Monday, 9 April 2012

The Guermantes Way (Second Post)

The Guermantes Way (Second Post) - Marcel Proust

Well, so much for promises. (see first post) As Proust says, life is always a little different to our expectations of it. I fully intended posting a second post hot on the heels of my previous one but my ability to type (and read) is being severely compromised by an episode of back pain. On top of discomfort I am also in a fairly constant state of slight wooziness due to the painkillers. (This is of course to excuse in advance the fact that this post may make even less sense than usual.)

In the previous post I spoke mostly of the way that Proust constantly returns to the difference between expectation and reality and the way each alter the other. Our prejudices, our desires, our backgrounds, our age  - everything conspires to put a distance between what is and what is perceived.

However, Proust doesn't merely talk about these sensory, intellectual issues in isolation. We also get to see how they affect the wider world. One of the issues which I've talked about before is  homosexuality and how it is treated. As in all arenas the treatment of homosexuals in the world we are shown depends on the class of the homosexual. Marcel's friend Saint Loup beats up a "shabbily dressed gentleman" who propositions him on the street. Here is how Marcel concludes his thoughts on this episode:
"And yet, the recipient of this blow was excusable in one respect, for the trend of the downward slope brings desire so rapidly to the point of enjoyment that beauty by itself seems to imply consent. Now, that Saint Loup was beautiful was beyond dispute. Castigation such as he had just administered has this value, for men of the type that had accosted him, that it makes them think seriously of their conduct, though never for long enough to enable them to amend their ways and thus escape correction at the hands of the law. And so, although Saint-Loup's arm had shot out instinctively, without any preliminary thought, all such punishments, even when they reinforce the law, are powerless to bring about any uniformity in morals." This seems a roundabout way of saying that there needs to be allowances made for those whose "morals" are different, but without tying his flag too prominently to the mast. But this is the way Proust 'instructs', gently probing and probing, allowing you to make your own judgements but making you consider all the points of view, all the different perspectives and all the time keeping you aware that the narrator's perspective is unreliable, subjective and immature.

Another issue from the wider world that plays a big part is the Dreyfus Affair and the associated upsurge in anti-semitism. (If this is unfamiliar you can check it out on Wikipedia). M De Charlus gives one of the most virulently anti-semitic harangues in the book, using what Marcel calls "terrible, almost insane language". He links Marcel's Jewish friend Bloch to Dreyfus and to immigration in general and then returns to Bloch and his family giving a sense of the appalling nature of his personality. "'I understand the newspapers to say that Dreyfus has committed a crime against his country - so I understand, I pay no attention to the newspapers, I read them as I wash my hands, without finding that it is worth my while to take any interest in what I am doing. In any case, the crime is non-existent, your friend's compatriot would have committed a crime if he had betrayed Judea, but what has he to do with France?' I pointed out that if there should be war the Jews would be mobilised just as much as anyone else. "Perhaps so, and I am not sure that it would not be an imprudence. If we bring over Senegalese and Malagasies, I hardly suppose that their hearts will be in the task of defending France, which is only natural. Your Dreyfus might rather be convicted  of a breach of the laws of hospitality. But we need not discuss that. Perhaps you could ask your friend to allow me to be present at some great festival in the Temple, at a circumcision, with Jewish chants. He might perhaps take a hall, and give me some biblical entertainment, as the young ladies of Saint-Cyr performed scenes taken from the psalms by Racine, to amuse Louis XIV. You might even arrange parties to give us a good laugh. For instance a battle between your friend and his father, in which he would smite him as David smote Goliath. That would make quite an amusing farce. He might even, while he was about it, deal some stout blows at his hag (or, as my olds nurse would say, his "haggard") of a mother. That would be an excellent show, and would not be unpleasing to us, eh, my young friend, since we like exotic spectacles, and to thrash that non-European creature would be giving a well-earned punishment to an old camel.'" It is notable that at this time - the late nineteenth century, many Jews fled the anti-semitism present across much (all) of Europe and laid the groundwork for the future creation of Israel.

But the focus of the book isn't exclusively on Marcel and the wider world. The death of his grandmother os a very moving episode which strips one layer of protection from Marcel. It also brings him close to the ineffable mystery of mortality. "It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourself understood: our body." He has always thought of her almost as part of himself  "She had suddenly handed back to me the thoughts, the griefs which, from the days of my infancy, I had entrusted for all time to her keeping. She was not yet dead. I was already alone." The treatment which she receives, without any hope of a cure, only worsens her pain. "The blows which we aimed at the wicked ogre who had taken up his abode in my grandmother were always wide of the mark, and it was she, her poor interposed body that had to bear them, without her ever uttering more than a faint groan by way of complaint. And the pain that we caused her found no compensation in a benefit which we were unable to give her. The savage ogre whom we were anxious to exterminate we barely succeeded in touching, and all we did was enrage him still further, and possibly hasten the moment at which he would devour his luckless captive. "

I find myself leafing backwards and forwards through the pages, looking up quotes that I have marked - how small social gatherings at the Guermantes are "a sort of social Eucharist", how, walking the streets of Paris it appears to Marcel that "Quite half of the human race was in tears." How "The need to speak prevents one not merely from listening but from seeing things". I need now to drop the need to blog which is preventing me from reading (along with other of life's conspiracies) and finish my current reading (In Cold Blood and We, The Drowned) before heading back into Marcel's universe towards the time when, as he puts it: "the Guermantes had ceased to impress me and the tiny drop of their originality was no longer vaporized by my imagination" and "I was able to distill and analyze it, imponderable as it was."

Sometime I may be able to distill and analyze these books but at the moment it feels like trying to describe water in motion. Always the same but forever changing.

1 comment:

  1. "it feels like trying to describe water in motion. Always the same but forever changing."
    True, absolutely true.
    This is why I'd take In Search of Lost Time on a desert island, it would last longer than many other books before I could pretend knowing everything about it.