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)

6 Responses to “The Captive: the “litanies of small trades””

  1. Danya Says:

    Don’t have anything specific to contribute because I’m not familiar with Proust, but just writing to let you know I visit your booknotes now and then with interest. :)

  2. Heather Says:

    :) Thanks!

  3. gracia Says:

    Ah, yes, the delicious “experience of being aware of the outside world while cozily ensconced indoors”. With that I am well familiar.

  4. Carol Says:

    Heather, I wonder if you are aware of Irving Penn’s wonderful photographs of the “small trades” or “petits metiers.” The Getty Museum published a catalog that I think you would probably love — the photos are gorgeous and evocative of that other world…
    — Carol

  5. Heather Says:

    Carol, thanks – I had heard about those photographs at some point earlier this year, and had seen reproductions of one or two of the pictures online somewhere, but hadn’t yet been motivated to go look at the series in more detail – and it sounds like I should.

  6. letters and sodas: booknotes » Blog Archive » Irving Penn: Small Trades by Virginia A. Heckert and Anne LacosteGetty Publications, 2009 Says:

    […] I quoted a passage from Proust about the “litanies of the small trades”, Carol mentioned this book of Irving Penn’s photographs of workers in Paris (and also New […]

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