These notes cover pp. 204 - 381 in Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah, in the Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
Last week we met for another great discussion.
We covered, among other things, the Narrator's grief over his grandmother's death (delayed by a year but finally brought on by his return to the Grand Hotel in Balbec) and his growing suspicions that Albertine is carrying on secretive lesbian love affairs...
Death and secretive lesbian love affairs, all in one evening.
Oh, I have to mention that Walden brought to the meeting another of those Guinness chocolate cakes his wife makes, a cake so moist and flavorful that it is astonishing.
Death, secretive lesbian love affairs, and a moist and flavorful Guinness chocolate cake.
What more could you want from a Proust reading group?
1. Tom's Presentation on the Increasingly Unattractive Character of the Narrator
Since, at the end of last month's dinner party I forgot to ask for volunteers to do a presentation, I had to prepare a short one myself.
My presentation took the form of a question:
Why is our beloved Marcel, whom we knew to be such an observant little boy, so dedicated to the truth, so gentle, so generous... growing up to be such an arrogant prick?
In other words, is it just a phase, or is this a permanent condition?
I directed the group's attention to certain irritating features of his personality...
The way, for example, he often boasts of his ability to manipulate others with words: "I gave myself the pleasure of informing her, but by addressing my remark to her mother-in-law, as when, at billiards, in order to hit a ball one plays off the cushion, that Chopin, so far from being out of date, was Debussy's favorite composer" (SG, 293, italics added).
Or the frequent misogynistic descriptions of women: "... the old lady's toothless mouth allowed to trickle from the corners of her faintly mustachioed lips a few drops of misplaced moisture" (SG, 281)... "The wife had a round face like certain flowers of the ranunculus family, and a large vegetal growth at the corner of her eye" (SG, 298).
Or the ease with which he tells lies "This avowal to Albertine of an imaginary sentiment for Andrée, and, towards herself, of an indifference, as though out of a scrupulous politeness... enabled me at length... to speak to her with a tenderness which I had so long denied myself " (SG, 311).
Or his ridiculous self-image as a kind of Don Juan for the smart set: "I counted that, in that one season, a dozen conferred on me their ephemeral favours. Another name came back to me later, which made thirteen. I then had a sort of childish fear of settling on that number. Alas, I realized that I had forgotten the first, Albertine... who made the fourteenth" (SG, 256).
Jaimey lept to Proust's defense. He insisted that the author is, in fact, quite aware of the off-putting tone of these passages. (Have some respect, Clyde!) When the Narrator boasts of 13 sexual conquests, not including Albertine, during his time in Balbec, or when he dismisses the "lift-boy" as a vulgar money-grubbing fool ("And the idiot... had begun to tremble, supposing that... I would never give him anything again" (SG, 305)), we are of course meant to judge the Narrator poorly. Indeed, Jaimey argued, the divergence between the author and his namesake, "Marcel," is pronounced in these passages for a very specific purpose: to guide us along a gradual process of renunciation of the norms of society (as conventionally lived). Our Narrator leads us astray because our author, behind him, leads us astray, so that in time, all together, we may seek greener pastures elsewhere.
Renée concurred with this outlook. Rather than focus on whether we sympathize with this protagonist, she insisted, we should focus on appreciating the arc of his moral development and wondering where it will lead us. Marie-José hinted (spoiler alert!) that it leads towards a single-minded devotion to art and beauty, a narrow path not available to the addled masses. But to get there, you need to get addled first...
(In some ways, it occurs to me now, this may be a description of the experience of all of the best works of fiction.)
Heather commented that, curiously, she found the hyper-sensitive child more bothersome than the scheming, sexually boastful, self-satisfied young man. Somehow he seems more human now, more recognizable. After all, who among us didn't act like an arrogant (read: deeply insecure) 20something during our arrogant (read: deeply insecure) 20s?
Listening to these robust defenses of Proust's achievement, I was reminded of Nabokov's advice that "the worst thing a reader can do" is to "identify himself with a character in the book."
Whenever we read a novel, Nabokov instructed us, we must always remember that we are entering not a character, but a world.
2. Types of Grief
Next, if my memory serves me, we talked about the differences between the Narrator's sudden nervous breakdown over his grandmother's death and his mother's more bleak and steady sorrow.
Proust's Narrator draws the distinction this way, and he does not go easy on himself:
"... in reality there is a world of difference between real grief, like my mother's -- which literally crushes the life out of one for years if not for ever, when one has lost the person one loves -- and that other kind of grief, transitory when all is said, as mine was to be, which passes as quickly as it has been slow in coming, which we do not experience until long after the event because in order to feel it we need first to 'understand' the event; grief such as so many people feel..." (SG, 227).
Pushing back against Proust's Narrator's implied approval of his mother's behavior, Heather wondered whether such "real grief" may be considered "pathological." She mentioned, in this context, the indelible image the Narrator paints of his mother on the beach at Balbec:
"I saw her from my window, dressed in black, and carrying my mother's sunshade, advancing with timid, pious steps over the sands which beloved feet had trodden before her, and she looked as though she were going in search of a corpse which the waves would cast up at her feet" (SG, 230).
Although I didn't feel completely comfortable with the label "pathological," I agreed with Heather that the mother's behavior revealed much about the intensity of the parenting that we may imagine Marcel having received as a child. In a way, this insight into his mother is one of the first clues that Proust has given us into his Narrator's backstory .
Even so, it is enigmatic. It resists that Hollywood paint-by-numbers quality. The Narrator remarks, for example, how "the blank, tearless gaze" that his mother "had worn since [his] grandmother's death was fixed on that incomprehensible contradiction between memory and non-existence" (SG, 228). This is definitely not the stuff of a Nora Ephron film.
No, this is a grief taken to its existential limits; it has thrown the mother into a state of near-paralysis, a kind of death-in-life. What does it say about her needs? Her disappointments? What does it say about Marcel that he does not share it?
Jaimey spoke up at this point to challenge the description of this grief as "pathological" or deviant or extreme. He argued that Heather's and my concerns regarding the extent of the mother's grief actually post-date Proust, relying as they do on the normative framework of psychology established by Freud in the early 20th century. Although Freud was working at the same time as Proust, Jaimey remarked, it is unlikely that either was familiar with the other's work. It was only decades later, after all, mid-century, that Freud's work led to our contemporary, cognitive behavioral approach to "fixing" problems.
So Proust and his contemporaries, Jaimey insisted, would have been unlikely to have seen anything pathological about a grief that lingers for years and makes one ill-suited to society. To them it represented sadness. Deep, "real" sadness; a question without an answer.
But he didn't stop there. Jaimey went on to suggest that "pathological" behaviors in our time overlap in a surprising way with the notion of being dysfunctional in a capitalist economy, i.e. "non-productive". With the rise of industry and mass employment (as opposed to subsistence farming and craftsmanship), society required a new kind of docile and conformist worker. Psychology arose in parallel with this need...
This was when the yelling started. Heather's label of "pathological," Jaimey stammered, rising to his feet, "is merely a gag stuffed in the mouth, a blood-soaked club, a piece of fabricated technology used to prop up the interests of our capitalist overlords!"
Okay, he didn't go that far. But that's what I heard between his words. My blood was racing with excitement. I was about to start quoting lines from Equus.
At some point during all this Jaimey acknowledged that his father was a therapist, so he knows of which he speaks...
"And that, my friend, is why you are so angry," I said, in my best attempt at dead-pan.
Jaimey (who is, in truth, a remarkably calm and measured person) laughed at this from where he was sitting. "Yes, that's exactly it."
"Still, you have to admit, Heather said, bringing us back to the question of Marcel and his mother, "We are talking about a very funky family."
No one could argue with such overpowering alliteration.
It is, we all agreed, a very funky family.
As we continued to discuss the question of grief, though, I had the occasion to read aloud another passage from Proust:
"It is in this sense (and not in the other sense, so vague, so false, in which the phrase is generally understood) that we may say that death is not in vain, that the dead continue to act upon us. They act upon us even more than the living because, true reality being discoverable only by the mind, being the object of a mental process, we acquire a true knowledge only of things that we are obliged to re-create by thought, things that are hidden from us in everyday life..." (SG, 229)
This passage had struck me because it ties to a previous discussion this group had regarding the value people place on death. Proust seems to be saying that death does have a value, after all. It does not, of course, have a value in the clichéd sense of making life meaningful as we live it. But it does have value as an event that renders the raw data of experience moot at long last; as an event that makes the experience of what we re-create in our minds absolute and exhaustive.
You might even say that death is, for Proust, the ultimate trump card, loading the deck in favor of subjective experience over objective experience.
Both Renée and Jennifer, to my surprise, agreed with Proust's appreciation of the value of death. In turn, they each commented on their personal experiences of losing someone whom they loved dearly. Faced with this person's death, each of them felt that the wholeness of someone's life, seen in its entirety only after it is over, provided a coherent memory from whom to draw solace and guidance, even more perhaps than memories of friends still living.
This discussion made a deep impression on me. I have lost three of my grandparents, and I loved them very much... Yet I realized, as I listened, that I have never lost someone with whom I was in constant communication. Listening to Renée and Jennifer, I grasped for the first time, even if abstractly, that death can create resonances and meaning otherwise never known by the living.
I stand my ground that death has no value -- zippo! -- for the person dying (death remains a drag to all concerned, and is best avoided). But still, the discussion did help me to get a glimmer of what Proust was saying in regards to death's transformative effect on those still living.
As a coda to this discussion, Renée remarked how moving it was to her, to read that the Narrator's mother had assumed many of the personality traits of her mother, so long harbored but never expresssed until the absence caused by death left a role waiting to be filled. She said she has experienced something of this herself, taking on the traits of those she has loved and lost.
3. The Intermittencies of the Heart
I can't remember how we got there exactly, but a little while later Jaimey observed how this month's reading, in its structure as a whole, demonstrates Proust's memorable phrase, "intermittencies of the heart." Not only do we see contradictions and inconsistencies in the day-to-day behavior of the people in this novel, but we also see the shocking contrast between the love the Narrator felt for his grandmother and the cruel and calculating way that he treats Albertine.
Proust wants us to see human nature for what it is. The grief the Narrator feels is undeniable. Yet death, he points out, is truly of little concern for most of us, most of the time. In one brief scene, for example, a "judge" at the Grand Hotel commiserates with the Narrator's mother over her grief, while a "president's wife" stays silent. Considering this, the Narrator draws the following blunt conclusion:
"In reality, the judge cared no more about my grandmother than the president's wife. The affecting words of the one and the other's silence, for all that my mother put so vast a distance between them, were but alternative ways of expressing the indifference which we feel towards the dead" (SG, 230).
Proust backs this up with his frequent knocking off of characters (e.g. Aunt Leonie) in parentheses -- or anyway, in passing, as it were. Am I the only one who found it somewhat traumatic -- is the concept of "trauma" another repressive invention of 20th century psychology, Jaimey? Or is it that one a tool for liberation? -- to learn so casually and indirectly that Swann had died? We read of a "visit of condolence" that a minor character had "paid to Mme Swann after the death of her husband" (SG, 364).
The fact is, death itself, the act of death, is incidental to Proust. What matters is everything in our minds before and after. Thinking about this now I realize how consistent it is with the outlook guiding this novel from the beginning; it is the same approach Proust has his Narrator take to the sights and smells of his childhood in Combray, only now it is applied to the dust and decay of the grave. Either experience is, first and foremost, a subjective one, and that is where its value lies.
We ended our discussion of grief and death with an acknowledgement that Proust writes of the experience of the arrival of acceptance very beautifully. When he finally comes to accept, through a dream, that "the dead are dead" (SG, 242), we then follow him outdoors into the countryside. He looks around and sees that the apple-trees are "in full bloom, unbelievably luxuriant, their feet in the mire beneath their ball-dresses, heedless of spoiling the most marvellous pink satin that was ever seen..." (SG, 244). The pathetic fallacy has never been so welcome.
4. Same-Sex Encounters at the Turn of the Century
Our discussion of the Narrator's suspicions of Albertine and her friend Andrée led us to a question of why gay and lesbian liaisons seem so frequent in Proust's novel.
Was Proust's perspective warped by his own obsessions? Why are so many guests at the Grand Hotel doing it with people with parts matched to their own? Or did men and women engage in same-sex relations more frequently then?
I mentioned that in my reading in 19th century history (particularly with the great Professor Estelle Freidman at Stanford) I did encounter the assertion that women would quite commonly engage in petting and sexually satisfying each other, without considering it anything untoward. The terms "gay" and "lesbian" did not exist; more importantly, the identities did not exist.
For men there was, of course, the physical act of buggery, and unlike today it was crime under the law, but hardly anyone considered a single sexual encounter as a marker of one's "orientation." In England, the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 did begin to define homosexuality, separate from mere sodomy, as an offense. But women who liked other women were largely still free of condemnation. Without penetration, it was thought, it was all just fooling around anyway! (Funny, isn't it, that contemporary sexual norms insist quite the opposite: today, penetration absent fooling around is hardly "sex" in the proper sense of the word.)
So perhaps there were more "Sapphic" romances, in Proust's day... More late nights spent whispering secrets and caressing a friend in bed... And perhaps sexual liaisons between men were more frequent too, since they did not require that the participants change their self-identification as men desiring, and desirable to, women.
Or perhaps Proust is exaggerating the gay scene at Balbec a bit for his own novelistic purposes.
Certainly, as someone in the group pointed out, there are plenty of misstated facts regarding sexuality in this month's reading. Cottard, for example, while watching Albertine dance with Andrée, remarks: "It's not sufficiently known that women derive most excitement through their breasts" (SG, 264). It's doubtful that the good doctor (or Proust) even knew that the clitoris existed.
And there's the charged energy surrounding the Narrator's every encounter with the "lift-boy"... (SG, 257-259, 303-306). There seems to be a lot of misdirection in this month's reading.
Though I have to say, I was impressed that, after a few thousand pages, Proust does finally manage a convincing evocation of female sensuality in one passage:
"The fact was that I had just heard her [Albertine] laugh. And this laugh at once evoked the flesh-pink, fragrant surfaces with which it seemed to carry with it, pungent, sensual and revealing as the scent of geraniums, a few almost tangible and secretly provoking particles" (SG, 263).
This struck me as a tribute to the power of Proust's imagination -- that he could even imagine a man's desire for a woman's pungent, sensual and revealing body. To the contrary, though, someone pointed out that Proust later makes the observation that it is a mistake to assume that "the two things were irreconcilable" (SG, 357), urges for both men and women.
We had a laugh reading the Narrator's description of the farm laborers he watches one day during an outing with Albertine, and how he insists that their image has become interwoven with his adoration of women:
"I remember the hot weather that we had then, when from the foreheads of the farm laborers toiling in the sun drops of sweat would fall, vertical, regular, intermittent, like drops of water from a cistern, alternating with the fall of the ripe fruit dropping from the tree in the adjoining orchard; they have remained to this day, together with that mystery of a woman's secret, the most enduring element in every love that offers itself to me" (SG, 320).
"Drops" would fall...
"vertical, regular, intermittent..."
...from these men's "foreheads..."
"...like ripe fruit..."
Please. The last-second, obligatory mention of an unspecified "mystery of a woman's secret" is not going to cut it, Marcel. Just say it, those laborers were way goooood-looking.
5. A Portrait of the Artist
We also, at one point, talked fondly of the two employees of the Grand Hotel whom the Narrator befriends, Marie and Céleste. Their rough and idiosyncratic commentary, which the Narrator likens to poetry, provides us with our first visual portrait of the Narrator:
"There, Marie, look at him sipping his milk with a reverence that makes me want to say my prayers. What a serious air! Someone really ought to take a picture of him as he is just now. He's just like a child. Is it by drinking milk, like them, that you've kept that clear complexion? Ah, what youth! Ah, what lovely skin! You'll never grow old. You're lucky, you'll never need to raise your hand against anyone, for you have eyes that know how to impose their will. Look at him now, he's angry. He shoots up, straight as the gospel truth" (SG, 355).
6. Proust on the Nature of Being "In Love"
Proust, as we have seen, has made many brilliant observations on the nature and experience of love in this novel.
But the passages in this month's reading during the Narrator's hotel room break-up with Albertine are, we agreed, unsurpassed. Proust delineates here in great detail the stages of a love affair, its push-pull nature, the alternation of desire and despair, toughness and tenderness.
After lying to Albertine and pretending that she is to him merely a "good friend," the Narrator delivers for the reader what amounts to a schematic drawing of the internal dynamics of a love affair.
I think it will be worth it to include the whole, extended passage (I have broken it into paragraphs, though the original is continuous). Here goes:
"As it happened, in thus underlining to Albertine these protestations of coldness towards her, I was merely -- because of a particular circumstance and with a particular object in view -- making more perceptible, accentuating more markedly, that binary rhythm which love adopts in all those who have too little confidence in themselves to believe that a woman can ever fall in love with them, and also that they themselves can genuinely fall in love with her.
They know themselves well enough to have observed that in the presence of the most divergent types of women they felt the same hopes, the same agonies, invented the same romances, uttered the same words, and to have realised therefore that their feeling, their actions, bear no close and necessary relation to the woman they love, but pass one side of her, splash her, encircle her, like the incoming tide breaking against the rocks, and their sense of their own instability increases still further their misgivings that this woman, by whom they so long to be loved, does not love them.
Why should chance have brought it about, when she is simply an accident placed in the path of our surging desires, that we should ourselves be the object of the desires that she feels?
And so, while feeling the need to pour out to her all those sentiments, so different from the merely human sentiments which our neighbor inspires in us, those highly specialized sentiments which are those of lovers, after having taken a step forward, in avowing to the one we love our passion for her, our hopes, we are overcome at once by the fear of offending her, and ashamed too that the language we have used to her was not fashioned expressly for her, that it has served us already, will serve us again for others, that if she does not love us she cannot understand us, and that we have spoken in that case with the lack of taste and discretion of a pedant who addresses an ignorant audience in subtle phrases which are not for them; and this fear and shame provoke the counter-rhythm, the reflux, the need, if only by first drawing back, hotly denying the affection previously confessed, to resume the offensive and regain respect and domination; the double rhythm is perceptible in the various periods of a single love affair, in all the corresponding periods of similar love affairs, in all those people whose self-analysis outweighs their self-esteem" (SG, 309-310).
Wow. That's exactly it, no?
7. End of the Night
There was more talk about the striking image of the Baron de Charlus, with his garish make-up and silvery hair, stepping out on the train platform in the sun.
There was talk of the withering of the Narrator's friendship with Saint-Loup.
And we did continue the conversation from the previous month, regarding the question of the depth of the characters in this novel. We agreed that Proust's portraits of other people (other than his Narrator, that is) are all filtered through a singular sensibility. So if a reader is looking for the omniscient narrative voice, as you might find in a Balzac or a Tolstoy or a Franzen, he or she will be disappointed. Proust's novel is not an attempt to paint a realistic picture; his is an impressionistic technique, teaching us to see the "light" of human relations in ways that we had not noticed before. This was a useful reminder that not all readers will respond to Proust; at some level whether you like one author or another is simply a question of taste. What form do you prefer chaos to be organized into when it is served to you? Cynical realism? Expressionist poeticism? Dialogue-heavy comedy? Vengeance plays? Subjective emotionalism? Omniscience? Tweaked self-consciousness?
Near the end of the night I do remember saying to the group that, having made our way more than halfway through the novel, I didn't want to pat ourselves on the back but I do think that we are grappling with the main themes of this work. I am so grateful for the intelligence and seriousness of this group, and I believe that, with our minds all together, we are actually tracking the developments in this novel fairly closely. Heather chimed in at this point: "So you are saying we are up to the task!" "Yes!" I said in reply.
See you on May 1. Two and a half weeks. Better get cracking.