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Marta gone

August 26, 2014 26 comments

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marías 1994 (French title: Demain dans la bataille pense à moi. French translator: Alain Keruzoré.)

This month our Book Club had picked Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías. It’s my second Marías after Todas las almas (Le Roman d’Oxford in French). I wasn’t enthralled by Todas Las Almas but I was intrigued by the blurb of Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me and I had heard so much good about Marías in the bloggosphere. So I was quite happy to start this novel.

Marias_DemainVíctor is a ghost writer and screenplay author. Tonight he has a date with Marta Téllez. They had met previously and flirted a bit, enough to meet again. Marta’s husband is away on business and as she doesn’t have a babysitter for her two-year old son Eugenio, she invites Víctor at her house. Eugenio doesn’t want to go to bed, the diner lasts longer than expected and it’s already late when Víctor and Marta start to have sex. They are hald-dressed, half-undressed when Marta feels unwell. She wants to rest, asks Víctor to stay with her but refuses than he calls a doctor. Her malaise doesn’t fade away and she dies quietly in Víctor’s arms. What to do? Víctor is not supposed to be in this apartment; calling for help would mean revealing Marta’s infidelity. What about the child? What about the husband?

Víctor chooses to leave the apartment without saying anything to anyone. He tries to erase the traces of his presence but leaves food and drink within Eugenio’s reach. The rest of the novel will disclose Víctor’s feelings after the event and the consequences of his leaving Marta and Eugenio on their own.

I’ve had ups and downs with this novel. The first chapter blew me away because of its style and its way to describe Marta’s death and Víctor’s reaction to it. Then I got bored in the chapter where Víctor meets the Only One, a prominent politician for whom he’s supposed to write a speech. I nearly abandoned the book after the chapter where Víctor recalls his night across Madrid in the company of a prostitute who looks like his ex-wife. I was interested again to see how things went with the Marta affair and I was totally blown away by the last chapter. Clearly, it’s a book for militants of the never-abandon-a-book committee.

Overall, Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me is a brilliant novel. The idea of Marta’s death in the arms of her fling is excellent. Marías muses about death, memories and what remains of us after we die. His style is proustish, if I may say so. He’s into long introspective sentences, lacy phrases and all kinds of digressions. Marías explores the same topics as Proust. Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me reminded me of a condensed and modern In Search of Lost Time.

Several moments, themes and characters brought me back to Proust. The narrators have things in common. It’s a first person narrative and Víctor is a second zone writer. His screenplays find a drawer more often than they reach a camera, his speeches are told by others. Like Proust’s narrator, he’s not a famous author but writing is his calling.

Then you have Eugenio who doesn’t want to leave his mother and go to bed while she socializes; that’s in Swann’s Way. Víctor digresses about the meaning of names; that’s in The Guermantes Way. The Only One, the politician reminded me of the ridiculous M. de Norpois; that’s in In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Ruibérriz, Víctor’s friend reminded me of Bloch, mentioned in several volumes. The awful chapter where Víctor chases the image of his ex-wife Celia in a prostitute because Ruibérriz told him that acquaintances have reported that Celia became a prostitute sounds like The Captive and the narrator’s obsession about Albertine’s doings. Is Albertine cheating on the Narrator? Is she a lesbian? I think this volume of In Search of Lost Time is long, claustrophobic and rather unpleasant. The Narrator is not in his best behaviour and the same thing can be said about Víctor. The last chapter is a masterpiece, worth suffering the boring ones, just like Time Regained is worth suffering though The Captive (La Prisonnière) and The Sweet Cheat Gone (Albertine disparue), the volume where the Narrator grieves after Albertine’s unexpected death. I wonder if Marías wrote this novel with Proust in mind.

I love Proust but I’m not sure I love Marías. He’s excellent, thought-provoking and literary but I’m not in a rush to read another book by him. He lacks the irony that makes Proust funny and his style does not allow the plot to shine as it should. The plot and its conclusion are absolutely brilliant. I just wish it had been written by Philippe Djian, Pascal Garnier or Jean-Patrick Manchette, in other words by someone with a darker side and a wicked sense of humor. In my opinion, their style is a better fit for that kind of plot and it has enough depth to explore the feelings and turmoil generated by Marta’s death.

Now I’m curious to see what the other book club members thought about it and to read other reviews. So please leave links to yours in the comment section if you’ve reviewed it.

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.

Mme de Guermantes, from dream to reality

January 28, 2011 16 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 my previous post about Le côté de Guermantes, I said I would dedicate a whole post to Mme. de Guermantes, who is the central figure of this volume. The narrator now lives in an apartment dependant from the hôtel de Guermantes and thus sees her everyday around. He can observe her way of life from her in-and-outs and through the ballet of her servants. As Françoise gets acquainted with the servants from their landlord, she regales her masters with anecdotes about Mme de Guermantes. Françoise seems as aware as the narrator of who can visit whom in the high society.

The narrator has an idealized vision of Mme de Guermantes coming from his stays at Combray, where this noble family has owned an estate for decades. He has already described in Swann’s Way the impression left on him by Madame de Guermantes in the Combray church and his reveries about the Guermantes portrait on the stained-glass windows of the church.

He now lives near her and fantasizes about her. Due to all the memories and reveries associated with her name, he is from the start in the perfect mental state to become infatuated with her. But he is not as deeply in love with her as he was with Gilberte. His heart is available, he wants to think himself in love and her proximity makes of her the object of his fantasies.

J’avais, hélas, dans la réalité, choisi précisément pour l’aimer la femme qui réunissait peut-être le plus d’avantages différents et aux yeux de qui, à cause de cela, je ne pouvais espérer avoir aucun prestige ; car elle était aussi riche que le plus riche qui n’eût pas été noble ; sans compter ce charme personnel qui la mettait à la mode, en faisait entre toutes une sorte de reine. I had, alas, in reality, chosen to love the very woman who, in her own person, combined perhaps the greatest possible number of different advantages; in whose eyes, accordingly, I could not hope, myself, ever to cut any figure; for she was as rich as the richest commoner—and noble also; without reckoning that personal charm which set her at the pinnacle of fashion, made her among the rest a sort of queen.

The word « chosen » proves this is more a crush built by his imagination than a genuine sentiment. We usually fall in love and the verb “fall” implies it is an accident, not a choice. She is just living memories of sweet afternoons in Combray and she is intimately linked to his quest of perfection.  

Et même dans mes désirs les plus charnels toujours orientés d’un certain côté, concentrés autour d’un même rêve, j’aurais pu reconnaître comme premier moteur une idée, une idée à laquelle j’aurais sacrifié ma vie, et au point le plus central de laquelle, comme dans mes rêveries pendant les après-midi de lecture au jardin à Combray, était l’idée de perfection. And even in my most carnal desires, magnetised always in a certain direction, concentrated about a single dream, I might have recognised as their primary motive an idea, an idea for which I would have laid down my life, at the innermost core of which, as in my day dreams while I sat reading all afternoon in the garden at Combray, lay the thought of perfection.

She is a sort of ethereal woman. The woman he is infatuated with only exists in his imagination but he wants to take advantage of their living in the same place to know her. He starts strolling in the neighbourhood to “accidentally” meet her on the streets. He can’t help it, even if he is perfectly aware that she is irritated by these provoked encounters.  

Hélas! Si pour moi rencontrer toute autre personne était indifférent, je sentais que, pour elle, rencontrer n’importe qui excepté moi eût été supportable. Alas, if to me meeting any person other than herself would not have mattered, I felt that to her meeting anyone in the world except myself would have been endurable.

 As she is Robert’s aunt, he finally manages to meet her at Mme de Villeparisis, another Guermantes relative. He has been acquainted with the old lady since his stay in Balbec. The tale of his visit in her salon occupies a great part of this volume. We learn more about Mme de Villeparisis and discover her position in the high society is not as glorious as the narrator had supposed it in Balbec. The explanation of how a woman can become an outcast in her social class and be only tolerated by her relatives is very interesting. But back to Mme de Guermantes. Here she is, in the salon:  

Mme de Guermantes s’est assise. Son nom, comme il était accompagné de son titre, ajoutait à sa personne physique son duché qui se projetait autour d’elle et faisait régner la fraîcheur ombreuse et dorée des bois de Guermantes au milieu du salon, à l’entour du pouf où elle était. Mme. de Guermantes had sat down. Her name, accompanied as it was by her title, added to her corporeal dimensions the duchy which projected itself round about her and brought the shadowy, sun-splashed coolness of the woods of Guermantes into this drawing-room, to surround the tuffet on which she was sitting.

The narrator has his still idealized vision and when she starts talking, he discovers who she is: a terrible gossip without a solid education. Vapid would be the word if she hadn’t that French nasty sense of humour and tendency to hurt other people just for the pleasure of uttering a witty remark; what we call in French un bon mot.  

Mais voyons Basin, vous savez bien de qui ma tante veut parler, s’écria la duchesse avec indignation, c’est le frère de cet énorme herbivore que vous avez eu l’étrange idée d’envoyer venir me voir l’autre jour. Elle est restée une heure, j’ai pensé que je deviendrais folle. Mais j’ai commencé par croire que c’était elle qui l’était en voyant entrer chez moi une personne que je ne connaissais pas et qui avait l’air d’une vache. “Why, Basin, you know quite well who my aunt means,” cried the Duchess indignantly. “He’s the brother of that great graminivorous creature you had the weird idea of sending to call on me the other day. She stayed a solid hour; I thought I should go mad. But I began by thinking it was she who was mad when I saw a person I didn’t know come browsing into the room looking exactly like a cow.”

A nice creature, indeed. Her irony can hit anybody. That the person she mocks is her nephew’s lover is of no importance:  

La demoiselle de Robert, je vous assure qu’elle est à mourir de rire. Je sais bien qu’on m’objectera cette vienne rengaine d’Augier : « Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse! » Eh bien, Robert a peut-être l’ivresse, mais il n’a vraiment pas fait preuve de goût dans le choix du flacon! If you saw Robert’s girl, I assure you, you’d simply die of laughter. Oh, I know somebody’s going to quote Augier at me: ‘What matters the bottle so long as one gets drunk?’ Well, Robert may have got drunk, all right, but he certainly hasn’t shewn much taste in his choice of a bottle!

Isn’t she a lowbrow gossip? Proust’s genius explodes in that passage. In one cue, the reader understands that Mme de Guermantes is nasty and uneducated. Her tone is of contempt and mockery. And as Alfred de Musset, and not Augier, wrote “What matters the bottle so long as one gets drunk”, her lack of literary knowledge cannot escape neither the reader nor the narrator’s notice. What a dreadful moment it must have been for him! The goddess is down from her pedestal. The truth forces itself into the narrator’s mind… 

“Quelle buse!” pensais-je, irrité de l’accueil glacial qu’elle m’avait fait. Je trouvais une sorte d’âpre satisfaction à constater sa complète incompréhension de Maeterlinck. “C’est pour une pareille femme que tous les matins je fais tant de kilomètres, vraiment, j’ai de la bonté. Maintenant, c’est moi qui ne voudrais pas d’elle.” “What a goose !” I thought to myself. Irritated by the coldness of her greeting, I found a sort of bitter satisfaction in this proof of her complete inability to understand Maerterlinck. “To thinks that’s the woman I walked miles every morning to see. Really, I’m too kind. Well it’s my turn now not to want to see her.” (1)

…but he is not ready to accept it yet.  

Tels étaient les mots que je me disais ; ils étaient le contraire de ma pensée ; c’étaient de purs mots de conversation, comme nous nous en disons dans ces moments où, trop agités pour rester seuls avec nous-mêmes, nous éprouvons le besoin, à défaut d’autre interlocuteur, de causer avec nous, sans sincérité, comme avec un étranger. Thus I reasoned with myself; but my words ran counter to my thoughts; they were purely conversational words such as we say to ourselves at those moments when, too much excited to remain quietly alone, we feel the need, for want of another listener, to talk to ourselves, without meaning what we say, as we talk to a stranger.

There is nothing such as being insincere with ourselves when we need to acknowledge a fact we would rather not or try to force ourselves to be indifferent when that thing/person we would like to forget does matter anyway and we perfectly know it. 

The narrator also explains how Mme de Guermantes invites artists because they are fashionable and attract other fine people but never discuss their art with them. Is she even interested? I hope we’ll hear more of her in the second book of this volume.  

I know there are many quotes in this post but how can I paraphrase Proust in my cheap English? Honestly, I lack the words to tell how witty, intelligent, insightful this is. We are thrown in a world totally different from ours but that sounds strangely familiar. We all know a Mme de Guermantes. Gossips come from all social classes and whatever their supposedly good education, their meanness overcomes good manners and seeps through their chat.

The narrator is progressively losing his illusions and experiences that all that glitters is not gold. Well, he’s becoming an adult. 

(1) A word on the translation « Maintenant, c’est moi qui ne voudrais pas d’elle » literally means “I wouldn’t want her now” and not “it’s my turn not to want to see her”. If I’m correct, the sexual connotation is thus erased of the English text.

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