These notes cover the reading to the end of Volume III, The Guermantes Way.
It was a relaxed evening. There were about 16 or 17 of us... I counted quickly and casually at one point, but now I can't remember my count. (As I say, it was a relaxed evening.)
Don was back! (Though he had not caught up on his reading and so remained mysteriously silent throughout the discussion.)
Alex brought home-made madeleines, which were, once again, crazily delicious. I probably ate a dozen myself.
At 8:35 or so (see how relaxed I was? there wasn't even a 5-minute chime on a glass this time) we strolled into the living room, took our seats, and began.
1. Florence's Presentation of the Song by the French Chanteuse "Barbara"
Before we started the discussion in earnest, Florence shared with us a song by Barbara.
Since the lyrics were in French, those of us who (to our undying shame) are limited to the English language were not able to appreciate the literal meaning of what Barbara sang.
But it was very beautiful nonetheless.
The rhythm of her singing, the complicated tone of her voice and the deceptively simple piano part combined to evoke a mood of great longing. When the song ended I announced that I felt the experience of hearing that one song, more than any other experience I have had (including sending our children to a bilingual school!) made me, at long last, want to learn to speak French.
I was only slightly exaggerating.
Everyone agreed that it was a wonderful song. Marie-José and Florence had a brief dispute over whether Barbara sees her childhood as a place of no return because of its nightmarish quality (Marie-José's angle) or merely because of the sheer impossibility of going back (Florence's angle).
In the end, they agreed that many truths are at work in Barbara's songs: regret, sorrow, wistfulness, nostalgia, impossibility, long-lost joys... many truths, many angles.
Provoked by this discussion of the nature of time, I shared with the group a recent discussion I had with my children. One evening after dinner, a week or so earlier, I had been describing to Cole and George the three dimensions that define our physical world: width (x-axis) , height (y-axis), and depth (z-axis). I got a little worked up (as I do), and I recall making a wild gesture with my hands to show that you can go back and forth, up and down, or -- thrusting my hand forward like a fencer -- deep.
"So you see?" I said, by now slightly out of breath. "These -- these three -- are the dimensions that make up our world. Everything you see is a relationship of one of these to the other two."
But just as I said this, it occurred to me that I shouldn't leave out the forth dimension... so I added, as a kind of aside: "Of course there is one more. The other dimension that we can experience is... time." With this, I turned back to the sink to finish the dishes.
"But Dad," said George, his eyes wide. He followed me into the kitchen. "Why are you talking about time? What does that have to do with shapes?"
"Well," I answered, "Together these are the four ways that you can change your position: you can move along the x-, y- or z- axes, or you can move through time. That's it. Some say there may be other dimensions, folded up inside these four somewhere, but we don't have any way of perceiving them."
George looked at me, then at Cole (who, truth be told, by this time had become more interested in a piece of dried mango he had found). Cole looked at George and licked his mango. George looked back at me. I decided to try to shock George even more.
"You know," I said, squeezing a drop of dishwashing soap onto the sponge. "The sad thing, George, is that in space you can move any way you want along the three axes. You can go up or down, back or forth. In time, though, you can only move in one direction: forward."
He looked at me for a long time in silence. The water ran uselessly into the sink. We both contemplated the folly of human existence. Cole's mango fell from his mouth onto the floor, and I had to take it away from him.
As the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard observed:
"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
From Barbara to Kierkegaard to Proust... same dilemma: How to live in this knowledge that we can only go ahead in time, and never recover what we have lost?
2. Jeff's Presentation, Part Deux
Next, Jeff passed around a sketch of Proust and his mother from a recent issue of the New Yorker. He read, from the "Briefly Noted" section, a short review of a recent book, Monsieur Proust's Library.
Francoise mentioned that over the holidays she had read a few chapters of this book. She had been particularly intrigued by the discussion of the influence of the Russians on Proust.
They came later in the meeting, but this mention of "the Russians" seems an opportune time to bring in Jennifer's comments regarding her experience reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina alongside In Search of Lost Time.
Jennifer told the group that she finds herself relieved, since she has started reading Tolstoy, to find that his fiction is populated with characters showing, oh, such things as moral integrity, heroism, loving and kind natures, and other virtues. She emphasized that it's not that she wants to "relate" to the characters on an individual basis; it's that she wants to explore imaginatively a world that is at least recognizable to her. Tolstoy's characters have, on occasion, some redeeming traits; they are recognizable to her, unlike Proust's.
Jennifer explained that when she reads Proust she finds the characters, almost without exception, to be status-obsessed, petty, egotistical, superficial... in a word, off-putting. She likes Swann, to some extent, and she appreciates Saint-Loup, and (most of the time) Marcel the Narrator. But the others she finds dreadful. As a result, she confessed, she found this month's reading (covering the long dinner party at the Guermantes home) to be tedious in the extreme.
I countered that, in my experience, despite the superficiality and superciliousness of many of these characters, I do sense the humanity lurking in them. In fact their absurd behavior often makes me all the more conscious of their underlying humanity -- of their suffering. The Duke and Duchess de Guermantes, for example, are so desperate in their social machinations, their heedless self-absorption, their obsession with pecking-orders and manners, that I am keenly aware, while reading about them, how much pain they are holding back. After all, this is a broken marriage. He cycles through mistress after mistress, with emotional scenes marking the dissolution of each affair. And Mme de Guermantes has very little intimacy in her life. But instead of breaking down into heaving sobs, they invite guests to dinner. They attend the opera. They gossip. I described it as a kind of "distillation" or a "concentration" of pain.
And this saves it for me. Just when you think Madame de Guermantes is a dull, pampered lady-who-lunches, she surprises with an act of kindness, or shows vulnerability that we didn't expect her to show. "Think of all the superwealthy living today in Marin," I said, pointing into the night. "With plastic surgery on their faces. Entertaining their friends in their houses recently featured in Architectural Digest. At first we might be ready to dismiss them, but if we spent time with them we would likely find that they are as full of pain and tangled history and memory as anybody else..."
"That's why I don't live in Marin," joked Jennifer. "So I don't have to discover that!"
"But we are just as bad, aren't we?" said Heather. "Our distractions may be different, that's all. We talk about composting. About where to buy grass-fed beef. But we, too, are avoiding an honest assessment of life."
"And we form Proust reading groups!" added Jeff. "I can imagine those people in Marin insisting that we are full of pretension, just as we would insist that they are. Who's to say who's right?"
"Yes," Miriam joined. "We are all susceptible to distractions and games and egotism. But that's not the point (although I do think there are some gradations to be made there.) I think what Tom is saying is that Proust recognizes this about all of us. And he is equalizing between us all. Just as in our discussion about the leveling effect of art -- as experienced by the Narrator when he looks at Elstir's painting and sees the woman's dress as equal to the sail as equal to the waves. That, I think, is what Jennifer is missing in writing off the Guermantes and their set. They too have a hidden humanity, equal to our own. They may be unappealing and selfish on first impression, but through Proust's art we can read of them and find something moving in their lives."
"Well, I prefer a little more sincerity," said Jennifer. "The first volume, Combray, for example, had more of a romanticism running through it, a sense of beauty. Now we get nothing but snobby conversations in stuffy dining rooms. After a few hundred pages of sitting next to her at dinner I just couldn't stand Madame de Guermantes, I'm sorry. Regardless of her hidden humanity, waiting to be discovered..."
The discussion was a good one, with valid points made on all sides, I thought.
3. Painting a Portrait of Madame de Guermantes
But really any discussion of Madame de Guermantes deserves its own section.
We talked about how, as is his genius, Proust never lands on one reductive portrait of her. Sure, there are times when he observes her pettiness or her cruelty (the poor servant who just wants a day off to see his girl!). Some in the group saw these moments as "cat scratches": accompanied by a gesture, they described their sense of Marcel waiting and then pouncing on her. There are other times, however, when the Narrator marvels at the purity of her language or at the ways in which she educates him.
I read to the group, for example, the passage covering the Narrator's thoughts as he leaves the party in a carriage:
"Through the magnifying lenses, even those of Mme de Guermantes's pronouncements which had struck me as being stupid (as for example the one about the Hals pictures which one ought to see from the top of a tram-car) took on an extraordinary life and depth. And I must say that, even if this exaltation was quick to subside, it was not altogether unreasonable" (GW, 752).
She quotes early Victor Hugo poems; he finds himself rereading these in the week that follows the dinner. Everyone expects her to wear gaudy jewelry at a party; she comes with a bare neck. She bucks tradition (to a point, at least).
Conversations with the Duchess, the Narrator suggests,
"...resembled the discoveries that we make in the library of a country house, out of date, incomplete, incapable of forming a mind, lacking in almost everything that we value, but offering us now and then some curious scrap of information, or even a quotation from a fine passage which we did not know and as to which we are glad to remember in after years that we owe our knowledge of it to a stately baronial mansion" (GW, 754).
A little while later, Renée read another passage which captured a charming aspect of the personality of the Madame de Guermantes. In it, the Narrator asserts that all of the Guermantes demonstrated a "prodigality of charming words and courteous gestures, a whole system of verbal eloquence..."
"But as this last, in the idleness of fashionable existence, remains unemployed, it overflowed at times, sought an outlet in a sort of fleeting effusion which was all the more intense, and which might, on the part of Madame de Guermantes, have led one to suppose a genuine affection. She did in fact feel it at the moment when she let it overflow, for she found then, in the society of a friend, man or woman, with whom she happened to be, a sort of intoxication, in no way sensual, similar to that which music produced in certain people" (GW, 748).
(Not knowing that she would read it aloud, I had, quite independently, written in the margin at exactly this passage: "Coley gets this." How satisfying that I was right!)
It's true that, in the intoxication of a moment, with a friend, man or woman, it is very hard to get out the door at the end of a long night. Sometimes I resort to "going to get the car" just because the overflow threatens to go on for hours if some action is not taken.
The group talked in this context about that wonderful scene at the end of the party when the guests are all gathering their coats and talking about trivialities the way we do at the end of a party. They are asking about the Narrator's snowboots and where he purchased them (GW, 749).
Haven't we all been in this exact circumstance, inside that buzzing, cheerful commotion, with the conversation tacking wildly between parking concerns, fashion choices, trivial connections between people we know... just as we are leaving a party? Are these rhythms, to which Proust draws our attention, universal for all human beings in all historical epochs? Did Ug and Tugga stand at the mouth of their cave, handing off the last gristle from the Wooly Mammoth feast, teasing their guests about watching out for the loose rock as they make their way down the hill? Did they experience this same strange exaltation, this same "overflow," at the close of a party?
4. At the Baron de Charlus' House
We all agreed that the scene towards the end of this month's reading, in which the Narrator visits Charlus, was highly entertaining.
Charlus, lounging in a silk robe, finds a reason to fly into a terrible rage. Surprisingly, the Narrator responds by ripping up Charlus' silk top hat in anger. Even more surprisingly, at the first opportunity, the servants replace the shreds of silk with another, intact silk top hat. This, I suggested, illustrates the highly theatrical, planned quality to Charlus' performance that night.
Renée mentioned how the whole bedroom has the quality of a stage set. Someone else commented on how the footmen are lurking behind the door, as if they have been instructed to be the audience. Indeed, the Narrator himself speculates about
"... the whole of the scene... having been a piece of play-acting rehearsed in advance... perhaps, with a nunc erudimini, 'Be wise now,' by which everyone would profit" (GW, 767).
But the Narrator is still not wise. The closeted gay identity, relying on codes, on surveillance, on secrecy, on signals, on control, on power relationships, is so well conveyed in this one scene. We are very aware of what is going on. But he remains oblivious.
I mentioned to the group how I found myself thinking of the stories I had heard about William Ball, the founder of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. A brilliant man, he insisted that everyone should recognize his brilliance and... bow down to it. On his bedroom ceiling, I recall hearing, he had painted a gold sun, to signify his status as the Sun King. Gorgeous men, like supplicants, would visit, and he would waive them away when he grew tired. Perhaps the Castro in the 70s was not unlike the gay underground in Paris a hundred years previous.
We also talked about the amazing details of this apartment: the green room with the family portraits, the band of musicians, playing Beethoven's 'Joy After the Storm' somewhere on the first floor so as to create ambiance... the whole atmosphere like something in a dream -- or a nightmare. Jeff mentioned the feeling of being in danger, what with all the doors, the hallways, the rooms, the chambers opening into inner chambers.
Walden observed how these trappings of the aristocracy were, at that time, beginning to be unsustainable. Like Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, these aristocrats -- the Guermantes, the Princess de Parma, Mme de Villiparisis, the Baron de Charlus, all of them -- are feeling the ground under their feet shifting. There is a certain desperation in the air.
In terms of the gay experience, however, we know from history that it is about to improve. It is interesting, isn't it, to imagine the Baron de Charlus living the Castro in the 21st century. How would his personality be different -- without the requirement of subterfuge?
5. The Extrinsic vs. The Intrinsic Value of Relationships
There are a lot of status games played by the characters in this novel...
The blue, cold stare of the Guermantes family, as they size you up (GW, 608).
The way the girls in the Courvoisier family bow deeply, but then spring back up to their former position, as if to retract the bow, neutralizing its effect (GW, 609).
And the moment that the Narrator reveals his brutal appraisal of Madame de Guermantes:
"Here again, Mme de Guermantes's mind attracted me just because of what it excluded (which was precisely the substance of my own thoughts) and everything which, by virtue of that exclusion, it had been able to preserve, that seductive vigour of supple bodies which no exhausting reflexion, no moral anxiety or nervous disorder had deformed. Her mind, of a formation so anterior to my own, was for me the equivalent of what had been offered me by the gait and the bearing of the girls of the little band along the sea-shore. Mme de Guermantes offered me, domesticated and subdued by civility, by respect for intellectual values, all the energy and charm of a cruel little girl of one of the noble families round Combray who from her childhood had been brought up in the saddle, had tortured cats... But she was incapable of understanding what I had looked for in her -- the charm of her historic name -- and the tiny quantity of it that I had found in her, a rustic survival of the Guermantes. Our relations were based on a misunderstanding, which could not fail to become manifest as soon as my homage, instead of being addressed to the relatively superior woman she believed herself to be, was diverted to some other woman of equal mediocrity and exuding the same unconscious charm" (GW, 690).
This, certainly, is an occasion where the writer Proust and his Narrator diverge.
For the writer Proust, as we have seen, has a genius for equalizing, like Elstir, for finding the common beauty in all of us. He makes Mme de Guermantes come to life.
Whereas the Narrator, in this passage, is decidedly asserting his superiority, making a kind of status-claim, over the likes of the Mme de Guermantes; he is reducing her to a "type."
Heather commented on the difference between "extrinsic" value and "intrinsic" value. The Guermantes and their social set, we have seen, traffic in relationships largely defined by their extrinsic value, i.e. what they can deliver, what utility they bring. But the Narrator too reveals, in passages like this, that he is interested in these people, and these social settings, mainly if not exclusively for their extrinsic value. He is gathering data for his writing, discovering types, classifying, edifying himself. To Jennifer's point, we are witnessing very few relationships built on intrinsic values of love and caring and concern. The Narrator's friendship with Saint-Loup comes close. Perhaps the Duchess and the Princess have something along these lines, in private settings. The Narrator and the Grandmother did. But it rare in this novel to see people actually loving each other.
This will be such an interesting gap to observe as we come to know the Narrator, Marcel, as a grown man in the next volumes. How does the Narrator differ from the writer, Proust, physically and mentally and morally? Why does Proust make him differ? What purpose does it serve? If Proust did not know love, does he nevertheless comprehend it, through an act of the imagination, better than his Narrator?
6. The Dying Swann
Finally, we discussed the scene that takes place between the Narrator, the Guermantes and M. Swann at the close of this volume.
We talked about how Swann, very ill, stripped of illusions, breaks with social etiquette and informs Mme de Guermantes that he is dying -- just as she is rushing off to a party. Her response is feeble. Pressured by her husband to hurry along, she stammers:
"You know, we'll talk about that another time; I don't believe a word you've been saying, but we must discuss it quietly. I expect they've frightened you quite unnecessarily. Come to luncheon, any day you like" (GW, 817-818).
But there is still time to go back into the house to fetch her red shoes (her husband is horrified that she is wearing black shoes with a red dress). And M. de Guermantes is even worse in his inability to comprehend what matters in a relationship, in a life:
"Good-bye, my boys," he shouts after the Narrator and Swann. "Off you go before Oriane comes down again. If she finds you still here she'll start talking again. She's already very tired, and she'll reach the dinner-table quite dead. Besides, I tell you frankly, I'm dying of hunger..." (GW, 819).
This behavior is, of course, staggering. It is pathetic. But it is not unusual, I asserted. Many people, far more socially aware than M. de Guermantes, nevertheless cannot address the actual stakes of their lives or their friends' lives. They ask about little things, dancing around the questions of love, happiness, health, values. Intimacy is hard. Words fail.
And the truth is, from M. de Guermantes standpoint, his wife's lateness, the fashion statement of her shoes, his own reputation, ARE more important than whether Swann is alive or dead. It is true for us, as well, that our smallest domestic concerns often take precedence over life-and-death stakes for others (to name only one example: there are hungry children, right now, this moment, in our community, denied food due to the system of private property -- which is, after all, only one way to organize a community -- a system under which their parents have failed to function for various reasons. Do we drop everything to feed them? No.)
Proust, in this remarkable last section, points the finger back at us, I would suggest. After all of the miserable, petty, status-seeking, selfish, catty behavior in this chapter, he is not letting us off the hook.
Yes we would like to think that we would stop everything, cancel the party, and sit with Swann when he informs us that he will be dead in a matter of months. But would we? It is not as easy a question as it might at first appear. What is the nature of this "sincerity" which Jennifer so longs for (and finds in Tolstoy)? Is it truly as redemptive and untainted as all that? Is "sincerity" always preferable? Is "sincerity" even possible?
We might do well to keep in mind one of Nabokov's many rants against his American readers:
"To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase "sincere and simple" — "Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere" — under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: "Art is simple, art is sincere." Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex."
Is this right?
Well, I have come to the end of the Notes, and I realize that I forgot to mention the digression about the use of condoms in Paris at the turn of the century. We were talking about the gay underground and the life of M. de Charlus and the purpose of his silk hat. At one point -- why, I cannot say, certaintly no one asked me to -- I found myself demonstrating, with quite an elaborate and anachronistic hand gesture, the application of a condom to an imaginary member...
A discussion about whether condoms in that day were made out of animal skins, tortoise shells (by this time I was looking on Wikipedia on my phone and learning many interesting things) or intestines ensued. Of course in that day a condom would be the last thing a person would associate with a gay man anyway, so the whole digression was quite besides the point... That is all I will say on the matter.
A fascinating night, as usual. Next week we will have Francoise giving a presentation on Monsieur Proust's Library, in which we will learn about some of the influences on Proust.
Renée and I had the idea of holding the next meeting, on the first Wednesday of March, as a potluck dinner party, to celebrate that we are halfway through. Wouldn't that be fun to have our discussion around the table? More on that later...