Remembrance of Proust #6

Poor Swann. But also poor Odette. Marcel shows no mercy in what he writes about her, thereby revealing his own snobbery. I already know that the Swann-Odette arc will repeat itself with Marcel and … but I won’t give that away yet.

pp. 236-292, end of “Swann in Love” and beginning of “Place-names: The Name”


Lac du Bois de Boulogne, Courtesy Wikipedia

“For a man cannot change, that is to say become another person, while he continues to obey the dictates of the self which he has ceased to be.”

That quote comes near the end of the section about Swann’s affair with Odette, at the point where he is resigned to ending his torturous affair with her. It comes after much anguish, as he realizes that Odette had been unfaithful to him from the first moment of their liaison, not only with several men, but also with women (in the Bois de Boulogne, no less). Up to this point, he had clutched at his love for her:

In former times, having often thought with terror that a day must come when he would cease to be in love with Odette, he had determined to keep a sharp look-out, and as soon as he felt that love was beginning to escape him, to cling tightly to it and to hold it back.

But finally, it happens. He falls out of love.

This decline begins with Swann’s jealousy, which leads to suspicions that Odette no longer loves him, and culminates with his realization that she never did love him. (The arc here reminded me of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, made into a passable film in 1983 by Granada Television. Read the book at Project Gutenberg.)

Bellini, courtesy Webb Gallery of Art

Bellini, courtesy Webb Gallery of Art

A high point in these pages is Swann’s wish that Odette could die a swift and painless death. In his usual fashion, he connects his own feelings to works of art, this time to Bellini’s portrait of Mahomet II, who

on finding that he had fallen madly in love with one of his wives, stabbed her, in order, as his Venetian biographer artlessly relates, to recover his spiritual freedom.

I realize it’s strange to describe such revenge fantasies as a “high point”, but poor Swann sorely needs someone like Loretta Castorini (Moonstruck) to slap him and shout, “Snap out of it!” Instead, it takes an anonymous letter and weeks of Odette’s denials and careless slips to convince him it’s time to leave Paris for Combray, to escape Odette’s power over him, a step he’d been unable and unwilling to attempt even at the lowest point of his despair.

The section ends with Swann’s exclamation, “To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!”

Ironically, he’s about to start again with someone equally inappropriate, Mme. de Cambremer (the former Mlle. Legrandin–remember the snobbish man from my earlier post?–this is his sister, the one who spends time in Balbec; she’s evidently as vulgar as Odette), whom we first see at a musical party that Swann attends. Once again, Swann’s emotions are whirled along by music and art. Marcel mentions one of the pieces played: Liszt’s “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds”. Enjoy!


I’m pleased the YouTube link is still live. The piece is glorious, and a times Licad’s hands are like birds fluttering in response to St Francis’s sermon. 

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Whimsical but palatable


As reward for your patience reading my longer posts, here’s a short one:

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011)

12-year-old September is whisked away to Fairyland by the Green Wind on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes. Her job: retrieve a long-handled spoon taken by the Marquess. Take a bit of Alice Liddell, add Dorothy Gale and the Reluctant Dragon, plus a large dollop of the Snow Queen, and you’ll have an idea of this fantasy novel’s tone.

But the book is neither pastiche nor parody. Valente builds a world whose rules frequently require cruelty. September is repeatedly faced with choices: Lose your way, life, mind, or heart? Lose your voice or your shadow? As she should, September is joined by a trusty comrade, and aid appears just in time, although in unusual forms.

One such form is Lye, a golem made of soap. Lye washes September’s courage, explaining

When you are born … your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish …. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living.

I bet we could all use someone like Lye.

Valente’s whimsy starts strong, and nearly put me off. But I’m happy I kept at it. The story surprises as it satisfies. Yet I have to admit that certain points brought to mind Monty Python’s Storytime, with Eric Idle — especially the third story Eric attempts. With Valente’s book, I kept waiting for the moment when I could cry, in astonishment, “With a melon?!”

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Temporary obsession: AR

captainflintMy latest obsession started two months ago with Christina Hardyment’s Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk, an excellent study of the sources, both geographic and human, for his famous books, with a satisfying number of illustrations as well. Fans probably already know that Ransome is Captain Flint, the Amazons’ grouchy uncle and author of Mixed Moss. What becomes clear in Hardyment’s book is that Mixed Moss, although not a real book, hints at Ransome’s thrilling life of world travel, fishing, and messing about in boats. 

51VNxcdJBnL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Ransome, born in 1884 and the eldest of four, fell in love with the Lake District during summer holidays when he was young. He seems to have always wanted to write fiction, but an early (and eventually disastrous) marriage forced him into a career as a journalist. An urgent need to leave England (the result of a lawsuit involving his critical study of Oscar Wilde) sent him to Russia just as the Tsar was going into freefall, giving Ransome a ring-side seat for the coming turmoil of revolution, WWI and civil war.

Ransome’s dispatches from St Petersburg and Moscow reveal a naive reporter unaware of how he was being used by both British and Russian acquaintances. Ransome knew Radek, Trotsky, Lenin, Kerensky, and others. He acted as go-between for British and Russian diplomats. Had he been a top-notch journalist, he could have used his experiences as the basis for an outstanding history of those critical years between his arrival in 1913 and Lenin’s death in 1924.

imgresYet he was clearly missing something that separates a reporter from those who are just passing through. It’s difficult to pin down, but, after reading Chamber’s profile of Ransome, along with  Ransome’s own memories of those days, a few things stand out. In his Autobiography, Ransome makes almost no mention of his younger brother, who died in France in 1917, nor of his sisters. He includes no photos of them. He mentions his own daughter once or twice, but shows little more interest than if she were a barely tolerated pet he’d left in the care of a neighbor. He doesn’t acknowledge the horrors of the revolution and civil war playing out around him — he seems, in fact, to walk through battle-torn areas in a protective bubble, never hurt, rarely threatened, and only mildly concerned. He’s dismayed at the loss of his belongings, but pooh-poohs the deaths of millions. So, problem one: not enough empathy.

6347863Ransome leaves valuable notes, documents and books in his various apartments in Russia each time he travels back to England for his annual holiday, barely registers the murders of the Tsar’s family, and finds the revolution and civil war, although interesting, an irritating interruption of his research on Russian folktales. He actually hated his job, later admitting that the nearly two decades he spent writing for newspapers had been a useless (although lucrative) sidetrack from what he had really wanted to do, which was to write for children. Whenever he could get away from the demands of his job, it was to go fishing and to study Russian folktales. He shows no regret at being in England (fishing, of course) during the October Revolution; he could find out what he missed on his return. Problem two: not enough curiosity.

What’s more, his ease with learning Russian and the fact that he was often the only journalist around from the English-speaking world must have lulled him into thinking he was quickly becoming an expert on the situation. His friend Radek, Vice-Commissar for Foreign Affairs (i.e., the guy in charge of PR and propaganda), no doubt used Ransome as a conduit for favorable reports to Britain and the U.S. on the outcome of the Revolution. Ransome questioned nothing and made no effort to talk to anyone else. He had fallen in love with Trotsky’s private secretary, which probably made him even more susceptible to heart-warming tales of the Glorious Revolution. Problem three: not enough doubts.

So, ok, Ransome was not meant to be a journalist. This was probably why he suffered from ulcers and various intestinal ailments during those years in Russia, which always diminished during his fishing holidays in England. It’s a good thing he quit, but not before being sent first to Egypt and then on a separate trip to China (inspiration for Missee Lee, so perhaps we should be grateful he held on to the job as long as he did).

9781898660965Old Peter’s Russian Tales, published in 1916 — two years into WWI and three years into his long stay in Russia — is the fruit of Ransome’s research in Russia, and actually quite good. The book sold well, but it took another seven years before his next success, Racundra’s First Cruise (1923). This is Ransome at his best, and it explains so much of what can be found in the Swallows and Amazons series (from Peter Duck to We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea). Soon after RFC was published, Ransome was divorced from his first wife and married to his second. And then he began his immortal series.

There’s no reason to require that a man who writes for children (or for any other audience) be a model citizen, loving parent, supportive friend, and honorable gentleman. I can get past Ransome’s blinkered assessment of the events in Russia, but it’s difficult to sympathize with someone so callously cruel to his daughter, so incapable of seeing her side — of even imagining that she had a side. Many of the people he befriended during his years in Russia later severed connections with him. He even had a falling out with the family who inspired the Walker and Blackett characters. Did he dislike children in general, or only those he knew personally?

What he never fell out with, however, was his beloved Lake District. Fishing, boating, walking, living there — these were what he wanted most. If the Walker children seem too tame and polite, if the situations too unbelievable, Ransome at least gives us a place (more than one, if we include the Norfolk Broads) that draws us back, again and again.

Radek-and-Bukharin-2nd-Congress-1920A final note: Ransome knew John Reed (Warren Beatty’s character in Reds) and Sidney Reilly (Sam Neill’s character in Reilly, Ace of Spies). Does this mean someone could have played Ransome in a small role in each of these? The caption for the photo on the right, from Wikipedia, identifies Radek (left) and Bukharin (right). Could that be Ransome in the middle, with the walrus mustache? The nose and chin are wrong, but I like to think so.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAESTABLISHING SHOT of road curving ahead through woods, late autumn with few leaves left on branches. Some piles of leaves beside road, wind scatters three or four across road. Day.

OVERLAY, typed out one digit at a time: 11:15 A.M.

CAMERA PAN to: RAY and CAL, dressed in blue uniforms, same road. We see red light flashing against trees, but not the light itself. CAL chews loudly on gum. RAY holds a cigarette but throughout scene never takes a puff; just occasionally flicks off ash.

RAY: She’ll be here soon. I heard the Dead-On-Road call go out.

CAL: (looking down and shaking her head) It’s a shame, ain’t it, seeing a life drain away like that.

RAY: I dunno, Cal. It don’t bother me so much. (screech of brakes) That’s her.

MEL (tall, thin, short hair; walks over, and we see her frowning at what RAY and CAL are standing next to)

CAL: ‘S another one of your pals, pal. Must-a had a death wish or sump’n.

RAY: (snickers)

MEL: (no retort; looks back down)

CAMERA follows her gaze, to road surface. Dead squirrel, not yet flattened by cars but with blood trickling from its mouth, lies in middle of road, eyes open and limbs splayed. Blood pools around its head. Next to widening circle of blood is a pile of cigarette ashes, a few acorn caps.

MEL: (squats down and examines squirrel’s body from various angles, frowns when she sees the ashes) Who put the call through? Continue reading

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Remembrance of Proust #5

In Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck includes a chapter on “How to Read a Roman-Fleuve¹”. Shattuck points to Proust’s style as purposefully constructed to slow a reader down: “His sentences move through long spirals that will not be hastened and deserve to be savored. He offers few paragraph breaks to declare the steps and stages of his thought.”

It’s reassuring to learn that my slow pace is what Proust intended. And look, this post covers 80 pages! I was on a roll.

pp. 144-236.

Detail, Botticelli's "The Trials of Moses", Courtesy The Berger Foundation

Detail, Botticelli’s “The Trials of Moses”, Courtesy The Berger Foundation

Poor Swann. He ends up falling in love with Odette because of her resemblance to Botticelli’s rendition of one of Jethro’s daughters (remember Moses meeting them at the well?), and because of a melody played on the piano. He’s attracted by the thought that other men are attracted to her, and by the possibility of something complex and alluring to be explored underneath her simple, almost vulgar exterior.

Unfortunately for Swann, there isn’t.

A plate of home-made madeleines

A plate of home-made madeleines

But let me start from the beginning. Swann meets Odette, aka Madame de Crécy (Proust doesn’t show us this meeting), and at first finds her barely tolerable. But she, a well-known courtesan (described as being “of a certain class,” but we never learn how she became Madame), latches on to him and invites him to an evening with the Verdurins. He knows what she is, and occasionally, in conversation, her roots show:

… she let out to Swann what she really thought of his abode on the Quai de’Orléans; he having ventured the criticism that her friend had indulged, not in the Louis XVI style, for, he went on, although that was not, of course, done, still it might be made charming, but in the ‘Sham-Antique.’ ¶”You wouldn’t have her live, like you, among a lot of broken-down chairs and threadbare carpets!” she exclaimed, the innate respectability of the middle-class housewife rising impulsively to the surface through the acquired dilettantism of the ‘light woman.’

Damned twice: middle-class AND a dilettante! Not to mention the bit about being a ‘light woman’.

Madeleines, linden tea, and Proust

Madeleines, linden tea, and Proust

Mme. V runs a salon of sorts, where each night several people gather for conversation and sometimes substantive meals: a painter, a pianist and his aunt, a doctor and his wife, a paleographer, and Odette and whichever man she happens to favor at the moment. The pianist’s aunt and the doctor’s wife rarely speak, and the pianist seems to be there only to perform, and Doctor Cottard’s main contributions to the evening are very bad puns shouted out as others are talking.

A conversation will go something along the lines of Person A: I went to Paris the other day and …. Doctor C: Lady Day!, all very much like a Monty Python routine. I even began to see Eric Idle as Doctor C, Graham Chapman in drag as Mme. V, Terry Jones as M. V, and Michael Palin, also in drag, as Odette. Of course, Jeremy Irons is Swann.

But back to the book. Mme. and M. Verdurin are great comedic inventions. Mme. V considers herself a great arbiter of culture and taste, and lives for the approbation of all who surround her. Anyone who doesn’t equal her fervor in belittling rich bores and certain artists (basically, anyone too modern and incomprehensible) loses his seat at her salon. She loves to laugh, but her version of mirth is to cover her face with her hands, bend over, and shake as though her hand were battling some kind of volcano trying to explode. And M. V just lives to support his wife’s endeavors.

So, Odette brings Swann one night, and Mme. V decides he’s suitable, and she contrives to make Swann and Odette an item. The pianist plays a movement from an unknown composer’s sonata, one that Swann recognizes (he’d heard it several months earlier and, despite all his efforts, had never learned the composer’s name). Hearing the melody again, and looking at Odette’s cheek so like that face in Botticelli, Swann falls. You can almost hear the thump as he lands in the middle of this big affair.

I’m at the point now where jealousy of others has grabbed Swann by the lapel and is dragging him along into worse and worse self-abasement. He isn’t exactly on his knees begging her to turn away her other clients, but he does try to listen at her window one night (turns out to be the wrong window), and his obsessive proprietary behavior gets him booted from Mme. V’s nightly entertainments.

You can’t help liking Swann, in spite of his disastrous affair with Odette. For years he’s been working on a book about Vermeer of Delft (we’re in the late 1800s, just as Vermeer is about to hit big among collectors), he pals around with the Prince of Wales and French aristocrats, and he knows that the Verdurins and their crowd are below his level, yet he puts up with them because they appreciate Odette.

Cattleya orchid

Cattleya orchid

He’s also a bit silly. Because of some business involving an orchid corsage, he invents a euphemism, “to do a cattleya”, to replace “to make love”. (Cattleya — cat-LEE-ya — is a type of orchid.) He doesn’t like expressing an opinion, but is perfectly happy to share the facts he knows. (Perhaps this last isn’t so bad after all; these days, opinions seem to ride the wind, while facts are all hidden underground.) (And Dr. Cottard comes up with his own ridiculous euphemism: visiting the Duc d’Aumale for a minute is going to the toilet.)

At this moment in the novel, Swann is nearly debilitated by jealousy. I’m sorry to burden you with a long paragraph, but this one is beautiful. Swann is finally contemplating marrying Odette:

And yet he was inclined to suspect that the state for which he so much longed was a calm, a peace, which would not have created an atmosphere favourable to his love. When Odette ceased to be for him a creature always absent, regretted, imagined; when the feeling that he had for her was no longer the same mysterious disturbance that was wrought in him by the phrase from the sonata, but constant affection and gratitude, when those normal relations were established between them which would put an end to his melancholy madness; then, no doubt, the actions of Odette’s daily life would appear to him as being of but little intrinsic interest — as he had several times, already, felt that they they might be …. Examining his complaint with as much scientific detachment as if he had inoculated himself with it in order to study its effects, he told himself that, when he was cured of it, what Odette might or might not do would be indifferent to him. But in his morbid state, to tell the truth, he feared death itself no more than such a recovery, which would, in fact, amount to the death of all that he then was.

That’s the perversity of love. You want what you can’t have, yet you wonder if, when you finally get it, you’ll still be as happy. To love is to be a masochist.

I’m still trying to figure out why Proust made Swann fall in love with someone so perfectly unsuitable. But this post has gone on long enough.

If memory serves, I never figured out why Proust tortured Swann with Odette. Perhaps this time around I can get an inkling. More to come, soon, ish.

¹Roman-fleuve = novel cycle (from the French, “novel river”), where several novels feature the same characters (or generations of families) over time. Reading other romans-fleuves, such as Scott’s Raj Quartet and Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, didn’t prepare me for the challenge of Proust. Ah well.

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This and that and some other things

For the past 3 weeks, it hasn’t been Radio WTWP (wall-to-wall Proust, with a tip of the hat to Prof. Peter Schickele) on my reading shelf. Here’s some other stuff I’ve been clearing out:

imagesDesmond Seward’s The Demon’s Brood, a 300-page bare-bones history of the Plantagenet dynasty, from a myth-tinted beginning in the forests of 8th century France, to its 15th century end on Bosworth Field and Richard III’s burial in a pauper’s graveyard (a few hundred years later, a car park). What I already knew of this dynasty came from Shakespeare (Henry IV to Richard III), film (Peter O’Toole twice as Henry II!), and some “classic” children’s books about Robin Hood and William Wallace (Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs, written in 1810 and gorgeously illustrated by N. C. Wyeth in 1921). In other words, much of what I knew was probably based more in local legend than in actual fact. Seward’s book, although jam-packed with information, is marred by confusing typos (e.g., in Edward III’s ancestral chart, Fulk II the Good is noted as living 987-961, and in another chart the son of the Black Prince is listed as Richard III — anyone ought to know this is Richard II!), as well as a flurry of Henrys, Edwards, and Richards, as well as Margarets and Elizabeths — at least one per generation, and often more than one; when Seward mentions Henry II, I don’t know if this is the king of England or of France. Worst of all, there are no maps! Yet I finished the book, a quick read despite the problems. I now have a slightly clearer sense of the Wars of the Roses and the 100 Years War, and of the shifting alliances among the various rulers of England, France, Scotland and Wales.

imgresSome books by and about Arthur Ransome, beyond the Swallows and Amazons series. More on these in a separate post, but what an amazing life Ransome led: not just sailing the Norfolk Broads and the Lake District, but also as war correspondent (WWI) in Russia, working his way up the ranks to hang out with (or at least meet) Trotsky, Lenin, and several others. In at least one instance, his input may have changed the course of history.

imgresJean Craighead George’s The Talking Earth, in which Billie Wind, a Seminole girl, is challenged by a village elder to learn how to listen to nature. Stranded by a storm in the Florida Everglades, she discovers the meaning of tribal myths and finds that science and myth aren’t mutually exclusive. George is best known for her Newbery Award winning Julie of the Wolves. The Talking Earth, a similar novel featuring a young woman who relies on animals to help her survive, although shorter, has a much stronger ecological focus.

urlSusan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk, another book featuring Native Americans, this one is set in Colonial New England, when Europeans and the Wampanoag nation met and clashed. Last fall, I heard Cooper talk about writing this book — about living near a tidal marsh untouched by centuries of development. The land seemed to tell this story for her, and all she needed to do was listen. It covers several decades of history, with European settlers slowly encroaching on Wampanoag territory. Historical characters such as Roger Williams and Massasoit appear, at a distance, grounding Cooper’s tale in fact, but never overshadowing the mystical themes. It’s a lovely story, and quite different from her Dark is Rising series.

aumokd6pfdtuhq4dvfax_0Finally, Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, a graphic novel (first seen as a webcomic), about a medieval supervillain and his Girl Friday, Nimona. The back cover reads “NEMESES! DRAGONS! SCIENCE! SYMBOLISM!” All promises are kept in this funny, surprising, intelligent book. Nimona (note her zaftig figure) tells the villainous Lord Ballister Blackheart that the agency sent her to be his new sidekick (my reaction: does this mean I can hire a sidekick?). She has a superpower, of course, that helps her help Blackheart in his constant battle with the gorgeous Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. (Stevenson is obviously having fun with names.) Be ready for plot twists.

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Remembrance of Proust #4

No, I haven’t given up on this. I’ve been finishing up some other tasks, in a metaphorical desk clearance before spring term begins.

Roger Shattuck, in his helpful guide, Proust’s Way, advises us to “read with a kind of patient faith that Proust is not leading us down the garden path and that he will bring the sentence, the scene, and the book to a clear conclusion.” Shattuck suggests that Proust’s style forces a slow reading, to create “a season of the mind outside temporal limits.” I feel a bit better now about needing several years to complete this.

pp. 116-143. End of Combray. Start of Swann in Love.  Let the story begin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of weeks ago a friend told me that he found Proust boring. I can see how a person would have that response. Combray isn’t easy. It wanders. The sentences are long. There’s no plot. Basically, 140 pages of this and that, with a whole lot about flowers and trees (quite a few hawthorns).

But the “this and that” turns out to be crucial for the rest of the novel, setting up relationships, yearnings, understandings, and expectations that I now get to follow as I move through the real story.

Combray ends where it begins, with the narrator (I’ll call him Marcel, just to make things easier) back in bed, connecting a taste (that tea, again) with memories of a time and place. As the sun rises (“the uplifted forefinger of day”) after a sleepless night in an unfamiliar bedroom, Marcel turns from detailed images of his childhood eden, to Swann’s story, and the tone of the writing shifts.

Combray is all “I” — with Marcel’s remembrances filling every page. But the third word of Swann in Love is “you”. Marcel grabs me and puts me right into the story. I don’t know how long he’ll be talking directly to me (I’ve read only the first paragraph), but the shift is almost shocking. It made me sit up.

A few brief notes.

1. Marcel doesn’t do a lot of explicit foreshadowing, but there was one sentence near the end of Combray that caught my attention. While introducing an odd scene between Mlle. Vinteuil and her lover, he writes

And it is perhaps from another impression which I received at Montjouvain, some years later, an impression which at that time was without meaning, that there arose, long afterwards, my idea of that cruel side of human passion called ‘sadism.’ We shall see, in due course, that for quite another reason the memory of this impression was to play an important part in my life.

OK, noted. I’ll keep an eye out for whatever it is that this memory links to. Marcel writes that the “one true cruelty” is “indifference to the suffering which [people] cause” — his final statement on that scene of sadism he accidentally witnessed.

2. Some great language: Buttercups, in French, are called boutons d’or (literally, buttons of gold). A carp, “crushed by the burden of idleness”, leaps from a river.

3. There’s a brief episode, where Marcel quotes something he wrote when he was young (perhaps 12 or so?), and his conclusion is that the writing helped him to relieve an obsession — in this case, with the changing views of three Martinville steeples during a drive he frequently took when young. The steeples disappear behind trees, then reappear after the road turns, but different in aspect and color. A bit like one’s memories.

And that’s as close to symbolism as I care to get at this point.

Stay tuned for the next installment, wherein we meet Swann and find out (I hope) who his mysterious love is.

Reviewing this post, I’m amused by my sense that the “real” story will finally get going. It does, but not in the way I had expected.

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