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From Proust to Baudelaire

May 20, 2010 6 comments

 I’m re-reading Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. During the first evening Swann spends with Odette at the Verdurin’s, he hears the Vinteuil sonata for piano. This imaginary sonata has a phrase which particularly caught Swann’s attention and gave him a great pleasure. This phrase appears several times in the piece and lingers in his mind after he went home. To describe the longing Swann has for this phrase, Proust compares it to a passer by :

Il était comme un homme dans la vie de qui une passante qu’il a aperçue un moment vient de faire entrer l’image d’une beauté nouvelle qui donne à sa propre sensibilité une valeur plus grande, sans qu’il sache seulement s’il pourra revoir jamais celle qu’il aime déjà et dont il ignore jusqu’au nom”

which means, (my flawed translation, sorry) :

He was like a man in whose life a passer-by he once saw just made enter the image of a new beauty which gives to his own sensibility a greater value, without his even knowing if he will ever have the chance to meet her again, she, he already loves and whose name he ignores”

This sentence reminded me of Baudelaire’s beautiful poem A une passante

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son œil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

I looked for translations of the poem and I found four, none of them fully satisfying. Of course, it is almost impossible to translate and keep the music of the original poem, the 12-foot verses, the rhymes, the alliterations and the twists in the syntax. So I chose the one which I think the closest to the original :

The deafening street around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the hem and flounces of her skirt,

Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
As for me, I drank, twitching like a crazy man,
From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,

A lightning flash… then night! O fleeting beauty,
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?

Somewhere else, way too far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
For I do not know where you flee, you don’t know where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Both the passer-by and the phrase of the sonata are transient. They are among a stream of people or a flow of notes and yet, they are so singular as to catch the eye of the poet or Swann’s attention. Baudelaire’s poem expresses the flash of the moment, as a photograph would capture it, and in the same time, the words, the punctuation, the syntax of the sentences picture the movement of this woman on the street, haughty and swiftly walking. As for the phrase of the sonata, it seems to fly above the other notes, like a butterfly above a field of wild flowers, musing, leaving, coming back. They are a tiny part of a whole scenery and yet will be better remembered than the entire sonata or the street that day. Proust often writes about memory, how our mind builds, stores and gives back memories.

For more on Swann’s Way, see http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/marcel-proust-swanns-way/

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