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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.

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.

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 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.

Everyday life near the Guermantes

January 26, 2011 22 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A summer in Balbec

October 27, 2010 10 comments

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flowers, Part II. by Marcel Proust. Also translated under the title “Within a Budding Grove”

Writing about Proust is not easy, even intimidating. All the flat words you are going to put on his work are like decorating a masterly crafted gold bracelet with fake gems. Well, I’ll live with it.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (II) takes place in Balbec – in fact Cabourg, Normandy. Two years after his break-up with Gilberte, the narrator stays at the Grand-Hôtel with his grand-mother, among a crowd of bourgeois and aristocrats. We find here the pattern of In Search of Lost Time, made of introspection and description of the outside world. In this volume, we follow the narrator in his discovery of Balbec, his new friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup and his new acquaintance with Albertine and her girl-friends. The narrator is still exploring art. We had met Vinteuil for music and Bergotte for literature in Swann’s Way and A L’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur (I). Now, he introduces us to Elstir, who looks like Monet to me.

His first night at Balbec echoes the fearful nights pictured in Swann’s Way, when he was a child at Combray. The description of how it feels to spend a first night in a new room is really true to life and creates a bond with the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. To me, the main themes are social satire and adolescence.

Proust excels in social satire. The description of the bourgeois staying in the same hotel is a pure sample of French sense of humour, with its patented hint of nastiness. I don’t know how an author can be more French than Marcel Proust. If Balzac is the painter of the petty, greedy and narrow-minded bourgeoisie, Proust is the one of its ridiculous snobbery. At the Grand-Hotel, bourgeois and aristocrats thoroughly and cautiously avoid melting. The aristocrats ignore the bourgeois and the bourgeois pretend to snob the aristocrats out of choice, not to be obliged to sheepishly acknowledge that they would die to be acquainted with them. Like in Swann’s Way, servants are the only members of the working class. We meet the incredible Françoise again, as she followed her master to Balbec and Proust delights in describing the employees of the hotel, such as the lift, the headwaiter, and their social life. Proust brilliantly dissects the different but coercive set of rules which govern relationships in the working class, the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. His sense of humour blossoms in this scene, where the Princesse de Luxembourg, unexpectedly runs into the narrator and his grand-mother:

Même, dans son désir de ne pas avoir l’air de siéger dans une sphère supérieure à la nôtre, elle avait sans doute mal calculé la distance, car, par une erreur de réglage, ses regards s’imprégnèrent d’une telle bonté que je vis approcher le moment où nous flatterait de la main comme deux bêtes sympathiques qui eussent passé la tête vers elle, à travers un grillage, au Jardin d’Acclimatation Indeed, in her anxiety not to appear to be a denizen of a higher sphere than ours, she had probably miscalculated the distance there was indeed between us, for by an error in adjustment she made her eyes beam with such benevolence that I could see the moment approaching when she would put out her hand and stroke us, as if we were two nice beasts and had poked our heads out at her through the bars of our cage in the Gardens. (NB)

 (NB) What is translated as “The Gardens” are indeed the “Jardin d’Acclimatation”, a garden with plants and animals located in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. It still exists and has a wonderful Japanese Tea House.

 This volume is also a fresh description of the upper classes way of life from La Belle Epoque with their carriage promenades, their games and lunch and diner habits.

Tout au plus nous attardions-nous souvent à causer avec elle [Mme de Villeparisis], notre déjeuner fini, à ce moment sordide où les couteaux traînent sur la nappe à côté des serviettes défaites. At the most we would linger, as often as not, in the room after finishing our luncheon, to talk to her [Mme de Villeparisis], at that sordid moment when the knives are left littering the tablecloth among crumpled napkins.

This is the essence of France, with its several-hour lunches and endless conversations around a table. I can picture it really clearly since our family meetings and lunches with friends still resemble that.  I saw Renoir’s paintings such as Le Moulin de la Galette when I was reading about the narrator’s afternoons with Albertine and her friends.

I don’t remember books where French aristocrats take long walks in the country. For me, sport and outdoors activities have been invented by the British, just like tourism. The bourgeoisie in Proust, as it was noticeable with Odette before, is inspired by the British way of life. It’s fashionable and for example, Odette does her best to say “Christmas” instead of “Noël” and use as many English words as possible. Albertine and her friends do sports and eat sandwiches, which is, the narrator says “a form of food that was novel to me”. This tendency still exists, especially in Paris. The other day, I attended a work meeting where the CFO on stage was struggling not to use English words is his speech. He failed.

What also strikes me in the novel is the casual ostracism towards Jews, shown for example through the episode of the diner at the Blochs’. Anti-Semitism seems a normal behaviour, or at least a widely spread behaviour, just like calling black people “nigger” was accepted at that time. Here is Albertine, about the Blochs sisters:

«On ne me permet pas de jouer avec des israélites», disait Albertine. La façon dont elle prononçait israélite au lieu d’izraélite aurait suffi à indiquer, même si on n’avait pas entendu le commencement de la phrase, que ce n’était pas de sentiments de sympathie envers le peuple élu qu’étaient animées ces jeunes bourgeoises, de familles dévotes, et qui devaient croire aisément que les juifs égorgeaient les enfants chrétiens. “I am not allowed to play with Israelites,” Albertine explained. Her way of pronouncing the word —‘Issraelites’ instead of ‘Izraelites’— would in itself have sufficed to shew, even if one had not heard the rest of the sentence, that it was no feeling of friendliness towards the chosen race that inspired these young Frenchwomen, brought up in God-fearing homes, and quite ready to believe that the Jews were in the habit of massacring Christian children.

 This kind of sentences makes me ill at ease. It reveals anti-Semitism as a commonplace in the French society and warns us that the fertile ground for the Dreyfus Affair is there –not to speak of the shame of Vichy during WWII.

Proust introduces us to new characters that will be important in the following volumes. Robert de Saint Loup will be his best friend, the Baron de Charlus will be the hero of Sodom and Gomorrah and Albertine will be the star of his future love life. He brings his characters one by one, showing how the whole work was already in his head, from the first volumes. 

Like I said before, adolescence is a major theme in this summer in Balbec and will be described in another post.

For other reviews: here are Richard’s first and second posts on this volume and Max’s first and second posts.

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