These notes cover the "Place-Names - the Name" chapter at the end of Volume One, Swann's Way, as well as the beginning of "Madame Swann at Home" in Volume Two, Within a Budding Grove, up to page 134 in the Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
Well, we had another interesting discussion, covering the end of Swann's Way and the beginning of Within a Budding Grove.
We are getting to know one another, and the resulting familiarity lent a warmth and sense of ease to the evening. Nathalie and Francoise and Dave provided wonderful refreshments (an onion tart, home-baked madeleines, cheeses and paté and bread, etc., etc.). At 8:30 sharp, as usual, we moved to the living room.
Much ground to cover, so here goes.
1. Jennifer's Groovy Presentation
Just as we got seated, Dirk asked if he might say a word. He proceeded to make a generous opening statement, expressing his gratitude to me for initiating this Proust reading group back in October. I responded that I am grateful to have had so many wonderful people join the group, and I mentioned how much Renée and I look forward to these evenings with friends.
Riding this wave of good feeling, I invited Jennifer to give her presentation. Expectations ran high, and she did not disappoint.
Dressed all in black, looking like a very fashionable 19th century Russian nihilist, Jennifer first spoke briefly about her sense that, while reading Proust, she is seeking some hidden truth, a new frame with which to understand the world. She mentioned that the questions that recur for her as she reads are:
• What is real?
• What changes as we grow older?
• What is the source of this "haunting hopelessness" we feel when we fall in love?
With this last alliterative phrase hanging in the air, Jennifer rose to play a song from another era, (though one not quite so far back as Proust's): "Nights of White Satin," by The Moody Blues, which reached #19 on the UK charts in 1967.
She pointed out that this song comes from an album entitled Days of Future Passed by a band that also released the song "Boulevard de la Madeleine" and the album In Search of the Lost Chord. Clearly, someone in The Moody Blues was once a member of a Proust reading group.
Jennifer pushed play on her iPod. The singer crooned about...
Nights in white satin
Never reaching the end
Letters I've written
Never meaning to send.
As the music swirled around us I couldn't help but share with the group my image of M. Swann, leaning on an embroidered pillow, taking a long hit off a joint, staring into the rising globules of his red Lava Lamp, thinking about Odette.
From there, we let our imaginations run. Dirk pictured Swann with the same bald head Proust mentions, but now with a long, gray ponytail running down his back. It was funny to juxtapose the romantic yearnings of our familiar M. Swann from Paris during the Belle Époque with those of this M. Swann from Venice Beach during the Summer of Love. As one member of the group commented: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Aristocrat Swann. Hippie Swann. Nihilist Swann. Who is the real Swann? Whoa, man. Heavy.
2. The Question of "Reality"
When the song ended, Jennifer's initial comment about the difficulty of determining what is real, and what is not, came back to me. I felt provoked to read aloud from the end of the "Place-Names - the Name" chapter.
As you will recall, Proust's Narrator writes of his experience returning to the Bois as an older man, and the terrible sense of absence that he found there. He looks for the elegantly attired ladies, like Mme Swann, whom he used to see there riding in open-air carriages. Instead he finds "motor-cars driven each by a moustached mechanic" (SW, 603). This leads him to a kind of hollowed-out resignation:
"They had long since fled, and still I stood vainly questioning the deserted paths. The sun had gone. Nature was resuming its reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Women; above the gimcrack windmill the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries perched, one after another, on the great oaks..." (SW, 606).
Here the word "real" is employed as a form of terror. So the "real" sky is gray? And the Grand Lac now has wavelets, like a "real" lake?... What were we looking at before then, stage sets?
Finally, a flutter.. and -- there! -- above the branches the Narrator sees... "large birds". Large birds? This, from a writer who can fill an entire page with a description of the subtle differences between the monocles men are wearing at a party?
We should have known something was amiss as soon as we read a sentence with a total of four words: "The sun had gone." How unProustlike! (As one member of our group remarked, it sounds like something Hemingway would have written.)
What is going on here?
The Narrator may call it "real", this disenchantment, this demystification, that concludes the first volume. But surely it is no more real than his earlier, ecstatic visions of the Bois, with its "double row of orange-red chestnuts" that "seemed, as in a picture just begun, to be the only thing painted so far by an artist who had not yet laid any colour on the rest..." (SW, 599). Both represent states of mind.
The Narrator hints at an awareness of this with his observation that the places we have known do not belong only "to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice," he asserts, "held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time" (SW, 606).
Still, the last sentence of this first volume is devastating. I confessed to the group that I almost sobbed (though I barely held back) when I read Proust's statement that:
"...the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years" (SW, 606).
Yet if it is true that places are as fugitive as time, then our bleakest associations with places are fugitive, merely "thin slices," too. So by his own logic, the Narrator's linkage of his utter disenchantment to a heretofore hidden "reality" rings false. Are we supposed to think of this state of disenchantment as more real than the state of enchantment that came before it? Or is it simply a different kind of conjuration? (Here I shared with the group Nabokov's insistence -- which caught my attention years ago when I first read it -- that the word "reality" is "one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes".)
Marie-José spoke up to say that the French edition she is reading includes a note that sheds light on this very passage (and its seeming internal contradictions)!
The note quotes at length from a letter by Proust in which he discusses the abrupt ending to "Place-Names - The Name". From what I recall that Marie-José read to us (Marie-José, perhaps you could add the text of this letter to the comments section below?), Proust received notice from his publisher that the first volume must not exceed 500 pages. So although he wanted to include much of "Madame Swann at Home," with "Combray" and "Swann in Love", instead he was compelled to write the concluding passage of "Place-Names, the Name" as a kind of rhetorical flourish -- a resolution forced upon both him and his readers by the formal constraint of the page limit.
Importantly, Proust explains in this letter that the skeptical, jaded outlook of the Narrator in this passage is, in fact, in direct opposition to the outlook which his Narrator will eventually demonstrate at the end of the novel.
I was relieved to have my suspicions confirmed by this note that Marie-José had read. So the colorless, denuded description of "reality" that ends "Place-Names - the Name" is not the brutal truth that underlies all of the other perceptions of the Narrator. It is merely a feint -- a misdirection. One member of our group compared it to the false conclusion you might draw if you left a play at the end of the First Act and never saw the reversal in the Second Act. In this context, I actually appreciate it, as one more trick up Proust's sleeve.
After the meeting ended later that night, Dave shared with me the Lydia Davis translation of this same concluding passage, which he noticed had a strikingly different tone from the Moncrieff. We read it together standing in front of the fire, and he was right. The Lydia Davis' version is not as gloomy, but has a quality more of serene detachment. The Bois may have lost its glow, but the Narrator seems somewhat nonplussed by it all, rather than distraught. Amazing how a few different word choices, and a different rhythm, can have such an effect.
How would our French readers describe the effect of this section on them? Where does the original text fall on the spectrum, between the twin poles of utter despair and impartial observation?
3. That Musty Smell That We All Know and Love
Our conversation shifted at this point to a scene from the next volume, Within a Budding Grove -- I don't recall why or how.
We started talking about the smell of the "little pavilion covered in a green trellis" which served Francoise and Proust's Narrator as a lavatory one day in Paris. How the "old, damp walls" and their smell give great pleasure to the Narrator.
Miriam recalled the insinuation that the keeper of this lavatory had a thing for young boys. Described by Proust as an "elderly dame with painted cheeks and an auburn wig," she throws open the door of a stall for the Narrator, "one of those cubicles of stone where men crouch like sphinxes," and offers it for him for an unspecified use. (To sit and wait? To pleasure himself? To pleasure her? It's unclear.) (WBG, 88-89).
Smells. Seductions. Bodily functions. Suddenly, as Francoise (the Francoise in our group, not the Narrator's nanny) observed, after all the thinking and fretting and mulling and pondering and gazing by the characters in this novel, here is finally the suggestion of actual physical experience. "Men crouch like sphinxes" may be somewhat oblique, but it is vivid (and disturbingly accurate when you think about it). More than that, there is an incongruous erotic charge in the air of that little pavilion, with its "cool, fusty smell."
Miriam lightly noted that Proust may have reversed the gender of this lavatory attendant, concealing a rich memory of his own "corruption" as a young boy. This reminded me of what reads as a possible homoerotic allusion -- and an accompanying admission of shame -- a few pages later, when the Narrator returns to the theme of the smell of that lavatory:
"On my way home I perceived, I suddenly recalled the impression... of which... the cold and almost sooty smell of the trellised pavilion had reminded me. It was that of my uncle Adolphe's little sitting-room at Combray, which had indeed exhaled the same odour of humidity... Meanwhile it struck me that I did indeed deserve the contempt of M. de Norpois: I had preferred hitherto to all other writers one whom he styled a mere "flute-player" [a suggestive image, no?] and a positive rapture had been conveyed to me, not by some important idea, but by a musty smell" (WBG, 91).
Whatever the case of the gender at the origin of Proust's fictional creation, sex has reared its head. Our Narrator, once so fixated on his innocent pink hawthorns, is growing up and looking for other pleasures... pink, musty and otherwise.
The description of the over-attendant lavatory attendant is closely followed by the Narrator's wrestling match with Gilberte. He wants a letter she has behind her back. She wants to keep it from him. He wraps his arms around her nape of her neck, skin to skin, "raising the plaits of hair which she wore over her shoulders." He holds her
"...gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb; and in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath with the exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, like a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyse..." (WBG, 90).
The consensus was that he reaches a climax here. (Heather found it hard to imagine, having still thought of him as the young boy from Combray, but I think she came around.) Some in the group wondered: Is it his first? Even Gilberte senses, intuitively, that something has happened ("a slight movement of recoil and constraint as of offended modesty which she made and checked a moment later made me think that my fear had not been unfounded" (WBG, 91)).
The group discussed how casual Proust's descriptions are of bodies and bodily functions. At first we marveled that he could be so open and free writing about such things. But then, we remembered, the times they were a-changing, rapidly, as one century ended and the other began. Courbet's L'Origine du monde had been viewed with favor in private showings. Gauguin was busy rendering (and... more than rendering, according to gossip) his bare-breasted Tahitian beauties. I mentioned Joyce's Ulysses, another great Modernist work which has a similar climactic moment when Leopold Bloom alternates between viewing fireworks and looking up a woman's petticoats (Joyce's rendition of the scattered thoughts Bloom experiences immediately after his climax is perfect). Sexuality no longer had to be so veiled in metaphor -- the veils were lifting, literally and figuratively.
Another example from the same period in which Proust was writing: in her essay, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Virginia Woolf famously remarks that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed." One of the incidents that led her to this conclusion is the occasion, thought to have been in 1907, when Virgnia's friend Lytton Strachey, noticing a stain on Virginia's sister Vanessa's dress, pointed a finger at her and asked, "Semen?" "With that one word", Woolf writes, "all barriers of reticence and reserve went down."
Come to think of it, the Marquis de Sade had said it all -- and far more than all -- a century before. So why should we be so impressed by Proust's description of a childish wrestling match and a young boy's... "few drops"?
Yet, having recovered from our initial surprise, the group then began to admire Proust's non chalance for another reason. Yes, he mentions it, but what is remarkable is that he does not dwell on it. We imagined how a contemporary novel would spend pages describing the intricacies of the act of crouching like sphinxes, or those "few drops of sweat" wrung from the Narrator's exertions with Gilberte. Not only would we get exuberant detail, as in Nicholson Baker's recent House of Holes, but even more significantly, there would be the unquestioned assumption that it is worthy of our sustained attention.
Proust, on the other hand, flies by these moments of bodily function. Yes, he seeks "sensual pleasure" in the garret room of the Combray house (WBG, 14). So? Yes, asparagus pee has a distinct aroma (WBG, 169). Yes, when 14-year-olds rub their bodies against each other things happen. Or, alternatively, yes Aunt Léonie died, as we are told in passing, in parentheses (WBG, 215). Yes, Swann and Odette had a child before they were married (WBG, 52). The physical events in life, the births, fluids, orgasms, deaths -- these are of secondary interest to Proust. What matters more is what happens in our heads in between.
At this point, it comes back to me now, I got in trouble with Renée because, as we began discussing contemporary culture, I declared, "All we watch on TV is bodily functions!" Which caused the group to wonder about our viewing habits after the kids go to bed. Renée said hastily, "Tom! That's not all we watch!" (In the laughter that followed I tried to cry out, "I mean, the general public! Not us, not us!" but I don't think anybody heard me.)
Miriam insisted, though, that even though people may be more vulgar now (thank you. Miriam!), and they may watch more raunchy, "reality"-based TV showing attractive men and women... caressing each other... and... eating bugs... (note: the general public watches this, not me), they still think in all of the complexity of Proust's characters. I'm not so sure. I think that most people in our time are too obsessed with the obvious physical facts, the contortions and accidents, the shootings and smooches, and perhaps no longer have the resources or time to obsess about the experience just before or after that shooting or that smooch. If you try to, it's indulgent, or worse, pretentious. There must be something wrong with you. (Unless, of course, you make money doing it, like, say, the comedian Louis C.K. If you make money doing something in America then it is automatically worthy of respect.)
Don spoke here about Proust's interest in names. He talks of Florence or Venice and how the words represent so much more than a physical place. Renée mentioned how we named our daughter Adeline without it ever occurring to us that there is a street in Berkeley named "Adeline" -- these words, although identical in shape, and although the sounds the letters make are curiously similar, had no relation in our minds.
In the end, all of this discussion of what is "real" and what is not brought us full circle, it occurs to me now, to Jennifer's question. Perhaps there is no "there" there (as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, but Renée said of the concept of the real), except perhaps brute physical facts. We have to manufacture all the rest out of the void: pink hawthorns, "haunting, hopeless" love affairs, large birds, blue-feathered starlings, orange-red chestnut trees, supercharged wrestling matches, our daughters' names.
But it is not to despair. It is to strike! I think of the words of the young nihilist and medical student named Bazarov, in the great Russian novel Fathers and Sons by Turgenev:
"Nature is not a temple, but a work-shop, and man is a worker in it."
4. Darth Norpois
It was already past 9:30 pm at this point, and we are technically supposed to end our discussion at 9:45, but it became apparent to me that we would have to go late. We couldn't leave without talking about the extended dinner that Proust's Narrator has with his parents and the Marquis de Norpois.
I launched us by proclaiming that I came to think of Norpois as Darth Vader: heavy breathing, the inexorable urge to destroy, blank and merciless body language, everything except the Samurai-inspired helmet. He is described as having blue eyes, "sagacious curiosity" and being a very attentive listener. Certainly he is a very successful diplomat, with refined social skills, able to smooth out any stray wrinkle in a conversation. What could possibly go wrong with having him to dinner?
What we witness, I insisted to the group, is nothing less than a war between the young Narrator, embodying the pure artistic sensibility, and his arch-enemy Norpois, the embodiment of society and its deadening conventional thinking and unending status games.
I listed the blows the Marquis rains down on poor Proust's Narrator:
1. He first undermines the Narrator's sense of uniqueness as an artist. When the Narrator's aspirations to being a writer come up, Norpois mentions a friend of his who "has a son whose case, mutatis mutandis, is very much like yours" (WBG, 32). It turns out that this young man, after much effort, has published a book about the Sense of the Infinite on the Western Shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza..." (which is perfect -- we see here Proust's great sense of humor -- in its conjunction of the Infinite with such a specific location). More than that, "this year he has brought out a short treatise, less weighty but written with a lively, not to say a cutting pen, on the Repeating Rifle in the Bulgarian Army" (need we say more?). Norpois sums it up: "success has crowned his efforts". In other words, young man, you should be so lucky to impress the right people with a tedious study of the repeating rifle of the Bulgarian Army.
2. Having undermined the Narrator's uniqueness, next Norpois sets out to conflate the idea of the intrinsic value of art with its cash value. Norpois and the Narrator's father discuss certain stocks and investments in the father's portfolio, taking the opportunity to handle the securities themselves, which come ornamented with "cathedral spires and allegorical figures" (WBG, 34). A registered share in the Water Company utilizes art for the purpose of delighting its share-holders. The implication: Is there any other purpose you were thinking of, young man?
3. Next Norpois meets the actual creative work of the young artist with something worse than criticism: silence (WBG, 35).
4. Of course the Narrator's aesthetic judgments, since he lacks status, are rejected out of hand. When the Narrator admits to disappointment -- or at least confusion -- in regards to the performance he has witnessed by Berma in Phaedra, Norpois directs his response (which parrots the conventional line, of course, of her genius) to the Narrator's mother, a more worthy interlocutor, and praises her voice as nothing less than a "musical instrument!" (WBG, 38).
5. At this point, they go on to discuss the food -- the cold spiced beef -- with the same level of detail as they discuss art, only perhaps with more enthusiasm (WBG, 39). As a Berkeley native who watched the emergence of the Gourmet Ghetto and watched so many friends, one by one, turn into foodies in the 1990s, I know this preference for digestion over art all too well.
6. When the Narrator, foolishly (bravely!) persisting in giving his opinions, asks whether the Marquis agrees that the church at Balbec is very beautiful, Norpois responds dismissively, ending with the judgment that "on a wet day, when you have nothing better to do, you might want to look inside" (WBG, 49).
7. Finally, the knock-out blow: When discussing the Narrator's favorite author, Bergotte, Norpois comments at last on the Narrator's piece of writing, which he had met with silence earlier in the evening:
"But one can see in what you showed me the unfortunate influence of Bergotte. You will not, of course, be surprised when I say that it had not one of his qualities, since he is a past-master in the art -- entirely superficial by the by -- of handling a certain style of which, at your age, you cannot have acquired even the rudiments" (WBG, 62).
In other words, Norpois seems to be saying, you are in the thrall of a form of art that is entirely superficial, and even so, you can't even pull that off.
At the end of all this, Proust's Narrator sums up his state of mind:
"He had shown me... what an infinitely unimportant place was mine when I was judged from outside, objectively, by the best-disposed and most intelligent of experts. I felt dismayed, diminished; and my mind, like a fluid which is without dimensions save those of the vessel that is provided for it, just as it had expanded in the past to fill the vast capacity of genius, contracted now, was entirely contained within the straightened mediocrity in which M. de Norpois had of a sudden enclosed and sealed it" (WBG, 64).
As an artist myself, this conversation stuck me as all too familiar. Marie-José insisted that he was just a young man, who lacks confidence, and the Marquis de Norpois was bound to rattle him whatever he said. But all artists lack confidence, with each new project, whatever their age. They are always vulnerable! (See Miranda July's advice for overcoming self-doubt.) Reading along I began to think of Norpois as not only Proust's sworn enemy, but my own. I asked the members of the group to say honestly if anyone had accepted Norpois on his own terms as they read and been seduced by him as the Narrator's father had?
To my delight, three people said they did not see Norpois as a villainous presence at all. Marie-José explained her position further. She read him merely as a stuck-up aristocrat, stooping low to dine with an upper bourgeois family. Heather said that did not consider Norpois to be "at war" with the Narrator; instead, he merely struck her as having a diametrically opposed world view, a view which, though damaging to the Narrator's grandiose dream of his own talent, is probably a useful corrective. Jennifer saw Norpois as a strong-minded man who encourages Proust's Narrator (despite his immaturity) nevertheless to pursue his dreams.
Renée, like me, sensed more aggression in Norpois than Marie-José, Heather and Jennifer acknowledged. She pointed out that Proust's Narrator represents something that Norpois cannot control, cannot contain, cannot impress -- the questioning, doubting sensibility of the artist -- and this must be quashed. Renée contrasted in this context the Narrator's "visceral" reaction to Berma, full of emotion, unpolished, vital, with the considered, conventional reaction of Norpois. I tended to agree with Renée that the Narrator poses a threat to Norpois, and that when he says things so cruel he is not unaware of the damage that he is inflicting as the evening goes on.
Yet I did find that this discussion reminded me that as I read perhaps I was too quick to ascribe villainous motives to this man of the world. Steve remarked astutely that Norpois, after all, is the one that convinces the Narrator's father to accede to the dream of a literary life for his son in the first place. So the Narrator owes him a debt for that at least.
Certainly Proust's Narrator, as the artist, and Norpois, as the diplomat, employ language very differently. Dirk read a passage that illustrated this difference well. The Narrator explains that Norpois
"...belonged to the class of men who, had we come to discuss the books I liked, would have said: 'So you understand that, do you? I must confess that I don't; I'm not initiated,' but I could have retaliated in kind, for I did not grasp the wit or folly, the eloquence or pomposity which he found in a retort or in a speech, and the absence of any perceptible reason for this being good and that bad made that sort of literature seem more mysterious, more obscure to me than any other. All that I grasped was that to repeat what everybody else was thinking was, in politics, the mark not of an inferior but of a superior mind" (WBG, 40).
For Norpois and those in the political arena the words are not the main point. What gives them meaning is the status of the person speaking them. That is why it is such a big deal that it is King Theodosius himself who speaks of "affinities" between his country of Bavaria and France -- he transforms this otherwise anodyne word into a call for action. Or another example from our own time: If our Proust reading group stood together in Zucotti Park with Occupy Wall Street and shouted out that the wealthy in this country need to pay higher taxes so that everyone else gets a "fair shot" and a "fair sake", it would not be news. Yet when Barack Obama says the same thing, it is on the front page of the New York Times.
This contrast between the language of art and the language of politics is so brilliant that, as a writer and filmmaker who happens also to be a political junkie I will now understand both modes better. One more instance of Proust's ability, as Dirk pointed out at the top of the meeting, to change our lives forever.
Time ran out on us at this point. So we gathered for a group photo and said goodbye until next time. We missed those who couldn't make it and look forward to seeing you in March. Please, as always, add any additions or corrections to the comments below. And submit posts! Any length, any subject... What a joy it is to learn from one another how differently we each experience this novel.