Tag Archives: Jess Hill

Proust Progress Report 13: La Prisonnière continue

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 5, La Prisonnière pages 1630–1723

This is my thirteenth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu: 1723 pages read and 677 to go! I’m bearing up much better than my copy of the book, as seen on the left. I mostly read my three pages in bed in the morning, so the damage has been caused by ordinary wear and tear, not by any gross mistreatment.

A lot happens in this month’s reading. Here are some highlights, not necessarily in order. The violinist Morel continues to be an opportunistic scoundrel. Marcel (as the narrator has now been named, twice) listens to the sounds of the street in the early morning (those are lovely pages). He contemplates sending a dairymaid on an errand but changes his mind. He watches Albertine as she sleeps, and creepily drapes her unconscious arm around his neck. He watches her wake up. He takes us through his own process of waking up from a dream. He ruminates on the relationship between love, obsession (not his word) and jealousy. He talks Albertine out of going somewhere where he fears she might meet other Lesbians, and then realises that he has let her go to a performance by a notorious Lesbian. He plays the piano. He opens Albertine’s chemise and looks at her naked body:

Les deux petits seins haut remontés étaient si ronds qu’ils avaient moins l’air de faire partie intégrante de son corps que d’y avoir mûri comme deux fruits ; et son ventre (dissimulant la place qui chez l’homme s’enlaidit comme du crampon resté fiché dans une statue descellée) se refermait, à la jonction des cuisses, par deux valves d’une courbe aussi assoupie, aussi reposante, aussi claustrale que celle de l’horizon quand le soleil a disparu.

(Page 1661)

This is about as erotic as La recherche gets. But wait, I asked, wasn’t Proust Gay, or at least bisexual? What weirdness is this about men’s bodies? I looked up Scott Moncrieff’s translation. And there it is:

Her two little upstanding breasts were so round that they seemed not so much to be an integral part of her body as to have ripened there like two pieces of fruit; and her belly (concealing the place where a man’s is marred as though by an iron clamp left sticking in a statue that has been taken down from its niche) was closed, at the junction of her thighs, by two valves of a curve as hushed, as reposeful, as cloistral as that of the horizon after the sun has set.

This translation even softens the meaning a bit – I would have thought s’enlaidit was ‘becomes ugly’ rather than ‘is marred’.

Increasingly I understand why, at the end of fifteen years, when Clive James had finished reading this work in French, he needed to read an English translation so he’d know what he’d read.

Proust Progress Report 12: Beginning La Prisonnière

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): the last pages of Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe, and the beginning of Book 5, La Prisonnière

This is my twelfth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu. That means I’ve been at it for a whole year – and no end in sight.

Towards the end of Sodome et Gomorrhe, the narrator was about to dump Albertine because she was boring and no longer attractive. Then she told him something about herself that made him conclude she was Lesbian, and he immediately pivoted to decide to marry her. Now, in the early pages of the fifth book, La prisonnière / The Captive, she is living with him in his family home in Paris (in separate but adjacent rooms, with a stern rule that she is not to interrupt his privacy unbidden), and he is obsessively keeping tabs on her, in case she even exchanges glances with ‘the kind of woman I don’t like’.

Thanks to the Emerging Artist, I’ve currently had extracts from Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do read aloud to me. That book’s descriptions of coercive control could have the narrator’s relationship to Albertine in mind. À la recherche is looking less and less like a beautiful exploration of a luminous inner life, and more like something much uglier.

I had a 16-day holiday from Proust this month – we were away and À la recherche du temps perdu was too bulky to take along. But it does seem that once you’ve embarked on this book, it crops up regularly. Apart from the Jess Hill book, there was this from the Observer‘s Everyman Crossword Nº 3852 (link here):

Get rid of creative Frenchman! Get rid of Pierre Renoir for starters! (4)

More to the point, a friend told me about Anne Carson’s brilliant (and very funny) poem The Albertine Workout. The poem relates mainly to La Prisonnière, and it makes me expect that my repugnance at some of the narrator’s behaviour is only going to increase as I read on. His current imprisonment of Albertine, it seems, intensifies and keeps up for this whole 300+ pages.

But I am reading on, still in awe of Proust’s extraordinary sentences. Take this, which I read this morning:

Les brimborions de la parure causaient à Albertine de grands plaisirs. Je ne savais pas me refuser de lui en faire chaque jour un nouveau. Et chaque fois qu’elle m’avait parlé avec ravissement d’une écharpe, d’une étole, d’une ombrelle, que par la fenêtre, ou en passant dans la cour, de ses yeux qui distinguaient si vite tout ce qui se rapportait à l’élégance, elle avait vues au cou, sur les épaules, à la main de Mme de Guermantes, sachant que le goût naturellement difficile de la jeune fille (encore affiné par les leçons d’élégance que lui avait été la conversation d’Elstir) ne serait nullement satisfait par quelque simple à peu près, même d’une jolie chose, qui la remplace aux yeux du vulgaire, mais en diffère entièrement, j’allais en secret me faire expliquer par la duchesse où, comment, sur quel modèle, avait été confectionné ce qui avait plu à Albertine, comment je devais procéder pour obtenir exactement cela, en quoi consistait le secret du faiseur, le charme (ce qu’Albertine appelait « le chic », « le genre ») de sa manière, le nom précis – la beauté de la matière ayant son importance – et la qualité des étoffes dont je devais demander qu’on se servît.

You can read C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation below*, but I find that reading a translation is no substitute for untangling the flow of Proust’s sentences for myself. Here, after two simple sentences, the rest is just one complex sentence. Here’s the skeleton of that third sentence:

And every time she had spoken to me of something she’d seen the duchess wearing, knowing that she would accept no imitations, I would go and have the duchess tell me everything about the thing that had pleased Albertine, and how I could obtain the exact same thing.

That skeleton, to mix my metaphors, sends out sparks in many directions. There’s the wonderful word brimborions to start with. I had to look up a couple of dictionaries, but it almost doesn’t matter what brimborions de la parure means, it sounds so great. I’d translate it as ‘fripperies’ rather than Moncrieff’s more respectful ‘any sort of finery’, though I’m sure he had his reasons. There are lists – of bimborions, the parts of the body they adorn, the kinds of information needed to replicate the object of desire. There are parentheses – one to remind the reader of Albertine’s history from two books earlier, one to say how her vocabulary differs from the narrator’s, probably in ways that identify her as young and fashionable. There’s a hint of Proust’s abiding theme of snobisme, in a phrase distinguishing Albertine and himself from the vulgaire – hard to beat Moncrieff’s ‘the common herd’. And it doesn’t have one of Proust’s brilliant similes, where in the middle of a description of a frivolous dinner party, one finds oneself thinking of classical art, or contemporary medical science, or power politics.

I don’t know how a fluent French reader would go, but I enjoy the concentration it takes to keep track of all that.

A similar thing happens on a larger scale. For instance, that paragraph is itself something of a detour from the main flow of the narrative, or perhaps a return from a detour, it’s sometimes hard to tell. The narrator has been enjoying the glorious freedom of an Albertine-free day while she is out with one of his spies, and as the day come to an end he goes to ask Mme Guermantes for some choses de toilette for her. He then digresses for some narky comments on Mme Guermantes’ pretensions to poverty and reflections on the way he always sees her as bearing the invisible trappings of her aristocratic status. Then, after commenting that it’s as miraculous that he should speak to this etherial beauty about practical matters as it is that we should use a miraculous device like a telephone to order an ice cream, he switches to talk of brimborions and we are back with the story. Reading three pages a day, I’m pretty pleased with myself that I can keep track even as well as I do.


* Albertine delighted in any sort of finery. I could not deny myself the pleasure of giving her some new trifle every day. And whenever she had spoken to me with rapture of a scarf, a stole, a sunshade which, from the window or as they passed one another in the courtyard, her eyes that so quickly distinguished anything smart, had seen round the throat, over the shoulders, in the hand of Mme de Guermantes, knowing how the girl’s naturally fastidious taste (refined still further by the lessons in elegance of attire which Elstir’s conversation had been to her) would not be at all satisfied by any mere substitute, even of a pretty thing, such as fills its place in the eyes of the common herd, but differs from it entirely, I went in secret to make the Duchess explain to me where, how, from what model the article had been created that had taken Albertine’s fancy, how I should set about to obtain one exactly similar, in what the creator’s secret, the charm (what Albertine called the ‘chic‘ the ‘style’) of his manner, the precise name – the beauty of the material being of importance also – and quality of the stuffs that I was to insist upon their using.

SWF 2020 Day One

This year, because of viral matters, the Sydney Writers’ Festival has gone virtual. According to its website, more than 50 re-imagined sessions from the 2020 program will be presented as podcasts over the next few months. I don’t usually blog about podcasts, but since I’ve been blogging about the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 16 years off and mostly on, why not? I’ve made a monetary donation to help the festival through this crisis (and you can too, at this link). Here’s my bloggetary one, hopefully the first of several.

The first six podcasts were uploaded last Friday, all excellent. Here they are in my listening order, plus an earlier one that’s technically part of the Festival. The titles of the sessions here are linked to the Festival website where you can find the podcast..

Alison Whittaker: Opening Night Address: Alison Whittaker, described on the Festival website as ‘Gomeroi poet, essayist and legal scholar’, evoked the isolated condition in which she recorded her talk. She said her brief included a request to avoid talking about Covid-19 if it was possible, but she couldn’t find a way to avoid it. The theme of the Festival is Almost Midnight: she suggested that it’s now a minute past midnight, that we are living in apocalyptic times, but that First Nations Peoples have been doing that for 250 years. It’s a salutary talk, in which Whittaker pays tribute to many other First Nations writers who were scheduled to appear at the Festival.

Ann Patchett and Kevin Wilson: A Conversation with Friends: A free-ranging conversations between two US writers. Wilson first met Pratchett when he was beginning his postgraduate studies. She asked him to look after her dog for a time, and in that time she kept giving him books to read, which they would discuss, and it sounds as if they’ve been talking about the books they read ever since. It’s a warm, entertaining conversation with a lot of insight into how each of them approaches writing. I haven’t read any of his books, and just two of hers., but both were equally interesting to me.

Rebecca Giggs: Fathoms: I knew nothing about Rebecca Giggs’s book Fathom: The World in the Whale before listening to this. Nor had I heard of Sweaty City, an independent magazine about climate change and urban ecology, whose co-founding editor Angus Dalton is her interlocutor on this podcast. I learnt a lot about whales that I didn’t know I wanted to know. For example parts of whales’ bodies were used to make things and perform functions that are now being made or done using plastics, so the reason for the wholesale slaughter of whales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; but now, in a terrible irony, many whales are dying because of the plastic that is polluting the oceans and ending up in their intestines.

Jess Hill: See What You Made Me Do: Jess Hill’s book about domestic and family violence won this year’s Stella Prize. Before listening to this I thought I might make myself read it in order to Be Good. It turns out that when Jess Hill was commissioned to write a long article on the subject many years ago she accepted without a lot of enthusiasm, but felt that she couldn’t let ‘the sisterhood’ down. As I listened to her describe in this conversation with fellow feminist writer and journalist Georgie how her enthusiasm for the subject grew with her understanding of its complexity, I was similarly enthused. This is a terrific conversation.

Miranda Tapsell: Top End Girl: Miranda Tapsell talks with Daniel Browning from the ABC’s Awaye! about her memoir Top End Girl. Another terrific conversation. Mind you, I’d be delighted to listen to Miranda Tapsell talk about anything or nothing for as long as she wanted. How does a 31 year old women get to write a memoir? She says it’s because when she read memoirs by, for example, Judi Dench or Michael Caine, she was struck by how they struggled to remember details of their youth, so she decided to write about her youth while it was still fresh in her mind. But that’s just a typical bit of charming self-deprecation: in the course of the conversation, it turns out that the book is also something of a manifesto (DB’s term) for diversity of representation and acknowledgement of the presence of Aboriginal people in all aspects of the arts, in particular film. They discussed the movie Top End Wedding, and the process of getting cultural permissions. I especially loved that at the very end, Browning asked about the episode of Get Krack!n when she and Nakkiah Lui took over the stage, and she spoke of the huge privilege she was given there of speaking in a ‘raw, unfiltered’ way while also exercising her ‘comedy chops’ to the full. That was one of my Great Moments of Television, and I was delighted to hear that they both thought so too.

Return of the Sweatshop Woman: Sweatshop is a Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Its Sweatshop Women is an anthology of short stories, essays and poems produced entirely by women of colour. This podcast, shorter than the others, consists of readings by five of its contributors: Phoebe Grainer, Sara Saleh, Sydnye Allen, Janette Chen and Maryam Azam. One of the joys of the Festival is being read to, and another is hearing from voices that are usually marginalised if not completely silenced. This podcast provides both joys. The readings are introduced by Winnie Dunn, general manager of Sweatshop.

If I was attending this Festival at somewhere like the Carriageworks (currently in dire straits thanks to governments’ decision that the arts aren’t eligible for Covid–related help) or Walsh Bay (currently being ‘redeveloped’), I’d be in the company of hundreds of other silver heads, and I’d skip more sessions than I attended. So I have much of a misgiving about not watching or listening to Malcolm Turnbull in Conversation with Annabel Crabb, but there’s the link of you’re interested. (Full disclosure: I did listen to the first 20 minutes of this conversation, and MT’s urbanity and AC’s apparently genuine affection for him are seductive.)

I miss those hundreds of other bodies, the unexpected questions at the end of sessions, the catching up with old friends, Gleebooks’s groaning trestles, the coming out blinking out into the sunlight after being taken to a whole new view of things. But in the absence of all that, I’m grateful for teh existence of podcasts.