Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

9.5.04

Reading Proust and Remembering Lost Time

In the fifth book of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time), La Prisonnière (in English, The Captive), the narrator takes the subject of his jealous obsessions into his parents' home in Paris. Almost without Marcel understanding how it happens, Albertine becomes individuated from that delightful frieze of the petite bande of teenage girls in the second book (see my post on November 3, 2003). Marcel's worries that Albertine indulges in sexual encounters with other women continue and are eventually proven true. In some ways, she stands in for his mother, soothing his worries (which should give us all warm, fuzzy feelings for Mothers' Day), and in others she is guarded jealously by Marcel only as a means of controlling her lesbian tendencies. He describes the attraction of seeing her in his house every night:

It was a soothing power the like of which I had not known since the evening at Combray long ago when my mother, stooping over my bed, brought me repose in a kiss. To be sure, I should have been greatly astonished at that time, had anyone told me that I was not wholly virtuous, and more astonished still to be told that I would ever seek to deprive some one else of a pleasure. I must have known myself very slightly, for my pleasure in having Albertine to live with me was much less a positive pleasure than that of having withdrawn from the world, where everyone was free to enjoy her in turn, the blossoming damsel who, if she did not bring me any great joy, was at least withholding joy from others. Ambition, fame would have left me unmoved. Even more was I incapable of feeling hatred. And yet to me to love in a carnal sense was at any rate to enjoy a triumph over countless rivals. I can never repeat it often enough: it was first and foremost a sedative.
Their little rituals—Albertine playing the piano and Marcel listening (for more about the importance of music in the book, see my post on March 20), their rides and walks together, and goodnight play—are sustained with religious devotion, and Proust cannot resist some blasphemous imagery:
When it was Albertine's turn to bid me good night, kissing me on either side of my throat, her hair caressed me like a wing of softly bristling feathers. Incomparable as were those two kisses of peace, Albertine slipped into my mouth, making me the gift of her tongue, like a gift of the Holy Spirit, conveyed to me a viaticum, left me with a provision of tranquility almost as precious as when my mother in the evening at Combray used to lay her lips upon my brow.
If you're behind on your studies of Catholic theology, the Viaticum is the eating of the Holy Eucharist, usually with the administration of other rites, in the moments just before one's death. In Latin, this meant that unspecified thing, in the neuter, appropriate to the preparation before a journey or taking to the road (via). The expression dates from before the Romans, one suspects, to the ancient Greek practice of giving a departing guest a final supper for the road.

Another entertaining narrative strand in the novel is the narrator's technophobia, most pronounced in his aversion to that new and disconcerting invention, the telephone, which figures at several places in earlier books as well. In the fifth book, while Albertine is changing her clothes, Marcel tries to discover some information about her earlier whereabouts by telephoning her girlfriend Andrée:
Albertine went to take off her things and, so as to lose no time in finding out what I wanted to know, I attempted to telephone to Andrée; I took hold of the receiver, invoked the implacable deities, but succeeded only in arousing their fury which expressed itself in the single word 'Engaged!' Andrée was indeed engaged in talking to some one else. As I waited for her to finish her conversation, I asked myself how it was—now that so many of our painters are seeking to revive the feminine portraits of the eighteenth century, in which the cleverly devised setting is a pretext for portraying expressions of expectation, spleen, interest, distraction—how it was that none of our modern Bouchers or Fragonards had yet painted, instead of The Letter or The Harpsichord, this scene which might be entitled 'At the Telephone,' in which there would come spontaneously to the lips of the listener a smile all the more genuine in that it is conscious of being unobserved.
I hesitate to think what such a painting might look like if it were updated even more, instead of At the Telephone something like At the Laptop, Blogging. The fourth and fifth books devote many pages to lengthy narrations of notable dinner parties, both of the Guermantes set and the strange little arriviste circle of the Verdurins. Through all of this, the narrator does precious little that could be considered work and, from time to time, writes about his supposed avocation, writing, and how he is not doing a whole hell of a lot of it. It has often been uncomfortable for me, in these parts of the book, to think of Marcel wasting all that time when he has an enormous book to write. The end of the book really turns on the flight of Albertine at the end of the fifth book, with an unexpected turn of events that I will not spoil for those who want to read the novel. In the sixth book, La fugitive (later retitled Albertine disparue and, in English, The Sweet Cheat Gone), which I am about to finish, labors to free himself psychologically from Albertine's influence as her departure has done physically. He does this partly by making inquiries to prove or disprove his fears about Albertine's supposed involvement with other women, most of which is shown to be true.

The sixth book is on the short side, and about 100 pages into it, the tone of the novel seems to change. One of the disconcerting things about Proust's book is the indeterminacy of time in it. While it follows, to some degree, a chronological trajectory, from the narrator's childhood through adulthood, the narrator's fascination with the act of remembering means that the reader is never very clear about the timeframe of the narration. As Proust describes in beautiful and poetic language in several different contexts, all people in our lives are simultaneously several people, both real as they themselves change and in our imagination as we encounter them and, more devastatingly, remember them. Marcel's memories—of eating the madeleine dipped in tisane, of the hawthorn trees in Combray (see my post on January 3), of the petite bande of girls at Balbec, of his grandmother, and of countless other scenes—are more important really than the things themselves. As we begin to see at this point in the sixth book, the "cruelty of memory," as he calls it, is that what can be desired so strongly in memory no longer exists:
I read a letter from Albertine, in which she had said that she was coming to see me that evening, and I felt for an instant the joy of expectation. In these return journeys along the same line from a place to which we shall never return, when we recall the names, the appearance of all the places which we have passed on the outward journey, it happens that, while our train is halting at one of the stations, we feel for an instant the illusion that we are setting off again, but in the direction of the place from which we have come, as on the former journey. Soon the illusion vanishes, but for an instant we felt ourselves carried away once again: such is the cruelty of memory.
It may be cruel for Marcel, but it makes for delightful reading.

No comments: