Monday 28 November 2022

In Search of Lost Time: something missing in Proust?

Yesterday I was talking to a friend, and he told me that his brother had been rereading Proust. 

“He said there's something missing in Proust. Throughout all serious literature, characters who are deeply drawn have some conflict between desire and duty - what they want to do, and what they ought to do. And yet, despite being stuck in the narrator's head for thousands of pages, there is no sense there of duty, of "ought": he perceives the whole world purely in terms of his desires.

And since we aren't allowed to see anything beyond his perceptions, we get a very lop-sided view.

We get merely a sequence of desires, and of frustration of his desires.

He says it's all very witty and charming; the evocation of sensual effects are breathtaking; and so on. But there's always a sense of something missing.” 

I find that an interesting observation. 

When I think about it, the conflict between what one wants to do and what one ought to do is depicted in Flaubert, in Dickens and Thackeray, in Jane Austen and George Eliot, in Henry James and Edith Wharton, in Tolstoy and Chekhov, in Nabokov, in Muriel Spark, in Natsume Soseki, and so on, but not really in Proust—at least not in the 2 volumes I have read.

What do you think about this observation?

And if you agree, which other major novelist also doesn’t explore the conflict between duty and desire?

Wednesday 2 November 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: the girls at Balbec; the narrator being repellent

In Part 2 of Within a Budding Grove, the narrator goes to Balbec. Here he forms a friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup, comes across his Jewish friend Bloch, meets Baron de Charlus, befriends the painter Elstir, and meets a group of girls at the seaside, one of whom turns out to be Albertine.

The final section, about the girls at Balbec, is particularly good. For example, this is the moment the narrator approaches and gets to know Albertine, after looking at her and the group from afar for a while: 

“… I realised what a conjuring trick had been performed, and with what consummate sleight of hand, and how I had talked for a moment or two with a person who, thanks to the skill of the conjurer, without actually embodying anything of that other person whom I had for so long been following as she paced beside the sea, had been substituted for her. I might, for that matter, have guessed as much in advance, since the girl on the beach was a fabrication of my own.” (Vol.2, P.2)

The other girls are called Andrée, Gisèle, and Rosamonde.

I have written more than once about Proust’s techniques for characterisation so I won’t repeat myself, but the depiction of Andrée is fascinating.

When he first sees the band of girls, Andrée creates on him a strong impression when she gleefully jumps over a terrified old man lying in the sun. Then he gets to know her: 

“This Andrée, who had struck me when I first saw her as the coldest of them all, was infinitely more refined, more affectionate, more sensitive than Albertine, to whom she displayed the caressing, gentle tenderness of an elder sister.” (ibid.) 

She now seems like a different person. Then he gets to know her some more: 

“But when one knew her a little better one would have said it was with her as with those heroic poltroons who wish not to be afraid and whose bravery is especially meritorious; one would have said that deep down in her nature there was none of that kindness which she constantly displayed out of moral distinction, or sensibility, or a noble desire to show herself a true friend.” (ibid.) 

Again, the perception changes. This fits what Tom wrote below my last blog post “People are not what they seem, or, more often, they are just what they seem but are also something else.” 

“She was charmingly gentle and sympathetic, and spoke in sweet and sorrowful terms, when one expressed pity for Albertine’s poverty, and took infinitely more trouble on her behalf than she would have taken for a rich friend. But if anyone were to hint that Albertine was perhaps not quite so poor as people made out, a just discernible cloud would overshadow Andrée’s eyes and brow; she seemed out of temper. And if one went on to say that after all Albertine might perhaps be less difficult to marry off than people supposed, she would vehemently contradict one, repeating almost angrily: “Oh dear, no, she’ll be quite unmarriageable! I’m certain of it, and I feel so sorry for her.”” (ibid.) 

This echoes a passage the narrator earlier wrote about Françoise: 

“… particular regard was due to the little sewing-maid, who was an orphan and had been brought up by strangers to whom she still went occasionally for a few days’ holiday. Her situation aroused Françoise’s pity, and also her benevolent contempt. […] And since this girl hoped, on Assumption Day, to be allowed to pay her benefactors a visit, Françoise kept on repeating: “She does make me laugh! She says, ‘I hope to be going home for the Assumption.’ Home, says she! It isn’t just that it’s not her own place, it’s people as took her in from nowhere, and the creature says ‘home’ just as if it really was her home…”” (ibid.) 

That’s the phrase: “benevolent contempt”. 

Andrée is a more interesting character than Albertine perhaps because I can see her better. Albertine, like Gilberte, is more opaque. Proust has foreseen my criticism—this is how he justifies himself: 

“And perhaps [the novelist] would be expressing yet another truth if, while investing all the other dramatis personae with distinct characters, he refrained from giving any to the beloved. We understand the characters of people to whom we are indifferent, but how can we ever grasp that of a person who is an intimate part of our existence, whom after a while we no longer distinguish from ourselves, whose motives provide us with an inexhaustible source of anxious hypotheses, continually revised?” (ibid.) 

Frankly, I think that’s horseshit. 

Albertine is opaque—when the narrator writes about her, it’s him that we see, not her—and he is repellent.

For example, when Andrée lies to him that they cannot meet the next day because her mother’s unwell:

“Although this falsehood was of no real significance since Andrée knew me so slightly, I ought not to have continued to seek the company of a person who was capable of it.” (ibid.) 

But when he himself doesn’t want to see Saint-Loup, preferring to spend time with the girls: 

“Each time I wrote back to say that he was on no account to come, offering the excuse that I should be obliged to be away myself that very day, having some duty call to pay with my grandmother on family friends in the neighbourhood. No doubt he thought ill of me when he learned from his aunt in what the “duty call” consisted, and who the persons were who combined to play the part of my grandmother.” (ibid.) 

But that’s trivial, compared to this: 

“In the week that followed I scarcely attempted to see Albertine. I made a show of preferring Andrée.” (ibid.) 

He plays games with Albertine and Andrée. 

“When I spoke of Albertine to Andrée I affected a coldness…” (ibid.) 

When he wants to meet Albertine’s aunt Mme Bontemps: 

“In order to remove from Andrée’s mind the idea that I was interested in Mme Bontemps, I spoke of her thenceforth not only absent-mindedly but with downright malice, saying that I had once met that idiot of a woman, and trusted I should never have that experience again. Whereas I was seeking by every means in my power to meet her.” (ibid.) 

As someone who doesn’t play games and doesn’t like men who play games, I find that abhorrent. His behaviour is even worse when he tries to kiss Albertine and she doesn’t let him. Obviously the likability of a narrator or a main character is not a criterion of literary merit—I myself don’t read novels in order to get imaginary friends—but I can still judge them and Proust’s narrator is repellent. 

Here I have another complaint—perhaps the fault is mine—I have very vague ideas about how old the characters are and it slightly gets in the way of me understanding the characters. I know that when the narrator asks M. de Norpois about Gilberte, she is said to be about 14-15 though we’re not told how old the narrator is. I assume they’re around the same age. This is around the time they wrestle at the park, and before he enters the Swanns’ house. 

Then he penetrates Gilberte’s circle and frequents the house, but I’m not sure for how long this goes on till he discovers that Gilberte has a boyfriend. A year? 2 years? Then 2 years after he stops seeing Gilberte, he goes on holiday at Balbec and meets Albertine. 

How old is he at Balbec? What about her?  

When he wants her to introduce him to her friends, she says “What on earth can a lot of kids like them mean to a man like you?”. Is he 19-20? She talks about taking exams, so she could be 16, but she could also be 15 or 14. Perhaps Proust’s contemporaries would have known her age by the exam questions she gets, but the only thing I know with certainty is that Albertine is a couple of years younger than Gilberte, because Gilberte has said so in Part 1. 

Does it make a difference? It does, in the scene where the narrator tries to kiss Albertine in her hotel room. 

I’d like to hear your thoughts. 


The translation I’ve read is by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright. 

After more than 5 weeks, I have now finished reading Within a Budding Grove. It is, even if trying at times, a great book.