Sodom and Gomorrah, still

March 17th, 2009

“The faithful” of the “little clan,” as the regulars at the Verdurins’ Wednesday-evening salon are known, have shifted a bit over the years since Odette and Swann were part of the group, and even those that are familiar faces from Swann’s Way may have changed a bit..but not too much. Dr. Cottard is no longer so prone to malapropisms, but is otherwise as self-important and silly as ever; Madame Verdurin herself is older, more tired, but just as self-important herself. Speaking of Swann: even knowing, from earlier in the book, that he was ill and surely would die soon, it is a surprise to learn of his death the way we do: it’s mentioned in passing, a tangent of a sentence in the story of the Verdurins and their “latent social success” (364). It’s apt, though, since the section on the Verdurins often focuses on people’s shallowness and callowness: we learn about how they don’t grieve at all for the deaths of friends, preferring instead to focus on their social lives; we learn about how deluded and self-centered they are, imagining themselves at the center of society, when it’s really only their own society that they’re at the center of. Brichot, a professor, is as full of himself as Cottard is, though the narrator is young enough and easily impressed enough to find him interesting. On the train to the Verdurins’, Brichot talks to the narrator about the etymologies of local place-names, telling him all the ways in which the author of a book the narrator’s just mentioned has gotten it all wrong, over and over again. Rather than being bored or annoyed, though, the narrator is really interested: there’s still that child-like wonder at place-names from the earlier books, the idea of the name and the magic of it, which rather endears him to me.

Once the narrator arrives at the Verdurins’, when we hear about the great new musician they’ve engaged for their recent Wednesday gatherings, we realize we’re in for a bit of fun: it’s immediately clear that the musician is Morel, the son of the narrator’s uncle’s valet, whom the narrator’s just run into recently at the train station, and that his companion for the evening will be the Baron de Charlus. And so worlds overlap, the narrator’s childhood/family world and the high society of the Guermantes and the second-tier society of the Verdurins. The dinner itself is a bit of a drag, though, with one squirm-inducing moment after another: there’s the Verdurins’ mocking of Saniette, who stutters and blushes, and everyone’s secret eye-rolling at Brichot, and Charlus’s aristocratic bragging, and the narrator’s belated realization that he’s the only one who finds Brichot interesting. As he realizes this, the narrator tells us that he doesn’t have “an observant mind,” though of course he does, noticing so many details of light, of mood, noticing some of society people’s hypocrisies or foolishness, even as he misses others (473). The dinner’s awkwardness continues: Cottard tells his wife she looks “like an old peasant,” after she wakes from a post-dinner nap, M. de Cambremer rambles about heraldry (492-493), and we are as relieved as the narrator when the evening comes to an end, with a breath of fresh night air.

“It looks as though the weather has changed.” These words filled me with joy, as though the dormant life, the resurgence of different combinations which they implied in nature, heralded other changes, occurring in my own life, and created fresh possibilities in it. Merely by opening the door on to the garden, before leaving, one felt that a different weather had, at that moment, taken possession of the scene; cooling breezes, one of the joys of summer, were rising in the fir plantation (where long ago Mme de Cambremer had dreamed of Chopin) and almost imperceptibly, in caressing coils, in fitful eddies, were beginning their gentle nocturnes.

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

More of Sodom and Gomorrah

March 4th, 2009

To pick up where I left off, in the middle of Part Two:

“The Intermittencies of the Heart” is sad and sweet and lovely. In this section, our narrator arrives at Balbec and suddenly, a year after the fact, the sorrow and loss of his grandmother’s death are real to him, start affecting him in a way they didn’t before, in his self-centered Parisian life. Of course, this sorrow is a little self-centered, too, but it’s also affecting: I teared up on the train when I was reading the passage about the wall between the narrator’s room and the room where his grandmother slept, how he turns to face the wall in the morning so as not to face the sea that his grandmother can no longer enjoy, but the wall just makes him sadder, as he remembers how he’d knock on it in the morning and she’d knock back, “those answering knocks which meant: ‘Don’t fuss, little mouse […]'” (p 220). This section captures how emotion can sneak up on you, how there’s an “anachronism which so often prevents the calendar of facts from corresponding to the calendar of feelings” (p 211). But there’s humor and beauty in this section, too: the hotel manager who knows too many languages to speak any of them properly, and talks about a man who used to take “a catnip” every afternoon, or a judge who was just given a great honor because of his “general impotence” (p 205), and then the last paragraph, with its springtime weather, sun giving way to cloud to sun to cloud to rain (the world as changeable as the heart), mud and the apple trees and the puddles in the road. The section ends with this, which I love: “Then the rays of the sun gave place suddenly to those of the rain; they streaked the whole horizon, enclosing the line of apple-trees in their grey net. But these continued to hold aloft their pink and blossoming beauty, in the wind that had turned icy beneath the drenching rain: it was a day in spring” (p 245).

Part Two, Chapter Two: Our narrator, though still mourning his grandmother, finds himself awake and alive and still wanting. It is spring, after all, and everything’s blooming. Early in this section there’s a passage about the apple trees and the hawthorns that’s even more pleasing when you look at the manuscript version given in the addenda: the narrator talks about looking at a row of hawthorns that remind him of the hawthorns at Combray in May, there’s that now-familiar contrast of now vs. then, and the self of now vs. the self of then, but discussed here in terms of looking and remembering all at once, at the same time, the idea that this is like having a “blurred and double vision,” eyes that don’t know “how to set their optical apparatus in order to see the flowers at the same time along the hedge and in myself” (pp 739-740). Back entirely in the present, he finds that with wanting comes jealousy: he watches Albertine and Andrée dance at a little casino and is troubled by a comment an acquaintance makes about the way the girls are dancing together; he wonders if Albertine might not be having “Gomorrhan” affairs with her female friends (ah, and just when I’d been thinking this book would be about Sodom alone). He worries about every girl he sees her talk with on the beach, until she flirts with one of his male friends, which makes him equally cranky, but at least gets the worry of lesbianism out of his head. I’m just now at the part where he takes the train to have dinner with the Verdurins, the socially-climbing “little clan” we met in Paris in Swann’s Way, now summering near Balbec.

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

Proust, in progress

February 20th, 2009

In the past I’ve only written here when I’ve finished reading something, but Proust is such slow going, and there is so much I want to write about, and this volume is so different from one section to the next. So here goes.

Part One: Sodom and Gomorrah is, as you might guess, gay gay gay. At the start of this volume, our narrator eavesdrops from the building next door as M. de Charlus and Jupien, the tailor, get it on. “I concluded from this later on that there is another thing as noisy as pain, namely pleasure,” we learn (p 12), and the narrator also learns how to pick out the flirtations of gay men, even when they’re not obvious to outsiders. There follows a long digression on how gay men act/are, which of course to a 21st-century eye is full of so much ugliness—and apparently was to at least some earlier readers, too: the biographical sketch of Proust at the start of the volume says that André Gide “complained: ‘Will you never portray this form of Eros for us in the aspect of youth and beauty?'” (vi). But at the same time, the narrator does see beauty in Charlus and Jupien’s random hook-up, comparing their finding each other to a rare flower being pollinated by an insect: “But it was a miracle also that I had just witnessed, almost of the same order and no less marvellous. As soon as I considered the encounter from this point of view, everything about it seemed to me instinct with beauty” (38). There is beauty in the specific, but not in the general pages-long sentences describing how “inverts” are.

Part Two, Chapter One: Here’s the social world again, the humor in it, a long description of a party and then waiting for Albertine to visit afterwards. As always with Proust, I enjoyed his mile-long sentences, and gems like “But sometimes the future is latent within us without our knowing it, and our supposedly lying words foreshadow an imminent reality” (53). Or this: “I was yielding to a purely sensual desire, although we were at that torrid period of the year when sensuality, released, is more readily inclined to visit the organs of taste, and seeks coolness above all. More than for the kiss of a girl, it thirsts for orangeade, for a bath, or even to gaze at that peeled and juicy moon that was quenching the thirst of heaven” (61). Or, my favorite, this, which goes in that wonderful Proustian way from now back to then, reminding us of the different selves, in ourselves and others, who can sometimes be summoned back from the past, however briefly:

Thus, from that nocturnal Paris out of whose depths the invisible message had already wafted into my very room, delimiting the field of action of a faraway person, what was now about to materialise, after this preliminary annunciation, was the Albertine whom I had known long ago beneath the sky of Balbec, when the waiters of the Grand Hotel, as they laid the tables, were blinded by the glow of the setting sun, when, the glass panels having been drawn wide open, the faintest evening breeze passed freely from the beach, where the last strolling couples still lingered, into the vast dining-room in which the first diners had not yet taken their places, and when, in the mirror placed behind the cashier’s desk, there passed the red reflexion of the hull and, lingering long, the grey reflexion of the smoke of the last steamer for Rivebelle. (pp 181-182)

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

A central concern of this volume is the gap between what a name conveys to us and what the person who bears that name is really like: how the meanings of a name change from one time of our lives to another, and how all those successive meanings may hold little or none of the reality of a person’s existence. (Our narrator has already learned this lesson with regard to place-names, and now he realizes that it applies to the human realm as well.) It’s that same delicious gap in knowledge and perspective: what we know and feel now versus what we felt and knew (or thought we knew) at some point in the past: this gap that comes up over and over again in Proust.

Perhaps my favorite section was that set at Doncières: the cold air of this small town and its streets and hotels, the view from our narrator’s window early in the morning, the warmth of the lighted windows he sees on his way home at night.

I’ve been reading Within a Budding Grove slowly over the past few months, in ten-page snippets on the train, sprawled on the floor, stretched out in bed. What I like best in Proust are the lyrical passages, the images, full sentences like this one:

I encountered no one at first but a footman who after leading me through several large drawing-rooms shewed me into one that was quite small, empty, its windows beginning to dream already in the blue light of afternoon; I was left alone there in the company of orchids, roses and violets, which, like people who are kept waiting in a room beside you but do not know you, preserved a silence which their individuality as living things made all the more impressive, and received coldly the warmth of a glowing fire of coals, preciously displayed behind a screen of crystal, in a basin of white marble over which it spilled, now and again, its perilous rubies.

(p 136)

My other favorite thing, which seems to happen over and over again, is the small shift of perspective that serves to make you aware, if you’d forgotten, of story as story, of the narrative voice, the distance between the narrator’s self and past self, knowledge and past knowledge:

I had not suspected this, nor that the beautiful but quite simple objects which littered his studio were treasures long desired by him which he had followed from sale-room to sale-room, knowing all their history, until he had made enough money to be able to acquire them. But as to this Albertine, being as ignorant as myself, could not enlighten me.

(pp 634-635)

I’ve been reading Swann’s Way slowly over the past month, enjoying Proust’s slow circling sentences (the kind you have to read twice because by the end you’ve lost track of where it started), enjoying the digressions, the flashes of humor in the dialogue, and enjoying, of course, all those sense-images (lilac trees, tisane, the light and heat of a summer day as perceived from a cool darkened room, the hawthorns in May, winter sun on an iron balustrade, pigeons in the park).