David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Category: ProustBlog (page 2 of 6)

3.1.4 Polite Society

The emphasis on the decay beneath the polite, dull society of the Guermantes mirrors the decline of the emotional vividness of Marcel’s existence. Part of this is ascribable to Marcel himself not playing a huge role in the proceedings, but even when he does, there is a lifelessness to it all. Only a few times does he drop hints as to the nature of what is going on, which form the thin backbone of the first half of the book, and a good part of the second. It is this: just as Marcel had earlier found that he could enjoy the company of some silly girls more than any profound conversation with intellectuals, he is here slowly discovering that such high-minded conversation has only the most tenuous link to interaction. Several times, he encounters people behaving strangely with him, and several times he realizes that although he had assumed that their words and actions were in response to his own, it is actually nothing more than a spark escaping from their own solipsistic existence.
Legrandin, dull even by the standards of The Guermantes Way, snaps at Marcel at one point:

“You might at least have the civility to begin by saying how d’ye do to me,” he replied, without offering me his hand and in a coarse and angry voice which I had never suspected him of possessing, a voice which, having no rational connexion with what he ordinarily said, had another more immediate and striking connexion with something he was feeling. For the fact of the matter is that, since we are determined always to keep our feelings to ourselves, we have never given any thought to the manner in which we should express them. And suddenly there is within us a strange and obscene animal making itself heard, whose tones may inspire as much alarm as the person who receives the involuntary, elliptical and almost irresistible communication of one’s defect or vice as would the sudden avowal indirectly and outlandishly proffered by a criminal who can no longer refrain from confessing to a murder of which one had never imagined him to be guilty. I knew, of course, that idealism, even subjective idealism, did not prevent great philosophers from still having hearty appetites or from presenting themselves with untiring perseverance for election to the Academy. But really Legrandin had no need to remind people so often that he belonged to another planet when all his uncontrollable impulses of anger or affability were governed by the desire to occupy a good position on this one. (208)

From this he later concludes that Norpois, who insulted him behind his back earlier, was acting out of similarly unknowable motives. And thus:

What we remember of our conduct remains unknown to our nearest neighbor; what we have forgotten that we have ever said, or indeed what we never did say, flies to provoke hilarity in another planet, and the image that other people form of our actions and demeanour no more resembles our own than an inaccurate tracing, on which for the black line we find an empty space and for a blank area an inexplicable contour, resembles the original drawing. (281)

This is, again, an almost Wittgensteinian notion of speech, yet Proust allows for sudden anomalous expressions, as though the absence of semantics in the translation of internal feeling to external behavior produces inherent imperfections. And as the behavior of Marcel’s associates is more circumscribed by society, so their deviations become more apparent, as they progress from silly teenage exclamations of intuitive feelings to becoming models of decorum. Ironically, this exposes their own preoccupations more, since the deviations are easy to spot.
The most blatant example of this disparity is Marcel’s relation to M. de Charlus. Charlus is, as Proust will discuss at great length, homosexual, and his interest in Marcel is so assaultive and histrionic (not to mention manic-depressive) that the narrative strains credulity in attempting to portray Marcel as fairly oblivious to Charlus’s quirks. (Alain Delon played Charlus in Swann in Love, but hell, Rip Taylor probably could have pulled it off.) But coming after hundreds of pages of genteel boredom, Charlus is vastly entertaining. A sample:

“Let us return to yourself,” he said, “and my plans for you…Given a very considerable lead over your contemporaries, who knows whether you may not perhaps become what some eminent man of the past might have been if a beneficent spirit had revealed to him, among a generation that knew nothing of them, the secrets of steam and electricity. Do not be foolish, do not refuse for reasons of tact and discretion. Try to understand that, if I do you a great service, I do not expect my reward from you to be any less great. It is many years now since people in society ceased to interest me. I have but one passion left, to seek to redeem the mistakes of my life by conferring the benefit of my knowledge on a soul that is still virgin and capable of being fired by virtue…Perhaps in teaching you the great secrets of diplomacy I might recover a taste for them myself, and begin at last to do things of real interest in which you would have an equal share. But before I can discover this I must see you often, very often, every day.” (301)

Though it’s a comical example, it again paints an exchange in which the subtext is, by a huge margin, exclusively within the mind of only one of the participants. Though Charlus has a unique manner of speaking, he has done reasonably well in society, and has somehow kept his own predilections from surfacing in speech.
When Marcel’s grandmother falls to her deathbed pages later, the effect is paradoxical; the grandmother, unconscious and dying, communicates more to her family than all those in high society have up until that point. It’s this irony that lies when Marcel recalls his mother chastising him over his infatuation with Mme de Guermantes:

“You really must stop hanging about trying to meet Mme de Guermantes. You’re becoming a laughing-stock. Besides, look how ill your grandmother is, you really have something more serious to think about than waylaying a woman who doesn’t care a straw about you,” instantaneously–like a hypnotist who brings you back from the distant country in which you imagined yourself to be, and opens your eyes for you, or like the doctor who, by recalling you to a sense of duty and reality, cures you of an imaginary disease in which you have been wallowing–had awakened me from an unduly protracted dream. (385)

This memory isn’t mentioned until the second part of the volume, but since it occurs chronologically in the first part, it serves as the epitaph to his infatuation with the Guermantes, since he shortly goes on the warpath against them.

3.1.3 Grandmother’s Death

At the end of the first half of The Guermantes Way, Marcel’s grandmother dies. Over the course of fifty pages, she slowly degenerates, is treated by doctors, and finally passes on. It’s the most memorable sequence in the volume, and even without its surrounding material, it would be a remarkable deathbed sequence, sentimental but not mawkish, detached without being impersonal.
Marcel’s grandmother figured heavily in the second volume as a protective, benevolent figure, merging with the placid scenery of Balbec. She disappears for the first part of this book, only to reappear with a phone call to Marcel in which he, somewhat sadly, finally feels independent of her. Shortly thereafter, he is shocked to see her:

We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which, before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us, seizes them in its vortex and flings them back upon the idea that we have always had of them, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it…[here follows a verbose passage in which Proust seems to be putting off saying the inevitable]…And–like a sick man who, not having looked at his own reflexion for a long time, and regularly composing the features which he never sees in accordance with the ideal image of himself that he carries in his mind, recoils on catching sight in the glass, in the middle of an arid desert of a face, of the sloping pink protuberance of a nose as huge of one of the pyramids of Egypt–I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, vacant, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, a dejected old woman whom I did not know. (142)

And what follows from there is a private struggle between Marcel’s grandmother and her impending death, which is played out uncomfortably in public. Legrandin spies the family in a cab one day and gives a look of shock:

She had seemed to be foundering, slithering into the abyss, clinging desperately to the cushions which could scarcely hold back the headlong plunge of her body, her hair disheveled, her eyes wild, no longer capable of facing the assault of the images which their pupils no longer had the strength to bear. She had appeared, although I was beside her, to be plunged into that unknown world in the heart of which she had already received the blows of which she bore the marks when I had looked up at her in the Champs-Elysees, her had, her face, her coat deranged by the hand of the invisible angel with whom she had wrestled. (326)

Twenty-five pages later, it is continuing inexorably, but by this point Marcel’s grandmother is so central and so present in her final struggle that she seems to warp the environment around her to draw others in:

I found myself in the presence of a sort of miracle. Accompanied by an incessant low murmur, my grandmother seemed to be singing us a long, joyous song which filled the room, rapid and musical. I soon realized that it was scarcely less unconscious, that it was as purely mechanical, as the hoarse rattle that I had heard before leaving the room. Perhaps to a slight extent it reflected some improvement brought about by the morphine. Principally it was the result (the air not passing quite in the same way through the bronchial tubes) of a change in the register of her breathing. Released by the twofold action of the oxygen and the morphine, my grandmother’s breath no longer laboured, no longer whined, but, swift and light, glided like a skater towards the delicious fluid. Perhaps the breath, imperceptible as that of the wind in the hollow stem of a reed, was mingled in this song with some of those more human sighs which, released at the approach of death, suggest intimations of pain or happiness in those who have already ceased to feel, and came now to add a more melodious accent, but without changing its rhythm, to that long phrase which rose, soared still higher, then subsided, to spring up once more, from the alleviated chest, in pursuit of the oxygen. (352)

(Amazing passage, no?) Finally:

Who knows whether, without my grandmother’s even being conscious of them, countless happy and tender memories compressed by suffering were not escaping from her now, like those lighter gases which had long been compressed in the cylinders? It was as though everything that she had to tell us was pouring out, that it was us that she was addressing with this prolixity, this eagerness, this effusion. At the foot of the bed, convulsed by every gasp of this agony, not weeping but at moments drenched with tears, my mother stood with the unheeding desolation of a tree lashed by the rain and shaken by the wind…Suddenly my grandmother half rose, made a violent effort, like someone struggling to resist an attempt on his life…At that moment my grandmother opened her eyes…The hiss of the oxygen had ceased; the doctor moved away from the bedside. My grandmother was dead. (357)

I don’t have a lot to say about the sequence–it speaks for itself as a self-contained entity–but coming as it does in the middle of one of the driest parts of the book, its self-contained force obscures its connections to what surrounds it. The seemingly intentional striving for a dramatic, profound climax contracts with the apparent formlessness of what’s gone before. Underneath the polite nothings of the Guermantes and high society, the entire volume is, in fact, suffused with death and decay. Bergotte, aging and beginning to see the renown that most great writers never live to see, is a shell of man, and even Marcel’s affection for his work has faded. “Nice guy” Saint-Loup beats a man who solicits him for sex. Bloch is so alienated from his own faith and so attracted to high society that he ignores the implications of the Dreyfus case. And Swann, as is revealed at the end of the volume, is sick with cancer.

3.1.2 Saint-Loup

To return to a quote from last time, having left this for a few months:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success.

I don’t know if Proust is referring to Wordsworth here, but it’s the Wordsworth of Tintern Abbey that this passage brings up for me, and how he implies an almost inviolate integrity of the self and its memories, one which Proust has already systematically destroyed in Swann’s Way and is now extending to social networks themselves. Very little happens in the entirety of The Guermantes Way; the main plot points are his grandmother’s death and his eventual disenchantment with the Guermantes (on this point, Marcel is a lot more patient than I would have been), and the final revelation at the end of the volume, which I’ll mention later. The main function of the book is to establish how tenuous Marcel’s images of people are, and how the brightest things that he saw earlier have faded or have been completely replaced.
Saint-Loup was one of the most likable characters in Within a Budding Grove, and he’s still likable here: his basic goodness, politeness, and generosity contrast favorably with the pettiness and amorality of most of the other high society characters. But he is a Guermantes, and to the extent that the book is an indictment of the Guermantes way (which, believe me, it is), Saint-Loup is included. He still comes off as the best of the lot, not least for his steadfast anti-Dreyfusism, which appears to come from a genuine moral stance rather than simple trendiness. Yet the conclusion on him is, I think, that his inability to be critical damns him to complicity.
His good side is on display at a party:

It occurred to me on one of these evenings to tell a mildly amusing story about Mme Blandais, but I stopped at once, remembering that Saint-Loup knew it already, and that when I had started to tell it to him the day after my arrival he had interrupted me with: “You told me that before, at Balbec.” I was surprised, therefore, to find him begging me to go on and assuring me that he did not know the story and that it would amuse him immensely…And throughout the story he kept his feverish and enraptured gaze fixed alternately on myself and on his friends. I realized only after I had finished, amid general laughter, that it had struck him that this story would give his comrades a good idea of my wit, and that it was for this reason that he had pretended nto to know it. Such is the stuff of friendship. (103)

The story about Mme Blandais is never mentioned; it’s not important. Marcel’s affection for Saint-Loup here is nearly unmatched. So it comes as a disappointment shortly after Saint-Loup appropriates one of Marcel’s trite conclusions about the world:

I had reckoned without the reverse side of Robert’s cordial admiration for myself and certain other people. That admiration was complemented by so an entire an assimilation of their ideas that after a day or two, he would have completely forgotten that those ideas were not his own. And so, in the matter of my modest thesis, Saint-Loup, for all the world as though it had always dwelt in his own brain, and though I was merely poaching on his preserves, felt it incumbent upon him to greet my discovery with warm approval…
He paused for a moment, with the satisfied smile of one who had digested his dinner, dropped his monocle, and, fixing me with a gimlet-like stare, said to me challengingly:
“All men with similar ideas are alike.”
No doubt he had completely for gotten that I myself had said to him only a few days earlier what on the other hand he had remembered so well. (119)

This gesture is as significant as the last. Saint-Loup is not a malicious person, but he possesses a certain thoughtlessness that, while generating moments of friendship, just as soon alienates Marcel when Saint-Loup treats those around him as sources from which to draw elaborations of his personality. Not that Saint-Loup himself doesn’t suffer. When he gets involved with Rachel, the prostitute that Marcel and Bloch met in the previous volume, he is completely oblivious to her nature:

Robert was ignorant of almost all the infidelities of his mistress, and tormented himself over what were mere nothings compared with the real life of Rachel, a life which began every day only after he had left her. He was ignorant of almost all these infidelities. One could have told him of them without shaking his confidence in Rachel. For it is a charming law of nature, which manifests itself in the heart of the most complex social organisms, that we live in perfect ignorance of those we love. (292)

Proust generalizes Saint-Loup’s behavior to the world at large, but Saint-Loup’s is a particularly extreme case, somewhat like that of Swann but different in that Saint-Loup does not seem to go through the extreme mood swings that Swann did with Odette. He is merely happily oblivious, and pleased to defend that attitude. And for Proust at least, it blunts Saint-Loup’s virtue.

3.1.1 The Situation

Maybe it’s reading The Guermantes Way under drastically different circumstances than the first two books, or maybe it’s that by the third volume, you can no longer see clearly back to the beginning of the entire work, nor can you see anything like the end. But really, The Guermantes Way seems like a tougher slog in general, because there’s no longer a clear narrative thread, and there is less philosophical substance (Proust having dispatched the idea of it in the previous two volumes) than previously. Instead, there’s endless parties with endlessly revolving characters, with no clear end and no clear direction.
That’s the way it reads for the first three hundred pages. There’s nothing to match the drama of Swann and Odette, and no passages as concentrated as those in the first section of Within a Budding Grove, though there are some nice bits in the later pages. They’re not enough to stave off the feeling that Proust’s leviathan has run aground and is flailing.
That’s not to say that it is not a compelling portrayal. Marcel, now a young adult, wanders through the upper social circles of Paris and sees characters, mostly seen before, dithering about in their own preoccupations. He does very little; he seemingly has no obligations. The rest of the crowd, including such past charmers as Cottard, Bloch, M. de Charlus, and Mme de Villeparisis, evince no development whatsoever, just a presentation of their often shallow selves. In “Swann in Love,” they provided the background tableaux against which Swann acted out his passions. Here, with Marcel considerably less involved and active than he was in “Place-Names: The Place” (in Balbec), there is only the peopled scenery. Marcel’s infatuation with the elite Guermantes clan, on display during a visit to the theater where he rhapsodizes over the Princess’s dress, and his concern with the art of the actress Berma: these things are the raw material of his memories, and they don’t resonate as earlier passages did because they are so particular to their time and place, shorn of passions that readers in which readers can recognize themselves.
This network of private, unique connections is what he’s after:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. And great fatigue followed by a good night’s rest can to a certain extent help us to do so. For in order to make us descend into the most subterranean galleries of sleep, where no reflexion from overnight, no gleam of memory comes to light up the interior monologue–if the latter does not itself cease–fatigue followed by rest will so thoroughly turn over the soil and penetrate the bedrock of our bodies that we discover down there, where our muscles plunge and twist in their ramifications and breathe in new life, the garden where we played in our childhood. There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. (89)

The problem with such an approach, as Proust intimates, is that without an external point of reference, with only an excavation of purely internal sensations and impressions, the relation of one’s own mind and memories to common, shared experience does not exist. In going over and over the shared experience in the first part of The Guermantes Way, he leaves readers very little to grasp, other than portraits of scenery.
It is not until three-hundred pages in, halfway through the volume, that the death of Marcel’s grandmother gives shape to what’s gone before. Given that the second part of the book accelerates rapidly, the contrast feels intentional. It serves to make the first part even more elusive.

2.2.4 Place-Names: The Place: Albertine

I don’t have a great deal to say about the girls of Within a Budding Grove. Young Marcel’s impressions of them have as much to do with what he is looking for at that point in his life as with their individual personalities, and so he draws them coarsely and simply. Albertine is obnoxious, Andree is smart, and so on…it doesn’t make them unbelievable, but it places as much weight on Marcel’s impressions as there was on Swann’s fantasies of Odette in Swann’s Way.
The process repeats between Marcel and Albertine as it did with Marcel and Gilberte and Swann and Odette. After he first sees her:

Since my first sight of Albertine I had thought about her endlessly, I had carried on with what I called by her name an interminable inner dialogue in which I made her question and answer, think and act, and in the infinite series of imaginary Albertines who followed one after the other in my fancy hour by hour, the real Albertine, glimpsed on the beach, figured only at the head, just as the actress who “creates” a role, the star, appears, out of a long series of performances, in the first few alone. (917)

Albertine’s real presence, which is hardly overwhelming or even likable, eliminates a lot of his dreams, yet they have no deterrent effect on Marcel. On the contrary, he takes pleasure in the trivial discussions and cruelties of the girls, yet here is Proust talking about the loss of his rich image of Albertine:

As I drew closer to the girl and began to know her better, this knowledge developed by a process of subtraction, each constituent of imagination and desire giving place to a notion which was worth infinitely less. (933)

Proust’s analysis becomes so kaleidoscopic that it all but overshadows the main climax of the action, when Marcel makes a physical advance on Albertine and is rejected because she’s not that kind of girl. It’s meant as an indication of how Marcel’s own image of Albertine could not predict how he would act around her, nor did her own past actions and appearances give a foreclosed prediction of how she would react. Yet the moment-by-moment relativism is pushed to the point where this significant plot point recedes instantly, as, it is implied, Marcel retreats into his head.
His reaction after his advances are rebuffed is not that of the more emotional Swann, but detached reconsideration:

It was perhaps because they were so diverse, the persons whom I used to contemplate in her at this period, that later I developed the habit of becoming myself a different person, according to the particular Albertine to whom my thoughts had turned; a jealous, an indifferent, a voluptuous, a melancholy, a frenzied person, created anew not merely by the accident of the particular memory that had risen to the surface, but in proportion also to the strength of the belief that was lent to the support of one and the same memory by the varying manner in which I appreciated it. For this was the point to which I invariably had to return, to those beliefs which for most of the time occupy our souls unbeknownst to us, but which for all that are of more importance to our happiness than is the person whom we see, for it is through them that we see him, it is they that impart his momentary grandeur to the person seen. To be quite accurate, I ought to give a different name to each of the selves who subsequently thought about Albertine; I ought still more to give a different name to each of the Albertines who appeared before me, never the same, like those sees that succeeded one another and against which, a nymph likewise, she was silhouetted. (1010)

And it’s shortly after that note of disintegration that the second volume ends. Albertine is reduced to a specter, and everything that has just passed is the product of a character who is about to change, with his return to Paris. All that has gone on with Saint-Loup and Bloch, with Francoise and his grandmother, and with the young women, is left behind, as is the environment and the persona of Marcel that participated in creating the situations.
Again, what’s surprising is how subtly this despair and nostalgia creeps in, as well as the suggestion that attempting to hang on to those moments and recreate their circumstances that causes the deepest unhappiness. Superficially, he leaves Balbec peacefully, but the accumulating misery as he loses all that he gains, and as his later self in turn contextualizes it as though it were a dead specimen, gradually builds up into a terminal melancholy leavened only by the beautiful prose descriptions of past images.
That’s about it. While Swann’s Way ended with an inexplicable shocker revelation, Within a Budding Grove ends at the point where nothing could come as a shock any longer because everything is up for renegotiation. It’s not an auspicious point from which to launch 2000 more pages, and The Guermantes Way does retreat from these extremes in its early pages (what other choice was there?), but still, Proust’s terms from this vantage point look very bleak.

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