Proust Progress Report 5: Beginning the third volume

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), deuxième partie, ‘Nom de pays: le pays’; began Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

As promised in my last report, I am now well under way in the third book, English title The Guermantes Way.

The last 60 pages of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs got quite sexy, with our poor narrator being sadly disappointed in what he had thought was going to be a long-yearned-for erotic rendezvous, in a way that not even his ingenious rationalisations could make less humiliating. But he bounced back and finished the book in good spirits.

There’s a scene in that book where an older man visits our narrator’s bedroom at night, lends him a book and paces about as if expecting something. The only way I can make sense of the scene is that the older man is hoping for a sexual encounter but goes away disappointed – to all of which the narrator is oblivious. Since absolutely no sexual overture is explicit it made me wonder how much I miss that goes unsaid elsewhere. And as I type those words I realise that the narrator’s disappointment in Albertine’s bedroom (mentioned in the previous paragraph) becomes even funnier in the light of his own unwitting rejection of the older gentleman. Incidentally, one of the common phrases in the book, is ‘à mon/son insu‘, which I guess translates as ‘unwittingly’.

I had thought that in this monthly report I’d write about whatever I happened to have just read. But what I’ve just read is two pages in which the narrator’s aristocratic army-officer friend Robert de Saint-Loup expands on the idea that there is an aesthetic side to the art of war, so maybe I’ll go back a bit.

On New Year’s Eve, in one of those conversations people who see each other once a year ask each other what we’ve been doing, I said I’m reading Proust. Behold, my interlocutor had read Swann’s Way with his book group, and has a friend who has read the whole of À la recherche in English and is now reading it in French. He quoted that friend as saying that in Proust what is not said matters more than what is said – a paradox, given that so much is said. There’s a marvellous moment in my reading since that conversation that exemplifies the point.

The narrator has gone to visit Robert de Saint-Loup at his garrison in the hope of procuring an introduction to Saint-Loup’s beautiful aunt, the object of the narrator’s stalkerish infatuation, the duchess de Guermantes. As it turns out, de Saint-Loup invites the narrator to stay with him in his quarters at the garrison. Over dinner, the narrator recognises a striking family likeness between his friend and his friend’s aunt. The emotional force of this recognition must have shown in his face because:

Robert, sans en connaître les causes, était touché de mon attendrissement.

In English:

Robert, unaware of its cause, was touched by my show of affection.

From, modified by me.

Things move on from there:

Celui-ci d’ailleurs s’augmentait du bien-être causé par la chaleur du feu et par le vin de Champagne qui faisait perler en même temps des gouttes de sueur à mon front et des larmes à mes yeux ; il arrosait des perdreaux ; je les mangeais avec l’émerveillement d’un profane, de quelque sorte qu’il soit, quand il trouve dans une certaine vie qu’il ne connaissait pas ce qu’il avait cru qu’elle excluait (par exemple d’un libre penseur faisant un dîner exquis dans un presbytère).

In English:

My affection was moreover increased by the comfortable heat of the fire and by the champagne which at the same time brought beads of sweat to my brow and tears to my eyes; it washed down the partridges; I ate mine in a state of wonder like some sort of profane person who finds in a form of life with which he is not familiar what he has supposed that form of life to exclude—the wonder, for instance, of a free-thinker who sits down to an exquisitely cooked dinner in a presbytery.

So far so good: during an extended tête-à-tête in his friend’s room, the narrator looks at his friend with an expression that properly would be directed to the women he is infatuated with. He sees that his friend mistakenly thinks the tender look is meant for him. The narrator is filled with a sense of wellbeing, is experiencing delights such as he had never imagined. What could happen next? Well:

Et le lendemain matin en m’éveillant, j’allai jeter par la fenêtre de Saint-Loup qui, située fort haut, donnait sur tout le pays, un regard de curiosité pour faire la connaissance de ma voisine, la campagne, que je n’avais pas pu apercevoir la veille, parce que j’étais arrivé trop tard, à l’heure où elle dormait déjà dans la nuit. 

In English:

And next morning, when I awoke, I went to cast from Saint-Loup’s window, which being at a great height overlooked the whole countryside, a curious look to make the acquaintance of my new neighbour, the landscape which I had not been able to distinguish the day before, having arrived too late, at an hour when it was already sleeping in the night.

So we’ll never know what happened between all those feelings of growing intimacy and waking up next morning. I won’t quote any more of this passage, as there’s an extended description of the neighbouring hill. But the narrator is filled with a new joy as the day progresses, and begins to visit Saint-Loup in his room regularly, and when Saint-Loup and he dine with Saint-Loup’s friends, they hang on each other’s words shamelessly – and our weedy, literary narrator becomes fascinated with the world of military manoeuvres and military history, the world of Saint-Loup.

What would I have thought of all this if I hadn’t been told that what’s unsaid is more important that what is said, and that this book is a classic queer masterpiece? Pretty much what I make of it now, I expect.

In a month’s time I expect to have finished the première partie of Le côté de Guermantes, and I’ll tell you if our narrator ever does get to meet the duchess … and if he cares.

8 responses to “Proust Progress Report 5: Beginning the third volume

  1. I am full of admiration for your challenge in reading Proust in French. I just can’t imagine it- all those long, complex sentences!


    • Admiration blushingly accepted. The odd thing is that I find the French easier to read than Moncrieff’s English translation. Maybe it’s because I know I’ll have to struggle with the French so my loins are girded whereas I just expect the English to be immediately graspable, and it isn’t. I’m very glad I decided to read in French for the extra reason that every time I’ve looked to Moncrieff’s translation I’ve found something that (as far as my limited French can tell) is just wrong. For example, in the passage I discuss in this blog post, the narrator has ‘faisait perler … des larmes à mes yeux’ (brought tears to my eyes); Moncrieff has ‘bedewed … my cheeks with tears’, which would be a completely different – and in this context weird – thing.


  2. Good point re that particular translation point Jonathan. A few years ago I was involved in translating part of a memoir from French and though it provided more headaches I suspect for me and my long ago French studies – than for you with Proust – the Cassells dictionary I’ve had now some 40 years did hold all the metaphorical expressions I needed to bring it to English exactly as understood by the memoir writer (for whom writing in French was far easier than his otherwise fine understanding of written English). And his first language another altogether.


  3. And now I have read your whole entry above – and yes, what is said, what is left unsaid/unwritten – true reading between the lines is required. I had no idea in this case of what was missing here. In any case you have in some senses sent me back to Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes (A Hidden Inheritance) and the references to Proust himself from around p. 40 onwards – though now I am wanting to quote from some lines pp. 88-89: “Proust, a neophyte if not yet quite a friend, had become a regular visitor to the apartment, drinking in Charles’s empyrean conversation…Charles knows the socially ravenous Proust well enough to tell him that it is time to leave a dinner after midnight, as the hosts are desperate for bed…Proust has also become a presence in the offices of the Gazette in the rue Favart. He is diligent here: sixty-four works of art that will appear later in the twelve novels that make up À la recherché du temps perdu were illustrated in the Gazette….The preface to Proust’s translation of Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens has as its dedicatee “M. Charles Ephrussi, always so good to me.”…
    Charles and Louise are still lovers though I am not sure if Louise has another lover, or several other lovers. Charles who has a quality of discretion, leaves no traces here…I note that Laforgue was the first of a number of much younger men who would work for him more as acolytes than as secretaries and I wonder at this series of intense relationships in his heady cavern-like rooms lit up by yellow satin and those Moreaus. The gossip in Paris was that Charles was entre deux lits, bisexual.”


    • Wow! Thanks, Jim. I’ve read The Hare with Amber Eyes but the Proust gossip went in one eye and out the other. Thanks for the reminder – this is fabulous stuff to (re)discover in the middle of reading the book itself. ‘Entre deux lits’!


  4. À la recherche du temps perdu – from where did that recherché come??? Gremlin, surely!


  5. Pingback: Proust Progress Report 8: | Me fail? I fly!

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