In In search of lost time, Swann has aristocratic friends and is welcomed in the salons of Paris society, until he marries Odette, his mistress.
I have read the last word of In search of lost time. What did I love of it?
I loved the first Goodnight kiss. Marcel, a child, needs to be kissed by his mother to give him the calmness he needs to sleep. It has to be just right, or he will be distracted; and this evening he is so upset when he cannot kiss her that he needs her to sleep in his room all night. He could be six, or eighteen- his reading the novels of Bergotte at the time indicates older rather than younger- and even as an adult he needs the kiss of Albertine in order to sleep.
Strange that I should love that, when after his musings alone about Albertine, I felt embarrassment: he will be found out, everyone will see him as a fool. He cannot love. He needs to control Albertine, for if she escapes his sight for an hour he imagines her doing things he does not like, and when he remembers her dancing with Andrée he is convinced they were aroused by their breasts touching. When did he decide that Albertine was lesbian? Just before he decided he had to marry her. Some time after that dance, where Cottard put it in his mind, as a Scientific Certainty- women are aroused chiefly through the breasts.
I even came to tolerate the parties. In the first volume there is a woman who wants to talk to a much grander woman, yet is snubbed, and humiliated further by the narrator who says what a fool she is, as well as what a fool she appears. There are a lot of parties, and what each person says is analysed, and how they look, and how they relate. That analysis makes a fool of the child Marcel- imagine! He cannot sleep unless his mother kisses him! He cannot sleep unless Albertine kisses him! Having looked at him with a microscope, studying every angle, my complete knowledge of him produces Love.
The Baron de Charlus, similarly: chasing and bickering with his lover the violinist Morel, son of a lackey, or humiliated by Mme Verdurin after behaving as if her concert at her salon at her house was his, or recruiting lower class men for his homosexual sadomasochist brothel- the men are never as cruel as he wishes them to be, not really understanding the game- or taking on Marcel as his protégé, then raging apoplectically at him for seeing and talking to people without Charlus’ direction- I despise and love him.
Marcel and, separately, Swann, call upon the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes just before the couple leave for a dinner party. Swann is dying: his doctors tell him he has only a few months to live. Basin is concerned that his cousin will die before he leaves for the evening, because then he will have to stay in, for propriety’s sake. If the man clings to life another hour, Basin can go out, and adopt mourning tomorrow.
My beautiful, talented and vibrant friend has emailed twice, and I have not responded. When we met last month, we hugged and I was delighted to see her, as well as reserved. She said, “Call me”, and I have not.
We met two years ago at a weekly drama improvisation. After, we went to the pub, and shared stuff, and said motivational positive-thinking wisdom stuff at each other. She came to see me at my stand-up gig, and we ate afterwards. Then we did not see each other again.
So her email in October was delightful, and yet I did not respond, by email or phone, and it occurred to me that I was ashamed to. I had been talking of performing, and all this wisdom, and I am in a cul-de-sac, not having given birth to a dancing star or whatever.
One gets the impression that Robert de Saint-Loup really cares for Marcel, and Marcel does not entirely reciprocate. Sometimes Marcel uses his friendship: he wants an invitation to the house of a woman; he wants a message conveyed to Albertine after she leaves him, and he wants to micro-manage how that is done, indicating a lack of trust in the messenger. He observes Robert’s love for Rachel as a writer might.
At one point I had two friends I saw weekly, and shared deeply. I have generally had one who would hear my woes, and now I have one who chunters on boringly about her issues, so that when I talked of my father’s funeral she moved onto another subject quickly, in great detail. Don’t worry, it isn’t you. She is pleasant enough when I have nothing better to do- most of the time.
So it seemed that I had been one particular aspect of myself with the Vivacious one (who is straight, unfortunately) and I would have to ease in to being other aspects of myself.
-How are you?
and deep conversation like that.
A friend could reassure me that one particular view of myself is correct. A friend could do many things. Perhaps I should explore.
Having finally got the idea of the Mega-me, I thought I might actually do it. The brain cannot tell the difference between doing something in fantasy and doing it in actuality- our mirror neurons fire off replicating others’ feelings, and if we can create feelings of achievement we can go out and do the thing in reality. So I thought I would ask Quakers to participate in an improvised drama, and imagined friends objecting because it was silly. Useful to have someone to project on.
By horrible coincidence, two people I knew through karate have also lost a parent in the last month. They announced it on facebook. I did not want to- but did, today. I have hardly been posting there for a month. Lots of loving, warming comments from people I rarely see, Likes because I said how wonderful he had been, and I walked in the park feeling Happy, perhaps because of the mild air and beauty of the place, perhaps because of facebook.
Proust on the art of the novelist.
Certain people, whose minds are prone to mystery, like to believe that objects retain something of the eyes which have looked at them, that old buildings and pictures appear to us not as they originally were but beneath a perceptible veil woven for them over the centuries by the love and contemplation of millions of admirers. This fantasy, if you transpose it into the domain of what is for each of us his sole reality, the domain of his own sensibility, becomes the truth.
If reality were indeed a sort of waste product of experience, more or less identical for each one of us… no doubt a sort of cinematograph film of these things would be sufficient, and the “style”, the “literature” that departed from the simple data that they provide would be superfluous and artificial… If I tried to understand what actually happens at the moment when a thing makes some particular impression upon one… I realised that the exclamations in each case were a long way from the impressions that I had in fact received. So that the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be “invented” by a great writer- for it exists already in each one of us- has to be translated by him.
All our exclamations can only be brought back into conformity with the felt truth from which it has so widely diverged by the abolition of all that we have set most store by, all that in our solitude, in our feverish projects of letters and schemes, has been the substance of our passionate dialogue with ourselves.
Since every impression is double and the one half which is sheathed in the object is prolonged in ourselves by another half which we alone can know, we speedily find means to neglect this second half, which is the one on which we ought to concentrate, and to pay attention only to the first half which, as it is external and therefore cannot be intimately explored, will occasion us no fatigue.
in that flight to get away from our own life (which we have not the courage to look at)
the public were incapable of understanding what an artist has attempted in a realm of discovery which is outside experience
As for the enjoyment which is derived by a really discerning mind and a truly living heart from a thought beautifully expressed in the writings of a great writer, this is no doubt an entirely wholesome enjoyment, but, precious though the men may be who are truly capable of enjoying this pleasure- and how many of them are there in a generation?- they are nevertheless in the very process reduced to being no more than the full consciousness of another.
the sensitive lover of literature reanimates it and swells it with meaning
an art that is so simple as life, without beauty, a mere vain and tedious duplication of what our eyes see and our intellect records, so vain and so tedious that one wonders where the writer who devotes himself to it can have found the joyous and impulsive spark that was capable of setting him in motion and making him advance in his task. The greatness of true art, which M. de Norpois would have called a dilettante’s pastime, lay elsewhere: we have to rediscover, to reapprehend, to make ourselves fully aware of that reality, remote from our daily preoccupations, from which we separate ourselves by an ever greater gulf as the conventional knowledge which we substitute for it grows thicker and more impermeable… Real life. life at last laid bare and illuminated, the only lfe which can be said to be really lived- is literature.
Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves
This work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words. something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accom-
plished by vanity and passion and the intellect, when they smother our true impressions beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life.
giving up one’s belief in the objectivity of what one had oneself elaborated, so that now, instead of soothing oneself for the hundredth time with the words “She was very sweet” one would have to transpose the phrase so that it read, “I experienced pleasure when I kissed her”.
every individual who makes us suffer can be attached by us to a divinity of which he or she is a mere fragmentary reflexion, the lowest step in the ascent that leads to it, which, if we turn to contemplate it, immediately gives us joy instead of the pain which we were feeling before- indeed the whole art of living is to make use of the individuals through whom we suffer as a step enabling us to draw nearer to the divine form which they reflect and thus joyously to people our life with divinities.
it is only a clumsy and erroneous form of perception which places everything in the object, when really everything is in the mind
A man born with sensibility but without imagination might, in spite of this deficiency, be able to write admirable novels.
Marcel jumps out of the way of a car, and steps on a pavement precisely as uneven as one he stepped on in Venice; and his memory of that experience in Venice erupts into his consciousness uncalled-for. In that moment, the memory is as beautiful as an unqualified, unmediated experience: it just is, without ego getting in the way; I escape myself. The world in a grain of sand, says not a map but a fragment of one: one kind of moment, that I recognise remember and often experience, without for me, now, any road to other experiences or actions.
Then I am talking to S, and the thought crosses my mind that this is indeed one of those worldgrainsand moments, I am with her- and immediately I am with the thought, not the experience of the person. Perhaps more breath-counting will get me there in the end: I kneel and count my breaths, and other thoughts cross my mind uninhibited, and vanish because I do not hold them there. Perhaps my memory of that conversation, which I dredge up for the purpose of writing, is not immediate, but soiled by my judgment of it.
I noticed the scratches on the wood, and this seemed a different worldgrainsand moment than previous such moments with that bench: before, I had noticed the grain of the wood, or the knot. Scratch and solidity: it bears its scratches, marked but not weakened by them. Experience, image, memory: all these are different, and the judgment “not weakened” comes somewhere.
I want to move through the World in Love, and this would mean: observing the beauty and abundance of it; taking what I need, without harming the whole, and without fear; uniting without grasping; allowing it and those unknowable creatures within it to be, as they are, without the need for them to be other- creatures including myself;
and everything would be alright. Because everything is alright.
Then something does not fit this cosy image, and it bursts, like a bubble: a tiny soapy drip falls and marks my shirt.
Or- even if it feels otherwise, even if I feel uncomfortable, this is what is happening, as best I can-
Tao called tao is not tao. Do it, don’t describe it, you cannot describe it, you might allude to it- “Am I doing it?” Yes, and no; no, and yes.
I should have no occasion to dwell upon this visit which I paid to the neighbourhood of Combray at perhaps the moment in my life when I thought least about Combray, had it not, precisely for that reason, brought me what was at least a provisional confirmation of certain ideas which I had first conceived along the Guermantes way, and also of certain other ideas which I had conceived on the Méséglise way.
-First sentence of Time Regained
And the second night I stayed there I was wakened from a dream, which I’ll tell you all about, some other time.
Who could resist quoting Swann‘s parody of a bore, from the Gnu song? Contrast,
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. Anthony Burgess’s anti-hero Kenneth Toomey’s homosexuality was more scandalous in 1980 when that book, full of incident, was published. There is the same fascination with the self, but Toomey has a tale to tell, of the Pope’s miracle, and of the history of the 20th century.
Proust’s meandering sentence, starting with a negative and moving to something one might have some passing interest in- a confirmation of ideas- if he would specify what they were, begins a four page paragraph. Marcel walks with Gilberte, whom he no longer loves, and is astounded when she tells him her propositioning him as children was sincere rather than mocking. Is she simply using the speaking-tricks of a woman of the world? He is surprised when she tells him the Méséglise way and Guermantes way, apparently different directions, can be made into a circular walk. Marcel is perturbed that scenes he found beautiful as a child no longer move him, and imagines this means his very capacity to be moved, which he has never understood, has diminished.
Well, yes. Seeking to understand my own sensibility, I make predictions of how it may respond, and am disappointed and perplexed. He seeks to understand from her perception of him, which is even less perceptive than his own. What if-amazingly- one simply permitted the sensibility?
In so many people there are different strata which are not alike. Certainly in myself, I am not sure I notice it in others; perhaps my glasses are too thick, and tinted. And distinguishing how I feel about someone from how they respond, our interaction from who they are may be useful, if I could see clearly how difficult it is.
I thought a selection of Proust’s actual paragraphs, with summaries of the parts between, might make a saleable book: the quality of the writing without the overwhelm. Do have a look at Patrick Alexander‘s work.
It is one thing to paint nudes, quite another to paint society ladies. Madame X might have opened the floodgates. Exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884, the painting caused a scandal. Sargent had to paint over the dress: the strap falling down had been immodest.
It is all to do with timing. Gustave Courtois’s work of 1891 is less subtle, as well as less accomplished:
Boldini in 1885 was comparatively demure:
A street in Venice. It has been the mistake of some very great artists, from a quite natural reaction against the artificial Venice of bad painters, to concentrate exclusively on the Venice of the more humble campi, the little deserted rü, which they found more real, wrote Proust, but look at the man’s gaze:
A pity he did not paint more portraits. Here is Lady Agnew of Lochnaw:
Albertine dies, the day after writing to Marcel that she is willing to return to him. She is thrown by her horse against a tree.
Is it too late for me to return to you?…Would you be prepared to take me back?… If your decision is to tell me to return, I shall take the train at once. Yours with all my heart.
He sent her away in order to establish control over her: and as soon as she went, he was plotting to make her come back, without appearing to want her. Though he imagined her in a lesbian encounter every moment she was away from him, and her vagueness under interrogation made her seem to be wilfully deceiving him, he feels he can only be freed from his misery in her arms. For a minute of that, only once a week, he would give her anything!
Swann imagined that if Odette were to die, he would recover his freedom to live. For that, she would have to die in his heart. The boredom of her company, the fear and jealousy and distrust- and all the Evidence he amasses that his ridiculous distrust is in fact completely justified- all vanish from Marcel’s mind. His recollection is of perfect contentment and delight in being with her, and his loss of her overwhelms him. It is all about him: he mourns a non-existent woman, because of imaginary joy he will no longer obtain from her.
His every sense-impression reminds him of her, and of his misery. This is the thing which Everybody Knows about Proust, who has not read him: an invitation to the Verdurins’ reminds him of a random guest, whose name reminds him of looking up and seeing the light in Albertine’s window. He remakes the memory: everything he had actually felt at the time was Wrong.
So, what did she think? Was little Albertine only desperate to please her Marcel, or was she at last satisfied that not a single hair of him could ever possibly protrude from under her thumb? Did she only desire the security his fortune might bring him, or did she love him for himself, money meaning nothing to her? All these are possible, and she might not have known herself. Only what Marcel imagined, that every act of hers was a plot to escape his oversight and indulge in Sapphism, is improbable.
I hate Marcel sometimes. The daughters of Gomorrah are at once rare enough and numerous enough for one not to pass unnoticed by another in any given crowd. He tells how he had dinner with two friends and their mistresses, who became enamoured of each other. The two women became great friends and used to go about together, one of them, dressed as a man, picking up little girls and taking them home to the other to be initiated.
How do they spot each other? Her intense and velvety gaze fastened itself, glued itself to the passer-by, so adhesive, so corrosive, that you felt that, in withdrawing, it must tear away the skin.
Behold Mme. Verdurin, her fine eyes, ringed with dark shadows by addiction to Debussy more than they would have been by addiction to cocaine.
I love the bitchy queen the Baron de Charlus. Seeing cups displayed at the salon of Mme. Verdurin: “No more iced-coffee cups, remember! Give them to someone whose house you wish to disfigure.” Mme. Verdurin found one consolation alone for her vexations, which was to destroy the happiness of others. So, by lies and false promises, she persuades Charlus’s “protégé”, the violinist Morel, to break with him- and Charlus is reduced to speechless misery, so weak as to be unable to think of vengeance.
The Fugitive has over five hundred pages, and describes one day. Marcel frets about the women the lesbian Albertine, his mistress, could be spending time with, and plots to stop her; then there is the Verdurins’ salon, at which Morel plays, and with a hundred pages to go I have a sinking feeling. They cannot all be a row with Albertine? Oh yes, they can. Her lies dissolve under his scrutiny. She has spent three weeks with the notorious Daughter of Gomorrah, Léa!
When he says that he has been lying throughout that evening encounter, is it self-knowledge at the time, a correct recall of the older persona writing later, a misremembering of that older character, or the author himself?
Seeking to keep her and terrified she will leave, he orders her to leave the following morning before he gets up, in order to make her cling to him. What probably existed in me was an idea of Albertine entirely contrary to that which my reason formed of her, and also to that which her own words suggested, an Albertine who was nonetheless not wholly invented, since she was like an internal mirror of certain impulses that occurred in her. This anatomising of conscious and unconscious ridiculousnesses, all divorced from reality, makes me loathe “Marcel” and fear the novel.
How much of the self-loathing is Proust’s own? Only painting and music, and not words, can reveal the elements that compose the soul of the artist- that ineffable something which differentiates qualitatively what each of us have felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with others only by limiting himself to externals, common to all and of no interest, are brought out by art and music.
Translation by CK Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by DJ Enright.
My big category is “being human“, generalising from myself and quoting accumulated wisdom-stuff about being human, and I am a big fan of “Being Human“, which ended its fifth and final series this week with a glorious happy ending which definitively ends it, and put a huge smile of delight on me. It was sweet, lovely and heart-warming.
I am ploughing my way through “The Prisoner”, volume 5 of In Search of Lost Time, and it is difficult. More than half of the book is one day, in which Marcel frets jealously about Albertine because she is out, and he does not know where she is or with whom, and manipulates her, and treats her monstrously, then goes out for an evening party with the Verdurins. Here is wit and insight, a real human being stripped bare with his insights and his blindnesses, and it is a struggle. He is impossible to admire, hard to like, and that matters to me. It makes reading a struggle.
I am rather a snob about fiction, and have interrupted The Prisoner for “The Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood (upper-middle brow), “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K LeGuin (upper-middle brow unless you are completely prejudiced against speculative fiction) and the two Uplift Trilogies by David Brin. This is barely middle-brow. It is unashamed space-opera, even though he is a sometimes serious author with serious concerns in some of his science fiction: here, at one point aliens invade and the Resistance retreat to the jungles as guerillas, forsooth. It is great fun; though characters are one-dimensional, the culture of the Five Galaxies is beautifully realised, and there is discussion of the meaning of “Redemption”.
Atwood disappointed me. The book runs parallel to Oryx and Crake, in which she wiped out most of humanity after showing it in a nasty and brutish dystopia. I was hoping for new revelations to make the bleakness of the first book pale into insignificance, and found more of the same.
Why do I read Proust? I have no idea. There are moments of description which delight and amaze me, such as Bergotte’s last illness: Maddened by uninterrupted pain, to which was added insomnia broken only by brief spells of nightmare. Yet I know that in great part I am reading it in order to have read it, not out of snobbery so much as for my own self-image. I like to think of myself as the kind of person who reads Proust, and Bertrand Russell, and Montaigne. But I would far rather be immersed in the planet Jijo where the Jophur oppress the G’Kek, or in Honolulu Heights where decent people face terrible problems with courage, and win through.
What do I want to read? I am conflicted. I really want to manage my image of myself, for myself- I read Serious Literature because I am Keltured and Idiocated. I do. So I am still reading Proust, mostly in bored distaste but sometimes entranced; and I take long breaks on alien worlds. Well, I can. There are no rules about this.