I just finished The Fugitive, and it was good, and I am glad to be done with it. The “Sojourn in Venice” section was of course really pleasing, water and light and history and beauty and art, a brief boring digression on politics/diplomacy aside. There’s a surprise telegram (with an added twist) that makes our narrator realize he’s finally over Albertine; there’s the satisfaction of the narrator finally getting to go to Venice after dreaming about it for years; there’s the stupidity of the tantrum he throws on the day he and his mother leave.

But mostly I liked the descriptions: there’s a sentence about “The Patriarch of Grado exorcising a demoniac” that made me go look it up—Proust writes of “the marvellous rose-pink and violet sky” of the painting, “the tall encrusted chimneys silhouetted against it, their flared stacks, blossoming like red tulips” (876). And there’s this whole great passage, too:

After dinner, I went out alone, into the heart of the enchanted city where I found myself in the middle of strange purlieus like a character in the Arabian Nights. It was very seldom that, in the course of my wanderings, I did not come across some strange and spacious piazza of which no guidebook, no tourist had ever told me. I had plunged into a network of little alleys, or calli. In the evening, with their high bell-mouthed chimneys on which the sun throws the brightest pinks, the clearest reds, it is a whole garden blossoming above the houses, its shades so various that you would have said it was the garden of some tulip lover of Delft or Haarlem, planted on top of the town. Moreover, the extreme proximity of the houses made of every casement a frame from which a day-dreaming cook gazed out, or in which a seated girl was having her hair combed by an old woman whose face in the dark looked like a witch’s—made of each humble quiet house, so close because of the narrowness of the calli, a display of a hundred Dutch paintings placed side by side. (881)

After all this, the last section of the book (“New Aspect of Robert de Saint-Loup”) struck me as less pleasing: marriages and news of the social world and the realization that Saint-Loup has more in common with his uncle, after all, than what one might have thought. Not that it was boring, but it wasn’t Venice.

Also, as I mentioned when I finished The Captive: I am ready for a literary change of scenery. I first picked up The Captive & The Fugitive back at the end of September, though I put it down in favor of a whole string of library books that I either just had to put on hold because they were new and exciting (Al Capone Shines My Shoes, The Magicians, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma) or that I stumbled across in the new books section or by word of mouth and wanted to read (The Coral Thief, Bird Eating Bird).

I started reading The Captive & The Fugitive again in earnest in late December, and have been reading it ever since, all 957 pages of it (including the notes, addenda, and synopsis, because yes, I read them), with occasional breaks to read the New Yorker (though at present I’m two issues behind—shhh, don’t tell!). I have enjoyed being immersed in the world of this book, in Paris and the changing light and the changing weather and the street-noises and the love and sorrow. But now? Now I want to read something short and sweet. Top contenders at the moment are mostly kids’ books: The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs, or The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, or The Light Princess by George MacDonald, or Summer Term at St. Clare’s by Enid Blyton—all of which are paperbacks that I found on the sidewalk in my neighborhood (oh Park Slope literary castaways, I love you so!).

(All page numbers in the Proustian portion of this post are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

The “Mademoiselle de Forcheville” section of The Fugitive starts out funny, which is refreshing: our narrator’s doing his usual thing of walking around looking at girls, he sees a group of three and tries to follow them but fails when they get in a carriage. But then, joy of joys, he sees them leaving his courtyard a few days later. One smiles at him and his heart is aflutter. He asks the concierge who they are, and learns the name of the girl who smiled at him, which is, he thinks, the same name as a girl who Saint-Loup mentioned to him: it must be the same girl, and Saint-Loup had said that this girl was the sort of girl with whom one could do naughty things (and Saint-Loup, indeed, said he himself had done naughty things with her). Our narrator eagerly sets about planning to meet the girl in two more days, when she’ll be visiting the Duchesse de Guermantes again, and meanwhile telegraphs Saint-Loup just to be sure it is the same girl, though he’s certain it must be. Saint-Loup’s telegram, though, tells him the contrary: the girl’s name was something similar, not identical; this isn’t that girl at all.

Luckily, our narrator is distracted from this by the arrival of his mother in his room with the newspapers: the article he sent to the Figaro has finally appeared. This feels like adulthood, like agency: just page before, the narrator had been talking about how much freer he felt than when he was younger, how he can go out on his own to send a telegram to Saint-Loup to ask about a girl, how different this is from his youth, when he couldn’t do anything but sit in his room and pine over Gilberte. At the same time, though, maybe things haven’t changed that much: we soon learn that Mlle de Forcheville is Gilberte, who has taken her stepfather’s last name. So he’s had an article published, and he can walk himself to the telegraph office, but he’s still daydreaming over the same girl.

Meanwhile, time passes, and the narrator keeps on forgetting Albertine: he talks about how the self he was when he loved her has, almost without his noticing, been replaced by the next self in line. Before, he talked about how Albertine’s death was a shock to him over and over, how with each new task he did, he had to introduce the fact of her death to a new self, since as we go about our days, we’re often different selves when in different company, or when doing different chores. Now, all those selves know that Albertine’s gone, and, indeed, all have grown used to life without her, so he’s not too bothered when he finally gets an admission from Andrée that she and Albertine were lovers, or even when he learns a twist beyond that, something he hadn’t suspected at all. Still, he can’t be sure whether Andrée is lying to him now or was lying to him before when she denied that she and Albertine ever did anything together; he goes back and forth and basically concludes, wisely, that he can’t know Albertine’s motivations, which may at any rate have been multiple.

(All page numbers are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

The first part of The Fugitive

February 17th, 2010

With Albertine gone, our narrator immediately starts thinking of how to get her back: in contrast to the inaction of The Captive it feels like he’s suddenly all action, though really he’s still all talk: he decides he’ll marry her, but writes telling her how good it is that they’ve parted; he sends Saint-Loup to her aunt’s house to talk indelicately about money; he writes about the yacht and the motor-car he’s just ordered for her. There is much about habit, about loss, about the subjectivity of love, “the distortions of love” (p 592), how we don’t see the beloved as the world does. He’s angry that Saint-Loup’s mission has failed; he writes to her himself again (now telling her he’s decided to invite her friend Andrée to live with him, though of course really he just wants her), is excited to chase after her and convince her to come back…and then receives a telegraph from her aunt to say that she’s died. Now, instead of grieving over the fact that his love left him, he’s grieving over her death: everything remains painful but the pain shifts (especially because just after the telegram he gets a last letter from her saying that she’ll come back at once if he’ll just ask her to). Grief, memory, the fear that each season will bring its own painful memories. This being Proust, there is lots of exquisite description here, like this:

From the sound of pattering raindrops I recaptured the scent of the lilacs at Combray; from the shifting of the sun’s rays on the balcony the pigeons in the Champs-Elysées; from the muffling of sounds in the heat of the morning hours, the cool taste of cherries; the longing for Brittany or Venice from the noise of the wind and the return of Easter. Summer was at hand, the days were long, the weather was warm. It was the season when, early in the morning, pupils and teachers repair to the public gardens to prepare for the final examinations under the trees, seeking to extract the sole drop of coolness vouchsafed by a sky less ardent than in the midday heat but already as sterilely pure. (p 645)

Albertine’s death doesn’t manage to cure the narrator of his jealousy: he stays jealous of her past, of all the things she might have done with others that he never knew about. He specifically remains obsessed as to whether she loved women, to the point where he sends Aimé (the head waiter from the hotel in Balbec, who’s now in Paris) back to Balbec to ask some questions. But for all that he says he wants to know the truth, the narrator really doesn’t: when he hears back from Aimé he’s at first dismayed, but then turns disbelieving; he talks himself out of believing what he’s just heard, because he doesn’t want to have heard it at all. He can’t let it rest though: he sends Aimé to the town where Albertine’s aunt lives to ask questions there; he talks to Andrée and implies that he knows all about what she and Albertine used to do together; he looks at girls and thinks Albertine would have liked that one, or that one. He brings other girls home with him, but he finds himself just thinking of Albertine, thinking of how they are not her. But slowly, slowly, things shift: this section of the book is called, after all, “Grieving and Forgetting,” so we have to come to the forgetting part eventually:

It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind. For this very reason one bases upon them projects which have all the fervour of thought; but thought languishes and memory decays: the day would come when I would readily admit the first comer to Albertine’s room, as I had without the slightest regret given Albertine the agate marble or other gifts that I had received from Gilberte. (pp 751-752)

(All page numbers are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

The rest of The Captive has been pleasing (though slow) reading. I last posted a quote from page 160-something; between there and the end there is: Albertine’s trip to the theatre cut short by the narrator’s jealousy, an afternoon carriage ride, Albertine’s visit to the Verdurins forestalled by the narrator’s jealousy, the narrator’s own visit to the Verdurins, prompted by his jealousy, lots of hemming and hawing by the narrator about whether he should stay with Albertine or break up with her or maybe just make her think he’s going to break up with her, a bit of Vinteuil’s sonata and Charlus and Morel at the Verdurins’ house, the Verdurins forcing a break between Charlus and Morel, a great passage about the Verdurins’ furniture and how seeing furniture one has seen in an old house in a new house makes one feel, etc. etc. etc.

The narrator thinks a lot about his love for Albertine and his earlier loves, and about other people and their loves—Swann and Odette, Charlus and Morel. Listening to Vinteuil’s septet, which contains phrases from the sonata, the narrator thinks about how it’s “the same and yet something else, as things recur in life,” and of course that’s very Proustian, circling and repetition and little shifts.

And then there’s springtime and beauty, warmer air and the sounds of pigeons and passing cars and reveries about other springtimes, drives through the countryside, the smell of hawthorn and the smell of clover. And then the narrator decides he’ll leave Albertine and go to Venice, but then, of course, she leaves him first.

Today it is snowing in New York; work let out at 12:30 and I’ve spent the afternoon curled up with lady grey tea and this book, the curtain open and snowflakes drifting past the brick walls in the back alleyway. It’s been a good reading day, and I’m looking forward to starting The Fugitive now: both to see how our narrator fares now that Albertine’s gone, and also, if I’m honest, because I’m about ready for a change of reading scenery, though not ready enough that I actually want to put this volume aside and start reading something else. So: onward!

Despite my initial ambivalence toward The Captive—picking it up then putting it down, picking it up and reading but feeling like it was going to be a tedious and claustrophobia-inducing recitation of jealousies— I’m now really enjoying it, and have been since around page 100. Part of this might have just been me getting back into Proust’s rhythms and characters, and part of it might have been good timing. This week was my first week back at work from vacation, a week in which it was way too cold for me to even think of riding my bike to work, even with my warm jacket and new winter bike gloves, and also a week in which my boyfriend was away on vacation, all of which added up to about an hour a day of quiet reading time on the train. Also, possibly due to not having been in the office from December 19 to January 4 (!) I’ve had this delicious feeling of calm and focus all week long: at work, at home, reading, writing, whatever. But enough about me: back to Proust.

One really satisfying thing in this book, as mentioned in the last post, is the way the narrator describes the experience of being aware of the outside world while cozily ensconced indoors. In addition to passages about the light and the weather, there are great passages about the sounds of the street, about hearing the life of the city/the life of a day from inside, about hearing, specifically, all the vendors and tradespeople with their distinctive cries about their services and wares, about mackerel and lettuce and asparagus and china-mending and tinkering and sharpening, Valencia oranges and winkles and mussels, what Proust describes as “litanies of the small trades and itinerant victuals” (175). Albertine hears the cries and wants whatever they’re selling, and her flightiness and impetuousness is really charming, like here:

“Oh!” exclaimed Albertine, “cabbages, carrots, oranges. Just the things I want to eat. Do make Françoise go out and buy some. She shall cook us a dish of creamed carrots. Besides, it will be so nice to eat all these things together. It will be all the shouts we’re hearing transformed into a good dinner. Oh, please, ask Fraçoise to give us instead skate au beurre noir. It’s so good!” (162-163)

And just after that there’s another great passage, about how the cries you hear tell you the season, how Albertine thinks about how it’ll be months before they’re selling green beans, or cream cheese, or dessert grapes. And obviously part of why I like all this is the satisfaction of images of Paris in another time, a whole other world where the mail comes several times a day and Albertine goes to Versailles from Paris and sends the narrator postcards (yes, that’s postcards, plural, from a day trip!), and where bicycle messengers rush through the Paris streets delivering personal correspondence. But it’s also that the writing is so vivid and full of detail.

(All page numbers are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

Besides jealousy, what’s at the center of The Captive is immobility—perhaps not surprisingly, given the volume’s title. At the very start of the book we learn that the narrator spends most of his time in his bedroom, so that’s where we mostly are, too. Sometimes it’s claustrophobic (as is that squirm-inducing jealousy I wrote about before), but sometimes it’s lovely, like here: “Sometimes, on days when the weather was beyond redemption, mere residence in the house, situated in the midst of a steady and continuous rain, had all the gliding ease, the soothing silence, the interest of a sea voyage; another time, on a bright day, to lie still in bed was to let the lights and shadows play around me as round a tree trunk” (100). Later on in this same passage, Proust writes about days of changeable weather: this makes me grin because I relate to the joy of watching sun then scudding clouds then sun and also because I love it when people prove one can think about/write about/talk about the weather in a way that isn’t banal. He writes of “tempestuous, disordered, delightful days, when the roofs, soaked by an intermittent downpour and dried by a gust of wind or a ray of sunshine, let fall a gurgling raindrop and, as they wait for the wind to turn again, preen their iridescent pigeon’s-breast slates in the momentary sunshine; one of those days filled with so many changes of weather, atmospheric incidents, storms, that the idle man does not feel that he has wasted them because he has been taking an interest in the activity which, in default of himself, the atmosphere, acting as it were in his stead, has displayed” (100-101).

(All page numbers are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

More in The Captive

December 28th, 2009

Despite that early beauty, this book is shaping up to be sort of squirm-inducing: at the center of The Captive, even more than in previous volumes, is the narrator’s jealousy. It isn’t absolute—or, at least, he says it isn’t—but it’s consuming. It’s the in-between-ness that’s the problem, the hazy awareness, the knowing-but-not-knowing: “I should not have been jealous if she had enjoyed her pleasures in my vicinity, with my encouragement, completely under my surveillance, thereby relieving me of any fear of mendacity,” the narrator says, “nor should I have been jealous if she had moved to a place so unfamiliar and remote that I could not imagine, had no possibility of knowing, and no temptation to know, her manner of life” (pp 29-30). But since neither is the case, things aren’t pretty: “Our engagement was assuming the aspect of a criminal trial, and gave her the timorousness of a guilty party. Now she changed the conversation whenever it turned on people, men or women, who were not of mature years” (p 68). Meanwhile, the narrator’s going to visit the Duchesse de Guermantes and asking her about her clothes, so he can have copies made for Albertine, and asking Andrée to report back to him on their outings together, and generally being controlling and unpleasant. I’m only about seventy pages into the book now, and am starting to wonder whether the next 500-ish pages might be slow going. I’m also wondering whether there’ll be more of Charlus and Morel and Jupien and his niece in this book: there’s already been one funny (but also of course squirm-inducing) bit where Charlus throws a fit because Jupien’s niece uses the expression “I’ll stand you tea,” which Charlus finds horribly vulgar, though of course the whole thing is really about him being controlling/exercising power/reassuring himself that he can exercise power.

(All page numbers are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

Returning to The Captive

December 23rd, 2009

After just about a three-month-long break, I’ve picked up The Captive & The Fugitive again. I’m in Georgia on vacation right now, which means that my reading time is quiet time in the mornings or the evenings, not commuting time, which I think bodes well for getting farther along in this book than I did back in September. Right now there’s nowhere I have to be and very little I have to do, so I can sit on a comfortable couch with a book and a sweet dog curled by my feet. I hadn’t gotten very far into The Captive previously, so I’ve just started again from the beginning, and I’m enjoying it so far. There’s that wonderful first sentence I wrote about in post linked to above, and then, a little further along, there’s this great passage about memory and sensation, how the latter triggers the former:

On certain fine days, the weather was so cold, one was in such full communication with the street, that it seemed as though the outer walls of the house had been dismantled, and, whenever a tramcar passed, the sound of its bell reverberated like that of a silver knife striking a house of glass. But it was above all in myself that I heard, with rapture, a new sound emitted by the violin within. Its strings are tautened or relaxed by mere differences in the temperature or the light outside. Within our being, an instrument which the uniformity of habit has rendered mute, song is born of these divergences, these variations, the source of all music: the change of weather on certain days makes us pass at once from one note to another. We recapture the forgotten tune the mathematical necessity of which we might have deduced, and which for the first few moments we sing without recognising it. These modifications alone, internal though they had come from without, gave me a fresh vision of the external world. Communicating doors, long barred, reopened in my brain. The life of certain towns, the gaiety of certain excursions, resumed their place in my consciousness. (p 23)

I love it so much: the idea of a house (and a self) stripped bare and open to the world, the way the phrase “the violin within” feels when you say it, a crisp winter day, crystalline sounds, the passageways of the mind, doors opening on other views entirely.

(All page numbers are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

Proust, again: The Captive

September 29th, 2009

After a several-month break from Proust, I’ve started reading The Captive and am reading slowly,—even more slowly than I usually read Proust, now that I am bicycling to work a few days a week and therefore don’t have 35 minutes of reading-on-the-train time built in at the start and end of my day. I will probably post as I read, to remember things better.

I love how this volume starts, the first sentence and those that follow, the mood they set: “At daybreak, my face still turned to the wall, and before I had seen above the big window-curtains what shade of colour the first streaks of light assumed, I could already tell what the weather was like. (p 1)” There’s the rhythm of Proust, right away; I also like how it starts the book with a concern with perception, a concern with sense-impressions. The narrator goes on to elaborate, and it’s pleasing because it’s such a familiar sensation: those moments between sleep and waking when you’re sure it’s snowed overnight, though you couldn’t yet articulate how you know, or when you’re just awake and hear traffic passing on a wet road and know it must be raining. The first page feels wintry: you sense the cold outside air and the warmth of a bed piled with blankets, the cocoon of a Paris house, a Paris bedroom.

“It was, in fact, principally from my bedroom that I took in the life of the outer world during this period,” the narrator says, later on the first page, and he describes his domestic routines in such a satisfying way that it almost seems appealing: he lingers in bed, he reads the newspaper, he washes in his little bathroom while Albertine, who’s staying with him, washes in her adjoining one, and they talk, “carrying on a conversation that was interrupted only by the sound of the water, in that intimacy which is so often permitted in hotels by the smallness and proximity of the rooms but which, in private houses in Paris, is so rare” (p 4). Not that everything is easy with the two of them: he’s bored of her, and yet at the same time intensely jealous, worried that she’s out seducing the world.

(All page numbers are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

The rest of Sodom and Gomorrah, after the long middle section, carries on swimmingly: it’s that usual Proustian mix of beautiful observed detail plus funny observed society-life plus jealousy and falling in and out of love and acting more or less foolish about it. There is much about sleep and time and memory and habit: a pleasing passage about how, when you’re very tired and fall asleep later than usual, or without your usual evening routine, there can be this moment of oblivion upon waking, a dissolution of the self, a very particular forgetfulness, in which we forget not what is learned but what is experienced.

I like the bits about place and distance and how a landscape fits together or changes as we perceive it. When the narrator hires a car to take him and Albertine around the countryside, he talks about all the little towns as “prisoners hitherto as hermetically confined in the cells of distinct days as long ago were Méséglise and Guermantes, upon which the same eyes could not gaze in the course of a single afternoon, delivered now by the giant with the seven-league boots, clustered around our teatime with their towers and steeples and their old gardens which the neighboring wood sprang back to reveal” (538). I love this, and I love the newness of the automobile, new enough that the narrator describes it going up a hill “effortlessly, with a continuous sound like that of a knife being ground” (ibid.). Later, after drives around the countryside, the narrator begins to piece together places he’d previously thought of as isolated, because he only visited them with certain people or from certain directions; he contrasts travel by car and travel by train, concluding that travel by car “gives us the impression of discovering, of pinpointing for ourselves as with a compass” the place to which we travel (550). Wonderful, too, is the passage where the narrator sees an airplane for the first time: he’s out riding on horseback while Albertine paints; he’s been thinking of breaking up with her for some time, but hasn’t; he’s vaguely discontented with things, and then there’s this flight right in front of him, making him see possibility again: “I felt that there lay open before him—before me, had not habit made me a prisoner—all the routes in space, in life itself” (582).