telegram from Saint-Loup saying he won’t be home, the telegram referred to by M. de Guermantes as “Cannot come, lie follows.”  Saint-Loup’s “…artificially affectionate manner” towards Marcel, “which contrasted painfully with his spontaneous affection of the old days, with the voice of an alcoholic and an actor’s intonation…”   Saint-Loup was “flattered at being loved by Gilberte…without daring to say that it was Charlie whom he loved.”  Saint-Loup is becoming more like his mother, “…the haughty manner which he had inherited from her and which she, by means of the most elaborate training, had perfected in him was now freezing into exaggeration:  the penetrating glance proper to him as a Guermantes gave him the air of inspecting everyplace in which he happened to be…”  Saint-Loup’s movements, like those of a bird:   “half social and half zoological, one asked oneself whether one was watching the passage of a great nobleman or a bird pacing its cage.”  Phrases redolent of the age of Louis XIV.  Saint-Loup can’t talking to Marcel about his “love,” although he insists it is a woman.   Gay men generally make the best husbands, although Guermantes men, who insist on keeping mistresses as well to cover their tracks, are the exception to the rule, “That would not possibly be said of the Saint-Loups, because Robert, instead of being content with inversion, made his wife ill with jealousy by keeping mistresses without pleasure to himself.”  Saint-Loup refuses to allow his conversation “to touch upon his own species of love,” insisting he knows nothing about it, and would prefer to discuss the Balkan war.  Gilberte’s interest in the subject.  Irony and the Balzac story, La Fille aux Yeux d’Or:  Albertine:   “But it’s absurd, improbable, nightmarish.  For one thing, I supposed a woman  might be kept under surveillance in that way by another woman, but surely not by a man.”  “You are wrong.  I once knew a woman who was loved by a man who in the end literally imprisoned her; she was never allowed to see anybody, she could only go out with trusted servants.”  “Well, you who are so kind must be horrified at the idea…”  Marcel thinks about the Combray church which he has yet to revisit, “‘Never mind,’ I said to myself, ‘that can wait another year, if I don’t die in the meantime,’ seeing no other obstacle but my own death and not envisaging that of the church which must, as I supposed, endure for centuries after my death as it had for centuries before my birth.”  Gilberte has little to say about Albertine, leaving Marcel with more questions and doubts.  On the last evening of his stay at Tansonville, Marcel begins reading the Journal of the Goncourts, “…my lack of talent for literature, of which I had had a presentiment long ago on the Guermantes way and which had been confirmed during the stay of which this was the last evening…struck me as something less to be regretted, since literature, if I was to trust the evidence of this book, had no very profound truths to reveal:  and at the same time it seemed to me sad that literature was not what I had thought it to be.”  Marcel will soon be in a sanatorium.

A couple of thoughts…

1.  Despite his insistence that he’s over Albertine, Marcel still seems to be giving her and her activities a great deal of thought.

2.  LOVED this:

“The Courvoisiers were more sensible.  The young Vicomte de Courvoisier thought he was the only man alive, perhaps the only man since the beginning of the world, to be tempted by someone of his own sex.  Supposing this inclination to come to him from the devil, he struggled against it, married an extremely pretty wife and had children by her.  Then one of his cousins taught him that the tendency is fairly wide-spread and was even so kind to take him to places where he could indulge it.  M. de Courvoisier became fonder than ever of his wife and redoubled his philoprogenitive zeal, and he and she were quoted as the happiest people in Paris.”

I love a happy ending.

And finally, an excerpt from Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way, discussing Marcel’s reading of the Goncourts’ journal:

“This scene, near the end, which includes Proust’s masterly nine-page parody of the Goncourt’s arty journalism, suddenly turns the action of the story back on itself, as when a passenger is startled to see the other end of his train while going around a curve.  In the Goncourt ‘extract,’ Marcel finds himself reading about a dinner at the Verdurins’.  The apartment, the people, the stories are all familiar.  Yet, as now described, they appear bathed in a miraculous glow of literary and historic importance.  The Goncourts have observed everything, right down to the elegant plates the meal is served on.  Every detail of that life seems exciting and significant.  In consequence, as he reads, Marcel feels everything tumbling down around his ears.  He knew all these people.  How could he have gone so far astray as to consider the Verdurins a couple of mediocre bourgeois social climbers and bores if they can inspire these ornate pages?  The people he had classified as mere big players (figurants) turn out, in the Goncourts’ authenticating account, to be the leads (figures)”

More tomorrow…

Wednesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 27-39 “The day before yesterday Verdurin drops in here…” through “And all this should make a star at night?”  Kindle locations 371-78/526-33

Patterson:  Pages 15-24 “the day before yesterday Verdurin drops in here…” through “Et que tout cela fasse un astre dans la nuit!”  Kindle locations 424-31/577-84


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Moncrieff:  1-16; Patterson:  3-7

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel walks by himself and with Gilberte at Combray.  “The walks that we took together were very often those that I used to take as a child:  how then could I help but feel much more acutely even than in the past on the Guermantes way the conviction that I would never be able to write, reinforced by the conviction that my imagination and my sensibility had weakened, when I found how incurious I was about Combray?”  Marcel chats with Gilberte, which he finds very pleasant.  “Not without difficulty, however.  In so many people there are different strata which are not alike:  the character of the father, then of the mother; one traverses first one, then the other.  But next day, the order of their superimposition is reversed.  And finally one does not know who will decide between the contestants, to whom one is to appeal for the verdict.  Gilberte was like one of those countries with which one dare not form an alliance because of their too frequent changes of government.  But in reality this is a mistake.  The memory of the most multiple person establishes a sort of identity in him and makes him reluctant to go back on promises which he remembers, even if he has not countersigned them.”   Gilberte suggests that “‘If you like, we might after all go out one afternoon and then we can go to Guermantes, taking the road by Meseglise, which is the nicest way,’ a sentence which upset all the ideas of my childhood by informing me that the two ‘ways’ were not as irreconcilable as I had supposed.”  Gilberte confesses her childhood love and desire for Marcel.  “And suddenly I thought to myself that the true Gilberte, the true Albertine, were perhaps those who had at the first moment yielded themselves with their eyes, one through the hedge of pink hawthorn, the other on the beach…”  Gilberte’s desire for Marcel when she passed him in front of his house.  And yet, “…indeed when we meet again after many years women whom we no longer love, is there not the abyss of death between them and us, quite as much as if they were no longer of this world, since the fact that our love exists no longer makes the people that they were or the person that we were as good as dead?”  Marcel is no longer unhappy, and no longer curious who the young man she had been walking down Champs-Elysees a lifetime earlier.  (He later learns that it was the actress Lea, dressed as a man.  “Thus it is that certain persons always reappear in one’s life to herald one’s pleasures or one’s griefs.”)  “And so I was obliged, after an interval of so many years, to touch up a picture which I recalled so well — an operation which made me quite happy by showing me the impassable gulf which I had then supposed to exist between myself and a certain type of little girl with golden hair was as imaginary as Pascal’s gulf, and which I thought poetic because of the long sequence of years at the end of which I was called upon to perform it…In short the image of Gilberte summed up everything that I had desired during my walks to the point of being unable to make up my mind to return home, seeing to see the tree-trunks part asunder and take human form.  What I had so feverishly longed for then she had been ready, if only I had been able to understand and to meet her again, to let me taste my boyhood.  More completely even than I had supposed, Gilberte had been in those days truly part of the Meseglise way.”  Views from the window of Marcel’s bedroom at Tansonville.  Physical memories of Albertine.  Gilberte knows that Saint-Loup is cheating on her, but assumes it’s with other women.  Saint-Loup’s new life has made him thin and jumpy, and “he now exhibited scarcely any trace of sensibility.”  Saint-Loup’s lies to his wife, and his abject apologies when he’s caught.  Morel is accepted as a “son of the house.”  Francoise’s views of Legrandin and Theodore, Saint-Loup and Morel.

A couple of things…

1.  It’s interesting to note that Proust describes Saint-Loup’s new behavior in terms almost identical to those he used to describe Legrandin:

Legrandin:  “Legrandin had become slimmer and brisker, the contrary effect of an identical cause.  This velocity of movement had its psychological reasons as well.  He was in the habit of frequenting certain low haunts where he did not wish to be seen going in or coming out:  he would hurl himself into them.”

Saint-Loup:  “Robert…[had] become slimmer and taken to moving more rapidly, a contrary effect of an identical vice.  This swiftness of movement had,moreover, various psychological causes, the fear of being seen, the wish to conceal that fear, the feverishness which is generated by self-dissatisfaction and boredom.  He was in the habit of visiting certain low haunts into which, as he did not wish to be seen going in or coming out, he would hurl himself in such a way as to present the smallest possible target to the unfriendly glances of possible passers-by, like a soldier going into an attack.”

2.  And of course, Proust’s description of Morel becoming a “son of the house” of Gilberte and Saint-Loup, “as much a part of it as Bergotte,” seeming to forget that Bergotte had died well before Gilberte’s and Saint-Loup’s marriage.

What’s going on? Ian Patterson, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Time Regained (or as it’s called Finding Time Again) explains:

“The title Le Temps retrouve appears for the first time in a letter Proust wrote in the autumn of 1912, and at that time designated what was to be the concluding (second or third) part of the novel; the first was to be called Le Temps perdu (Lost Time).  Between then ans its first publication in 1927, five years after Proust’s death, the projected novel underwent a series of changes, additions, alterations and rewriting, changing and developing almost out of recognition.  Some things, however, did not change.  The heart of this last volume, the chapters known as ‘Perpetual adoration’ and the ‘Bal des tetes,’ were already quite extensively drafted by 1910.  When Proust died in 1922, the manuscript of Le Temps retrouve was complete, and at least to some extend revised, but it had not yet been typed.  It contained contradictions, mistakes, repetitions and omissions (some of which are indicated in the notes to this translation), as well as the immense difficulties created by Proust’s corrections and alterations, both in the text and its margins and on the additional pieces of paper glued to the edges of pages, or interleaved between them.  It fell to his editors — his brother Robert, and Jean Paulhan (who had succeeded Jacques Rivette as editor of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise in 1925) — to produce a coherent text for publication, which they achieved with a certain amount of cutting and pasting, omitting illegible passages, and adjusting many of the points where repetition or inconsistency occurred.  Consequently, the text published in1927, and translated into English in 1931, was not entirely an accurate presentation of what Proust had written.”


There have since then, of course, been revisions and retranslations.  As we make our way through Time Regained, or, if you prefer, Finding Time Again, I’ll do my best to work with both editions, and point out any differences, discrepancies, or additions that seem important to your understanding of the book.  And again, please keep in mind that the key chapters of this book were extensively rewritten by Proust and reflect, as far as we know, his final wishes.


Tuesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 16-27 “Saint-Loup insisted that I should stay on at Tansonville,” through “Here are the pages that I read before fatigue closed my eyes.”  Kindle locations 227-34/371-78

Patterson:  Pages 7-15 “Saint-Loup was insistent that I should remain at Tansonville…” through “Here are the pages that I read before tiredness closed my eyes.”  Kindle locations 285-92/424-31


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