In Within a Budding Grove Proust builds on Swann's Way, subtly reworking events and perceptions from different angles. One of the pleasures is recognizing some of the parallels. It was only when rereading two of my posts that one of them struck me, and maybe it can stand as an exemplar.
I've quoted at length from the scene at the party in Swann's Way, which is the big social set piece in this book. Part of this quote was about monocles and he described one as"an accidental and perhaps purely symbolical fragment of the glass wall of his aquarium, a part intended to suggest the whole..."
In the big social set piece in Within a Budding Grove, as I quoted here Proust describes the dining room of the Grand Hotel as becoming, when lit, "an immense and wonderful aquarium."
The idea of the upper classes as some form of strange fish lets us see Proust's idea of them even while Marcel the narrator idealizes them. One of the repeating methods at play in the book is the immediate contradiction of one description of someone by a later one. This serves the purpose of showing us that perception is always in flux, changing all the time. We are being constantly invited to interrogate the way characters are presented, or how they present themselves. Not jst an unreliable narrator, this is an unreliable world.
As Swann's perception of Odette was changed by her likeness to a figure from a Botticelli, Marcel similarly idealizes everything that is Swanns. "But since I had no power of observation, since, as a general rule, I never knew either the name or the nature of things that were before my eyes, and could only understand that when they were connected with the Swanns they must be extraordinary."
Once again our eyes, our minds are seen as the slaves of fetish. The earnestness of Marcel allows Proust to show how perception is skewed by preconceptions. This is also part of remembering. We have to remember not only the event but the person who viewed that event, for we are no longer quite the same. And we also have to remember the circumstances that surrounded that moment, all the external, as well as internal influences on our perception. "It would require so immense an effort to reconstruct everything that has been imparted to us by things other than ourself - were it only the taste of a fruit - that no sooner is the impression received than we begin imperceptibly to descend the slope of memory and, without noticing anything, in a very short time, we have come a long way from what we actually felt. So that every fresh encounter is a sort of rectification, which brings us back to what we really did see." So, madelaine or not, memory is a brittle and unreliable sense.
But there is also a benefit to this brittleness of memory. What is painful to perceive in the moment will become decontaminated by time. There is always a sense in the book (so far) of time to come, a continual foreshadowing of future twists and turns. "This was a fresh misfortune, which like the rest would gradually lose its force, a fresh image which would one day present itself to my mind's eye completely purged of every noxious element that it now contained, like those deadly poisons which one can handle without danger, or like a crumb of dynamite which one can use to light one's cigarette without fear of an explosion."
This sense of the way experience becomes transmuted into something milder is contrasted with moments when perception seems heightened almost unbearably and overwhelms the moment. At these moments it is as if there is a key, as if perfection is a possibility. Marcel, on receiving a note, sees Gilberte's signature on it, an event he had wished for but considered impossible. "With lightning rapidity the impossible signature danced about my bed, the fireplace, the four walls. I saw everything sway, as one does when one falls from a horse, and I asked myself whether there was not an existence altogether different from the one I knew, indirect contradiction of it, but itself the true existence, which, being suddenly revealed to me, filled me with that hesitation which sculptors, in representing the Last Judgement, have given to the awakening dead who find themselves at the gates of the next world."
But such victories in love are only pyrrhic. For love either dies or consumes. "There can be no peace of mind in love, since the advantage one has secured is never anything but a fresh starting-point for further desires."
We return again and again to society, in the aristocratic sense, and Proust is unsparing in his irony. In the hotel at Balbec the manager tries to divine what position his guests hold in society. Asking for the price, or quibbling over it may be a sign of low social standing, or it may not: "there were people who did not pay very much and yet had not forfeited the manager's esteem, provided that he was assured that they were watching their expenditure not from poverty so much as avarice. For this could in no way lower their standing since it is a vice and may consequently be found at every grade of social position. Social position was the one thing by which the manager was impressed, social position, or rather the signs that seemed to him to imply that it was exalted, such as not taking one's hat off when one came into the hall, wearing knickerbockers, or an overcoat with a waist, and taking a cigar with a band of purple and gold out of a crushed morocco case..." So avarice and bad manners are fine, and nobility an inheritance rather than a manner.
"Nine tenths of the men of the Fauborg Saint-Germain appear to the average man of the middle class simply as alcoholic wasters .." The word appears works wonderfully here because it is largely tautological. They appear this way because, "individually, they not infrequently are."
He also continues to work his way through Giotto's vices when he is describing a toy which Albertine plays with as she strolls. "I was taking a short stroll with Albertine, whom I had found on the beach tossing up and catching again on a cord an oddly shaped implement which gave her a look of Giotto's Idolatry."
We see that he is still incapable of seeing without the aid of external reference points, and perhaps seeing itself is always thus. That is why art can be important, because it can show us new ways of seeing the world.
|Whistler's Green and Silver: The Bright Sea|
This is we also feel, though not autobiography, very much the portrait of the novelist as a young man. This journey is ever present, the awakening and maturing of his artistic sensibility, and the question of what art means and how it is achieved. Genius is something that may not get widespread recognition. Indeed the very new, the real innovations may have to wait a long time - "we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it. The time, moreover, that a person requires-as I required in the matter of this sonata-to penetrate a work of any depth is merely an epitome, a symbol, one might say, of the years, the centuries even that must elapse before the public can begin to cherish a masterpiece that is really new. So that a man of genius, to shelter himself from the ignorant contempt of the world, may say to himself that, since one's contemporaries are incapable of the necessary detachment, works written for posterity should be read by posterity alone, like certain pictures which one cannot appreciate when one stands to close to them. But, as it happens, any such cowardly precaution to avoid false judgements is doomed to failure; they are inevitable. The reason for which a work of genius is not easily admired from the first is that the man who has created it is extraordinary, that few other men resemble him."
Of course the book deals with time. Clocksworths of time, calendars of time. Could it's great length be seen as "a symbol" for the passing of time, it's almost plotless drift a recognition of how time replays events with small variations. Time which is the enemy of memory, and youth: "As on a plant whose flowers open at different seasons, I had seen, expressed in the form of old ladies, on this Balbec shore, those shrivelled seed-pods, those flabby tubers which my friends would one day be." I am looking forward to the further unfolding of Proust's time, already enjoying the further variations on these themes in The Guermantes Way.
Is it a good book? "So it is that a well read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when anyone speaks to him of a new "good book", because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read and knows already, whereas a good book is something special, something incalculable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation of every one of them would not enable him to discover, since it exists not in their sum but beyond it."
Apologies for the random nature of these impressions. The books range so far it is hard to put a shape on my thoughts, and indeed they may simply be shapeless. Back to the BOOK.