From The Cambridge Companion to Proust, William C. Carter’s essay “The vast structure of recollection:  from life to literature”:

In Paris, on Saturday, 3 September 1870, as news of the humiliating defeat of the French by the invading Prussian army at Sedan spread throughout the capital, Dr. Adrien Proust, a middle-aged Catholic bachelor, a grocer’s son originally from the small provincial town of Illiers, married Jeanne Weil, the Jewish daughter of a wealthy Parisian family.  At twenty-one, the beautiful, dark-haired woman was fifteen years younger than the bridegroom.  No one knows how they met, but is likely they were introduced at a government sponsored event or social gathering.  Adrien had recently risen to the top ranks in public health administration and Jeanne’s family had many connections in official circles.

Marcel was born the following July at Uncle Louis Weil’s estate at Auteuil where Jeanne’s family usually spent the summer months.  The house, built of quarrystones, was larbe, with spacious rooms, including a drawing room with a grand piano and a billiard room where the family sometimes slept to keep cool during heat waves.  In fine weather Louis and his guests enjoyed the large garden with a pond surrounded by hawthorn trees, whose blossoms Marcel was also to admire in his other uncle, Julies Amiot’s garden in Illiers.

Marcel’s mother possessed a lively mind, an unfailing sense of humour, a profound appreciation of literature and music, combined with common sense and a firm belief in traditional bourgeois values.  Her influence would be the most important in Proust’s life.  Jeanne and her mother, Adele, supervised his cultural education, exposing him to what they considered the best works in literature.  In Jean Santeuil, the mother initiates Jean into the love of poetry by reading to him from Lamartine’s Meditations, Corneville’s Horace, and Hugo’s Contemplations.  Jean’s mother believes that good books, even if poorly understood at first, provide the child’s mind with healthy nourishment that will later benefit him.  When Marcel was older, his mother and grandmother read with him the great seventeenth-century works, of which he acquired a special understanding and appreciation.  He came to love the tragedies of Jean Racine, whose masterpiece Phedre in its depiction of obsessive, destructive jealousy haunts the pages of In Search of Lost Time.

Adrien’s sist er, Elisabeth, had married Jules Amiot, who operated a successful notions shop in Illiers at 14, place du Marche, opposite the church of Saint-Jacques.  It was to the Amiots’ house in the rue du Saint-Esprit that Adrien returned with his wife and two young sons, Marcel and Robert, during the Easter holidays, when the town was at its best, offering wild flowers and trees in bloom that Marcel adored.  The Prousts travelled by rail from Paris to Chartres, where they changed trains for t he short ride to Illiers.  Seen from afar as the train approached, Illiers was contained in ints steeple, just as is  Combray in the Search:

[Combray at a distance…was no more than a church epitomising the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it to the horizon, and as one drew near, gathering close about its long dark cloak, sheltering from the wind, on the open plain, as a shepherdess gathers her sheep, the woolly grey backs of its  huddled houses]

Jules indulged his passion for horticulture by creating a large pleasure, just beyond the banks of the gently flowing Loir River.  He called it the Pre Catelan, after a section of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.  On the south end of the garden a magnificent row of hawthorn trees rose up a slope, leading to a large white gate that opened onto fields of blue cornflowers and brilliant red poppies fanning out to the west and south on the plain towards Mereglise and the chauteau of Tansonville.  The Pre Catelan became the model in Swann’s Way for Charles Swann’s park at Tansonville near Combray.  It must have seemed natural to Marcel, who often played in the Bois near Auteuil, for his Illiers uncle to name his own garden after the one in Paris.  The name held in common by the two principal gardens of his childhood may have provided the first linking in Marcel’s mind of the two spaces, Auteuil and Illier, that inspired Combray.

In Illiers, Marcel visited his elderly grandmother Proust who lived in a modest apartment.  Relatively little is known about her except that she was an invalid cared for by an old servant, which makes her a more likely model for the hypochondriacal Aunt  Leonie in the Search than Elisabeth Amiot, generally considered the original.  Adrien took his sons on walks to show them where he had played as a child.  He pointed out how two different topographies join at Illiers; the Beauce, a flat, windy plain that, as it moves westward, meets Le Perche, whose hilly terrain is ravined by streams rolling down to feed the Loir River.  The defining features of Combray’s fictional topography approximate those of Illiers where the two walks — one the landscape of an ideal plain, the other a captivating river view — embody, for the child Narrator, two separate worlds.

As Adrien and his boys made their way back from Tansonville, it was the steeple of Saint-Jacques, appearing now and then in the sky as they mounted a hillock or rounded a bend, that beckoned them home.  Proust later used a motif from the church’s sculpted wood as one of the most powerful symbols of his art.  On either wall behind the alter stands a wooden statue of a saint above whose head are placed scallop shells.  Such shells are the emblem of Saint James (Jacques in French) and, in the Middle Ages, were worn by the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Campostela.  The church of Saint Jacques was a stopping point on the route to Spain.  The shells also provide the form of the little cakes known as madeleines, symbol of a key revelation in the Narrator’s quest to find his vocation as writer.  Proust would remember the connection between the pilgrims and the madeleines, when he described the cakes in the Search: ‘the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds.’

On his walks through the river country north of Illiers, Marcel spied on Mirougrain, the large manor house built on a slope overlooking a water-lily pond.  Proust remembered the impressions evoked by this mysterious dwelling later when creating the composer Vinteuil’s house in the Search.  He took the name of the old mill, Montjouvin, but used the setting and atmosphere of Mirougrain for the lesbian love scene between Vinteuil’s daugher and her friend.  The names of the streets, old inns, manor houses and ruined church of Illiers and its surroundings, such as Tansonville, Mereglise, Montjouvin, Saint-Hilaire, rue de l’Oiseu flesche, were to live in Proust’s memory and imagination, until he used them, with slight alterations or at all, as part of the material out of which he constructed Combray, a place that exists only in his book.

A story that Proust wrote in his early twenties depicts the goodnight kiss drama from his childhood, generally thought to have taken place at Auteuil.  In ‘La Confession d’eune Jeune fille’ [‘A Girl’s Confession’], a woman, dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, confesses her weakness that led to tragedy.  Although she had given up her lewd behaviour to become engaged to a fine young man, she succumbed one evening to the temptations offered by an attractive guest.  Her mother, who happened to catch the daughter and visitor in a passionate embrace, fell dead from the shock.  As the girl lies dying, she recalls her childhood and the tender, loving relationship with her mother.  Until she reached fifteen, her mother left her every summer at a country home.  The child, like Marcel, dreaded more than anything separation from her mother.  Before departing, the mother used to spend two days with her, coming each evening to her bed to kiss her goodnight, a custom the mother had to abandon because [‘it caused me too much pleasure and too much pain, because due to my calling her back to say goodnight again and again I could never go to sleep’].   This is the prototype of the crucial goodnight kiss scene in the Search that send in motion the Narrator’s long quest to regain his lost will and become a creative person.

In the Search, it is the mother’s habit to give the child Narrator one last kiss before going to bed.  On nights when company prevents her from coming to his room, he is particularly upset.  On one such night, he waits up for her and then implores her to remain with him.  She does not want to yi8eld to his nervous anxiety, but the usually stern father intervenes and capriciously tells her to stay with the boy.  The child, incredulous at the easy violation of a strict rule, feels guilty for having caused his mother to abandon her convictions.  He will spend the rest of his life trying to recover the will he lost that night and to expiate the wrong done to his mother.  This scene illustrates how Proust eventually learned to make his private demons serve the plot and structure of the novel.”

More to come…but let me ask you this:  Do you think that if Marcel’s mother had not given in and given him the kiss, that none of the rest of the events in the book would have taken place?  That Marcel would have been entirely different?

Two reminders:

1.  Don’t forget that “I Spent a Year in Search of Lost Time” t-shirts, mugs and tote bags are now available — perfect for holiday giving to yourself and others!
Men’s tshirt: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089385
women’s tshirt: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089384
tote bag: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089383
mug: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089386

2.  And don’t forget that Project D will be starting up after the first of the year.  The site is up, with listings and links for the recommended translations we’ll be using:


Enjoy your weekend!


by Dennis Abrams

Today’s post was originally going to be my ruminations on my difficulty in writing coherently about  In Search of Lost Time.  Getting a perspective on it as a whole, while at the same time I’m enthralled with so many of the parts OF the whole — characters, style, structure, philosophy — all of which are so intertwined that trying to separate them reminds me of the scene towards the end in which Marcel ruminates about a relatively minor character but wonders, looking back, how large part of the tapestry of his life she actually was.

But fortunately, I don’t have to do that today.  Of the many things I’ve loved about doing this blog, very high on the list are the comments from you out there, all of you who have been reading along with me.  Today, I’d like to share for today’s post words from one our most loyal readers and posters, Patricia Nelson:

“I finished reading In Search of Lost Time on Sunday morning having begun it on November 2nd, 2009. Rationing and re-reading the last pages not even wanting to count the pages left. The final party at the Guermantes swirling into a pattern of resolution, revolving the ‘masks’ with an almost hectic flush, merciless portraits ultimately of love resolving kaleidoscopically around the utterly innocent undeveloped fragile new person Mlle de Saint-Loup through whom genealogy and geography radiate backward through her mother to ‘the way by Swann’ and Combray and through her father to Balbec where Marcel visualizes Robert by the shining sea. Is this the moment, really, the very heart of the story? “A life of Saint-Loup as portrayed by me would unfold in every sort of setting and involve the whole of my life.”
Psychology in space, the weaving of threads, time realized, re-shaped and re-actualized in the securer surroundings of a book, the vigorous grass of a fruitful work of art upon which we, the future readers, have spent a year as our déjeuner sur l’herbe.
I am struck by the echo of the psalms here, the Victor Hugo quote, the days are grass, the wind passes over them. And a fairy tale motif in Scheherazade securing another day by her story from the Sultan Shahriyar, and the unlucky thirteen at the barbaric festival of a dinner party, the utter contempt should one of the guests fail to turn up without time to invite another fourteenth, thinking of the thirteenth fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty and the possibility that one’s book will endure one hundred years.
“But, as Elstir found with Chardin, one can remake something one loves only by renouncing it.” –The theme Harold Bloom understood in Anxiety of Influence, Proust’s entirely new art breaking the mold of past forms.
That evening in the garden at Combray at the beginning hearing Swann at the door, the ‘shy, oval, golden double tinkling of the little visitor’s bell.’ Now as we end, Proust reveals a different beginning, Swann leaving by the garden gate, its iron creak ‘resilient, ferruginous, inexhaustible, shrill and fresh.’
Finally, this is just ravishingly tender, a rush of compassion for Marcel/Proust, his hair still black, weak upon the stairs, exhausted by the novel that he can now see ahead, “putting up with the work like tiredness, accepting it like a rule, constructing it like a church, following it like a regime, overcoming it like an obstacle, winning it like a friendship, feeding it up like a child, creating it like a world…” The next thirteen years, until the end of his life, this work that he compares to cutting out a dress, preparing an aspic, a craft respected more by Francoise’s steady understanding of the work involved than by the critic who has the wrong end of the telescope.
Eric Karpeles may be right that in reaching the end, we should begin again. I reread the visit to Venice thinking it was a kind of miniature, set apart from the whole (what was I thinking?) – and found a prelude to these last pages, to the masked ball as Mme Sazerat fails to recognize in the aged Mme de Villeparisis the beautiful woman who had destroyed her father; to the shape of the novel as Marcel wanders ‘like a character in the Arabian Nights; to the tangled incidents which will, at last and with the perspective of the whole, form the cathedral – Gilberte’s misunderstood telegram informing Marcel of her marriage to Saint-Loup which Marcel reads as a telegram from the dead Albertine promising the future he now no longer wants. Reading it again, I felt astonished. I thought of Francoise patiently mending the worn notebook pages, of Marcel/Proust pinning the manuscript together and of the whole edifice shimmering like the beautiful nocturnal campo Marcel discovers in Venice which centers the labyrinth of little streets only to seemingly disappear the next day when he tries to find the way again but turns off course.
The final image in Karpeles’ Paintings in Proust is a heartbreaking sketch of Proust on his deathbed in 1922. Finishing these last pages one feels a privilege to be in attendance on Proust in reading In Search of Lost Time.”

Marcel Proust – 20 novembre 1922

More tomorrow.

by Dennis Abrams

I just want to say that I’m still astonished by the essay by Anne Garreta that I posted yesterday.  The stilts…did anybody else make that connection?  Reading that, and the instant flash of memory about the church at Balbec and the “of course!” that raced through my mind made me wonder…just how many other connections, repeated ideas and images am I missing?  She’s the only person I’ve ever read who ever noted that connection…which gives an entirely new structure, a whole other way of looking at the books.  Fascinating.


From The Proust Project, “It Was My Life, Was In Fact Me,” by Wyatt Mason

How will it end?

Whether love, plunged into willingly, or life, thrust unwittingly upon us, nothing we begin evades the question very long.  And it needn’t even be worded to be heard.  Its empty echo is ever present, a creeping shadow, a kind of darkness through which we make our stumbling way.

Not, of course, that we believe in endings, however much we fear them, whether of life, or love, or books.  For who believes in things we cannot imagine?  Who believes the breath we draw will be withdrawn, the love we carry be lifted?  And who — one innocent afternoon noodling in a library, or browsing in a bookstore, or reclining into a bedside evening, would suspect, while sounding the iambic heartbeat of Proust’s big book’s first word — Longtemps — who would supposed that the long march through time it  untethers, the last word it promises, would ever really be within reach?

We can no more suppose, beginning the Search, that we will finish it than, while reaching its final pages, that we are truly ending it.  For how can a novel that defies the novelistic at every wide, slow, creeping turn — that chuckles at pace, that laughs at chronology, that tests the best reader’s most patient attentions — a novel, in short and without argument, unlike any other, how can such a book even have an end?

What would it mean to say:  ‘Today, I finished Proust’?

Who finished Proust?

For even if we do soldier across the continents of its richly remembered world, descending, as Marcel says, to a greater depth within myself; even if we plumb those depths in his tireless company; even if we do reach Proust’s big book’s small last word; we do not finish his book as we do others.

We finish The Great Gatsby.  We finish The Good Soldier.  We even finish Ulysses.  We cannot help it:  every page we read brings us nearer to the end.  Not so in Proust.

In Proust, even as we move forward, we grow no closer to the end than we were at the beginning.  This would be a paradox were our progress measured as it is in other books.

In Proust, as we quickly learn, although we move mechanically forward, we do so facing backward.  On the hot backseat of the family car we kneel and stare, asleep-awake, out its rear window at the rippling distance that unfolds there to include everywhere we once were.  Not in nearness to its end is our progress through Proust measured, but in our distance from its beginning:

‘In this vast dimension which I had not known myself to possess, the date on which I had heard the noise of the garden bell at Combray — that far-distant noise which nevertheless was within me — was a point from which I might start to make measurements.’

The sound of the bell was  heard from what seemed a safe haven.  The sound of the bell was heard, we recall, from bed.  There in the childhood dark, a boy longed for a kiss, knew with animal assurance that, with the bell rung, a maternal embrace could be claimed.  The march from bed begins the book just as the forward march backward leads us to its end, a place prolonged past measure.

And so, tucked back in, blankets to our chins, darkness kept behind us, the darkness that rests just beyond time, we, alone, in the dark, seek as the boy in his bed at the beginning did, the bright companionship of a book too mad to read.

Holding tightly to its edges, peering nightly at its pages, we see the darkness behind us take a human shape within us.  The world is rendered blank again, as unblemished as the first day of creation.  The black remains, of course, but now sown neatly into our welcoming field of white in page after page of tiny rows.  And as we approach the destination for which they slowly prepare us, we may not be surprised to find one of our hands hiding the lines just past the ones we are reading, lest we be tempted to skip forward, get ahead of ourselves, jump to conclusions we aren’t ready for.

But, after all, truly for once after all, we are ready.  Despite the fright of every other human end, we look forward to a book’s last word as we look forward to few last things.  We love a book’s last word, this book’s last word, a word contained in its first.  We love this book’s last word in equal measure and proportion to how we fear our last, forestalled, this time, in time, by Time.”

OK…so do we ever really finish reading Proust?  What are your thoughts?  And even more importantly…how many of you “finished” reading In Search of Lost Time?  I really want to know.  No need to write a long post, just a short “I did it” will do.  Let me know!

More tomorrow…

by Dennis Abrams

I was walking the dog yesterday evening and thinking about Proust.  It occurred to me as I was walking that of the many many things I take away from the experience is a new perspective on…perspective.  The idea of the shifting perspective, of how the person that I see somebody is very different from the person that somebody else does, yet both are correct as far our limited perspective goes; of the impossibility of really knowing anybody for that very reason, the near impossibility of love lasting for that very reason, of the way that time plays with and alters all of our perspectives.

This is a way of viewing the world that I think has always been with me, that I’ve always somehow known or at least sensed.  I remember when I was a teenager, reading Joan Didion’s The White Album for the first time and reading this report on her psychiatric state at the time:  “In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure,” and thinking…that’s right.

And as I was walking I thought about Proust and perspective in terms of Picasso and Einstein and the way the world around him was also shifting in perspective, as entirely new ways of looking at the world were emerging, and the thought hit me — Proust and Einstein…connection?

I found this essay and thought it definitely worth reading:

Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein: The Novel and General Relativity

By Kevin Novenario-Navea

The difficulty of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way stems from the fact that it is not an easy read as, say, Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels. Indeed, as one continues the thread of the narrative, it moves at a rather slow pace. One gets the impression of either a very long sketch or a Symbolist prose-poem after just the first few pages. I would, however, like to tackle the narrative content and style’s implications on theoretical physics as I find that its very difficulty becomes a necessary quality. In particular, I find that the novel’s technique carries suggestions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History Of Time describes general relativity as the “suggestion…that gravity is not a force like other forces, but it is a consequence of the fact that space-time is not flat [nor linear] as had been previously assumed: it is curved or “warped” by the distribution of mass and energy in it” (30). It would then follow naturally that each body, having its own mass and energy, will have space-time curved around it and hence its experience of time will be different from another body which has its own curvature. “A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of years and the worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken” (Proust 5).  We see now in the novel that Proust seemingly has an idea (albeit more literary than mathematical) of what Einstein was going for in the mid 20th century.

Perhaps one can take the last quotation as Proust’s manner of introducing the reader to a heightened (and slower) experience of time, which is the main reason for the novel’s difficulty. Notice, for example, what the action is when the Marcel character first goes to bed: M. Swann arrives for dinner, then around the end of the meal Marcel is told to go to bed. In his room Marcel writes a note and asks Francoise to give it to his mother who tells Francoise, “There is no answer.” When the dinner is done and the main guest leaves, the mother goes up the stairs where she is blocked by a desperate Marcel. The father reaches the landing and says that the mother should sleep in Marcel’s room tonight. These are quick actions that other author’s could have done in a few short paragraphs. Proust, however, uses a great length of interjections existing in the mind of the narrator, thus making the reading rhythm of the actions much slower, making a different experience of time. This technique happens all throughout the novel, as when Marcel sees Francoise as representative of an older France, when Swann falls for Odette, sees her as a Botticelli painting, tries to bid her farewell; Marcel seems to be able to speak almost omnisciently, slowing down the rhythm of the narrative as each gesture made is discoursed upon, thus also positing that the novel is not only a space for narrative but also of philosophy.

Where Einstein uses Newton’s concept of gravity to prove his point, Proust uses memory (indeed, the entire novel comes out to be written in the sublime act of remembering in tranquillity, to borrow from the Romantics). This becomes very much foregrounded as when the Marcel character narrates: “They were only a thin slice among the contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but a regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years” (444). Proust then leaves Einstein’s mode of gravitational poles and points in space-time and enters instead relativity of experiences in time which is only knowable through memory. It seems that Proust is suggesting not only an inseparability of space-time as Hawking and Einstein believe but that a consciousness (with memory) must be exerted upon said space-time for it to exist—what Proust seems to forward is the inseparability of space-time-self in the experience of existence.


Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.

Proust, Marcel. Trans. Lydia Davis. Swann’s Way. New York, Penguin Books, 2004.

I also wanted to share Anne Garreta’s essay from The Proust Project, “A Feeling of Vertigo Seized Me As I Looked Down”  She makes connections that actually made me gasp out loud.  MUST READING!

“Time?  Is that the last word?

Yes, I remember, it was also the first one (almost).  Many say that at this last word of the last sentence of the last volume we are meant to loop back, in memory or in effect, to the first one of the first sentence of the first volume.  Then, you see, the book miraculously announced by a stumble on the cobblestones of the Guermantes’s courtyard and the tinkling of a spoon against porcelain, the book finally taking shape in Marcel’s mind and which he now fears he won’t have time to write before his death, is in fact the book we have been reading all along.  Some thus believe that the book ahead of him (and us) is the book we have just closed.  The end circles back to its beginning.  Eternal return.

But is it?

And how would know for sure?

What has Marcel told us about his future book?  That its most distinctive feature would be descriptions of men standing as if on the stilts of time, higher than church steeples, their faces lost among clouds, monstrous vacillating beings, giants immersed in time…But besides the tottering old Duc de Guermantes, have you encountered any other of these comical creatures perilously aspiring to the celestial realm, or grotesque leviathans wallowing below?

The portrait fits Marcel, at the very least.  It fits the book even better.

Maybe the sole hero of the book is the Book…

Wasn’t it what the Adoration perpetuelle intimated?  Life after all has been lived to culminate in a book, and the life of the book with which Marcel finds himself pregnant eclipses all human concerns and duties.  Forget love, discount friendship.  The book will be the story of a holy literary vocation; the creation shall dwarf the creatures and the creator.

Notice how the body of the work is the only true body; that is, the only body whose monstrous growth could fulfill the promise to incarnate Time.  And how the ‘immeasurable prolongation’ which Proust uses to describe men’s place in Time most exactly describes the altitude of a text raised on the stilts of sentences 4.27 meters long.  Besides, what could represent ‘those years that fell into place between the extremities’ but the thousands of pages piled between origin and ending…

Picture this:  the Great War had delayed publication of the two volumes Proust had intended after Swann’s Way.  So from the inside, between the two set extremities or matched bookends of Swann’s Way and Time Regained, grew this cathedral of a book, gaining volume, volumes prolonging, heightening (vertiginously) the body of the text.

But for that contretemps, time would have been regained more speedily and a measured, classical bildungsroman unfolded.   Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive, The Fugitive, are the true expansion secreted in time.  Quite literally, the time lost:  lost in love and mundane pursuits, lost for publication, lost even for the narrative, since we’re never told where and how (except for a few trips to Paris) Marcel spent the time (or contretemps) of the war.

But the entire revelation and holy promise of the Adoration perpetuelle is to offer the experience of ‘a little bit of Time in in its pure form.’  Marcel finally sees his true calling:  to capture in ‘the rings of a beautiful style’ the short circuit of past and present allowed by reminiscence to yield ‘a minute freed from the order of time.’

Doesn’t this amount in effect to knocking down the stilts?

I have often wondered how readers are supposed to savor the petite madeleine.  Is our imagination supposed to be strong and vivid enough that when we read of tea and cookies we might not only salivate but see Combray resurrected before our eyes in a cloud of cream?  Should we start in search of our own private petites madeleines and then too write a book testifying to the vanity of worldly and the true faith of Art?

Maybe the only experience available, within a book, of the transcending operation of time and memory prefigured in the taste of a madeleine, the tinkling of a spoon upon a plate, or the stumble on uneven pavement, must take the form of a textual analogon.  If the reader’s memory is like a giant immersed in pages, in the language of the text, and simultaneously touching widely separated passages, the experience of a pure moment in time, of a freeing from time, will then proceed from a collapse of textual distances.  For objects and images never occur just once in the vast expanse of Proust’s book and his reader’s experience of it:  they return.

Thus, if we were able to dive back into our memory for those stilts, or rather if suddenly they emerged from the depth of all the time that passed since we embarked long ago upon reading In Search of Lost Time, we would recognize the effigies perched on them, and then truly we would see the book we just finished reading as the cathedral it is intended to be.  And maybe we would worship…

For there they were, on the facade of Balbec church, visited  hundreds of pages ago in Within a Budding Grove:  ‘the tall saints’ statues perched on those stilts, forming a kind of avenue.’

But they were stilts only to the uninitiated, to Marcel, the disappointed narrator.  It took the eye of the painter Elstir to dispel Marcel’s error — and ours:  ‘If you had looked more carefully at what seemed to you to be stilts you could have named those who were perched on them.  For underneath the feet of Moses you would have recognized the Golden Calf, under the feet of Abraham the Ram, under those of Joseph, the devil advising Potiphar’s wife.’

Stilts are not stilts, and time is not time.  The artist shows them to be allegories, the allegories of all the detours and dead ends [jealousy, idolatry, vanity…] that obscure and defer the true calling, the recognition of the true law of life and art handed down from prophet to prophet, from Moses and Abraham on to Marcel.

I have sometimes felt a slight suspicion that Proust’s cathedral is, strangely enough, inverted.  It is as if he had turned it inside out:  while the masterpiece’s facade (and everything we’ve been taught to behold in it) proclaims the transcendence of creation realized in the sign of the petite madeleine and its communion, the monstrous substance of Time and worldly temptations is folded within (in the richly detailed nave of the Sodom and Albertine cycles).

But then again, is it a cathedral?

Among the many similes proffered by the Adoration perpetuelle, the book stands figured as flesh and stone, child and cemetery, boeuf en gelee and cathedral; writing veers from an activity as profane as cuisine or couture to one as sacred as transubstantiation, resurrection, and redemption.

Who knows…Those stilts of time could still very well be stilts or thin threads holding together a tattered harlequin’s coat; we would have mistaken for a cathedral a great circus, and the acrobat juggling the rings of style for a high priest.”

And finally, I hope you’ll all be joining me next year as we begin working our way through the four major works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  We’ll be starting with Crime and Punishment, using the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle edition.    Here’s the link to the site, still under construction:



More tomorrow.

by Dennis Abrams

Greetings everybody.  I’m still in the process of sorting out my thoughts on both the book we just finished as well as In Search of Lost Time as a whole.

But I want to say this right off the bat.  I finished reading the final pages of Time Regained Saturday afternoon, meaning that today is the first time in well over a year that I haven’t sat down after my “real” work is finished to read the day’s assignment and prepare my post.  And I’m embarrassed to say that I’m already missing his voice.  It’s a voice that’s been talking me to on a daily basis, and now it’s not there.  So something seems to be missing.

One of the things I appreciated about using the Moncrieff et al translations (with the exception of Lydia Davis’s brilliant translation of Swann’s Way) was that the voice, that inimitable voice remained uniform throughout the reading experience.  It is the translation I used when I read In Search of Lost Time for the first time ten years ago, and, while I enjoyed dipping into and sampling the Penguin translations, to my ear, my inner ear, its the one that sounds like Proust to me.  And as I sit here writing this, there’s a part of me that wants to pick up one of the books at random and dip into it, just to hear him say something, anything,(at this point I reached over, grabbed a book which turned out to be Sodom and Gomorrah, and opened to this):

“There were still few people at Balbec, few girls.  Sometimes I would see one standing on the beach, one devoid of charm and yet whom various coincidences seemed to identify as a girl whom I had been in despair at not being able to approach when she emerged with her friends from the riding school or gymnasium.  If it was the same one (and I took care not to mention the matter to Albertine), then the girl that I had thought so intoxicating did not exist.  But I could not arrive at any certainty, for the faces of these girls did not fill a constant space, did not present a constant form upon the beach, contracted, dilated, transmogrified as they were by my own expectancy, the anxiousness of my desire, or by a sense of self-sufficient well-being, the different colors they wore, the rapidity of their walk of their stillness.”

How long ago and far away that seems!

From The Proust Project, Diane Johnson’s essay “The Arrival of Old Age”

“Jealousy is Marcel Proust’s avowed subject, perhaps almost as much as memory is, an emotion that dominates his work most obviously in the lives of his creations — say of Swann in his obsession with Odette, or Marcel himself in his obsession with Albertine.  It comes in different forms.  Sexual jealousy is everywhere.  We know about all of it because Marcel, acutely aware of and fascinated by all the permutations of jealousy, recounts in detail the harrowed feelings of his characters and his own.

But there is another form, social jealousy, or envy, and envy is in fact in Proust the more powerful emotion.  We see it in the competitive gatherings, tense dinners, and nervous changes of clothes that fill the immense novel.  Proust’s is a society where jealousy is an acknowledged wellspring of behavior, bien sur; but there is an undercurrent of this constriction emotion that perhaps Marcel is even unaware of, so organically does it color even the simplest and wittiest of his observations.  Take a passage like this one, written in the last volume about a party he attended:

‘I had the surprise of talking to 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.’

On the surface, this is the most genial of observations, in which Marcel seems to find his acquaintance uniformly smoothed out into acceptability after the rocky courses of their lives during the long time has known them; but the phrase that alerts us is that he ‘remembered [them] as unendurable.’  This is Marcel’s judgment alone, inadvertently revealing that he had liked neither the self-confident, whose assurance he envied, nor the bitter, though the latter, presumably, he had not envied so much then as now when he remarks on their enviable, gratified condition.  He had, however, judged them harshly all along:  unbearable.

Where there is envy, can malice be far behind?

For the companion and product of envy is malice, and it is both that we sense in Marcel’s remarks here:  the desire for what others have,  hence the malice, the hint of schadenfreude with which he has tracked their progress.

But perhaps Proust the great writer, all-knowing about himself as about others, is concerned not to spare Marcel along with everybody else.  Perhaps the writer’s Olympian penetration obliges him to expose Marcel even as Marcel wittily indicts others.  In the cork-lined room, envy and malice give way to artistic penetration.”

Thoughts?  Comments?  Keep them coming!

More tomorrow.

Moncrieff and Patterson:  Through to the end…

by Dennis Abrams

“At every moment of our lives we are surrounded by things and people which once were endowed with a rich emotional significance that they no longer possess.”  Six degrees:  The paintings on the walls by Elstir, the same Elstir who introduced Marcel to Albertine, it was in the house of Mme Verdurin (now the Princesse de Guermantes) that Marcel was about to meet Gilberte and Robert’s daughter, who he was going to ask to be Albertine’s successor in his life, it was in Mme Verdurin’s house that he had visited with Albertine, “And to complete the process by which all my various pasts were fused into a single mass Mme Verdurin, like Gilberte, had married a Guermantes.”  It is “impossible to depict our relationship with anyone whom we have even slightly known without passing in review, one after another, the most different settings of our life…And surely the awareness of all these different planes within which, since in this last hour, at this party, I had recaptured it, Time seemed to dispose the different elements of my life, had, by making me reflect that in a book which tried to tell the story of a life it would be necessary to use not the two-dimensional psychology which we normally use but a quit different sort of three-dimensional psychology, adding a new beauty to those resurrections of the past which my memory had effected while I was following my thoughts alone in the library, since memory by itself, when it introduces the past, unmodified, into the present — the past just as it was when it was itself the present — suppresses the mighty dimension of Time which is the dimension in which life is lived.”  Meeting Robert and Gilberte’s daughter:  “…I was astonished to see at her side a girl of about sixteen, whose tall figure was a measure of that distance which I had been reluctant to see.  Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in this girl…”  Her nose, “thrust slightly forward in the form of a beak and curved, perhaps not in the least like that of Swann but like Saint-Loup’s.”  “The idea of Time was of value to me for  yet another reason:  it was a spur, it told me that it was time to begin if I wished to attain what I had sometimes perceived in the course of my life, in brief lightning-flashes, on the Guermantes way and in my drives in the carriage of Mme de Villeparisis, at those moments of perception which had made me thing that life was worth living.  How much more worth living did it appear to me now, now that I seemed to see that this life that we live in half-darkness can be illumined, this life that at every moment we distort can be restored to its true pristine shape, that a life, in short, can be realised within the confines of a book!”  The difficulty and glory of the task ahead.  Unfinished cathedrals.  “…it seemed to me that they would not be ‘my’ readers but the readers of their own selves, my book being a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers — it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.  So that I should not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether ‘it really is like that,” I should ask them whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written…”  Francoise would help Marcel in his work, in the organization of his ‘paperies.’  Her appreciation of his efforts.  The book would be made of many impressions, “…so that I should be making my book in the same way that Francoise made that boeuf a la mode which M. de Norpois had found so delicious, just because she had enriched its jelly with so many carefully chosen pieces of meat.”   Time raises another question:  Was there still time to write the book and was Marcel in a “fit condition to undertake the task?”  The danger of the body to the mind.  “The mind immures the mind within a fortress, presently on all sides the fortress is besieged and, inevitably, the mind has to surrender.”   The danger of accidents.  Mining the mind, “I knew that my brain was like a basin of rock rich in minerals, in which lay vast and varied ores of great price.  But should I have time to exploit them?”  “But by a strange coincidence, this rational fear of danger was taking shape in my mind at a moment when I had finally become indifferent to the idea of death….For I realised that dying was not something new, but that on the contrary since my childhood I had already died many times.  To take a comparatively recent period, had I not clung to Albertine more tenaciously than to my own life…Yet now I no longer loved her, I was no longer the person who loved her but a different person who did not love her, and it was when I had become a new person that I had ceased to love her.  And yet I did not suffer from having become this new person, from no longer loving Albertine, and surely the prospect of no longer having a body could not from any point of view seem to me as sad as it had then seemed to me that of one day no longer loving Albertine…these successive deaths, so feared by the self which they were destined to annihilate, so painless, so unimportant once they were accomplished and the self that feared them was no longer there to feel them, had taught me by now that it would be the merest folly to be frightened of death.”   Fear of suffering his grandmother’s fate. of having a cerebral haemorrhage and not being able to complete his task.  A brief illness; a loss of memory, of the power of thought.  An invitation from Mme Mole, the death of Mme Sazerat’s son.  The social self, the immorality of the man who does not attend a dinner party he said that he would, “…death or a serious illness is an acceptable excuse for failing to attend — and then only provided that one has given notice in good time of one’s intention to die…”  The social self loses its memory, the self that “which had the glimpse of the task that lay before it, on the contrary, still remembered.”  Marcel shows a few sketches of his work, but nobody understands them.”  Microscope vs. telescope.  In his youth he had a certain facility, but “instead of working I had lived a life of idleness, of pleasures and distractions, of ill health and cosseting and eccentricities, and I was embarking upon my labour of construction almost at the point of death, without knowing anything of my trade.”   “I had become indifferent to everything.”  Indifference to the “verdict which might be passed on my work by the best minds of the age, and this not because I relegated to some future after my death the admiration which it seemed to me that my work ought to receive.  The best minds of posterity might think what they chose…”  “The loss of my memory helped me a little by creating gaps in my obligations, they were more than made good by the claims of my work.”  “The idea of death took up permanent residence within me in the way that love sometimes does.”  The gap  between illness and death.  “No doubt my books too, like my fleshly being would in the end one day die.  But death is a thing that we must resign ourselves to.  We accept the thought that in ten years ourselves, in a hundred years our books, will have ceased to exist.  Eternal duration is promised no more to men’s works than to men.”  Marcel is like a dying soldier with a task to accomplish, “but my task was longer than his, my works had to reach more than a single person.”  Marcel will write at night, perhaps for a hundred nights, perhaps for a thousand.  His book will be as long as the Arabian Nights, but “entirely different.”  Marcel asks:  Is there still time to complete his task?  Was it too late?  His book will have impressed upon it “that form of which as a child I had had a presentiment in the church at Combray but which ordinarily, throughout our lives, is invisible to us:  the form of Time.”  Errors due to shifting perspectives, but “at least I should not fail to portray man, in this universe, as endowed with the length not of his body but of his years and as obliged — a task more and more enormous and at the end to great for his strength — to drag them with him wherever he goes…This notion of Time embodies, of years past but not separated from us, it was now my intention to emphasise as strongly as possible in my work.”  The sound of the garden gate at Combray, “And as I cast my mind over all the events which were ranged in an unbroken series between the moment of my childhood when I had first heard its sound and the Guermantes party, I was terrified to think that it was indeed this same bell which rang within me and that nothing that I could do would alter its jangling notes.”  “…to hear it better it was into my own depths that I had to redescend.  And this could only be because its peal had always been there, inside me, and not this sound only but also, between that distant moment and the present one, unrolled in all its vast length, the whole of that past which I was not aware that I carried about within me .”  “And it is because they contain thus within themselves the hours of the past that human bodies have the power to hurt so terribly those who love them, because they contain the memories of so many joys and desires already effaced for them, but still cruel for the lover who contemplates and prolongs in the dimension of Time the beloved body of which he is jealous, so jealous that he may even wish for its destruction.”  “Profound Albertine, whom I saw sleeping and who was dead.”  “And I felt, as I say, a sensation of weariness and almost of terror at the thought that all this length of Time had not only, without interruption, been lived, experienced, secreted by me, that it was my life, was in fact me, but also that I was compelled so long as I was alive to keep it attached to me, that it supported me and that, perched on its giddy summit, I could not myself make a movement without displacing it.  A feeling of vertigo seized me as I looked down beneath me, yet within me, as though from a height, which was my own height, of many leagues, at the long series of the years.”   The Duc de Guermantes, “…the almost unmanageable summit of his eighty-three years, as though men spend their lives perched upon living stilts which never cease to grow until sometimes they become taller than church steeples, making it in the end both difficult and perilous for them to walk and raising them to an eminence from which suddenly they fall.”  “So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail,k even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved for them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure, for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived; between which so many days have come to range themselves — in Time.”

“For a long time I would go to bed early.  Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself:  ‘I’m falling asleep.'”


I realize that my synopsis barely qualifies as a synopsis, but given the riches of the last 30 pages of Time Regained, I could see no way around it — what not to write about, what not to quote, what not to emphasize?

In brief (there will be a lot more throughout the week) I found myself profoundly moved, once again, by the idea of Time in all its dimensions personified in Saint-Loup and Gilberte’s daughter.  and the final section with the sound of the garden gate at Combray, the length of time between the first time that Marcel heard it and the Guermantes’s party, and the idea of the “whole of that past which I was not aware that I had carried about within me.”


Keep coming back — I’ll be posting at least throughout this week my final thoughts as I put them together, the thoughts of other critics — and I hope that all of you will contribute as well — in the comments section please let me know what you thought of the book, of the blog, of what reading Proust meant to you.

And don’t forget to check out the online shop at Publishing Perspectives — treat yourself (or a loved one) with a tshirt, a coffee mug, or a tote bag to commemorate YOUR accomplishment in completing one of the great works of literature.  You deserve it!

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I’ll see you all tomorrow.

Moncrieff:  493-504; Patterson:  333-340

by Dennis Abrams

The Duchess resumes “the normal point of view of a society woman, the point of view, that is to say, of a woman who effects to despise society.”  Touring the house.   A room with Empire furniture, “where a few men in black evening clothes were sitting about on sofas, listening, while beside a tall mirror supported by a figure of Minerva a chaise longue, set at right angles to the wall but with a curved and cradle-like interior which contrasted with the straight lines all round it, disclosed the figure of a young woman lying at full length…the marvellous brilliance of her Empire dress, of a flame-red silk before which even the reddest of fuchsias would have paled…”  The young Mme de Saint-Euverte.  The Duchess denies that she has ever “known” any Saint-Euvertes, “The Duchess had never been very truthful and now told lies more readily than ever.  For her Mme de Saint-Euverte was a hostess — and one whose reputation, with the passage of time, had sunk very low indeed — whom she chose to disown.”  Why was the great-niece of Mme de Saint-Euverte laying flat on her back? “I did not know whether it was owing to some malady of the stomach or the nerves r the veins, or because she was about to hve or had just had a child or perhaps a miscarriage, that she lay flat on her back to listen to the music and did not budge for anyone.   Very probably she was simply proud of her magnificent red silks and hoped on her chaise longue to look like Mme Recamier.  She could not know that for me she was giving birth to a new efflorescence of the name of Saint-Euverte, which recurring thus after so long an interval marked both the distance travelled by Time and its continuity  Time was the infant that she cradled in her cockle-shell, where the red fuchsias of her silk dress gave an autumnal flowering to the name of Saint-Euverte and to the Empire style.”  Mme de Guermantes and her constant detestation of the Empire style, “The latter Mme de Guermantes declared that she had always detested, a remark which meant merely that she detested it now, which was true, for she followed the fashion, even if she did not succeed in keeping up with it.”   Mme de Guermantes questions Marcel on how the gathering can possibly interest him, and presses him to attend her own afternoons, dangling a performance by Rachel as bait.  “Then you will see what an extraordinary creature she is.  She is worth a hundred times more than all this riff-raff.  And after luncheon she will recite Verlaine for you.”  Mme de Guermantes’s views of her salon are now like those of all the other women with salons.  Marcel asks the Duchess if it must have been painful for Gilberte to witness Rachel, her husband’s one-time mistress, recite, causing Oriane to go off on Gilberte:  It didn’t matter to Gilberte since she never loved Saint-Loup — she only married him for the name, the social position, the privilege of being related to Oriane, “and getting away from the slime where she belonged”; Robert knew the truth about Gilberte; Gilberte had relationships outside of her marriage; Robert joined the army to escape the misery of his family life, “he wasn’t killed, he got himself killed….No, in my opinion, the Duchess concluded,she is a bitch.”  “Such an expression on the lips of the Duchesse de Guermantes was rendered possible by the downward path which she was following, from the polished society of the Guermantes to her new actress friends, and came to her all the more easily because she grafted it on to an eighteenth-century mode of speech which she thought of as broad and racy…”  Marcel thinks Mme de Guermantes’s attack on Gilberte might be unwarranted, but rethinks it when Gilberte offers to introduce her daughter to him.  Years later, the daughter of Gilberte and Robert Saint-Loup, instead of marrying royalty, married “an obscure man of letter.  Thus it came about that the family sank once more, below even the level from which it had started its ascent.”  Mlle de Saint-Loup:  “Was she not — are not, indeed, the majority of human beings? — like one of those star-shaped crossroads in a forest where roads converge that have come, in the forest as in our lives, from the most diverse quarters?  Numerous for me were the roads which led to Mlle de Saint-Loup and which radiated around her.”  The two great ways.  The Guermantes Way leading to Robert Saint-Loup, the Meseglise (or Swann’s) Way to Gilberte and Odette.  Odette and the Champs-Elysses, to Swann, to evenings at Combray, to Meseglise itself.  Another from Robert Saint-Loup to afternoons at Balbec, the Balbec Marcel wanted to see because of what Swann had told him about the churches, the Persian church in particular, Saint-Loup to Mme de Guermantes to Combray again, but this time via the Guermantes Way.  Odette and Marcel’s great-uncle, the lady in pink, the photograph, leading to Morel, who was the lover of both M. de Charlus and Robert Saint-Loup, which made Gilberte unhappy.  Swann and the music of Vinteuil, Gilberte and Albertine, Vinteuil to Albertine, Saint-Loup’s search for Albertine.  “Are there not in fact among all our acquaintances any who,if we are to tell the story of our friendship with them, do not constrain us to place them unconsciously in all the most different settings of our own lives?  A life of Saint-Loup painted by me would have as its background the various scenes of my own life, would be related to every part of that life, even those to which it was apparently most foreign, such as my grandmother and Albertine.”  The Verdurins.  Mysterious threads broken by life:  “But the truth, even more, is that life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another, and that these threads are crossed and recrossed, doubled and redoubled to thicken the web, so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from.”


Several things…

First off, if I could simply type out the last three pages of today’s reading I would — it is so beautifully written and seems to be so much a summing up of what Marcel has learned, and so serenely accepting…I’ll just say read it again.  And again.  And maybe a third time.

Secondly, I’d like to respond to the discussion on the thread today about the comedy in Proust, and whether the book is, in fact comic.  As I’ve argued throughout, I think it is, darkly ironically funny.  In addition, there are these examples alone that made me laugh out loud:

Discussing Saint-Euverte and the Empire style:  “The latter Mme de Guermantes declared that she had always detested, a remark which meant merely that she detested it now, which was true, for she followed the fashion, even if she did not succeed in keeping up with it.”

This discussion between Marcel and Gilberte:  “I asked whether Robert had been pleased to have a daughter.  ‘Oh!  yes,’ she replied, ‘he was very proud of her.  But naturally,’ she went on, with a certain naivety, ‘I think that nevertheless, his tastes being what they were, he would have preferred a son.'”

And then, of course, there is the comic irony of future generations, “it was generally supposed that Mme de Saint-Loup had really made as good a match for her daughter as could be expected and that the marriage of this daughter’s grandfather to Mme de Crecy had been no more than an unsuccessful attempt to rise to a higher sphere — a view of Swann’s marriage which would have astonished his fashionable friends, in whose eyes it had been rather the product of an idealistic theory like those which in the eighteenth century drove aristocratic disciples of Rousseau and other precursors of the Revolution to abandon their privileges and live according to nature.”

And, on what I hope is an exciting note — I’m pleased to announce that we now have available t-shirts and coffee mugs and tote bags commemorating our journey through Proust in search of lost time.  Perfect for you, perfect for holidays presents:

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And finally, the concluding paragraphs of the conclusion of Malcolm  Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars:

“My second quality is reduced to the first, but is by no means always to be found among experimentalists upon human desire.  It is the quality that the young narrator finds in Bergotte’s prose, and that the dying Bergotte finds in Vermeer’s The View of Delft.  The novel is built from a multitude of different layers or levels, and the ready communication between layers that is encouraged by Proust’s writing creates an astonishing sensation of semantic depth and resonance.  Desire, given voice in prose of this kind, far from running a merely unilinear forward course, begins to develop echoes and harmonics.  Desire is greedy, but at the same time full of shades and gradations, it flings itself forward in time yet constantly remembers its own past.  It is the elaborate polyphonic texture of Proust’s prose, and its power of self-remembrance, that allows his reader to achieve a special ecstasy by way of the printed page.  the cruel extremities of desire, together with the torments of the jealous imagination and the ill-adaption of lover to lover, begin to dance with a new sense of openness and possibility.

And this quality is, of course, what makes Balbec beach for ever dissimilar to the beach at Cabourg, however prodigal that resort may become with its salt, its sand and its breezes.  Balbec is not to be found on any map, for it migrates and mutates.  The narrator may glimpse it for a moment in the Bois de Boulogne, as in this moment from Le Cote de Guermantes:

‘We went a little way on foot into the greenish, almost submarine grotto of a dense grove on the dome of which we heard the wind howl and the rain splash.  I trod underfoot dead leaves which sank into the soil like sea-shells, and poked with my stick at fallen chestnuts prickly as sea-urchins.’

Suddenly, while strolling in their urban pleasure-ground, Albertine and the narrator are back upon a Northern shore, treading on ghostly shells and sea-urchins; from a single point in the history of their lve, a long vista opens up in geological time.  Or again, the narrator may catch sight of the Balbec shore in the indoor domain of Albertine’s captivity:

‘I could, if I chose, take Albertine on my knee, hold her head in my hands, I could caress her, run my hands slowly over her, but, just as if I had been handling a stone which encloses the salt of immemorial oceans or the light of a star, I felt that I was teaching no more than the sealed envelope of a person, who inwardly reached to infinity.’

Beyond geological time and astronomical distance lies the inscrutable inwardness of human desire, which Proust maps endlessly.  Balbec beach is a portion of that desire-map, and sustained in being by sexual artifice and rhetorical cunning.  But if Balbec beach in the end is a text and nothing more, it has the peculiarity of straining always to rejoin the real world.  Writing as find as this can be expected only from an author who has held stones in his hand, tastes salt on his tongue, and, even as his mental constellations dance within him, opened his eyes to the light of real stars.”

The Weekend’s Reading:

All translations, all editions:  Finish It.


Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.  I’ll post the last synopsis etc., on Sunday night, then, through the rest of next week, I’ll post final thoughts, final parts of critical essays, etc.  I hope that all of you who have been here through the end will join in the conversation, share your thoughts, ask any questions…

Moncrieff:  483-493; Patterson:  326-333

by Dennis Abrams

“The old Duke no longer went anywhere, for he spent his days and his evenings with Mme de Forcheville.”    But because she is at the party, the Duke is as well, but “He was no more than a ruin now, a magnificent ruin…his face, like a crumbling block of marble, preserved the style and poise which I had always admired…”   Odette treats him publicly with contempt, “reserving her favours for younger wooers…”   The Duke, like his brother, “had now assumed an appearance of true grandeur..But he was very old and when, wanting to leave, he passed laboriously through the doorway and down the stairs, one saw that old age, which is after all the most miserable of human conditions, which more than anything else precipitates us from the summit of our fortunes like a king in a Greek tragedy, old age, forcing him to halt in the via dolorosa which life must become for us when we are impotent and surrounded by menace…”  “Thus, in the Faubourg Saint-Germain three apparently impregnable positions, of the Duc and the Duchesse de Guermantes and of the Baron de Charlus, had lost their inviolability, changing, as all things change in this world, under the action of an inherent principle which had at first attracted nobody’s attention:  in M. de Charlus his love for Charlie…in Mme de Guermantes a taste for novelty and for art; in the Duke an exclusive amorous passion, of a kind of which he had had several in the course of his life but one which now, through the feebleness of age, was more tyrannical than those that had gone before and of which the ignominy was no longer compensated by the opposing, the socially redeeming respectability of the Duchess’s salon, where the Duke himself no longer appeared and which altogether had almost ceased to function.  This it is that the pattern of the things of this world changes, that centres of empire, assessments of wealth, letters patent of social prestige, all that seemed to be for ever fixed is constantly being refashioned, so that the eyes of a man who has lived can contemplate the most total transformation exactly where change would have seemed to him to be most impossible.”  M. de Guermantes only allows Odette to receive friends who are pleased to be presented to the Duke.  Giving Odette the same looks he gave to his wife, “So for a moment the Duke glared at the audacious lady in pink.”  The Duke’s attempts to control Mme de Forcheville similar to those of Swann.  “Needless to say, the moment he was out of the house she went off to meet other people.  But of this the Duke had no suspicion or perhaps preferred her to think he had no suspicion.  The sight of old men grows dim as their hearing grows less acute, their insight too becomes clouded and even their vigilance is relaxed by fatigue, and at a certain age, inevitably, Jupiter himself is transformed into a character in one of Moliere’s plays, and not even into the Olympian lover of Alcmene but into a ludicrous Geronte.”  Odette’s unfaithfulness to the Duke “without charm and without dignity.  She was commonplace in this role as she had been in all her others.  Not that life had not frequently given her good parts;  it had, but she had not known how to play them.”    After the party, the Duke attempts to keep Marcel from seeing Odette, but they finally meet.  She imagines him to having become a well-known author, and to interest him, “reassumed the character of an unashamed tart,” telling him stories of her past.  The man who wanted to take her to America.  Odette and M. de Breaute, her ridiculous hat, “For two years we were madly in love with each other.”  Her love for Swann, “Poor Charles, how intelligent he was, how fascinating, just the type of man I liked.”   Swann and his love for a woman, Odette, who was not his type:  because she is not your type you let yourself be loved by her without loving her in return allows your life to be “gripped by a habit” which would not otherwise take place, we are not “wary” of women who are not our type and when we come to love them “we love them a hundred times more than we love other women…the fact that our greatest unhappinessess come to us from women who are ‘not our type’ is not simply an instance of that mockery of fate which never grants us our wishes except in the form which pleases us least.  A woman who is ‘our type’ is seldom dangerous, she is not interest in us, she gives us a limited contentment and then quickly leaves us without establishing herself in our life, and what on  the contrary,in love, is dangerous and prolific of suffering is not a woman herself but her presence beside us every day and our curiosity about what she is doing every minute: not the beloved woman, but habit.”   How much Swann did not know.  Was it possible that Mme de Guermantes had also been unfaithful?   Had her first look at Marcel in the church been a “glance of love?”


A continuation of yesterday’s selection from Malcolm Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars:

“In the process of gathering its epic weight and bulk, Proust’s A la recherche du demps perdu absorbs into itself, as we have seen, an ever-changing comic pageant of human individuals and types.  Garros the air-ace, Peary the explorer, Rosita and Doodica the Siamese twins, assorted politicians and princes, a president of the Republic, a tribe of largely nameless footmen, waiters and mechanics, a bevy of minor aristocrats, many of them famous only for a moment or two, and only on the strength of a fleeting fatuity, writers and musicians by the score, heroes and villains from the four corners of European history — all of them move forward inside the text as a variegated throng.  This is astral multiplicity in the human sphere.  And although Proust has limitless reserves of sarcasm and derision at his disposal, and shows unerring precision in shooting his satirical darts, he also has the underlying tenderness and generosity that all the greatest comic writers share.  Follies and foibles define our humanity, and must be safeguarded.  Proust’s narrator clings to his airy Albertine as tenaciously as Don Quixote clings, even upon his deathbed, to his delusional Dulcinea.  And, in a certain light, Proust is closer to the inimitable Cervantes than to any other writer, ancient or modern.  Erich Auerbach, in his Mimesis (1946), that great critical overview of the ‘Representation of Reality in Western Literature’, writes of Quixote in terms that seem already to announce the Proustian comedy:  ‘As God lets the sunshine and the rain fall on the just and unjust alike, so Don Quijote’s madness, in its bright equanimity, illumines everything that crosses his path and leaves it in a state of gay confusion.’  In Sodome et Gomorrhe the narrator describes the social antics of Charlus as those of a modern-day Quixote tilting at windmills, but the narrator himself is a still more perfect embodiment of the quixotic temperament:  his bright equanimity is brought to bear not only upon the changing procession of personalities and sexualities which pass across the social stage but upon the polymorphous variety of his own ‘self’.  Proust’s protagonist is a man with too many qualities.

This plurality of the Proustian narrator will raise a problem for many readers.  He catalogues his own follies and misperceptions with lucid discriminating intelligence, but he is also a social, political, and moral chameleon whose many colourings will at times make his intelligence seem simply promiscuous.  Equanimity is all very well, Proust’s reader may find himself or herself protesting, but certain kinds of company should not be kept, and certain forms of conduct should not, even in a spirit of disinterested intellectual experimentation, be tolerated.  Homophobia, antisemitism and paedophilia are handled, many will feel, with an excess of empathising generosity, and with a fixated imaginative engagement that is alien to the broader comic vision of the book.

There is a real cause for anxiety here, and all new readers of Proust should expect to be embarrassed or offended at times as their journey through the book proceeds.  But two of the book’s other qualities could be remembered at this point, and may go a long way towards restoring if not peace of mind then something approaching the calm vertigo of which the narrator speaks.  The first quality I have in mind is the overt and relentless desire-driveness of the novel.  It iw a bacchanal that summons up, and recruits to its own purposes, an astonishing range of desiring styles and gambits.  And Proust’s writing has a headlong, flyaway pace to it, and one which blends and fuses into a single animated process obsessions, ‘sexual orientations’, appetites and phobias that could easily, in other hands, have been allowed to accumulate as so much inert case-material.  Proust’s book is a tribute to the waywardness and improbability of desire, and places upon itself, as a matter of principle, the requirement that it shock and provoke.  Even Le Temps retrouve, which spends so much time reviewing and reweaving materials from earlier in the novel has, in the field of sexual desire, its major surprise:  it eroticises the spectacle of impending death.  Proust is to sexuality what Talleyrand is to diplomacy and statesmanship.  He is a dexterous negotiator, makes pliability and plasticity into art forms, and relishes the passage from one tight corner to the next.”

More tomorrow…

Thursday’s Reading:

Moncrieff:  Pages 493-504 “Perhaps the Duchess had been pleased for a moment to feel that her past…” through “an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from.”  Kindle locations:  6274-81/6416-23

Patterson:  Pages 333-340 “The Duchesse may have felt glad for a moment…” through “a choice about which connection to make.”  Kindle locations:  5951-58/6081-88


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.”

More tomorrow…


Wednesday’s Reading:

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


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