What follows is a record of entries in Tim’s Proust Diary, chronicling the slow reading of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time he’s doing with a couple of our erstwhile colleagues. On this page are the entries for the second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Page numbers refer to this edition. (*Starred page numbers are to the Penguin Deluxe edition of the same translation.)
29 January 2021 (5-39 / 3-37*)
Right then, volume 2, suggestively titled In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (the older translation uses the more euphemistic Within a Budding Grove). One suspects we’re in for a spot of adolescence. This volume both picks up where we left off, and doesn’t. The title of the first part, ‘At Mme. Swann’s’, suggests that we’re in for a development of the closing pages of the first volume, which dealt with his burgeoning fixation on Mme. Swann; the first sentence then immediately frustrates that expectation: ‘When it was first suggested we invite M. de Norpois to dinner…’
Where the opening pages of this volume really do develop a theme from the closing pages of the last is in their concern with the disappointments of reality as against our fanciful expectations. Proust had been meditating on the way we form ideas of a thing or a place on the basis of its name, and the associations we attach to that name quite independently of the thing itself; now this process leads to a great disappointment at the theatre. Young Marcel had been keen, for quite some time, to see an actress known as La Berma perform one of her famous parts in a classic play, and finally his parents allow him to go see her in Racine’s Phèdre, which he knows more or less by heart; this appeals to him enormously, because, he muses, his familiarity with the play itself means that he’ll be best able to identify the innovations that are due to her genius — for, if he did not know the play, he would not know what belonged to the play itself, and what to the actress. At the theatre he is rapt, and hangs off her every word: the experience leaves him bereft, for she fails to add anything at all; she falls short of even the other actors, in his judgement.
And thus we are introduced to M. de Norpois, career diplomat, and friend of Marcel’s father. Norpois thinks very highly of La Berma, and for a moment we wonder Marcel’s disappointment is due to his excessively high hopes: perhaps; but we rapidly learn that Norpois is a man of thoroughly conventional taste. He is pompous and long-winded, and never lets up either his schmoozing nor his constant broadcast of how important and well-connected he is; he knows nothing about anything, but has opinions about everything. He loves to use whichever pretentious and probably irrelevant quotation is doing the rounds, such gems as: ‘Show me sound policies and I’ll show you sound finances, as Baron Louis was fond of saying.’ (Proust undercuts this immediately with the parenthetical observation: ‘This was before we imported from the Far East: “Victory goes to him who can hold out for a quarter of an hour longer than his opponent, as the Japanese say.”‘) He has a reputation as a man of letters, and Marcel decides immediately upon meeting him that, if this is literature, it is not for him.
5 February 2021 (39-45 / 37-43*)
I was introduced to Proust slightly more than a decade ago by a friend at university. We studied philosophy together, and he gave me for my birthday — it must have been my twenty-second birthday — a copy of the Vintage classics edition of Swann’s Way. Proust was in the air at that time in that place, for reasons that are obscure to me; he seemed to come up an improbable amount, in lectures or in conversation or in books; a copy of the Modern Library edition of the final volume, but only the final volume, Time Regained and a Guide to Proust, was for a very long time shelved in the philosophy section at the now-defunct Co-op Bookshop, which only increased the book’s mystique; and we had been talking a lot about him and his imposing work in the manner of two people who have heard a lot about a book without ever actually approaching it, and I received this copy gratefully. That summer I read it, but badly, trying to rush through so that I could feel like it was done; and all that it left on me were a handful of impressions: M. Swann and his jealousy over Odette; fin de siècle Parisian high society and interminable dinner parties; young Marcel wandering beside flowering plants or waterways. But what left the strongest impression was the cover, the orangey-red flower that adorns the jacket of Swann’s Way and the white-blue flower that adorns Within a Budding Grove, which I kept meaning to read and longing to purchase, leafing through it in bookshops but never following through. The flowers on those jackets formed my primary associations with Proust, of something soft and delicate and fragrant, which still dominate the aesthetic, almost synaesthetic sense I get when reading him. I finished reading Swann’s Way while on holiday, and left it with the friends I was staying with: I don’t know if they read it, as I urged them to, but I certainly never saw that copy again.
This week life intervened to circumscribe the usual portion of our weekly Proust, but we still managed a few pages. The most intriguing revelation concerned M. Swann, on the topic of whom M. de Norpois (see last week’s entry) has begun expanding. The narrator interrupts to improve upon M. de Norpois’s speculations as to the interior psychological mechanics of the relationship between Swann and Odette; but the most interesting revelation is that Gilberte was born before Swann married Odette: this tidbit is dropped just in passing, which seems remarkable — they had a daughter outside of wedlock in the late nineteenth century, and this is treated as almost incidental to the narrative? Quite remarkable.
The other intriguing detail revealed to us is that, after their nuptials, and despite the fact that she continually cuckolded him, perceptive observers of the relationship between Odette and Swann noticed that marriage improved things between them, quite counter to the expectations of everybody. Where Odette had been shrewish and prone to scold and to make a scene, suddenly she mellowed. The narrator notes (this is where he interrupts his narration, with the words ‘A more perceptive clinician than M. de Norpois could no doubt have made a different diagnosis…’, the diagnosis of M. de Norpois being that Odette was merely grateful to Swann) that the likely cause was that the situation between them, the long affair, the insult — which only increased over time — of his refusal to countenance marriage, was so toxic to Odette that it made her bitter, with the result that the removal of the source of her spiritual and emotional agitation appeared (to those who were unaware of its effects on her) to magically transform how the two of them treated each other. It’s almost sweet.
12 February 2021 (45-63 / 43-62*)
How steady is one’s judgement, how prone to being unsettled by the after-the-fact influence of someone else, or the passage of time, or further experience? I wonder about this, sometimes. I recall a trip I took once, a very long time ago, to a conference. I was a young man, and the conference in question was only loosely a conference, and more like a week-long party, and I was miserable more or less the whole time, and I was aware that I was miserable; yet I was also sure all the while that I would look with hindsight at the whole experience as quite a happy and engaging one, despite having been actually depressed and disengaged the whole time. My presentiment was not totally wrong: I do indeed look back with more fondness for that episode than I felt for it at the time; I have not forgotten what it was like to live through, but nonetheless that is not the decisive factor in how I remember it. Time redeems itself in mysterious ways.
Proust tackles this issue in the pages we read this week, with reference to young Marcel’s feelings about the performance of the actress he knows as La Berma. We recall that he was left miserable and disappointed after he saw her performance, in the matinée session before M. de Norpois came over for dinner. He had found her utterly disappointing: all surface, no depth; not matching his expectations; not matching even the other actors and actresses in the play. He was disturbed by the high praise M. de Norpois offered of La Berma’s talents, and this led him to doubt his reaction and his judgement. After dinner, and after M. de Norpois’ departure, Marcel’s father shows him a review in the paper of the performance he has been to see, which raves about La Berma’s performance, and concludes: ‘Suffice it for the moment to note that the best qualified judges are as one in pronouncing that such an interpretation will stand not only as a landmark in our appreciation of the character of Phèdre, one of the greatest and most searching parts ever produced by Racine, but also as the finest, highest achievement in the realm of art that any of us have been privileged to witness in this day and age.’
The effect of this passage is nothing less than revolutionary on Marcel’s feelings. Proust’s narrator comments: ‘This new concept of ‘the finest, highest achievement in the realm of art’ had no sooner entered my mind than it located the imperfect enjoyment I had had at the theatre, and added to it a little of what it lacked; this made such a heady mixture that I exclaimed, “What a great artiste she is!”‘ The narrator insists that this was totally sincere, and I see no reason to doubt him; he has absorbed this superlative praise, it has mixed with his own doubts, with his own experience, and has ignited and transformed it. I don’t know whether what has happened to Marcel here is that he’s had a true judgement — that La Berma is not all she is cracked up to be — corrupted, and what we’re seeing is a fall; or whether we’re being shown something more nihilistic, that judgement is never stable but is ever shifting, with no true ground; or whether it’s the shaping of a young man’s idiosyncratic judgement into a better-grounded, socially-shared form — whatever Proust’s intentions (for my money, I think it is the first of these possibilities), I cannot help but think of the way somebody like Harold Bloom always enlivens my own reading of Shakespeare, even when I think his Bardology overreaches. More than once he’s taken me from thinking something dull to exclaiming something akin to “What a great artist he is!” Perhaps what is most interesting about judgement is precisely how variable it is: how we can never quite keep track of its grounds, and how those grounds shift.
19 February 2021 (63-81 / 62-79*)
I have always thought I have a terrible visual memory, and by way of illustrating this I once told the woman I fancied that, during a period in which I had not seen her for a few weeks, I was unable to recall her features. I had an ulterior motive, since I did not wish to reveal my feelings, so this was an elaborate ploy to throw her off the scent; but nonetheless the fact of my incapacity seemed unexceptional to me: if I close my eyes, it is not unusual for me to not be able to remember the precise complexion of the person I have been speaking to, nor the cut of their hair, nor the colours of their clothes — let alone somebody I haven’t seen in the last few moments. But part of why we read is to have light cast on our experience so as to see it differently, and Proust does just this here. Gilberte has been absent for some time from the park at the Champs-Élysées, and Marcel finds himself unable to remember her face — all he can remember is her smile. Rather than blaming poor visual memory, as I did, Proust proffers a different theory, one which, with hindsight, was more accurate than my own excuse, and that renders my attempt at obfuscation an all-too-transparent admission of love:
When we look at the person we love, our inquisitive, anxious, demanding gaze, our expectation of the words which will make us hope for (or despair of) another meeting tomorrow and, until those words are spoken, our obsession fluctuating between possible joy and sorrow, or imagining both of these together, all this distracts our tremulous attention and prevents it from getting a clear picture of the loved one. Also, it may be that this simultaneous activity of all the senses, striving to discover through the unaided eyes something that is out of their reach, is too mindful of the countless forms, all the savours and movements of the living person, all those things which, in a person with whom we are not in love, we immobilise. But the beloved model keeps moving; and the only snapshots we can take are always out of focus.
But then the story takes a turn: Gilberte resumes her regular visits to the park to play Prisoners’ Base, Marcel rejoices at her return, their games extend to some light wrestling, passions overflow, Marcel falls ill and has to be confined indoors; once he recovers, his mother, persuaded that the park has somehow exacerbated his chronic poorliness, refuses to let him go back. He despairs: but then a letter arrives from Gilberte, a letter he had given up all hope of receiving, inviting him over to her house for tea…
26 February 2021 (81-101 / 79-99*)
A few weeks ago a passage about the exposure of judgement to change and influence caught my eye; this week, Proust meditates on the question of how plans, projects, and even what seems important are all subject to the passing of time. Marcel has been welcomed into Gilberte’s household, and he spends some fair amount of time, as the title of this section puts it, ‘At Mme. Swann’s’. The Marcel of the narrative appears to be catching up with the narrator’s interest in the goings-on in the Swann household, and in particular with the relationship between Swann and Odette. The thread is picked up here from the ‘Swann in Love’ narrative, and we are treated to a sort of postscript on how Swann’s jealousy over Odette’s (suspected) infidelity has played out. He remains obsessed with the day on which he knocked at her door, then at her window, only to receive no answer; the day on which, he later discovered (after snooping on one of her letters), Forcheville had been visiting her; and the question that burned within him was: were they in bed together? At first, this question aroused all his old jealousies whenever he thought of it, and he did his best to track down all her old servants and to interview them in order to find the answer; over time, his jealousy and his love cooled, and he didn’t care so much, yet he still persisted with his investigations; eventually, the question aroused no emotion in him whatsoever, yet still he would pursue his investigation whenever an opportunity presented itself. Proust observes: ‘He persisted in trying to find out something in which he no longer had any interest, because his former self, albeit now in the final stages of its senility, went on functioning mechanically, at the urge of a preoccupation so extinct that Swann could no longer even imagine his former anguish, though it had once been so acute that he could not imagine ever being rid of it, and the death of the woman he loved had seemed the only thing capable of clearing a way for him through the grief-encumbered years ahead.’ How many of us are similarly ruled by the lingering ghosts of our own past selves?
5 March 2021 (101-116 / 99-115*)
As a small child I was surrounded by classical music. My parents performed in and ran the local symphony orchestra, so those early years are a blur of rehearsals and performances — there is still a photo somewhere of me, roughly one year old, asleep in my father’s lap as he conducted a rehearsal seated on a stool — and the result was that I experienced music less as something I listened to but rather as something that was always there, but in the background, rarely an object of focus. Sometime around the year 2000, in a misguided act of teenage rebellion, I stopped attending music lessons, and that was that for the better part of two decades. It is only recently, in the last twelve months, that I have started listening to music again, but this time really listening to it, trying to immerse myself in it, to absorb it, to shape my consciousness to it. And one of the most surprising things I’ve discovered is how difficult it is to listen to a symphony for the first time: the experience is of being on trackless land without a map, lost in a confusion of sound, often with a rising sense of boredom. Yet I persist, and after having listened to a piece a handful of times I start to recognise bits of the terrain; then I’m able to hum a few phrases to myself; I start to enjoy it and develop a desire to hear it; and finally there is a point where my anticipation of the music billows before it like a sail before the wind, and the music feels like it corresponds to something within me.
On to Proust, who offers this little meditation on the experience of unfamiliar music. The scene is Mme. Swann’s; young Marcel has been continuing his visits (to his rapture and bafflement — there is a rather good bit that I won’t comment on about the uncanniness that attends to one’s dreams suddenly being realised) and Odette has sat down at the piano to play the Vinteuil sonata that was so important to Swann during the ‘Swann in Love’ episode of the first volume. The narrator reflects: ‘Listening for the first time to music that is even a little complicated, one can often hear nothing in it. And yet, later in life, when I had heard the whole piece two or three times, I found I was thoroughly familiar with it. So the expression ‘hearing something for the first time’ is not inaccurate. If one had distinguished nothing in it on the real first occasion, as one thought, then the second or the third would also be first times; and there would be no reason to understand it any better on the tenth occasion. What is missing the first time is probably not understanding, but memory. Our memory-span, relative to the complexity of the impressions which assail it as we listen, is infinitesimal, as short-lived as the memory of a sleeping man who has a thousand thoughts which he instantly forgets, or the memory of a man in his dotage, who cannot retain for more than a minute anything he has been told. Even so, a recollection does gradually gather in the mind; and with pieces of music heard only two or three times, one is like a schoolboy who, though he has read over his lesson a few times before falling asleep, is convinced he still does not know it, but can then recite it word for word when he wakes up the following morning.’ The first time, he says, it is too novel, and one can only pick up those parts that resemble things one is already familiar with; it is only over time that our appreciation for a new piece of music deepens into understanding, such that we can perceive order beneath what we first took to be a confused surface. This seems to me to be true not only of music.
12 March 2021 (116-129 / 115-128*)
It’s an uncanny thing to meet an author to whose books you’re devoted: from all sorts of little hints you form a quite definite picture of what they’re going to be like, a picture that is unlikely to survive a real encounter. I once organised an event with an author whose books I admire, and looked forward to meeting a man I imagined as a towering intellect and a great wit. On the morning of the event, one of my colleagues directed a donnish gentleman over to me, and his first words were: “Ah, you’re Tim? Good. I need your help. My trousers are going to fall down.” I took an instant liking to him for this introduction, and directed him to the nearest place to buy a new belt, but struggled to relate this man to the vision I had formed — a situation that was reversed a few hours later, during the event, when he was in full flight, speaking confidently, knowledgeably and humorously, at which point he was even more the author of his book than I had imagined.
Marcel experienced this uncanniness himself this week, when he was invited to a dinner party at the Swanns’ house, and he finds himself being introduced unexpectedly to his favourite writer, Bergotte, whom he had always pictured as a ‘soft-voiced bard with white hair’. Mme Swann introduces them in an entirely nonchalant way, and here is Marcel’s stunned reaction:
The name ‘Bergotte’ startled me as though it was a shot fired from a gun; but I was already bowing, going through the motions of polite behaviour. There in front of me, bowing back at me, like the conjuror in his tails emerging unscathed, while a dove flies up, from the smoke and dust of a detonation, I saw a stocky, coarse, thick-set, short-sighted man, quite young, with a red bottle-nose and a black goatee. I was heartbroken; it was not only that my gentle old man had just crumbled to dust and disappeared, it was also that for those things of beauty, his wonderful works, which I had once contrived to fit into that infirm and sacred frame, that dwelling I had lovingly constructed like a temple expressly designed to hold them, there was now no room in this thick-bodied little man standing in front of me, with all his blood-vessels, his bones, his glands, his snub nose and his little black beard.
And Marcel, it appears, really hates that nose and that goatee, returning to them again and again over the following pages, always as symbols of disappointment.
19 March 2021 (129-151 / 128-150*)
Long-time readers will be familiar with my puzzlement over Marcel’s favourite actress, La Berma, and the question of whether she is indeed a great actress or just overrated. The saga began when he finally saw her in performance, and was bitterly disappointed; then he discussed her with the pompous M. de Norpois, who praised her so extravagantly that Marcel retrospectively changed his opinion. I was suspicious of this conversion at the time, because we have every reason to believe that the judgements of M. de Norpois are unreliable. But then Marcel discusses La Berma with Bergotte, his favourite writer, whom he has just met (you remember, he of the bottle nose and the goatee), and Bergotte too praises her performance. We have better reason to believe Bergotte than Norpois, and little reason to believe they are often of the same mind — so what to make of their agreement?
But the really interesting observation comes next. Marcel and Bergotte discuss a particular lighting effect used during La Berma’s performance, and disagree over it. With M. de Norpois, Marcel had been emotionally and intellectually unable to do anything except surrender when they disagreed; with Bergotte, he argues back. The trouble with Norpois, the narrator comments, is that his ideas are forceful but empty: ‘the ideas which leave no possibility of a rejoinder are those which are not properly speaking ideas, those which, by being supported by nothing, find nothing to attach to in the other’s mind: on the one side, no brotherly branch is held out, and on the other, there is nothing but a vacuum.’ He concludes: ‘The arguments advanced by M. de Norpois were indisputable because they were devoid of reality.’ More than a century ago, Proust advanced a theory of fake news.
26 March 2021 (151-157 / 150-156*)
Life intervened this week to prevent us reading very much, but what we did read took an unexpected and amusing turn. Marcel, in his adolescence, has suddenly discovered the fun to be had at brothels. Being the helpful sort, he offers the madam of his favoured establishment some items of furniture — lounges and such — that had passed to him on the death of his Aunt Leonie (we remember her from his childhood in Combray, the mean aunt who never left her rooms). But he has not anticipated the effect it will have on him seeing these furnishings, which he has always associated with the air of stifling virtue that permeated her house, being used for purposes unimaginable in Aunt Leonie’s world — so he abruptly stops going there, because it is all too much.
In the midst of these reflections on brothels, Proust inserts a reflection on the last topic one is expecting: the value and irreducible reality of the human individual. Look at the sly way this parenthetical remark expands beyond the sentence in which it is embedded: ‘the brothels I frequented some years later (by giving me samples of happiness, and enabling me to enhance the beauty of women with that element which we can never invent, which is not just an amalgam of types of beauty familiar to us, but the truly divine gift, the only one we cannot receive from ourselves, the one beside which all the logical figments of the mind fade away, and which can be acquired only from reality: the charm of the individual) deserve to stand beside those other benefactors…’ (he goes on to list various others who have expanded his intellectual and artistic horizon). His immediate point has to do with the way instances of real beauty transcend what we can merely imagine for ourselves, but the general point has huge ramifications: where normally Proust keeps returning to the way life is largely lived in the imagination, and insisting that what is real is largely inaccessible to us, nonetheless he here points to the fact that real human others are necessary for our inner life: if our minds were not populated by the real people we have known or met, what pale figments would dwell in us?
9 April 2021 (157-177 / 156-176*)
Freud says that the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis is that the patient must say whatever it is that comes into their head without in any way self-censoring or filtering — the idea is that it is in the free unfolding of consciousness that blockages and neuroses can best manifest themselves, as surprising associations but more importantly as pauses and hesitations and silences, which point to the particular ways in which the terrain of each person’s consciousness is warped and tangled. It turns out that nobody is ever able to hold to this fundamental rule, that everybody pauses and hesitates, because nobody’s consciousness is so cleanly formed as to be able to freely unfold — even when given the freedom to express everything, we block ourselves.
I bring this up because Marcel experiences something parallel to this in the unfolding of his relationship with Gilberte. This week we opened with a passage in which Marcel has happily overcome all obstacles to his spending all the time he wants with Gilberte, and he is enjoying his ‘new sweet life’. But there is trouble brewing. While there were external obstacles to overcome, the prospect of untroubled life with Gilberte was wholly appealing; now that those are gone, internal obstacles begin to present themselves. The worst of these is that she is beginning to tire of his company — able to spend all the time he likes at her house, it seems he is always there (and needy to boot). Eventually this boils over when he discovers that even the household staff are aware that their mistress is finding him a bit of a bore, and he swears never to see her again. No doubt they could be reconciled if he tried, but his prickly self-regard has been offended against, and he will not allow himself to relent. But, oddly, he does not leave the house alone: he merely transfers his social attachment to Gilberte’s mother, Odette, and attends her gatherings instead — but only when he knows Gilberte will be out. In this way it seems he hopes to rub it in to Gilberte that he no longer calls on her, but it seems she doesn’t even notice. The course of love doesn’t unfold any more smoothly than that of consciousness.
16 April 2021 (177-191 / 176-190*)
Last week, Marcel made the decision to sever his relationship with Gilberte forever, and thus far at least he seems to be holding his resolve — though he is certainly suffering for it. Proust is the great prose poet of the myriad agonies of love, and he takes the opportunity to deliver some insights. The narrator tells us about what was his younger self’s theory of love (a theory he tells us he no longer holds, without telling us what he now believes): ‘We are always detached from the other person: while we love, we are aware that our love does not bear her name, that we may feel it again in the future — or might even have felt it in the past — for someone other than her.’ The tension between this reflective theory of the object-independence of the feeling of love, and the feeling internal to love, that the object of one’s love really is special and the feeling of love truly belongs to them, causes young Marcel great anxiety, and he can only imagine not loving Gilberte as a betrayal of his present feelings for her, even as he knows in cooler moments that this is just the way love goes.
And then there’s this little gem about how mood underpins various functions of the mind. ‘When we are in love,’ Proust writes, ‘our love is too vast to be wholly contained within ourselves; it radiates outwards, reaches the resistant surface of the loved one, which reflects it back to its starting-point; and this return of our own tenderness is what we see as the other’s feelings, working their new, enhanced charm on us, because we do not recognise them as having originated in ourselves.’ This is subtle: he is not just pointing to the way one’s mood casts light and shadow over things, which we so easily suppose belong to those things rather than being a reflection of our own state; he notes also that our theory of mind, those thoughts and feelings we attribute to others, is also deeply rooted in our own feelings about them. The person in love projects loving thoughts into the mind of his or her beloved, just as the anxious, guilty person projects accusatory and judgemental thoughts into the mind of the person who has glanced at them.
30 April 2021 (191-221 / 190-221*)
It has been a slow undoing, over quite some number of pages, but it would seem, with the closing of the first part of the second volume, that Marcel has finally succeeded in breaking things off with Gilberte. The final upset occurred one evening when Marcel had reversed course and resolved to bring about a reconciliation. He takes an expensive vase (like the furniture he gave to the brothel, this is an inheritance from his aunt) to an antiques dealer, and finds himself leaving in possession of not the 1000 francs he’d expected, but 10,000. (Some vase.) With this money burning a whole in his pocket, he plans to shower Gilberte with flowers and gifts for a whole year so that she’ll have no choice but to love him; but, driving straight to her house in a carriage, in the evening gloom he passes a pair of figures who look an awful lot like Gilberte and an unknown young man; arriving at the house, he is told that she’s gone out for a walk with her friends, and despairs. The 10,000 francs are quickly spent, not on flowers, but on prostitutes.
The whole affair prompts Proust to some deeply pessimistic thoughts about the impossibility of happiness. While Marcel didn’t lack the means to pursue his happiness, ‘at the very moment when it materialised, an adventitious if not logical consequence of its acquisition had deprived me of the expected joy’. Proust continues: ‘It would appear that this is the fate of all our joys. They do of course tend to last longer than the single evening on which we have acquired what makes them possible. More usually, our fever of expectation lasts longer. Even so, happiness can never happen. Once the external circumstances are overcome, if they can be, nature then transforms the struggle into an internal one, by bringing about a gradual change in our heart, so that the gratification it desires is different from the one it is about to receive.’ And he concludes: ‘Having failed with everything belonging to the world of fact and external life, nature creates its ultimate impediment to happiness by making it a psychological impossibility. The phenomenon of happiness does not come to pass; or else it leads to utter bitterness.’
Next week, on to ‘Place names: the place’…
9 May 2021 (221-239 / 221-239*)
On to the second part, ‘Place-names: the Place’. You’ll recall that the first novel ended with a short section titled ‘Place-names: the Name’, which meditated at length on the associations conjured up by names. No surprises, then, that this sequel deals with what it is like to then actually visit a place. We seem to have jumped forward a couple of years, and Marcel is mostly over his agonies over Gilberte, although he still finds himself reverting every now and then. He notes that life is inherently anachronistic, and that sometimes we experience the return of past selves, and with them the resurgence of old loves or griefs that have no place in the life we presently lead. These memories are returned to us by sights, sounds or smells that suddenly bring it all rushing back — but, finding nothing to cling to in the present, and not being part of our habitual thoughts and feelings, they recede again, lasting no longer than a dream. They were there all along, but submerged — and what is submerged may be the greater part of us. ‘We commonly live with a self reduced to its bare minimum,’ he notes: ‘most of our faculties lie dormant, relying on habit; and habit knows how to manage without them.’ But habit is also comfortable, and breaking habit can be painful — and it is in this ambivalent spirit that Marcel approaches his long-awaited trip to Balbec, which has finally arrived: anxious to be leaving his home, and his mother; but, once he is on the train and moving, open and alive and receptive.
14 May 2021 (239-251 / 239-251*)
I concluded last week’s entry by commenting on the way Marcel set out on his journey to Balbec with a sense of openness before life (preceded by some trepidation) — but of course as soon as he reaches his destination he is bitterly disappointed. It turns out that none of the things he has come to see — such as the local church — have the grandeur with which his imagination has invested them; they are situated in boring, everyday settings, near cafes and post offices, which further reduces their charm; and everything has a seaside sandy/saltiness, which he finds distinctly off-putting.
Longtime readers will recall that, way back at the beginning, Proust opened the novel with reflections on the familiarity of a bedroom: the way the mind, becoming accustomed to a space, takes on the contours of the objects that fill it such that they come to feel part of oneself. Marcel’s experience in the alien environment of his hotel room explores the opposing side of this: unaccustomed to the room and the things in it, he feels them to be abrasive, foreign intrusions into his consciousness. Knowing that the room does not belong to him, he’s also unable to become habituated to it — he might reside there, but it does not reflect him. It leads Proust into a meditation on the role of habit in making us comfortable in (what we can punningly call in English) our habitat, and he notes the way things almost disappear as they become more familiar: ‘As our attentiveness furnishes a room, so habit unfurnishes it, making space in it for us.’ This is to say that, if we are too aware of our surroundings, we cannot feel at home — we might be inclined to wonder if this is true of people as well as things.
22 May 2021 (251-272 / 251-273*)
They’re at the Grand-Hôtel of Balbec now, and life is a comedy of manners. Marcel has become fixated on the view from his window, and the way the window itself frames the view as though he were contemplating an ever-changing work of art: the sea with its varying colours and moods, the sky, the beach, and the assortment of people strolling along. He is entranced by it, yet his grandmother has one crucial objection: the window blocks the sea breeze, in the curative properties of which she is a firm believer, and she cannot stand the prospect that he might miss a single hour of it. One morning, over breakfast in the dining room, she takes it upon herself to open the window and let the breeze in — with predictable results: menus, napkins, newspapers and all sorts are blown everywhere, and the other diners look upon them with disgust; she is completely unfazed, but poor Marcel is mortified. The other diners are, for the most part, provincial big-shots with delusions of grandeur, the presidents of the local committees for such-and-such and so forth. Notoriously, some local members of the minor nobility throw a Sunday afternoon garden party every week, which means that lunch at the Grand-Hôtel restaurant is a quiet affair: not because they’ve all been invited, but because nobody wants to reveal that they weren’t — so everyone lays low. One family, who are staying at the Grand-Hôtel while they make visits to local notables, hold themselves aloof from the other guests, but are absolutely territorial of ‘their’ table in the restaurant: if the head waiter isn’t expecting them, seats someone else at their table, and they turn up, there is invariably a scene. Proust observes incisively: ‘Their arrogance protected them against any liking for their fellow-man, against the slightest interest in the strangers sitting all about them, amidst whom M. de Stermaria’ — the father — ‘adopted the manner one has in the buffet-car of a train, grim, hurried, stand-offish, brusque, fastidious and spiteful, surrounded by other passengers whom one has never seen before, whom one will never see again and towards whom the only conceivable way of behaving is to make sure they keep away from one’s cold chicken and stay out of one’s chosen corner-seat.’
In contrast, Marcel finds that he is forever reflexively trying to imagine what life is like for these strangers around him. When he lives somewhere when everyone knows him, he says, he pays no attention to them; here, surrounded by strangers, he is fascinated by them. He wants so badly for them to like him, especially Mlle. de Stermaria, the daughter of the arrogant family, at whom he stares fixedly at mealtimes. A friend of his grandmother is staying at the Grand-Hôtel, a woman of high social status around whom everyone fawns when she is present and at whom everyone snipes when she is absent, and his greatest wish is that she would greet him and his grandmother at breakfast ‘and thus give Mlle. de Stermaria an opinion of me which might make me bold enough to approach her’. Whether or not the young mademoiselle would have responded that way to the social cues we don’t know, but what is so interesting is the way Proust manages to capture the folds and contortions of self-consciousness, as the mind projects its own way of thinking onto others, and in the light of which projections we orient our attitudes. Of course, it isn’t to be: Marcel’s grandmother is of the view that, when one is on holiday, normal life is suspended, and that includes one’s normal relationships, even if they are friendly. On first encountering her friend at the Grand-Hôtel, the grandmother is aloof, and doesn’t acknowledge her; the friend, taking the cue, in turn avoids them — all to Marcel’s anguish.
28 May 2021 (272-294 / 273-294*)
Sweet relief for Marcel! His grandmother and her friend the marquise, Mme. de Villeparisis, having been pretending not to notice each other at the Grand-Hôtel (being on holiday, you know), finally come face to face in a doorway and are forced to acknowledge one another. They perform a great pantomime, which Proust compares to a pair of actors, standing only a few feet apart on stage, each delivering a soliloquy, who then turn to discover one another with complete surprise. From then on, they dine together regularly, and go on little outings in her carriage. The marquise introduces them to the Princess of Luxembourg, who — to show she has the common touch — greets them with the kind of enthusiastic affection one normally reserves for meeting a friendly dog or an adorable baby.
But Marcel is in the full ferment of adolescence, and what really interests him are the glimpses he gets of young women as he rides around in the marquise’s carriage. Proust takes the opportunity to reflect on the way the imagination, given just a glimpse, is able to use that meagre material to fan the flames of desire to much greater intensity than if that desire were fed with a longer encounter. A glimpse is enough to get the mind racing and the heart pounding; the person glimpsed becomes the canvas on which we can project our fantasies of perfection. The difference, he says, between a beautiful thing and a beautiful person is that the beauty of a person invites us to consider their soul, to enter imaginatively into their world: ‘The imagination is easily teased by the desire for something we cannot possess.’ But the touch of reality (a longer look, a conversation) can be enough to shatter that illusion: some slight imperfection, some otherwise innocuous word they utter, transforms the otherworldliness of beauty into the all-too-mundane. Marcel-the-narrator breaks the narrative chronology to leap forward a few years and tells a story in which he leaps off a tram to chase after a glimpsed beauty, and pursues her for several blocks — only to discover, when he has finally caught up, that he was actually pursuing a particularly irritating older woman of his acquaintance whose company he normally does his best to avoid. Such are the phantoms we project onto the world; but, he says, this is no bad thing: the world is richer for it.
11 June 2021 (294-324 / 294-324*)
Having missed last week’s entry, now I must hurry to catch up. We’ve had Mme de Villeparisis’s distaste for the popular writers of the nineteenth century, such as Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, stemming mostly (it seems) from the fact that they were frequent dinner-guests of her family, and her family found them crashing bores. (Here’s a characteristic and diverting anecdote about Chateaubriand: it was a matter of fun in her household that he always said the same handful of grand-sounding things, which the uninitiated would find profound but which quickly lost their shine. When he was round for dinner he would always take a walk in the garden after the meal, and they would send the new face at the table out for a walk with him: without fail, he would say that the moon was ‘revealing her old secret of melancholy’; the family thought this hysterical. Do we not all know someone who is wheeling out the same handful of observations about everything? Do we not all also know someone else who delights in making this kind of sport?) We’ve also had a brief exchange in which Marcel and his grandmother discuss death, and the fact that she won’t be around forever — a prospect he can’t face, so he instead assures her that modern science has raised deep problems with the materialistic world view, and that thus the immortality of the soul is likely.
But the grand new arrival is the young Marquis de Saint-Loup-en-Bray, or Robert de Saint-Loup, who (I am given to understand) will become one of the major characters. He is the nephew of Mme de Villeparisis, and he comes to stay with her for a few weeks at the Grand-Hôtel. He is strikingly handsome, very fashionable, and ever-popular with the ladies. Marcel gets it into his head (before they even meet) that he and Robert will be fast friends, and is immediately disappointed by the distant and stand-offish manner with which Robert greets him. When Robert sends his visiting card up to Marcel, Marcel’s first assumption is that he is being challenged to a duel! But it is, thankfully, not to be: Robert, for all his reputation as a ladies’ man and ‘young lion’, is above all else an intellectual, a devotee of Nietzsche and Proudhon, and he is in fact very drawn to the bookish Marcel.
I think I have commented in the past about how masterfully Proust handles the contortions of self-consciousness, but here’s another example. Marcel’s old friend Bloch (whom you might remember as the friend who was banned from visiting Marcel’s house after he related some saucy anecdotes about one of Marcel’s grandparents) is also in Balbec, and he has a funny way of pronouncing certain ‘i’ sounds: pronouncing ‘lift’ ‘leeft’, or ‘Venice’ ‘Veneece’. (It seems he is under the misapprehension that this is how the English always pronounce ‘i’.) Saint-Loop does not know whether to correct him or not: on the one hand, he does not wish to shame Bloch by pointing out the correct pronunciation; on the other, he can picture a future time when Bloch does learn his error, and then feels that he has been misled by Saint-Loop when he failed to correct him. Oscillating between these two poles, all he can do is sit in silence and blush to his ears.
18 June 2021 (324-339 / 324-339*)
Do you ever wonder sometimes about the apparent obliviousness of people, as when the glutton is the first to criticise the greed of others, but thinks we don’t notice that they are always first in line for first, second, third helpings? That’s what Marcel wonders about Bloch, who accuses him of seeking out Saint-Loup’s friendship out of snobbery and a desire to associate with the nobility. Bloch, meanwhile, is doing his best to arrange engagements with Saint-Loup behind Marcel’s back, so as to insinuate himself. But, says Proust, it is as though ‘each of us is watched over by a special god, who hides our faults, or promises us they shall be invisible, just as he masks the eyes and blocks the nostrils of those who never wash, persuading them that they can blithely ignore the tide-mark near their ears and the smell of sweat hanging about their armpits, as these will remain imperceptible to the world in which they move. Those who wear or give fake pearls as presents always assume that others will think they are genuine.’ The self-obliviousness that afflicts all of us (for one should not exclude oneself) also renders speaking of oneself dangerous: ‘Each time we have spoken of ourselves, we may be sure that our harmless, cautious words, received with ostensible politeness and a pretence of approval, have later inspired a diatribe of unfavourable judgement on us, full of exasperation or hilarity at our expense.’
But it’s the next sentence that exhibits Proust’s subtlety: ‘If nothing else, we run the risk of being thought irritating, because of the disparity between our idea of ourselves and our words, which is what usually makes the things people say about themselves as laughable as the approximate hummings of would-be music-lovers who, when they feel the need to tra-la-la their favourite piece, have to make up for the meagreness of their inarticulate rendition of it by an energetic pantomime and an air of admiration which is quite out of keeping with the impression they make on their listeners.’ This is to say, the risk is not just in revealing our self-deceptions; there is also the risk of failures of articulacy, of our being unable to express our idea of ourselves with any clarity, vividness, or substance — of our falling into a meagre, empty ‘tra-la-la’, and thereby giving the wrong impression entirely. For all these reasons and more, remind me never to speak of myself.