Tragic Thirst for a Wilder Existence: The Immoralist by André Gide

Michel’s entire life up until his young adulthood has been influenced and directed by his father.  From his earliest years he is groomed to be a classicist and archaeologist and is immersed in ancient history and cares for nothing that doesn’t deal with the past.  Michel is a docile, emotionless, physically weak and disciplined man.   When his father dies, he marries Marceline, not because he loves her, but because that’s what his father wanted.

While on their honeymoon in Africa, Michel becomes very ill with tuberculosis.  His fevers, bad health and brush with death awaken in him thoughts, emotions, longing and senses he has never experienced before.  He falls in love with his wife and becomes extremely devoted to her.  And he also develops a sensual longing for the African boys that visit and interact with them.  When he recovers and returns to France, he tries to reestablish his career by giving a series of lectures on Athalaric, an obscure Gothic king who died young from heaving drinking and leading an excessively sensual life:

But, I must admit, the figure of the young king Athalaric was what attracted me most to the subject.  I imagined this fifteen-year-old, covertly spurred on by the Goths, rebelling against his mother Amalaswintha, balking at his Latin education, rejecting culture like a stallion restive in harness and, preferring the company of the tumultuous Goths to that of the old and over-prudent Cassiodorus, enjoying for a few years with unruly favorites his own age a violent, voluptuous, unbridled life, dying at eighteen, utterly corrupted, glutted with debauchery.  I recognized in this tragic thirst for a wilder and unspoiled existence something of what Marceline used to call, with a smile, my “attack.”  I sought relief by applying to it at leas my mind, since my body was no longer concerned, and I did my best to convince myself there was a lesson to be read in Athalaric’s hideous death.

I would argue that the lesson Michel learns is that we can’t let ourselves get too weighed down by the past; we must move forward, take risks in life.  And even though these risks may cause us pain and heartache, it is always worth taking a chance.

Gide was a perfect read for my post-Proust reading funk.  I’ve also decided to finish Schmidt’s book on poets and immerse myself in poetry for a while.

 

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A Proust Reading List

I thought it would be helpful to share the list of books related to Proust that I have compiled as I have done previously with Kafka and Dante.  This is a very short list so please leave me additional suggestions in the comments.  The translation I used to read Proust was the Moncrieff et al. version published by The Modern Library which I would highly recommend.

By Way of Sainte-Beuve by Marcel Proust.  This collection of essays is a good introduction to Proust’s style of writing for those who don’t want to dive right into his novel.

The Collected Poems by Marcel Proust. Translated by a wide variety of talented translators.  A wonderful dual language edition by Penguin of Proust’s poetry.  I find that a lot of people don’t realize he wrote poetry.

On Reading by Marcel Proust.   Another great way to get a taste of Proust through his ideas on reading.  It is also a dual language edition I found published by Macmillan in 1971.

Letters of Marcel Proust.  Translated and edited with notes by Mina Curtiss.

Monsieur Proust by Celest Albaret.  Translated by Barbara Bray. Albaret was Proust’s housekeeper in his final years while he was writing his magnum opus.  This book also has a lot of nice photos of Proust.

Marcel Proust: A Biography. Volumes I and II by George D. Painter.  There are two other biographies of Proust by Tadie and Carter that were recommended to me  but I chose the Painter.

Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles.  This was a perfect companion to reading Proust for those who like a visual of all the paintings that Proust discusses.  It also saves a lot of time from having to look each one up individually.  The photos in the book are beautiful.

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein.  An interesting little book that discusses books and reading in Proust.

The Albertine Workout by Ann Carson.  I happened to buy this at The Strand a few years ago because I was interested in Ann Carson.  This is not any kind of truly revealing “workout” of who Albertine was but if you like Carson’s writing then it’s a quick, interesting read.

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski.  Translated by Eric Karpeles.  An inspiring little book that uses Proust to show prisoners that there is hope.

“Proust and I” by Gabriel Josipovici. An essay included in his collection The Teller & The Tale.

“The Image of Proust” by Walter Benjamin.  An essay included in his collection Illuminations translated by Harry Zohn and edited with an introduction by Hannah Arendt.

“The Experience of Proust” by Maurice Blanchot.  This essay, which discusses Proust’s unfinished novel Jean Santeuil, is included in his collection The Book to Come translated by Charlotte Mandell.

And, of course, there is the famous essay on Proust by Samuel Beckett which I have yet to find a copy.  Finally, since Proust was so fond of Balzac and his work is constantly mentioned in In Search of Lost Time, I acquired a complete set of Balzac’s novels.

Addenda:

Thanks to Steve at This Space for sharing these great recommendations with me-

Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method by Gerard Genette.  Translated by Jane E. Lewin.

Proust & Signs: The Complete Text by Gilles Deleuze.

And Eric (@spaceisagrail) who is also reading Proust recommended Roger Shattuck who has a couple of books that are field guides through Proust.

There is an obscure short story that I mentioned in  my last Proust post translated by Burton Pike.  It is wonderful and gives the reader a taste of Proust’s fiction before one decides to dive into the big one:

“The Indifferent One” by Marcel Proust.  Translated by Burton Pike for Conjunctions No. 31.

Thanks to Derek Kalback (@dkalback) for this addition:

Proust Among the Stars by Malcolm Bowie.

Thanks to the amazing flowerville for sharing this essay by Jean Amery and translated by @shirtysleeves and an additional book:

http://shirtysleeves.blogspot.com/2017/11/a-translation-of-zugang-zu-marcel.html

The Quest for Proust by Andre Maurois.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Love, Death, and Indifference in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu

In 1893-1894 Proust wrote a story for Les plaisirs et les jours entitled “The Indifferent One.” But at the last minute he pulled it and substituted it with a different piece of writing. Burton Pike, whose translation of the story is published in Conjunctions No. 31, says that as Proust was beginning to write A la recherche du temps perdu in 1910 he was looking for a copy of this story. It is a short tale about a man and a woman who, because they feign indifference towards one another—neither will be the one to admit to love first—they lose their chance of being together. It is not known whether he ever found his copy of the story, but Proust’s deeper thoughts on indifference are woven everywhere into the fabric of his magnum opus.

Indifference, which is closely related to memory and time in Proust, is a favorite subject of his within two specific contexts: love and death. In the various stages of the love affairs that he describes, indifference is the alpha and omega, so to speak, of a relationship. It is always used as a strategy or a weapon by one lover to goad the other into returning that love. As Swann is pursing Odette’s affections his modus operandi is described: (tran. Moncrieff et al.) “Thus the simple and regular manifestations of this social organism, the ‘little clan’ automatically provided Swann with a daily rendezvous with Odette, and enabled him to feign indifference to the prospect of seeing her, or even of a desire not to see her; in doing which he incurred no very great risk since, even though he had written to her during the day, he would of necessity see her in the evening and accompany her home.” And the narrator himself, as a young man pining away for Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, uses, or tries to use, the same strategy of faking an indifference towards her. When Gilberte sends Marcel invitations to see her, he starts to decline thinking that this will lure her to him:

“…when she made appointments for me to see her I used often to accept them and then, at the last moment, write to her that I was prevented from coming, but with the same protestations of my disappointment that I should have made to anyone whom I had not wished to see. These expressions of regret, which we keep as a rule for people who do not matter, would do more, I imagined to persuade Gilberte of my indifference than would the tone of indifference which we affect only to those whom we love. When, better than by mere words, by a course of action indefinitely repeated, I should have proved to her that I had no appetite for seeing her, perhaps she would discover once again an appetite for seeing me!”

But Proust does acknowledge that all of this pretending and false lack of emotion is a cruel and cold thing to subject a person to, especially someone we claim to love: “Furthermore, our mistake is our failure to value the intelligence, the kindness of a woman whom we love, however slight they may be. Our mistake is our remaining indifferent to the kindness, the intelligence of others.” He learns this painful lesson in his most important love affair with Albertine.

After the love affairs in Proust come to a long, painful ending, indifference is desperately hoped and wished for by the lover; Proust writes about a mad, jealous, love-sick Swann:

“Examining his complaint with as much scientific detachment as if he had inoculated himself with it in order to study its effects, he told himself that, when he was cured of it, what Odette might or might not do would be a matter of indifference to him. But the truth was that in the depths of his morbid condition he feared death itself no more than such a recovery, which would in fact amount to the death of all that he now was.”

It is only when an irreversible indifference to her sets in that Swann finds any real relief from his sorrows. And Marcel himself, due to his forced separation with Gilberte through feigned indifference and rejecting her invitations, finally experiences true indifference towards her: “I had arrived at a state of almost complete indifference to Gilberte when, two years later, I went with the grandmother to Balbec.” The true test of the end of the affair for Proust is utter and complete indifference.

When the death of his grandmother fully impacts the narrator in his second visit to Balbec he reflects on the indifference the dead have for us and the indifference we eventually develop for those who leave us. He keeps dreaming about his grandmother and is disturbed that, although she seems alive, she treats him with indifference: “But in vain did I take her in my arms, I did not kindle a spark of affection in her eyes, a flush of colour in her cheeks. Absent from herself, she appeared not to love me, not to know me, perhaps not to see me. I could not interpret the secret of her indifference. of her dejection, of her silent displeasure.” And as time goes on and the memories of his grandmother fade, he has deep guilt about the indifference he eventually feels for her as well.

In Time Regained, just at the point in which he becomes indifferent to death, as his health fails and he comes close to death, he begins to worry about the state of his writing and his work. But he realizes that when he is gone, and really even before then, the reception of his novel will be out of his control: “I was surprised at my own indifference to criticism of my work but from the time when my legs had given way when I went downstairs I had become indifferent to everything; I only long for rest until the end came. It was not because I counted on posthumous fame that I was indifferent to the judgments of the eminent today. Those who pronounced on my work after my death could think what they pleased of it.”

Indifference in love and death culminates in the novel with Albertine and his intense, jealousy riddled relationship with her. His cruelest sham of indifference is when Marcel asks Albertine to leave him and he pretends he no longer loves her. It is this false indifference that eventually drives her away from him. But in the case of this love affair, separation, oblivion, indifference is achieved through Albertine’s sudden death. It takes him a year of painful mourning, of making connections with other friends and of travelling for him to finally reach this stage, “As for the third occasion on which I remember that I was conscious of approaching an absolute indifference with respect to Albertine (and on this third occasion I felt that I had entirely arrived at it,) it was one day, at Venice, long after Andree’s visit.”

As with most things I’ve read in Proust he has me thinking about and second guessing whether or not we are truly capable of reaching complete indifference towards someone whom we have loved. After all, Swann does marry Odette, Marcel still feels a twinge of jealously years later when he finds out about Gilberte’s other lover, and Albertine’s name appears until the very end of the novel. The word indifferent or indifference appears 23 times in Swann’s Way, 38 times in A Budding Grove, 22 times in The Guermantes Way, 19 times in Sodom and Gomorrah, 48 times in The Captive and The Fugitive, and 41 times in Time Regained. The Moncrieff et al. edition of In Search of Lost Time includes a discussion of Proust’s favorite topics and themes, including memory, time, music, death, etc. It’s a shame that indifference isn’t mentioned as well because he clearly thought about and struggled with this emotion, whether feigned or real.

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Lucretius on Dispelling Fear

De Rerum Natura 2.55-61 (translation is my own):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

These lines from Book II of De Rerum Natura are quoted by the Marquis de Sade (although they are mistakenly said to be from Book III) in the introduction to his “philosophical novel” Aline & Valcour which will be published in a new English translation at the end of the year by Contra Mundum. The epistolary style novel, written while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, is described as owing “a special debt to the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose Epicurean and materialist philosophy lends it a contemporary feel wholly missing from many 18th century novels.”

Needless to say, I’m very intrigued. This will be my first Sade novel.

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Otium Divos Rogat: Horace Ode 2.16

For @Noxrpm whose Tweet yesterday inspired me to translate this Horace Ode.

2.16

While being caught on the rough Aegean, as a black cloud
hides the moon and the fixed stars are not shining for him,
the sailor begs the gods for peace;

The Thracians, frantic in war, beg for peace;
The Parthians, decorated archers, beg for peace,
dear Grosphus, a peace that cannot be bought with
gems or with purple or with gold.

Neither royal treasures nor political power can
erase the wretched anxieties of the mind or the
cares flying around the paneled walls of the home.

He who lives modestly lives well—the type of man
who is proud of an inherited antique salt dish that
shines on his modest table, the type of man who does
not let a little fear or sordid desire disturb his sleep.

Why, when we have such a short life, do we strive to
accumulate wealth? Why do we exchange our current
clime for a foreign one that is hotter? Can the man who is
an exile from his own homeland also flee from
himself?

Corrupted care climbs aboard bronze ships and
it keeps pace with a squadron of cavalry, and is
swifter than deer, and is swifter  than the East Wind
that drives along the clouds.

Let the soul, which loathes worrying about the
future, be happy in the moment and assuage any
bitterness with a calm smile. Nothing in this
life is completely perfect.

Swift Death snatched away that renowned Achilles
and Old Age greatly diminished Tithonus; perhaps
the hour will offer to me what it has denied to you.

One-hundred herds of Sicilian cattle bellow around you
and horses fit for the chariot raise up their neighing
to you, and you dress yourself in wool dyed twice with

African purple; The Fates, never false, have given me
a modest country estate, and the tender spirit of
Greek Song and the ability to reject the spiteful mob.

 

Horace’s Ode, written to Grosphus who was a wealthy Sicilian rancher, reflects his tendency towards Epicurean philosophy as he advocates for a simple life without cares or anxieties.  The sailor and sailing images, typical of Horace, also bring to mind Lucretius 2.1-19 where the stresses of a shipwreck are compared to the calm of the Epicurean spirit.  In addition, the anaphora with otium (peace) in this Ode must have been influenced by Catullus’s Carmen 51 which is also composed in Sapphic strophe meter.  Catullus, however (whom I’ve always thought of as a bad Epicurean), thinks otium is a negative thing—it is what keeps him from approaching the woman he loves (I translate the lines here and discuss them in relation to Flaubert).  I also bought a complete set of Montaigne’s essays so I can read “Of Solitude” which Nox quoted on Twitter in relation to this Horace Ode.

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