I’m going to have to do something about the search function on my other blog, because I’ve just found several additional Proust posts. I knew something was strange when Update #9 took me only to p. 344, yet when I had stopped reading all those years ago, my bookmark had been placed at p. 530. A search has revealed further posts, which I’ll repost here in a quick barrage over the next week or so. This one followed a 6-week hiatus from Proust’s novel.
Within a Budding Grove, pp. 344-368
Yes, it’s time we returned to Proust. Let’s see what Marcel has been up to recently.
If you recall, he’s just seen Berma, the famed actress, and was disappointed. It seemed boring, monotonous, uninspired. Nothing at all like the performance he had imagined he would witness, and he begins to worry that life will be full of similar disappointments. Yet the wild applause at the final curtain makes him doubt his first assessment:
Then, at last, a sense of admiration did possess me, provoked by the frenzied applause of the audience … the more I applauded, the better, it seemed to me, did Berma act.
I love the next few lines:
“I say,” came from a woman sitting near me, of no great social pretensions, “she fairly gives it you, she does; you’d think she’d do herself an injury, the way she runs about. I call that acting, don’t you?” And happy to find these reasons for Berma’s superiority, though not without a suspicion that they no more accounted for it than would for that of the Gioconda or of Benvenuto’s Perseus a peasant’s gaping “That’s a good bit of work. It’s all gold, look! Fine, ain’t it?”, I greedily imbibed the strong wine of this popular enthusiasm …
Can we trust our first impressions? Or do we allow popular enthusiasms to influence us?
M. de Norpois joins Marcel’s family for dinner that night, and pontificates on art, politics, diplomacy and food. (At one point he begrudgingly tastes a dessert, with the comment, “I obey, Madame, for I can see that it is, on your part, a positive ukase!”) His conversation is full of references to his wide experience, quoting or translating proverbs from other lands, including one from Arabic about how one should respond to criticism: “The dogs may bark; the caravans go on!”
Marcel is so enchanted by M. de Norpois’ hauteur and diplomatic demeanor (gained from extensive experience in The World At Large) that he practically worships the man, and at one point is thrilled to think that M. de Norpois might actually mention Marcel’s name to Mme. Swann — she would then realize that Marcel knows the ambassador and would thus be willing to welcome the boy into her home.
M. de Norpois convinces Marcel that Berma’s performance was good, that Marcel’s favorite writer, Bergotte, is a hack, and that Marcel’s best writing is a poor imitation of Bergotte’s worst. In short, the old man crushes Marcel, yet the poor boy only sees this as illumination.
I can’t help wishing Marcel could be loyal to his own ideas, less under the influence of the huge celestial bodies that surround him, but I suppose it’s inevitable. Gravity can’t be denied.
There’s a long bit at the point where Marcel, still hoping de Norpois will put in a good word for him with the Swanns, momentarily mimes the action of kissing the old man’s hands. The older Marcel considers this moment from a more informed distance, posing the idea that we are all so insecure about our abilities to have an impact on the world that we imagine no one notices anything that we do (it’s the “20 years from now, who’s going to know the difference” attitude).
The older Marcel (our Narrator) tells us that the younger Marcel thought de Norpois had missed the gesture,
And yet, some years later, in a house in which M. de Norpois, who was also calling there, had seemed to me the most solid support that I could hope to find, because he was the friend of my father, indulgent, inclined to wish us all well, and besides, by his profession and upbringing, trained to discretion, when, after the Ambassador had done, I was told that he had alluded to an evening long ago when he had seen the moment in which I was just going to kiss his hands, not only did I colour up to the roots of my hair but I was stupefied to learn how different from all that I had believed were not only the manner in which M. de Norpois spoke of me but also the constituents of his memory …
Ambassadors may have high levels of discretion, but it seems this one, at least, had no ability for empathy.
Marcel makes one other point about M. de Norpois:
… like all capitalists, he regarded wealth as an enviable thing, but thought it more delicate to compliment people upon their possessions only by a half-indicated sign of intelligent sympathy; on the other hand, as he was himself immensely rich, he felt that he shewed his good taste by seeming to regard as considerable the meagre revenues of his friends, with a happy and comforting resilience to the superiority of his own.
If only the younger Marcel had known all this. But at least the older Marcel gets his revenge — by including this story, and this perfect caricature, in some truly celestial writing.
More on first impressions and popular enthusiasms, in this truly wacky U.S. election year. I know Proust does not have politics in mind as he reveals Marcel’s malleability, but I can’t help wondering if Proust noticed similar tendencies in the body politic. I know the Dreyfus affair comes into the story, so there’s at least one chance for the author to address my question. We’ll have to see what happens.