These notes cover Chapter One, "Grieving and Forgetting," of The Fugitive.
So good to see our Proust group reconvene in the new year. As we all chatted away in the dining room (Ken and Setenay and Françoise and I going at it about the question of "free will," of all things), Dave suddenly waved and caught my attention. He pointed to his watch to remind me that it was already 8:30 pm: time to move to the living room.
When Dave asks, I leap.
So I clinked a spoon on my glass, and we "freely chose" to begin the meeting. (Yeah right... It was always going to happen, Ken!)
1. Marcel Losing It
We had forgotten to assign a presentation at the last meeting. So I started us off by asking for reactions to the ridiculous letter that Marcel sends Albertine, in which he attempts to tempt her back to Paris with talk of a yacht...
...and then a Rolls-Royce...
It struck me as so pathetic, this letter. I was surprised, and not a little skeptical, that our normally psychologically acute Narrator could have written it.
What does the inclusion of this letter mean? Does Proust want his Narrator to fall so low in our estimation? And anyway, isn't it out of character for Marcel, who is usually so deliberate with his words?
Heather offered the explanation that the letter is exhibit A of how entirely out-of-sorts Marcel is with Albertine gone, how emotionally unstable and confused a person can become in times of grief. I wondered if this letter was intended as a form of comic relief. Jaimey mentioned that during this section Proust has Marcel progressing through a number of stratagems and ruses before he hits upon the last one, which proves effective: making Albertine jealous by proposing that he might marry Andrée in her place.
Walden spoke up to say that for the last two volumes of the Recherche he has sensed the absence of an editor's judgment -- or at least the writing needed a careful going-over by Proust himself. Some of the aperçus and aphorisms and other turns of phrase, Walden insisted, need tightening.
I mentioned my mother Sheri's observation that the seemingly endless cycling through stages of grief and anxiety in this chapter may, in fact, be intended to be repetitive in order to reproduce for us the neurotic mental state of the Narrator. Some members of the group mentioned how, amid the repeititons, the beauty of some of the phrases stood out to them. Jaimey drew our attention, in particular, to Proust's description of love as... snow falling on a fountain:
"In short, Albertine was merely, like a stone round which snow had gathered, the generating centre of an immense structure which rose above the plane of my heart" (F, 590).
2. Has Marcel Learned Anything at All from His Relationship with Albertine?
We discussed whether Marcel may be edging towards a kind of psychological breakthrough in this time of grief, now that his relationship with Albertine is at an end. Perhaps he is close to grasping something about love and life that he had missed previously?
Renée asserted that she senses in him a growing awareness of the effects of his actions on the lives of others, which, even in the case of his beloved grandmother, he was previously oblivious. Following on Renée's comment, Jaimey pointed out that in an ironic way it is the experience of jealousy that actually brings Marcel to a deeper understanding of Albertine's experience -- her "interiority" -- than he would have had otherwise. He spends so much time imagining her in various contexts -- at the bathhouse in Balbec, at the theater with Léa, alone in her room, etc. -- that he ends up seeing the world, for brief moments, from her perspective. Heather, our resident therapist, nodded. "Mutuality is what has been missing!" she muttered. "I've been saying it all along." "We're just catching up to you!" I whispered in her direction.
I read aloud a passage that suggested that Marcel is beginning to see his controlling behavior towards Albertine for what it is: an attempt to squelch her and not an act of love.
"Indeed what was beginning to partially revive in me was that immense desire which my love for Albertine had been unable to assuage, that immense desire to know life which I used to feel on the roads around Balbec, in the streets of Paris, that desire which caused me so much suffering when, supposing it to exist in Albertine's heart also, I had sought to deprive her of the means of satisfying it with anyone but myself" (F, 745).
It seems to me that he is acknowledging here that he has wrongly turned the "desire to know life" inward, rather than let it run its natural course. He had tried foolishly to contain his own desire in the one person of Albertine, while at the same time he has insisted on being the only vessel for her desire. In these efforts he had failed, causing both of them "so much suffering."
Renée insisted that Marcel's acknowledgement that he "forgave" Albertine (F, 716), at the end of all his investigations into her life, is a significant moment, regardless of whether he has anything to forgive her for or not. At last he can move on from his previous, all-consuming need for control over the narrative of this fat-cheeked girl. With this act of forgiveness he is accepting that he can never know her fully, never enter into her subjective experience, never prove her lesbian dalliances definitively, and that is... ok. This, Renée argued, may represent, perhaps paradoxically, the beginning of a capability for having truly loving relationships: knowing that you will never know.
3. The Case of the Little Girl on the Knee
"Outside the door of Albertine's house I found a little poor girl who gazed at me with huge eyes and who looked so sweet-natured that I asked her whether she would care to come home with me, as I might have taken home a dog with faithful eyes. She seemed pleased at the suggestion. When I got home, I held her for some time on my knee, but very soon her presence, by making me feel too keenly Albertine's absence, became intolerable" (F, 583).
In the margin I wrote: "yuck." How many of us wrote something similar?
We talked about what exactly is going on here -- and the whole sordid episode of the court case brought by the little girl's parents. I mentioned how incidents like this give us a unique feel for what it was like to live in this social and historical period, in a way that even a work of history cannot. We feel the cruelty and potential for exploitation brought about by the gap between the classes -- in the pit of our stomach.
We discussed how Proust gives us the sense that men of money in this period had almost unlimited access to sex with women of lower economic strata than their own, whether by visiting brothels or simply by inviting laundry maids or milk maids or little girls wandering the streets to visit their residences. Having just watched a documentary on Roman Polanski the night before, and felt horrified by the smiling self-satisfaction of a member of L'Académie Française as he explains that Polanski is part of the "espirit de corps" and we are "sympathetic to the shadiness of his character," I wondered aloud: Does this still happen in Europe? Do successful older men still prey on working-class girls with impunity? Was Stauss-Kahn not an exception but the norm in Paris?
Poor Lucie, who was unlucky enough to be seated next to me on the couch, deflected my questions with a shrug and a smile, while Setanay laughed at my persistence. Finally Lucie exclaimed, "I don't know, Tom! I live in America! And I'm not from Paris!"
Bottom line: she didn't know. Jennifer observed that, if not still in France then certainly in developing countries, those without money or opportunities have very limited expectations for climbing up any ladder of success. Their bodies are often the only commodities they have to sell.
4. That "Dread Deity," Habit
Don brought us into a discussion of Marcel's changing understanding of habit. Whereas before it was merely an obstacle to truth and recollection and insight, now, after Albertine's death, Don felt that the Narrator was beginning to see its upside. Without habit, we would stare into an abyss. As his habitual attachment -- illusory as it may be -- to Albertine fades, Marcel fears the emptiness that comes next.
Prompted by this, I read the following passage, explaining that it struck me as precursor to the existentialist philosophy that would come a couple of decades later in France:
"The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying" (F, 607).
Yet Renée read the sentences that followed, about Marcel fearing the diminution of himself as he forgets Albertine -- as he no longer feels "charmed and pained" by the names of the train stations on the way to her Aunt's house in Touraine -- in quite the opposite way: this man is deeply attached to Albertine.
Don dug up a passage that spoke to this alternation of aloneness and the attachment which habit reveals and conceals:
"I was so much in the habit of having Albertine with me, and now I suddenly saw a new aspect of Habit. Hitherto I had regarded it chiefly as an annihilating force which suppresses the originality and even the awareness of one's perceptions; now I saw it as a dread deity, so riveted to one's being, it's insignificant face so incrusted in one's heart, that if it detaches itself, if it turns from one, this deity that one has barely distinguished inflicts on one suffering more terrible than any other and is then as cruel as death itself" (F, 564-565).
Truth is: we are ultimately alone. But we form attachments anyway! Is habit to be considered a "dread deity" then, or a welcome deity?
Jennifer spoke of the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, in which the lesson is impressed upon the audience, by the end, that it is the most insignificant stuff of daily life -- the fixing a ribbon in your hair, making small talk, and so on -- that constitutes the most meaningful aspect of our experience. And this is enough. Heather pointed out that there is a difference between the "experiencing self" and the "remembering self." She mentioned, laughing, that she is often struck -- after the fact -- by how wonderful time spent with her children is, even while at the time she felt tedium or frustration. This transition can happen in as little as 10 minutes, she finds.
5. Late Night Thoughts
We ended the night with some last thoughts. We talked about St.-Loup's dismissal of Albertine's looks in the photograph he sees in Marcel's bedroom. How Proust observes humorously: "Let us leave pretty women to men of no imagination" (F, 592).
We talked about the myth of Leda and the swan, and Marcel's convoluted discussion of a woman's orgasm ("the specific palpitation of female pleasure" F, 711) in this setting. Just for the record, following on our previous insights into Proust's possible inclinations, I read aloud the racy passage describing the wonders of Albertine's (aka Albert's?) tongue:
"I could feel her against my lips, which she would try to part, her tongue, her maternal, incomestible, nutritious, hallowed tongue, whose secret dewy flame, even when she merely ran it over the surface of my neck or my stomach, gave to those caresses of hers, superficial but somehow imparted by the inside of her flesh, externalized like a piece of material reversed to show its lining, as it were the mysterious sweetness of a penetration" (F, 671-672).
Quite the technique Albert(ine) had, no? To transform the convexity of the tongue into a sensation of concavity?
We also talked about the curious "murder mystery" structure to this section. Marcel even name-checks Sherlock Holmes in one of his letters to Albertine (F, 615)! St.-Loup is sent out on a mission, like some kind of posh Watson. And then... a woman dies mysteriously, falling from a horse, unwitnessed as far as we know.
What follows, I suggested, might be seen as a kind of misdirected murder investigation: instead of examining the cause of death, though, Marcel examines... the victim's past. He has Aimé interview potential ex-lovers and other "accomplices." As Dave pointed out, this whole section has a bit of a farcical quality to it, with Aimé happily reporting that he took one of his interviewees in Balbec to bed with him, in order to learn more from her... "And I can understand Mlle Albertine's pleasure, for that young wench is really a very good performer" (F, 708).
Near the very end of the night Miriam launched a provocative discussion of Proust as the "anti-Buddhist". Walden revealed that he has in fact been cheating on our group with a Zen Buddhist Proust group... so certainly there is a reverse fascination among the Buddhist community too. Proust may not have reached a state of non-attachment and enlightenment, but no one can dispute that he is able to watch his thoughts and appreciate the fugitive nature of experience...
At this point it was getting late, so we dispersed. Another edifying and enjoyable meeting. See you all next time.
As always, please add anything that I have forgotten and correct any inaccuracies in the comments below.