Tag Archives: In Search of Lost Time

the miraculous possibility of their conjunction

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust and translated by Kilmartin and Moncrieff

I’m not sure why Proust is so rarely described as a great comic writer. Perhaps it’s because readers focus instead on the beauty of his prose or his extraordinary psychological insight. It could be because contemporary literary culture undervalues comic fiction. I think though the real reason is that those people who read Proust know perfectly well how funny he is, but most people who discuss or refer to him don’t actually read him. See also: Joyce.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah kicks off with Marcel inadvertently seeing a gay hookup between M. de Charlus and a tailor named Jupien. M. de Charlus is of course one of the Guermantes; at the pinnacle of the social ladder (he frequently looks down on royalty). M. Jupien is a tradesman.

Normally two men of such disparate backgrounds would never become friends or have any kind of social contact. Homosexuality though is a bridge across such barriers. When any romance you might have is already forbidden, it doesn’t much matter if the target of your affections is the wrong class.

Proust uses this apparently trivial incident to springboard a near-40 page consideration of what he considers the miracle of gaydar (though obviously he doesn’t call it that); the misery of isolated gay men living with what they consider a shameful perversion (lacking a wider gay community to contextualise their emotions); and the vagaries of gay love and life in then-contemporary France.

If that sounds modern, it’s because Proust is quintessentially modern. That’s part of his genius. Another part though is that Proust takes these topics, shocking at the time and tragic with hindsight, and just plain has fun with them.

For the two angels who were posted at the gates of Sodom to learn whether its inhabitants (according to Genesis) had indeed done all the things the report of which had ascended to the Eternal Throne must have been, and of this one can only be glad, exceedingly ill chosen by the Lord, who ought to have entrusted the task only to a Sodomite. Such a one would never have been persuaded by such excuses as “A father of six, I’ve got two mistresses,” to lower his flaming sword benevolently and mitigate the punishment. He would have answered: “Yes, and your wife lives in a torment of jealousy. But even when you haven’t chosen these women from Gomorrah, you spend your nights with a watcher of flocks from Hebron.” And he would at once have made him retrace his steps to the city which the rain of fire and brimstone was to destroy. On the contrary, all the shameless Sodomites were allowed to escape, even if, on catching sight of a boy, they turned their heads like Lot’s wife, though without being on that account changed like her into pillars of salt.

For the rest of the book homosexuality remains a major theme. M. de Charlus is a key figure in this volume, and a brilliant comic creation with his mix of vanity, snobbery and lust (I particularly liked that M. de Charlus is widely known to be gay, but utterly convinced that he’s fooling everyone and completely incognito). Lesbianism also features heavily, but I’ll come back to that separately.

From gay sex and cross-class dating (hard to know which is more shocking), Proust goes on to nearly 130 pages describing a party thrown by the Guermantes. After all that, you’re still only a third of the way through the book.

Marcel turns up at Oriane’s uncertain as to whether or not he’s actually invited. As Oriane has burly footmen present to chuck out any gatecrashers he’s naturally a little anxious, but Marcel by now is an accomplished party-goer and something of a figure in society. He is a prized guest, much in demand.

The party itself is full of wonderful comic set-pieces. Here M. de Charlus is speaking with his excellency the Duke of Sidonia. Proust has revealed they share a common vice, but it’s not the one the reader expects:

M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each of them immediately detected the other’s [vice], which was in both cases that of being monologuists in society, to the extent of not being able to stand any interruption. Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was “no help,” they had made up their minds, not to remain silent, but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the sort of confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia—without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to draw breath, the gap was filled by the murmuring of the Spanish grandee who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

Marcel passes on leaving them to their soliloquies, but having made it past the door guards soon finds himself facing another social challenge. Marcel has not been introduced to the prince, M. de Guermantes, who is hosting with Oriane. Marcel cannot of course introduce himself, but equally he must greet his host. How then can he arrange an introduction?

What follows is a series of stratagems and ruses to effect an introduction to a man Marcel has previously spoken with, but who by society’s rules he has not been introduced to. After several attempts he gets M. de Charlus to agree to introduce him, but then a chance comment offends the ever-prickly Charlus and Marcel is no closer. Then he tries Mme de Souvré, who knows both him and the prince:

Mme de Souvré had the art, if called upon to convey a request to some influential person, of appearing at once in the petitioner’s eyes to be recommending him, and in those of the influential person not to be recommending the petitioner, so that this ambiguous gesture gave her a credit balance of gratitude with the latter without putting her in debit with the former. Encouraged by this lady’s civilities to ask her to introduce me to M. de Guermantes, I found that she took advantage of a moment when our host was not looking in our direction, laid a motherly hand on my shoulder, and, smiling at the averted face of the Prince who could not see her, thrust me towards him with a would-be protective but deliberately ineffectual gesture which left me stranded almost where I had started. Such is the cowardice of society people.

The party is filled with other comic vignettes, including one man who is so fawning that he has “an excess of politeness which he maintained even when playing tennis, thus, by dint of asking leave of the eminent personages present before hitting the ball, invariably losing the game for his partner)”. There are, however, darker currents also.

At this point in the narrative, evidence is emerging that Dreyfus is in fact innocent and that senior army figures lied. Until now whether you were a Dreyfusard or an anti-Dreyfusard was more a matter of tribal allegiance than anything else; a short-hand for describing your broader politics. With evidence of innocence though, that starts to change.

Some anti-Dreyfusards faced with new facts start to question their beliefs, though mostly quietly so as not to be ostracised by their friends (there is a nice sequence where a husband and wife both form Dreyfusard views, but each keep it from the other). Some however see the weakening of their case as reason to argue it all the more strongly, such as M. de Guermantes “who evidently considered that to denounce Dreyfus as guilty of high treason, whatever opinion one might hold in one’s heart of hearts as to his guilt, constituted a sort of thank-offering for the manner in which one had been received in the Faubourg Saint-Germain”.

Worse yet, as the Dreyfus case begins to unravel the anti-semitism rife in French society becomes even more outspoken. Swann is among those who become known as Dreyfusards. His views are no longer particularly unusual, but while one cannot easily condemn a prince for Dreyfusard sympathies Swann is a Jew and one may always condemn the Jews:

“I have always been foolish enough to believe that a Jew can be a Frenchman, I mean an honourable Jew, a man of the world.”

“Don’t you see,” M. de Guermantes went on, “even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going, and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

There is of course a kind of parallel here; gays and Jews both being outsider groups having to assimilate into a dominant and intolerant culture. Ostensibly, society accepts Jews and condemns gays. Proust, however, has an unerring eye for hypocrisy and is only too aware that his society will accept gays provided they are discrete but will never regard Jews as truly French.

Following the party, Marcel goes on holiday (for several months) to Balbec. It’s his first visit since his grandmother’s death, and while to date he hasn’t really felt her loss somehow being back in that context brings it suddenly home. He can no longer knock on the wall between their rooms and expect her to come round to tend to him. He can knock all day, but she will never again answer.

Proust’s description of Marcel’s grandmother’s final decline and death was one of the highlights (if that’s the right word) of The Guermantes Way. Here Proust writes of grief with the same skill. Once it emerges it’s everywhere. Even when he feels moments of happiness, the fact of feeling happy itself triggers the grief anew as he feels guilty for not feeling sad.

Grief swallows Marcel, and through it he sees too how much his grandmother’s loss has devastated his mother. No emotion though, happy or sad, can entirely consume us indefinitely even if we would wish it to. Soon, Marcel is attending such society as Balbec presents and otherwise spending his days with Albertine, whom he may or may not love but certainly desires.

Proust contrasts the glitter of Paris society, explored in the Guermantes’ party, with the more provincial and bourgois Balbec scene. Here the Verdurin’s rule. They are a family of bourgeois who rent a highly desirable house from the Cambremer family. The Cambremer’s have title and position, but no money, and Proust has great fun with the sniping and condescension between the two.

Marcel is again in high demand (hardly surprising given his status in Paris) and soon becomes part of the Verdurin set. M. de Charlus also shows up, pursuing a romance, and himself becomes a highly prized Verdurin catch (they are however so far out of mainstream society that they ask M. de Charlus if he has ever met the famous M. de Guermantes, unaware that the two are brothers and unsure whether to believe him when told).

Marcel should then be happy. He is in his beloved Balbec; he has society and he has Albertine who being of a slightly lesser family than Marcel’s and not having much by way of money is as affectionate as he might wish. Marcel though has spent his entire life with women who catered to his whims, and as we saw in the first volume when his mother did not come immediately to tuck him in at night he takes poorly to his women (the possessive is intentional) having any kind of life beyond his needs.

In particular, Marcel becomes fixated on the thought that Albertine may be a lesbian. He finds this unbearable, less because it means she is unfaithful than because it makes her part of a world utterly beyond his control. Marcel is both jealous and unreasonable, putting her constantly to the test and never satisfied for long with the answers he gets.

I could have dispensed with seeing her every day; I was happy when I left her, and I knew that the calming effect of that happiness might last for several days. But at that moment I would hear Albertine as she left me say to her aunt or to a girlfriend “Tomorrow at eight-thirty, then. We mustn’t be late, the others will be ready at a quarter past.” The conversation of a woman one loves is like the ground above a dangerous subterranean stretch of water; one senses constantly beneath the words the presence, the penetrating chill of an invisible pool; one perceives here and there the treacherous seepage, but the water itself remains hidden.

To be fair, there is some evidence that Albertine may be gay, or at least bisexual. Partly this allows Proust to discuss gay women just as he has gay men, with Marcel obsessively seeking out information about women he has heard are lesbians so as to discover Albertine’s connections to them. Partly too this shows a less attractive side of Marcel, and his obsessive and controlling nature.

I could easily keep writing, but I’ve already written far too much. In a few weeks I’ll try to write a follow-up post on the role of the car and airplane in this volume and how these new technologies epitomise the arrival of modernity, but I’m already well over 2,000 words here and I’ve not managed to say as much as I’d have liked about the relationship between Marcel and Albertine, or the dynamics of the Verdurin set, or the comic descriptions of the hotel staff (including for me the only missed beat in the book – the hotel managers wearying malapropisms which aren’t nearly as hilarious as Proust seems to think they are), or a hundred other things…

At times I found The Guermantes Way heavy going; I had to push myself through parts of it and it tested my desire to read the whole sequence. Sodom and Gomorrah though, with its insight, its humour and its sheer richness, restored me. This was the first of my #TBR20. If I have another #TBR20 after this one, volume five will definitely be among that number.

Other reviews

Emma of Book Around the Corner has a page devoted to Proust, here. She wrote three separate pieces on this volume alone, and I recommend all of them. Her main piece is here, she wrote an article on the treatment of homosexuality in this volume here, and I found this piece on the comic nature of this volume (drawing comparisons with Molière) particularly fascinating. If you read only one of Emma’s read the Molière (then read the others, they’re worth it). Emma also helpfully links to this piece from Caravana de Recuerdos and this rather good one from Vapour Trails.

Finally, Allan Massie in The Telegraph, shows here that at least some of the more mainstream commentators do get that Proust is, among much else, a great comic writer.

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Filed under French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Proust, Marcel

“Oriane is a snob”

The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright

Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics.

This is not the easiest volume of Proust. In fact, if you’ve never read Proust this volume is exactly what you were probably afraid he would be like – 100+ page descriptions of dinner parties in which very little happens, very slowly.

The writing here is rarely less than beautiful, and of course it’s only part of a much larger body of work, but it’s a challenge. Fortunately it redeems itself at the end, sufficiently so that it doubles my list of books I struggled with only to find the last few pages made the effort worthwhile (Antic Hay’s the other one, if you’re wondering).

As I write this my cat is occasionally jumping up and wandering across the keyboard, as cats do. Any insights of note are therefore likely hers.

in-search-of-lost-time-guermantes-way

Images of the covers I have, which are rather nice period sketches in red and grey, sadly appear to be unavailable online. The flower covers aren’t bad at all, but I prefer the sketch-covers.

Perhaps even more than most volumes to date, the Guermantes Way is almost two books in one. In the first the narrator begins to enter Paris society, but he is still in many ways a boy. He forms a massive crush on the noted and beautiful society hostess Madame de Guermantes, to whom he has a rather distant connection, and essentially starts to stalk her. He arranges his walks at times of day when he is sure to run into her, and exploits his friendship with the aristocratic young soldier Saint-Loup to arrange an introduction the woman plainly doesn’t want. Wherever she goes, there he is.

Just as previously the narrator hero-worshipped the painter Elstir then held Albertine up as the essence of his desires made flesh, now he again creates a fantasy in place of a person. The difference here is that he had opportunity to meet Elstir and Albertine, while Madame de Guermantes quite naturally wants nothing to do with this odd youth who seems so peculiarly fixated on her. She combines beauty with immense social cachet, and her wit (the Guermantes’ family are famed for their wit) is legendary. As long as she’s seen from afar she’s the perfect woman.

There’s more of course, vastly more. There are whole sections on the life of the family and servants at their new apartment in Paris. There’s a wonderful and painful moment when Saint-Loup introduces his mistress to the narrator, only for the narrator to recognise her as a prostitute who used to work in a brothel he once frequented. Much more painful however is the decline of the narrator’s grandmother.

That decline leads an extraordinary passage, too long to quote, where Proust meditates on how when we see people we mostly see them as we expect to. It’s only when we see them after a long absence, or in some unexpected circumstance or perspective that we suddenly see them as they are. We see where weight has been put on, where frailty has crept up, we see the signs of age or illness that normally are invisible to us because they manifest so slowly that we miss their onset. The narrator’s grandmother is old, and increasingly unwell, and wrapped in her love for him and his for her he hasn’t noticed, until suddenly he does:

I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, day-dreaming, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.

The account of the narrator’s grandmother’s decline into illness and death is staggeringly well written, and because of that rather horrible. There’s no dignity in it, just frailty and pointless suffering, the body turned from ally to incomprehensible enemy. The grandmother passes from being a person to an object, but this transfiguration comes long before she actually dies as she becomes the subject of indifferent doctors and the servant Francoise who is so eager to show how much she cares that she completely ignores any evidence of the grandmother’s actual wishes. It’s difficult stuff to read.

That’s the thing with Proust. Few people nowadays have lingering illnesses at home with doctors and family in attendance. We die in anonymous hospitals. Few of us too  discover that our best friend’s girlfriend used to be a prostitute. Those are particulars though. Seeing a loved one fall into illness, losing their dignity along the way, that’s sadly damn near universal. Knowing something about someone a friend loves but not knowing whether to tell that friend or not, lots of us have had that particular experience. Part of the richness of Proust is that he reaches through his particulars to the universal human experience underneath.

Quoting Proust is particularly tricky because of his fondness for slabs of text with sentences running on, comma after comma, filled with diversions and allusions, descriptions and dialogue flowing like rivers down a rocky slope occasionally heading off in an unexpected direction and catching in eddies along the way, not always reaching the destination you expected at the outset. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from a marvellous set-piece at the theatre where the narrator continues to explore his fascination with the great actor Berma, but finds her star beginning to be eclipsed for him by the yet more glittering world of the salons:

Next to me were some vulgar people who, not knowing the regular seat-holders, were anxious to show that they were capable of identifying them and named them aloud. They went on to remark that these “regulars” behaved there as though they were in their own drawing-rooms, meaning that they paid no attention to what was being played. In fact it was the opposite that took place. A budding genius who has taken a stall in order to see Berma thinks only of not soiling his gloves, of not disturbing, of conciliating, the neighbour whom chance has put beside him, of pursuing with an intermittent smile the fleeting glance, and avoiding with apparent want of politeness the intercepted glance, of a person of his acquaintance whom he has discovered in the audience and to whom, after endless indecisions, he makes up his mind to go and talk just as the three knocks from the stage, resounding before he has had time to reach his friend, force him to take flight, like the Hebrews in the Red Sea, through a heaving tide of spectators and spectatresses whom he has forced to rise to their feet and whose dresses he tears and boots he crushes as he passes. On the other hand, it was because the society people sat in their boxes (behind the tiered circle) as in so many little suspended drawing-rooms, the fourth walls of which had been removed, or in so many little cafés to which one might go for refreshment without letting oneself be intimidated by the mirrors in gilt frames or the red plush seats, in the Neapolitan style, of the establishment – it was because they rested an indifferent hand on the gilded shafts of the columns which upheld this temple of the lyric art – it was because they remained unmoved by the extravagant honours which seemed to be being paid them by a pair of carved figures which held out towards the boxes branches of palm and laurel, that they alone would have the equanimity of mind to listen to the play, if only they had minds.

Phew! There are of course pages more. I’m not sure it’s the most illustrative quote I could have chosen, but I did rather like it. It also gives me the excuse to share a painting I love, which is housed at the Courtauld Gallery not far from where I work. It’s Renoir’s La Loggia:

pierre-auguste-renoir-die-loge-(die-orchesterloge)-08202

What that quote does illustrate is Proust’s wit. Much of that lengthy passage is a setup for that final line. The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity. You have to go with the flow though. You have to sit down, immerse yourself in it, let it wash over and through you. Anything else and it becomes trench warfare, advancing a paragraph or so a day with an increasing sense that you’re not going to make it out of this one alive.

Speaking of trench warfare, we have the second part of The Guermantes Way. In the first section the narrator makes his first real steps in society, joining the salon of Madame de Villeparisis, which is decidedly unfashionable. In the second he finally finds himself a guest of Madame de Guermantes, Oriane given he’s now on first-name terms.

Oriane’s salon is utterly unlike that of Madame de Villeparisis. Where once the narrator attended dinners in which those present gossiped about those not present, repeated the latest stories from society and showed off their wit, now he attends dinners where those present gossip about those not present, repeat the latest stories from society and show off their wit. It’s a whole new world.

To be fair, the guests at Oriane’s salon are the most sought after in Paris. She plays host to princesses and persons of note. Oriane’s wit is sharper than most, though not perhaps quite as sharp as reputation has it, and there isn’t the nagging sense of the slightly provincial which comes through in the scenes at Madame de Villeparisis’ salon. Still, much of what’s best in this section is the narrator’s wilful refusal to even admit to himself that one salon is much like the other, that the Guermantes’ home is not the Elysium he dreamed it would be. That Oriane may, at the end of the day, be merely human after all.

Proust’s character study of Oriane is a masterpiece, not least in his examination of her comprehensive and unremitting snobbery. Oriane does not consider herself a snob, she is an egalitarian in fact, proudly oblivious to class distinctions. It is mere happenstance that she married a man of her own station, that her guests are the cream of society socially if not always intellectually, and that she treats her servants with what seems to be kindness but is in fact indifference to their actual preferences. Were she alive today she would doubtless have a regular column in the Guardian.

In the second of her four pieces on this book Emma of bookaroundthecorner said “We all know a Mme de Guermantes.” It’s true of course, it’s hard to get through life without meeting those whose values are held loudly but lightly. Oriane values artists, but not art; comment, but not analysis. She is unthinking, unreflective, cruel and petty because she swims only in the shallows. It’s not a kind comment on Paris society of Proust’s age that she represents its pinnacle, nor on the narrator that for all he can see exactly what she is he remains just as attracted by it and by the social success access to her promises.

I talked above about this volume being a challenge, but one that ultimately pays off. I’ve spent longer at the dinner parties of Madames de Villeparisis and de Guermantes than I have some dinner parties in real life. Given that part of what’s being shown is the vacuity of Paris society life, that means hours and pages spent at the table with people who can be amusing but rarely interesting.

Part of what makes all that worthwhile is the way Proust uses it to explore broader currents in then-contemporary society, in particular how the Dreyfus affair is becoming a fault-line in France in the way that say abortion is in the US today, with your position on that one issue being taken as a litmus test for where you stand on a whole range of essentially unrelated issues.

So, you’re pro-Dreyfus? That implies you’re politically liberal, anti-militarist, progressive, none of which may of course be true, you might be highly socially conservative and just think that Dreyfus happens to be innocent (or at least that his guilt isn’t proven). If you are though a pro-establishment Dreyfusard you can expect to be viewed with a certain suspicion by others on your side of the political debate, you’re off-message at minimum.

The Dreyfus case brought into conflict issues of trust in the military, the status of Jews in French society (which was horrifically anti-semitic), whether tradition has inherent value or whether it should be challenged and examined. The details of the Dreyfus case itself are now fairly obscure, particularly if like me you’re not French, but the broader sweep of the debate remains very current. It’s a specific manifestation of that age-old conflict between the forces of progressivism and conservatism. Dreyfus is an Edward Snowden, a human barometer of wider political sentiment.

On the subject incidentally of ongoing political relevance, here’s a quote which seemed to me to be as true today as it was when written:

He was, indeed, in the habit of always comparing what he heard or read with an already familiar canon, and felt his admiration quicken if he could detect no difference. This state of mind is by no means to be ignored, for, applied to political conversations, to the reading of newspapers, it forms public opinion and thereby makes possible the greatest events in history. A large number of German Café owners, simply by being impressed by a customer or a newspaper when they said that France, England and Russia were “provoking” Germany, made war possible at the time of Agadir, even if no war occurred. Historians, if they have not been wrong to abandon the practice of attributing the actions of peoples to the will of kings, out to substitute for the latter the psychology of the individual, the inferior individual at that.

The other element of payoff is watching the narrator’s slowly failing struggle to maintain his own illusions. He wants to believe in Madame de Guermantes, and through her in the world she represents and is the paragon of, but evidence is the enemy of faith. Well, generally it is. My own faith in the brilliance of Proust is being slowly rewarded and proven true, but like all faiths it’s sometimes tested and this volume is easily the most testing to date.

Emma of book aroundthecorner wrote four excellent and highly perceptive posts on this volume, all of which can be found on her Reading Proust page here. Emma also links to two articles written on the Vapour Trails blog, the first of which is here. Séamus Duggan is the blogger there, and in the second of his posts he says “Sometime I may be able to distill and analyze these books but at the moment it feels like trying to describe water in motion. Always the same but forever changing.”  I genuinely couldn’t have put that better myself (so I quoted it, blogs are a conversation after all).  There are worlds in Proust, any blog post (even four like Emma did) can only scratch the surface. You just have to dive in.

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Filed under French, Proust, Marcel

Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust

Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust, translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright

Where does one start? During the last few weeks my reading has been disrupted by a burst water main, various home repairs, a bout of minor illness and of course by work. I started Within a Budding Grove during a long weekend where I thought I’d have uninterrupted time to enjoy it. I wasn’t so fortunate. In fact there were times in which a week would pass and I wasn’t able to read a single page.

It’s lucky then that Within a Budding Grove is a masterpiece. It’s lucky that Proust is an extraordinary writer. Without the sheer quality of the book I’d have had to abandon it part way through (which I have done once before). As it was though each time I dipped into it I was refreshed by it. That sounds trite, but the truth sometimes is.

I wrote about the first volume of In Search of Lost Time here. In this volume the narrator discovers girls. That may not sound like a lot with which to fill over 600 pages. Proust joins it though with the exploration of art, the gap between dream and reality, a superb portrait of upper-middle class Parisian life in the late 19th Century, a healthy dollop of satire, and with a thousand other things some of which I’m sure I missed.

Besides, as anyone who has been through adolescence knows, the discovery of sex could fill 6,000 pages. The miracle of Proust is that he finds new things to say about what must be the oldest of subjects.

I’ll turn to the plot, such as it is, in a moment. First though I wanted to note something which is becoming increasingly obvious to me. Reading Proust is inescapably personal. As I read I remembered incidents from my own life. It made me think about how I had felt in adolescence and about my small disappointments. It made me think about some of the ways I act. Proust tells a story, and he tells it well, but he also holds a mirror up to me as a reader and that for me takes his work beyond the merely good. This is great art. I’ll come back to what I mean by that.

Within a Budding Grove (in the French, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) is in two parts. In the first the narrator, in his early 20s but by modern standards emotionally much younger, falls in love with Gilberte who does not appear to love him in return. She is the daughter of Swann and Odette, whose story was told in the first volume. Gilberte is pretty and the narrator is obsessed with her but the reality is that he is in love with being in love. This is infatuation, fevered and intense. Here they mock-fight over a letter:

She thrust it behind her back; I put my arms round her neck, raising the plaits of hair which she wore over her shoulders, either because she was still of an age for it or because her mother chose to make her look a child for a little longer so as to make herself seem younger; and we wrestled, locked together. I tried to pull her towards me, and she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I were tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath with the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, like a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyse; immediately I snatched the letter from her. Whereupon, Gilberte said good-naturedly: “You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling a bit longer.”

The narrator is emerging from childhood in other ways beyond the sexual. He starts to appear in society in his own right. He has his own income and is beginning to form his own ambitions.

As he is gaining independence, the narrator starts to realise some of his earlier goals. He attends the theatre and sees the famous actress Berma perform. He has dreamed of her for years. He has memorised the plays she is most famous for. When she appears in a revival of a play he already knows by heart he is so excited at having a ticket he is almost unable to attend, sick from anticipation.

The performance is a disappointment. Nothing can live up to the expectations the narrator has formed. Similarly when he meets the writer Bergotte, a major influence on the narrator’s idea of his own style, he finds him not at all what he expected. Bergotte doesn’t even look like a writer. Despite this and despite some discouraging remarks from an influential friend of his father’s the narrator still determines to become a writer himself. He loves writing as he loves Gilberte, not the reality of the thing loved but the dream of it.

Everything here is beautifully observed, and often extremely funny. Proust is at home describing a tea party as he is the uncertainty of wondering whether a friendship could be something more. He is as comfortable examining theories of art as which homes will open their doors to Mme. Swann and which will not. A passage where the narrator accompanies Mme. Swann and her entourage on her daily stroll is too long to quote here, but a marvel of description. In her blog Book Around the Corner described Proust as “the Monet of literature: small touches which, seen as a whole, are as vivid as life and move deeply the reader.” That’s spot on. Take this little vignette:

The wife of an elderly banker, after hesitating between various possible exposures for her husband, had settled him in a deck-chair facing the esplanade, sheltered from wind and sun by the bandstand. Having seen him comfortably installed there, she had gone to buy a newspaper which she would read aloud to him by way of diversion, one of her little absences which she never prolonged for more than five minutes, which seemed to her quite long enough but which she repeated at fairly frequent intervals so that this old husband on whom she lavished an attention that she took care to conceal should have the impression that he was still quite alive and like other people and was in no need of protection.

There is so much of love in that passing description of a minor character; one who barely recurs in the narrative. On a different note here’s an example of one of Proust’s many asides. I liked it for its continuing relevance. Proust writes about a very particular time and place, but his comments are frequently universal.

… whenever society is momentarily stationary, the people who live in it imagine that no further change will occur, just as, in spite of having witnessed the birth of the telephone, they decline to believe in the aeroplane. Meanwhile the philosophers of journalism are at work castigating the preceding epoch, and not only the kind of pleasures in which it indulged, which seem to them to be the last word in corruption, but even the work of its artists and philosophers, which have no longer the least value in their eyes, as though they were indissolubly linked to the successive moods of fashionable frivolity. The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been “great changes.”

In the second part of this volume the narrator goes on holiday to the seaside, to Balbec. There, after some disappointment when he sees the famously beautiful local church which fails to live up to his imagining of it, he is dropped into the stiffly social world of his hotel.

The hotel is Paris in miniature; divided by class and money. The upper classes ignore the middle. The middle form exclusive little social circles within themselves and pretend that they did not wish to attend the salons of the upper classes (to which they were not invited). The staff show differing levels of deference according to their perception of the station of those they serve. The poor press against the windows at night, looking in on a world full of distinctions they cannot see and a luxury they cannot attain.

Like any extended summer holiday of youth, nothing really happens but it happens intensely. At first the narrator is unhappy and homesick. Later he makes a new friend and reencounters an older one, Bloch.

Bloch is another beautifully observed character. He is more worldly than the narrator (Bloch takes him to his first whorehouse, where the narrator loses his virginity), but less socially adept. Bloch is a good friend, but not a flawless one.

Bloch is Jewish. The narrator is not. The narrator thinks nothing of this difference, but others do and through their reactions and comments Proust makes apparent the casual and widespread anti-Semitism running through French life of this period. It’s a theme I understand the next book develops further.

The narrator falls in love with every girl he sees. The less he sees of her in fact, the more he falls in love. A glimpse of a woman from a moving carriage lets him fill in what he can’t see with imagination.

Let but a single flash of reality – the glimpse of a woman from afar or from behind – enable us to project the image of Beauty before our eyes, and we imagine that we have recognised it, our hearts beat, and we will always remain half-persuaded that it was She, provided that the woman has vanished: it is only if we manage to overtake her that we realise our mistake.

I noted that quote, but there’s several on this theme. It’s that constant thread of imagination against reality. The dream of Berma, of Bergotte, of the Balbec church and of every passing farmgirl is the same dream. It’s the dream of the perfect other which once encountered will give meaning and beauty and comfort.

The narrator daydreams of running off with a girl who sells fresh milk to train passengers at a crossing. He hopes to meet some willing country girl who will let him explore her inner self, and he convinces himself that what he wants is not just physical (not just).

I know how he feels. I spent much of my own life stunned by the beauty of women I hadn’t properly seen. At the narrator’s age I would routinely see someone, partly, from the top floor of a bus or across a tube platform and be desperate to meet them. The few occasions I did then run into them they rarely looked much like the image I had formed. My brain took a scant few details and filled in the rest from desire. I conjured futures from an arm downed with light brown hair; from the curve of a hip.

I said Proust was personal.

As he spends his days by the sea the narrator gets slowly drawn into the world of the hotel, and of Balbec. Social doors open for him and opportunities beckon. Then, however, he sees walking alongside the beach a band of girls. They are young, confident, beautiful. They look liberated and rebellious. If he could only meet them then surely one of them, it scarcely matters which, would be as interested in him as he is in them.

… the interplay of their eyes, animated with self-assurance and the spirit of comradeship and lit up from one moment to the next either by the interest or the insolent indifference which shone from each of them according to whether her glance was directed at her friends or at passers-by, together with the consciousness of knowing one another intimately enough always to go about together in an exclusive “gang,” established between their independent and separate bodies, as they slowly advanced, an invisible but harmonious bond, like a single warm shadow, a single atmosphere, making of them a whole as homogenous in its parts as it was different from the crowd through which their procession gradually wound.

He spends days waiting where they walk in the hope of casually running into them. He avoids expeditions with his grandmother (whom, with the easy resentment of adolescence, he treats at times quite badly though he still loves her profoundly), because he fears missing them. He gives huge thought to deducing the patterns of their appearances so he can put himself in their path.

At school I would walk a mile out of my way to talk to a girl I liked, pretending I happened to be going the same way regardless of the inconvenience. I doubt I was alone in that. The level of unnecessary invention at that age is staggering.

What’s wonderful here is the intensity of it all. All the emotions are raw; the friendships and the loves. A passed note holds unbearable significance. A brief touch of the hand has more meaning read into it than a thousand scholars could discover in a thousand obscure texts. The narrator meets an artist (I’ll have a separate post about that hopefully later this month) whose work affects him profoundly but it means nothing against the chance of meeting Albertine, one of the band of girls who finally takes note of him.

I said earlier that this is great art, and that I would expand on that comment. Proust has a daunting reputation. The full six volume work is huge, it lacks chapters and each volume represents hundreds of pages of introspection, digressions on art and psychology, and detailed social comment. It doesn’t look like an easy read. It isn’t particularly.

Proust isn’t though a difficult read either. Yes, it’s dense stuff and yes it needs a bit of attention (the more it gets the more it repays), but it’s incredibly well written and that makes it easier to keep going than you’d expect. It’s often very funny and a joke is rarely that far away.

This is an extraordinarily honest book. It’s an utterly unflinching examination of a life and because while we are none of us alike we are none of us so utterly different either it’s hard not to find parts of one’s own life in that life. It’s a portrait painted with immense skill but also with compassion and wit. It’s a world entire, as we all are.

Proust addresses questions of life, of art, of literature and of mortality. I’ve barely touched here on a fraction of what this book contains. Bookaroundthecorner wrote three excellent blog posts on this volume alone, here, here and here. I haven’t even discussed M. de Norpois whom bookaround rightly focuses on in one of her posts.

If I had one message I’d want anyone reading this to take away it’s this: yes, this is challenging, but it is absolutely worth it. Put the time aside, ignore your overflowing drains, your racking cough and the press of emails and push yourself a little. It won’t be work. It’s not the book to read when you feel like a bit of light escapism, but with just a little dedication it gives back far more than it asks. It’s brilliant and I feel such frustration that I can write so much and still have managed to capture so little about quite how wonderful it is.

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Filed under French, Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Proust, Marcel

M. de Norpois recommends some investments

Currently I’m reading Within a Budding Grove, by Proust. For various reasons it’s taking me a lot longer than I’d hoped. Mostly the issue is that I wasn’t able to read it on holiday as I planned. That’s a shame because Proust needs time. He’s incredibly readable, but dense too. Every sentence requires attention. The sheer volume of wit, psychological insight, sociological comment and just sheer style demands concentration. It’s a great read, but it’s not a great daily commute read.

Quite honestly I’ve no idea how I’ll write it up once I have finished it. Inadequately is probably the best answer I have. How else could it be? To write with any accuracy about the scope of this volume alone would need more words than Proust needed to write it. Still, it should be fun to make the attempt doomed as I know it will be.

It’s impossible, for me anyway, to read Proust without being sent off on hundreds of digressions and tangents. Every page sends my mind racing in different directions. This quote, almost a humorous aside in the book, like so much else sent me well beyond the page I found it on:

My father, who was trustee of this estate until I came of age, now consulted M. de Norpois with regard to a number of investments. He recommended certain stocks bearing a low rate of interest, which he considered particularly sound, notably English consols and Russian four per cents. “With absolutely first-class securities such as those,” said M. de Norpois, “even if your income from them is nothing very great you may be certain of never losing your capital.”

Recently at bookaroundthecorner’s blog there was a discussion regarding the familiarity characters in 19th and early 20th Century fiction have with the financial markets. Often they display a casual knowledge of the merits of different classes of investment that’s quite alien today. The modern middle classes don’t, can’t, discuss gilt rates over dinner unless some of them actively work in the bond markets.The middle classes of the late Victorian/Edwardian period appear much more comfortable in this territory.

My personal theory is that it’s related to the need to procure a remittance (a competence as it was once wonderfully called) which doesn’t require the beneficiary to actually engage in work. The range of occupations open to the upper middle classes and upper classes was relatively narrow. There was no real social safety net. To maintain position, particularly in old age but also during the more active years, required a source of income not dependent on a job.

In this period the only pension you had was likely that which you provided for yourself. The only illness or unemployment protection came from your investments. If you wanted to live as part of “society” you needed a source of income that didn’t tie you up when you could otherwise be calling on people and participating in the social whirl. Class and money are ever hard to separate, and while one is not the same as the other (even in America) class is hard to sustain without money and after a generation or two money tends to buy class.

The characters of the novels of this period then know financial instruments because they have to. It’s an integral part of their world. They know them because not to know them would be folly, and because their parents would have known them too. They are part of ordinary conversation because familiarity with them is key both to survival and to social position.

Today it’s very different. There isn’t the same stigma about working for a living, and the growth of the superrich has made incomes that would once have been counted wealthy now merely comfortable. The young men (and now women) of the upper middle classes who would once have lived on their competence while doing some light duties at the bar or the City now compare themselves to oligarchs, CEOs and top traders and in that company a solid competence from land and investments really doesn’t cut it anymore.

On the other hand, we do now have pension plans, occupational contribution schemes, unemployment benefit and sick leave (to varying degrees of protection according to country). Equally importantly, perhaps more so, we no longer have the stigma of debt. The characters of these great novels of the past fear debt as social catastrophe, but now it’s commonplace (consumer debt is even an underpinning of our economic model). At worst those characters could even face prison for debt. That’s unthinkable today.

The characters of these novels mostly live lives of considerable comfort but comfort stretched over an abyss. Today that comfort is less easily obtained, but the abyss too is no longer bottomless. There’s a long way one can fall, but not so far as prison and the workhouse.

That’s why I think finance is so important to pre-First World War fiction. The anticipated readers of literary fiction of the day would have needed to know such matters and so would have been interested in them. Today finance is more abstruse, less common knowledge. It is alchemy and the ways of the bond market are neither known by nor of interest to a contemporary readership.

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Filed under 19th Century, French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Personal posts, Proust, Marcel

A Proustian excerpt

I’m reading Proust at the moment. Swann’s Way, the first volume. That’s also the most popular volume I understand – apparently more people buy it than the rest put together…

Anyway. It’s brilliant. That’s not a surprise, after all it’s famous for a reason. But it’s also dense. It demands a degree of concentration, of attention. It repays that, but it’s best if you’re reading it to make sure you have some free time to do so. Lately I’ve been working long hours, and that makes reading Proust a challenge.

What I’ve been most impressed with so far is how funny much of it is. It’s actually one of the funnier books I’ve read recently (not hard I admit, I’ve read some Derek Raymond not that long ago after all). What’s also fascinating is its style. It’s discursive. It wanders off in tangents. When you start a paragraph it’s wholly unclear how it will end up.

All that said, I came across one passage that reminded me irresistibly of my own childhood. Like many children I was discouraged from reading. It was seen as unhealthy. Reference was made to “having my nose always stuck in a book”, and I was regularly commanded to go out and play.

That all sounds a bit Dickensian. It wasn’t. It was just that most of my family weren’t readers. To them, it seemed a waste to sit indoors reading a book when I could have been outside playing football or whatever. They meant well, but the result was I’d just go and read outside somewhere instead of reading inside.

If there aren’t many readers in your family then you may well recognise all that. Certainly Proust would have:

While I was reading in the garden, a thing my great-aunt would never have understood my doing save on a Sunday, that being the day on which it is unlawful to indulge in any serious occupation, and on which she herself would lay aside her sewing (on a week-day she would have said, “What! still amusing yourself with a book? It isn’t Sunday, you know!” – putting into the word “amusing” an implication of childishness and waste of time), my aunt Léonie would be gossiping with Françoise until it was time for Eulalie to arrive. She would tell her that she had just seen Mme Goupil go by “without an umbrella, in the silk dress she had made for her the other day at Châteaudun. If she has far to go before vespers, she may get it properly soaked.”

It’s somehow fitting that while reading Proust I was suddenly transported back to my own childhood, and reminded of arguments with aunts who I love to this day but who couldn’t for the life of them see what on earth I was wasting my time with a book for. Across barriers of country, culture, time and indeed class, people remain much the same.

More on Proust soon. There’s a lot to talk about in this book. I’ve not finished it yet (and this is just the first volume), but I can already say that In Search of Lost Time deserves its fame.

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Filed under French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Proust, Marcel