“Tell Sparta” people

There’s something about December afternoons, with the days shortening and chill winds or damp rain pressing against my windows — ideal napping weather. This post dates from early December 2010, with big family holidays nearing.

But now it’s a warm March morning as I reblog this post, and the dangers of dozing over Proust are the same in any season. Good thing Proust offers gems like the one I discuss below. 

Dreyfus (photo H. Roger-Viollet)

Dreyfus (photo H. Roger-Viollet)

Within a Budding Grove, pp. 386-406

Lesson 1: Don’t read Proust while in a reclining position (say, on one’s couch), wrapped in layers of blanket, on a rainy afternoon. I kept falling asleep through most of the latest 20 pages, so it took me about 5 hours to make this week’s meager progress. To paraphrase The Who, hope I finish before I get old!

Lesson 2: Even 20 pages of truly dense ruminating prose can hold some gems. For example, this section reminded me of the social one-up-manship well known to all Luciaphiles.

Although Tilling may equal only the tiniest corner of middle-upper-class Paris, the scrabble to get on top and stay there — and to be sure that everyone knows you’re on top — is the same in both places. As Odette and Charles aim for the best guests and pretend not to care, I could see Lucia and Georgie conniving against Daisy (for her guru) and Mapp (for Mallards). Did E. F. Benson read Proust?

One of the best lines is from Marcel’s mother, who watches the Swanns’ social contortions with total comprehension. Marcel’s father can’t understand why they’d want to invite someone so low-class and low-value as the Cottards, but his mother gets it:

Mamma, on the other hand, understood quite well; she knew that a great deal of the pleasure which a woman finds in entering a class of society different from that in which she has previously lived would be lacking if she had no means of keeping her old associates informed of those others, relatively more brilliant, with whom she has replaced them. Therefore, she requires an eye-witness who may be allowed to penetrate this new, delicious world (as a buzzing, browsing insect bores its way into a flower) and will then, as the course of her visits may carry her, spread abroad, or so at least one hopes, with the tidings, a latent germ of envy and of wonder. Mme. Cottard, who might have been created on purpose to fill this part, belonged to that special category in a visiting list which Mamma … used to call the ‘Tell Sparta’ people.

We all know a few Tell Sparta people, but to what extent do we cynically use them to engender envy as they broadcast news of our party guests? 

NB: The Dreyfus affair enters the scene, briefly, in this section, and for the first time (I think, although I might have missed earlier references), Marcel states that the Swanns are Jewish. After reading de Waal’s memoir, these overlaps with the Paris branch of the Ephrussi family resonate.

Here’s a reaction to the original post: 

au contraire! you must read Proust lying down! you *must fall asleep every page! you must reread the same section over and over again without noticing! it must NOT make sense, either!

whatever gives you the notion that Proust is a book like any other — one to be read (Damn, English lacks perfected forms of verbs! I must improvise!) … read from cover to cover rather than read in (or better yet, “read about”)?? hain?!

one reads in Proust, not reads Proust!

give it up!

i have been reading Proust for three years and have not yet made it through book one!

It’s nice to be confirmed in my belief that I’m not the only one. Rereading this response, however, just makes me more determined: this is the year I finish Proust.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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4 Responses to “Tell Sparta” people

  1. calmgrove says:

    I hope that 2016 is not your ‘Year of Living Dangerously’ — when you accidentally wrap yourself up warmly only to find you have (a) lost your place when the book falls from your somnolent clutch; (b) dreamed you have read several reams when in fact you haven’t; or (c) mistake what Proust describes and thinks in great detail for your own actions and musings.

    PS I haven’t been reading Proust for three years and therefore have not only not made it through book one but have no idea what I’m talking about either with regard to Proust — all I know has been from universal memes and your enlightening posts …

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks for the compliment, Chris, but have you peeked at tomorrow’s post? Your prescience is impressive.

      • calmgrove says:

        I have a few qualities, but sadly — or happily: who can predict? — prescience is not one of them. All I can say is that a canter through your several Marcellian posts is the equivalent of a Proust for Dummies (of which last I am one), and therefore ideal companions for one’s own future enjoyment of the work or, as I rather fear, a substitute for that enjoyment which will allow me to declaim with seeming personal acquaintance about the merits and possible shortfalls of Proust’s oeuvre without the labour of actually turning each and every one of the pages oneself.

        Now see what you’ve done: even my replies are taking on a Proustian longeur … or should that be longevity?

      • Lizzie Ross says:

        I’m happy to learn I’m not the only one who suffers, in that way so rarely mentioned, as if it were an invisible disease that one notices only after it has passed and one is feeling inexplicably lightened, from the overpowering urge to take on the voice and tone of whichever author one is reading. But with Proust, there is no “anxiety of influence”, only the pleasure of opening, like a constant traveler, a suitcase of prose so intricately yet delicately packed that it never fails to surprise and please by its offerings.
        Whew!

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