The Little Patch of Yellow Wall: Proust on memory, regret and death

Vermeer. View of Delft. Oil on Canvas. 1660.

I keep rereading the same two pages of The Captive in which Proust creates an emotional narrative that involves  reflections on Vermeer’s View of Delft, memory, the art of writing, regret, death and reincarnation.  There isn’t much to say about these passages, and analyzing them would ruin the experience, I think.  But I hope others will enjoy this selection of his writings as much as I have.

The scene is the death of Bergotte, the narrator’s favorite author whom he has also gotten to know personally through the years.  Bergotte has been ill for quite some time and has been advised by various doctors to stay in bed.  But when an art critic describes a brilliantly painted yellow wall in Vermeer’s View of Delft, Bergotte has to go and see this painting for himself; it bothers him that he thought he knew this work by heart but he has no recollection of this yellow wall:

At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking,  more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks  to the critic’s article, he noticed fore the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall.  His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall.  ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.’  Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition.  In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow.  He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter.

I suppose when all is said and done, like Bergotte, we all have some version of that little patch of yellow wall….

Bergotte collapses in front of this painting and Proust’s commentary on death, the soul and the afterlife I found surprisingly… hopeful:

He was dead.  Dead for ever?  Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death.  All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a pieces of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—if then!—to fools.  So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead forever is by no means improbable.


Filed under French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Proust

10 responses to “The Little Patch of Yellow Wall: Proust on memory, regret and death

  1. Lovely, very thoughtful quotes – thank you, Melissa!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bergotte’s death is one of my favorite episodes in the novel. It’s moving and surprisingly gentle.

    Two years ago when we were in The Hague, we spent quite some time standing in front of “View of Delft” looking for Bergotte’s yellow wall. We couldn’t agree on which patch of yellow Proust meant, and subsequent reading has me pretty convinced that Proust was giving an impression of the painting, and he probably had no particular detail of Vermeer’s in mind. Which doesn’t matter in the least, because what Proust did with that maybe fictional detail was quite amazing, and in his novel, it’s as real as anything.

    After I finished the final volume of Lost Time, I walked around for a few weeks desperately wishing that I was still reading Proust and wondering how it was possible that I wasn’t. There should be a special word for that bereft feeling of having walked out of Proust’s world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I keep looking at the painting, wishing I could see it in person for that same reason. There are two places that I thought could be the yellow wall. I think I’m going to need a trip to The Hague to see it in person.

      You describe beautifully what it is like to inhabit Proust’s world. As the number of pages left to read becomes fewer and fewer I get rather sad.


  3. alilauren1970

    You are flying through these books, and I am enjoying your posts so much. You are also inspiring me to read this one though I likely would read it over the course of a year or 2. You are reading the Moncrieff translation, correct? Did you buy it all together or did you buy each book separately? Also you appear to be a fast reader. Do you devote a significant amount of time to reading each night and weekend. I spend much of my weekends reading, but I often get distracted and spend too much time on the internet, which is something I’m trying to curb.

    Liked by 1 person


    Difficult to say which is exactly the yellow patch, but given the obsession of Proust for the painting, it must be something actually seen on it. My favorite is a small shining area next to the big tree at the centre of the painting. However, I have not compared this with chinese art to try validate my theory(Proust compares the yellow patch to chinese art masterpiece).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beverley Bie Brahic

    Lovely comment on Proust. Thank you. As a translator, I wish you would credit the translator, no matter how long ago. If Moncrieff, no doubt he would be glad to know we are still reading his work! If you translated it, that would be valuable too.

    Liked by 1 person

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