These notes cover pp. 502 - 613 of Volume Two, Within a Budding Grove, in the Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
Just before the clock struck 8:30 pm I was called upstairs (to kiss my little girl Adeline goodnight one last time), so Dirk took up the tradition of clinking a glass and announcing that it was time to move to the living room and begin our meeting.
Rachel's caramel and apple tort had already vanished by that point (a total mystery how that happened! Why are you all looking at me and Dirk?) so everybody obliged.
As we settled into our seats, Jeanne passed around a postcard showing a photograph of Marcel's Proust's cork-lined room (or rather, she explained, a composite of three different rooms that he had occupied in Paris).
She had picked it up when she visited the Carnavalet Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris (or, apparently, a composite of it!) over the Spring Break.
We were all surprised when she told us how small the dimensions of his bedroom and writing room were, as small as the carpet under our feet. And it was interesting to be able to make out the separate yellow rectangles of the cork panelling on the walls -- put there, as the story goes, for the purpose of shutting out all sounds from the outside world while he wrote.
This got us talking about Proust's physical and psychological disabilities, and the question (which so many of his contemporaries asked, and which so many have asked ever since) of whether they were real or imagined.
Jennifer noted that, having a son with asthma herself, she can well imagine how frightening to his family and Proust himself these attacks must have been. And, as to the psychological side of the question, we all agreed that, at least based on the evidence of his writing, he showed an extreme sensitivity to change, coupled with a constant horror of letting go of attachments. In fact, this latter aspect of his sensibility is so pronounced throughout In Search of Lost Time -- it is so fundamental to his mode of expression --that you might say it would be impossible to fake.
Still, we wondered, thinking of our own concerns as parents, whether (in some parallel universe?) Proust might have been raised in such a way so that he would have grown up more functional, more independent, less traumatized by the drumbeat of daily existence...
As anxious parents ourselves (by the way, when I finally got upstairs, Adeline had been sitting bolt upright, tears streaming down her cheeks... Why didn't you hear me, Daddy? I was scared!), we had to ask: Did Proust's Mom or Dad do something wrong along the way?
After a brief discussion we agreed: parents always mess it up. The justly famous Philip Larkin poem comes to mind here:
This Be the Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Our best efforts come up against loss and suffering, those countless turns not taken and mistakes made -- and lose.
So what should we do as parents, then? Sure, let's let M. Proust and Mme Proust off the hook, but is there nothing we can do to guide our children?
Jennifer suggested that we simply must encourage them, and then step back and observe what happens. Hearing this, I remembered a pasage towards the end of this month's reading, in which Proust expresses a similar approach towards growing up. Thinking on the foolish things he did as a young man, the famous artist Elstir observes to the Narrator:
"We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed around them. They represent a struggle and a victory. I can see that the picture of what we were at an earlier stage may not be recognizable and cannot, certainly, be pleasing to contemplate in later life. But we must not repudiate it, for it is a proof that we have really lived..." (WBG, 605-606).
While agreeing that the act of discovery -- by way of mistakes and foolishness -- is an important part of growing up, Renée noted that, nevertheless, the lessons that are imparted by our parents and others do have a place. They stay with us, she argued, and they do have value, if only as advice which we dimly recall, and upon which we can fall back when times get tough.
She mentioned that while growing up she often had the experience of discovering some painful life lesson for herself, and then remembering the words of her Step-father or Mother or Father or Great-Grandmother, who had spoken of exactly that kind of situation years before. Knowing that she had been told of something, or cautioned about something, or encouraged to do something, made it easier to comprehend it later.
Picking up on Renée's point, I argued that, after all, we need to give our kids something, don't we? If only so that they have something to define themselves against! I would prefer to drive them into a ditch with my bad advice, rather than leave them in the lurch. (Got to love those consonant-rich Anglo-Saxon words, don't you, French readers? Lurch. Ditch. No sense of being impeded in our progress here -- a lurch, dammit.)
1. Dave's Presentation, or, Where We Are So Far
Having started off with this little prelude about values and parenting, it was high time to hear Dave's presentation.
It took the form of a "synopsis of a synopsis" of everything that we have read so far. (The document he produced can be read in its entirety in the previous post.)
In preparing this "synopsis of a synopsis," Dave took the time to review everything he had read to this point, with the aim of finding the plot. In so doing, he discovered that, to his surprise, there really is one!
It turns out, Dave assured us, that the Méséglise Way, characterized in the Combray chapter as the "easy way" to the Narrator's Tante Léonie's house, provides a kind of legend for the first two volumes of the novel...
Perhaps, he suggested, Swann's obsession with Odette, the Narrator's similar obsession with Gilberte, and maybe even the fantasy element in his love for Albertine (we shall see), all represent variations on this theme of an "easy" way...?
And when, in Volume III, we arrive at the Guermantes Way, perhaps we will experience an alternative route, a more difficult but also a more enlightened way...?
We all appreciated the added clarity that his work gave to the winding way we have taken so far. For a brief moment I felt as if I could see all 1400+ pages stretching out behind us, perfectly lucid, like the ocean at Balbec on a clear day.
2. The Grandmother
Somehow (was it a continuation of the parenting discussion? I can't remember), we next found ourselves discussing the character of the Narrator's grandmother, who of course travels with him to Balbec and stays in an adjoining room to his at the Grand Hotel.
She struck more than a few of us as a model parental figure for the young Narrator, since she straddles the line (terrible metaphor for a grandmother, sorry) between what we now call "attachment parenting" on the one hand, and fostering the young man's independence, on the other.
She does respond to his knocking on the wall, but as the Narrator notes, her three quick knocks, "stamped with a calm authority, repeated twice over so there should be no mistake," seem to say, "Don't get agitated; I've heard you; I shall be with you in a minute!" (They don't say, "Anything you want my little one! ")
Or there's this exchange, a little later:
"I couldn't live without you," says the Narrator one afternoon in the hotel.
To which his grandmother responds:
"But you mustn't speak like that... We must be a bit pluckier than that. Otherwise, what would become of you if I went away on a journey? But I hope that you would be quite sensible and quite happy" (WBG, 418-419).
Jennifer commented that Proust's detailed observations of the grandmother's preferences for "naturalness," for rain, for open windows, for artistic and intellectual pursuits over practical things, present a clear contrast with the dizzy, superficial social world of, say, Mme Swann. And, further, she enjoys how Proust refrains from interpreting this contrast for us but, rather, leaves it deliberately understated.
I mentioned, though, that there are a few occasions where the Narrator does, subtly but unmistakably, criticize his grandmother. For example, he observes that Saint-Loup, an aristocratic man who has dedicated himself wholly to intellectual pursuits, "made a conquest" of his grandmother right away. But about this Saint-Loup the Narrator remarks:
"...in my own case, if I found Saint-Loup a trifle earnest, he could not understand why I was not more earnest still. Never judging anything except by its intellectual weightiness, never perceiving the magic appeal to the imagination that I found in things which he condemned as frivolous, he was astonished that I -- to whom he imagined himself to be so utterly inferior -- could take any interest in them" (WBG, 428).
The Narrator thus makes it plain that whereas he personally makes no distinction between high brow and low brow art or ideas (seeing them as one and the same: material for enchantment), Saint-Loup is more prejudiced. Saint-Loup -- and his grandmother, it is implied -- are bound up in a more limited view of the world but don't even recognize its limitations.
In the case of Saint-Loup, here is a man who has self-consciously translated his aristocratic heritage, i.e the identity of the warrior, the hunter, the ruthless ruler of men, into a focus on art and ideas. "His head," writes Proust, "reminded one of those old castle keeps on which the disused battlements are still to be seen, although inside they have been converted into libraries" (WBG, 544).
But when talking about Saint-Loup's uncle, the Baron de Charlus, Proust explains that such aristocratic inclination towards art and intellectual pursuits can be "dangerous to people like my grandmother, to whom the less refined but more innocent prejudice of nobleman who cared only about quarterings and took no thought for anything besides would have appeared too silly for words, whereas she was defenseless as soon as a thing presented itself under the externals of an intellectual superiority" (WBG, 461-462).
According to the Narrator, then, his grandmother is too willing to be seduced by aristocratic tastes for art, as well as the air of 'naturalness' that Saint-Loup carries with him (WBG, 428), failing to recognize that these, too, are expressions of conquest and acculturation -- no more authentic than Odette's fans and perfumes and perfunctories.
3. The Narrator Discovering Himself
Somewhere around this point, perhaps prompted by this mention of the Narrator's criticisms of his own grandmother, our conversation turned to how the character of the Narrator is changing as we watch him grow older. I mentioned that, despite my continued absorption in the themes and characters and scenes of the novel, and my astonishment at how rich it is, I find myself, well, not liking the Narrator as much during this Balbec sojourn. He seems to be edging towards a realization of his own unique talent as an artist, which is fine, but sometimes he seems to add to this a tone of snobbery or superiority towards others, which I hadn't noticed in him as a boy. I offered some examples to support my view:
When he is accompanies Saint-Loup to Rivebelle, a trendy restaurant, the Narrator observes the people around him and comments:
"... I rather pited all the diners because I felt that for them the round tables were not planets and that they had not cut through the scheme of things in such a way to be delivered from the bondage of habitual appearances and enabled to perceive analogies. They thought that they were dining with this or that person, that the dinner would cost roughly so much, and that tomorrow they would begin all over again" (WBG, 533).
So now he pities the regular, unimaginative people around him? Before he marveled at them! (Renée rightly pointed out that he is drunk in this scene, and that his comments are best understood with that in mind.)
And there's another one. Speaking of whether or not he would throw himself over a bomb to protect strangers around him, the Narrator remarks:
"I have come to realize that the lives of many of the people in front of whom I plant myself when a bomb bursts are more valueless even than my own" (ML, 591).
This shocked me when I read it. Again, though, Renée challenged my initial reading of it. She and Jennifer both read this line more as a reflection of the Narrator's growing recognition that he is to be valued, he is somebody of equal worth to anybody else. Naturally, part of this recognition is that you don't want to throw yourself onto a bomb to protect the lives of strangers who, after all, would not do the same for you.
4. What Happens When Adolescent Boys Take "Naps"
To provide some comic relief, I read aloud a passage describing what happens when the Narrator returns to the Grand Hotel after a day out at the beach looking at girls. There's still an hour before dinner, so he has a little time before he has get changed. What to do?
"I threw myself down on the bed," the Narrator says. "...I was surrounded on all sides by pictures of the sea." The scene now set, I continued to read:
"But... they were, indeed, only pictures: I forgot that below their coloured expanse lay the sad desolation of the beach, swept by the restless evening breeze whose breath I had so anxiously felt on my arrival in Balbec; besides, even in my room, being wholly taken up with thoughts of the girls I had seen go by, I was no longer in a sufficiently calm or disinterested state of mind to receive any really profound impression of beauty. The anticipation of dinner at Rivebelle made my mood more frivolous still, and my mind, dwelling at such moments upon the surface of the body which I was about to dress up in order to try to appear as pleasing as possible to the feminine eyes which would scrutinise me in the well-lit restaurant, was incapable of putting any depth behind the colour of things" (WBG, 524).
At this point a few phrases lingered in our minds: "I threw myself down on the bed... no longer in a sufficiently calm or disinterested state of mind... dwelling at such moments upon the surface of my body..." A few people were starting to exchange looks and smile.
Hold on, I told the group, It gets even better. Here we go:
"And if, beneath my window, the soft, unwearying flight of swifts and swallows had not arisen like a playing fountain, like living fireworks, joining the intervals between their soaring rockets with the motionless white streaming lines of long horizontal wakes -- without the charming miracle of this natural and local phenomenon which brought into touch with reality the scenes that I had before my eyes -- I might easily have believed that they were no more than a selection, made fresh every day, of paintings..." (WBG, 524-525).
In French it's just as wonderful (Lucie found it and sent it by email):
"L’attente du dîner à Rivebelle rendait mon humeur plus frivole encore
et ma pensée, habitant à ces moments-là la surface de mon corps que
j’allais habiller pour tâcher de paraître le plus plaisant possible
aux regards féminins qui me dévisageraient dans le restaurant
illuminé, était incapable de mettre de la profondeur derrière la
couleur des choses. Et si, sous ma fenêtre, le vol inlassable et doux
des martinets et des hirondelles n’avait pas monté comme un jet d’eau,
comme un feu d’artifice de vie, unissant l’intervalle de ses hautes
fusées par la filée immobile et blanche de longs sillages horizontaux,
sans le miracle charmant de ce phénomène naturel et local qui
rattachait à la réalité les paysages que j’avais devant les yeux,
j’aurais pu croire qu’ils n’étaient qu’un choix, chaque jour
renouvelé, de peintures qu’on montrait arbitrairement dans l’endroit
où je me trouvais et sans qu’elles eussent de rapport nécessaire avec
By this time we were all cracking up. I mentioned how it is truly amazing that Proust can take something as seemingly straightforward as masturbation and find something exquisite to say about it: a "charming miracle" (le miracle charmant), he calls it, one that brings the scenes that we have before our eyes "into touch with reality" (rattachait à la réalité)! Kind of a catchy slogan for an adult website, don't you think? www.thecharmingmiracle.com
5. The Birdsong in All of Us
Trying desperately to segue away from all that, I mentioned another mention of a bird that stood out to me. Just after the Narrator describes the "pure pleasure" that seeing three trees by the side of the road brought him, he remarks on the sound of birdsong that fills his ears as he rides in Mme de Villeparisis' open carriage:
"The invisibility of the numberless birds that took up one another's song close beside us in the trees gave me the same sense of being at rest that one has when one shuts one's eyes... And whenever I caught a glimpse of one of those birds as it flitted from one leaf to another, there was so little apparent connexion between it and the songs I heard that I could not believe I was beholding their cause in that little body, fluttering, startled and blank" (WBG, 408).
When I read it this struck me as such an apt description of humanity: "fluttering, startled and blank," but capable of beautiful song.
6. The Six Girls
Somehow we began talking of the scene in which the six girls are introduced, including Albertine. We all commented on how vivid this picture is: the crowd, the girls, the octogenarian they climb over, the Narrator's inability to look away. Renée read the description of his first encounter with them:
"Although each was of a type absolutely different from the others, they all had beauty; but to tell the truth I had seen them for so short a time, and without venturing to look hard at them, that I had not yet individualized any of them... [T]hey were known to me by a pair of hard, obstinate and mocking eyes, for instance, or by cheeks whose pinkness had a coppery tint reminiscent of geraniums; and even these features I had not yet indissolubly attached to any one of these girls rather than to another; and when (according to the order in which the group met the eye, marvellous because the most different aspects were juxtaposed, because all the colour scales were combined in it, but confused as a piece of music in which I was unable to isolate and identify at the moment of their passage the successive phrases, no sooner distinguished than forgotten) I saw a pallid oval, black eyes, green eyes, emerge... And this want, in my vision, of the demarcations which I should presently establish between them permeated the group with a sort of shimmering harmony, the continuous trasmutation of a fluid, collective and mobile beauty" (WBG, 505).
Renée remarked that this was almost like a Cubist painting but done with words. It is so strange, and yet matches so well with how we actually perceive a group of faces for the first time. Heather commented how the Narrator's perceptions, and the whole scene at the beach, all could be present-day. We sometimes think because they wore frilly dresses and top hats and tails they were different, but the psychology of humankind shares so many commonalities through the centuries.
7. Love as Fantasy, Love as Regret
The last topic of discussion that I recall (I felt muddle-headed all night, and just as I feared, I'm having trouble reconstructing what happened), concerned the differences (and similarities) between love based on fantasy and love based on real incidents, time spent together, the minutia of existing day to day.
I mentioned how Proust describes the close relationship between love and impossibility. As he puts it:
"Variation of a belief, annulment also of love, which, pre-existent and mobile, comes to rest on the image of a woman simply because that woman will be almost impossible of attainment. Thenceforward we think not so much of the woman, whom we have difficulty in picturing to ourselves, as of the means of getting to know her. A whole series of agonies develops and is sufficient to fix our love definitely upon her who is its almost unknown object. Our love becomes immense, and we never dream how small a place in it the real woman occupies" (WBG, 597).
Renée read a quite different passage, which describes a passing moment in the ongoing relationship between the Narrator and his grandmother. He intentionally hurts her, and then regrets it:
"I assured her that I saw no harm in it [a photographic session he did not want to attend], and let her adorn herself, but, thinking to show how shrewd and forceful I was, added a few sarcastic and wounding words calculated to neutralize the pleasure which she seemed to find in being photographed, with the result that, if I was obliged to see my grandmother's magnificent hat, I succeeded at least in driving from her face that joyful expression which ought to have made me happy. Alas, it too often happens, while the people we love best are still alive, that such expressions appear to us as the exasperating manifestation of some petty whim rather than as the precious form of happiness which we should dearly like to procure for them" (WBG, 501).
This, Renée, argued, is the true nature of love. Not based on impossibility or wishing, but on procuring happiness (or failing to, but always trying to) for others, and occasionally seeing a joyful expression on the faces of those whom we love. This is the ongoing experience of love.
Surely, though, I argued, Proust is embracing both as forms of love. After all, there's that great story of the man who had a love affair with a woman who, as a result, gave birth to their child out of wedlock, whom he then raised as his own child after the woman died. When asked, years later, if the girl, now grown, had gotten her pretty hair from her mother, Proust tells us... "I don't know, was the old man's quaint answer, "I never saw her except with a hat on."
Yet he had built his life around her! (Jennifer shared a remarkably similar story, but hers came from the movie City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal, for which, very rightfully, we gave her a hard time.)
Well, that's about all I can recall. If anyone wants to add anything in the comments (or as a separate post), please do. From one fluttering, startled and blank bird to all of you: tweet.