Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Within a Budding Grove (First Post)
I'm now finished the first four books of my twelve volume edition of Remembrance of Things Past, more slowly than was my intention but also more quickly at times than it feels like being read. There is a leisurely pace to Proust's sentences and they open up more readily, I find, when read slowly. The long sinuous threads can also get completely lost if you try to read too quickly.
The book is broken into three sections - Madame Swann at Home; Place Names: The Place; and Seascape, with Frieze of Girls. It grows ever more apparent that the major driving force of the novel is an exploration of sexuality, and more particularly, homosexuality. Although professing heterosexuality there are many hints and ellipses that seem to point to a strain of homosexuality in the narrator. His fascination with Gilberte Swann and her mother Odette at times seem simply ruses to penetrate M Swann's household. Proust himself was gay and Marcel, the narrator, is very much based on Marcel, the novelist. He is however, a self professed heterosexual in this novel. The tension between these poles is perhaps the most volatile and interesting element in the novel. It makes one feel somewhat ambiguous about Marcel's attempts to connect directly with his memory - it feels that there is a lie sitting in the heart of his rhapsodies of remembered sensation. But is the book really lying or is it inviting us to read THROUGH the story.
Early on (page 90 in Book 1 of my edition) the following paragraph tempted me to read a different kind of memory, one common in the toilets of many metropolitan parks. He is called over to "a little pavilion covered in a green trellis, not unlike one of the disused toll-houses of old Paris, in which had recently been installed what in England they call a lavatory but in France, by an ill-informed piece of anglomania, "Water closets". The old damp walls at the entrance, where I stood waiting for Francoise, emitted a chill and fusty smell which, relieving me at once of the anxieties that Swann's words, as reported by Gilberte, had just awakened in me, pervaded me with a pleasure not at all of the same character as other pleasures, which leaves one more unstable than before, incapable of retaining them, of possessing them, but on the contrary, with a consistent pleasure on which I could lean for support, delicious, soothing, rich with a truth that was lasting, unexplained and certain. I should have liked, as long ago in my walks along the Guermantes way, to endeavor to penetrate the charm of this impression which seized hold of me, and, remaining there motionless, to interrogate this antiquated emanation which invited me not to enjoy the pleasure which it was offering me only as an "extra", but to descend into the underlying reality which it had not yet disclosed to me."
Around this quote there are a number of reasons given as to why one might lie. To protect ones family from the (social) shame revelations of such a type might cause. "In the first place, whereas I had been detesting them for their cruelty, their consent made them now so dear to me that the thought of causing them pain stabbed me also with a pain through which the purpose of life shewed itself as the pursuit not of truth but of loving-kindness, and life itself seemed good or evil only as my parents were happy or sad."
It is also politic to place oneself within the majority camp. "I could distinguish only that to repeat what everybody else was thinking was, in politics, the mark not of an inferior but of a superior mind."
When Marcel goes to the theatre for a much anticipated chance to see the famed actress Berma he is disappointed by the simplicity and truth of her delivery. In his mind art and artifice were connected and he was expecting something artificial. "I listened to her as though I were reading Phèdre, or as though Phaedra herself had at that moment uttered the words that I was hearing, without its appearing that Berma's talent had added anything at all to them."
There is also a disturbingly violent scene which shows how sexuality can tear a man apart, damaging himself and others in the process. "One day, a man who just now is very much in the eye, as Balzac would say, of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, but who at a rather awkward period of his early life displayed odd tastes, asked my uncle to let him come to this place. But no sooner had he arrived than it was not to the ladies but to my uncle Palamède that he began to make overtures. My uncle pretended not to understand, made an excuse to send for his two friends; they appeared on the scene, seized the offender, stripped him, thrashed him till he bled, and then with twenty degrees of frost outside kicked him into the street where he was found more dead than alive; so much so that the police started an inquiry which the poor devil had the greatest difficulty in getting them to abandon. My uncle would never go in for such drastic methods now, in fact you can't conceive the number of men of humble position that he, who is so haughty with people in society, has shewn his affection, taken under his wing, even if he is paid for it with ingratitude. It may be a servant who has looked after him in a hotel, for whom he will find a place in Paris, or a farm-labourer whom he will pay to have taught a trade. That is really the rather nice side of his character, in contrast to his social side."
This uncle Palamède is the uncle of Saint Loup who Marcel spends a lot of time with at the seaside resort of Balbec, where the second two parts of this book are set. Ostensibly a rake, it seems clear that Saint Loup, like his uncle, is gay. The presence of so many gay characters shows that this is a major theme of the novel. As with other aspects, I suspect that the interpretations are as myriad as the readers.
And there are also warnings against this type of interpretation in the book. Marcel/Proust constantly talks about the way our mind changes what we perceive. Am I bringing my preconceptions to play here. Perhaps the key passage in the book is the description of a painting by the painter Elstir of "the harbour of Carquethuit, a picture which he had finished a few days earlier and at which I now stood gazing my fill - that Elstir had prepared the mind of the spectator by employing, for the little town, only marine terms, and urban terms for the sea." "the rare moments in which we see nature as she is, with poetic vision, it was from those that Elstir's work was taken. One of his metaphors that occurred most commonly in the seascapes which he had round him was precisely that which, comparing land to sea, suppressed every line of demarcation between them."
It's hard to find your feet when you don't know if you are at sea or on dry land. I will attempt to swim down some more of the leafy lanes and walk on the sea at Balbec some more in the next few days.