David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: proustblog (page 1 of 6)

A la Fin Du Temps Perdu

I’ll try not to give away too much here, but the multiyear Proust reading has come to an end, even if the blog hasn’t. Since this isn’t an in-depth analysis but only my own reaction on finishing what is the longest book I’ve ever read (I can’t think of anything else that even comes close), I’m putting it on the main page. For you all who haven’t finished it, I don’t think there is much in the way of spoilers below, but it’s about finishing the book, so caveat emptor.

This is a very personal book. Towards the end, Proust describes a work of literary art as being an edifice built around the writer, to be seen and interpreted by visitors from the outside. There are works of fiction that don’t take this stance, works that attempt to generalize over all of life and speak in universals. In this view, the author is merely a conduit for a noumenal world. Shakespeare, of course, falls into this category, as do Dostoevsky, Homer, Melville, Faulkner. But Proust is very explicit that the vision he is projecting is a mirror of his own mind and little else, not that he needs to be explicit about it. In many ways Proust is as hermetic as Kafka or Kleist in his unshakeable devotion to his own perspective. It’s apparent that the problems he faces–and the ultimate answers he arrives at–are ones quite specific to himself and his own situation; i.e., that of a brilliant writer in active society.

That Proust’s excavation is so complete and so brilliant makes the work paradoxical. As I had been told by friends, Proust ends on a high, bringing together many threads from earlier in the work, and the feeling on finishing is one of satisfaction and completeness. It is the opposite of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which embraces the world and everything in it only to shatter and fall apart, because Musil’s world expanded and mutated faster than his book. But the paradox makes leaving Proust an ambivalent experience. On finishing his work, I did not feel as though I was carrying the entirety of the book with me in my head (though I have assimilated parts of it quite thoroughly). Rather, it was like leaving a cathedral and having the doors shut behind you.

I held off reading the end for about a week, precisely because I knew that finishing it would mean leaving Proust’s world. Proust never had to deal with that problem; even having written the end, the refinement of the gigantic middle could have easily been stretched to accomodate far more days than he had. The polar emotions that greeted me at the end were comfortable satisfaction at being at the brilliant summit of the end of the book, followed by the blinding readjustment that you have on walking out of a dark theater into the sunlight. And then the question, “Well, what do I read next?” (A: I think it has to be Beckett.)

Is it, in the words of an old professor, the greatest thing ever written? I can’t say that it is, because part of me feels that admitting that would be to narrow the scope of my world to that of Proust’s. But is it the greatest success ever written, a book that sets out very specific terms and fulfills them beyond any expectation, comparable to Joyce or Kant? Possibly.

4.2.2 Marcel and Albertine 1

I have never fully appreciated unrequited love. Whenever I’ve pursued someone and they’ve given me little or negative responses in return, it’s been all too easy to say, “Well, I guess they aren’t for me after all” and turn my gaze elsewhere. The idea that you could eventually alchemize someone’s indifference into 24-carat affection struck me as (a) a lot of work, and (b) counterintuitive. Wouldn’t you be better off starting from the base of someone who actually likes you? For those who say that there’s no accounting for the capriciousness of the heart, I guess I’ve just been granted a sanguine one that responds more to affection than to infatuation.
I say this because, after Swann’s ironic pursuit of Odette and Charlus’s difficulties with his young proteges, Proust now closes in on the central relationship between Marcel and Albertine, and especially after the preceding thousand-plus pages, it certainly seems like he ought to know better. And he has no one to blame but himself.
We got a glimpse of the trouble during Within a Budding Grove, where he abandoned a fairly rational like of Andree for Albertine’s more difficult, prissy personality. By the end of Sodom and Gomorrah, the relationship is much more serious, yet it’s arisen almost completely in Marcel’s head, much as Swann’s infatuation with Odette did. There are few significant interactions between Marcel and Albertine, and much tossing and turning of the facts in his head. This will change in the fifth volume, but for now, it is a sign of Marcel’s continued detachment from being an aggressive participant in the world around him. Even when he does act–as he does at the end of Sodom and Gomorrah–it is within constraints clearly set by his own mind, and not by society. In part, this stems from the disillusionment he suffered after his obsession with the Guermantes; now he will listen to himself more than the expectations of society. Yet as with Swann, who was stuck with the low-class Verdurin salon sheerly on account of Odette, Marcel’s solipsism places him farther from Albertine than he otherwise would be.
The echo of Swann persists, yet where Odette’s lesbian tendencies had been a marginal aspect of her general amorality, Albertine’s become central in Marcel’s mind very early on. On seeing Andree and Albertine being ambiguously physically affectionate, he is aware of the parallel:

I thought then of all that I had been told about Swann’s love for Odette, of the way in which Swann had been tricked all his life. Indeed, when I come to think of it, the hypothesis that made me gradually build up the whole of Albertine’s character and give a painful interpretation to every moment of a life that I could not control in its entirety, was the memory, the rooted idea of Mme Swann’s character, as it had been described to me. These accounts contributed towards the fact that, in the future, my imagination played with the idea that Albertine might, instead of being the good girl that she was, have had the same immorality, the same capacity for deceit as a former prostitute, and I thought of all the sufferings that would in that case have been in store for me if I had happened to love her. (832)

“if I had happened to love her”: Aware of Swann’s misfortune and uncertain of his own feelings, Marcel is no more able to control himself. He is more self-conscious (in several senses), yet he is no wiser. Thirty pages later, he confronts Alberine about being a lesbian and “the profound disgust I felt for women tainted with that vice” (861), and Albertine says that no, “Andree and I both loathe that sort of thing. We haven’t reached our age without seeing women with cropped hair who behave like men and do the things you mean, and nothing revolts us more.” (862) They then kiss passionately, and Marcel rationalizes away every doubt and every possible comparison between Albertine and Odette: “Was there not a vast gulf between Albertine, a girl of good middle-class parentage, and Odette, a whore sold by her mother in her childhood?” (863) An older voice immediately reflects:

I ought to have gone away that evening and never seen her again. I sensed there and then that in a love that is not shared we can only enjoy that simulacrum of happiness which had been given to me at one of those unique moments in which a woman’s good nature, or her caprice, or mere chance, respond to our desires, in perfect coincidence, with the same words, the same actions, as if we were really loved. The wiser course would have been to consider with curiosity, to appropriate with delight, that little particle of happiness failing which I should have died without suspecting what it could mean to hearts less difficult to please or more highly privileged; to pretend that it formed part of a vast and enduring happiness of which this fragment only was visible to me…I ought to have left Balbec, to have shut myself up in solitude, to have remained there in harmony with the last vibrations of the voice which I had contrived to render loving for an instant, and of which I should have asked nothing more than that it might never address another word to me; for fear lest, by an additional word which henceforth could not but be different, it might shatter with a discord the sensory silence in which, as though by the pressure of a pedal, there might long have survived in me the throbbing chord of happiness. (864)

[Two side notes: first, the unbelievable prescient echo of Wittgenstein in the separation of public discourse from private sensation in the first part of the passage. Second, the insistence on a purely aesthetic apprehension of emotional experiences, as a distancing mechanism from hurt and pain.]
The anticipatory dread of this passage cuts off any chance of seeing the relationship in a sunny light. With Swann we read the detached report of a man deceiving himself; here the effect is so enveloping we live it and the future regret simultaneously.
The Albertine storyline is triggered, again, by a return to Balbec. Though the trip itself is far less revelatory than his first stay there, his arrival engenders a flood of memories and remembered sensations that is one of the best passages in the book, “The Intermittencies of the Heart:”

On the first night…I was shaken with sobs, tears streamed from my eyes. The being who had come to my rescue, saving me from barrenness of spirit, was the same who, years before, in a moment of identical distress and loneliness, in a moment when I had nothing left of myself, had come in and had restored me to myself, for that being was myself and something more than me (the container that is greater than the contained and was bringing it to me). I had just perceived, in my memory, stooping over my fatigue, the tender, preoccupied, disappointed face of my grandmother, as she had been on that first evening of our arrival, the face not of that grandmother whom I had been astonished and remorseful at having so little missed, and who had nothing in common with her save her name, but of my real grandmother, of whom, for the first time since the afternoon of her stroke in the Champs-Elysees, I now recaptured the living reality in a complete and involuntary recollection. This reality does not exist for us so long as it has not been recreated by our thought (otherwise men who have been engaged in a titanic struggle would all of them be great epic poets); and thus, in my wild desire to fling myself into her arms, it was only at that moment–more than a year after her burial, because of the anachronism which so often prevents the calendar of facts from corresponding to the calendar of feelings–that I became conscious that she was dead…At any given moment, our total soul has only a more or less fictitious value, in spite of the rich inventory of its assets, for now some, now others are unrealisible, whether they are real riches or those of the imagination–in my own case, for example, not only of the ancient name of Guermantes but those, immeasurably graver, of the true memory of my grandmother. For with the perturbations of memory are linked the intermittencies of the heart. It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession. Perhaps it is equally inexact to suppose that they escape or return. In any case if they remain within us, for most of the time it is in an unknown region where they are of no use to us, and where even the most ordinary are crowded out by memories of a different kind, which preclude any simultaneous occurrence of them in our consciousness. But if the context of sensations in which they are preserved is recaptured, they acquire in turn the same power of expelling everything that is incompatible with them, of installing alone in us the self that originally lived them…I was now solely the person who had sought a refuge in his grandmother’s arms. (783)

This is, of course, an elaboration on one of the earliest and most famous themes in the book, brought up in the madeleine sequence. It’s turned into a darker and more chaotic form here. What was the evocation of an environment is now an evocation of a potentiality of the self, one of many. And this reflects itself in his shifting attitudes towards Albertine, which are as nihilistically inclined as they are dangerous.

4.2.1 Charlus and Morel

There isn’t the frustrating stasis of The Guermantes Way in Sodom and Gomorrah, but nor are there the high moments of lyricism (as with the death of Marcel’s grandmother) or a central, unifying concept (as with Marcel’s obsession with the Guermantes). The volume is livelier, but it is more shapeless, at least until the final chapter.
Having brought up Charlus’s homosexuality and theorized about the secret world of “sexual inverts,” as Proust calls them, Proust is content to let the theme recede for large segments of Sodom and Gomorrah, preferring instead to recollect parties, receptions, and another, far less interesting trip to Balbec. While the proportion of dreary social events to interesting and novel portrayals of homosexuals is probably accurate in relation to Proust’s actual life, the volume sags when it should be advancing forward. And correspondingly, Sodom and Gomorrah is most involving in the two plots that involve homosexuality: Marcel’s romance with Albertine, whom he suspects may be a lesbian, and Charlus’s obsession with his protege Morel.
Charlus and Morel: Morel is a vain, obnoxious young musician, and Charlus has great affection for him, taking him under his wing in a similar manner as he did Marcel in The Guermantes Way, and then some. Charlus’s obsession with Morel is pathetic, but it’s also overtly comical in a way that Proust hasn’t previously allowed. In Swann’s Way, Odette was far more coarse than either Charlus or Morel, but she never lost control as Charlus does periodically:

His explosions of rage were too frequent not to be somewhat fragmentary. “The imbecile, the scoundrel! We shall have to put him in his place, sweep him into the gutter, where unfortunately he will not be innocuous to the health of the town,” he would scream, even when he was alone in his own room, on reading a letter that he considered irreverent, or on recalling some remark that had been repeated to him. But a fresh outburst against a second imbecile cancelled the first, and the former victim had only to show due deference for the fit of rage that he had occasioned to be forgotten, it not having lasted long enough to establish a foundation of hatred on which to build. (678)

Charlus’s freak-outs never get old for me. But the broad humor obscures what I think is the most important point here: Charlus’s inconstancy in his reactions, his abrupt fickleness, is a reflection of the same capricious nature that was shown by Swann’s affections towards Odette. Charlus is not exceptional; he is demonstrative.
The humor extends to burlesques. Charlus challenges Morel to a duel in a fit of pique. On hearing that Morel is going to a brothel, he arranges to spy on Morel in the act, but Morel is told at the last moment, so Charlus only observes him frozen by fright among the women. By themselves these events are trivial, but taken as another slant on Swann’s tragic pursuit in the first volume, they undermine the emotive force of Swann’s journey while reinforcing the (arbitrary) causative forces. The effects, as expected by now, are cynicism and despair.
The shift in tone is, at points, linked directly to Proust’s perception of homosexuality. Consider:

The invert brought face to face with an invert sees not merely an unpleasing image of himself which, being purely inanimate, could at the worst only injure his self-esteem, but a second self, living, active in the same field, capable therefore of injuring him in his loves. (951)

Proust is vague about the connection, but I take it to be this: homosexuals possess a secret that puts them out of conformity with society even as they superficially conform to its mores to the utmost. It is the awareness of this secret, and this dissonance with society, that makes them hyperaware of their own selves, and their own selves as reflected in others, who they are preternaturally inclined to see (a) as more similar to themselves (as “a second self”), and (b) as arbitrary agents. They are therefore more inclined towards arbitrary behavior and more likely to take it over the top. It’s a narcissism that is paradoxically directed outwards, since it causes them to ferret out the similarities of their surroundings to themselves.
Against this backdrop, Marcel’s romance with Albertine plays out under laws that strip it of the nostalgic, but myopic obsession that Swann had when he pursued Odette, and cast it in blank gray tones.

4.1 Homosexuality

(I’ll break my own rule here and use the more faithful title instead of Cities of the Plain.)
For all initial appearances, Sodom and Gomorrah is more of the same. There is not the break that there was between past volumes: the transition from the flashbacks of Swann’s Way to Proust’s youth, the transition from Balbec to Paris. We are still in high society and, with the exception of a brief return to Balbec, the scenery is numbingly similar to that of The Guermantes Way. The apparent shift is mostly psychological, as Marcel has once more receded from the picture now that his infatuation with the Guermantes has expired. But there is a more subtle thematic shift–a nascent one–that hints at some resuscitation of life from the nihilistic attitudes of the prior volume.
Sodom and Gomorrah is divided into two parts: the first is thirty pages, and the second is five hundred. Without reading too much into this (Proust hadn’t finished revising the thing, after all), I’m still inclined to give equal weight to each. While the second is society-play of the sort seen before, the first is something else entirely. Marcel surreptitiously spies on M. de Charlus and the tailor Jupien, several times. They speak of homosexuality and engage each other as though belonging to a secret society, not as lovers but as conspirators, speakers of gossip who are allied with one another because of their kind. Proust makes a few observations about what he calls this breed of “man-women” which fall somewhere between stereotyping and species classification, but what’s more interesting is the process by which this discovery is made.
Marcel, in the novel, has never before eavesdropped on people to this extent; Proust’s omniscient knowledge of others has been treated as a given. Here, then, is something that has been consciously excluded from the novel so far. Homosexuality has surfaced at times (Odette, Albertine, Saint-Loup), but not as a principle of social order. In the women it was a dalliance; in Saint-Loup something to be rejected and ignored. But in Charlus, it’s a character factor that is so fundamental to his personality and his behavior that it, for Proust, separates him into another species:

This single new notion will bring about an entire regrouping, thrusting some back, others forward, of the fractional notions, henceforward a complete whole, which we possessed of the rest of the family…Now the abstraction had become materialized, the creature at last discerned had lost its power of remaining invisible, and the transformation of M. de Charlus into a new person was so complete that not only the contrasts of his face and of his voice, but in retrospect, the very ups and downs of his relations with myself, everything that hitherto had seemed to my mind incoherent, became intelligible, appeared self-evident, just as a sentence which presents no meaning so long as it remains broken up in letters arranged at random expresses, if those letters be rearranged in the proper order, a thought which one can never afterwards forget. (636)

The way Proust conceives this discovery, as an organizing principle, suggests that underneath the trivial chaos of social conceits, there are powerful and submerged forces, of which Marcel had not previously been aware. And permanence is a key aspect of his conception of homosexuality: for many pages, Proust has spoken of the fickleness of emotion and the alienation of people from their own past emotional states, but homosexuality, he implies, is something entirely different, a trait that underlies fundamental character, not a fleeting whim, and so is something that can be looked to for reference about a person’s deeper nature. Proust says nothing of this directly, but the contrast is difficult to ignore, and this treatment of homosexuality as more fundamental than love or any other emotion suggests that there may yet be some meaning to be found in the detritus of high society.
Of course, Proust then has this to say:

These descendents of the Sodomites…have established themselves throughout the entire world; they have had access to every profession and are so readily admitted into the most exclusive clubs that, whenever a Sodomite fails to secure election, the black balls are for the most part cast by other Sodomites, who make a point of condemning sodomy, having inherited the mendacity that enabled their ancestors to escape from the accursed city. it is possible that they may return there one day. Certainly they form in every land an oriental colony, cultured, musical, malicious, which has charming qualities and intolerable defects…I have thought it as well to utter here a provisional warning against the lamentable error of proposing (just as people have encouraged a Zionist movement) to create a Sodomist movement and to rebuild Sodom. For, no sooner had they arrived there than the Sodomites would leave the town so as not to have the appearance of belonging to it, would take wives, keep mistresses in other cities where they would find, incidentally, every diversion that appealed to them. They would repair to Sodom only on days of supreme necessity, when their own town was empty, at those seasons when hunger drives the wolf from the woods. In other words, everything would go on very much as it does to-day in London, Berlin, Rome, Petrograd or Paris. (655)

I’m tempted to just shrug this off as part of Proust’s general misanthropy, but it’s notable enough (especially next to his treatment of the Dreyfuss scandal, which I haven’t discussed at all yet) that it deserves mention, even without comment.

3.2 Disenchantment

If the first half of the volume was an alternately dreamy and dreary description of the romance of the Guermantes, the second half is an attempt to contextualize it and explain Marcel’s severe disillusionment with them and their place in society. Their charm, he says, lies in the following:

The Guermantes were not only endowed with an exquisite quality of flesh, of hair, of transparency of gaze, but had a way of holding themselves, of walking, of bowing, of looking at one before they shook one’s hand, of shaking hands, which made them as different in all these respects from an ordinary member of fashionable society as he in turn was from a peasant in a smock. And despite their affability one asked oneself: “Have they not indeed the right, though they waive it, when they see us walk, bow, leave a room, do any of those things which when performed by them become as graceful as the flight of a swallow or the droop of a rose on its stem, to think: ‘These people are of a different breed from us, and we are the lords of creation’?” (455)

Remember that this comes in the context of Marcel having rejected the so-called intellectual social life, thinking it to be false, misleading, and a waste of time. Earlier, Proust had extensively celebrated the pleasure of frivolous association with silly young girls over any would-be meaningful conversation. He chooses to restate this theme at length early in the second half of The Guermantes Way, at a moment of frustration and boredom with Saint-Loup:

I had reached the point, at Balbec, of regarding the pleasure of playing with a troop of girls as less destructive of the spiritual life, to which at least it remains alien, than friendship, the whole effort of which is directed towards making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable (otherwise than by means of art) to a superficial self which, unlike the other, finds no joy in its own being, but rather a vague, sentimental glow at feeling itself supported by external props, hospitalized in an extraneous individuality, where, happy in the protection that is afforded it there, it expresses its well-being in warm approval and marvels at qualities which it would denounce as failings and seek to correct in itself. (409)

Again, the emphasis is on how friendship saps the soul, how it takes up valuable time and spiritual resources. Again, Proust stresses that people are not so malleable as to gain insight and growth from a supposed interchange of ideas; rather, he insists, it leads one to water down one’s self-possessed ideas in the service of illusory connections.
Coming as it does after long passages about how people’s passions and desires can turn on a dime (Marcel himself, Swann, Saint-Loup, Albertine, etc.), the repeated emphasis on a fortress mentality towards one’s own personality seems incongruous. If past feelings can become as alien to one’s own self as a country to which you’ve never been, suitable for study but never knowable immanently, why protect the inner self from such violence that is visited upon it by friendship?
The book is not a treatise and Proust is attempting to explain, iteratively, what he sees around him, which encompasses both radical changes in one’s own self at the same time that clear spirits prevail throughout, as with Elstir and Bergotte. (Though Bergotte is showing his age and is a shadow of his former self.) Artistic creation takes place over time and may evolve, but Proust evidently advocates a hermetic mentality towards such an act preserves whatever spirit informs it, rather than allowing it to be corrupted by the standards of the day.
It is the standards that Proust seems most irritated with by the end of The Guermantes Way. His attacks on the Guermantes revolve around the sheer banality of their culture, and the relentless conformity that informs it. There is both disappointment and anger in his reaction, and the two responses aren’t quite synchronized. The disappointment is one of the larger themes, one of having chased after something that seemed distinct and unique, but turned out to be the same old crap:

After having scaled the inaccessible heights of the name Guermantes, on descending the inner slope of the life of the Duchess, I felt on finding there the names, familiar elsewhere, of Victor Hugo, Franz Hals and, I regret to say, Vibert, the same astonishment that an explorer, after having taken into account, in order to visualize the singularity of the native customs in some wild valley of Central America or Northern Africa, its geographical remoteness, the strangeness of its place-names, of its flora, feels on discovering, once he has made his way through a screen of giant aloes or machineels, inhabitants who are engaged in reading Voltaire’s Merope or Alzire. (545)

However tedious I found the Guermantes’, however shapeless I found the endless descriptions of their mores and unique manners, I can sympathize with this crushing despair, as well as the miserable sense of embarrassment that accompanies it, the sense of having bought into a system that has ultimately provided no benefit whatsoever, not even novelty. That it happens without the standard plot twist of a societal mishap or misunderstanding, or some patently unjust act, leaves the focus firmly on the development of Marcel’s own views of the culture in which he has invested.
Yet there is petty anger as well, and Proust’s deployment of it is too vicious to make the haughty, resigned disappointment of the above passage ring entirely true. A few samples:

As though corrupted by the nullity of life in society, the intelligence and sensibility of Mme de Guermantes were too vacillating for disgust not to follow pretty swiftly in the wake of infatuation (leaving her still ready to be attracted by the kind of cleverness which she had alternately sought and abandoned) and for the charm which she had found in some warm-hearted man not to change, if he came too often to see her, sought too freely from her a guidance which she was incapable of giving him, into an irritation which she believed to be produced by her admirer but which was in fact due to the utter impossibility of finding pleasure when one spends all one’s time seeking it. The Duchess’s vagaries of judgment spared no one, except her husband. He alone had never loved her…M. de Guermantes for his part, pursuing a single type of feminine beauty but seeking it in mistresses whom he constantly replaced, had, once he had left them, and to share with him in mocking them, one lasting and identical partner. (489)
The life of the Duchess was by no means easy. M. de Guermantes only became generous and human again for a new mistress, who would, as it generally happened, take the Duchess’s side. (500)

Nasty stuff, and Proust continues with it at length, expressing the same vigor in his disapproval and gossip as he did in his infatuation in the first half of the book. I remarked earlier that Proust reminded me of The Good Soldier in the way that the narrative shifted unreliably to reflect the currents of the narrator’s thoughts. The Guermantes Way tells a very simple story of the extremes of enchantment and disillusionment, but it is the credence that is built up in both parts that prevents the final judgment from being wholly negative. In light of previous developments of the book, his disgust is too calculatedly over the top to displace completely the earlier aesthetic joy (even if I found it fairly dull). In fact, Marcel’s arc closely mirrors that of Swann with Odette, Saint-Loup with Rachel, and to some extent, Marcel himself with Albertine:

Mme de Guermantes’s mind attracted me just because of what it excluded (which was precisely the substance of my own thoughts) and everything which, by virtue of that exclusion, it had been able to preserve, that seductive vigour of supple bodies which no exhausting reflexion, no moral anxiety or nervous disorder has deformed. Her mind, of a formation so anterior to my own, was for me the equivalent of what had been offered me by the gait and the bearing of the girls of the little band along the sea-shore. Mme de Guermantes offered me, domesticated and subdued by civility, by respect for intellectual values, all the energy and charm of a cruel little girl of one of the noble families round Combray who from her childhood had been brought up in the saddle, had tortured cats, gouged out the eyes of rabbits, and, instead of having remained a pillar of virtue, might equally well have been…the most brilliant mistress of the Prince de Sagan, But she was incapable of understanding what I had looked for in her–the charm of her historic name–and the tiny quantity of it that I had found in her, a rustic survival from Guermantes…A misunderstanding that is entirely natural, and one that will always exist between a young dreamer and a society woman, but nevertheless profoundly disturbs him, so long as he has not yet discovered the nature of his imaginative faculties and has not yet resigned himself to the inevitable disappointments he is destined to find in people, as in the theatre, in travel and indeed in love. (522)

In a self-pitying manner, he seems to shoulder some of the blame on himself, just as Swann was painted as having built Odette up into an internal image wholly unlikely the actual woman. The slightly obnoxious tone beneath it (the combined forces of disappointment and anger serving to undermine each other) indicates, however, that Marcel has not really been damaged, not to the extent that Swann was. Disappointed and annoyed, but not mortally wounded. Compared to the drama of Swann’s infatuation and despair, it is calculatedly smaller. And it is with this echo firmly in mind that Proust brings Swann back at the very end of the volume, to drag the book once more back to serious topics. Swann by this point is easily one of the most likable characters, and it’s pretty obvious why he hasn’t had much to say for the entire volume. And his announcement in the final pages puts an uneasy stamp on what the decorative flourishes that have made up the last 600 pages. He declines an invitation to go to Italy with the Guermantes, and having taken offense, the Duchess demands to know why:

“Very well, give me in one word the reason why you can’t come to Italy.”
“But, my dear lady, it’s because I shall then have been dead for several months. According to the doctors I’ve consulted, by the end of the year the thing I’ve got won’t in any case leave me more than three or four months to live, and even that is a generous estimate,” replied Swann with a smile.
“What’s that you say?” cried the Duchess, stopping for a moment on her way to the carriage and raising her beautiful, melancholy blue eyes, now clouded by uncertainty. Placed for the first time in her life between two duties as incompatible as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner and showing compassion for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the right line to follow; not knowing which to choose, she felt obliged to pretend not to believe that the latter alternative need be seriously considered, in order to comply with the first, which at the moment demanded less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that any existed. “You’re joking,” she said to Swann.
“It would be a joke in charming taste,” he replied ironically. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I’ve never said a word to you about my illness before. But since you asked me, and since now I may die at any moment…But whatever I do I mustn’t make you late; you’re dining out, remember.” (618)

The back and forth continues for a while until they do go off to dinner, with the Duke complaining about how difficult the Duchess is:

The Duke felt no compunction in speaking thus of his wife’s ailments and his own to a dying man, for the former interested him more and therefore appeared to him more important. And so it was simply from good breeding and good fellowship that, after politely showing us out, he shouted in a stentorian voice from the porch to Swann, who was already in the courtyard: “You, now, don’t let yourself be alarmed by the nonsense of those damned doctors. They’re fools. You’re as sound as a bell. You’ll bury us all!” (620)

And so the volume ends, with a scenario contrived to make the Guermantes look as bad as possible, not able to express a bit of sincere concern for a terminally ill man. Whatever their redeeming aesthetic value, it’s a fair dead certainty that Proust has his readers on the same page at this point, and ready to move on.

« Older posts

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑