Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), deuxième partie, ‘Nom de pays: le pays’
Here’s my fourth monthly progress report on my project of reading five pages a day of Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu. I’ve reached page 682, roughly 60 pages from the end of Book Two. Last month I noted with some surprise that I was now invested in the effete upper-class Parisian characters, especially the chronically ill, introspective narrator-as-remembered. This month, I’m surprised to report, I’m taking the narrator’s longwinded seriously – still laughing at times, but no longer unsympathetically.
Mind you, there’s still something absurd about the young narrator. He glimpses a woman selling milk at a railway station and wants to spend the rest of his life with her. He sees a group of young women at the beach resort of Belbac and falls in love with the whole group. He fantasises the wonderful letters of friendship he will receive from a young man he hasn’t met, is bitterly disappointed when on his first actual meeting with him the young man is reserved. He weeps in bed at night when his grandmother doesn’t come to say goodnight. But I now understand that the narrator, remembering himself as a young man, is at least as amused, astonished or even unbelieving as I am.
Someone defined a literary classic as a book one can’t read for the first time. I understand that: though I wouldn’t say I’ve heard or read very much about Proust, but in the last month he has cropped up twice: as an anagram for ‘stupor’ in a crossword (which gave the Emerging Artist joy, as she has to suffer my occasional chat about the book), and at a talk on memoir by Walter Mason at the Ashfield Library, where he showed an image of madeleines (one of which, dipped in herbal tea, plays a key role in the first book).
Reading the book in French, with some difficulty and a lot of vocabulary blanks, just a couple of pages at a time, I’m generally focusing on particular moments rather than following the broad sweep of the narrative (if there is one).
Here are some more or less random highlights.
When the narrator and his grandmother are at Balbec, he is acutely aware that most of the other guests at the hotel see them as social inferiors (there’s a lot about snobbery in this book, despising it and being unawarely caught up in it). An aristocratic woman (who I imagine as a French Maggie Smith) turns up, inaccessible to the other guests because of a phalanx of attendants. But she is an old friend of the narrator’s grandmother, and he hopes that the connection will increase his own prestige. But when she comes into the dining room, and nods imperiously at grand-mère, the latter – who considers that when on holiday at the beach one should be free from any obligation to acknowledge friends from one’s life in Paris – ignores her. The narrator compares the moment to the sensation of someone who is shipwrecked at sea who sees a large vessel, a potential rescue, approach, only to sail on past without seeing them. (I should mention that in what I’m coming to see as a typically Proustian twist, the two elderly women somehow come to spend a great amount of time together, and the narrator’s hopes are later fulfilled.)
The narrator meets an artist, Elstir, who invites him to visit his studio. The encounter does move the plot forward, but first many pages are spent in rhapsodic description of the artist’s paintings, and theorising about them and about art in general. What’s new for me is that I’m no longer reading these digressions (though you can’t really call them digressions because they’re pretty much central) as waffle. Here’s a tiny example I dog-eared a page for:
si Dieu le Père avait créé les choses en les nommant, c’est en leur ôtant leur nom, ou en leur en donnant un autre qu’Elstir les recréait. Les noms qui désignent les choses répondent toujours à une notion de l’intelligence, étrangère à nos impressions véritables et qui nous force à éliminer d’elles tout ce qui ne se rapporte pas à cette notion.(p 656)
And a translation I found on the internet (and modified slightly):
If God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their name or giving them another that Elstir created them anew. The names which designate things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion, alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with that notion.(From https://www.proust-ink.com/quotable-a)
That comes close to describing what Proust is doing in À la recherche: he takes familiar things – youthful infatuation, a sunset, a romanesque church – and pulls them, or rather the act of experiencing them, apart, then puts them back together transformed. It’s the pulling apart that has people giving up on him saying things like, ‘He just goes on so much!’ But one of the effects of reading him is that an awful lot of what I read or hear elsewhere starts to sound intolerably glib and/or ready-made.
In this morning’s pages, the narrator has almost been introduced to Albertine. The experience is anticlimactic, which is not surprising to the reader as he repeatedly fantasises about something – a theatrical performance, a new friend, the church at Balbec – and then is disappointed when that something materialises in the real world. But this time he follows it up with this lovely reflection:
Tout cela avait causé pour moi du plaisir, mais ce plaisir m’était resté caché ; il était de ces visiteurs qui attendent pour nous faire savoir qu’ils sont là, que les autres nous aient quittés, que nous soyons seuls. Alors nous les apercevons, nous pouvons leur dire : je suis tout à vous, et les écouter. Quelquefois entre le moment où ces plaisirs sont entrés en nous et le moment où nous pouvons y rentrer nous-même, il s’est écoulé tant d’heures, nous avons vu tant de gens dans l’intervalle que nous craignons qu’ils ne nous aient pas attendus. Mais ils sont patients, ils ne se lassent pas, et dès que tout le monde est parti, nous les trouvons en face de nous.(p 678)
And in English:
All this had been a source of pleasure, but that pleasure had remained hidden from me; it was one of those guests who don’t make their presence known until the others have gone and we are by ourselves. Then we catch sight of them, and can say to them, “I am all yours,” and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes between the moment when these pleasures have entered our consciousness and the moment when we can enter there ourselves, so many hours have passed, we have seen so many people in the interval, that we are afraid they might not have waited for us. But they are patient, they do not grow tired, and as soon as everyone has gone we find them there in front of us. (C K Scott Moncrieff’s translation, at https://marcel-proust.com/text.html, tinkered with by me)
Did I already say this? It’s like an epic of introspection that may sometimes be silly or solipsistic, but mostly it’s so very alive.
No more writing about Proust from me until the middle of January, by which time, with any luck, I’ll be some way into the third book, Le côté de Guermantes.