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Everyday life near the Guermantes

January 26, 2011 22 comments

Le côté de Guermantes. Tome 1. A la recherche du temps perdu, volume 3 by Marcel Proust. I will use the translation by CK Scott Moncrieff.

Le côté de Guermantes is the third volume of In Search of Lost Time. It is split into two books, and this post is about the first one.

In this volume, the narrator and his family have just moved in an apartment dependant from the Guermantes mansion. The structure of the novel is similar to Swann’s Way and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: it opens with a description of domestic life and the narrator’s various occupations to progressively come to the subject of the book, in this case, Madame de Guermantes.

The first sentence is about Françoise, who can’t get used to her new home.

Le pépiement matinal des oiseaux semblait insipide à Françoise. Chaque parole des “bonnes” la faisait sursauter ; incommodée par tous leurs pas, elle s’interrogeait sur eux ; c’est que nous avions déménagé. The twittering of the birds at daybreak sounded insipid to Françoise. Every word uttered by the maids upstairs made her jump; disturbed by all their running about, she kept asking herself what they could be doing. In other words, we had moved.

The narrator who was so anxious in his new room in Balbec can only sympathize with her and explains why she feels so uprooted:

Moi qui assimilais aussi difficilement les nouvelles choses que j’abandonnais aisément les anciennes, je me rapprochai de notre vieille servante quand je vis que l’installation dans une nouvelle maison où elle n’avait pas encore reçu du concierge qui ne nous connaissait pas encore les marques de considération nécessaires à sa   bonne nutrition morale, l’avait plongée dans un état voisin du dépérissement. I, who found it as hard to assimilate new as I found it easy to abandon old conditions, I felt myself drawn towards our old servant when I saw that this installation of herself in a building where she had not received from the hall-porter, who did not yet know us, the marks of respect necessary to her moral wellbeing, had brought her positively to the verge of dissolution.

What follows is a funny and, as always with Proust, spot-on description what it is to move into a new house. Françoise needs to find her place in the society of the servants in the Hôtel de Guermantes. The set of rules – spoken or unspoken – is as delicate and complicated as rules in high society. Françoise idealizes the old house in Combray and now thinks well of her former enemy Eulalie:

Elle ne souffrait plus de ce qu’Eulalie eût si bien su se faire chaque semaine “donner la pièce” par ma tante. It no longer pained her that Eulalie had so skilfully managed, Sunday after Sunday, to secure her ‘trifle’ from my aunt.

 I don’t know exactly how “secure her trifle” sounds in English, but in French, “donner la pièce” sounds like my grand-mother. Proust delights us with all the details and gossips.

There is an interesting moment when the narrator goes to the theatre to hear La Berma again. He had previously related how important this event was for him. It is now indifferent to him. This difference alone indicates to the reader that the narrator has grown up. His tastes move on, he has partly lost the enthusiasm of children.

The description of how bourgeois and aristocrats avoid and spy each other in the theatre is terrific. The show is in the public as well as on stage. Aristocrats go to the theatre to be seen not to watch the play. Proust throws a mocking look on this snobs, who show off in their private boxes. See the unflattering portray of the Marquis de Palancy:

Le marquis de Palancy, le cou tendu, la figure oblique, son gros oeil rond collé contre le verre du monocle, se déplaçait lentement dans l’ombre transparente et paraissait ne pas plus voir le public de l’orchestre qu’un poisson qui passe, ignorant de la foule des visiteurs curieux, derrière la cloison vitrée d’un aquarium. Par moment il s’arrêtait, vénérable, soufflant et moussu, et les spectateurs n’auraient pu sire s’il souffrait, dormait, nageait, était en train de pondre ou respirait seulement. The Marquis de Palancy, his face bent downwards at the end of his long neck, his round bulging eye glued to the glass of his monocle, was moving with a leisurely displacement through the transparent shade and appeared no more to see the public in the stalls than a fish that drifts past, unconscious of the press of curious gazers, behind the glass wall of an aquarium. Now and again he paused, a venerable, wheezing monument, and the audience could not have told whether he was in pain, asleep, swimming, about to spawn, or merely taking breath.

It’s really picturesque. The fish metaphor makes him look brainless and ridicule.

The narrator’s friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup grows stronger. He comes to visit him at Doncières, where he is stationed as a soldier. They are intimate enough to be on a first name basis now and decide to call each other “tu”. (If anyone needs an explanation about the use of”tu”/”vous” in French, please ask in the comments, I’ll answer).

– Je ne vous ai demandé que l’une des deux choses, la moins importante, l’autre l’est plus pour moi, mais je crains que vous ne me la refusiez ; cela vous ennuierait-il que nous nous tutoyions?- Comment m’ennuyer, mais voyons! joie! pleurs de joie! félicité inconnue! – Comme je vous remercie…te remercie. Quand vous aurez commencé! Cela me fait un tel plaisir que vous pouvez ne rien faire pour Mme de Guermantes si vous voulez, le tutoiement me suffit. “I’ve mentioned only one of the two things I wanted to ask you, the less important; the other is more important to me, but I’m afraid you will never consent. Would it bore you if we were to call each other tu?”“Bore me? My dear fellow! Joy! Tears of joy! Undreamed-of happiness!“Thank you — tu I mean; you begin first — ever so much. It is such a pleasure to me that you needn’t do anything about Mme de Guermantes if you’d rather not, this is quite enough for me.

 When I read this passage, I really wondered how the English translator had coped with this. It is still an awkward moment when you cross an immaterial barrier and start calling someone “tu” instead of “vous”. You always stumble on the “tu” the first times and feel intimidated to use it although the “vous” you used to say was friendly. It hasn’t changed that much. Knowing when to say “tu” or “vous” is one of the subtle French social rules. Some “tu” sound more formal than some “vous”

The narrator and Robert are fond of each other, although they are utterly different. They trust each other enough for Robert introduce his mistress to the narrator. A dreadful moment for the poor narrator, who recognizes in her a former whore. (Remember, the narrator used to go to brothels)

Saint-Loup is very kind and thoughtful, paying attention to the narrator’s poor health and little whims. The narrator envies Robert’s beauty, easiness in life and birth in an aristocratic family. Robert’s admires the narrator’s mind, his lively conversation and his quickness of mind. He wants him to show how witty he can be when he’s with other soldiers or his mistress Rachel. Here is Robert praying the narrator to tell her funny stories about Françoise:

– Alors raconte les choses de Françoise aux Champs Elysées, cela lui plaira tant!- Oh oui! Bobbey m’a tant parlé de Françoise. “Then tell her about Françoise in the Champs-Elysées. She’ll enjoy that.” “Oh, do! Bobby is always talking about Françoise”

 This moment shows us that the narrator is used to entertaining his audience with funny anecdotes from everyday life, the things his alter-ego Marcel Proust will later put in his work. Like Mme de Villeparisis and her memoirs, he tries his stories on his friends before writing them. Rachel’s answer and the use for the « Bobbey » – no typing mistake, it’s really written like this in the French text – reveals once again the use of English words out of snobbery. Roberts have no short name in French. Saint-Loup calls his mistress Zézette, which is totally ridiculous and brings to light how infatuated he is.

A pause on these two names. For the modern French reader, Robert and Zézette are connected to two fictional characters. Robert was abundantly given to babies in the 1940s and 1950s in France and is now associated in my head with parents’ friends and Robert Bidochon, a character in comic books who pictures the archetypal middle-class Frenchman, what we call a “beauf” in slang. I can’t help it, I hear Robert and Bidochon’s face pops up. Zézette is directly linked to the cult French comedy “Le Père-Noël est une ordure” (“Santa-Claus is a bastard”), where Zézette is an illiterate pregnant woman. It’s hard not to think about this when seeing these two names. End of the pause and back to Proust’s aristocratic world.

The moments spent with Saint-Loup at Doncières are also an opportunity to explain the difference between the aristocracy coming from the Ancien Régime and the one coming form the Empire. The Prince de Borodino’s ancestor was ennobled by Napoleon and despises the bourgeois more than Saint-Loup.

Jamais le Prince de Borodino ne recevrait chez lui ce petit-bourgeois. Et c’est tout de même un fameux culot de la part d’un homme dont l’arrière grand-père était un petit fermier et qui, sans les guerres de Napoléon, serait probablement fermier aussi. (…)  ajouta Robert, qui, ayant été amené par un même esprit d’imitation à adopter les théories sociales de ses maîtres et les préjugés mondains de ses parents, unissait, sans s’en rendre compte à l’amour de la démocratie le dédain de la noblesse d’Empire. “The Prince de Borodino would never have an outsider like that in his house. Which is pretty fair cheek, when all’s said and done, from a man whose great-grandfather was a small farmer, and who would probably be a small farmer himself if it hadn’t been for the Napoleonic wars. (…) ” added Robert, who, having been led by the same spirit of imitation to adopt the social theories of his teachers and the worldly prejudices of his relatives, had unconsciously wedded the democratic love of humanity to a contempt for the nobility of the Empire.

 This passage shows how little consideration the ancient nobility has for the latest one and how the new nobility struggles to feel their titles legitimate. It goes with nobility as with money, new money is always more ostentatious than inherited and ancient wealth. By the way, I wonder why Scott Moncrieff translated “l’amour de la démocratie”, literally, “the love of democracy” by “the democratic love of humanity”. It doesn’t mean the same thing to me.

We learn a little more about the narrator, but indirectly. We can feel he’s older now because he’s less naïve when it comes to adults. He sees their flaws, no longer worships his parents’ opinion. He can see Françoise’s meanness and his mother’s incapacity to really impose rules on her servants. His grand-mother is ageing and he takes notice of it. He has partly lost his capacity to wonder, to ignore the dark side of people. He has a crush on Madame de Guermantes, more because he wants to think himself in love than from real and deep feelings. But I’ll come to her in another post.

Proust doesn’t give away too much about the narrator – him, at least not openly. But the reader, gathering details scattered in the flow of events can have a impressionist portrait of him. His health is still poor but he never complains. Proust never lingers on these aspects, never shows the symptoms of his malady. He can’t write, though he wants to. He lacks the discipline, tries to sober, sleep better to be able to work but fails. He wants to have fun. Sometimes, we can guess Proust was gay, in the way he describes men, like here:

Grands, minces, la peau et les cheveux dorés, tout à fait le type Guermantes, ces deux jeunes gens avaient l’air d’une condensation de lumière printanière et vespérale qui inondait le grand salon. Tall, slender, with golden hair and sunny complexions, thoroughly of the Guermantes type, these two young men looked like a condensation of the light of the spring evening which was flooding the spacious room.

 I think it would suit better to portray women. Through the eyes of his friends, we can imagine he was fragile but of good company. His conversation was fascinating and witty. Saint-Loup’s friends invite him to stay after Robert’s departure, because they enjoy his company.

In this book, Proust also starts relating the impact of the Affaire Dreyfus on the French society. But this will require an entire post as it is really fascinating. He shows how the social and political cards will be dealt again after this affair.

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