Reading Proust IV

So after another hiatus of a couple months I returned to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, only this time to tackle Volume IV (or “Season 4” as I like to think of it): Sodom and Gomorrah. The previous volume, The Guermantes Way, ended with a cliff-hanger: while on his way to visit the Duke de Guermantes to confirm whether the invitation he received to the Princess de Guermantes’ party is legitimate or not, Marcel witnesses something of such monumental importance that he tells the reader that he must wait until later to tell us what it is in order to dedicate enough time and space to its discussion. And so Volume IV resumes where we left off with Marcel poking around the flowers in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Guermantes. Hidden from view, he observes the Baron de Charlus and Jupien (a tailor who has a shop in the courtyard) silently striking strange (and somewhat comical) poses that Proust compares to flowers that openly display their reproductive parts in order to attract bees to come and pollinate them. When the two men disappear into the building, Marcel goes into an adjacent shop and listens through the wall to the two men having sex, thus introducing the theme of homosexuality to this volume.

Reading Proust II

I thought I was going to set aside Proust for a little while. And I did. I got caught up on my magazines, read Edna O'Brien's lovely collection of stories Mrs. Reinhardt, and I had planned on rereading The Tin Drum, another big book; but just as I was about to plunge into Grass's novel, I felt Proust's magnetic pull. And so I started Volume II, the 700-plus pages that make up Within a Budding Grove.

The first half, entitled Madame Swann at Home, resumes the young narrator's fascination with the Swann family and, in particular, his obsession with Gilberte, Mme Swann's daughter. As we left off in Volume I, he still meets her every afternoon in the Champs-Elysee to play. Eventually he overcomes both her and her family's initial resistance, gets invited to their home, and becomes something of a regular fixture there, seeming at times to be more attracted to Mme Swann than to her daughter. Then (for the rest of Volume II at any rate) the narrator falls out irreparably with Gilberte: boy gets girl; boy loses girl.

The "at home" part of the title refers to Mme Swann's "at homes," a weekly Wednesday afternoon gathering of society women; it's also the day on which Gilberte hosts her own tea parties to which the narrator is among the invited guests. Here's a favourite moment describing this time in the narrator's life:

...I would arrive in the zone in which the scent of Mme Swann greeted my nostrils. I could already visualize the majesty of the chocolate cake, encircled by plates heaped with biscuits, and by tiny napkins of patterned grey damask, as required by convention but peculiar to the Swanns.... And [Gilberte] would usher us into the dining-room, as sombre as the interior of an Asiatic temple painted by Rembrandt, in which an architectural cake, as urbane and familiar as it was imposing seemed to be enthroned there on the off-chance as on any other day, in case the fancy seized Gilberte to discrown it of its chocolate battlements and to hew down the steep brown slopes of its ramparts, baked in the oven like the bastions of the palace of Darius. (107)

In the second half of the book, Place Names / The Place, the narrator--older now, early twenties I'm guessing--and his grandmother travel to the coastal town of Balbec where they spend the summer in the Grand Hotel. It's here that he meets the aristocratic Robert de Saint-Loup. After some initial awkwardness, the two men become the best of friends, but when Saint-Loup returns to the barracks, from which he has been on leave, the narrator makes the acquaintance of what he often refers to as that "little band" of girls and, in particular, Albertine, another girl he falls in love with.

Not surprisingly, class is an important theme throughout the novel and in Volume II in particular. Friendship often seems like a disingenuous thing in the society to which we are privy, and we frequently see characters clamoring to get an introduction to so-and-so, not out of any genuine interest but as a means of elevating themselves socially. Snobbery is prevalent. In spite of having brought their servant Francoise, the narrator and his grandmother are not on the same social scale as some of the hotel's other guests and are initially isolated until the grandmother's friend, Mme de Villeparisis, arrives. Being seen with such a distinguished guest (Villeparisis turns out to be a marquise of the Guermantes family) does much to alleviate the narrator's own sense of isolation by opening up social possibilities. But in a world apparently full of masqueraders, not not everyone is convinced the marquise is who she says she is. In one particularly funny scene, the judge's wife, "who scented irregularities everywhere" (383), suspects Mme Villeparisis might not be as much of a marquise as "an adventuress" (383).   She says:

"I always begin by believing the worst. I will never admit that a woman is properly married until she has shown me her birth certificate and marriage lines. But never fear--just wait till I've finished my little investigation." (383)

Later, when the Princesse de Luxembourg arrives to pay a social call on Mme Villeparisis, the judge's wife reports to her friends, "I've discovered something" (383):

"Just listen to this. A woman with yellow hair and six inches of paint on her face and a carriage which reeked of harlot a mile away ... came here today to call on the so-called Marquise! ... I picked up her card. She trades under the name of the 'Princesse de Luxembourg'! Wasn't I right to have my doubts about her?" (384)

Although the judge's wife is hugely erroneous in her conclusion, the idea that things are never quite what they seem is another important facet of the book. The narrator's aristocratic friend St-Loup, for instance, who at first appears to be utterly snobbish, not only turns out to be extraordinarily warm and gentle (at least to the narrator) but also claims to be a Republican. In contrast, Francoise, who one would expect to be a Republican, turns out to be a Royalist. The narrator's dubious friend Bloch, who at one point voices antisemitic epithets turns out to be of Jewish background himself. The artist Elstir turns out to be the much-maligned M. Biche of the Verderin set from Volume I; and the artist's portrait of the actress he calls Miss Sacripant turns out in fact to be a portrait of the young Mme Swann, Odette de Crecy. Albertine, too, who the narrator supposes to a cyclist's mistress turns out to be a penniless orphan.

The world of appearances--the world of smoke and mirrors--extends also to the Swanns: Mme Swann gives off the air of someone of much higher class and education than she really is, while M. Swann takes something of an opposite approach in his attempt to hide the true extent of his affluent social connections (mostly seen in Volume I). And of course both put on the mask of faithfulness to the other.

And then there's that strange matter of the names Proust has given all the girls the narrator is attracted to, feminine derivatives of otherwise masculine names: Gilberte, Albertine, Andree. Given that we know that the autobiographical Proust was gay, is another mask, another illusion, at work here too? (Maybe we'll find out in Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah.) 

Even the narrator's beloved Bergotte, the writer who's had a profound influence on the narrator and who he assumes would be of similarly grand and imposing stature in real life, turns out to be a "youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man, with a red nose curled like a snail-shell and a goatee beard. I was cruelly disappointed" (165).

Again and again we encounter the narrator's disappointment in all he has high expectations of, a disappointment that is often later turned on its head by someone or something else. His initial disappointment, for example, after he has at last seen the famous singer Berma perform onstage is completely reversed when he reads a review in the newspaper in which he concludes (after one of the longest sentences I've so far encountered in Proust): "What a great artist!" (72). In another example, Elstir opens the narrator's eyes regarding the "Persian church" at Balbec in which the narrator also felt deep disappointment about, teaching him to see the "celestial vision ... inscribed there in stone" (575). These ever-changing visions, coupled with the inability to really know, understand, grasp, or see something as it really is is central to the whole book and the narrator's perpetual "search for lost time." When the narrator is away from Gilberte, for instance, he finds he can't remember what she looks like (although all the other ordinary cast of characters in his life readily appear in his mind's eye). Albertine's birthmark, too, sometimes appears to be in one place, then another when he conjures her up in his imagination. And of Albertine's character, he says "[she] struck me as somewhat shy instead of implacable; she seemed to me more proper than ill-bred.... But this was merely a second impression and there were doubtless others through which I would successively pass" (619)--impressions as ever-changing as the view of the sea outside the narrator's belvedere window in the Grand Hotel.

We often hear novels and even short stories described as opening up whole worlds; but Search, I've discovered, is a totally different kind of beast. Instead of a world, Proust has created an entire universe, one that is uniquely situated between old and modern worlds, between the 19th and 20th centuries, an era where horse-driven carriages and oil-lit lamps meet motor-cars, aeroplanes, and telephones.  Like Volume I, Within a Budding Grove is often filled with rapturous prose and Proust's hallmark long and winding sentences. But I have to admit that his endless and sometimes obfuscating philosophizing on just about everything drew me out of the story at times. But I've discovered that to read Proust--I mean really read Proust--and to deftly crest those enormous waves of philosophizing one needs time; not just an hour here, an hour there, but the dedication of long stretches of solid, back-to-back hours on a daily basis in order for Proust to dangle his hypnotist's pocket-watch and for one to fall, headlong and spellbound, into this vast and complicated landscape.


Reading Proust

For a long time, I used to stare up at those thick volumes of Proust's famous Remembrance of Things Past with awe whenever I wandered into a second-hand bookshop.  Sometimes I would see single volumes from a 1970's edition in which the 4000-page novel is broken into many small, bite-size chunks--volume VII, say--orphaned from its siblings, as if that particular book was the very one someone would need to complete his or her collection.  More often, though, I would come across the novel broken into those three encyclopedic volumes with the art nouveau design on its covers. 


What dedication it would take to read that massive novel in its entirety, I would often think.  And what was it about anyway?  I shied away from the novel, too intimidated by it, until recently when I decided to tackle it, at least the first volume, Swann's Way, in its most recent 1992 rendering by DJ Enright, the novel now generally referred to as In Search of Lost Time.

All I knew of Search was that it's one of the longest novels in English, but what I didn't know was that it was also a challenging read, particularly because of those long, winding sentences and their numerous subjunctive clauses, page after page of solid, unbroken paragraphs, that it's easy to stumble and lose sight of what Proust is talking about, often emerging from such paragraphs disoriented and confused.  The novel is very much a meditation on memory, especially memory that comes unbidden or is lodged in taste (the famous madeleine cake episode in which the unnamed narrator dips his cake into a cup of tea and the taste of these combined elements usher back memories of his childhood in Combray) or in objects, smells or even music (Swann's entire relationship with Odette is contained within "the phrase" of a certain sonata) because, like meditation, at least mindfulness meditation, one is required to concentrate solely on one's breath without creating mental to-do lists or following other similar day dreams.  And so Proust, too, is equally demanding and challenging of the reader that, at times, I found myself only grasping snatches of meaning (was it better to back up and constantly reread those long passages, or to read quickly, picking up whatever I could? I was never sure) sometimes finding myself going from one scene to another without entirely knowing how I got there.  Early on in the novel Proust playfully foreshadows this when he describes how he used to read in his childhood and as "the plot began to unfold ... it seemed all the more obscure because in those days ... I used to often to daydream about something quite different for page after page," a passage which made me laugh because that is, at times, the challenge of Proust.  Later on, he ironically (and beautifully) sums up what his own writing is like when he describes the writing style of Bergotte, his favourite author:

What my mother's friend and, it would seem, Dr du Boulbon liked above all in the writings of Bergotte was just what I liked, the same melodic flow, the old-fashioned phrases, and certain others, quite simple and familiar, but so placed by him, so highlighted, as to hint at a particular quality of taste on his part; and also, in the sad parts of his books, a sort of roughness, a tone that was almost harsh.  And he himself, no doubt, realized that these were his principal attractions.  For in his later books, if he had hit upon some great truth, or upon the name of an historic cathedral, he would break off his narrative, and in an invocation, an apostrophe, a long prayer, would give free rein to those exhalations which, in the earlier volumes, had been immanent in his prose, discernible only in a rippling of its surface, and perhaps even more delightful, more harmonious when they were thus veiled, when the reader could give no precise indication of where their murmuring began or where it died away.  These passages in which he delighted were our favourites also.

But when Proust has hooked you in, when he's beguiled you, as the above passage attests, the pay-off is worth it.  Along a similar vein, here is another stunning passage from the end of Swann in Love:

The pianist having finished the Liszt intermezzo and begun a prelude by Chopin, Mme de Cambremer turned to Mme de Franquetot with a fond smile of knowing satisfaction and allusion to the past.  She had learned in her girlhood to fondle and cherish those long sinuous phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by reaching out and exploring far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected their notes to read, and which divert themselves in those byways of fantasy only to return more deliberately--with a more premeditated reprise, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl that reverberates to the point of making you cry out--to strike at your heart.

Jaw-dropping, isn't it?  In his blurb at the top of my Modern Library Classics edition, David Denby says, "Reading Swann's Way was a rapturous experience," and he's right: that's exactly the word the comes to mind.  At times rapturous and mellifluous, at times, I admit, frustrating and boring (I adored Combray; was not as invested in Swann in Love until the end, regained my love in Place Names / The Name), yet, for me, Proust always seemed elusively just outside  one's grasp, and slippery like water.

As I said in an earlier blog post, when I read, I like to underline passages I like.  Not only was I doing this as I was reading Proust, but also making note of words whose meaning I was unfamiliar with (this happens to me a lot when I read Nabokov), like abjuration, inure, perorate, perspicacious, fulminate, confabulate; and words that I simply like and have found their way (or will find their way) into my own stories, like: mendacious, perfidious, carnal, beholden, ineluctable, and so on.  (Even his style, as you can see here in my parody, has infected my writing.)  But I've only scratched the surface of the novel that is In Search of Lost Time.  Having completed Swann's Way, there are five more 600-plus-page volumes yet to read: an intimidating task, and not one I intend to do back-to-back, yet fearing if I took a few years to read the whole thing I would begin to forget and therefore lose the overall thread of the story, just as we do in life with our own memories, making Proust even more ungraspable.  But I suppose that is the point with Proust.  As he says early on:

And so it is with our own past.  It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.  The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling.  And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.