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.