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?