Tag Archives: 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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My First Encounter with Proust

Charles Swann, the eponymous character of Proust’s first Volume of In Search of Lost Time,  is an old acquaintance of the narrator’s family and, although he has connections to the upper classes and the royals in France and Britian, he never forgets to visit with his middle class friends.  Swann is also very quiet about these other, important social circles to which he has access, and a knowledge of this would have shocked the narrator’s great-aunt:

But if anyone had suggested to my great-aunt that this Swann, who, in his capacity as the son of old M. Swann, was “fully qualified” to be received by any of the “best people,” by the most respected barristers and solicitors of Paris (though he was perhaps a trifle inclined to let this hereditary privilege go by default), had another almost secret existence of a wholly different kind; that when he left our house in Paris, saying that he must go home to bed, he would have no sooner turned the corner than he would stop, retrace is steps, and be off to some salon on whose like no stockbroker or associate of stockbrokers had ever set eyes—that would have seemed to my aunt as extraordinary as, to a woman of wider reading,  the thought of being herself on terms of intimacy with Aristaeus and of learning that after having a chat with her he would plunge deep into the realms of Thetis, into an empire veiled from mortal eyes, in which Virgil depicts him as being received with open arms.

This short passage in Proust brought to mind my very early days as an undergraduate, when taking a Vergil course and being handed these lines from the Georgics and asked to produce a polished translation and commentary.  I carefully and lovingly labored over this Latin text for weeks.  Aristaeus chases Eurydice through a field where she is bitten and killed by a serpent.  Orpheus, in his intense grief, asks the ruler of the Underworld to allow him to bring his wife back, but, by not following the only rule—not to look back at his wife—he is unsuccessful.  As a punishment for his indiscretion Aristaeus’s bees are destroyed and he is allowed to visit his mother and the other nymphs in their underwater lair to get advice on how to resurrect his bees.  I remember the part in which Arisaeus enters this watery realm because there were certain Latin words I keep thinking about and adjusting in my translation.  My mother would call me every week and ask, “How are the bees coming along?”  Although I had studied Latin in high school, I viewed translation as just another acquired skill, but it was due to this Vergil class that I decided to be a classicist.

So many memories.

I have spent the last weekend sitting in my garden, soaking up summer and completely immersed in Proust.  I have no doubt that this experience of summer will be forever linked with my first encounter with Proust’s extraordinary masterpiece.  I had expected something special, but nothing quite like this.  Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Image of Proust” states it perfectly, “The thirteen volumes of marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu are the result of an unconstruable synthesis in which the absorption of a mystic, the art of a prose writer, the verve of a satirist, the erudition of a scholar, and the self-consciousness of a monomaniac have combined in an autobiographical work. It has rightly been said that all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one—that they are, in other words, special cases.  Among these cases this is one of the most unfathomable.”

One of the most astute and erudite readers I know remarked to me that Proust was a turning point in his reading life—-there is a distinct difference in reading and literature before Proust and after Proust he said.   Even after finishing only the first volume of In Search of Lost Time I think he is absolutely right.

 

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The Albertine Workout by Anne Carson

albertineAnne Carson writes in the appendix to this chapbook: “Habit, suffering, boredom, memory, tea drinking, tea biscuits and the inscrutable banality of existence are topics Beckett and Proust have in Common.  They anatomize them differently.  What is located in the head, the mouth or the mind for Proust moves lower down the body in Beckett.”  Carson uses this theory to help us better understand one of Proust’s most elusive characters.

Carson ironically and brilliant writes a small pamphlet on a woman named Albertine who is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel.  Albertine is oftentimes asleep and her main problems from the narrator’s perspective are lying, lesbianism and being imprisoned in the narrator’s house. Since Albertine is not a common name among females in France, many critics have speculated that she is a disguised version of Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred, with whom he had a secret affair.  Carson examines fascinating details about Proust’s book and his life in order to explore this transposition theory.

Carson also provides an illuminating commentary of sexuality in Proust via Albertine.  The narrator insists that Albertine is a lesbian, all of her friends are lesbians, but she vehemently denies this.  He doesn’t understand how two women can be in love with one another and he can’t figure out what they do together so he is repulsed by what he cannot grasp.  The narrator never actually uses the term “lesbian,” with Albertine, but instead he says “the kind of woman I object to.”

Finally, the appendix, which I quoted above, is just as intriguing as the main body of Carson’s text.  In addition to exploring the similarities and differences in Proust and Beckett she also writes about the use of adjectives in a language, capture myopathy, the second paradox of Zeno, and my favorite, the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

I found Carson’s thoughts and writing engrossing and I am looking forward to diving in to more of her works.

Which Carson books would you recommend?

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Filed under Chapbook, Nonfiction, Poetry, Proust

Review: The Collected Poems of Proust

For my next installment of reviews for poetry month I decided to tackle this dual-language edition of the collection poems of Proust.  It was published in 2013 by Penguin and I bought a copy of it myself.

My Review:
Proust PoemsThese poems are a glimpse into Proust as a human being and not Proust the serious novelist.  The poems were collected from a wide variety of places, including letters to his friends, journals and notes, and some were even scrawled on scraps of paper or envelopes.  We often envision Proust as the asthmatic, shut away from society as he labored over his major work.  But these poems reveal to us a funny, playful, intelligent man who fully engaged in life and embraced all of its wonders.

It is rumored even when Proust was alive that he was homosexual.  The poems reveal a man who was definitely struggling with his sexuality in a time period in which homosexuality was completely unacceptable.  In the poem that opens the collection he writes to Daniel Halvey:

For what is manly mockery to me?
Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,
I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!
Behold a solar gold, a lunar nacre,
I’d…languish (an ars moriendi of my own),
deaf to the knell of dreary Decency!

There are also amorous poems in the collection written to women, such as “Lines to Laure Hayman” in which he recollects her beautiful form.  Another poem is written to an actress whom he saw play the role of Cleopatra.  These lines imply an admiration of the woman that goes beyond friendly recognition of her performance:

You have surely dethroned the Egyptian Queen
You are at once artist and work of art
Your spirit is deep as is your regard,
‘Though no beauty like hers was never seen.

The sentiments in the poems jump from love and friendship, “Love draws from the heart a scent of roses,” to loss and agony, “So tired of having suffered, more tired of having loved.” These lines represent the waves of emotions Proust rides and jots down as he is living his everyday life.

Proust is also petty, bawdy and even vulgar. In one poem he writes:

They say a Russian, may God preserve his soul,
Managed to rouse a flutter of sensation
In Ferdinand’s leathery, tanned, and well-worked hole
By slipping in up to the hilt his brave baton.

In a few of the poems written to his friends his instructs them to burn the poems after they have been read because the poems contains some unflattering verses about aristocrats within their social circle.

There are 104 poems in the collection in total.  None of them are very long which is appropriate as they are meant as little messages to friends in letters and oftentimes casually written on scraps of paper.  The notes in the back of the book are very helpful in understanding to whom the poems are written and what their relationships were to Proust.  For a amusing glimpse into the candid world of this famous poet I highly recommend perusing this dual-language edition.

About The Author:
ProustMarcel Proust is a French novelist best known for his 3000 page masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), a pseudo-autobiographical novel told mostly in a stream-of-consciousness style. Born in the first year of the Third Republic, the young Marcel, like his narrator, was a delicate child from a bourgeois family. He was active in Parisian high society during the 80s and 90s, welcomed in the most fashionable and exclusive salons of his day. However, his position there was also one of an outsider, due to his Jewishness and homosexuality. Towards the end of 1890s Proust began to withdraw more and more from society, and although he was never entirely reclusive, as is sometimes made out, he lapsed more completely into his lifelong tendency to sleep during the day and work at night. He was also plagued with severe asthma, which had troubled him intermittently since childhood, and a terror of his own death, especially in case it should come before his novel had been completed. The first volume, after some difficulty finding a publisher, came out in 1913, and Proust continued to work with an almost inhuman dedication on his masterpiece right up until his death in 1922, at the age of 51. Today he is widely recognised as one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, and À la recherche du temps perdu as one of the most dazzling and significant works of literature to be written in modern times.

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