These notes cover pages 1 to 146 in Volume V, The Captive & The Fugitive, Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
It was great to reunite with the Proust reading group on Wednesday night -- after our summer away.
We had a couple of new members (welcome Nasi and Devyani!), and many familiar faces.
At 8:30, as usual, we moved into the living-room to begin our discussion.
1. The Reading-Proust-in-Berkeley 15-second "Summarize Proust!" Competition
In lieu of a presentation for this first meeting, I had asked each member of our reading group to prepare his or her own Monty-Pythonesque, 15-second summary of the four volumes we have read so far...
-- Don bravely went first. He leaned back in his chair, draped his left arm languorously over the armrest, and stifled a yawn. Then, preceding to pluck the petals off of an invisible flower, he said quietly:
"She loves me... I love her not... she loves me... I love her not..."
-- Walden offered: "Marcel Proust: a literary slow food movement."
I initially heard this the wrong way -- in a scatological sense. That was very disturbing. But then I heard it the way Walden intended it and got it. Yes.
-- With his characteristic easy smile, Dave said (I am paraphrasing): "A petulant child with 'mama issues' re-enacts these issues with various girls as he grows older..."
Feeling a need to defend the Narrator from such a damning psychological portrait, I suggested replacing "petulant child" with, I don't know... "sensitive, genius child"?
-- I don't remember their exact wording, but Jennifer and Marie-José each read sentences that struck me as similarly dismissive of Proust's achievement (Jennifer had composed hers and M-J had come upon hers in a French magazine). In distilling it down to 15 seconds they seemed to have reduced the Narrator's character, in much the way Dave did, to a study of... neurosis, immaturity, failure.
This got my back up. But I kept silent.
-- Renée's 15-second summary consisted of a stripped-down list of a succession of encounters the Narrator has in the novel: "Girl, old girl, older girl, easy girl, call girl, young girl, gang of girls, peasant girls, girl, girl, boy/girl, boys, three boys and a girl, girl."
"Three boys and a girl?" I asked, "When was that?"
"Oh, that's the Baron de Charlus, Jupien, Morel, and Jupien's niece," Renée fired back.
"Were they all... together?"
"That was my impression," said Renée.
"Wow," was all I could say, having somehow missed anything that racy.
-- Indeed, for her summary Lucie chose to focus, exclusively, on these more... racy aspects of the novel. Written in rhyming couplets, her summary, malheureusement, ran 20.08 seconds, and therefore was disqualified for the competition.
Nevertheless I include it in full:
Life is tight when mommy gives me a good night kiss
Watch out Swann my homie, Odette is hit or miss
I jizz in my britches, Gilberte is out of luck
At Balbec those bitches could really use a fuck
Charlus is sucking dick! Does Miss A eat pussy?
That shit is getting sick. That's aristocracy.
(To truly imagine the effect, you have to add Lucie's lilting French accent to the reading.)
-- Devyani, one of our new readers, speculated that the novel is really about... death, and even more specifically, the view from one's death-bed. (She explained that she had been struck with this thought while reading the opening pages of Swann's Way, in which the Narrator drifts in and out of sleep.)
This prompted me to counter indignantly: "How can you say that? I have never read any novel that is more about life!"
Immediately, though, some members of the group stepped in to defend Devyani's view. Referencing Proust's isolation in a cork-lined room as he wrote, they suggested that this may be why the Narrator is so consumed with looking back on past events. And further, they insisted, this condition of passivity is akin to a kind of death-in-life.
I objected to this line of argument. All biographical interest aside, I pointed out, the author's reclusive existence in the last years of his life says exactly nothing about the subject of the novel! And as it so happens (despite what someone reading about Proust the writer might expect), the writing is full of characters who are all but bursting with emotions and fierce longings and ambitions and reversals and contradictions and second-guessings, characters very much at the mercy of time and growth and even decay.
In short, I continued, the novel is replete with the unmistakable ingredients of life, life, life!
To be sure, death is, from time to time, the subject of speculation in the novel (for example, as Don pointed out, the Narrator's commentary on pp. 101-102, regarding the false confidence in one's future accomplishments a person may feel when threatened with death). But death, I insisted, is by no means the axis upon which this novel turns. Quite to the contrary, it is life...
But we unceremoniously dropped this debate, however, in the interest of finishing the 2013 Berkeley 15-second "Summarize Proust!" Competition...
-- I came last. Unlike the final contestant on the Monty Python skit, I did not have beautiful breasts to enhance my presentation.
Lacking such accoutrements, I instructed everyone to lie down on the ground, on our backs, and stare at the ceiling.
I explained that when Don said the word "Begin!" we were to close our eyes.
Then Don was to silently count to 15 and say: "Now!"
At this point we were to open our eyes and look, really look, at whatever object we see first.
This, I announced, would comprise my best attempt at a 15-second summary of Proust's novel.
Much confusion and commentary followed, in which people asked what they were supposed to think about, what would happen next, why, etc. I shut it down, saying, "There will be no more questions or criticism. Do not think about anything except closing your eyes and then, 15 seconds later, opening them. Right? Ready? Let's go."
Don said, "Begin!" and we all closed our eyes.
At that very moment, arriving late, Heather opened the door in the entry hall.
"That was more like a Virginia Woolf novel..." I muttered, getting to my feet. (Woolf is known for the 'interrupted moment.')
But soon Heather had joined us on the floor and we began again...
2. The Naming of the Narrator: 'My darling Marcel.'
Once back on our chairs, it was time to begin our discussion.
To start us off, I made a stab at explaining my "15-second summary" of the novel. Why did I want everyone to close their eyes and then open them?
I explained that, to me, the moment in which Albertine names the Narrator, for the first time in this month's reading, is highly significant. After thousands upon thousands of pages of nameless narrator, she identifies him by a name at last! And this happens at the exact moment that she emerges from sleep.
The more I thought about it, I told the group, the more moved I felt by this. For I realized that this naming of the Narrator is, in fact, a very powerful answer to the opening of the novel, all those thousands of pages ago in Swann's Way.
As a boy, the Narrator's identity had seemed to him fluid, amorphous, malleable. Even the walls and furniture around him in the dark seemed to shape different rooms. He was at the mercy of objects, his body almost porous. As he grew older this fragile and fugitive nature of his identity continued to haunt him. But in this month's reading, he is finally identified by name, not by himself (which had proved impossible), but by another person!
Even more, by someone who loves him!
As she emerges from unconsciousness and formlessness Albertine sees not herself but him; she names not herself, but him. This suggests, to me anyway, that in the end our identity is forged by our relationships; we are named, as it were, by other people. We might even be said to be nothing more than the composite of how we are seen by those who interact with us.
Marie-José mentioned in this respect that the understanding of identity advanced in Proust's novel reminded her of looking into a mirrored box -- with an infinite succession of images looking back at us.
I would only add to that the idea that it is not even ourselves who looks in the eye-hole of this mirrored box, but our friends, our lovers, even our captives, our adversaries, all whom we encounter during our days and nights.
This is the insight that Proust's surprise revelation of his Narrator's name provided for me. Hence my 15-second summary was an attempt to recreate that experience for the members of our group: when you open your eyes it is not yourself but the living things or people, perhaps even the objects, that you see first that begin to define who you are; it is not something intrinsic to you, but rather, everything extrinsic to you. It is what you are not that, paradoxically, defines what you are.
When I opened my eyes on the floor I saw an orange lamp-shade: that lamp-shade. In this way of thinking, then, the recreation of that lamp-shade in my mind is who I was, is the life I was living, in that single instant. Miriam suggested that she too had a memorable experience -- is that something that you felt too, Miriam? Does anyone want to share his or her experience in the comments?
Before moving on, we spoke briefly, too, of the unique grammar of this sentence revealing the Narrator's name. At first, as we might expect, Proust has his fictional Narrator doing the talking:
"It was even more so to me that when, from the underworld of sleep, she climbed the last steps of the staircase of dreams, it was in my room that she was reborn to consciousness and life, that she wondered for an instant" 'Where am I?'... Then she [Albertine] would find her tongue and say: 'My--' or 'My darling--' followed by my Christian name..." (C, 90-91)
But then the sentence abruptly shifts its frame of reference:
"...which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be 'My Marcel' or 'My darling Marcel'."
Here we are being addressed by someone who can speak of "the narrator" and the "author" in the third person!
The question is still open, though: is this "author" Marcel Proust himself? Or is this "author" merely the grown-up (fictional) Narrator, who wrote this book as a piece of non-fiction, and is also named 'Marcel'? It is left deliberately ambiguous. Or is it some other "Marcel" -- or no "Marcel" at all?
3. On the Question of "Love"
At this point, if I remember correctly, we began swapping quotes from the reading regarding Marcel's tormented relationship with Albertine.
Some in the group, Jennifer and Heather most of all, argued that Marcel simply does not know how to love. Jennifer claimed he reminds her of a teenager (she is the mother of teenagers) in his "emotional immaturity" -- I think she also used the word "stunted." Heather, a professional psychologist, insisted that he lacks the capacity for "mutuality," i.e. the recognition that other people have entire conscious universes of their own and are not mere objects. Walden suggested that it may be very deliberate, as Proust is intending to call into question the very possibility of "love."
I queried, in response, what exactly they meant when they talked about their expectations or standards for "love." This term seemed too broad to me. After all, love can be defined as Eros, or romantic love, in which case surely Marcel's changeable but undeniably passionate feelings for Albertine qualify, don't they? Or it can be defined as a deep commitment to an ongoing companionship, in which case I believe we all struggle mightily between opposite poles of mutuality and selfishness (or objectification), don't we? Certainly Marcel and Albertine's relationship, though deceitful and manipulative, qualifies as a companionship, even if a troubled one?
I asked Jennifer directly, what makes you so certain that teenagers -- and this fictional character of Marcel -- are any more emotionally "stunted" than we all are? In many ways I think of teenagers as more emotionally raw and honest than adults!
Heather spoke up to say that, although it may be true that we all have this experience of variability and uncertainty in love on occasion, in our adulthood most of us develop techniques for achieving stability. We find a balance, with which we can show a more steady and consistent concern for our lovers and friends than Marcel shows for Albertine.
Renée spoke up here to mention the incident of the syringa (flowering branches) that Marcel brought home -- a plant which happen to have a scent that Albertine finds repulsive (C, 64).
It occured to Renée that these flowers might be a literary device, by which Proust provides a hint as to the incompatibility of these two lovers. In other words, Marcel and Albertine may be, quite simply, a bad match.
Granting Renée's point that this may be the intention of Proust, I suggested that, just as likely in my view, the syringa (and Albertine's repulsion at them), may be intended to represent the unavoidable and recurrent mismatches that occur in all relationships. "After all," I said, "don't we disagree about something on a daily, even hourly, basis, honey? We don't take that to be proof that we are definitively incompatible!" Renée answered this with a wry smile -- not sure how to read that one. (Hi honey -- luv you. I'll try to store those measuring cups on that low revolving shelf, even though it is a pain, I promise, if it means so goddamn much to you...)
I left this and turned back to the Marcel-is-just-a-mixed-up-loser camp of Jennifer, Heather and Marie-José (the latter having joined them, in my mind, when she began to look, once again, to Proust's conflicted relationship to his homosexuality for insight into his Narrator's behavior). "Certainly," I conceded, "Marcel acts like a jerk towards Albertine much of the time. Fine. It's not what we would call a harmonious relationship. Fine. But to say, in a sweeping fashion, that he is incapable of love? That goes too far, I think. Remember when he weeps upon realizing that his friend Saint-Loup is, unknowingly, in love with the scheming sex-worker, Rachel (or Zazette, as was her true name)? Remember the Narrator's tenuous but touching and lasting relationship with the insecure, intellectual poseur Bloch, how he acknowledged the kind person underneath? Remember his steady affection and respect for his artistic mentor, the painter Elstir? And think of all the good times with Albertine, when he is infused with passion for her, thinking of her "set against the sea"? Is myth-making so wrong? Are we so unlike him as you suggest? Have you all figured out how to contain the ambiguities and anxieties of love and relationships so effectively that you can confidently label this person 'normal' and 'balanced' and that person 'unhealthy' and 'stunted'? I mean, Heather, surely you have read Equus?"
Jennifer added that, in her view, underneath the "beautiful prose" of Proust's work is "cynicism, just cynicism."
I was feeling fully disagreeable by this point. "But Jennifer! 'Beautiful,' in my definition, does not exclude cynicism! What is beautiful to you? Only something that is rainbow-colored and soft?" "No," Jennifer responded calmly. "But I feel that the prettiness of the prose in this novel clouds an ugly view on the world."
4. The Geometries of Love
Walden spoke up here to say that he thinks that Proust captures very effectively in this novel the non-linear truth about relationships. Whereas our culture promotes a view of love, particularly Eros or romantic love, as a linear relationship, between Person A and Person B, Walden drew our attention to the way that the characters in this novel have, more often than not, triangular relationships. Take Marcel-Albertine-Andreé. Or Charlus-Morel-Jupien's Niece. Or Swann-Odette-Mme Verdurin. Over and over we see that people love in a thick description, a three-dimensional geometry. Not only triangles but trapezoids, parallelograms... Mandelbrot sets!
Miriam spoke up to share a different perspective on Marcel's jealousy, controlling behavior, and lies. She reminded us that he has an extraordinarily creative mind. Isn't it possible, Miriam asked, that his behavior is provoked by his prolific imagination, the multiplicity of scenarios that his mind generates? Isn't it possible that he is doing the best he can to love Albertine, but that he is caught in a complexity of his own mind, as well as being buffeted by the people around him?
5. The Sleeping Albertine and the Narrator's Infamous "Wing-Beat of a Bird"
Next we discussed the memorable way that Marcel describes one of his physical encounters with Albertine. He comes upon her sleeping, and says the following about it:
"I would climb deliberately and noiselessly on to the bed, lie down by her side, clasp her waist in one arm, and place my lips on her cheek and my free hand on her heart and then on every part of her body in turn, so that it too was raised, like the pearls, by her breathing; I myself was gently rocked by its regular motion: I had embarked on the tide of Albertine's sleep... Sometimes it afforded me a pleasure that was less pure. For this I had no need to make any movement, but allowed my leg to dangle against hers, like an oar which one trails in the water, imparting to it now and again gentle oscillation like the intermittent wing-beat of a bird asleep in the air..." (C, 87-88)
Some in the group (including me) found this description decidedly creepy. Others (including Renée and Miriam) found it to be perfectly understandable and even touching, if we keep in view the extreme sensitivity of the Narrator, who finds himself bewildered by the actions and words of people who are awake. It is a soothing break, a solace, for him to have his lover asleep and immobile. That way he can finally feel safe enough to love.
A theme was emerging in our discussion, was it not? We are what we bring to a relationship; we are stuck with ourselves, and therefore must be generous with ourselves for all of the obstacles, irritations, bad habits, danger zones that we must surmount in order to love. Judge not lest ye be judged... Pride goeth before the fall. That kind of thing.
This direction in the discussion reminded me of a passage in this month's reading that I had sent last week (via text! what would Proust make of that?) to a friend of mine in New York who is in currently embarking on a romantic relationship, fraught with the usual doubts at the beginning.
At one point, in discussing his on-again, off-again feelings for Albertine, the Narrator remarks:
"If I was not in love with Albertine (and of this I could not be sure) then there was nothing extraordinary in the place that she occupied in my life; we live only with what we do not love, with what we have brought to live with us only in order to kill the intolerable love..." (C, 121-122).
This is an amazing passage, to my mind. It makes clear, I think, why it is so rare that love survives everything else that we bring to a relationship. That's why we all tear up at weddings! Because we know, intuitively, that the couple must have thrown everything they have at it -- trying to "kill the intolerable love" -- and it still it survives, a silver cord reaching from one to the other, despite everything!
Incidentally, think about it, most of the speeches and toasts at a wedding will rightfully warn them that they will continue to bring everything other than their love to their marriage. For there is no stasis, there is no "happily ever after." This is what we must live, all the other stuff: all the disagreements, all the warps and wobbles and mishaps and misapprehensions. And when love perseveres, and even deepens anyway... well, that is something to celebrate. We can only cry with joy.
After all, it even happens to Marcel, despite all his protestations:
"Since Albertine never knew whether I might not wish to go out with her before dinner, I usually found in the hall her hat, coat and umbrella, which she had left lying there in case they should be needed. As soon as I caught sight of them on opening the door, the atmosphere of the house became breathable once more. I felt that, instead of the rarefied air, it was happiness that filled it..." (C, 65).
Doesn't know how to love indeed! He is in love! I would just say that he isn't very good at it.
But who is? Everything is always changing in time anyway. And if we think we have our lover figured out, fixed for good, made stable (or worse, "normal"), well that's the most worrisome sign of all... For, as Proust reminds us:
"[When we] assign sharply defined characters... that will be because they will have ceased to interest us, because [they] will no longer be, for our heart, the apparition which it expected to be different and which, each time, leaves it overwhelmed by fresh incarnations. Their immobility will come from our indifference to them, which will deliver them up to the judgment of our intelligence" (C, 79).
May we all pray that you and I will never be "delivered up" to the judgment of our lover's intelligence!
6. On Possession
By this time it was nearing the end of the evening, and we agreed that our discussion had captured some of the claustrophobic (though thrilling!) atmosphere of the novel. Our reading group had expressed many of the variable positions that the Narrator himself takes, when he considers his love (or lack thereof) for Albertine, and their life together in his Paris apartment.
A number of members mentioned his language of possession. After all, the book we are reading is called The Captive. One might ask, of course, who really is the "captive" -- Albertine or Marcel himself.
Jennifer read the passage in which he describes his pride in having "plucked and hidden away from the rest of the world, the fairest rose," i.e. Albertine (ML, 83). Marie-José spoke of how unusual and risky, in its day, the arrangement is -- to have Albertine live secretly in Marcel's apartment. He truly holds her captive because she cannot even be seen by neighbors.
I would like to share in these notes one passage from this month's reading that nobody mentioned at the meeting -- as I think it fits this context of claustrophobia and anxiety. Certainly it struck me as very unusual for this novel, in the near violence of its imagery.
Marcel is thinking about Mme Vinteuil, whom he knows to be a lesbian, and his dear Albertine's acquaintance with her. When Albertine merely mentions Mme Vinteuil's name on one occasion, Marcel remarks:
"I should have liked, not to tear off her [Albertine's] dress to see her body, but through her body to see and read the whole diary of her memories and her future passionate assignations" (C, 117).
This passage makes clear, I think, the true nature of Marcel's obsession with wanting to possess Albertine. The problem is not that Marcel does not enjoy Albertine's company on a daily basis. The problem is not that he cannot touch and fondle and... even "wing-beat"... the surface of her body at will. The problem is that he cannot penetrate her mind.
I would note, Heather, that this strikes me as quite the opposite of the experience of a narcissist who merely objectifies others! Marcel is in a state of constant torment not because he cannot control Albertine, but because he cannot know her. He wants to possess Albertine, yes, but he wants to possess her not as an object but as a subject. He wants to see the world through her eyes. To wake up from a deep sleep and see what she sees, be seen as she is seen. And all this is, of course, impossible.
As Don remarked, one way of looking at the novel's theme is that we are all ineluctably alone, despite our greatest efforts to understand and connect and empathize with others.
"Love," or companionship anyway, is one way to attempt to break out of the prison of our own minds, and this part of the novel is exploring the hazards of this particular form of prison break.
7. Francoise's Comment on Aging
At the end of the evening Francoise made an insightful comment about how we are witnessing the aging of our Narrator. As we move out of our adolescence most of us "settle down," as it were. And in the part of the novel we are witnessing Marcel confine himself, in a way we have never seen before, to a specific apartment, and specific routines (afternoon rides in the "motor-car" with Albertine, dinners cooked by Francoise the cook).
This process, brought on by aging, by responsibility, by slowing down, by choices, has important effects on our consciousness. We don't need to go so far as to imagine that Marcel is becoming a Republican (there's an old expression in the U.S. that young people become Republicans when they start paying taxes... That was before the Republican Party became insane). But he is surely starting to become more... what shall we call it?... conservative in certain respects. He wants familiarity. He demands routine. The sight of Albertine's hat and umbrella and coat gives him a rush of happiness because it is to be expected. So does his contemplation of how she and Francoise scrupulously abide by his rule not to wake him in the morning. So does his ritual of reading the newspaper. So does his little "wing-beat of a bird."
We see here a return to the theme, so fascinatingly explored in the opening of the novel, about the huge role that habit plays in our lives. It is both necessary and constantly calling out to be challenged. We will see what happens to the habits of Marcel and Albertine in the pages ahead.
Another thought-provoking discussion. A great start to our final year. So good to see everyone.
I realize now that we never voted on a winner in the "Summarize Proust!" competition. People can vote in the comments if they like?
My vote goes to... Don. Simply because his physical mimicry of a 19th century aesthete, in a state of ennui, was just too good. I mean, it was up there with Marcel Marceu (another "Marcel," but one not so prolix!).