These notes cover pp. 146 - 353 in Volume V, The Captive & The Fugitive, of the Modern Library edition of In Search of Lost Time (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
I am going to have to keep these notes more brief than usual.
We have a busy weekend ahead, and this is my chance to write down what I remember from our Wednesday meeting before it all becomes a distant memory...
So here goes. I have about an hour. Wish me luck.
Francoise and Dave brought delicious salamis and cheeses and home-baked cookies, as well as wine. Oliver, out from New York and joining our group for the second time, contributed cheese and crackers as well. We were treated to a great repast before the meeting began in earnest at 8:30.
1. Don's Presentation on Lies and the Liars who Tell Them
Don started us off by talking about the repeated lies, the paranoia, the habitual duplicity displayed by many of the characters in this section of The Captive. We all had to agree that relationships in this novel are really not made out to be too appealing.
Indeed, Don drew our attention to the Narrator's description of his relationship with Albertine as nothing less than a crime... barely held in abeyance. The words suggest a love affair, sure, but one marred only by the threat of violent death:
"In the case of Albertine, the prospect of her continued society was painful to me in another way which I cannot explain in this narrative. It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one's own like a bomb which one holds in one's hands, unable to get rid of it without committing a crime" (C, 235-236).
Marie-José took off from there. She emphasized that not only every relationship in this novel is fraught with lies and distortions, but that the author himself often gives us multiple versions of the same event. There is a tangle of manipulation everywhere you look: between the characters, between the author and his readers, between the Narrator and his author, even inside the troubled mind of the Narrator himself, who seems to verge on a state of schizophrenia at times.
I took some umbrage with this (even in my sick state, you see my dear M-J, I still had some kick in me yet!). Yes, I acknowledged, many of the characters... Marcel, Morel, the Baron de Charlus, and even perhaps Albertine (I say "perhaps" for Albertine in particular, because we should remember that everything we read about her is filtered through the subjectivity of the Narrator) -- all of these characters seem to be inconstant in the extreme. Yes, these characters and many others in the novel are engaged in games of trickery and fabrication and manipulation. But when you look closely at the specifics of their "lies" they are rarely calculated in the manner of a truly good liar (a figure who is, I would argue, far more rare than most fiction suggests). Much of their inconstancy is a result of the unavoidable changeableness of their own thoughts and emotional states in time. To my mind, then, they are not so much Machiavellian as they are... human. Their lies are often the result of their own confusion.
Following on this point, Renée shared with the group her fascination with the changes that the Narrator expresses, in quick succession, when he summons a "startling towhead" dairy-maid up to his chambers. Apparently he has developed a crush on her, based solely on her appearance. (Was it her "sharply defined nose... in a thin face, which recalled the beaks of baby vultures" (C, 179)? To each his own, we might say.) When this young girl finally stands before him, the Narrator notices his perceptions alter:
"The quivering cloud of my suppositions no longer enveloped her in a dizzying haze. She acquired an almost apologetic air from having... but a single nose, rounder than I had thought, which gave her a hint of stupidity...' (C, 184).
The "beaks of baby vultures" -- hot.
A "hint of stupidity"? -- apparently not.
Yet only moments later the Narrator raises his eyes once again "to those flavescent, frizzy locks and [feels himself] caught in their swirl and swept away, with a throbbing heart, amid the lightening and the blasts of a hurricane of beauty" (C, 185). And moments after that, upon getting distracted by the idea that his Albertine may be having an affair with the actress Léa, our dear Marcel is utterly dismissive of the dairy-girl all over again.
Which part was the lie? Which part the truth?
Perhaps Proust is demonstrating the way that lies are grown out of our unavoidably conflicted and time-bound minds. Perhaps his characters are not so far from us, after all.
Don added another twist to this discussion of lying and manipulation by quoting the Narrator on how we are most inclined to tell untruths to those with whom we are the most intimate. This occurs, Proust speculates, because strangers give us no reason to lie. Whereas those whom we love, on the contrary, fall within the ambit of our nearest desires. Which gives us every reason to lie to them.
"To be harsh and deceitful to the person whom we love is so natural! If the interest that we show towards other people does not prevent us from being gentle towards them and complying with their wishes, it is because our interest is not sincere" (C, 140).
Dave spoke up to link this part of the discussion to the larger question, which comes into clear focus at the Verdurins' party, of whether art allows us to escape these hobbling, distorting effects of everyday life. Alas, at this point the Narrator concludes that it does not. Lies -- or at least unavoidable misrepresentations and contradictions -- not only permeate our every social encounter, they also, permeate all artistic efforts. Proust even seems to issue a kind of apologia directly to his readers:
"If we are not obliged, in the interests of narrative tidiness, to confine ourselves to frivolous reasons, how many more serious reasons would enable us to demonstrate the mendacious flimsiness of the opening pages of this volume in which, from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another! Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning" (C, 250).
2. Death and the Final Judgment
The next topic of heated discussion that I can recall is about the question of judgment of a person's life, once it has ended. I spoke of how moving I found the passages concerning the death of M. Swann. The Narrator quotes the obituary that appeared in the papers, in order to show how insufficient it is. He writes of his affection for Swann:
"Swann... was a remarkable intellectual and artistic personality, and although he 'produced' nothing, still he was lucky enough to survive a little longer" (C, 262)
And then, oddly, significantly, the Narrator (or is it the author?) slips into addressing the character Swann directly:
"And yet, my dear Charles Swann, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a young idiot has made you the hero of one of this novels that people are beginning to speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live" (C, 262).
I mentioned that this reminded me of Shakespeare's many boasts of giving the gift of immortality to the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth in his sonnets. (Well-known examples include sonnet #18 or sonnet #55) It has always struck me as a cognitive mistake, prompted by the way our brains are constructed, that we want to believe that an artist or a subject can gain "immortality" through art or other forms of achievement. This kind of so-called immortality is, of course, nothing of the sort. Let's be clear: the author, Proust; his friend Charles Haas (who is thought to have inspired the character Swann, along with Charles Ephrussi); the Dark Lady; Dante's Beatrice -- none of these people ever did or are or will experience life after death.
To be sure, words or images, the work of art, will live on, but this gives any human beings implicated in it... exactly... let's pause to calculate... zero satisfaction after death. To think otherwise is, I believe, due to our innate bafflement at death; we still don't believe it, all the way up to the point where we stop believing or not believing altogether and are dead.
This raised the question for the group of what life, exactly, is most worth living. Should we aim for artistic (or other worldly) success, as Proust did? Or should we carry ourselves more modestly, as Swann and Charlus do? (I know, the word "modest" does not fit well with the mention of the Baron de Charlus, but I mean in the sense that he does not feel compelled to write the great, closely-observed novel that the Narrator senses in him (C, 291). He is too busy living.)
I admitted to the group that in recent years this is a big question for me personally, as an artist who has not been as compelled to create art as I used to be. The Narrator, while considering marriage with Albertine, thinks of all the art that he would never produce due to such a time-drain as -- gasp -- a relationship... He thinks back to the time of his youth, walking the Méséglise and Guermantes ways, dreaming of becoming a major artist:
"In abandoning that ambition de facto, had I forfeited something real? Could life console me for the loss of art? Was there in art a more profound reality, in which our true personality finds an expression that is not afforded it by the activities of life? For every great artist seems so different from all the rest, and gives us so strongly a sensation of individuality for which we seek in vain in our everyday existence! (C, 204).
We gently lobbed back and forth for a while with this question. Don spoke of how powerful the description of Bergotte's death was for him: he will never forget that small patch of yellow wall in the Vermeer painting, which Bergotte gazed at as he died (C, 245). Don felt that this last vision represented a failure on Bergotte's part; the work unfinished, the work he might have done but did not.
Yet, on the contrary, Renée said she felt that the yellow wall represented the ever-reaching desire of the artist. Even at Bergotte's last instant he was challenging himself anew:
"'That's how I ought to have written, he said. 'My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.'" (C, 244).
This is it! Renée exclaimed. This is the irrepressible urge towards beauty and never-to-be-achieved unity that Bergotte, as an artist, represents!
3. The Transcendent Possibilities of Art, and the Position of the Artist
We circled back here, I believe, to a debate we have had at previous meetings. Towards the end of this month's reading the Narrator hears Vinteuil's septet and has an epiphany.
Art, he decides, is not mere technique and "industrious toil" (as he had concluded earlier in the day, C, 209). It is a way to experience a deeper, mystical union with other people, far exceeding the way offered by relationships. The Narrator asks rhetorically:
"[I]s it not true that those elements -- all the residuum of reality which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even from friend to friend, from master to disciple, from lover to mistress, that ineffable something which differentiates qualitatively what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with others only by limiting himself to externals, common to all and of no interest -- are brought out by art, the art of Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, which exteriorises in the colours of the spectrum the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, but for art, we should never know?" (C, 343)
And he adds, working himself into a fine lather:
"The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elistir, with a Vinteuil; with men [sic] like these we do really fly from star to star" (C, 343).
I commented that I would like to mark my disagreement with this position now. (And since it appears that Proust is angling towards this near-religious conclusion of the transcendent possibilities of Great Art, I am glad for it. I look forward to this disagreement with such a brilliant antagonist as Proust!)
Heather remarked, quite accurately, that even if art does not allow us to gain immortality or transcend our own cognitive limitations, even if Proust is inflating the capacity of genius out of the limited experience of his own failure at relationships, we can still agree that we are grateful for the works of great artists. She looked at me: Tom? Can we not be grateful for Shakespeare? For Proust? For Steve Jobs? There is something important that distinguishes the modest well-lived life of Swann, collecting his paintings, visiting his mistress, dropping bon mots at various social gatherings, and the lives of René Pascal or Charles Baudelaire... no?
I had to agree on that point. Like Heather I am very grateful for all the people who have come before and achieved remarkable things. But, to my mind anyway, this does not elevate their efforts to the quasi-religious status that Proust wants to give it.
As this debate will only gather heat, I suspect, in the months to come, let's leave it there.
4. Conclusion of the Meeting
I am out of time. So these notes will have to stand. I will end with an extended passage describing -- metaphorically, alas -- the actual sex life of Marcel and Albertine.
We know that they did not consummate their love "in the full sense of the word" (C, 120). Yet they did get up to some other exciting stuff... "Oh dear," Albertine says to Marcel,
"... at the Ritz I'm afraid you'll find Vendome Columns of ice, chocolate or raspberry, and then you'll need a lot of them so that they may look like votive pillars or pylons erected along an avenue to the glory of Coolness. They make raspberry obelisks too, which will rise up here and there in the burning desert of my thirst, and I shall make their pink granite crumble and melt deep down in my throat which they will refresh better than any oasis" (C, 165).
"In the same way, at the foot of my yellowish lemon ice, I can see quite clearly postillions, travellers, post-chaises over which my tongue sets to work to roll down freezing avalanches that will swallow them up... I set my lips to work to destroy, pillar by pillar, those Venetian churches... and send what's left over crashing down upon the worshippers" (C, 166).
I remarked that a close textual analysis suggests, with a high degree of certainty, that the writer of these passages (channeling his passion through the words of his fictional character Albertine) has, in view of the copious and convincing details provided, himself experienced putting his lips to not a few... pink granite ices... in his time.
What is that maxim for aspiring writers? Write what you know. Proust appears to have done just that.
Well, great meeting. I will perhaps supplement these notes at a later date with some of the other eddies in our discussion that I have left out. In the meantime, email me with any posts you would like to add, or add your comment below!
Grand pied de grue! (Still working on my pronunciation.)