Tag Archives: French Literature

The Assembly of the Gods: Expectation in Proust’s Guermantes Way

My reading of the first part of The Guermantes Way has me thinking about expectations and how we are constantly needing to adjust expectations that are set too high or too low.  From the Latin verb expecto, meaning “to await” or “to wait for”, expectation implies looking to the future and a sense of anticipation.  The narrator in Proust’s novel has been invited to the opera where he will see Berma, who once was his favorite actress, in a production of Racine’s Phedre. As a child he couldn’t wait to see Berma—his expectations were full of that sense of anticipation which the word implies—but he is bitterly disappointed by her performance.  But this time he is a bit older and he has no expectations for his second experience with her.

As a young adult, the narrator now sits in the opera house and, as the play unfolds, he realizes that his earlier expectations as a child, were unrealistic and even silly.  Now that he is older he understands that her craft, which includes subtleties of the inflection of her voice and gestures, clearly set Berma apart from other actors. He reflects:

I realized that my original desire had been more exacting than the intentions of the poet, the actress, the great decorative artist who directed the production, and that the charm which floated over a line as it was spoken, the shifting poses perpetually transformed into others, the successive tableaux, were the fleeting result, the momentary object, the mobile masterpiece with the art of the theatre intended and which the attentiveness of a  too-enraptured audience would destroy by trying to arrest.

This more mature and thoughtful version of the narrator also realizes that he similarly had unrealistic expectations that he placed on Gilberte, Swann’s daughter with whom he was in love in the previous book.  While watching Berma perform, he thinks about the myriad of factors that influence the foundation of one’s expectations:

It had just occurred to me that if I had not derived any pleasure from my first encounter with Berma, it was because, as earlier still when I used to meet Gilberte in the Champs-Elysees, I had come to her with too strong a desire.  Between my two disappointments there was perhaps not only this resemblance, but another, deeper one.  The impression given us by a person or a work (or an interpretation of a work) of marked individuality is peculiar to that person or work.  We have brought with us the ideas of ‘beauty,’ ‘breadth of style,’ ‘pathos’ and so forth which we might at a pinch have the illusion of recognizing in the banality of a conventional face or talent, but our critical spirit has before it the insistent challenge of a form of which it possesses no intellectual, in which it must must disengage the unknown element.

But just as Berma walks off stage, the focus of the narrator’s attention is diverted to other, important, and captivating audience members,  the Princesse de Guermantes who is seated with her aunt, and, incidentally, Proust’s new neighbor, the Duchesse de Guermantes.  It is this encounter that causes him to become smitten with the Duchesse for a good part of this book.  Germaine Bree argues in his essay “Proust’s Dormant Gods” (Yale French Studies No. 38, 1967) that Proust likes to apply Greek myths when discussing the metamorphosis of nature and persons.  I think Proust also has a penchant for comparing the women who become the object of his love to Greek myth and ancient goddesses (in the previous volume he compares Albertine and her friends to nymphs), thereby setting his expectations for his interactions and relationships with these women rather high.  He observes and thinks about the Duchesse and the Princesse as they sit in their theater box:

The costumes of these two ladies seem to me like the materialisation, snow-white or patterned with colour, of their inner activity, and, like the gestures which I had seen the Princesse de Guermantes make and which, I had no doubt, corresponded to some latent idea, the plumes which swept spangled bodice seemed to have a special meaning, to be to each of these women an attribute which was hers, and hers alone, the significance of which I should have liked to know: the bird of paradise seemed inseparable from the wearer as her peacock is from Juno, and I did not believe that any other woman could usurp that spangled bodice, any more than the fringed and flashing shield of Minerva. And when I turned my eyes to their box, far more than on the ceiling of the theatre, painted with lifeless allegories, it was as though I had seen, thanks to a miraculous break in the customary clouds, the assembly of the Gods in the act of contemplating the spectacle of mankind, beneath a crimson canopy, in a clear lighted space, between two pillars of Heaven.

When one sets one’s expectations as high as Mount Olympus, one is bound to be disappointed. But, as the narrator reminds himself while watching Berma, sometimes we just can’t stop ourselves from setting lofty and, perhaps,  unrealistic expectations. Proust is reminding us, I think, in this theater scene that life is a series of expectations, ones we must constantly adjust and readjust.

 

 

 

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Our Cocoon of Habit: More thoughts on Proust’s In a Budding Grove

As I’m just about to finish Within a Budding Grove, I keep thinking about Proust’s use and exploration of the word Habit, Habitude in French, in different contexts. Both the French and English words are derived from the Latin noun habitus (fourth declension, masculine) which itself is taken from the perfect passive participle of the verb habeo, habere. It is an important and fundamental Latin verb and is taught as one of the first words in beginning Latin. Its most basic meaning is to own or possess (as in I have a book), but it is also commonly used to mean that one possess certain physical or mental attributes (as in I have a powerful intellect). It is this latter meaning that I keep contemplating in relation to Proust and how habit is intertwined with ideas of memory and time.

Habit is first, and most famously, used in Swann’s Way when the narrator, as a child, is trying to sleep and is comforted by his familiar surroundings: “Habit! that skilful but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds suffer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our minds are none the less only too happy to discover at last, for without it, reduced to their own devices, they would be powerless to make an room seem habitable.”

Within a Budding Grove, the narrator, now a teenager, is going to Balbec with his grandmother for a summer holiday, but upon arrival he is miserable because the room he occupies in the hotel and his new surroundings are not part of his habits which, in Paris, make him happy and comfortable. But as a young man he is quickly realizing that Habit is maybe not always a good thing. As he has new experiences, and especially as he meets new people in Balbec he comes to understand that it is this same Habit that, although it comforted him as a child, as an adult it keeps one from having new experiences and therefore happiness and enjoyment in life:

As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties like dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services. But on this morning of travel, the interruption of the routine of my existence, the unfamiliar place and time, had made their presence indispensable. My habits, which were sedentary and not matutinal, for once were missing, and all my faculties came hurrying to take their place, vying with one another in their zeal, rising, each of them, like waves, to the same unaccustomed level, from the basest to the most exalted, from breath, appetite, the circulation of my blood to receptivity and imagination.

It is this second example of Habit which Proust also applies to a discussion of art. When he meets the painter Elstir in Balbec, he knows right away that the artist’s work is something different. It is the Habit of looking at similar works of art, of reading similar books that dulls our minds and keeps us from new, aesthetic experiences:

Since Elstir began to paint, we have grown familiar with what are called “wonderful” photographs of scenery and towns. If we press for a definition of what their admirers mean by the epithet, we shall find that it is generally applied to some unusual image of a familiar object, an image different from those that we are accustomed to see, unusual and yet true to nature, and for that reason doubly striking because it surprises us, takes us out of our cocoon of habit, and at the same time brings us back to ourselves by recalling to us an earlier impression.

And finally, in Within A Budding Grove the narrator applies the ideas of Habit to his own understanding of love. He becomes smitten with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte and it becomes his habit to visit her and her family on a daily basis. When he realizes that Gilberte is not going to love him the way he loves her, he is mature enough to understand that the only way to rid him of his unhappiness is to change his habits. He understands, even at a young age, that sometimes it is not love that keeps us in a relationship but instead we stay because another person has become part of our everyday life and has essentially evolved into another habit. The sooner he can let go of this habit, the sooner he can find happiness elsewhere: “In Paris I had grown more and more indifferent to Gilberte, thanks to Habit. The change of Habit, that is to say the temporary cessation of Habit, completed Habit’s work when I set our for Balbec. It weakens, but it stabilises; it leads to disintegration but it makes the scattered elements last indefinitely.”

I am eager to see how Proust further develops and explores the concept of habit as the narrator ages and encounters different surroundings, novel artwork and new love.

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Women in Translation and Women Translators

I offer here some of my favorite women authors in translation from a variety of languages and periods of time. They are in no particular order:

Teffi, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea translated by Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson

Karoline von Gunderrode, Poetic Fragments translated by Anna C. Ezekiel

Christa Wolf, Medea translated by John Cullen (I also highly recommend Cassandra and The Quest for Christa T. but her Medea is my favorite.)

Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart translated by Alison Entrekin (I have enjoyed all of the Lispector I’ve read but this one is my favorite)

Bae Suah, Recitation translated by Deborah Smith

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter translated by James Kirkup

Friederike Mayröcker, Requiem for Ernst Jundl translated by Roslyn Theobald

Sappho. I like Ann Carson’s stark translations in If Not, Winter. But here are some links to my own translations that I’ve worked on this year: Fragment 16 and The Tithonus Poem

Sulpicia. Unfortunately she is an obscure Roman poet who is overlooked. The only translations of her that I have encountered are those included in the Catullus and Tibullus Loeb edition. For a previous WIT month I did a translation of her Carmen XIII.

For this year I offer my own translation of Sulpicia’s Carmen XIV “Before her Birthday.” She wants to stay in Rome where her lover, Cerinthus, dwells and celebrate her birthday with him, but her uncle has other plans for her:

My dreaded birthday has arrived, which sad event
must be spent in the tiresome country without my
Cerinthus. What is more pleasant than the city? Do I
look like a girl who is only fit to hang around some
country house, or the cold river in the Arrentium fields?
Quit thinking about me so much, Uncle Messala. Travel
is so often badly timed. You can take me away from
the city, but since your force does not allow me
to make my own decisions, I can at least choose to
leave behind my soul and my feelings.

I know August is dedicated to female authors who are translated into English, but what about female translators themselves? Charlotte Mandell’s translation of Enard’s Compass, Shelley Frisch’s translation of Stach’s three volume Kafka biography, and Sophie Wilkins’s translation of Musil’s A Man without Qualities are two wonderful examples that come to mind…

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Inertia Means Trouble for You: Some Thoughts on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

Sentimental Education begins with Frederic Moreau, the pupil of said “education”, meeting, by chance, an older woman whose presence affects the rest of his life. Eighteen-year-old Frederic has been visiting a paternal uncle in the hopes of becoming the heir to his fortune when he encounters Madame Arnoux, Monsieur Arnoux and their young daughter on a steamship traveling out of Paris.  Although Monsieur Arnoux is a garrulous and outgoing man, it is his wife that captures Frederic’s attention (trans. Robert Baldick): “She was sitting in the middle of the bench all alone; or rather he could not see anybody else in the dazzling light which her eyes cast upon him.  As he passed, she looed up; he bowed automatically; and when he had walked a little way along the deck, he looked back at her.”  As he walks up and down the deck of the boat, he becomes inert and can concentrate on nothing an no one else but her. But he also hasn’t the courage to speak to such an incredible woman:

Never had he seen anything to compare with the splendour of her dark skin, the seduction of her figure, or the translucent delicacy of her fingers.  He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were a thing of beauty.  What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know about the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; even the desire for physical possession gave way to a deeper yearning, an aching curiosity which knew no bounds.

Frederic moves to Paris where he attends law school and insinuates himself into the life Arnoux family.   He often visits the object of his desire, but the first half of the novel  describes his love for Madame Arnoux, yet his complete inertia, his inability to act in any definitive way to make her his lover.  I found the second half of the book more interesting as the pace of the narrative becomes quicker and more initeresting.  As the years slip by, this woman continues to be a presence in Frederic’s life and even though he takes up other mistresses he can’t get Madame Arnoux out of his heart or his mind.  He is incapable of committing to a marriage because there is always the hope of being with Madame Arnoux.   Furthermore, his inertia extends to his career since he doesn’t have the attention span to devote to a political career.  He lives on the inheritance from his uncle so he has no real need for a private income.  But having a serious occupation would have benefitted his otherwise unoccupied mind.  He let’s several professional and business opportunities slip through his hands because of his focus on his love and social life.

In the introduction to the Penguin Edition, Geoffrey Wall explains the autobiographical aspect of Flaubert’s novel and quotes the author’s letter to Amelie Bosquet:

I loved immeasurably, a love that was unrequited, intense and silent.  Nights spent gazing at the moon, dreaming of elopements and travels in Italy, dreams of glory for her sake, torments of the body and the soul, spasm at the smell of a shoulder, and turning suddenly pale when I caught her eye, I have known all that, and known it very well.  Each one of us has in his heart a royal chamber.  I have had mine bricked up, but it is still there.”

The object of Flaubert’s secret desire was an older, married woman named Elisa Schlesinger whom he meets as a teenager while on vacation on the Normandy coast.  He, too, would encounter her by chance throughout the years but never confessed his true feelings.

It seemed fitting that this week as I was reading Sentimental Education I was also preparing for my second semester Catullus course for my upper level Latin students.  Catullus is also smitten with an inaccessible, older woman and as I was reading about Frederic and Flaubert, Catullus’s Carmen 51 kept coming to mind.  It is the first, many argue, in the Roman poet’s series of Clodia (a.k.a. Lesbia) poems; Catullus sees Clodia at a party and the first sight of her instantly captivates him and he can only focus on her.  But, like Frederic and Flaubert, he is paralyzed by his feelings and cannot bring himself to approach her.  At the end of the poem, Catullus chides himself for his inaction:

Inertia, Catullus, means trouble for you.
You wallow in your inertia, and you carry it too far.
Such inertia has previously brought about the
destruction of kings and grand cities.

The Latin word otium seemed especially fitting, in my mind, for Fredric. I translated it here as “inertia”, but it can also mean “leisure.” It was originally used as a military term to describe the leisure of the army, when soldiers are encamped and experience boredom. If otium is translated as “leisure” in this Catullus poem then, I think, the meaning of the last few stanzas is completely changed, as it implies that too much leisure gets the poet into trouble. But I prefer to translate it as “inertia,” or “inaction” and see these lines as Catullus scolding himself for inaction which keeps him from being with his true love. This translation of otium also makes more sense in the context of the beginning of the poem during which he is literally and figuratively paralyzed by the site of this woman.

Both translations—“leisure” and “inertia” are equally fitting ways to describe Frederic. His inheritance allows him too much leisure time to get into trouble and his inability to act on his feelings for Madame Arnoux affect his entire life. Otium is the true cause of Fredric’s inability to attain true happiness at any point in his life.

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We Each Create Our Own Labyrinth: Theseus by André Gide

When I teach my second year Latin students about ancient heroes, I always have to begin by explaining the distinctions between the modern and ancient concepts of the term hero.  Nowadays the word hero brings to mind first responders saving children from burning buildings,  a good Samaritan saving another person from drowning, and other selfless and kind acts.  Ancient heroes, however, are much more complex, controversial and are prone to carrying out acts of violence even if the end result is for the benefit of the community.  However, more often than not,  they are acting on their own behalf, they are seeking glory and honor and recognition for themselves.  Homeric heroes, for instance, are fighting at Troy for kleos, to be remembered and revered long after they are dead.  Hercules, Theseus and Jason save communities from various beasts and horrible monsters, but their true motivation is for glory and honor that comes with such brave acts.  But the ancient hero also suffers from loneliness, isolation and difficult relationships.

André Gide, in his short story “Theseus” reimagines the myth of the Greek hero Theseus and fills in the gaps where the ancient narratives are lacking.  Gide adeptly captures the pressure to perform that each hero experiences.  In the first chapter, Aegeus, Theseus’s father,  says to his son, “Your childhood is over.  Be a man.  Show your fellow men what one of their kind can be and what he means to become.  There are great things to be done.  Claim yourself.”  After Theseus defeats various, local monsters, he is eager to take on his biggest challenge yet, defeating the Cretan Minotaur.

In Gide’s story, when Theseus lands in Crete he visits the artist Daedalus who explains to him how his labyrinth works and the only way to defeat it.  This passage showcases Gide’s brilliance as a writer, an artist, and even a philosopher:

I thought that the best way of containing a prisoner in the labyrinth was to make it of such a kind, not that he couldn’t get out (try to grasp my meaning here), but that he wouldn’t want to get out.  I therefore assembled in this one place the means to satisfy every kind of appetite.  The Minotaur’s tastes were neither many nor various; but we had to plan for everybody, whosoever it might be, who would enter the labyrinth.  Another and indeed the prime necessity was to fine down the visitor’s will-power to the point of extinction.  To this end I made up some electuaries and had the mixed with the wines that were served.  But that was not enough; I found a better way.  I had noticed that certain plants, when thrown into the fire, gave off, as they burned, semi-narcotic vapors.  These seemed admirably suited to my purpose, and indeed they played exactly the part for which I needed them.  Accordingly I had them fed to the stoves, which are kept alight night and day.  The heavy gases thus distributed not only act upon the will and put it to sleep; they induce a delicious intoxication, rich in flattering delusions, and provoke the mind, filled as this is with voluptuous mirages, to a certain pointless activity; ‘pointless,’ I say, because it has merely an imaginary outcome, in visions and speculations without order, logic or substance.  The effect of these gases is not the same for al of those who breathe them; each is led on by the complexities implicit in his own mind to lose himself, if I may so put it, in a labyrinth of his own devising.

An interesting commentary for the 21st century where many are caught up in a labyrinth of their own choosing, a labyrinth composed of people and things that induce a “delicious intoxication” and are “rich in flattering delusions.”

Daedalus’s advice to Theseus is to keep hold of the thread that Ariadne will give to him and not let it go so she can pull him out of the labyrinth.  But the hero, who is used to fighting his own battles, doesn’t want to be tethered to anyone, especially a woman.  When he arrives in Crete, Ariadne throws herself at him and he views her as a silly girl whom he can use and toss aside.  Ancient heroes, in general, have a very hard time with women; they do not take well to marriage, settling down, domesticity.  In addition to Theseus and Ariadne, the relationships between Jason and Medea, Hercules and Megara end badly.

Gide, however, does linger on the story of one, special woman who is able to captivate Theseus precisely because she poses a challenge for him, the Amazon Antiope.  Theseus says of her, “An accomplished runner and wrestler, she had muscles as firm and sturdy as those of our athletes.  I took her on in single combat.  In my arms she struggled like a leopard.  Disarmed, she brought her teeth and nails into play; enraged by my laughter (for I, too, had no weapons) and because she could not stop herself from loving me.  I have never possessed anyone more virginal.”

Each person in the Theseus-Ariadne-Minotaur myth has his or her own unique point of view.  But, in the end, there really is no happy ending for any of them, is there?

This book has greatly piqued my interest in reading more Gide.  This slim volume that was sitting on my shelf also contains Gide’s Oedipus story, another interesting hero to explore.  Maybe in another post…

 

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