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Literary escapade: Proust and the centennial of his Prix Goncourt

September 29, 2019 17 comments

In 1919, Proust won the most prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt for the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Gallimard was Proust’s publisher.

To celebrate this centenary, the Gallerie Gallimard in Paris set up an exhibition around this event. Did you know that Proust’s win was a scandal at the time?

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was in competition with Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgelès, a book about the trenches and WWI. The public was in favor of Mr Dorgelès and his patriotic novel. (I’ve never read it, I can’t tell anything about it)

Proust was considered too old for the prize. There have been arguments about the Goncourt brothers’ intentions when they made the prize for a “young talent”. Who’s young, the writer or the talent? Proust was too rich and the 5000 francs of the prize would have been better spent on a poor writer. Proust was too involved in the high society, even if at the time he wrote In Search in Lost Time, he was mostly living in solitude. Proust was too odd with his strange living habits, his book was too verbose and he did not fight in the war.

There were a lot of arguments against his winning but none of them were about the literary quality of his novel. And the Académie Goncourt, in charge of picking the winner, concentrated on the literary aspects of the book.

After the 1919 Prix Goncourt was awarded, the press went wild against Proust. The exhibition shows a collage of press articles of the time, all coming from Proust’s own collection.

According to Thierry Laget, who wrote Proust, Prix Goncourt, une émeute littéraire, (Proust, Goncourt Prize, a literary scandal), the violence and the form of the attacks against Proust were like a campaign on social networks today. I might read his book, I’m curious about the atmosphere of the time and what Laget captures about it.

There was a wall about Gaston Gallimard who founded what would become the Gallimard publishing house in 1911. Gallimard convinced Proust to let them publish In Search of Lost Time and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was Gallimard’s first Prix Goncourt.

The exhibition displays the letter that the Académie Goncourt sent to Proust to officially inform him that he won. I found it simple, unofficial looking.

There were two previously unreleased drawings of Proust like this one by Paul Morand in 1917. It was made at the Ritz and it represents Proust, Morand and Laure de Chévigné, one of the women who inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

And the other one was of Proust on his death bed in 1921.

It’s a small exhibition that lasts only until October 23rd, rush for it if you’re a Proust fan and are in Paris during that time.

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret – Wonderful

November 18, 2017 27 comments

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (1973) – Remembrances collected by Georges Belmont.

Céleste was a country girl from the Creuse department who married Odilon Albaret in 1913 and came to live in Paris. Her husband was a taxi driver, one of Marcel Proust’s preferred chauffeurs. This is how Céleste Albaret started to work for Proust, running errands. When Proust dismissed his valet and when WWI started and Odilon was mobilized, she came to live with Proust as his servant. She remained at his service until his death in 1922. She was very loyal to him and refused all interviews after Proust died.

Céleste Albaret was 82 when she finally decided to talk about Proust and her life at his service. Georges Belmont spent 70 hours gathering her memories to turn them into this most valuable book for all Proust lovers.

Belmont managed to write with Céleste’s voice. I felt like I was in the living room of an old lady and that she was in front of me, remembering Proust, giving life to her years with him, to the Paris of this time. Her deep respect for her master brings back the dead world of the Third Republic. She describes relationships between servants and masters that belong to another world, a relationship based on an acute consciousness of class difference mixed with intimacy. These servants knew a lot, had access to very private moments and yet had to remain at their place and never cross the class boundary. Céleste said that she wanted to put a stop to all extravagant rumors she heard about Proust and she needed to tell things how they were. 50 years after his death, she’s still loyal to him but aware of the limitation of her testimony:

Je ne voudrais surtout que l’on n’aille pas s’imaginer que je me présente comme détenant l’absolue vérité, ni encore moins comme ayant résolu de tracer de M. Proust un portrait idéal et tout blanc. Et pourquoi, mon Dieu ? Il n’aurait pas eu moins de charme.

Non, ce que je voudrais que l’on comprenne bien, c’est que, tel qu’il était dans son entier, je l’ai aimé, subi, et savouré. Je ne vois pas ce que je lui ferais gagner à donner de lui l’image d’un petit saint.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I present myself as holding the absolute truth about Mr Proust or as determined to paint an ideal and innocent portrait of him. God, why would I do that? He wouldn’t be less charming.

No, what I would like everyone to understand is that I loved him, I was ruled by him and I savored him just the way he was. I can’t see what he would gain at being pictured as a little saint.

Monsieur Proust embarks us on the quotidian of this magician of a writer who locked himself off for the last eight years of his life to write the masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his closest governess/valet/confident during these years. Needless to say she had a front row seat at the theatre of his life. Céleste describes everything from his daily routine to his creative process.

The first chapters are about his environment, his schedule, his suppliers, his apartment and his family. His schedule is more than odd and to sum it up, I’ll say that Proust lived in Paris but in Melbourne’s time zone. Early morning for him was actually 5 pm in France. Everything was down under in his life and Céleste kept the same hours. Imagine that, during about ten years, she was a night worker. This also means that catering to Proust’s whims entailed running errands all over Paris at any time of the night. Proust could demand a fresh beer or a plate of fried fish at any hour. She would ring at bars and restaurants to get beverages or food, she would go to his friends’ or acquaintances’ place to deliver messages in the middle of the night. Proust knew the places she could turn to for that and his acquaintances knew all about him.

Céleste describes with precious details the setting of Proust’s flat at the 102 Boulevard Haussman. (It’s near the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André) His room was always dark, she could only clean it up when he was out. It was full of heavy furniture that he had inherited from his parents and uncle. The walls were corked to have a soundproof room. He wanted to live in silence, which obliged Céleste to walk around the apartment on tiptoe. Given the importance of his living quarters for Proust’s creativity, I wish his apartment had become a museum we can visit. I would have loved to see the corked room, the curtains, the furniture and smell the remains of his fumigations. We only have his bed at the Musée Carnavalet.

She pictures someone meticulous, demanding, whimsical, focused on finishing his book but always polite and generous. Between them was this strange familiarity coated with formality due to rank and class. He was fond of her, that’s undeniable. Proust loved his mother dearly and was devastated when she died. I think that Céleste brought him the same brand of mothering that his mother provided him. Just like his mother appeased his fears and nurtured him when he was a child, Céleste was a buffer to his disquiet. Her role as a caretaker created the nest he needed to write. She was a friendly ear, a sounding board, someone who fostered his creativity.

We, literature lovers, owe a lot to Céleste Albaret. She witnessed the creation of all the volumes of his work, except Swann’s Way that was already published in 1913. She invented a system to add little pieces of papers to his notebooks to add corrections to one sentence or the other. She cut and stuck all these papers. She liberated him of all material matters and allowed him to focus on writing.

His “morning” ritual always started with fumigations for his asthma. He was very sensitive to dust and Céleste says that he was ill all the time but never complained. (At the same time, his eating habits were disastrous. Croissants and coffee are good but not very nutritive) I wonder if these fumigations had other effects than easing his lungs. Did they include drugs that opened his mind and helped with memories and details?

Céleste evokes the real life people who became characters or parts of characters of In Search of Lost Time. She describes someone who would only go out to check out a detail he needed for his masterpiece. At some point, she compares In Search of Lost Time to a cathedral. And that’s spot on. I don’t know the Chartres cathedral that Proust loved so much but I know the Metz cathedral. I don’t think Proust had seen it because this city was annexed to Germany during most of Proust’s life. You could stare at these cathedrals for ages and always discover new details. The builders of these work of art added things here and there for the observer’s delight. In Seach of Lost Time is like a cathedral indeed. It is a book you bring on a desert island because you can spend a lifetime reading it over and over and always discovering new elements. Proust sculpted details with words.

Céleste spent hours talking to him, listening to his memories, hearing about his nights in the high society. She had a lot of quality time with him that probably made up for all the things she had to endure. She loved him dearly and Georges Belmont conveys her voice, her admiration and her love for this great man. There are a lot of trivial details at the beginning of the book but they are sound foundations for the rest of her memories. The reader enters into Proust’s life through plain everyday life details, just like Céleste did. Once we’re hooked into his life, she unveils the rest. We see the artist, the writer who knew he was brilliant but still needed peer recognition.

The tone is outdated just as Céleste and Proust’s world is. They belong to another era. Céleste recalls her years with Proust fondly but without nostalgia. She comes out as someone who loved him fiercely but who was not blind to his flaws. She never judged him. She sacrificed a lot for him but was aware that she was enabling a great artist.

Monsieur Proust will appeal to Proust lovers but not only. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, Monsieur Proust is interesting for the Céleste/Proust relationship, for the Paris of the time and for the creation process of an immense artist. It could whet your appetite for his books though. If you have read Proust, you’ll read this with 3D glasses; it will enhance your reading.

Highly recommended to any book and literature lover.

Today is November 18th, 2017 and it is the 95th anniversary of Proust’s death. I wanted to publish this billet this very day to honor his memory.

Saturday literary delights, squeals and other news

October 28, 2017 25 comments

For the last two months, I’ve been buried at work and busy with life. My literary life suffered from it, my TBW has five books, I have a stack of unread Télérama at home, my inbox overflows with unread blog entries from fellow book bloggers and I have just started to read books from Australia. Now that I have a blissful six-days break, I have a bit of time to share with you a few literary tidbits that made me squeal like a school girl, the few literary things I managed to salvage and how bookish things came to me as if the universe was offering some kind of compensation.

I had the pleasure to meet again with fellow book blogger Tom and  his wife. Tom writes at Wuthering Expectations, renamed Les Expectations de Hurlevent since he left the US to spend a whole year in Lyon, France. If you want to follow his adventures in Europe and in France in particular, check out his blog here. We had a lovely evening.

I also went to Paris on a business trip and by chance ended up in a hotel made for a literature/theatre lovers. See the lobby of the hotel…

My room was meant for me, theatre-themed bedroom and book-themed bathroom

*Squeal!* My colleagues couldn’t believe how giddy I was.

Literature also came to me unexpectedly thanks to the Swiss publisher LaBaconnière. A couple of weeks ago, I came home on a Friday night after a week at top speed at work. I was exhausted, eager to unwind and put my mind off work. LaBaconnière must have guessed it because I had the pleasure to find Lettres d’Anglererre by Karel Čapek in my mail box. What a good way to start my weekend. *Squeal!* It was sent to me in hope of a review but without openly requesting it. Polite and spot on since I was drawn to this book immediately. LaBaconnière promotes Central European literature through their Ibolya Virág Collection. Ibolya Virág is a translator from the Hungarian into French and LaBaconnière has also published the excellent Sindbad ou la nostalgie by Gyula Krúdy, a book I reviewed both in French and in English. Last week, I started to read Lettres d’Angleterre and browsed through the last pages of the book, where you always find the list of other titles belonging to the same collection. And what did I find under Sindbad ou la nostalgie? A quote from my billet! *Squeal!* Now I’ve never had any idea of becoming a writer of any kind but I have to confess that it did something to me to see my words printed on a book, be it two lines on the excerpt of a catalogue. Lettres d’Angleterre was a delight, billet to come.

Now that I’m off work, I started to read all the Téléramas I had left behind. The first one I picked included three articles about writers I love. *Squeal!* There was one about visiting Los Angeles and especially Bunker Hill, the neighborhood where John Fante stayed when he moved to Los Angeles. I love John Fante, his sense of humor, his description of Los Angeles and I’m glad Bukowski saved him from the well of oblivion. It made me want to hop on a plane for a literary escapade in LA. A few pages later, I stumbled upon an article about James Baldwin whose novels are republished in French. Giovanni’s Room comes out again with a foreword by Alain Mabanckou and there’s a new edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Two books I want to read. And last but not least, Philip Roth is now published in the prestigious La Pléiade  edition. This collection was initially meant for French writers but has been extended to translated books as well. I don’t know if Roth is aware of this edition but for France, this is an honor as big as winning the Nobel Prize for literature, which Roth totally deserves, in my opinion.

Romain Gary isn’t published in La Pléiade (yet) but he’s still a huge writer in France, something totally unknown to most foreign readers. See this display table in a bookstore in Lyon.

His novel La Promesse de l’aube has been made into a film that will be on screens on December 20th. It is directed by Eric Barbier and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Nina, Gary’s mother and Pierre Niney is Romain Gary. I hope it’s a good adaptation of Gary’s biographical novel.

Romain Gary was a character that could have come out of a novelist’s mind. His way of reinventing himself and his past fascinates readers and writers. In 2017, at least two books are about Romain Gary’s childhood. In Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre, Laurent Seksik explores Gary’s propension to create a father that he never knew. I haven’t read it yet but it is high on my TBR.

The second book was brought in the flow of books arriving for the Rentrée Littéraire. I didn’t have time this year to pay attention to the books that were published for the Rentrée Littéraire. I just heard an interview of François-Henri Désérable who wrote Un certain M. Piekielny, a book shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. And it’s an investigation linked to Gary’s childhood in Vilnius. *Squeal!* Stranded in Vilnius, Désérable walked around the city and went in the street where Gary used to live between 1917 and 1923. (He was born in 1914) In La promesse de l’aube, Gary wrote that his neighbor once told him:

Quand tu rencontreras de grands personnages, des hommes importants, promets-moi de leur dire: au n°16 de la rue Grande-Pohulanka, à Wilno, habitait M. Piekielny. When you meet with great people, with important people, promise me to tell them : at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka street in Wilno used to live Mr Piekielny.

Gary wrote that he kept his promise. Désérable decided to research M. Piekielny, spent more time in Vilnius. His book relates his experience and his research, bringing back to life the Jewish neighborhood of the city. 60000 Jews used to live in Vilnius, a city that counted 106 synagogues. A century later, decimated by the Nazis, there are only 1200 Jews and one synagogue in Vilnius. Of course, despite the height of my TBR, I had to get that book. I plan on reading it soon, I’m very intrigued by it.

Despite all the work and stuff, I managed to read the books selected for our Book Club. The October one is Monsieur Proust by his housekeeper Céleste Albaret. (That’s on the TBW) She talks about Proust, his publishers and the publishing of his books. When Du côté de chez Swann was published in 1913, Proust had five luxury copies made for his friends. The copy dedicated to Alexandra de Rotschild was stolen during WWII and is either lost or well hidden. The fifth copy dedicated to Louis Brun will be auctioned on October 30th. When the first copy dedicated to Lucien Daudet was auctioned in 2013, it went for 600 000 euros. Who knows for how much this one will be sold? Not *Squeal!* but *Swoon*, because, well, it’s Proust and squeals don’t go well with Proust.

Although Gary’s books are mostly not available in English, I was very happy to discover that French is the second most translated language after English. Yay to the Francophonie! According to the article, French language books benefit from two cultural landmarks: the Centre National du Livre and the network of the Instituts français. Both institutions help financing translations and promoting books abroad. I have often seen the mention that the book I was reading had been translated with the help of the Centre National du Livre.

I mentioned earlier that the hotel I stayed in was made for me because of the literary and theatre setting. I still have my subscription at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon and I’ve seen two very good plays. I wanted to write a billet about them but lacked the time to do so.

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The first one is Rabbit Hole by Bostonian author David Lindsay-Abaire. The French version was directed by Claudia Stavisky. The main roles of Becky and Howard were played by Julie Gayet and Patrick Catalifo. It is a sad but beautiful play about grieving the death of a child. Danny died in a stupid car accident and his parents try to survive the loss. With a missing member, the family is thrown off balance and like an amputated body, it suffers from phantom pain. With delicate words and spot-on scenes, David Lindsay-Abaire shows us a family who tries to cope with a devastating loss that shattered their lived. If you have the chance to watch this play, go for it. *Delight* On the gossip column side of things, the rumor says that François Hollande was in the theatre when I went to see the play. (Julie Gayet was his girlfriend when he was in office)

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The second play is a lot lighter but equally good. It is Ça va? by Jean-Claude Grumberg. In French, Ça va? is the everyday greeting and unless you genuinely care about the person, it’s told off-handedly and the expected answer is Yes. Apparently, this expression comes from the Renaissance and started to be used with the generalization of medicine based upon the inspection of bowel movements. (See The Imaginary Invalid by Molière) So “Comment allez-vous à la selle” (“How have your bowel movements been?”) got shortened into Ça va? Very down-to-earth. But my dear English-speaking natives, don’t laugh out loud too quickly, I hear that How do you do might have the same origin…Back to the play.

In this play directed by Daniel Benoin, Grumberg imagines a succession of playlets that start with two people meeting up and striking a conversation with the usual Ça va? Of course, a lot of them end up with dialogues of the deaf, absurd scenes, fights and other hilarious moments. Sometimes it’s basic comedy, sometimes we laugh hollowly but in all cases, the style is a perfect play with the French language. A trio of fantastic actors, François Marthouret, Pierre Cassignard and Éric Prat interpreted this gallery of characters. *Delight* If this play comes around, rush for it.

To conclude this collage of my literary-theatre moments of the last two months, I’ll mention an interview of the historian Emmanuelle Loyer about a research project Europa, notre histoire directed by Etienne François and Thomas Serrier. They researched what Europe is made of. Apparently, cafés are a major component of European culture. Places to sit down and meet friends, cultural places where books were written and ideas exchanged. In a lot of European cities, there are indeed literary cafés where writers had settled and wrote articles and books. New York Café in Budapest. Café de Flore in Paris. Café Martinho da Arcada in Lisbon. Café Central in Vienna. Café Slavia in Prague. Café Giubbe Rosse in Florence. (My cheeky mind whispers to me that the pub culture is different and might have something to do with Brexit…) It’s a lovely thought that cafés are a European trademark, that we share a love for places that mean conviviality. That’s where I started to write this billet, which is much longer than planned. I’ll leave you with two pictures from chain cafés at the Lyon mall. One proposes to drop and/or take books and the other has a bookish décor.

Literature and cafés still go together and long life to the literary café culture!

I wish you all a wonderful weekend.

Proust therapy

January 25, 2015 20 comments

GallienneRecently I had one of those days off where you pack do many things to do that you wish you had been in the office instead. At the end of the day, I felt stressed out and frazzled by the pace of the day. I needed something to calm me down, especially since I was going to the theatre that night and wanted to enjoy myself.

That’s where the book/CD of Ca peut pas faire de mal came to my rescue. Ca peut pas faire de mal (It can’t hurt) is a radio show on France Inter where Guillaume Gallienne reads excerpts of books and discusses a writer. It is a marvelous show and marketing people made a CD/book out of it. Lucky me, I got one for Christmas and it’s about Proust, Hugo and Madame de Lafayette.

I put the CD in the car and I forgot the stress of my day. Proust read by Gallienne makes you truly understand where all the fuss about Proust comes from. The passages recorded belong to different volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu and I remembered these scenes. This is Proust’s magic: hundreds of pages of literature and the characters stay with you, scenes are tattooed in your memory and emotions are lasting. Cocteau said about Proust:

Il y a des oeuvres courtes qui paraissent longues; la longueur de Proust me paraît courte. There are short works that seem long; Proust’s length seems short to me.

I share that feeling but I’ll say that some volumes are easier than others.

In his introduction to the show, Gallienne recalls:

Marcel Proust, I discovered him through my grand-mother. She told me “Proust, he’s one of the most irresistible things in the world” I said “Is he?” She said “Proust is hilarious” Ah! I expected anything but this definition and later on, Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust biographer told me “Oh! Discovering Proust thanks to your grand-mother, it’s a very good start.” So let’s laugh with Marcel!

He then starts reading several excerpts showing how Proust practices the whole rainbow of funny from sunny comedy to black humour and through irony, piques and erudite puns. One excerpt relates how the Baron the Charlus walks his bourgeois lover Morel through the intricacies of the aristocratic hierarchy. Hilarious. Another one brings to life Madame Verdurin and her clique. Proust describes her facial expressions, her verbal tics and her behaviour among her beloved followers. Gallienne reads the descriptions, plays the dialogues and turns a written portrait into a flesh and blood person.

There’s also the masterful scene in Le Côté de Guermantes when the duke and duchess de Guermantes reveal their true self. They’re self-centred to the point of rudeness and insensitivity. Within a few pages, with a simple situation and banal dialogues, the reader understands that not even family and friends dying would prevent the Guermantes to attend a party. They’re appalling, as I mentioned in this billet. Other passages are about Françoise (the servant), Marcel’s beloved grand-mother and homosexuality. The last one is a letter from the front written by the Narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup. Gallienne says it prefigures Céline. He may be right.

In short passages, the CD gives you a taste of A la recherche du temps perdu. Gallienne reads with gourmandise. That’s a French word I have a hard time translating into English. Like plaisir. If I look up gourmandise in the dictionary, I come up with greed and gluttony which are negative words. They’re flaws or sins. True, in French gourmandise means gluttony as well. But not only. In a more figurative sense, it also means appetite in the most positive way. It goes with innocent pleasure, like in my son’s sentence En avant le plaisir! I never know how to express this in English.

So Gallienne reads Proust with gourmandise in a tone that suggests he’s having a treat, relishing in the turn of sentences, the delicious and old-fashioned subjonctif passé. He reads like a kid eats sweets, with abandonment and gusto. Words roll around his tongue, like he’s savouring a fancy meal or tasting a great wine. If you want to discover Proust, if you’re curious about how Proust sounds in French, then you need to hear Gallienne read these passages. You’ll want to read or reread Proust.

After this, Proust fest, I was calm. All the irritating moments of my day had faded away. I was available and ready to see The Village Bike by Penelope Skinner. That was my Proust therapy. The world would be a quieter place with more literature therapies. Perhaps it’s too ambitious but at least it benefited Penelope Skinner: I was ready to leave my day behind and enter the world she had created for us.

I finished reading La Prisonnière, eventually

February 1, 2013 16 comments

La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust. 1929 English title: The Captive

I ended my previous post about The Captive with the following paragraph:

Chapter 2 is entitled: Les Verdurin se brouillent avec M. de Charlus. (The Verdurins quarrel with M. de Charlus). Relief. He’s socializing again and we’ll get some fresh air.

Well, socializing doesn’t last long, so relief was short-lived. Sure, Marcel describes with shining details how M. de Charlus organized a music evening in the honour of Morel at the Verdurins’ and how he managed to mortally vex Madame Verdurin. The man invited the high society to his party at her place and never introduced her to his elite crowd. (Mme de Guermantes, Princesse de Guermantes…) She felt so humiliated by his behaviour that she decided to guillotine him from her Salon and cut him off Morel at the same time. The description of her way of trapping him and going for the kill is masterly crafted. It reminded me of the worst sharks in the politics of big corporations. But that part didn’t last long enough.

The rest of the volume is still devoted to Marcel’s unhealthy behaviour and twisted relationship with Albertine. His games lead them to break-up, which isn’t a spoiler since the next volume is called Albertine disparue (Albertine Gone). He’s obsessed by a question: is Albertine a lesbian? Is she acquainted with lesbians? While he casually speaks about M. de Charlus sexual orientation and his relationship with Morel, he is truly horrified by the idea that Albertine could be a lesbian. Most of what he calls love holds by his imagined mission to save Albertine from lesbian encounters. Speak of a knight in shining armor and what a sick basis for a relationship. Personally, I don’t understand why he makes such a difference between gays and lesbians. Knowing that Proust was a homosexual, being so against lesbians is as odd to me as black men being racist. When you’re yourself the target of racism or homophobia, how can you behave the same way toward other people? That question lingers in my head and I can’t grasp why the Narrator is so shocked by the idea of lesbian relationships.

The book also echoed strangely with the current parliamentary session in France. You’re probably not aware of this, but our députés are currently discussing a law that will legalize marriage for homosexuals. We have had pretty nasty comments and demonstrations from conservative and catholic militants. A pro-law député received a threat in the form of a mail full of excrement. This still happens in 2013. It was just a loud reminder that the door to the worse is always ajar and that contemptible behaviours just wait for an opportunity to spring free. While I listened to the news with consternation and followed a bit of the debates between French bloggers on Twitter, I couldn’t help wondering “Which side would Marcel Proust take these days?” If I read La Prisonnière very literally, I wouldn’t be too optimistic and think he would be against this law. But then, I can’t forget that it was written in the 1920s and that if he were alive now, his thinking would have kept up with his time. The man who supported Dreyfus from the start wouldn’t stick with the stinking conservatives right now, would he?

Expo_ProustAnd with this my minds leaps to my latest Proustian moment, when I attended the exhibition Du côté de chez Swann. Jacques-Emile Blanche. Un Salon à la Belle Epoque. For a glimpse at the exhibition, click here. Jacques-Emile Blanche is the painter who did Proust’s portrait you can see on the exhibition poster. This is probably the most famous portrait of this literary genius. They said at the exhibition that he loved this painting and moved it around with him every place he lived. Jacques-Emile Blanche is a social painter of the time. He is well introduced in the fashionable artistic salons of his time. His father was Maupassant’s physician and himself was a close friend to Proust. Well, they weren’t on speaking terms for 15 years because of the Dreyfus Affair. (Proust was Dreyfusard and Blanche anti-Dreyfusard). Blanche also painted Marguerite Saint-Marceaux, who became Madame Verdurin, Méry Laurent, who inspired Odette de Crécy (and Nana by Zola), Robert de Montesquiou who inspired M. de Charlus. There were also paintings of the Halévy family who are partly portrayed in the Guermantes and paintings of the Baignères who also inspired the Swanns. So the Swanns are made up with Charles Haas, Méry Laurent and the Baignères. I enjoyed the visit very much. Blanche was always a socialite and later befriended with Cocteau and Gide. I have a book entitled La vie élégante by Anne Martin-Fugier that retraces the history of salons from 1815 to the Belle Epoque. It’s on the TBR, I may read it after I finish Is That a Fish in Your Ear? which is a bit challenging to read in English for a French with no academic background in the field of translation, language and other related theories.

Marguerite Saint-Marceaux painting by Jacques Emile Blanche

Marguerite Saint-Marceaux painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

Robert de Montesquiou painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

Robert de Montesquiou painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

But back to Proust. I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading Albertine disparue because I know it’s a difficult volume too. The reward is really in Le Temps retrouvé which is an absolute masterpiece. I guess I’ll have to soldier on and think about this wonderful last volume.

A painting which portrays Charles Swann

December 11, 2012 17 comments

A la Recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust. (In Search of Lost Time)

When I visited the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, I stumbled upon a painting that reminded me of Odette Swann. This time, when I visited the exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode, I saw the painting Le Cercle de la rue Royale by Tissot.

Tissot_cercle

When I looked at the caption, it listed the men painted there and I saw that Charles Haas was the last one on the right. I thought: He’s the one Proust based Charles Swann upon and I noted down the reference of the painting. Like Haas, Swann was a member of the Cercle de la Rue Royale and of the Jockey Club.

I always thought that scholars had recouped information spread throughout In Search of Lost Time and thus deducted that Charles Haas was the model for Charles Swann. Therefore I was quite surprised when I came home, resumed reading The Captive and read about Swann’s death. Proust indulges into self-congratulation as he muses over the immortality the first volume of In Search of Lost Time will grant to Charles Haas/Swann:

Et pourtant, cher Charles Swann, que j’ai connu quand j’étais encore si jeune et vous près du tombeau, c’est parce que celui que vous deviez considérer comme un petit imbécile a fait de vous le héros d’un de ses romans, qu’on recommence à parler de vous et que peut-être vous vivrez ». Si dans le tableau de Tissot représentant le balcon du Cercle de la rue Royale, où vous êtes entre Galliffet, Edmond de Polignac et Saint-Maurice, on parle tant de vous, c’est parce qu’on voit qu’il y a quelques traits de vous dans le personnage de Swann. And yet, my dear Charles——, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a little fool has made you the hero of one of his volumes that people are beginning to speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live. If in Tissot’s picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond Polignac and Saint-Maurice, people are always drawing attention to yourself, it is because they know that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann.

He was quite smug, wasn’t he? Or confident in his gift as a writer, which is not the image the Narrator gives about his writing abilites. The reference to the painting by Tissot leaves no doubt: Charles Haas and Charles Swann are one unique person.

More importantly, in this passage, the Narrator is dropping the masks and writes as Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time sound like his memoirs. So, look at the picture, the man on the right with a hat is Charles Haas/Swann.

PS: Here is the list of the men portrayed on this painting, from left to right. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Personnes_cercle_rue_Royale

A little research on Wikipedia teaches you that Edmond de Polignac is supposedly the one who introduced Charles Haas to Marcel Proust. Gaston de Galliffet inspired the Général de Froberville, involved in the Dreyfus Affair. These men were used to spending time at the Comtesse Greffuhle, who inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Every breath you take; every move you make, I’ll be watching you

December 8, 2012 14 comments

La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust. 1929. English title: The Captive translation by CK Scott Moncrief.

Ironically, I have to thank EL James for teaching me all kinds of useful words to write this billet about La Prisonnière (except flogger, I don’t think I’ll need it. Wait, shall I wax Oulipo and challenge myself into using flogger in this billet?) I almost called it Fifty Shades of Marcel, but, no, that would be too great an honour to Ms James.

I’ve been reading La Prisonnière since August and I’m only half through it; I knew this one would be difficult because of its claustrophobic tone. I remembered being tired of Marcel the first time I read it but as a teenager, I didn’t have enough insight to realise how sick Marcel is. And here, I’m not talking about his asthma.

Let’s rewind a bit: at the end of the previous volume, Marcel whisks Albertine away from Balbec and takes advantage that his mother is away to invite Albertine to stay with him. So Albertine now lives with him, kind of secretly as this is still frowned upon at the time. The first long chapter of La Prisonnière is his life with Albertine.

As always, we only have the Narrator’s POV but I’d love to hear Albertine’s. Poor, poor girl. Marcel does have a sick vision of love relationship. He’s a control freak, a stalker. Jealous doesn’t even cover his attitude. He suffocates her and then is surprised that she lies to him to cover herself! He checks on her, calls her girlfriend Andrée to verify whether she really went where she said she’d go. (What kind of friend is Andrée, btw?) He enquires about whom she spoke to. He sabotages her plans any time he thinks she might meet someone he doesn’t want her to talk to. Marcel is obsessed with Albertine’s supposed homosexuality. Whereas he accepts perfectly well the love relationship between Morel and M. de Charlus, he’s horrified by lesbianism.

Marcel wants to own Albertine body and soul. He gets a kick out of domineering her:

Les robes même que je lui achetais, le yacht dont je lui avais parlé, les peignoirs de Fortuny, tout cela ayant dans cette obéissance d’Albertine, non pas sa compensation, mais son complément, m’apparaissait comme autant de privilèges que j’exerçais ; car les devoirs et les charges d’un maître font partie de sa domination, et le définissent, le prouvent tout autant que ses droits. Et ces droits qu’elle me reconnaissait donnaient précisément à mes charges leur véritable caractère : j’avais une femme à moi qui, au premier mot que je lui envoyais à l’improviste, me faisait téléphoner avec déférence qu’elle revenait, qu’elle se laissait ramener, aussitôt. J’étais plus maître que je n’avais cru. Plus maître, c’est-à-dire plus esclave.

The frocks that I bought for her, the yacht of which I had spoken to her, the wrappers from Fortuny’s, all these things having in this obedience on Albertine’s part not their recompense but their complement, appeared to me now as so many privileges that I was enjoying; for the duties and expenditure of a master are part of his dominion, and define it, prove it, fully as much as his rights. And these rights which she recognised in me were precisely what gave my expenditure its true character: I had a woman of my own, who, at the first word that I sent to her unexpectedly, made my messenger telephone humbly that she was coming, that she was allowing herself to be brought home immediately. I was more of a master than I had supposed. More of a master, in other words more of a slave.

Les devoirs et les charges d’un maître font partie de sa domination”, ie “the duties and expenditure of a master are part of his domination”: just how sick is that? He says he doesn’t love her and yet he takes her away from the world, for the pleasure of owning her.

Et cependant, pour moi, aimer charnellement c’était tout de même jouir d’un triomphe sur tant de concurrents. Je ne le redirai jamais assez, c’était un apaisement plus que tout.

Yet to me to love in a carnal sense was at any rate a triumph over countless rivals. I can never repeat it often enough; it was first and foremost a sedative.

This is what EL James would translate into 21st century trash prose as he doesn’t make love, he fucks.

Albertine can’t invite anyone home as her living with our Narrator is a secret, which increases his power over her. (“Elle [Gisèle] ignorait que la jeune fille [Albertine] vécût chez moi, rien qu’à moi” ie, “But she would not know that the girl was living with me, was wholly mine”)

He uses the language of property and in French it is not the language of love. (“la possession que j’avais d’elle”, ie “my possession of her. The French sentence is strange and heavy, btw). He speaks the language of domination: esclave, claustration, chaîne, esclavage, servage, prison. (slave, confinement, chain, slavery, prison)

In a previous billet, I wrote I wouldn’t want to be loved by the Narrator. I say it again. He has a sick vision of love, a vision where the woman must be submissive, this submission being a balm for his permanent disquiet. He’s jealousy driven and although he’s lucid enough to acknowledge it, he can’t help it. He ruminates memories, trying to extract new meaning from benign situation. And I can’t help thinking, Get a job, man, you wouldn’t have time mulling over meaningless details. But, then if he had, we wouldn’t have that fine piece of literature, would we? I shudder to think about what Marcel would do with today’s technology. Call her on her mobile phone every minute? Track her cellphone? Her car?

He finds his peace of mind in the idea of her being pliant. He tortures himself and therefore Albertine with thoughts about her betrayal. How can you have a relationship full of trust, genuine love and be happy with a man who picks at every word you say, sees double-entendre in innocent chatter and imagines ulterior motive at every outing? It must be exhausting. He’s mercurial and his mood swings are unpredictable. I bet the poor girl doesn’t know where to stand with him as it filters through this note she sends him:

« Mon chéri et cher Marcel, j’arrive moins vite que ce cycliste dont je voudrais bien prendre la bécane pour être plus tôt près de vous. Comment pouvez-vous croire que je puisse être fâchée et que quelque chose puisse m’amuser autant que d’être avec vous ! ce sera gentil de sortir tous les deux, ce serait encore plus gentil de ne jamais sortir que tous les deux. Quelles idées vous faites-vous donc ? Quel Marcel ! Quel Marcel ! Toute à vous, ton Albertine. »

“My darling, dear Marcel, I return less quickly than this cyclist, whose machine I would like to borrow in order to be with you sooner. How could you imagine that I might be angry or that I could enjoy anything better than to be with you? It will be nice to go out, just the two of us together; it would be nicer still if we never went out except together. The ideas you get into your head! What a Marcel! What a Marcel! Always and ever your Albertine.”

You can’t see it in English but in French, she mixes tu and vous. She uses vous to address to him and refers to herself as tu. (ton Albertine). By doing this, she places herself as inferior to him or in a servant-master relationship. In French, it shows an inequality between people when they don’t address each other with the same pronoun. A tu-vous relationship reveals either formal respect (son-in-law / mother-in-law) or inequality. For example, children say vous to adults who say tu in return.

I wonder why she stays. To climb the social ladder?

In English, the title is The Captive and as Seamus pointed out in his entry about this volume (The Captive / La Prisonnière), Marcel is as captive as Albertine, in a different way. In French, prisonnière is feminine and can only refer to Albertine. But still, despite the gender implied by the title, Marcel is a prisoner too. He stays home, he’s imprisoned in his tortuous way of thinking until his restlessness and jealousy act as a mental flogger (did it!) and push him out of the house. Chapter 2 is entitled: Les Verdurin se brouillent avec M. de Charlus. (The Verdurins quarrel with M. de Charlus). Relief. He’s socializing again and we’ll get some fresh air.

New page: Reading Proust

October 5, 2011 15 comments

I’m writing so many posts about In Search of Lost Time that I needed a place to find them all. So, I decided to add a new page to the blog; it’s named Reading Proust and you’ll find there all the links to my Proust related posts.

If you want to add links to your own reviews, that would be nice to leave a comment with the links and I’ll be delighted to add them. I’m also interested in Proust related books, if you know good ones. You can also let me know your ideas to improve that page, I’ll be happy to take them into account if I can.  My intention is to make of this page a place to find blog material on Proust because reading In Search of Lost Time is a long term project and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it through reviews.

I hope we’ll gather many links there. Whatever happens, I don’t think I’m losing my time promoting Proust the best way I can.

Cheers!

Charlus, Albertine and others: homosexuality in Sodom et Gomorrah

October 3, 2011 26 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. 1921/1922 English titles: Cities of the Plain or Sodom and Gomorrah. All the quotes come from the Scott-Moncrieff translation.

The opening quote of this volume is a verse by Alfred de Vigny which explains the title of the book: « La femme aura Gomorrhe et l’homme aura Sodome. » (The woman will have Gomorrhe and the man will have Sodome) Was it changed in the Scott-Moncrieff translation in an attempt to conceal one of its leading topic?

In Swann’s Way, “faire cattleya” (make cattleya) is the code name Swann and Odette used to call their love making. In the opening chapter of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Narrator is in the courtyard of the Hotel de Guermantes, observing a bee and an orchid, trying to catch the moment when the bee will pollinize the orchid. He’s distracted in his task by M. de Charlus who meets Jupien for the first time. It’s love at first sight between the two men and the Narrator then digresses on homosexuality. Strangely, the growing love between these two men from totally different backgrounds echoes the love between Swann and Odette from the first book. It gives the impression of a thought through saga and I wonder how Proust managed to wrap his head around so many details.

This first chapter details from the inside what it is to be gay at this time.

I now understood, moreover, how, earlier in the day, when I had seen him coming away from Mme. de Villeparisis’s, I had managed to arrive at the conclusion that M. de Charlus looked like a woman: he was one! He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly simply because their temperament is feminine and who in their life resemble in appearance only the rest of men; there where each of us carries, inscribed in those eyes through which he beholds everything in the universe, a human outline engraved on the surface of the pupil, for them it is that not of a nymph but of a youth. Race upon which a curse weighs and which must live amid falsehood and perjury, because it knows the world to regard as a punishable and a scandalous, as an inadmissible thing, its desire, that which constitutes for every human creature the greatest happiness in life; which must deny its God, since even Christians, when at the bar of justice they appear and are arraigned, must before Christ and in His Name defend themselves, as from a calumny, from the charge of what to them is life itself; sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie all her life long and even in the hour when they close her dying eyes; friends without friendships, despite all those which their charm, frequently recognised, inspires and their hearts, often generous, would gladly feel; but can we describe as friendship those relations which flourish only by virtue of a lie and from which the first outburst of confidence and sincerity in which they might be tempted to indulge would make them be expelled with disgust, unless they are dealing with an impartial, that is to say a sympathetic mind, which however in that case, misled with regard to them by a conventional psychology, will suppose to spring from the vice confessed the very affection that is most alien to it, just as certain judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from original sin and racial predestination. And lastly — according at least to the first-» theory which I sketched in outline at the time and which we shall see subjected to some modification in the sequel, a theory by which this would have angered them above all things, had not the paradox been hidden from their eyes by the very illusion that made them see and live — lovers from whom is always precluded the possibility of that love the hope of which gives them the strength to endure so many risks and so much loneliness, since they fall in love with precisely that type of man who has nothing feminine about him, who is not an invert and consequently cannot love them in return; with the result that their desire would be for ever insatiable did not their money procure for them real men, and their imagination end by making them take for real men the inverts to whom they had prostituted themselves. Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head.

It’s a long quote, but it’s the perfect summary of the ideas he develops in this chapter. He describes the angst of being different and being ashamed of this difference, the painful moments in adolescence when one acknowledges being attracted to someone their own sex. After this pleading chapter, the Narrator will mostly give examples of homosexual couples around him. The first one is M. de Charlus and Morel. They are supposed to be friends but everyone at the Verdurins’s know that they are lovers. The society knows and pretends not to see it. They don’t recognize them as a couple, officially, but call them the “demoiselles” behind their back and perfectly know what’s happening. They keep up appearances and expect the couple to do so. They don’t want to be obliged to be officially offended to abide to social conventions. All along the novel, Proust shows how gays find each other while hiding and how they always fear to be discovered and imagine double-entendre in innocent phrases, like here:

Monsieur de Charlus, are you one of them?” The Baron, who had not heard the whole speech, and did not know that she was talking of an excursion to Harambouville, gave a start. “A strange question,” he murmured in a mocking tone by which Mme. Verdurin felt hurt.

Proust also explores lesbian relationships. We had a glimpse at them in Swann’s Way, with Mademoiselle de Vinteuil. After a remark by Cottard, he now fears that Albertine might be Andrée’s lover. (Note that both girls have boy names in the feminine form) He spies on them, he’s jealous and supposedly repulsed by such a thought. I was under the impression that it’s a way for him to spice up his relationship with Albertine. It definitely fuels his love for her. In Proust’s times, lesbians were running very famous cultural salons in Paris, like the American Natalie Barney or the princesse de Polignac. They were part of the avant-garde, showing a tolerance of the society, very different from what was happening in London at the same time. After reading the chapter about women, sex and mores in La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock, I understand better why Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t censored. Even at the turning of the century, there was a scientific and societal interest for sex and questions about women’s sexuality. The society was less uptight than I thought it was. By the way, I wonder how a robe postiche (literally a false dress) becomes an imaginary spirit in English and generally speaking I wonder how Scott-Moncrieff dealt with all the homosexual allusions and descriptions and the censorship of that time. Perhaps it’s worth reading this one in newer translation.

Proust doesn’t cover gays and lesbians the same way. For men, I think he insists a lot on appearances. He describes the way M. de Charlus dresses and moves, betraying his sexual orientation.

À force de penser tendrement aux hommes on devient femme, et une robe postiche entrave vos pas. By dint of thinking tenderly of men you become a woman, and an imaginary spirit hampers your movements.

He also wears make up and is pictured as middle-aged and fat. I can’t help seeing him as David Suchet playing Poirot. Under Proust’s prose, lesbians don’t give any hint of their sexual preferences in the open. Either he can’t read the signs or they aren’t any.

Of course, everyone knows that Proust was a homosexual and it gives an extra-dimension to the text, as we know he experienced all this. Maurice Sachs, homosexual himself, relates that Marcel Proust used to do the peeping Tom in some Parisian brothels. I don’t know if it’s true.

The Narrator and Molière: comedy in Sodome et Gomorrhe

September 11, 2011 13 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. Translated into English as Sodom and Gomorrah or Cities of the Plain (C.K. Scott Moncrieff) I used this translation for the quotes.

I thought that this volume is the most comedy-oriented so far and I imagined it deserved a special review. There’s no thinking or admiring hawthorn bushes. Molière and vaudeville hover over the book; the Narrator interacts with the reader:

« Tout ceci, dira le lecteur, ne nous apprend rien sur le manque de complaisance de cette dame ; mais puisque vous vous êtes si longtemps arrêté, laissez-moi, monsieur l’auteur, vous faire perdre une minute de plus pour vous dire qu’il est fâcheux que, jeune comme vous l’étiez (ou comme était votre héros s’il n’est pas vous), vous eussiez déjà si peu de mémoire, que de ne pouvoir vous rappeler le nom d’une dame que vous connaissiez fort bien. » C’est très fâcheux en effet, monsieur le lecteur. All this,” the reader will remark, “tells us nothing as to the lady’s failure to oblige; but since you have made so long a digression, allow me, gentle author, to waste another moment of your time in telling you that it is a pity that, young as you were (or as your hero was, if he be not yourself), you had already so feeble a memory that you could not recall the name of a lady whom you knew quite well.” It is indeed a pity, gentle reader.

Reading it again, it resonates with theatre too. In Molière’s play, a character can be alone on stage, talking to the public and explaining the situation or his intentions.

The evening at the Princesse de Guermantes is clearly the opportunity to mock the aristocrats. The Narrator is more used to them now and the awe is gone. He observes them with a caustic eye and sees how vapid, snobbish and silly they can be. They are down from their pedestal. This stems from a double phenomenon: on the one hand, the Narrator is more mature and on the other hand, he’s used to them now. The repetition of diners dispels the magic.

Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was ‘no help,’ they had made up their minds not to be silent but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia; without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to breathe, the interval was filled by the murmurs of the Grandee of Spain who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

The bourgeois world, ie the Verdurins, isn’t better. Madame Verdurin may have good taste in art, her world is as codified and as narrow as the aristocratic circles. The Narrator ridicules them too. He also makes fun of the employees at the Grand Hotel, but the tone is kinder. Comedy is spread through the novel in the description of characters or in particular scenes. References to Molière are frequent and that’s why I think there’s an assumed aim at comedy and irony in Sodom and Gomorrah. I could quote many comical passages, I laughed a lot and Proust proves again how funny he is. I thought that in the previous volumes, he was observant and amused. In this one, I thought he was still incredibly observant but also more nasty. The Narrator himself is never nasty but he reports other people’s speeches. Here is M. de Charlus unleashing his irony on Mme de Surgis:

Peut-être aussi M. de Charlus, de qui l’insolence était un don de nature qu’il avait joie à exercer, profitait-il de la minute pendant laquelle il était censé ignorer qui était le nom de ces deux jeunes gens pour se divertir aux dépens de Mme de Surgis et se livrer à ses railleries coutumières, comme Scapin met à profit le déguisement de son maître pour lui administrer des volées de coups de bâton.

Perhaps too M. de Charlus, whose insolence was a natural gift which he delighted in exercising, took advantage of the few moments in which he was supposed not to know the name of these two young men to have a little fun at Mme. de Surgis’s expense, and to indulge in his habitual sarcasm, as Scapin takes advantage of his master’s disguise to give him a sound drubbing.

I really thought there was a deliberate constant reference to Molière who used comedy to violently criticize his time. Proust isn’t soft with his world either. In the previous quote, Scapin is a valet in Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière. He’s a scoundrel who plots against his master to help the son’s master marry the girl he loves. Now, the Narrator describes the lift-boy’s way of speaking, using a comparison with Molière:

J’ai pas pour bien longtemps, disait le lift qui, poussant à l’extrême la règle édictée par Bélise d’éviter la récidive du pas avec le ne, se contentait toujours d’une seule négative. Haven’t any too much time,” said the lift-boy, who, carrying to extremes the grammatical rule that forbids the repetition of personal pronouns before coordinate verbs, omitted the pronoun altogether.

Oops, Bélise, the pedantic character of The Learned Ladies was lost in translation. And now Céleste and Marie, the two chamber maids, playfully chiding the Narrator:

Ah! Sac à ficelles, ah! Douceur ! Ah perfidie ! Rusé entre les rusés, rosse des rosses! Ah! Molière!

Oh! The story-teller! Oh! The flatterer! Oh! The false one! The cunning rogue! Oh! Molière!”

This sounds like the passage in L’Avare. (Ma cassette!) or in Les Fourberies de Scapin (“What the devil was he doing in that galley!”) or maybe Toinette, the energetic maid in Le Malade Imaginaire. It reminds me of the scenes where characters yell and dupe others which are rather frequent in Molière’s plays. The English version is slightly bowdlerized, btw.

Medecine and physicians are attacked, as the Narrator sees his doctor more often than he’d wish to and as Cottard is a famous physician. It starts softly with a general sentence like this one:

C’est que la médecine a fait quelques petits progrès dans ses connaissances depuis Molière, mais aucun dans son vocabulaire.

The fact is that medicine has made some slight advance in knowledge since Molière’s days, but none in its vocabulary.

It’s an allusion to a famous scene in Le Malade Imaginaire where Purgon stabs Argan with complicated medical words and words in Latin and Greek. Purgon’s power over Argan partly lays in his supposedly superior knowledge. But he’s totally inefficient as a physician. This play is also present in the following phrase:

Il est tombé de la neurasthénie dans la philologie, comme eût dit mon bon maître Pocquelin. He has lapsed from neurasthenia to philology, as my worthy master Pocquelin would have said.

Pocquelin was Molière’s real name and it’s another allusion to the Malade Imaginaire. He died on stage when he was playing Argan. And another one, directed at Cottard:

L’éminent professeur, dit Brichot, s’exprime, Dieu me pardonne, dans un français aussi mêlé de latin et de grec qu’eut pu le faire M. Purgon lui-même, de moliéresque mémoire ! The eminent Professor,” said Brichot, “expresses himself in a French as highly infused with Latin and Greek as M. Purgon himself, of Molièresque memory!

Argan, the main character of Le Malade Imaginaire, thinks he’s sick and is in the power of his doctor, named M. Purgon. This play is a strong attack against charlatans and so-called doctors. It’s not exactly flattering for Professor Cottard, who’s an eminent physician too.

On another tone, here is Cottard speaking:

Vous avez, dit Cottard, une veine de… turlututu, mot qu’il répétait volontiers pour esquiver celui de Molière. You have,” said Cottard, “the luck of… turlututu,” a word which he gladly repeated to avoid using Molière’s

The missing word is “cocu” (a “cocu” is a deceived spouse) There’s a French idiom that says “avoir une chance de cocu”, ie to be very lucky. It’s colloquial. I hope you have a footnote in your English edition for that sentence or it must be rather obscure. One of Molière’s plays in entitled Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire.

What is really interesting is that characters from all social classes (employees at the hotel, artistocrats and bourgeois) refer to Molière. As a great fan of Molière too, I wanted to point out the wonderful tribute Proust does to that playwright, the most popular of French theater, the one that even the dullest French teacher cannot ruin. I didn’t remember all these references to Molière and honestly, Molière isn’t the writer I’d associate to Proust at first thought. Proust’s image is more linked to digressions, thoughts and reverie than to comedy. I suppose that it comes from the first volumes but Sodom and Gomorrah anchors Proust in the tradition of French literature and French “spirit” in other ways than his love for Balzac. It’s all in the nasty but witty observations and descriptions. I don’t know how to call that, but I can hear the particular tone used to utter those cutting remarks that are the basis of French sense of humour. In the 17th C literature, the Narrator’s grand-mother may worship Madame de Sévigné, the Narrator himself prefers Molière.

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust

September 9, 2011 14 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. 1921/1922 English titles: Cities of the Plain or Sodom and Gomorrah. All the quotes come from the Scott Moncrief translation.

After a long introduction on homosexuality – another post, if I have enough time – the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time opens with a worldly diner at the Princesse de Guermantes. The Narrator is now a great friend of Oriane de Guermantes and is well-acquainted with the aristocratic world. He’s used to meeting them and notices their flaws and ridicules. We hear again of those ludicrous first names (Adalbert, Herminie, Antioche, Arnulphe, Victurnien, Amanien) but the Narrator has lost his illusions and sees the hypocrisy behind the politeness:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

The Duchesse de Guermantes is as delicate as ever:

« La proximité de la dame suffit. Je me dis tout d’un coup : « Oh ! mon Dieu, on a crevé ma fosse d’aisances », c’est simplement la marquise qui, dans quelque but d’invitation, vient d’ouvrir la bouche. Et vous comprenez que si j’avais le malheur d’aller chez elle, la fosse d’aisances se multiplierait en un formidable tonneau de vidange. »

The proximity of the lady is enough. I say to myself all at once: oh, good lord, someone has broken the lid of my cesspool, when it is simply the Marquise opening her mouth to emit some invitation. And you can understand that if I had the misfortune to go to her house, the cesspool would be magnified into a formidable sewage-cart.

And I don’t have enough space to quote another of her verbal pearls. The Dreyfus Affair is still tearing apart the French society but the wind is shifting.

Ensuite et surtout, un assez long temps avait passé pendant lequel, si, au point de vue historique, les événements avaient en partie semblé justifier la thèse dreyfusiste, l’opposition antidreyfusarde avait redoublé de violence, et de purement politique d’abord était devenue sociale. C’était maintenant une question de militarisme, de patriotisme, et les vagues de colère soulevées dans la société avaient eu le temps de prendre cette force qu’elles n’ont jamais au début d’une tempête.

Moreover and above all, a considerable interval of time had elapsed during which, if, from the historical point of view, events had, to some extent, seemed to justify the Dreyfusard argument, the anti-Dreyfusard opposition had doubled its violence, and, from being purely political, had become social. It was now a question of militarism, of patriotism, and the waves of anger that had been stirred up in society had had time to gather the force which they never have at the beginning of a storm.

The innocence of Dreyfus isn’t acknowledged yet but more and more people support his cause. His detractors radicalize and the opposition between the two sides is violent. 

After a long description of that evening, the Narrator leaves to Balbec again. The departure and arrival are quite different from the first time as he now knows the place very well. In the Grand Hotel, he stays in the same room as the year before and the descriptions of the employees are little gems of comedy. He’s comfortable with this room even if it’s not the best one in the hotel. He can endure it as long as he doesn’t have to tame a new environment. At first, he’s happy to be in that room again until it reminds him that his grand-mother is dead. All the sorrow he hasn’t felt or has pushed aside crashes upon him. Mourning starts and Proust wrote beautiful pages about recovering from the death of a beloved one. That kind of pain is still ahead of me but I empathized with his description.

The Narrator’s months in Balbec are also an opportunity to get acquainted with the Verdurin circle. Indeed, the Verdurins rent a house from a now destitute aristocratic family, the Cambremer. This announces the shift in social circles that the last volumes will emphasize. The members of the circle join the parties by train, getting on the same carriage one by one. At the last station, cars wait for them. Proust depicts marvelous moments on that local train. The protegees socialize (I love that English word, it doesn’t have a French equivalent and at first, it was a puzzling notion for me.). They share easy banters or discuss etymology or literature. Professor Cottard, Saniette are there. And so is the Baron de Charlus, in love with Morel, a gifted violinist that Madame Verdurin sponsors. The Narrator takes advantage of that time to make out with Albertine. 

The Narrator’s relationship with Albertine continues. From my perspective, I thought “Poor Albertine”. The Narrator is as whimsical as a spoiled child – which he was, of course. He expects her to be available at any time of night and day. For example, he asks her to come to his place at 1 am. They had a rendezvous after his diner at the Princesse de Guermantes and she stood him up. He imagines her having fun with friends in a café and he’s so jealous that he insists on her coming to his place despite the late hour. Albertine’s freedom surprised me. She can go wherever she wants. Was it common or is it a sign that she doesn’t belong to a respectable family? Or as the real Albertine was a man, did Proust forget that a woman wouldn’t have had such a liberty? When they are in Balbec, they spend a lot of alone (and intimate) time together. She’s supposed to be his cousin but everybody knows it’s a front. It respects social conventions and doesn’t oblige his acquaintances and friends to show a public disapproval. His social circle pretends to buy the story and lets them do what they want.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be loved by the Narrator. His mind is tortuous, his imagination is wild and he makes scenes for details. He’s a little tyrant and wants to have power over her. After all, he’s always had women at his service: his mother, his grand-mother, Françoise. There’s a parallel between Swann’s love for Odette and the Narrator’s love for Albertine. They are not built on reality, on the real person or on the nice moments they spend together. Their love is fueled by imagination and jealousy. Swann doesn’t love Odette until he realizes he could lose her. The Narrator doesn’t love Albertine until he imagines she could have a homosexual relationship with Andrée or another friend.

After all this time, people start to expect a wedding (wait, what about the cousin front?) and his mother informs him of the gossip. Does he intend to marry her? With an incredible gift for guilt and psychology, she lets him understand she’d rather he didn’t marry her. She doesn’t think Albertine is a good match. So far, he has pushed the question aside but now, he’s forced to think it through.

In this volume, the Narrator has an idle life. Writing and working aren’t on his program. I felt him more actor of his life than spectator like before. Although he’s still ill, there’s more vitality, it’s less contemplative and there are very few digressing on art, on woman’s beauty or feelings. I suppose that’s also why I found this volume more caustic and purposely comical. (I’ll try to write something about that too.) I also enjoyed reading about the new technologies. He talks about “téléphonage” for “phone call”, and no one uses that word now. I smiled when he describes the first times he rented an automobile and wonders at all the things he can do in one afternoon.

PS: I mentioned in my post on Rilke that sometimes he sounded like Proust. Here is Proust sounding like Rilke.

dès que, pour y parcourir les artères de la cité souterraine, nous nous sommes embarqués sur les flots noirs de notre propre sang comme sur un Léthé intérieur aux sextuples replis, de grandes figures solennelles nous apparaissent, nous abordent et nous quittent, nous laissant en larmes.

as soon as, to traverse the arteries of the subterranean city, we have embarked upon the dark current of our own blood as upon an inward Lethe meandering sixfold, huge solemn forms appear to us, approach and glide away, leaving us in tears.

Doesn’t she look like Odette Swann?

August 31, 2011 15 comments

When I was in Paris I visited the Musée Carnavalet. In the room full of paintings of La Belle Epoque, not far from the reconstitution of Marcel Proust’s room, (See Amateur Reader’s excellent post on this here) I noticed a painting by Louise Abbéma and I thought : “It’s Odette!”

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

August 9, 2011 25 comments

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. I found a pdf version on line, translated by William Needham.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is not a Beach and Public Transport book. However, I read it noisy environments, on the beach, at the laundromat or with children playing around. From the first page, Rilke wrapped me in the silken bubble of his words and the bubbling of the outside world vanished in a quiet puff. Here are the opening lines:

 

September 11th, rue Toullier

Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in. I’ve been out. I’ve seen: hospitals. I saw a man reel and fall. People gathered round him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I looked on my map: ‘Maison d’Accouchement’. Fine. They’ll deliver her child; they’re able to do that. Further on, in rue Saint-Jacques, a large-sized building with a cupola. The map gave: ‘Val de Grâce, hôpital militaire’. I didn’t actually need to know that, but it does no harm. The lane began to smell on all sides. It smelled, so far as I could make out, partly of iodoform, partly of the grease from the pommes frites, and partly of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a house strangely blinded by cataracts. It was nowhere on my map, but over the door and still quite legible were the words: ‘Asyle de nuit’. Next to the entrance were the prices. I read them. It wasn’t expensive there.

We are here, in Paris wandering in the city streets with Malte Laurids Brigge. He’s a Danish citizen who lives poorly in Paris. To conjure up his anguish, he wanders restlessly in the streets and writes endlessly in his cheap room. He calls back childhood memories. There is no linear construction here, the memories come at random, in small scenes, images from the past intertwined with tales from the city. He goes to the library, mostly to read poetry and to feel in communion with other readers.

I am sitting here reading a poet. There are a great number of people in the room but one doesn’t notice them. They’re inside the books. Sometimes they move about in the pages like people turning over in their sleep between two dreams.

Malte’s childhood memories are phantasmagorical. They are set in old and strange castles filled with bizarre relatives. His mother was probably a little unbalanced and his rememberance is full of ghostly appearances and eccentric diners. As a reader, I couldn’t know if it was due to the perception of a child whose imagination was wild or who built his own explanation of situations he couldn’t grasp or if the memories were blurred. The castles are daunting with many rooms and corridors and remains of the past. It reminded me the atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes.

Malte suffers from over-sensitivity. He perceives more than the common man. Where we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste, each perception pigeon-holed in its own category, he can mix sensations. I thought he could taste sounds, smell landscapes and taste the air around him. (The smell of the flowers was an unintelligible medley like a lot of different voices all at the same time.) With his extra perception, he feels the traces of the past in Paris, the remains of the people who lived there and especially their suffering.

The existence of the horrible in every atom of air. You breathe it in without being able to see it, but it condenses inside you, becomes hard, assumes pointed geometrical forms among your organs; for all the torments and horrors that happened at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating rooms, under the arches of bridges in late autumn: all this has a tenacious permanence which endures for its own self and depends, jealous of everything else that exists, on its own terrible reality.

I can understand that, it happens to me sometimes when I visit places full of history or just old buildings. Every time I go to the Musée Jacquemart André, I almost expect to see Marcel Proust step out of a room. I’m not sure I could visit a concentration camp without being overwhelmed by what happened there. I’d feel like the people who died there are still lingering in the buildings claiming not to be forgotten.

Malte is disquieted by many things. He fears death and fights against this particular fear by reading the tales of famous death or of the death of relatives.

This excellent hotel [the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Paris] is very old. In the days of King Clovis people were already dying here in what few beds there were. Now there are 559 beds to die in. It’s natural mass-production. With such a high number as that a single death doesn’t get the same attention; however, that isn’t what matters. Quantity is what matters. Who today still cares whether or not a death has been well put together? Nobody. Even the rich who, after all, can afford to attend to the details of dying are starting to grow slipshod and apathetic; the desire to have a death all of one’s own is becoming more and more infrequent. Only a while and it’ll become as rare as a life of one’s own.

He thinks people don’t take their death seriously when it is in them, lying from the beginning, waiting for its time to come. He seeks loneliness, he refuses to take part in the affairs of the world. Objects seem aggressive to him from time to time when his imagination takes the power.

It struck me that Rilke (1875-1926), Proust (1871-1922) and Kakfa (1883-1924) were contemporaries. I found Proust in Rilke when he describes Malte’s anguish. This passage reminded me the first night of the Narrator in his hotel room in Balbec (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)

This always took place in one of those chance rooms which deserted me immediately when things were going badly for me, as if they were afraid of being questioned and of being implicated my nasty affairs. There I sat and I probably looked so dreadful that there was nothing that had the courage to acknowledge me; never once did the candle, which I had obligingly lit, show it wanted anything to do with me. It shone as if it were in an empty room. My last hope every time was the window.

Malte’s thoughts about Time, tickling, rich and yet easily spent also brought me back to Proust. I enjoyed the story of Nicolaï Kousmitch, Malte’s former neighbour. Nicolaï once calculated how many seconds he would still live on a 50 years basis. The number was such that he felt really rich. But doing a weekly accounts of time expenses, he soon realises that time goes by very quickly, that he’s not sure to make the best of it. Nicolaï becomes acutely aware of the time passing by, sensing the seconds fading away in a cold draft and the Earth rotating. The notion of Time is very present in Proust too.

I found Proust in a specific passage when the young Malte is feverish. It reminded me of the Narrator’s constant illness, his need to rest in afternoons, his thoughts wandering. Malte also encounters sleepless nights, just like the Narrator. I’m currently reading Proust, so the images are fresh in my mind and this one also sounded very Proustian to me:

It must have been one of those early mornings that July brings—hours when things are rested and there’s something joyful and spontaneous happening everywhere. Millions of small irrepressible movements collect in the most convincing mosaic of Being; things leap and merge into one another and soar high in the sky, and their coolness makes the shadows distinct and gives the sun a light spiritual appearance. In the garden there is nothing that stands out from the rest, the effect is overall and you need to be in everything and to not miss any of it.

My memories of Kafka are more distant. But I couldn’t help thinking about him when I read about fears, frightening objects and of course the castles.

The three of them are really cerebral. Many things happen in their minds and they look into themselves to understand the mystery of life, to cope with their disquiet and their panic attacks. They have a rich inner world and it’s the source of their art. They differ on one point: religion. Rilke often refers to God, the love of God humans can feel. It’s absent in Proust – I don’t think he was religious and mysticism wasn’t appealing to him. I don’t remember it as being essential in Kafka.

I have to admit that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was a bit out of my league. I felt like I only scratched its surface, without understanding its deep meaning. I didn’t fully understand the last 50 pages, I got lost. I’m not very good at abstract thinking when it doesn’t involve figures. I grasped something about love and that being loved was being imprisoned and loving someone was putting them in a prison too. But that’s it. There are also a lot of literary references. I caught some of them (Verlaine, Baudelaire, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun) but I missed the others. Who is Bettina? Brentano’s wife? I’m not well-read in German literature and it prevented me from diving further in Rilke’s thinking.

I’m glad I found an English translation online, I have dozens of quotes and I would have felt really frustrated not to give a glimpse of Rilke’s incredible style. I’m not a great reader of poetry but here, it’s everywhere, filling the text with wonderful images, adding an extra dimension to his thoughts. He managed to pass on some of his extra-vision, the gift artists have to look at reality with different eyes.

The Guermantes Way and the Dreyfus Affair.

March 3, 2011 26 comments

Le côté de Guermantes, by Marcel Proust. A la Recherche du Temps perdu, volume 3. Translated as The Guermantes Way, third volume of In Search of Lost Time 

When Proust started mentioning the Dreyfus Affair in The Guermantes Way, I put aside the novel to go and search about it on Wikipedia. It turns out there are 30 pages that give a good overlook on the affair. I had a vague idea of it and I remembered how it divided families the first time I had read Proust but I wasn’t aware of how much it had moved lines in politics at the time. There is no point for me to clumsily sum up what is already written on Wikipedia. So here is how Wikipedia sums up the Dreyfus Affair:

The Dreyfus affair (French: l’affaire Dreyfus) was a political scandal that divided France in the 1890s and the early 1900s. It involved the conviction for treason in November 1894 of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement. 

Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light identifying a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. However, high-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after the second day of his trial in military court. Instead of being exonerated, Alfred Dreyfus was further accused by the Army on the basis of false documents fabricated by a French counter-intelligence officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry, seeking to re-confirm Dreyfus’s conviction. These fabrications were uncritically accepted by Henry’s superiors.  

Word of the military court’s framing of Alfred Dreyfus and of an attendant cover-up began to spread largely due to J’accuse, a vehement public open letter in a Paris newspaper by writer Émile Zola, in January 1898. The case had to be re-opened and Alfred Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana in 1899 to be tried again. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards[2]), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clémenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont (the director and publisher of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole) and Hubert-Joseph Henry.   

Eventually, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army in 1906. He later served during the whole of World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

As I pointed out in my posts on A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur, the Narrator depicts the rampant anti-Semitism strongly rooted in the French society. Without this and the defeat of 1870 against the Germans, it is not sure this affair would have gone so far. Two things made of Alfred Dreyfus a perfect scape-goat as he was Alsatian, the part of France annexed to Germany after the 1870 war and Jewish. He was a candidate for treason.

In The Guermantes Way, The Dreyfus Affair is in all the conversations, when the Narrator visits Saint Loup at Doncières, when he has lunch with Robert and his lover Rachel, when he calls on Mme de Villeparisis, when he meets Swann at the Guermantes. At the time, Zola is on trial and Dreyfus is still held on the Devil’s Island, which means that the novel takes place in 1898. 

The general expectations would be that the aristocracy and the military were anti-Dreyfusards and the Jews and liberal people were Dreyfusard. But the lines aren’t so clear and families are torn apart. Here are the opinions of several characters we often encounter in In Search of Lost Time:

Dreyfusard

Anti-Dreyfusards

The NarratorThe Narrator’s grand-motherRobert de Saint Loup

Swann

Bloch

Rachel

BourgeoisBourgeoisAristocrat

Jew

Jew

Jew

The Narrator’s fatherPrince de GuermantesDuc de Guermantes

Mme Swann

BourgeoisAristocratAristocrat

Married to a Jew

 The Duchesse de Guermantes does not express clearly her opinion and would rather sidetrack her interlocutor by a joke.

“In any case, if this man Dreyfus is innocent,” the Duchess broke in, “he hasn’t done much to prove it. What idiotic, raving letters he writes from that island. I don’t know whether M. Esterhazy is any better, but he does shew some skill in his choice of words, a different tone altogether. That can’t be very pleasant for the supporters of M. Dreyfus. What a pity for them there’s no way of exchanging innocents.”

 Shallow as she is, she complains about the impacts of the Affair on her social life:

“I went to see Marie-Aynard a couple of days ago. It used to be so nice there. Nowadays one finds all the people one has spent one’s life trying to avoid, on the pretext that they’re against Dreyfus, and others of whom you have no idea who they can be.”

It is fascinating for us to see how it moved the lines between the people one could be acquainted with and in all the social classes. For example, Mme Sazerat, a relative of the Narrator’s family from Combray, doesn’t greet the Narrator’s father any more as he is anti-Dreyfusard. When relating the incident, the Narrator reveals the opinions in his own family. 

“Mme. Sazerat, alone of her kind at Combray, was a Dreyfusard. My father, a friend of M. Méline, was convinced that Dreyfus was guilty. He had flatly refused to listen to some of his colleagues who had asked him to sign a petition demanding a fresh trial. He never spoke to me for a week, after learning that I had chosen to take a different line. His opinions were well known. He came near to being looked upon as a Nationalist. As for my grandmother, in whom alone of the family a generous doubt was likely to be kindled, whenever anyone spoke to her of the possible innocence of Dreyfus, she gave a shake of her head, the meaning of which we did not at the time understand, but which was like the gesture of a person who has been interrupted while thinking of more serious things. My mother, torn between her love for my father and her hope that I might turn out to have brains, preserved an impartiality which she expressed by silence. Finally my grandfather, who adored the Army (albeit his duties with the National Guard had been the bugbear of his riper years), could never, at Combray, see a regiment go by the garden railings without baring his head as the colonel and the colours passed.”

Robert de Saint Loup is Dreyfusard, which is a difficult position to hold, both as an aristocrat and a soldier. The Duc de Guermantes says about him:  “I do claim to move with the times; but damn it all, when one goes by the name of ‘Marquis de Saint-Loup’ one isn’t a Dreyfusard; what more can I say?” At Doncières, his friends disapprove of him but really like him and thus:

When the conversation became general, they avoided any reference to Dreyfus for fear of offending Saint-Loup. The following week, however, two of his friends were remarking what a curious thing it was that, living in so military an atmosphere, he was so keen a Dreyfusard, almost an anti-militarist.

 Swann, whose intelligence was abundantly described in the first volume, is a fierce Dreyfusard. It clouds his thinking:

“Dreyfusism had brought to Swann an extraordinary simplicity of mind and had imparted to his way of looking at things an impulsiveness, an inconsistency more noticeable even than had been the similar effects of his marriage to Odette; this new loss of caste would have been better described as a recasting, and was entirely to his credit, since it made him return to the ways in which his forebears had trodden and from which he had turned aside to mix with the aristocracy.”

His wife is anti-Dreyfusard, to make her acquaintances forget she married a Jew. People were judged according to the side they supported. Here is Saint Loup, trying to convince the Narrator that his cousin Poictiers is worth knowing:

“I don’t go so far as to say she’s a Dreyfusard, you must remember the sort of people she lives among; still, she did say to me: ‘If he is innocent, how ghastly for him to be shut up on the Devil’s Isle.’ You see what I mean, don’t you?

Her opinion about the Dreyfus affair is put forward to depict her temper. Isn’t that incredible? Once again, Proust doesn’t hide the anti-Semitism:

“Yes, the Prince de Guermantes,” I said, “it is true, I’ve heard that he was anti-Semitic.” “Oh, that fellow! I wasn’t even thinking about him. He carries it to such a point that when he was in the army and had a frightful toothache he preferred to grin and bear it rather than go to the only dentist in the district, who happened to be a Jew, and later on he allowed a wing of his castle which had caught fire to be burned to the ground, because he would have had to send for extinguishers to the place next door, which belongs to the Rothschilds.”

Frightening anecdotes, aren’t they?  

The Dreyfus Affair had extraordinary consequences on the French society. Zola’s intervention and the people who supported him created the concept of the “Intellectuel”. The Intellectuel is a humanist, liberal and acting as a political conscience. Their role is to rise against injustice or wake people’s consciousness. After Zola, there will be Camus, for example. It also enforced the press as the fourth power. Here is Wikipedia again on the consequences of the Dreyfus Affair: 

Political ramifications

The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterward. The far right remained a potent force, as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also prompted legislation such as a 1905 law separating church and state. The coalition of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained together, but turned to other causes. Groups such as Maurras’s Action Française, formed during the affair, endured for decades. The Vichy Regime was composed to some extent of old anti-Dreyfusards and their descendants.

 Antisemitism and birth of Zionism

The Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl had been assigned to report on the trial and its aftermath. Soon afterward, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896) and founded the World Zionist Organization, which called for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The anti-Semitism and injustice revealed in France by the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus had a radicalizing effect on Herzl, persuading him that Jews, despite the Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation, could never hope for fair treatment in European society. While the Dreyfus affair was not Herzl’s initial motivation, it did much to encourage his Zionism. In the Middle East, the Muslim Arab press was sympathetic to the falsely accused Captain Dreyfus, and criticized the persecution of Jews in France

Not all Jews saw the Dreyfus Affair as evidence of anti-Semitism in France, however. It was also viewed as the opposite. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas often cited the words of his father: “A country that tears itself apart to defend the honour of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.”

Honestly, I didn’t get any of this the first time I read The Guermantes Way. I didn’t quote everything; it would have been too long. I strongly recommend reading a bit about the Dreyfus Affair before reading The Guermantes Way, or the reader will not fully understand the conversation in the salon at Mme de Villeparisis. I think Proust’s take on the Affair and his testimony of how it affected the society is precious. In Search of Lost Time is often seen as essentially a beautiful description of feelings, an analysis of the fleetingness of life and worldly meetings. We should not forget it is also a way to understand the politics and the society of that time.

The Guermantes Way, book II

February 28, 2011 15 comments

Le Côté de Guermantes (Book 2) by Marcel Proust. A la Recherche du Temps perdu, volume 3. (Translated as The Guermantes Way, Third volume of In Search of Lost Time)

As a foreword, I would like to mention that The Guermantes Way is a very good title for this volume. It has a fuller meaning than the French one (Le Côté de Guermantes) but it is really well chosen as “way” covers the sense of “côté” or “chemin” (path) and of “mores”, which is a central part of the book.

 How is the narrator doing in this book?

 He has to face pain as his grand-mother is ill and shall not recover. He relates her illness, her suffering and the reactions of family and acquaintances to their grief. Two scenes are particularly horrible. The first one is when his grand-mother cannot take the pain any longer and tries to throw herself through the window. The second one is the Duc de Guermantes intruding to their house the night the narrator’s grand-mother is dying.

The narrator’s health seems to decline, he talks more often about lying in bed. He welcomes Albertine in his room, as he is in bed, which will prove most convenient for making out. Robert de Saint Loup crosses a whole restaurant in a rather special way, leaping from chair to chair to reach the narrator in the crowded room and put a coat on his shoulders so that he would not catch a cold.

On a happier tone, the narrator learns the benefits of indifference: Albertine comes to visit him and willingly lets him kiss her. The Duchesse de Guermantes invites him to diner.  

An important section of the book is dedicated to the narrator’s diner at the Guermantes. After describing the Guermantes spirit, during a long – too long? – moment, Proust is back with his acute and ironic look on people and events. The narrator assesses the situation with more hindsight than before. He is more mature. For example, he is now able to refuse to attend a high society evening at the Guermantes to spend time with his mother coming home from the country. He is utterly disappointed by his first diner at the Guermantes. He imagined these people much more intellectual. Their conversation is boring. The narrator gets bored. As Proust is a great writer, the reader is as bored as the poor Narrator.

Était-ce vraiment à cause de dîners tels que celui-ci que toutes ces personnes faisaient toilette et refusaient de laisser pénétrer des bourgeoises dans leurs salons si fermés, pour des dîners tels que celui-ci? pareils si j’avais été absent? J’en eus un instant le soupçon, mais il était trop absurde. Was it really for the sake of dinners such as this that all these people dressed themselves up and refused to allow the penetration of middleclass women into their so exclusive drawing-rooms—for dinners such as this? The same, had I been absent? The suspicion flashed across my mind for a moment, but it was too absurd.

The relationship between the Duc de Guermantes and his wife is analysed. It is more a business partnership than a marriage in the way we understand it nowadays. There is no love between them and there has never been any love. The narrator even implies that the Duc is a violent man. He has many mistresses and the Duchesse knows it and is obliged to invite them to her tea parties and dinners. Nothing is said about her affairs. Does she have the same liberty as him in her love life? Although love is absent, the Duc de Guermantes is always utterly polite with her in public and always puts her forward in society. They play their parts skilfully. He is proud to show her around in the richest clothes and relates her “bons mots” with delight, as if she were a trained monkey. They have a sort of unspoken but nonetheless real partnership in running the most fashionable salon of Paris.

All in all, their life is shallow. Oriane de Guermantes may be the most fashionable woman in Paris, her life is empty. She does not seem to have children. She does not spend any time studying or improving her mind. She does no good deeds. She spends her time visiting family or acquaintances and gossiping. Her husband despises her and considers her no more as a witty and beautiful object. If she weren’t so conceited, the reader would pity her.

Whatever his attraction to the aristocracy, the narrator shows benevolence for small people and progressive ideas. He disapproves that Mme de Guermantes asks her valet to go and fetch the pheasants one of her guests had killed during his latest hunting party because it was the valet’s day off and she perfectly knew he had a rendezvous with his girl-friend, who is also a servant and had her only day-off on the morrow. Talking about politics and discussion at the Chambre (Parliament), the narrator declares normal that the rich should pay more taxes than the poor.

Even after he had stopped stalking Mme de Guermantes in their neighbourhood, he keeps on taking his morning walks to meet the working people, the shopkeepers. The reader can feel a certain fondness for these people in the way he describes the atmosphere in the area, which is very Parisian. As always, Proust links what he sees with art, with painting, like here:

D’ailleurs l’extrême proximité des maisons aux fenêtres opposées sur une même cour y fait de chaque croisée le cadre où une cuisinière rêvasse en regardant à terre, où plus loin une jeune fille se laisse peigner les cheveux par une vieille à figure, à peine distincte dans l’ombre, de sorcière; ainsi chaque cour fait pour le voisin de la maison, en supprimant le bruit par son intervalle, en laissant voir les gestes silencieux dans un rectangle placé sous verre par la clôture des fenêtres, une exposition de cent tableaux hollandais juxtaposés. And then also, the extreme proximity of the houses, with their windows looking opposite one another on to a common courtyard, makes of each casement the frame in which a cook sits dreamily gazing down at the ground below, in which farther off a girl is having her hair combed by an old woman with the face, barely distinguishable in the shadow, of a witch: thus each courtyard provides for the adjoining house, by suppressing all sound in its interval, by leaving visible a series of silent gestures in a series of rectangular frames, glazed by the closing of the windows, an exhibition of a hundred Dutch paintings hung in rows.

We can really picture the scenery.

I would like talk about the first names of the aristocracy in Proust. If Oriane is not very frequent, it is not rare. However, Palamède, Basin, Hannibal, Walpurge or Amanien are first names as strange as the ones in Molière. All those first-names sound snobbish and that makes their short-names (Mémé, Babal, Mama) even more ridiculous. They are typically French though and still exist. At work, many people around me have such silly nicknames and I’m glad that my first-name has a natural short-name which prevented them from inventing one for me. I don’t think I could stand it.

But back to Proust. The Baron de Charlus takes the narrator as his protégée. It was an offer the narrator was made at the end of the first book and a crazy meeting with him closes the second book and sort of introduces Sodom and Gomorrah, as Charlus is the central character of this volume.

I will probably write a post dedicated to the Duc de Guermantes and I’m trying to write something about how Proust’s description of society comforts Edith Wharton’s views of French ways. And of course, what I write here isn’t even one tenth of all the things, ideas, feelings Proust shows us.

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