David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Category: ProustBlog (page 4 of 6)

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:

I had told him [Bergotte] everything that I felt with a freedom which had astonished me and which was due to the fact that, having acquired with him, years before (in the course of all those hours of solitary reading, in which he was to me merely the better part of myself), the habit of sincerity, of frankness, of confidence, I found him less intimidating than a person with whom I was very uneasy about the impression that I must have been making on him, the contempt that I had supposed he would feel for my ideas dating not from that afternoon but from the already distant time in which I had begun to read his books in our garden at Combray. (611)

And so he tells Bergotte, after Bergotte remarks on how precocious he is in appreciating the “pleasures of the mind”:

I felt how purely material was everything that I desired in life, and how easily I could dispense with the intellect. As I made no distinction among my pleasures between those that came to me from different sources, of varying depth and permanence, I thought, when the moment came to answer him, that I should have liked an existence in which I was on intimate terms with the Duchesse de Guermantes and often came across , as in the old toll-house in the Champs-Elysees, a fusty coolness that would remind me of Combray. And in this ideal existence which I dared not confide to him, the pleasures of the mind found no place. (613)

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:

“[Swann’s] typical of the man who has married a whore, and has to pocket a dozen insults a day from women who refuse to meet his wife or men who have slept with her. Just look, one day when you’re there, at the way he lifts his eyebrows when he comes in, to see who’s in the room.” (615)

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)
His singular, unique vision, as described, should be a tip-off that he’ll eventually be painted as limited by that singularity of his vision. In Proust, strength and depth of feeling in a single direction invariably reveals a corresponding deficit in other directions. The judgment comes down most harshly when Proust pulls back to describe Bergotte’s later years:

[Bergotte] would say also, with a shy smile, of pages of his own for which someone had expressed admiration: “I think it’s more or less true, more or less accurate; it may be of some value perhaps,” but he would say this simply from modesty, as a woman to whom one has said that her dress or his daughter is beautiful replies, “It’s comfortable,” or “She’s a good girl.” But the instinct of the maker, the builder, was too deeply implanted in Bergotte for him not to be aware that the sole proof that he had built both usefully and truthfully lay in the pleasure that his work had given, to himself first of all and afterwards to his readers. Only, many years later, when he no longer had any talent, whenever he wrote anything with which he was not satisfied, in order not to have to suppress it, as he ought to have done, in order to be able to publish it, he would repeat, but to himself this time: “After all, it’s more or less accurate, it must be of some value to my country.” So that the phrase murmured long ago among his admirers by the crafty voice of modesty came in the end to be whispered in the secrecy of his heart by the uneasy tongue of pride. And the same words which had served Bergotte as a superfluous excuse for the excellence of his early works became as it were an ineffective consolation to him for the mediocrity of the last. (599)

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):

Had Arnheim been able to see only a few years into the future, he would have seen that 1,920 years of Christian morality, millions of dead men in the wake of a shattering war, and a whole German forest of poetry rustling in homage to the modesty of Women could not hold back the day when women’s skirts and hair began to grow shorter and the young girls of Europe slipped off eons of taboos to emerge for a while naked, like peeled bananas. He would have seen other changes as well, which he would hardly have believed possible, nor does it matter which of those would last and which would disappear, if we consider what vast and probably wasted efforts would have been needed to effect such revolutions in the way people lived by the slow, responsible, evolutionary road traveled by philosophers, painters, and poets, instead of tailors, fashion, and chance; it enables us to judge just how much creative energy is generated by the surface of things, compared with the barren conceit of the brain. (443)

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.

2.1.4 Mme Swann at Home: Odette Herself

As with Swann, Odette herself has changed. Proust alternates between “Madame Swann” and “Odette” without a clear pattern, but it’s still evident that they represent two aspects of her, one in her role as Swann’s wife, one as the ill-bred and coarse Odette of years past. “Madame Swann” is the woman that the teenage Marcel sees, the charming mother of Gilberte, to whom he is affectionate. Odette is the person that Swann still remembers as his erstwhile love, but who no longer exists.
The “Madame Swann” of this section is defined partly by her relationship to Swann himself, but moreso by her relationship with Marcel. The Swanns initially find him distasteful, but warm to him and eventually Marcel’s relationship with Madame Swann is more intimate than that between any of the others: there is reticence and a maternal aspect to her, traits never before glimpsed. Yet the interchanging of the two names implies that there is part of the past Odette that persists, not the Odette in Swann’s mind (which is well and truly dead) but something that she envisions in herself, and something that persists in her relations with other people.
As she walks down the Avenue du Bois at the end of the section with Swann, as “established” as she ever has been and still the target of ambivalent gazes from younger men, she says to Marcel:

“You aren’t ever coming to see Gilberte again? I’m glad you make an exception of me, and are not going to drop me completely. I like seeing you, but I also liked the influence you had over my daughter. I’m sure she’s very sorry about it, too. However, I mustn’t bully you, or you’ll make up your mind at once that you never want to set eyes on me again.”
And as the average span of life, the relative longevity of our memories of poetical sensations is much greater than that of our memories of what the heart has suffered, now that the sorrows that I once felt on Gilberte’s account have long since faded and vanished, there has survived them the pleasure that I still derive from seeing myself once again strolling and talking thus with Mme Swann. (689)

(Marcel has long given up on Gilberte at this point.) Mme Swann is a different person entirely here; the years and her change in position have permitted her to participate in this experience right here, for which Marcel claims an esteemed position. It is as though this has endured even while his love for Gilberte, and Swann’s love for and jealousy over Odette, have not.
Again, the issue of taste–more specifically, of discernment–is paramount, because it’s the attunement to this sort of aesthetic appreciation, to the affecion shown within a casual social context, that Proust paints as being more enduring than the transitory passions. Thus, lack of taste towards such experiences is one of the largest failings one can have, in Proust’s world. Consequently, this moment holds a bit of redemption for Mme Swann, who, while no great intellect or moral paragon, has carved out a brief moment of bliss that has remained more strongly in Marcel’s memory than any of Swann and Odette’s unfortunate experiences. And I infer that Odette has slightly more taste too, as she can participate in such things.
It is this sort of rewriting that changes the shape of Swann’s Way in my mind, because while there was the sorrow of Swann’s waste of his life on Odette and the contrast with Marcel’s own memories of Combray, they were presented as distinct elements. Now they are intermixed and even Odette, very unsympathetic in “Swann in Love,” has facets that Swann and readers like me could not fit into the earlier framework.
That theme, if only as a subtle undercurrent, runs through the section. Swann and his wife have a relationship which has an intimacy that, if not love, is beyond sheer convenience:

As for Swann himself, she knew intimately those traits of character of which the rest of the world is ignorant and which it scoffs at, and of which only a mistress or a sister possesses the true and cherished image; and so strongly are we attached to such idiosyncrasies, even to those of them which we are most anxious to correct, that it is because a woman comes in time to acquire an indulgent, an affectionately mocking familiarity with them, such as we ourselves or our relatives have, that love affairs of long standing have something of the sweetness and strength of family affection. (505)

Actually, I’m confused as to why Proust uses the term “love affairs,” since what the Swanns have sure isn’t that. But Proust emphasizes a mysterious relation, the private aspects of what has gone on between the Swanns which are mostly not detailed, as having provided for them. They haven’t provided love, but they have provided, for Swann, stability, and for Odette, standing. And while Odette does no love Swann, nor does he bother her; there is stability there.
As Swann no longer has the demon of jealousy affecting his relationship with Mme Swann (since it’s affecting his affair with his mistress), he is in a pleasant torpor himself around her:

But so far as Odette was concerned, Swann was quite blind, not merely to these deficiencies in her education but to the general mediocrity of her intelligence. More than that; whenever Odette told a silly story Swann would sit listening to his wife with a complacency, a merriment, almost an admiration in which some vestige of desire for her must have played a part; while in the same conversation, anything subtle or even profound that he himself might say would be listened to by Odette with an habitual lack of interest, rather curtly, with impatience, and would at times be sharply contradicted. (559)

I suppose this sounds negative, but next to “Swann in Love,” it’s almost comfortable. (The reference to residual desire for Odette, however, seem to contradict what’s gone before and after, where it’s made quite clear that Swann does not love Odette any more, and so all I can say is, I give up. Such things are unknowable, if not in real life, at least in this book.) Swann has grown patient with Odette; Odette still does not understand much of what he’s talking about. But these are the ground rules, and they have provided, even still, a measure of nominal success. Swann’s ambitions have changed to fit the shape of his life, and with Gilberte around, he doesn’t even seem like the disappointed man that he ought to be.
What continuity there is to Odette is established in one cryptic passage, which draws the distinction even as it isolates a similarity. It begins with Proust discussing the importance of Mme Swann’s Garden:

There was another reason for the flowers’ having more than a merely ornamental significance in Mme Swann’s drawing-room, and this reason pertained not to the period but, in some degree, to the life that Odette had formerly led. A great courtesan such as she had been, lives largely for her lovers, that is to say at home, which means that she comes in time to live for her home. The things that one sees in the house of a “respectable” woman, things which may of course appear to her also to be of importance, are those which are in any event of the utmost importance to the courtesan. (638)

This passage is presented specifically as Marcel’s experience of his visits to the Swanns’ home, and how he feels her extend over the house so that even the flowers become an intimate particular that make him feel awkward. (Pages 638-641 or so give the full story and are very beautiful and difficult to summarize.)
But what does it mean? Is Proust taking high society down a peg by equating a woman’s dominance of her salon or other parties as similar to the control expressed by a courtesan? Is it an explanation of a continuity in Odette, detailing how she has preserved some crucial aspect of her soul after marrying Swann by removing the unacceptable aspect but preserving her sphere of influence? Does it anticipate the later quote mentioned above (page 689) by implying that the real importance to Odette’s earlier actions was not in the affairs themselves but in the aesthetics with which she conducted herself, which have developed and mutated into something not only acceptable in higher society, but aesthetically memorable?
I don’t think there’s a definite answer at hand, but there’s probably something to all three explanations. There is more of Odette in “Mme Swann at Home” than there was in “Swann in Love,” which was mostly about Swann, and if she’s not as sympathetic as Swann, she’s at least explicable and complex now.

2.1.3 Mme Swann at Home: Swann and Odette

If Swann’s Way zigzagged between Marcel’s childhood and Swann’s earlier affair, with clearly defined angles, Within a Budding Grove is corkscrew-shaped: each gnarled observation doubles back on itself and intersects with everything else, with no clear resolution.
One of the most vivid juxtapositions comes in Marcel’s view of Gilberte (the Swanns’ daughter), who has come to embody both the present and the past of her parents:

On Gilberte’s face, at the corner of a perfect reproduction of Odette’s nose, the skin was raised so as to preserve intact M. Swann’s two moles. It was a new variety of Mme Swann that was thus obtained, growing there by her side like a white lilac-tree besides a purple…It was when she had been to her classes, when she must go home for some lesson that Gilberte’s pupils executed that movement which, in the past, in Odette’s eyes, had been caused by the fear of disclosing that she had opened the door that day to one of her lovers, or was at that moment in a hurry to get to some assignation. Thus did one see the two natures of M. and Mme Swann ripple and flow and overlap one upon the other in the body of this Melusine. (607)

The main point here is how Gilberte takes after and intermixes parts of both of her parents, good and bad, but beneath that, there is also the suggestion of natures past and present: Swann’s abandoned social climbing, Odette’s coquetry, Mme Swann’s more subdued role as a wife, the resigned intellectual that Swann has become.
What of the two parents? Odette and Swann have ended up married, more seemingly by default than for any other reason. He doesn’t love her; whatever appeal she once held has not returned. Everything is for convenience. That is the immediate implication. But, as elsewhere, their present relationship affects the past as much as the past affects it:

The laborious process of causation which sooner or later will bring about every possible effect, including, consequently, those which one had believed to be least possible, naturally slow at times, is rendered slower still by our desire (which in seeking to accelerate only obstructs it), by our very existence, and comes to fruition only when we have ceased to desire–have ceased, possibly, to live. Was not Swann conscious of this from his own experience, and was there not already in his lifetime–as it were a prefiguration of what was to happen after his death–a posthumous happiness in this marriage with Odette whom he had passionately loved–even if she had not attracted him at first sight–whom he had married when he no longer loved her, when the person who, in Swann, had so longed to live and so despaired of living all his life with Odette, when that person was dead? (508)

Here, Proust presents Swann as a changed man: in fact, it was only through his change (his renouncing of his love for Odette) that he was ever able to marry him. Yet the marriage, despite his lack of love for her, makes a sanguine postmortem for Swann’s dead self, the one who did love Odette, in that he (the current Swann) has made his dead self happy by ending up with Swann, even if his current self is, at best, resigned. The irony arises in the fact that Proust presents it as a prerequisite that Swann had given up all his passion before he could have married her. The arrangement between M. Swann and Mme. Swann requires that he not be the crazed obsessive of years past but a reticent, somewhat cynical man of good standing. And so he is:

There was no renunciation on Swann’s part, when he married Odette, of his social ambitions, for from those ambitions Odette had long ago, in the spiritual sense of the word, detached him…In so far as a mental picture which accompanies one of our resolutions may be said to motivate it, so it might be said that if Swann married Odette it was in order to introduce her, together with Gilberte, without anyone else being present, without, if need be, anyone else ever coming to know if it, to the Duchesse de Guermantes. (506-508)

And also:

For a long time now it had been a matter of indifference to him whether Odette had been, or was being, unfaithful to him. And yet he had continued for some years to seek out old servants of hers, to such an extent had the painful curiosity persisted in him, to know whether on that day, so long ago, at six o’clock, Odette had been in bed with Forcheville. Then the curiosity itself had disappeared, without, however, his abandoning his investigations. He went on trying to discover what no longer interested him, because his old self, though it had shrivelled to extreme decrepitude, still acted mechanically, in accordance with preoccupations so utterly abandoned that Swann could not now succeed even in picturing to himself that anguish–so compelling once that he had been unable to imagine that he would ever be delivered from it. (564)

Again, there is the zombie Swann, who still acts on his old desires. And again, I’m not sure how much to trust this, since there is so much confusion and suggestion that these passages are only the temporary rationalization of Swann’s current self. It’s enough to say that Swann does not love Odette, certainly not like he did in the past, but he is still moved by her, and by his former self.
Most notably, Swann has a new, unnamed lover, who dredges up the old anxieties:

For between Swann and the woman whom he loved this anguish piled up an unyielding mass of previous suspicions, having their cause in Odette, or in some other perhaps who had preceded Odette, which allowed the ageing lover to know his mistress of to-day only through the old, collective spectre of the “woman who aroused his jealousy” in which he had arbitrarily embodied his new love. Often, however, Swann woulud accuse his jealousy of making him believe in imaginary infidelities; but then he would remember that he had given Odette the benefit of the same argument, and wrongly. And so everything that the young woman whom he loved did in the hours that he was not with her ceased to appear innocent. But whereas at that other time he had made a vow that if ever he ceased to love the woman who, though he did not then know it, was to be his future wife, he would show her an implacable indifference that would at last be sincere, in order to avenge his pride that had so long been humiliated, now that he could enforce those reprisals without risk to himself, he no longer wihsed to do so; with his love had vanished the desire to show that he no longer loved. (565)

This is the most vehement passage of renunciation, where Swann has not only given up on Odette totally, but he has also given up on even wanting to avenge himself on her by cheating on her. (He does it anyway, but he won’t tell her.) Yet Odette is still present in his fears about his new love, and it is not the “Mme. Swann” of the present day but the Odette of years past. Having been filled with emotion again, the memory of the object (i.e., Odette) that captivated him when he was in love is cast on to the new object (the unnamed woman) even as Odette herself is the subject of none of his old emotions. It is this remembered object, no longer extant, that informs his relationship with the new woman, more than anything in his marriage.
(I use the word “object” because he is so insistent on the myopia of each character as they interact with their projected, changing views of other people. It is to his immense credit that the subject changes so rapidly, particularly in “Mme Swann at Home,” as to produce vertigo and uncertainty.)
The themes are even a little trite here: Swann never got over old Odette, the green-eyed demon still torments him, he’s grown tired of Odette even though he got her. What’s striking is the treatment. It’s the tactic of laying out the contradictions over time, contradictions that don’t get resolved because there is no true consistency: Swann’s images of Odette in years past are, ultimately, his own, and they make themselves felt again because Odette then still exists for him, in that zombie part of him that can still react without reason.
Compare it to the end (ch. 17) of Joyce’s Ulysses, where there is the realization that Bloom’s relationship with Stephen Dedalus will not recreate Bloom’s dead son Rudy, due to “the irreparability of the past [and] the imprevidibility of the future.” Joyce’s faux “scientific objective” tone in that chapter serves to pull Bloom from inside his own head to a point of (as I always read it) despair, but also to a point where his endeavors may be cast in a nobler light. Proust focuses exclusively on the former aspect, but he never admits a single emotion above others. He is persistent in destabilizing his frameworks, and there is a certain humility in that. I find Ulysses heartbreaking, but I’m also inclined to think that emotionally, it is more tradition-bound than Proust.
Later, when Marcel is mourning the death of his love for Gilberte, he might as well be talking about Swann:

The picture of the beloved in our minds which we believe to be old, original, authentic, has in reality been refashioned by us many times over. The cruel memory, on the other hand, is not contemporaneous with the restored picture, it is of another age, it is one of the rare witnesses to a monstrous past. But inasmuch as this past continues to exist, save in ourselves who have been pleased to substitute for it a miraculous golden age, a paradise in which all mankind shall be reconciled, those memories, those letters carry us back to reality, and cannot but make us feel, by the sudden pang they give us, what a long way we have been borne from that reality by the baseless hopes engendered by our daily expectation.
But after a time, absence may prove efficacious. The desire, the appetite for seeing us again may after all be reborn in the heart which at present contemns us. Only, we must allow time. But our demands as far as time is concerned are no less exorbitant than those which the heart requires in order to change. For one thing, time is the very thing that we are least willing to allow, for our suffering is acute and we are anxious to see it brought to an end. And then, too, the time which the other heart will need in order to change, our own heart will have spent in changing itself also, so that when the goal which we had set ourselves becomes attainable it will have ceased to be our goal. Besides, the very idea that it will be attainable, that there is no happiness that, when it has ceased to be a happiness for us, we cannot ultimately attain, contains an element, but only an element, of truth. It falls to us when we have grown indifferent to it. But the very fact of our indifference will have made us less exacting, and enables us in retrospect to feel convinced that it would have delighted us had it come at a time when perhaps it would have seemed to us miserably inadequate. One is not very particular, nor a very good judge, about things which no longer matter to one…So that we can never be certain that the happiness which comes to us too late, when we can no longer enjoy it, when we are no longer in love, is altogether the same as that same happiness the lack of which made us at one time so unhappy. There is only one person who could decide this–our then self; it is no longer with us, and were it to reappear, no doubt our happiness–identical or not–would vanish. (675-676)

In the second paragraph, the first third or so are things we’ve heard before. It’s the looping back (from “Besides…” onward), the delving into a hypothetical past space where an individual subjective mind cannot exist, that is novel.

2.1.2 Mme Swann at Home: Bloch and Marcel

The section roughly from page 592 to page 654 elaborates on and ties together most of what has gone before. It’s the most concentrated, the most focused, and the best writing in the book so far. And because I’m not sure where to begin in its tangle, I’ll stick with a small, particular incident: Bloch brings Marcel to a brothel.
Bloch is the acerbic intellectual type, Jewish (but not quick to acknowledge it) and not too well-bred, who introduced Marcel to Bergotte’s writing way back in Combray. He is, vividly and painfully, someone who manipulates people into elevating him into a cynical wise man figure. I’ve met many people like him. They aren’t hard to find.
He pushes Marcel to the brothel with an (unrecorded) torrent of philosophical justification:

It was about this period that Bloch overthrew my conception of the world and opened for me fresh possibilities of happiness (which, as it happened, were to change later on into possibilities of suffering), by assuring me that, contrary to all that I had believed at the time of my walks along the Meseglise way, women never asked for anything better than to make love…So that if I owed to Bloch–for his “good tidings” that happiness and the enjoyment of beauty were not inaccessible things that we have made a meaningless sacrifice in renouncing forever–a debt of gratitude of the same kind as that we owe to an optimistic physician or philosopher who has given us reason to hope for longevity in this world and not to be entirely cut off from it when we shall have passed into another, the houses of assignation which I frequented some years later–by furnishing me with samples of happiness, by allowing me to add to the beauty of women that element which we are powerless to invent, which is something more than a mere summary of former beauties, that present indeed divine, the only one that we cannot bestow upon ourselves, before which all the logical creations of our intellect pale, and which we can seek from reality alone: an individual charm–deserved to be ranked by me with those other benefactors more recent in origin but of comparable utility: namely illustrated editions of the Old Masters, symphony concerts, and guidebooks to historic towns. But the house to which Bloch took me (and which he himself in fact had long ceased to visit) was of too inferior a grade and its personnel too mediocre and too little varied to be able to satisfy my old or to stimulate new curiosities. The mistress of this house knew none of the women with whom one asked her to negotiate, and was always suggesting others whom one did not want. She boasted to me of one in particular, of whom, with a smile full of promise, she would say: “She’s Jewish. How about that?” And with an inane affectation of excitement which she hoped would prove contagious, and which ended in a hoarse gurgle, almost of sensual satisfaction: “Think of that, my boy, a Jewess! Wouldn’t that be thrilling? Rrrr!” (619)

The contrast between the long-winded rhapsodizing (I chopped out a few clauses out of the second sentence just to get it to that length) and the crudeness (hell, campiness) of the brothel itself is ironic, but that is undercut by two factors:
First, the long intervening passage where the aged Marcel looks back on Bloch still having opened his eyes to the possibility of individual beauty (which he supposedly will make good on later) in a woman. I would expect that Bloch himself would present the theory, and the coarseness of what follows would make Bloch out to be a pompous faker, rather than the worldly intellect that he previously embodied. But it’s the older narrator himself who intervenes, discussing feelings that he has not yet had, yet were provoked by the same (undescribed) philosophizing that had at the time caused disappointment. Proust goes out of the way to portray some truth in Bloch’s encouragement. Yet Bloch’s poor taste and poorer recommendation indicates that the truth is not one Bloch held, but one to which he inadvertently pointed Marcel, and which, even then, Marcel didn’t recognize until years later.
The obvious implication of the passage–that Bloch is full of shit in the worst way–isn’t falsified, but we’re granted a look at what the ultimate result of Bloch’s bullshit was, and how, even after Marcel was let down by his attempt at realization guided by Bloch, the idea of what Bloch had told him persisted in his mind and grew until it was something more worthwhile than what Bloch had conceived or intended. Bloch has poor taste and dull senses (terrible crimes to Proust), as well as bad intentions (a less terrible crime), but out of his words, eventually, come some value. Bloch himself, though, has little to do with it.
Second, Marcel sells some of his dead aunt’s furniture to the brothel, and, well:

Had I outraged the dead, I would not have suffered such remorse. I returned no more to visit their new mistress, for they seemed to me to be alive and to be appealing to me, like those apparently inanimate objects in a Persian fairy-tale, in which imprisoned human souls are undergoing martyrdom and pleading for deliverance. (622)

The offense he commits is an inversion of what happens with Bloch. Bloch makes idealized promises that reality can’t keep. Here, memories (his own ideals) are polluted by the recasting of an remembered object in a much lower setting. It suggests, once more, that the brothel is not to be taken straight as a gritty portrayal of the way things are. Instead, it is a base influence that revises and corrupts other, less tangible things, i.e., memories.
The simultaneous presentation of (a) Marcel’s initial reverie in response to Bloch, (b) the utter failure of Bloch’s presentation of reality to live up to it, and (c) the eventual value of Bloch’s words, and (d) Marcel’s betrayal of his memories attached to an object, lays out the basic strategy more explicitly than at any point in Swann’s Way: consubstantiality, conflicting internal representations, the inconstancy of reason and perception, and (especially) endless revision.
[By freakish coincidence, ionarts referenced the exact same passage two days ago. I didn’t read all of it because I haven’t gotten to The Guermantes Way just yet, but it looks good. There’s also a nice piece on Swann’s Botticelli obsession vis a vis Odette, a theme which I’ve completely ignored. (Thank you, Nathalie, for the pointer.)]

2.1.1 Mme Swann at Home: The Situation

Onto volume two. As a translation Within a Budding Grove is kind of a stretch; the new translation is quite literal as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, but it sounds clunky. The meaning of both is that Marcel is in that adolescent/post-adolescent state in which women are preoccupying him. He is now far past

that period of life when one has not yet separated the fact of this sensual pleasure from the various women in whose company one has tasted it, when one has not yet reduced it to a general idea which makes one regard them thenceforward as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same. (172)

Consequently, much of “Madame Swann at Home” concerns Marcel’s infatuation with Gilberte, the Swanns’ daughter. He has a relationship with her that ends with him falsely giving up on her several times, then doing it for real. It echoes Swann’s own infatuation with Odette in the first volume, though Marcel is more self-aware, younger, and thus less able to wreck his life in the process. He is no less inconsistent than Swann was, but he is more able to treat it as a part of the process of living than as a pathology. What was arbitrary tragedy in “Swann in Love” is now a process of endless revision of one’s view of other people and the world.
As with “Swann in Love,” Gilberte is less interesting as a person than as just some object of desire that Proust can spin ideas around. The background presence of Madame Swann (Odette’s new moniker) keeps “Swann in Love” in the picture, as though the journey was from one of (mostly) objective retelling to one of experiencing and rewriting. Proust describes it, after his father encourages him to become a writer:

In speaking of my inclinations as no longer liable to change, and of what was destined to make my life happy, he aroused in me two very painful suspicions. The first was that (at a time when, every day, I regarded myself as standing upon the threshold of a life which was still intact and would not enter upon its course until the following morning) my existence had already begun, and that, furthermore, what was yet to follow would not differ to any extent from what had gone before. The second suspicion, which was really no more than a variant of the first, was that I was not situated somewhere outside Time, but was subject to its laws, just like those characters in novels who, for that reason, used to plunge me into such gloom when I read of their lives, down in Combray, in the fastness of my hooded wicker chair. In theory one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can rest assured . . . In saying of me, “He’s no longer a child,” “His tastes won’t change now,” and so forth, my father had suddenly made me conscious of myself in Time, and caused me the same kind of depression as if I had been, not yet the enfeebled old pensioner, but one of those heroes of whom the author, in a tone of indifference which is particularly galling, says to us at the end of a book: “He very seldom comes up from the country now. He has finally decided to end his days there.” (520)

Though Proust doesn’t refer back explicitly to these thoughts later, they’re so central to the progression that occurs in the second volume (vs. the first) that I quoted the whole, lengthy thing. The tentativeness with which he enters the world, and indeed, enters his relationship with Gilberte, reflects his instinct not to take up one partial position but to remain aware, as much as possible, of the consubstantiality of all views of people and objects. In tandem with what action he does take, the section is more complicated and richer than what preceded it.
(Here it reminds me of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, in which the constant undermining of the narrative situation as presented eventually collapses what otherwise would have been a traditional aristocratic tragic love story, one that’s intentionally dull and superficial. The narrator’s interventions and the passage of time during the chronicling wreck the stability of the story. I’m also reminded of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, another uneasy amalgam of old and new, for reasons I’ll get to later.)
But also, compare it to this passage, from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as weall know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon. (444)

The orientation is very different; that searing dissatisfaction and anger in Musil is much more subdued in Proust. But in both, there is the pervasive idea of being captured by particulars, where the constant intrusion of a set of circumstances on one’s own life, and more significantly, the need to act on them, corrupts and diminishes the span of one’s view.

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