Musings on Proust, part 5

I have at last finished with part 2 of tome 2, and I must give Proust some credit: the sentence structure is less tormented now, though the protagonist is more so. Also the author is not leaning so heavily upon the past subjunctive. It’s still prominent, just less so, but I confess that its use here, though a bit out-of-date, is valid in a book that deals with time, memory, and a thoroughly neurotic sense of uncertainty.

When last we left our hero, he was determined to suppress his love for Gilberte, who never did write him that imploring letter, the hussy! In this he achieved a spectacular and suspiciously easy success, which, if it was not a cheap plot device but a reflection of the author’s nature in this transparently autobiographical sprawl of a novel, does not speak well of the actual Marcel. Be that as it may, M needs something to fret over, and Proust hands it to him, in fact loads it on him with an uncharacteristic generosity: for M at last will visit Balbec!

Earlier in the tale, M goes on and on about wishing to visit said Balbec, in particular to see an ancient church, which he imagines to stand nobly on a clifftop over the raging seas of that coastal town. The problem is that M is a bit of a homebody; he feels comfortable in Paris, where the family lives, and Combray, where the family regularly vacations, but to disrupt his routines so far as to go to a town he has never yet visited, and, worse, stay–the horror, the horror!–in a hotel, is something he faces with trepidation. Especially as Mum and Dad don’t want to go there with him. Dad has some unspecified “work” to do, and Mum has promised her company to an ailing friend or relative–matters which the narrator himself explains are subterfuges to free them of his company for a while. However, Grandma is willing to go along as bodyguard, and since the doctor has said that sea air would be good for his asthma, M grudgingly consents to the plan. He notes that Grandma keeps a rather sharp eye on him throughout the train ride, no doubt anticipating one of the narrator’s fits of frantic melancholy–and in fact the old gal requires that they stop midway so she too can visit a perhaps-mythical friend, and the next morning sends M off alone to Balbec, where she will meet him that evening. M is rightfully suspicious, but has little choice, and arrives alive and unwheezing at the longed-for location.

And–believe it or not–suffers a grave, almost cosmic disappointment: for the church in question does not sit nobly on a wave-lashed headland, but in the middle of town, next to a pharmacy and a bank. In fact, there are two Balbecs, and the one to which he is ultimately destined, the Balbec-by-the Sea, is fully five miles away by a secondary railroad. Despondent, a little angry with the cosmos, he dutifully looks at the church and somehow, reluctantly, enjoys himself–while grousing that it looked better in the photographs.

Then Grandma arrives and accompanies him to the real Balbec and the dreaded hotel.

Once there, Proust treats us to a litany of bitter musings on M’s part, mostly about how alien the room seems to him compared with his beloved chambers in Paris and at Combray. This continues at length, till it’s time for lunch, which gives M a chance to grouse about the other guests instead, who all seem to combine loutishness with pretension. This continues, also at great length, until M espies Mlle. Stermaria, whose beauty leads him to forgive her her father’s excessively-penetrating voice. Proust then proceeds to crawl through the mire of M’s mind as he constructs an elaborate fantasy of M’s so impressing Mlle. Stermaria that she will write him an impassioned letter begging him to be her sweetheart. The problem arises that a frail, pallid, wheezing, silent adolescent clinging to his grandmother is not perhaps the most impressive of prospective suitors. How to impress the girl?

At this point Proust introduces Mme. de Villeparisis, a minor but genuine member of the aristocracy, who enters rooms preceded by a footman and followed by a chambermaid who keeps the train of her gown from sullying itself on the vulgar floor. And this semi-grande dame is a friend of Grandma’s!

Unfortunately for M, Grandma, wishing to be discreet, pretends not to notice Mme. de Villeparisis’s magnificent entrances, resulting in tense ruminations, on M’s part, of the perfidy of life and relatives. These go on at great length, interrupted by further ruminations on the vulgarity of the dining room, the hotel staff, and the bourgeois guests.

However, M at last discovers something that he likes: the sea! He is required to bath in it daily and sit by it for long stretches, during which he watches the coarse vigor of his fellow adolescents as they engage in bold swimming parties and trot about on horses. Of course he fantasizes that perhaps they will somehow be drawn from their pleasures by M’s nonexistent magnetism to beg for his company. This does not happen, in fact, but M is sufficiently taken by mighty Okeanos that he devotes as much descriptive skill to the sea as he had previously reserved for gowns and flowers…Proust really does a bang-up job here, deploying straightforward phrases not unduly soggy with adjectives.

After a few days M discovers that, to his utter amazement, he has gotten to like his room at the hotel, and that he is enjoying himself despite his alienation from the other guests of his age cohort.

It is around this point that Proust drops a fine, unaffected sentence wherein M describes the travails of adolescence, saying: “When you are surrounded by gods and monsters, it’s hard to stay calm.” Indeed…I think we can all remember that difficult state of being.

Now M’s fortunes improve: Grandma and Mme. de Villeparisis bump into each other in a narrow doorway, Grandma must acknowledge their relationship, Mme. de Villeparisis begins to cart them around in her carriage to show them the sights, and everyone in the hotel is duly impressed…except Mlle. Stermaria, who, M decides, must be some sort of ice princess, so he proceeds to forget her.

That’s all right, though, as M. Saint-Loup, a beautiful boy of around M’s age, arrives in town, striding arrogantly through the crowds without making eye contact, but impressing everyone, especially M, with his blond good looks, haughty postures, and excellent clothes. And he is a relative of Mme. de Villeparisis! He in fact arrived specifically to visit her! M eagerly awaits the required introduction, at which, however, Saint-Loup continues to avoid eye contact. M despondently returns to his recurring fantasy of a letter arriving unbidden, begging for his company–and this time it happens! Within the space of two pages, they grow into best friends, and M seems content at last, even though he discovers that Saint-Loup nurtures dismissive feelings about the aristocracy to which he himself belongs, and which M so much admires. However, this somewhat normal relationship is as much as a relief to the reader as it is to M.

At this point the story becomes more complex: Saint-Loup’s uncle, M. de Charlus, arrives in town, and proceeds also to barrel through avoiding eye contact and, when introduced, ignoring M and speaking only to Grandma. However, in a too-blatant parallel, he also later reaches out to M with restrained but precise expressions of desire for his company. Much of the rest of part 2, tome 2, is dedicated to explaining this peculiar character, who is slated to play an important part later on.

And now, I shall take a break before proceeding to part 3 of tome 2, and read something more straightforward–if I can find it in lockdown. I suppose a few re-reads are in the offing, or an assault on the Gutenberg Project for free e-books….

And so, ta-a for now, M, Proust, Grandma, the various strata of French nobility, and the all the jolly crew at Balbec. Do not fear, I’ll be back!

Just don’t expect a letter.

Rick Risemberg