Musings on Proust, Part 4

Document generated by physiokinetic impact print, ie, manual typewriter

Having finished not with A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs as I had at first vainly imagined, but only Part 1 of Tome 2, I prepare to plunge into the swamp of Part 2 (of 3) of said Tome. But first, it will be time to rest both my analytical and my critical faculties, and rest from tormenting them with not only Proust’s tortured (and tortuous) sentences, but his ceaseless fawning over the wealthy of every station. It is this latter characteristic of his that drove me away from La Recherche in my twenties, when I attempted to read it in English, and in my thirties, when I first dipped into it in French. So far, the only characters not of the haute bourgeoisie or above have been M. Vinteuil, the piano teacher, who dies almost instantly in Tome 1 (but whose sonata lives on to bind Swann to Odette through the brief musical phrase that they heard together early in their relationship, and which the narrator mentions frequently, assuring the reader that even though Odette, who is not an accomplished musician, plays it badly, it is in fact compelling to Swann, who asks her to hammer it out every night), and whose daughter, the horny Lesbian whose assignation the narrator has glimpsed, purely by accident, though he gazes with some evident interest at the proceedings, in the first scene of Tome 1 that is not florid floral description or character sketches of his relatives, must inevitably re-appear later in the novel, though the narrator considers her a bad daughter for making her father’s portrait watch her loveplay; and Francoise the servant, who is the cliché of the devoted retainer; and Swann’s coachman, whom Swann fires after having employed him for ages simply because he displeased Odette–everyone else being of that class of people who need not trouble themselves over paying the bills, and who are differentiated more by the relative extravagance of their wealth than by any need to keep a budget. This clashed with my willfully proletarian orientation in those days of my own lost time, and clashes with the remains of it today, but back then it kept me from suffering Proust’s grammatical extravagances, which, if they were income, would put him ahead of even the “colossally wealthy” de Norpois.

But in Tome 2 the narrator has, as I mentioned in an earlier posting, more or less accidentally been initiated into the Swann household, where he enjoys unfettered access to his adolescent love interest, Gilberte, free even to spend hours alone with her in her room. So what does he do? Why, what any other horny young Frenchman would do: he devotes himself to fawning over Gilberte’s mother, Odette, at the dinner table, and holding various manly conversations with Swann himself, who informs him (it is not certain whether Swann thus unburdened himself to a teenager, or told him years later, as Proust diligently mixes up timelines here), that Swann married Odette only to avenge himself for her earlier infidelities by having affairs of his own! But: Swann wearily admits that now, as he is no longer in love with Odette, and so emotionally free to hurt her, he doesn’t care whether he gets his revenge or not. So he has his affair, but, rather than throw it in Odette’s face, keeps it secret so as not to hurt her feelings. Meanwhile, the Narrator meanders off to visit whorehouses, in the company of his friend Bloch (yes, he actually has a friend), and recounts several interesting conversations with the ladies and their madame.

At this point one begins to wish that the recurring character, Dr. Cottard, were a psychiatrist. Alas, he is not.

And now the reader begins to see that Proust is building deliberate parallels between Swann and the Narrator, as the latter now decides that Gilberte is insufficiently attentive to him (not that he’s done much to deserve her attention), and so he decides to punish her by not seeing her, since this will somehow awaken her to the depth of her love for him. (NB: There is no reasonable evidence for this assumption in the text.) He consoles himself with a long (by which I mean really long) section describing his growing friendship with Bergotte, his favorite novelist, whom he met at the Swann’s and whom he at first disses in his own mind for having a knobby nose and a goatee, which is not how the narrator imagined him. This is truly distressing to the poor Narrator, but through a Nietszchean effort of will he overcomes the horror of dashed expectations, becomes a close friend of the older writer, and then (since the Narrator is Proust’s mouthpiece) launches into a long (by which I mean really long) apologia of Bergotte’s florid and contorted style–which looks rather suspiciously to me like a defense of Proust’s own practice.

Part 1 of Tome 2 then ends with a dissection of Odette’s social-climbing habit, its ultimate futility, and Odette’s own petty revenge on Mme. Verdurin, at whose salon she met Swann; after which it proceeds to perhaps gratuitous assertions of Odette’s lack of intelligence and her ignorance of the true manners of the ultra-rich. All the while offsetting these cavils with the Narrator’s devotion to her grace and fine dresses.

Oh, yes, and the Narrator spends a great deal of time imagining the imploring missive Gilberte is sure to write him once she begins to suffer from his absence. At the end of the section, said letter has not arrived, and the reader is trying telepathically to warn Gilberte against ever writing it–should she even notice that the Narrator’s ignoring her.

And, yes, Proust really does write sentences such as the one I wedged into the first paragraph, whose subordinate clauses have subordinate clauses, and so ad infinitum, with frequent halts for parenthetical insertions. And this from a man who was writing after Victor Hugo and Émile Zola, and around the time of the young Simenon…. Wish I had me a Simenon to read right now, too.

Rick Risemberg