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  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.