Proust Progress Report 11: Luminous something of the inner life

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe, to near the end of Chapitre III

As I emerge from my eleventh month reading À la recherche, references to Proust crop up regularly, from crossword clues to conversations in bookshops. (Yay! Bookshops are here again, at least for now.) This month, in a podcast from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival, someone spoke of ‘the luminous beauty of the inner life that Proust expresses so well’. Even though I have no desire to be in a Proust discussion group, I’m glad to have at least that much discussion: a throwaway line to bounce off. The novelist who said it has clearly read a different À la recherche from the one I think I’m reading.

I may wrong, as I’m mostly skipping words I don’t know, but my Proust is a meticulous, and longwinded, dissector of social behaviour, who pays minute attention to the workings of memory and the idiosyncrasies of language. He sometimes gets luminous when describing plants, young women, paintings or sunsets, but it’s the politics of the inner life rather than its beauty that exercises him.

I feel as if I’m finally getting the hang of the book. The narrator is remembering temps perdu, which means both ‘forgotten time’ and ‘wasted time’. In the first book, Proust makes a distinction between two kinds of memory: those that make up the narratives we tell about ourselves and the spontaneous, unbidden memories that are apparently trivial, but carry an emotional charge. When the narrator goes on in excruciating detail about dinner party conversation, he’s capturing a flood of detailed memories without sifting for significance. In the middle of a dramatic story he tells us that the lift operator coughed on him – and the reader has no way of knowing if this will turn out to be a key plot point or an aside that goes nowhere. Certainly things that I thought were passing observations in the earlier books turn out to have been laying the grounds for incidents in this one – someone makes a joke about an absent person’s name in Du côté de chez Swann, and that person turns up in Sodome et Gomorrhe, to have the joke repeated in a different, more explicit form; Albertine has taken three books to emerge as a significant character; and so on.

In Sodome et Gomorrhe, the baron de Charlus, develops from being a creepy minor character to the focus for Proust’s extended meditations on the nature of homosexuality, to a focus for biting observations about bourgeois titillation, to a pathetic, almost tragic sufferer from unrequited love. The other development in what I take to be the through line of the narrative is the narrator’s developing relationship with Albertine (which I gather is based on Proust’s relationship IRL with his male chauffeur, Alfred). It’s getting ugly: the narrator claims not to love her, but in effect to be in lust with her, and is intensely jealous, doing all he can to stop her from being out of his sight for even a moment with other men or women (he suspects she is lesbian). It’s deeply unpleasant, and I hope to be reading Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do in tandem with later books in the sequence.

The last page I read (page 1583) is a good example of much of the above: a social interaction observed at close quarters, then analysed for its broader significance. It’s part of a long section in which the narrator and Albertine are travelling regularly on the local train at Balbec, the place on the coast where they and many Parisians spend their summer. Among the many encounters that take place on these trips he and Albertine are chatting with the aristocratic Saint-Loup, a matter for some anxiety since Albertine has previously commented (innocently?) on Saint-Loup attractiveness, when the narrator’s old friend Bloch turns up and asks him to come chat to Bloch senior, who is waiting in a carriage nearby. The narrator’s absurd jealousy makes him unwilling to leave Albertine and Saint-Loup alone even for a couple of minutes, and he refuses. Bloch assumes that he does so because of snobbery – Saint-Loup is an aristocrat, while Bloch is not only bourgeois but a Jew. The narrator doesn’t clear up the misunderstanding because the truth is too humiliating. Bloch takes grave offence and that is the end of their friendship. There follows almost a page of reflections, teasing out the detailed politics of the incident. Here’s a taste:

Et d’ailleurs même sans expliquer à Bloch, puisque je ne le pouvais pas, la raison pour laquelle je ne l’avais pas accompagné, si je l’avais prié de ne pas être froissé je n’aurais fait que redoubler ce froissement en montrant que je m’en étais aperçu. Il n’y avait rien à faire qu’à s’incliner devant ce fatum qui avait voulu que la présence d’Albertine m’empêchât de le reconduire et qu’il pût croire que c’était au contraire celle de gens brillants, laquelle, l’eussent-ils été cent fois plus, n’aurait eu pour effet que de me faire occuper exclusivement de Bloch et réserver pour lui toute ma politesse. Il suffit de la sorte qu’accidentellement, absurdement, un incident (ici la mise en présence d’Albertine et de Saint-Loup) s’interpose entre deux destinées dont les lignes convergeaient l’une vers l’autre pour qu’elles soient déviées, s’écartent de plus en plus et ne se rapprochent jamais. Et il y a des amitiés plus belles que celle de Bloch pour moi, qui se sont trouvées détruites, sans que l’auteur involontaire de la brouille ait jamais pu expliquer au brouillé ce qui sans doute eût guéri son amour-propre et ramené sa sympathie fuyante.

In English, mainly from Moncrieff’s translation, of which incidentally I am now completely in awe, given the complex way Proust plays with the French language – though not so much in this bit:

Besides, even without my explaining to Bloch, since I could not, my reason for not going with him, if I had begged him not to be angry with me, I should only have increased his anger by shewing him that I had observed it. There was nothing to be done but to bow before the decree of fate which had willed that Albertine’s presence should prevent me from accompanying him, and that he should suppose that it was on the contrary the presence of people of distinction, the only effect of which, had they been a hundred times more distinguished, would have been to make me devote my attention exclusively to Bloch and reserve all my civility for him. It is sufficient that accidentally, absurdly, an incident (in this case the presence together of Albertine and Saint-Loup) be interposed between two destinies whose lines were converging towards one another, for them to be separated, to stretch farther and farther apart, and never come close again. And there are friendships more precious than Bloch’s was to me which have been destroyed without the unintentional author of the offence having any opportunity to explain to the offended party what would no doubt have healed the injury to his self-esteem and called back his fugitive affection.

For my first several months with Proust, I read this sort of thing as comedy. I suppose I still do, but I used to find it ridiculously obsessive, whereas now I read it almost as if Proust is looking at our species, himself included, under a completely unsentimental magnifying glass, and capturing a terrible pathos in the process.

Another week and I’ll have finished Sodome et Gomorrhe, and be on to Volume 5, La Prisonnière, which I’m told a world expert on Proust has described as the one volume of the novel that a time-pressed reader may safely and entirely skip. Wish me luck.

3 responses to “Proust Progress Report 11: Luminous something of the inner life

  1. “The lift operator coughed on him” – mon Dieu! How that brings a Covid-spectre to the reading! Where are the masks! Or “masques”!


  2. I admire your persistence, but am reassured to hear you think highly of Scott Moncrieff’s translation. I have had those lovely little blue Chatto and Windus volumes on my shelves for a few years now

    Liked by 1 person

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