Tag Archives: French Literature

Intellectual Narrowness: Proust on the Dreyfus Affair and Anti-Semitism

The Dreyfus Affair, opinions about which divided French society from 1894 until 1906, is a topic that Proust keeps returning to throughout In Search of Lost Time. Dreyfus, a captain in the French army of Jewish descent, was accused of spying for the Germans. After a sham of a trial, even when new evidence came to light exonerating Dreyfus, he was sentenced to life in prison. Proust was a Dreyfusard, and, in fact, referred to himself as “the first Dreyfusard,” the term for defenders of the captain who campaigned for a new trial. In a letter to his friend Mme Strauss, who was the model for his character of the Duchesse do Guermantes, Proust attempts to ask her for help in the fight to free Dreyfus: “I haven’t seen you since the Affair, once so Balzacian… has become Shakespearean with the accumulation of its rapid denouements.”

A large portion of the beginning of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sixth volume of Proust’s magnum opus, is devoted to a party at the home of the Prince and Princess Guermantes. Although discussions about The Dreyfus Affair are scattered throughout the previous five volumes, the scene at this party especially brings out the ignorance and anti-Semitism of the shallow upper classes with whom the narrator has been spending a great deal of time. The narrator has been a frequent guest at the dinner parties of his neighbors, the Duc and Duchesse Guermantes but he is still incredulous when he receives an invitation to a party at the Princess’s. What he encounters at this get together is more pretension and shallowness and mixed in with these awful qualities is the tendency of these social elites to embrace racist rhetoric.

Swann, whose mother is Jewish, is considered fully “assimilated” and is even accepted as a member of the Jockey Club, despite his Jewish ancestry. In this scene, however, Swann is gravely ill and it seems that in his last days he chooses to become a staunch defender of Dreyfus. The ugliness and bigotry that the upper class display towards Swann, a man whom they used to hold in the highest esteem as long as he kept his “Jewishness” hidden, is disgusting.

Moreover, and above all, a considerable period of time had elapsed during which, if, from the historical point of view, events had to some extent seemed to justify the Dreyfusard thesis, the anti-Dreyfusard opposition had greatly increased in violence, and from being purely political had become social. It was now a question of militarism, of patriotism, and the waves of anger that had been stirred up in society had had time to gather the force which they never have at the beginning of a storm. ‘Don’t you see,’ M. de Guermantes went on, ‘even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

This scene, and the words of the Duc de Guermantes in particular, reminded me of a letter George Eliot writes condemning anti-Semitism which topic she also made as the center of one of her novels:

There is nothing I could care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs. But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment. Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? They hardly know that Christ was a Jew. And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek. To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion. The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity —which is still the average mark of our culture.

Up to this point in the story the Duc is a silly, laughable womanizer who jumps from one mistress to the next. But his racist, ignorant comments make him downright despicable.

A racist womanizer? That might sound familiar to Americans and to British.

Will we ever cast off such stupidity and ignorance?

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The Resurrection of the Voice: Proust on Sound

When we are away from those we love, our senses of touch and sight suffer the greatest deprivation. But in The Guermantes Way, Proust reminds us that our sense of sound, hearing someone’s voice, or not hearing that voice in a period of complete silence is equally as striking. The narrator decides to leave Paris for several weeks and visit his friend Robert who lives in an army barracks at Doncieres. As he stands alone in Robert’s barracks he contemplates the wildly different effects that sound have on us depending on time of day, mood, season, etc:

Only yesterday the incessant noise in our ears, by describing to us in a continuous narrative all that was happening in the street and in the house, succeeded at length in sending us to sleep like a boring book; today, on the surface of silence spread over our sleep, a shock louder than the rest manages to make itself heard, gentle as a sigh, unrelated to any other sound, mysterious; and the demand for an explanation which it exhales is sufficient to awaken us. On the other hand, take away for a moment from the sick man the cotton -wool that has been stopping his ears and in a flash the broad daylight, the dazzling sun of sound dawns afresh, blinding him, is born again in the universe; the bultitude of exiled sounds comes hastening back; we are present, as though ti were the chanting of choirs of angels, at the resurrection of the voice.

It is through sound that we attempt to understand and connect with others:

The withdrawal of sound, its dilution, rob it of all its aggressive power; alarmed a moment ago by hammer-blows which seemed to be shattering the ceiling above our head, we take pleasure nwo in receiving them, light, caressing, distant, like the murmur of leaves playing by the roadside with the passing breeze. We play games of patience with cards which we do not hear, so much so that we imaging that we have not touched them, that they are moving of their own accord, and, anticipating our desire to play with them, have begun to play with us. And in this connexion we may wonder whether, in the case of love (to which we may even add the love of life and the love of fame, since there are, it appears, persons who are acquainted with these latter sentiments), we shouldn’t act like those who, when a noise disturbs them, instead of praying that it may cease, stop their ears; and, in emulation of them, bring our attention, our defences, to bear on ourselves, give them as an object to subdue not the external being whom we love, but our capacity for suffering through that being.

I’ve always been prone towards quiet and solitude; I like to read and think and even sleep in complete silence, But, as is typical with Proust, he made me think of silence is a different way:

It has been said that silence is strength; in a quite different sense it is a terrible strength in the hands of those who are loved. It increases the anxiety of the one who waits. Nothing so tempts us to approach another person as what is keeping us apart; and what barrier is so insurmountable as silence? It has been said also that silence is torture, capable of goading to madness the man who is condemned to it in a prison cell. But what an even greater torture than that of having to keep silence it is to have to endure the silence of a person one loves!

And as stunning all of these passages on sound and silence are, the one that had the most impact on me was that in which Proust describes talking on the telephone for the first time and the person to whom he speaks is his beloved grandmother. The shock of hearing her voice without seeing her elicits an unexpected emotional response:

And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was; perhaps indeed it had never been so sweet as it was now, for my grandmother, thinking of me as being far away and unhappy, felt that she might abandon herself to an outpouring of tenderness which, in accordance with her principles of upbringing, she usually restrained and kept hidden. It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all, on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost—more than any but a few human voices can ever have been—of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

After this phone conversation the narrator immediately packs his things and runs how to his grandmother. When she is sick, he understands the severity of her illness when her voice changes and he can no longer understand her.

I keep thinking about this last paragraph I quoted and the fact that we don’t talk on the phone very often anymore. In the age of texts, DMs, PM.,etc. those long conversations, hearing the voice of someone we miss, are no more. I’m sitting in my garden listening to the birdsong, the ducks splashing on the pond and trying to remember how the voices sound of those lost voices…

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

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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Filed under Classics, French Literature, German Literature, Literature in Translation, Poetry, Russian Literature