Archive for November, 2010

Moncrieff:  461-473; Patterson:  311-319

by Dennis Abrams

Bloch introduces a newly arrived friend to Rachel, praising her to the skies.  “To this, Rachel, who was no acquainted with ladies of the best society and unwittingly copied them, replied:  ‘Oh!  I am most flattered, most honoured by your appreciation.'”  Rachel speaks disparagingly of Berma:  “She was once, I won’t say not without talent, for what she possessed was not true talent — her taste was appalling — still, one must admit she had merit of a kind:  she was more alive on the stage than most actresses…And as it is years now since she has earned a penny, because the public these days loathes the sort of things she does…I must admit that someone of my generation, naturally, only heard her right at the end of her career, and even then I was really too young to form an opinion…”  Marcel:  “In spite of Rachel’s words, I was thinking myself that time, as it passes, does not necessarily bring progress in the arts….so Berma was, as the phrase goes, head and shoulders above Rachel, and Time, when simultaneously it turned Rachel into a star and Elstir into a famous painter, had inflated the reputation of a mediocrity as well as consecrated a genius.”  It is not surprising that Rachel should speak maliciously about Berma.  The Duchesse de Guermante’s commonplace comments praising Rachel:  “But then, since even the best writers cease often, as the approach of old age or after producing too much, to have any talent, society women may well be excused if sooner or later they case to have any wit.  Swann already in the sharp-edged wit of the Duchesse de Guermantes found it difficult to recognise the gentle raillery of the young Princesse des Laumes.  And now, late in life, wearied by the least effort, Mme de Guermantes said a prodigious number of stupid things.”  Her “wit” no longer comes easily.  “As her life drew to its close, Mme de Guermantes had felt the quickening within her of new curiosities.  Society no longer had anything to teach her…Her tired mind required a new form of food, and in order to get to know theatrical and literary people she now made herself pleasant to women with whom formerly she would have refused to exchange cards…”  The Duchesse doesn’t recognize the decline in her social position, but, despite her name and that “she alone could boast of a blood that was absolutely without taint…she the purest of the pure had now, sacrificing no doubt in that hereditary need for spiritual nourishment which had brought about the social decline of Mme de Villeparisis, herself become a Mme de Villeparisis, in whose house snobbish women were afraid of meeting this or that undesirable…”  Mme de Guermantes’s memories of the past are very different from Marcel’s:  M. de Breaute and when Marcel met him; when Marcel became friends with Mme de Guermantes, “she no longer knew exactly at what period our friendship had begun and was unaware of the grave anachronisms that she was perpetrating in supposing that we had become friends a few years earlier than in fact we had,” and when Marcel became friends with Swann.  “And again it struck me that, in spite of the apparent unity of that thing which we call ‘society,’ in which, it is true, social relations reach their maximum of concentration (for all paths meet at the top) there exist nevertheless within it, or at least there are created within it by Time, separate provinces which after a while change their names and are no longer comprehensible to those who arrive in society only when its pattern has been altered.  ‘Mme de Varambon was a good lady who said things of an incredible stupidity,’ continued the Duchess, who failed to appreciate that poetry of the incomprehensible which is an effect of Time and chose rather to extract from every situation its element of ironic humour…”  Geraudel lozenges.

Am I the only one whose heart broke just a bit when he read, “As her life drew to its close, Mme de Guermantes…”   Or as we learn of her declining wit and status, and…how is one to feel about her becoming her aunt, Mme de Villeparisis?

And to remind you exactly who M. de Breaute is:

Marquis (or Comte) Hannibal de (“Babal”)Breaute-Consalvi.  We first encounter him talking with General de Froberville at Mme de Saint-Euverte’s concert wearing a monocle “…that which M. de Breaute sported, as a festive badge, with his pearl-gray gloves, his crush hat and white tie, substituting it for the familiar pair of glasses (as Swann himself did) whenhe went to society functions.”   Swann received an anonymous letter listing him among Odette’s lovers.  In The Guermantes Way, Mme de Guermantes tells Mme de Villeparisis that Bergotte is witter than M. de Breaute.  It is at the Duchesse de Guermante’s dinner that M. de Breaute first sees Marcel, recognizes him as a unfamiliar guest, and is introduced to him by the Duke, “M. de Breaute…finding the name to be completely unknown to him, had no longer any doubt that since I was there, I must be a celebrity of some sort…Accordingly M. de Breaute began to lick his chops and to sniff the air greedily, his appetite whetted not only by the good dinner he could count on, but by the character of the party, which my presence could not fail to make interesting and which would furnish him with an intriguing topic of conversation next day at the Duc de Chartres’s luncheon-table.”  He has a reputation for being an intellectual, and discusses vanilla with the Duchess.  At the Princesse de Guermantes’s party, it is M. de Breaute who finally introduces Marcel to the Prince.  It is M. de Breaute who erroneously reports to Marcel that the Prince through Swann out of the party for being a Dreyfusard.  He thoroughly enjoyed Mme de Guermantes’s excuse for avoiding Mme Saint-Euverte’s garden party.  He is seen in Mme Swann’s box at the theatre, along with Bergotte, the Prince d’Agrigente, and Comte Louis de Tuerenne.   He becomes a habitue of Mme Swann’s salon, “M. de Breaute, suddenly enhanced by the absence of the people with whom he was normally surrounded, by his air of self-satisfaction at finding himself there, just as if instead of going out to a party he had slipped on his spectacles to shut himself up and read the Revue des Deux Mondes, by the mystic rite that he appeared to be performing in coming to see Odette, M. de Breaute himself seemed a new man.”  By the time of The Captive, he is a regular at Orianne’s, “…always there at that hour and who sat beaming behind his monocle..”  His voice, “like a knife on a grindstone, emitted a few vague and rusty sounds.”

That was a fascinating exercise for me.  He’s just a minor character, yet he is, in his way, a crucial part of the tapestry.

Tuesday’s Reading:  (I realize I’m slowing this down a bit…but…I’m trying to slow down Time as much as possible…)

Moncrieff:  Pages 473-483 “The past had been so transformed in the mind of the Duchess…” through “…to alienate their possessors from their proper social sphere.”  Kindle locations:  6017-25/6147-54

Patterson:  Pages 319-326 “The past had been so transformed in the Duchesse’s mind…” through “to damage their position in society.”  Kindle locations:  5722-29/5836-43


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Moncrieff:  428-461; Patterson:  290-311

by Dennis Abrams

Marcel and Gilberte discuss Saint-Loup’s views of the war:  “Robert had compared battles to plays in which it is not always easy to know what the author had intended, in which perhaps the author himself had changed his plan in mid-campaign.”   Aeroplanes, “Every army will have to be a hundred-eyed Argus.”  The Somme.  “…[Saint-Loup] maintained that we return always to the methods of the ancients….These words did indeed give me a sense of that stagnation of the past through which in certain parts of the world, by virtue of a sort of specific gravity, it is indefinitely immobilised, so that it can be found after centuries exactly as it was.”  “There is one aspect of war…which I think Robert was beginning to comprehend:  war is human, it is something that is lived like a love or a hatred and could be told like the story of a novel, and consequently, if anyone goes about repeating that strategy it won’t help him in the least to understand war, since war is not a matter of strategy.  The enemy has no more knowledge of our plans than we have of the objective pursued by the woman whom we love, and perhaps we do not even know what these plans ourselves.”  Questionable motives.  Gilberte is now close friends with Andree — why would the Marquise de Saint-Loup befriend her — Could it be because Andree’s husband had lived with Rachel before leaving her for Andree?  Marcel learns that Rachel will be reciting poetry at the Guermantes’s party.   The Princesse de Guermantes (who will always be Mme Verdurin to me) summons the crowd:  “Yes, that’s it will forgather.  We will summon the elan!”  Her monocle.    Gilberte expressed disbelief that Marcel would be attending such a party, “a great slaughter of the innocents…”  Gilberte’s disdain for the former Mme Verdurin, a “newcomer” to the Guermantes family (at least compared to herself).   Marcel’s plan:  “…it was my intention to resume the next day, but this time with a purpose, a solitary life.   So far from going into society, I would not even permit people to come and see me at home during my hours of work, for the duty of writing my book took precedence now of that of being polite or even kind.”  Could he resist their pleadings?  “Was it not, surely, in order to concern myself with them that I was going to live apart from these people who would complain that they did not see me, to concern myself with them in a more fundamental fashion than would have been possible in their presence, to seek to reveal them to themselves, to realise their potentialities…Was it more worthwhile that I should attempt to describe the graph, to educe the laws, of these gestures that they made, these remarks that they uttered, their very lives and natures?”   Marcel wants what he dreamed of at Balbec, watching Albertine and the girls across the background of the sea, but, realizing that those girls were no more, and since “it hurt me to think that I was obliged to look for them within myself, since Time which changes human beings does not alter the image which we have preserved of them,” tells Gilberte that “I should always being invited to meet young girls, poor girls if possible, to whom I could give pleasure by quite small gifts, without expecting anything of them in return except that they should serve to renew within me the dreams and the sadnesses of my youth and perhaps, one improbable day, a single chaste kiss.”   Hoping that the future Albertines would inspire him, but needing a barrier, some distance between them and him.  “It was in this fashion that a sentiment of mystery had attached itself for me first to Gilberte, then to the Duchesse de Guermantes, then to Albertine and to many others.”   The unknown women he had fallen in love with.  The places associated with Gilberte and the Duchesse de Guermantes, “For my friendship with each one had been multiple, I had known her at different times whenshe had been a different woman for me and I myself had been a different person, steeped in dreams of a different colour.”  The Duchesse of his childhood, the Duchesse who invited him to lunch.  Several Duchesses de Guermantes, several Mme Swanns, “not merely separated but different, each one bedecked with the dreams which I had had at very different periods…”   Gilberte now only exists as Mme de Saint-Loup.  “In fact all the memories that went to make up the first Mlle Swann were withdrawn from the Gilberte of the present day and held at a distance from her by the forces of attraction of another universe, where, grouped around a phrase of Bergotte with which they formed a single whole, they were drenched with the scent of hawthorn.”   The Duchess, her boredom with the Faubourg Saint-Germain and her friendship with Rachel.  Her description of Charlus, “He has always been the image of my mother-in-law, but now the likeness is even more striking.”  Underneath every Charlus there are fragments of a beautiful women.  Time and forgetfulness help to renew old friendships.  The progression from Jupien’s niece to Mme de Cambremer, “But all this combined had produced effects that were dazzling, while the causes were already remote and not merely unknown to many people but also forgotten by those who had once known them and whose minds now dwelt much more upon her present brilliance than upon the ignominy of her past, since people always accept a name at its current valuation.  So that these drawing room transformations possessed a double interest:  they were both a phenomenon of the memory and an effect of Lost Time.  Rachel, despite her friendship with the Duchess had not forgotten that “It was in Mme de Guermantes’s house, it was at the hands of Mme de Guermantes herself, that she had inthepast suffered the most terrible humiliation of her life.”   Mme Berma’s tea party, unattended because all her invited guests (with the exception of one) are at the Guermantes’s.  Her sacrifice of her health for her children.  Her continued dislike of Rachel.  Rachel’s poetry recital:  La Fontaine and Victor Hugo.  The crowd at first is not sure how to respond, but opinion shifts to admiration.  Gilberte’s response when asked if it had been one of La Fontaine’s fables that Rachel has recited:  “”One quarter is the invention of the actress, a second is lunacy, a third is meaningless, and the rest is La Fontaine.”

Again, marvelous, as Marcel decides what he needs to do, past and present are tied together for us as well as for Marcel, and Rachel returns.

A couple of things I’m not sure about though.

1.  “And far from thinking myself wretched — a belief which some of the greatest men have held — because of this life without friends or familiar talk that I should live, I realised that our powers of exaltation are being given a false direction when we expend them in friendship, because they are then diverted from those truths towards which they might have guided us to aim at a particular friendship which can lead to nothing.”

Have Marcel’s friendships with Saint-Loup, with Charlus, with the Duchess, with Bloch led to nothing?  In a way I guess they have — they’ve all helped to introduce him to different artist and writers, and into the society that is now going to be his subject,but what exactly did he get from the friendships themselves?  Was Proust right about this as well?

And is this right?

“Unfortunately, I should have to struggle against that habit of putting oneself in another person’s place which, if it favours the conception of a work of art, is an obstacle to its execution.”

And as we approach the end of the book, I think it might be appropriate for me to start sharing with you the endings of the various books on Proust that I’ve been referencing throughout out time here.  This is from Howard Moss’s The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust:

“We have just read, of course, the very work Marcel is about to undertake.  Like Finnegan’s Wake, Remembrance of Things Past is its own self-sealing device.  Circular in structure, its end leads us back to its beginning.  The word ‘time’ embedded in the first sentence of the book rings out grandly as the last word of the novel and brings us once again to where we started.  The circle is not on a plane but exists in three — or to be true to Proust’s intentions, four — dimensions.    His novel is architectural rather than linear, like the church of Saint-Hillaire at Combray which, conquering location by physical mass, derives its energy from the epochs of time that have seeped into its very cells.  The material church, absorbing time, can no longer be divorced from it.  Proust’s book is such a monument.  Time is a substance as well as a process and all things are immersed in it.

Memory exists outside of time.  The beautiful girls at Balbec are not necessarily the hideous, fat dowagers across the room, made monstrous by the years.  Their youth dwells, as does our own, within ourselves.  It has merely to be recaptured from time where it exists as an external moment.

The regaining of time is the true quest of mankind.  ‘An instant liberated from the order of time has recreated in us man liberated from the same order.’  Time, more deceptive even than memory, can prevent us from knowing this.  We assume chronology is succession.  The young Marcel waiting in his bedroom for his mother to kiss him good night might easily have been forgotten.  Yet, as Proust shows us, he holds the magic lantern that illuminates everything.  We are taken back to Combray at this final party by means other than memory.  Marcel meets, for the first time, Mlle de Saint-Loup, the daughter of Gilberte and Saint-Loup.  She embodies the two early landscapes of himself.  On his visit to Transonville to see Gilberte, Marcel has had an inkling of this.  He discovers in old age that by taking a short-cut it is possible to get from Swann’s way to the Guermantes way.  The separated kingdoms of his boyhood were a united empire always.  In the person of Mlle de Saint-Loup, Swann’s way and the Guermantes way become one.

Marcel exhausts more than the illusions of love and society; he exhausts the illusion of personality.   It is one thing to see that the physical surface of people and things is a delusion, it is quite another to see that, beyond the outwardly perceptible, we come upon a world equally illusory.  Nothing exists until it is connected by memory to a former experience; the connection between the two non-realities gives them an existence.  A starched napkin has no meaning in itself; Balbec and the sea are unforgettable.  In the linkage of the two, Balbec and the sea are resurrected.

Love is a disease of the ideal but of enormous value because it informs us of the ideal.  Without Albertine, there would be no Remembrance of Things Past.  Similarly, sensation is valuable though mortal.  It leads us to where immortality may be.  Only intelligence is under attack in Proust as a mode of perception.  But as only those people who have loved can speak of it as a delusion with authority, it is only through intelligence that one has the privilege of categorizing it.  Explaining everything, Proust creates a universe that does not exclude the inexplicable.

Proust is the greatest of disenchanters.  But only because he as so greatly enchanted.  Remembrance of Things Past is a gigantic disappearing act in which the magician vanishes along with his magic in the service of illusion.  He does so to prove to us that the illusory is real.  By the time we reach the end of Remembrance of Things Past, Swann and the Duchesse de Guermantes, upon whom so much time and elucidation have been expended, are revealed at least for what they are.  Two human beings in the boyhood of Marcel Proust he once conceived of as gods.  Now the true god, the writer, paying homage to the deities of his childhood, secreting their lives from within himself, confers upon them a genuine immortality.”

Monday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 461-473 “Meanwhile, one of his friends having arrived…” through “make us more indulgent to those of others”  Kindle locations:  5874-81/6017-25

Patterson:  Pages 311-319 “But one of Bloch’s friends having arrived late…” through “…he was an old gentleman whom you met at her house, I think?”  Kindle locations:  5584-90/5722-29


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Moncrieff:  418-428; Patterson:  283-290

by Dennis Abrams

“One thing struck me even more forcibly in all these people than the physical or social changes which they had undergone, and this was the modification in the ideas which they possessed of one another.  Legrandin in the past had despised Bloch and never addressed a word to him.  Now he went out of his way to be civil…social changes inevitably bring in their train a new pattern of relationships among those who have been affected by them.”  “…people…do not in our memory possess the unvariability of a figure in a painting.  oblivion is at work within us, and according to its arbitrary operation they evolve.  Sometimes it even happens that after a time we confuse one person with another.”  You forget how odiously someone has behaved, you forget his faults of character — all that remains is a memory of the excellent times you had together.  “…the memories which two people preserve of each other, even in love, are not the same.”  “…life, by placing each of these people on my path a number of times, had presented them to me in particular circumstances which, enclosing them finally on every side, had restricted the view which I had of them and so prevented me from discovering their essence.  For between us and other people there exists a barrier of contingencies…”  Reuniting the individual to the name, “And yet perhaps this in itself made life more poetic for me…”  The charm of the Duchesse de Guermantes — visible only at a distance, vanishing at close range, “for the reason that it resided in my memory and my imagination.”  The different reactions of young and old people to death.  Forgetting who has died and who hasn’t.  The spinster’s mother’s joy at the death of the Marquise d’Arpajon, due to the fact that “every time someone of her own age ‘disappeared’…she had gained a victory in a contest against formidable competitors.” The Princesse de Nassau, and her confusion as to whether there had been a “dalliance” between herself and Marcel.  The appearance of a stout Gilberte, who Marcel (who has seen her earlier but never mind about that) thinks for a moment looks like Mme Swann.  Robert Saint-Loup.

I know someone EXACTLY like this:

“When she heard that Mme d’Arpajon really had died, the spinster cast an anxious glance at her mother, for she feared that the news of one of her ‘contemporaries’ might ‘be a blow’ to her — indeed she already imagined people talking about her mother’s death and explaining it in this way:  ‘Madame d’Arpajon’s death had been a great blow to her.’  But the old lady, on the contrary, far from justifying her daughter’s fears, felt ever time someone of her own age ‘disappeared’ that she had gained a victory in a contest against formidable competitors.  Their deaths were the only fashion in which we still for a moment became agreeably conscious of her own life.  The spinster noticed that her mother, who had seemed not displeased to remark that Mme d’Arpajon was one of those tired ole people whose days are spent in homes from which they seldom emerge, had been even less displeased to learn that the Marquise had entered the city of the hereafter, the home from which none of us ever emerges at all.  This observation of her mother’s want of feeling amused the daughter’s sarcastic mind.  And to make her own contemporaries laugh she gave them afterwards a comical account of the gleeful fashion in which her mother had said, rubbing her hands, ‘Gracious me, it appears to be true that poor Madame d’Arpajon is dead.’  Even the people who did not need this death to make them feel any joy in being alive, were rendered happy by it.  For every death is for others a simplification of life, it spares them the necessity of showing gratitude, the obligation of paying calls.  And yet this was not the manner in which Elstir had received the news of the death of M. Verdurin.”

Is there anything that Proust misses?  Any element of human behavior?

And is he right in implying that at the end of our lives, all our anger at other people, our resentments is washed away, “from a mixture of forgiveness and forgetfulness and that indifference which is another effect of Time.”

I’m going to be taking the rest of the week off (I’ve got a LOT of cooking to get done tonight), so here it is…

The Weekend Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 428-461 “‘I cannot tell you,’ I said,…” through “…this assertion caused no surprise whatever.”  Kindle locations 5460-67/5872-79

Patterson:  Pages 290-311″‘I can’t tell you how forcefully…” through “…came as a surprise to nobody.” Kindle locations 5211-19/5584-90

Enjoy.  Enjoy your weekend.  And have a terrific Thanksgiving!

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Moncrieff:  407-418; Patterson:  276-283

by Dennis Abrams

“From changes accomplished in society I was all the better able to extract important truths, worthy of being used as the cement which would hold part of my work together, for the reason that such changes were by no means, as at the first moment I might have been tempted to suppose, peculiar to the epoch in which we lived.”  Marcel realizes that the ruling families of his age had “been the upstarts of an earlier age.”  The Guermantes and the Colberts.  The family Haussonville, “it will perhaps owe its future renown to the fact that the family today is descended from Mme de Stael…”  “From the remarks of the Duchesse de Guermantes I realised that it would have been in my power to play the role of the fashionable commoner in grand society, the man whom everybody supposed to have been from his earliest days affiliated to the aristocracy, a role once played by Swann and before him by M. Lebrun and M. Ampere and all those friends of the Duchesse de Broglie who herself at the beginning of her career had by no means belonged to the best society.  The first few times I dined with Mme de Guermantes how I must have shocked men like M. de Beauserfeuil, less by my actual presence then by remarks indicating how entirely ignorant I was of the memories which constituted his past and which gave its form to the image that he had of society!”  Marcel’s experience of being admitted to the society of the Guermantes was in no way exceptional,”…and the probability is that, just as every year in Paris an average number of marriages take place, so any other rich and cultivated middle-class milieu might have been able to show a roughly equal proportion of men who, like Swann and Legrandin and myself and Bloch, could be found at a later stage in their lives flowing into the ocean of ‘high society.'”  Through the process of social maturation, Bloch has lost his earlier indiscretion, “And the grandchildren of Blochwould be kind and modest almost from birth.”  The people at the party bring the various stages of Marcel’s life together in his mind.  “As I followed the stream of memory back towards its source, I arrived eventually at images of a single person separated by one another by an interval of time so long, preserved within me by ‘I’s’ that were so distinct and themselves (the images) fraught with meanings that were so different, that ordinarily when I surveyed (as I supposed) the whole past course of my relations with that particular person I omitted these earlier images and had even ceased to think that the person to whom they referred was the same as the one whom I had got to know…”  Mlle Swann “on the other side of the hedge of pink hawthorn, throwing me a look which, as a matter of fact, I had been obliged retrospectively to re-touch the significance, having learnt that it was a look of desire…”  Mme Swann’s lover, the gentleman studying the poster outside the Casino at Balbec, M. de Charlus.  “…all the images and many others associated with Swann, Saint-Loup, and others of my friends were like illustrations which sometimes, when I chanced to come across them, I amused myself by placing as frontispieces on the threshold of my relations with these varied people, but always with the feeling that they were no more than images, not something deposited within me by this particular person, not something still in any linked to him.”  Different people remember different things, “Even where the people whom we have known best are concerned, we soon forget the dates of the various episodes in their lives.”  Mme de Guermantes and Bloch’s social status.  A life possessed of a limited number of threads “for the execution of the most different patterns.” From visits to great-uncle Adolphe to the marriage of Robert and Gilberte Saint-Loup.  “As a bucket hauled up on a winch comes to touch the rope several times and on opposite sides, so there was not a character that had found a place in my life, scarcely a thing, which hadn’t turn and turn about played in it a series of different roles.”  The outward and inward experience and dreams.  Who can say what the ultimate value of Mme de Souvre was as a  part of the “bundle of memories which I valued ‘all in.'”

Remarkably true:

“How often had all these people reappeared before me in the course of their lives, the diverse circumstances of which seemed to present the same individuals always, but in forms and for purposes that were shifting and varied; and the diversity of the points in my life through which had passed the thread of the life of each of these characters had finished by mixing together those that seemed the farthest apart, as if life possessed only a limited number of threads for the execution of the most different patterns.  What, for instance, in my various pasts, could be more widely separated than my visits to my great-uncle Adolphe, the nephew of Mme de Villeparisis who was herself a cousin of the Marshal, Legrandin and his sister, and the former tailor who lived in our courtyard and was a friend of Francoise?”

Life as a game of six degrees of…

And this:

“And even those of my acquaintanceships which had not begun in mystery, that for instance with Mme de Souvre, so arid today, so purely social in its nature, had preserved among their earliest moments the memory of a first smile calmer and sweeter than anything that was to follow, a smile mellifluously traced in the fullness of an afternoon beside the sea or the close of a spring day in Paris, a day of clattering carriages, of dust rising from the streets and sunny air gently stirring like water.  And perhaps Mme de Souvre, had she been removed from this frame, would have been of little significance, like those famous buildings — the Salute, for example — which, without any great beauty of their own, are so well suited to a particular setting that they compel our admiration, but she formed part of a bundle of memories which I valued ‘all in,’ as the auctioneers say, at a certain price, without stopping to ask exactly how much of this value appertained to the lady herself.”

(Mme de Souvre was a friend of the Princesse de Parme, was not received by the Duchesse de Guermantes, and was one of the people who Marcel tried to get to introduce him to the Prince de Guermantes at that memorable first party.)

Wednesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 418-428 “One thing struck me even more forcibly in all these people…” through “…his views had been proved correct by the war.”  Kindle locations:  5337-45/5460-67

Patterson:  Pages 283-290 “One thing about all these beings which struck me even more forcibly…” through “…been proven right by the last war.”  Kindle locations:  5098-5105/5211-19


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Moncrieff:  396-407; Patterson:  269-276

by Dennis Abrams

Bloch’s friend and the American woman discuss Gilberte:  “Well, isn’t she a Forcheville by birth?  And what could be grander than that?”  “For the American woman, dinner-parties and fashionable entertainments were a sort of Berlitz School.  She heard the names and repeated them, without having first learnt their precise value and significance.”  An old man declares that Marcel must have known Swann from the house of Mme de Guermantes, “not suspecting that what Swann represented for me was a country neighbor and a young friend of my grandfather.”   The seriousness of such mistakes:  Saint-Simon. Such forgetfulness creates a counter-agent, “a minor species of erudition, all the more precious for being rare…”  Conversation with the friend of Bloch and the Duchesse de Guermantes is difficult because neither Marcel or the friend know the same names and histories.  “So that though for ordinary speech she and I used the same language, whenit came to names our vocabularies had nothing in common.”  Mme LeRoi, once a social force, “Today that name is utterly forgotten, nor is there any good reason why it should be remembered.”   “For although we know that the years pass, that youth gives way to old age, that fortunes and thrones crumble (even the most solid among them) and that fame is transitory, the manner in which– by means of a snapshot — we take cognizance of this moving universe whirled along by Time, has the contrary effect of immobilising it.”  The ignorance of people’s true social positions, “which every ten years causes the new fashionable elect to arise in all the glory of the moment as though the past never existed, which makes it impossible for an American woman just landed in Europe to see that in an age when Bloch was nobody M. de Charlus was socially supreme in Paris and that Swann…had been treated with every mark of friendship by the Prince of Wales, this ignorance…is itself also invariably an effect — but an effect operative not so much upon a whole social stratum as within individuals — of Time.”  “…our memory, clinging still to the thread of our personal identity, will continue to attach to itself at successive epochs the recollection of the various societies in which, even if it be forty years earlier, we have lived.”  Swann’s “role” in later life:  “You mean the Swann who goes to Colombin’s?”  “These errors, which split a life in two and, by isolating his present from his past, turn some man whom one is talking about into a different man, a creation of yesterday, a man who is no more than the condensation of his current habits (whereas the real man bears within himself an awareness, linking him to the past, of the continuity of his life), these errors, though they too, as I have said, are a result of the passage of Time, are not a social phenomenon but one of memory.”  The Marquis de Villemandois.   Bloch:  a hyena, and, at close quarters, “an old Shylock.”    Of what profit was his social climbing?


I really loved this:

“For although we know that the years pass, that youth gives way to old age, that fortunes and thrones crumble (even the most solid among them) and that fame is transitory, the manner in which– by means of a sort of snapshot — we take cognisance of this moving universe whirled along by Time, has the contrary effect of immobilising it.  And the result is that we see as always young the men and women whom we have known young, that those whom we have known old we retrospectively endow in the past with the virtues of old age, that we trust unreservedly in the credit of a millionaire and the influence of a reigning monarch, knowing in our reason, though we do not actually believe, that tomorrow both the one and the other may be fugitives stripped of all power.”

And this:

“A name:  that very often is all that remains of us a human being, not only when he is dead, but sometimes even in his lifetime.  And our notions about him are so vague or so bizarre and correspond so little to those that he has of us that we have entirely forgotten that we once nearly fought a duel with him but remember that, when he was a child, he used to wear curious yellow gaiters in the Champs-Elysees, where he, on the contrary, in spite of our assurances, has no recollection of ever having played with us.”

Are we still reading a novel?  In some ways, it seems to be transcending that, becoming…philosophical tract?  Wisdom literature?  As Marcel and the Narrator continue to slowly merge, the perspective gained makes this…a wonder to read.

With the mention of Mme Leroi disappearing from the pages of Time (so to speak) I had to go back to The Guermantes Way to get a glimpse of her…

“And between certain literary qualities and lack of social success the connexion is so inevitable that when we open Mme de Villeparisis’s Memoirs today, on any page an apt epithet, a sequence of metaphors will suffice to enable the reader to reconstruct the deep but icy bow bestowed on the old Marquise on the staircase of an embassy by a snob such as Mme Leroi, who may perhaps have left a card on her when she went to call on the Guermantes, but never set foot in her house for fear of losing caste among all the doctors’ or solicitors’ wives whom she would find there.”

“Remember as she might the words of the Queen, Mme de Villeparisis would have bartered them gladly for the permanent capacity of being everywhere which Mme Leroi possessed…”

“It must be remarked, however, that the absence of Mme Leroi from Mme de Villeparisis’s salon, if it distressed the lady of the house, passed unperceived by the majority of her guests.  They were entirely ignorant of the peculiar position which Mme Leroi occupied, a position known only to the fashionable world, and never doubted that Mme de Villeparisis’s receptions were, as the readers of her Memoirs today are convinced that they must have been, the most brilliant in Paris.”

“Perhaps Mme Leroi also knew these European celebrities.  But, as an agreeable woman who shunned anything that smacked of the bluestocking, she would as little have thought of mentioning the Eastern Question to a Prime Minster as of discussing the nature of love with a novelist or a philosopher:  ‘Love?’ she had once replied to a pretentious lady who had asked for her views on love, ‘I make it often but I never talk about it.'”

Mme Leroi:  Rescued from Time by Marcel.

Tuesday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 407-418 “From changes accomplished in society…” through “…how much of this value appertained to the lady herself.”  Kindle locations: 5191-98/5337-45

Patterson: Pages 276-283 “From changes brought about in society…” through “…without asking myself how much of it the person of Mme de Souvre accounted for.”  Kindle locations:  4972-79/5098-5105


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Moncrieff:  365-396; Patterson:  234-240

by Dennis Abrams

Not only did features change, but personalities changed as well.  “…to learn someone’s identity after having failed to recognise him, is to predicate two contradictory things of a single subject, it is to admit that what was here no longer exists, and also that what is now here is a person whom one did know to exist, a mystery almost as disturbing as death…”  “I was told a name and was dumbfounded to think that it could be used to describe both the fair-haired girl, the marvelous waltzer, whom I had known in the past, and the massive white-haired lady making her way through the room with the elephantine tread.”  Erosions of the face and time.  “As in a snowy landscape, the degree of whiteness attained by a person’s hair seemed in general to be an indication of the depth of time through which he or she had lived…”   “All these people had taken so much time putting on their disguises that generally these passed unobserved by the men and women who saw them every day.”   Mme X becoming her Turkish grandmother.  Recognizing a friend of his youth only by his voice. “…for certain people the tempo of Time may be accelerated or retarded.”  The drug addict: “Time has, it seems, special express trains which bring their passengers swiftly to a premature old age.”  Confusing M. de Courgivaux for his son.  Old age takes into account particular social habits.  Those too weak or ill to attend the party, their telegrams handed to the Princess, “…their eyes closed and their rosaries clutched in hands which feebly push back the sheet that is already a mortuary shroud, are like monumental figures, carved by illness until the skeleton is barely covered by a flesh which is white and rigid as marble, lying stretched upon a tomb.”  Young Cambremer, “…it was not merely what had become of the young men of my own youth but what would one day become of those of today that impressed upon me with such force the sensation of Time.”  Women retaining what had been most individual in their charm, constructing a new beauty for themselves.  The advantage had by ugly women over beautiful women.  Bad skin.  Some women no doubt were still easily recognisable:  their faces had remained almost the same and they had merely, out of propriety and in harmony with the season, put on the grey hair which was their autumn attire.”  Only Mme de Forcheville “…might have been an old-fashioned cocotte ‘stuffed’ for the benefit of posterity.  Setting out from the idea that people have remained unchanged, one finds them old.  But once one starts with the idea that they are old, meeting them again one does not think that they look too bad.  In the case of Odette one could say much more than this; her appearance, once one knew her age and expected to see an old woman, seemed a defiance of the laws of chronology, more miraculous even than the defiance of the laws of nature by the conservation of radium…she might well have been ‘The Exhibition of 1878.'”  The changed reputation of the politician, “For the fact is that there is no humiliation so great that one should not accept it with unconcern, knowing that at the end of a few years our misdeeds will be no more than an invisible dust buried beneath the smiling and blooming nature.  The man whose reputation is momentarily under a cloud will soon find himself, thanks to the balancing mechanism of Time, caught and held between two new social levels which will have for him nothing but deference and admiration.”  Memories of scandals past fade.  “And thus the drawing-room of the Princesse de Guermantes — illuminated, oblivious, flowery — was like a peaceful cemetery.  Time in this room had done more than decompose the living creatures of a former age, it had rendered possible, had created new associations.”  Odette:  “And just because she had not changed she seemed barely to be alive.  She looked like a rose that has been sterilised…I meanwhile, who had once walked miles to see her pass in the Bois…now found the minutes that I was obliged to pass in her company interminable simply because I did not know what to say to her…”  (Three years later, Odette is a shadow of her self, “You wouldn’t find her at all amusing!  She’s best left alone in her corner.  She’s a bit gaga, you know.”  Her pride in her daughter’s success and knowing that her maternal job was accomplished.  “Beautiful still, she had become — what she had never been in the past — infinitely pathetic; she who had been unfaithful to Swann and to everybody found now that the entire universe was unfaithful to her, and so weak had she become that, the roles being reversed, she no longer dared to defend herself against men.  And soon she would not defend herself even against death.”)  Bloch now known as Jacques de Rozier, his Jewishness hidden by English fashion and manners; his monocle.  Marcel no longer intimidated by society — why?  Bloch’s confusion at the Princess de Guermantes’ lack of beauty compared to Marcel’s earlier descriptions.  The reason?  “…the woman I had described to him was not the woman he was talking about.  The Princesse de Guermantes had died and the present wife of the Prince, who had been ruined by the collapse of Germany, was the former Mme Verdurin.”  The view from Combray vs. the Faubourg Saint-Germain.  The women change, the Princesse de Guermantes is eternal.  Guests unknown, “for in this drawing-room, as well as upon individuals, the chemistry of Time had been at work upon society.”  “Enfeebled or broken, the springs of the machine could no longer perform their task of keeping out the crowd; a thousand alien elements made their way in and all homogeneity, all consistency of form and colour was lost.”  The loss of understanding distinctions, “And this ignorance was not merely ignorance of society, but of politics, of everything.  For memory was of shorter duration in individuals than life…”  Morel arrives, now held to be a man of lofty moral character.  “…for, if the social position of individuals is liable to change (like the fortunes and the alliances and the hatred of nations), so too are the most deeply rooted ideas and customs and among them even the idea that you cannot receive anybody who is not chic.”  The younger generation and the Faubourg Saint-Germain aristocracy.  Oriane’s role.

1.  Mme Verdurin did it.  That little social climber made her way all the way to the top (a bit too late, of course, but nevertheless…)  One can’t help but be impressed.

2.  In the same way, one can’t help but be saddened by Odette’s fate.  Imagining her as a “pathetic” figure at her daughter’s party, alone and going senile, is heartbreaking.

I’ll have more to say about all this in tomorrow’s post, but I wanted to share with you a comment that one of our regular readers, Patrica Nelson, posted yesterday.  It’s quite spectacular.

“The library soliloquy on memory and art extravagantly engages us in the writer thinking about writing the book we are reading in a hall of mirrors turned back on the reader – the art lover, the critic, the general public are all caricatured, yet he is eloquent about the mind-expanding connection between the beautifully expressed thought & the discerning reader whose world is multiplied through art. In Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson talks about the historic memory practices of the classical and Renaissance philosophers and their Romantic revival as an aesthetic trance, Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility,’ & discusses Proust’s ‘vast structure of recollection’ as a memory palace, a “secular cathedral whose dogma is an elaborate metaphysics of memory. As an architectural creation Proust’s work functions as a psychotropic storehouse of an entire culture in a way analogous to Bruno’s memory wheel or Camillo’s theater…In Search of Lost Time cunningly situates key objects of subjective significance within the narrative like Easter eggs, allowing the author to retrieve them one by one, via the senses…”

A jolt to wake up from this meditation in the‘costume ball’ of aging guests at the Guermantes’ salon. As he seems to turn from one grotesquerie to another, I thought of Capote’s famous balls and the strenuously aging partygoers – Mme de Forcheville injected with something like paraffin, still looking like a cocotte from the old days. The ‘pantomime’ stages of man from infant to grave, the gradual replacement of cells bringing about a total metamorphosis, someone now unrecognizable – all so wildly exaggerated like a truly terrible 50th reunion party. There’s a spinning quality, a dream, a mirrored ball above, as he extends his metaphor of a fancy-dress room full of powdered wigs and pasty faces.”

And, finally an announcement.  Starting after the first of the year, I’ll be leading a reading of the four major novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky — Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov.  It is going to be called “Project D” and here’s the link for the site, which is still a work in progress —  http://projectdblog.wordpress.com/  We’ll be reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of all four works — and I sincerely hope you’ll all join in the experience!

Monday’s Reading:

Moncrieff: Pages 396-407 “As soon as I had finished talking to the Prince de Guermantes…” through “And what would it profit him?”  Kindle locations 5062-68/5191-98

Patterson:  Pages 269-276 “As soon as I had finished talking to the Prince de Guermantes…” through “What benefit would this be to him?”  Kindle locations 4852-59/4972-79


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Moncrieff:  355-365; Patterson:  240-248

by Dennis Abrams

“The cruel discovery which I had just made could not be of service to me so far as the actual material of my book was concerned.  For I had decided that this could not consist uniquely of the full and plenary impressions that were outside time…I should pay particular attention to those changes which the aspect of living things undergoes, of which every minute I had fresh examples before me…”  “The process of ageing, I found, was not marked in them all by signs of the same sort.”  M. de Cambremer.  “Do you still have your fits of breathlessness?”  “…I saw he had been made unrecognisable by the attachment of enormous red pouches to his cheeks which prevented him from opening his mouth or his eyes completely…”  The breathlessness of M. de Cambremer’s sister had declined with age, why hadn’t Marcel’s?  Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin does not see what has happened to her husband’s face:  “She had not noticed the disfigurement which offended my eyes and which was merely one of the masks in the collection of Time, a mask which Time has fastened to the face of the Marquis, but gradually, adding layer to layer so slowly that his wife had perceived nothing.”   “And now I was beginning to discover that, in the appreciation of the passage of time, the first step is the hardest.”  How can so much time have elapsed is followed by how can the lapse have been so slight.  “Within a few minutes I had developed, though very much more rapidly, in the same fashion as those who, after finding it hard to believe that somebody they knew in their youth had reached the age of sixty, are very much more surprised fifteen years later to learn that the same person is still alive and is only seventy-five.”  M. de Cambremer’s mother “She is wonderful still.”  More color and makeup for women, less color for men. Legrandin, “with his long-drawn and gloomy features he was like some Egyptian god.  Or perhaps less like a god than a ghost.”  “Others again had preserved their faces intact and seemed merely to walk with difficulty; at first one supposed that they had something wrong with their legs; only later did one realise that age had fastened its soles of lead to their feet.”  “I marveled at the power to renew in fresh forms that is possessed by Time, which can thus, while respecting the unity of the individual and the laws of life, effect a chance of scene and introduce bold contrasts into two successive aspects of a single person…Time, the artist, had made all the sitters portraits that were recognizable; yet they were not likenesses, and this was not because he had flattered them, but because he had aged them.”  Time works slowly.  Odette and Gilberte.  Ski.  Aging turns some into adolescents:  “They were not old men, they were very young men in an advanced stage of withering.”  Old age has made some men and women “whom I remembered as unendurable and who had now, I found, lost almost every one of their defects, possibly because life, by disappointing or by gratifying their desires, had rid them of most of their conceit or their bitterness.”  Mme d’Arpajon, “seemed to me at the same time unknown and familiar…It was the appearance, often seen by me in the course of my life, of certain stout, elderly women, of whom at the time I had never suspected that, many years earlier, they could have looked like Mme d’Arpajon.”


Quite a portrait gallery and analysis of the many ways of aging…so much for me to look forward to.

For your weekend pleasure, I’d like to continue the section from Jonah Lerner’s Proust was a Neuroscientist, discussing the work of Dr. Kausik Si to identify the reasons why memory endures.

“Si began his search by thinking through the problem.  He knew that any synaptic marker would have to be able to turn on messenger RNA (mRNA), since mRNA helps make proteins, and new memories need new proteins.  Furthermore, because mRNA is regulated where memories are regulated — in the dendrites — activating mRNA would allow a neuron to selectively modify its details.  This insight led Si to frog eggs.  He had heard of a molecule that was able to activate specific scraps of mRNA during the egg’s development.  This same molecule also happened to be present in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.  Its ignominious name was CPEB, for cyptoplasmic poplyadenylation element binding protein.

To see if CPEB was actually important for memory (and not just for frog zygotes), Si began by searching for it in purple sea slugs, a favorite experimental animal among neuroscientists.  To his pleasant surprise, CPEB was present in the slug’s neurons.  Furthermore, CPEB was present precisely where a synaptic marker should be, silently skulking in the dendritic branches.

Si was now intrigued.  He began his quest to understand CPEB by blocking it.  If CPEB was removed, could the neuron still make a memory?  Could the cell still mark a synapse?  Though he hardly believed his own data, the answer was clear:  without CPEB, the slug’s neurons were unable to remember anything.

But he still couldn’t figure out how CPEB worked.  How did this molecule exist outside time?  What made it so strong?  How did it survive the merciless climate of the brain?  Si’s first clue arrived when he decoded the protein’s amino acid sequence.  Most proteins read like a random list of letters, their structures a healthy mix of different amino acids.  CPEB however, looked completely different.  One end of the protein had a weird series of amino acid repetitions, as if its DNA had had a stuttering fit (Q stands for the amino acid glutamine):


Immediately, Si began looking for other molecules with similar odd repetitions.  In the process he stumbled into one of the most controversial areas of biology.  He found what looked like a prion.

Prions were once regarded as the nasty pathogens of a tribe of the worst diseases on earth:  mad cow disease, fatal familial insomnia (whose victims lose the ability to sleep, and after three months die of sleep deprivation), and a host of other neurodegenerative diseases.  Prions are still guilty of causing these horrific deaths.  But biologists are also beginning to realize that prions are everywhere.  Prions are roughly defined as a class of proteins that can exist in two functionally distinct states (every other protein has only one natural state).  One of these states is active and one is inactive.  Furthermore, prions can switch states (turn themselves on and off) without any guidance from above; they change proteomic structure without changing DNA.  And once a prion is turned on, it can transmit its new, infectious structure to neighboring cells with no actual transfer of genetic material.

In other words, prions violate most of biology’s sacred rules.  They are one of those annoying reminders of how much we don’t know.  Nevertheless, prions in the brain probably hold the key to changing our scientific view of memory.  Not only is the CPEB protein sturdy enough to resist the effects of the clock — prions are famous for being virtually indestructible — but it displays an astonishing amount of plasticity.  Free from a genetic substrate, CPEB prions are able to change their shapes with relative ease, creating or erasing a memory.  Stimulation with serotonin or dopamine, two neurotransmitters that are released by neurons when you think, changes the very structure of CPEB, switching the protein to its active state.

After CPEB is activated, it marks a specific dendritic branch as a memory.  In its new conformation, it can recruit the requisite mRNA needed to maintain long-term remembrance.  No further stimulation or genetic alternation is required.  The protein will patiently wait, quietly loitering in your synapses.  One could never eat another madeleine, and Combray would still be there, lost in time.  It is only when the cookie is dipped into the tea, when the memory is summoned to the shimmering surface, that CPEB comes alive again.  The taste of the cookie triggers a rush of neurotransmitters to the neurons representing Combray, and, if a certain tipping point is reached, the activated CPEB infects its neighboring dendritics.  From this cellular shudder, the memory is born.

But memories, as Proust insisted, don’t just stoically endure; they also invariably change.  CPEB supports Proust’s hypothesis.  Every time we conjure up our pasts, the branches of our recollections become malleable again.  While the prions that mark our memories are virtually immortal, their dendritic details are always being altered, shuttling between the poles of remembering and forgetting.  The past is at once perpetual and ephemeral.

This rough draft of a theory has profound implications for the neuroscience of memory.  First of all, it’s proof that prions are not some strange biological apocrypha.  In reality, prions are an essential ingredient of life and have all sorts of intriguing functions.  Swiss scientists, following up on Dr. Si’s research, have even discovered a link between the prion gene that causes mad cow disease and increased long-term memory.  Essentially, the more likely your neurons are to form misfolded prions, the better your memory is.  Other experiments have linked a lack of CPEB in the mouse hippocampus to specific deficits in long-term memory.  Though the details remain mostly obscure, there seems to be a deep connections between prions and remembrance.

But the CPEB model also requires that we transform our metaphors for memory.  No longer can we imagine memory as a perfect mirror of life.  As Proust insisted, the remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.  Prions reflect this fact, since they have an element of randomness built into their structure.  They don’t mind fibbing.  While CPEB can switch to an active state under a given set of experimental circumstances (like a few puffs of serotonin), Si’s experiments also show that the protein can become active for no real reason, since its transformation is largely dictated by the inscrutable laws of protein folding and stoichiometry.  Like memory itself, CPEB delights in its contingency.

This indeterminacy is part of CPEB’s design.  For a protein, prions are uniquely liberated.  They are able to ignore everything from the instructions of our DNA to the life cycles of our cells.  Though they exist inside us, they are ultimately apart from us, obeying rules of their own making.  As Proust said, ‘The past is hidden…in some material object of which we have no inkling.”

And though our memory remains inscrutable, the CPEB molecule (if the theory is true) is the synaptic detail that persists outside time.  Dr. Si’s idea is the first hypothesis that begins to explain how sentimental ideas endure.  It is why Combray can exist silently below the surface, just behind the curtain of consciousness.  It is also why Marcel remembers Combray on page 58, and not on page 1.  It is a molecular theory of explicit memory that feels true.  Why?  Because it embraces our essential randomness, because prions are by definition unpredictable and unstable, because memory obeys nothing but itself.  This is what Proust knew:  the past is never past.  As long as we are alive, our memories remain wonderfully volatile.  In their mercurial mirror, we see ourselves.”

I can’t help but think that Proust would be fascinated by this.


The Weekend’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Page 365-396 “The transformations effected, in the women particularly…” through “…which she, Oriane, had not taken the trouble to attend.”  Kindle locations: 4672-79/5062-68

Patterson:  Page 248-269 “The transformation which white hair and other factors had effected…” through “…the ones which Oriane had not taken the trouble to attend.”  Kindle locations:  4498-4505/4852-59

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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