À la Récherche du Temps Perdu
Remembrance of Things Past
In Search of Lost Time
December 21, 2003
2.1.5 Mme Swann at Home: Bergotte and Marcel
Bergotte is the author who cast a spell over young Marcel in the Combray section, and via Swann, he is now able to meet him. It comes at such a crucial point in the book, when Marcel is undergoing feverish revision of what had gone before, that Bergotte's dialogue with him almost solely redeems the possibility of writing, after Marcel had become disgusted with it earlier.
It is not altogether a positive portrayal: Bergotte is an intellectual visionary possessed of a singular vision, even a genius, but he is myopic. He doesn't quite have clay feet, but one of the overriding themes of Marcel's interactions with him (roughly pages 592-618, maybe my favorite sequence so far) is how he moves from being Marcel's idol of earlier years to a incisive, cranky man very different from the image that Marcel had as a youth. More specifically, the earlier image of Bergotte was not that of a person, but of an ideal, the author of words in which he had seen himself perfectly reflected, when in fact what he was seeing was himself in a mirror he had constructed partially out of Bergotte's words, but which was mostly a projection of his own mind.
I think that for anyone who develops a particular affection for reading in their early teenage years, there is that set of authors which seem directly in tune with our thoughts. They appear to express inner truths that were previously thought unshared by anyone. These authors usually disappoint us later when it turns out that they were aiming at something else entirely, and somewhere in college, we figure out that we have to be a lot more careful before verbal intoxication leads to overly zealous identifying of kindred spirits. After that, those authors go into a very special category where we neither criticize them nor praise them, since we know we'll be talking more about ourselves than about the authors. And there's a little bit of resentment to the authors for tricking us so badly, when we were so vulnerable. I'm not yet ready to divulge who's on my version of that special list.
Bergotte does not disappoint Marcel in such a severe way, though he is acutely aware of the gap between the man he meets and the author he read:
And so he tells Bergotte, after Bergotte remarks on how precocious he is in appreciating the "pleasures of the mind":
Bergotte finds this surprising, and though Marcel is disappointed, he is still encouraged that such discussions can take place, and that the dead image of literature pushed on him by the staid M. de Norpois (around page 488 or so) earlier is not the limits of writing as practiced. Bergotte, not the man (or spirit) that Marcel had imagined, is still able to bring about a meaningful dialogue. Of course, just to emphasize the gap, Bergotte then trashes Cottard and Swann, which hits Marcel like an earthquake:
But what about Bergotte himself? Though initially appearing aloof, like the locked container of infinite knowledge, he shortly comes off as judgmental, amoral (in how he treats those around him), and petty. (More so than Swann)
This is such a sneaky technique, and Proust loves it. (He did the same with Swann, and there are frequently other references to the futures of other characters.) To pull back drastically and look at Bergotte years later, a self-deluding shadow of his former genius, pulls the rug out from any authority Bergotte once had. Whatever follows from Bergotte--and what follows does have a profound effect on the young Marcel--has its authority weakened. It is only a variant of Proust's techniques elsewhere, where he destabilizes authoritative words and thoughts by revising them, but this nearly seems cheap. What redeems it is the idea that the same words, and indeed the same thoughts, could be used by a single man at different points in his life and carry completely different implications: at one time false modesty over one's genius, at a later time a sad excuse. It makes the later Bergotte, whom we haven't met yet, explicable and sympathetic in the terms of his current self.
For comparison, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities deals heavily in the irony that the great plans of his Austrian political figures in 1912 will come to nothing when the war breaks out, but he only refers to it sparingly. The only reference that comes to me offhand, in fact, is almost in passing. I'll quote the passage, if only to illustrate how differently Musil deploys his judgments (and also because I like it so much):
Is it just me, or is there actually a bit of overlap here in their concerns, if not their tones? It reads like a defense of Marcel's lack of interest in Bergotte's "pleasures of the mind." Now, Musil truly isn't interested in the surfaces he references, while Proust makes them the center of the novel. If Proust does have an affiliation with one of the German writers of that era, it's Mann, who I'll get to next time. Posted by at December 21, 2003 11:50 PM | TrackBack