Musings on Proust, Part Seven

Hmm…the next book I called in to my library has not arrived yet, leaving me with only Proust for a day or two. While I have to admit that he is becoming easier to read–I think having given up hope that he’ll write a clean, straightforward sentence has helped–he is still up to a number of his old tricks in this, part one of Le coté de Guermantes.

To wit: the delayed-gratification sentence, wherein he keeps adding parenthetical insertions, usually set off by commas, occasionally by actual parentheses, invariably piling up like boxcars in a train wreck, or perhaps veering into ancillary details that he feels you really need to know, frequently simply meandering into his newest hobby of classical allusions, classical in this case referring to, as you might expect given the era in which he lived, Greek mythology, as when just this afternoon he compared telephone operators to a variety of Attic dieties, though he does throw in a reference to the proverbial genie of the Middle East, thus helping the reader pass the time as tediously as the narrator himself does while waiting for a chatty prior customer to clear the party line between Doncières and Paris, until he finally is able to speak to his grandmother, which leads him into another musing wherein he explains how he never really heard her voice before since her expressions added so much shading to anything she said, after which meanderings (which fortunately do not spur him to declaim upon the Meander River of Homer’s day), he neglects to mention what they spoke of.

That’s all right, because the conversations of the military chaps he befriends while dining in the officers’ mess with his moonstruck admirer Robert Saint-Loup suffer no such neglect. Apparently M (the narrator, if you will recall) is a natural military historian, eliciting endless praises from the officers as they discuss with him military tactics, military exercises, and a captain they all admire who may in fact be an illegitimate (or perhaps legitimate) son of Napoleon III, and is a prince besides. These disquisitions on military affairs go on for endless pages now, till one feels somewhat besieged.  There is also, for the modern reader, a kind of wistfulness induced by the knowledge that every single tactic they expostulate upon will be invalidated by World War I, which is right around the corner.

Then, once in a while, M returns to the putative theme of this first part of Le coté de Guermantes, which is M’s effort to enlist Saint-Loup’s help in obtaining an audience with the Duchess of Guermantes. She, you may remember (if you have a good memory and sufficient tolerance for digression), is the older, married aristocrat that M believes himself to be in love with, and a taste of whose attentions he fervently desires. Having discovered that Mme. de Guermantes possesses several painting by Elstir, the artist M has befriended back in Balbec, M persuades poor Saint-Loup (who seems a bit of an innocent) to arrange for Mme. de Germantes to invite him over for a viewing–thus compromising two friends in his quest for noble nookie.

In the last section, M rushes back to Paris to be with his grandmother, whom he presumes to be forlorn and lost without him, only to find her reading happily and a bit miffed at being interrupted by our ever-needy hero.

But that’s all right; soon his friend Saint-Loup appears and drags him to meet his captivating mistress, whom he’s been bragging on the entire time that M has been at Doncières. Well, it turns out that she is none other than the “exotic” Jewish prostitute once offered to M when his Parisian friend Bloch took him to a whorehouse. Now she is being kept by Saint-Loup at great expense, and M sees her as a cheap golddigger…until he actually talks with her, and realizes that she is well-read and perceptive, as well as an excellent if often catty actress (her new métier). Proust now treats us to a dizzying series of perceptual flipflops as M tries to figure out just who Rachel really is: whore, golddigger, actress, critical thinker, or sarcastic bitch. It’s a sorry performance on M’s part, and maybe a glimmer of brilliance on Proust’s. It is left unresolved for now, since there are plenty of pages left for development…so many pages left!

Part one of Le coté de Guermantes ends with two acts of physical violence: Saint-Loup slapping a journaliste in the theater when he won’t put out his cigar in deference to M’s asthma, and Saint-Loup beating up a gay man who propositions him on the street outside the theater, a move M attributes to Saint-Loup’s “undeniable” beauty.

Perhaps this is a prelude to the supposedly enlightened treatment of homosexuality I hear ascribed to La recherche, though so far it doesn’t look too good for gays or Jews (both of which Proust was).

Again, the dialogues here were superb, and the narration a bit less thickened than usual for Proust. We’ll see what happens next. In a few weeks.

Rick Risemberg

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