Moncrieff: 473-483; Patterson: 319-326
by Dennis Abrams
The past is transformed in the mind of the Duchess, “For the notion of time elapsed which I had just acquired was something that the Duchess had too, and, whereas my illusion had been to believe the gap between past and present shorter than in fact it was, she on the contrary actually overestimated it, she placed events further back than they really were…” The Duchess’s red dress and red shoes, her pleasure in Marcel’s memory of them, “‘How kind of you to remember that!”‘ she said to me sweetly, for women call it kindness when you remember their beauty, just as painters do when you admire their work.” The Duchess remembers dropping Marcel off for an encounter with a woman unknown to her, Albertine. “Yes, I recalled the fact, for, long after our poor dead friends have lost their place in our hearts, their unvalued dust continues to be mingled, like some base alloy, with the circumstances of the past. And though we no longer love them, it may happen that in speaking of a room, or a walk in a public park, or a country road where they were present with us on a certain occasion, we are obliged, so that the place which they occupied may not be left empty, to make allusion to them, without, however, regretting them, without even naming them or permitting others to identify them. Such are the last, the scarcely desirable vestiges of survival after death.” The Duchess rewrites her history regarding Rachel, claims to have “though the word is rather stupid and pretentious — for the truth is that talent needs nobody to help it — that I launched her,” and that “‘I don’t need to tell you…that that intelligent public which calls itself society understood absolutely nothing of her art. They booed and they tittered. It was no use my saying: ‘This is strange, interesting, something that has never been done before,’ nobody believed me, just as nobody has ever believed anything I have said…I must say I am surprised, when I think of it, that a mere peasant like myself, with no more education than all the other provincial girls around her, should have from the very first moment have felt drawn to these thing.” Berma’s daughter and son-in-law arrive, and beg for an audience with Rachel. After much game-playing she agrees to meet them “with a theatrical gesture,” and “Instinctively the Duchesse de Guermantes drifted away, for in proportion as anyone betrayed a desire to seek out fashionable society, he or she sank her esteem. At the moment she was uniquely impressed with Rachel’s kindness, and had the daughter and son-in-law been presented to her she would have turned her back on them.” Rachel uses the information that her family had begged to see her to strike a blow at Berma the next day, not knowing that the blow would kill her. “We like to have victims, but without putting ourselves clearly in the wrong, we want them to live.” The unhappiness of the Duchesse de Guermantes: her husband the Duke is having one last love affair, with Mme de Forcheville (aka the lady in pink, Odette, Mme Swann) The Duke is a constant presence in Odette’s house, and “watched jealously over his mistress in a manner which, if my love for Albertine had, with important variations, repeated the love of Swann for Odette, made that of M. de Guermantes for this same Odette recall my own for Albertine.” The evolution of Mme de Forcheville from kept woman to society lady to kept woman once again. Her pride in her new lover, her new friends and allies, and her pleasure in causing pain to the Duchess. Because of his new love, M. de Guermantes has, once again,lost his chance for the presidency of the Jockey Club as well as a vacant seat in the Academie des Beaux-Arts. The similarities between M. de Guermantes and his brother M. de Charlus.
First off. The Duchess de Guermantes. “nobody has ever believed anything I said?” “a mere peasant?” Really?
And…M. de Guermantes is now keeping Odette? It’s inevitable and perfect.
And I’d like to begin to share with you the last chapter of Malcolm Bowie’s Proust Among the Stare — The Epilogue: “Starlight on Balbec Beach.”
“In Sodome and Gommorhe, the narrator tells us that he and Albertine lay together at night among the dunes of Balbec beach and found that the sea beside them was breathing in time to the rhythm of their pleasurable sensations. Above them, the sky was ‘all “studied” with stars.’ The phrase is repeated by the narrator as one of the hotel manager’s verbal near-misses. He should of course have said — scattered with stars — but, as so often happens in this novel of boundless curiosity about language, his malapropism could not be more apropos. The sky has become a writing surface, and the stars are signs inscribed upon it. While the embracing lovers for a moment find that their sexual feelings have been written as a single stable message into the book of nature, the astral world above them is multiple and contains messages without end. Yet again, Proust has found a way of linking the multifariousness of human experience with the kaleidoscopic variety of his own writing. Although the narrator of the book has among his enduring ambitions the construction of ‘great laws’, those regulatory principles with which me might finally control the remorseless daily flux of particulars and circumstances, the very language which he holds in readiness for this task has countless hair-triggers inside it. At any moment his sentences may run riot. The ‘drunkenness of things being various’ may be unleashed by any plain, simple, and sober-seeming word.
Proust is at home among the stars, and accustomed to their disconcerting habits. At one moment, the stars are a pure scattering of luminous points, and turn the narrator into a scatterbrain. At the next moment they are constellations, gigantic intimations of structure. And in either event the writer has his lessons to learn from them. Starscapes are everywhere, and from the viewpoint of the writer at work, it makes little different whether the stars in question belong to the heavens or to the entertainment industry. Proust is perfectly familiar with ‘stars’ in the modern popular sense, which predates Hollywood by a good half-century, and trains a merciless eye upon them as their periods of ascendancy give way to decline. Structure and its loss are as readily available in the history of a reputation or in an ordinary convivial scene as in the contemplation of the firmament. The narrator, becoming tipsy during one of his dinners at Rivebelle in A l’ombre des jeunnes filles en fleurs, finds himself deliciously adrift in social space that is also interstellar space:
‘All this dizzy activity became fixed in quiet harmony. I looked at the round tables whose innumerable assemblage filled the restaurant like so many planets, as the latter are represented in old allegorical pictures. Moreover, there seemed to be some irresistible force of attraction at work among these various stars, and at each table the diners had eyes only for the tables at which they were not sitting, with the possible exception of some wealthy Amphitryon who, having managed to secure a famous author, was endeavouring to extract from him, thanks to the magic properties of the turning-table, a few insignificant remarks at which the ladies marvelled. The harmony of these astral tables did not pre3vent the incessant revolution of the countless waiters who, because instead of being seated like the diners they were on their feet, performed their gyrations in a more exalted sphere. No doubt they were running, one to fetch the hors d’oeuvre, another to change the wine or to bring clean glasses. But despite these special reasons, their perpetual course among the round tables yielded, after a time, to the observer the law of its dizzy but ordered civilization.’
The ‘famous author’ installed in the middle of these planetary orbits is not saying much, and certainly not performing as a writer, but the necessary tension that governs his creative writing is being allegorised around him even as he sits and says little; he must seek vertigo, yet seek to regulate it, drink himself silly with the sheer welter of things, yet establish a new calm and a new harmony among them.
This astral imagery, and the two-way pull between order and disorder that it embodies, reach their culmination as the narrator looks at the night sky over Paris in Le Temps retrouve. Saint-Loup had recently extemporised with gleeful abandon on the pleasures of aerial warfare, and the narrator now, for a moment, catches that manic voice into his own:
‘After the raid of two days earlier, when it had become more full of movement than the earth, the sky had become calm again as the sea becomes calm after a storm. But like the sea after a storm, it had not yet recovered absolute tranquility. Aeroplanes were still mounting like rockets to the level of the stars, and searchlights, as they quartered the sky, swept slowly across it what looked like a pale dust of stars, of errant milky ways. Meanwhile the aeroplanes took their places among the constellations and seeing these ‘new stars’ one might well have supposed oneself to be in another hemisphere.’
The scene unfolds in a city, but a city resembling the open sea. Man-made searchlights travel across the sky, but create new milky ways as they go. Aircraft, man-made and steered by men, flash upwards to join the stars in their courses. All is changed on the face of nature by these intrusions of human craft and skill. Engineering takes it place among the elements, and the literary engineer makes his own immodest bid for a place among the heroes. The paragraph ends upon a brief quotation from Heredia’s ‘Les Conquerants’ (The Conquerers’)”
‘Or, leaning forward at the prose of the white caravels, they watched as new stars arose, in an unknown city, from the depths of the Ocean.’
Whereas Heredia’s sonnet is a brilliantly concentrated footnote to a lost age of heroic grandeur, a nod towards an epic vision that the modern poet can no longer share. Proust’s paragraph is made of more ambitious stuff. The modern writer can indeed emerge a hero from his own gluttonous appetite for experience. The epic poet of the modern age cannot shy away from the low, the mechanical and the mundane. He must want them. He must want aeroplanes, searchlights, cars and telephones. Above all he must allow his book to become corpulent from its ceaseless voracity.”
Moncrieff: Pages 483-493 “The old Duke no longer went anywhere…” through “…encountered by chance in the church of Saint-Hilaire at Combray?” Kindle locations: 6147-54/6274-81
Patterson: Pages 326-333 “Up until his death…” through “…encountered by chance in Saint-Hillaire de Combray?” Kindle locations: 5836-43/5951-58