Proust book group. Yes, we’re still going! Although I’ve not posted anything for a while. But all that’s going to change.
Especially after the realization at our last meeting that we’ve read so much but can’t always remember it… time for some judicious note-making and keeping.
We’ve also decided to read just 55 pages at a time just because the writing is so dense. So this should keep us going as a reading group for years…
Here’s something from Kate to start us off. It’s based on our discussion of pp55 – 119 Penguin edition ‘Le Côté de Guermantes’ :
The background story here is the narrator’s ‘love’ for Mme de Guermantes.
1. The Art of War. As a parallel to the creation of art works and
also in the context of the First World War.
2. The character of St Loup. As a good kind loving person, as an
idealist and hero worshipper, attracted by cleverness and reacting
against his background, holding court ( with Narrator providing the
entertainment), as the last of his line. His jealousy and the
homosexual aspect of the friendship, which Proust makes us consider whilst appearing to deny it.
3. Comic elements and also the rude meaning of Cambremer (as explained in ‘Who’s Who’).
4. Francoise in contrast to St Loup and also what she teaches him about people. Francoise and characteristics she shares with narrator.
5. Sleep, dreams and the act of artistic creation. Memory as the
immortality of the soul – as part of a work of art. Also is Proust
reflecting on the religious doctrine he grew up with?
6. Proust mentions works of art. If you know the reference it creates
a picture. eg the shops lit up like a Rembrandt picture. Scenes from Breughel.
7 A pan of boiling milk described poetically. An invalid would have
time to notice.
8. Synaesthesia and the effect of the loss of sound.
9. the writing of a novel by the narrator. The untouched pile of papers.
10. Mme de Guermantes. The narrator thinks he loves her but he doesn’t know her. The comic elements in his inability to even recognise her at times.
11. Humour. How the narrator can laugh at himself and make himself seem ridiculous to show his lack of self-knowledge (like a Molière character).
Phew! Is that it??
Here are a few of my favourite things … to moan about!
First off, new phrases. One moment no one’s saying them (never mind understanding what they mean), the next they’re being used by virtually everyone. All of the time. Sounds like a good thing? Well let’s see.
Culprit number 1 : ‘Back in the day’
Seems to refer to some non-specific period in the speaker’s past when everything was possibly better. Or possibly not. Though, grudgingly, could be said to be useful for those of us who have trouble remembering dates…
Culprit number 2 : ‘Happy days’
(uncannily similar to culprit number 1)
What’s wrong with that?
When I first heard this I confess to having found it really quite charming. Full of joyful enthusiasm. Sort of catchy. So ‘sort of catchy’ in fact that I found it escaping from my mouth all too readily. Soon sounded rather simple.
Culprit number 3 : ‘Mac and Cheese’
Odd to find it here you may think, but think again. When I first heard this I thought it had to be something far more mysterious, more exotic, than ‘macaroni cheese’. Even now I wonder whether I’ve got this one completely wrong. But I don’t think so. It is ‘macaroni cheese’. I’ve googled it (!). That dish that we had as kids when we’d run out of everything else. Suddenly it’s everyone’s favourite, and even my own kids bandy its name around as if they loved it ‘back in the day’. But they must have been chowing down on it at some other family’s table because they certainly didn’t have it at mine. I don’t know why but it sounds as if it belongs to the same family of words such as ‘dude. Or ‘bro’. (Which makes me think of ‘bromance’. And ‘Brovember’. And…Stop me. Stop me now.)
Culprit number 4 : ‘enjoy’
Now this is an old one. The first time it irritated me was back in the late 1980’s. Now I’ve got nothing against the sentiment. Please, do enjoy yourself. But just ‘enjoy’? It used to be so cool it made me want to stick my fingers down my throat. But I’ve grown up now. And calmed down. And whereas I can forgive, I can never forget.
Although I’m trying to distance myself from the times that I’ve succumbed to ‘enjoy’s easy charms myself. But it never did make me sound cool. More a people-pleasing, crowd-following twerp with no resolve. Damn.
Culprit number 5 : ‘fess up
So, time to ‘fess up myself. I cringe as I admit that I’ve used this one. More than once. How did it’s annoyingly catchy sound get so hardwired into my brain that I found myself reproducing it? Against my better judgement?
(For those of you who may still be ‘fess up’ virgins it’s simply a contraction of ‘confess’ + ‘own up’ = ”fess up’. Sorry to have corrupted you.)
Culprit number 6:
and this is the one, my nec plus ultra (at the moment, at any rate) of irritating phrases. Wait for it –
‘First World problems’.
Though on first hearing it this one bowled me over.
Not least because I’ve come up with my fair share of moans deserving of such an epithet (is that even the right word? Please feel free to help me out here.)
‘I’ve not managed to get fresh clams for tonight’s spaghetti alle vongole.’‘I missed the last episode of War and Peace.’ Sadly both mine. I was nearly reduced to tears by one of them.
So, the reason I hate this phrase is that I’ve started to use it after nearly most things I say. And so have many of my First World chums. Instead of making us reflect on more serious problems it’s just served to give us a chummy, back-slapping out.
When I used it after ‘Waitrose has run out of hazelnut croissants!’ I realised I had a problem.
Reading. That most solitary of activities which has helped me understand and connect with others in the most profound of ways.
Pretentious, maybe. True, most definitely. And so I’ll lay myself open to derision because I would really like to share my latest reading discovery.
I was researching women who lived in fin-de-siècle Vienna recently because...well, that’s another story, when I stumbled across a short work by a woman called Adelheid Popp.
‘Who,’ I hear you cry, ‘is Adelheid Popp? Never heard of her.’
Well, after reading her autobiography you might start to question why that is. Why have you not heard of this most inspirational of women?
A Socialist and a Feminist, her story is charmingly written and beautifully moving. One of 15 children born into the most desperate poverty she rose to become one of the leading pioneers of her age, calling for fair wages, improved working conditions (including sick pay), all the while campaigning for universal suffrage and against sexism and exploitation of women in society.
Haven’t we heard it all before? I’d thought so too but it was only when I read her personal account of her youthful experiences and the hardships she endured that I actually felt it.
It will inspire, amaze and move you and the foreword written by Ramsay McDonald sets the scene.
Tankards, earthenware drinking cups and glasses clink, chink and clunk together as wassailers bid each other good health.
Wassailing. It hadn’t registered on my ‘excuses to eat and drink to excess’ before this year. And so when Martina suggested that we have a wassailing evening I didn’t really know what to expect.
But I do now.
Wassailing is a very ancient tradition involving drinking to good health and to a good apple crop for the coming year. The word ‘wassail’ itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’ though it refers also to the drink traditionally drunk while wassailing. Wassailing is usually done on or around 12th Night, and the wassail itself was originally a drink made of mulled ale, roasted apples, curdled cream, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar (sometimes known as ‘Lamb’s Wool’ due to its white and frothy appearance caused by the pulp of the apple and the cream ).
However, Martina thought that we could have a wassail feast too. And I was to bring a starter. A starter?
I didn’t know much about wassailing but from what I did know it seemed fairly obvious to me that starters weren’t big in wassailing circles. And so it proved. I spent hours pouring over recipe books and getting lost on the Internet.
But then I found it. The perfect wassailing menu on the site of ‘The Ethicurean’, a…but before I attempt to describe the place perhaps you’ll get a better idea of what ‘the Ethicurean’ is in their own words –
‘This is the idea of having a connection with the native land, its history and the community who grow food locally upon it. Our family team seek to discover harmonious pairings between the ingredients that surround the walled garden.’
‘The Ethicurean restaurant is set in the enchanting Barley Wood Walled Garden, a perfectly restored Victorian kitchen garden, bursting with fertile life. But far from your usual garden cafe fare, gardener Mark Cox sends his produce to the restaurant in the delightfully scuffed former glasshouse to be made by the team into some of the most delicious, innovative, vegetable-focused cuisine in the land.’
Get the picture?
And so it was here, perhaps unsurprisingly, that I found a wassailing menu. Once discovered I managed to find wassailing menus from previous years and eventually opted for Caerphilly and Cider Rabbit (posh cheese on toast), although I wouldn’t do this ever again, not least because it was too filling. In fact, the entire evening seemed to be a laying down of fat to cope with the harsh winter months ahead. A veritable festival of fat, sugar and stodge…
Not everyone made it to this meeting and so we used it as an excuse (opportunity?) to focus on the just start of the second part of ‘A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs’.
the narrator’s focus on the blue of the blind at the window of the train carriage. Significance – to underline the importance of what we see ( in this case the colour) as opposed to what we know we see ( it is a blind).
the importance of light and its impact on what we see. As seen in the changing impressions of the same scene as observed through the train window as the train follows its winding track. Same scene, different perspective. Affected by time, light, distance.
the relevance of these visual experiences become clear when the narrator describes what he sees through his hotel window. eg he describes the sea as a mountain, the crests of its waves as snow.
Proust here makes the distinction between intelligence and intuition/ sensory response. He reveals to us his developing aesthetic – that to touch the truth, create art, he needs to respond to the impression, to be faithful to what he sees, rather than to allow what he knows to come between its expression. (cf. voluntary and involuntary memory)
To place this in a historical context, these ideas are clearly connected to those of the Impressionists.
We are told that the artist Elstir, even before he is introduced, will have a significant influence on the narrator’s artistic evolution.
It is also aesthetically important that Baudelaire is mentioned here. Baudelaire’s use of synaesthesia within some of his poems has a definite correlation to Proust’s use of metonymy here. To taste the smell of a rose is akin to seeing the mountain in the sea.
further points for discussion
humour. Now we’ve spotted it we see it everywhere. Perhaps the narrator’s grandiose claims and anguished exclamations are intended to express genuine pathos, but we can’t help but hear a self-conscious, self-mocking bathos – the voice of a wiser, more knowing older self who is prepared to elicit humour out of his more naive younger self, even in his most despairing of moments. Waiting at the train station; seeing the milk girl; drinking the alcohol.
By concentrating on such a small section we managed to talk about the writing in detail. It really is a joy to be able to read ‘A la Recherche’ in this way and to see how much we’ve still got left to read makes my heart soar as it means we’ve got so much more to explore.
NEXT MEETING : Friday 5th February
TARGET: To finish reading the 2nd part of ‘A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles…’ or, at least, try to.
I’ve clearly not been writing any posts in a while and did think that I would walk away from this website/blog all together.
Because I was becoming obsessed with stats, hits and search engines, that’s why, desperate to think of the latest click-bait to push those numbers up.
Because I found I was more intent on recording life on my phone than actually living it (that’s a BIG one). I dislike Facebook but it crossed my mind that what I was doing here had many of its negatives. And that had never been my intention.
Because I wasn’t concentrating on anything else in my life, just writing randomly and uploading it aimlessly. The result, one huge, word soup, fairly sludge-like in consistency.
BUT because I have stopped recording certain things that I find important and useful, I’ve learnt that when a moment has passed (the details of which I think I will never forget), I have trouble calling to mind even the most basic of information about it. The feeling always remains, of course. I can tell you with gushing enthusiasm, for example, my favourite book, or film. But I can’t always tell you why. And ask me what it’s about and I’m completely scuppered.
And so, for that admittedly selfish reason, I intend to continue writing up what I want to remember just in case I ever want to get my hands on recipes for a dinner party or just rediscover what’s so great about ‘A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs’. I know this is not for everyone but as I get older I realise that it’s not about trying to please others but finding things that make me feel alive. The same things might not do it for you, and that’s fine, but this year on Frock Friday I will offer what does it for me and if you want to share it please help yourselves. And I’m going to start with a little bit of Proust.
‘Ladies! I know you thought I’d never get round to it but I have, and I’m just about to press ‘BOOK’. Do you trust me on this?’
The evening before, on a wine fuelled night out at the Urban Standard on The Gloucester Road, Cecily, Jilly and I all said ‘Great idea!’ when Fee suggested going away together. Sometime. Somewhere. Having tried and failed with ‘India for a month?’ ‘Sicily for a fortnight?’ ‘Bruges for the weekend?’ Fee finally had to settle upon…’Oxford. For one night’.
And so the very next day she’d booked it so that we couldn’t back out. Accommodation secured –
one night at Magdalen College, Oxford, bed and breakfastfor the four of us.
One week later and we were there!
The drive from Bristol to Oxford took just one and a half hours. Once in the city, the first thing we did was to go full-tourist and do
the open-top bus tour,
price £13.50 and valid for 24 hours, complete with knowledgeable guide (an actual person) and the chance to hop on and off at key stops dotted around the city. This was an excellent start to our stay, not least because it was a beautiful day. The spires against the blue sky were breathtaking and we took in many of the key sites.
Sufficiently inspired and surprisingly moved, we got off at bus stop 10, on the High Street, and we did what any right-minded tourist to Oxford should do –
go for afternoon tea at the Grand Café.
It really was such a treat! It’s reputed to be the oldest coffee house in England, mentioned by Samuel Pepys in 1650. Although we very nearly didn’t make it over the threshold of this little piece of history as a woman pushed past us muttering ‘They charge £3 just for a glass of tap water!’ As none of us had ever visited a cafe that charges £3 for a glass of tap water before we decided to remain steadfast and channel our inner Marie Antoinettes, replacing water with champagne and eating bread AND cake. And scones. And cream. And jam.
Grand High Tea
The food was abundant. So much so that ‘Eyes bigger than your belly’ very rapidly came to mind after I’d greedily loaded up my second scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream…
Time to find our accommodation – Longwall Street refurbished double room with ensuite (Magdalen College) – and have a little nap.
Feeling decidedly sluggish we crawled to the porter’s lodge at Magdalen College, conveniently situated not five minutes away from the Grand Cafe on the opposite side of the road. Told that our rooms were not in the main building but situated a mere 3 minutes away, we went in search of them. Unfortunately, and most embarrassingly, we all turned into women not accustomed to getting out much. Clearly giddily giggly, we had all relied on each other to listen to the porter’s directions which meant that not one of us could remember how to get to where we were staying. We got lost just going round the corner and after 30 minutes walking up and down the same stretch of road and putting our keys in every keyhole along the way (not to mention -oh the ignominy – following a student through a self-locking gate only to find ourselves trapped in the grounds of one of the colleges) we had to admit that not one of us had listened to the porter when he’d told us where to go. We went back to ask him again. And this time we listened.
3 minutes away (it was true), we saw the arched door with the phone booth in front of it. Once inside we found our newly refurbished rooms. Warm , with comfortable beds, soft white towels and white cotton sheets, it really did exceed our expectations (that we were all miffed that we hadn’t packed a hot water bottle and bed socks as Fee had done gives you a clue as to what we thought the rooms might be like…). The ensuite bathroom was immaculate – light, clean and with a radiator so hot you could brand your bum on it. And Jilly did. So be careful!
Time to unpack, then a trot around ‘The Meadow‘, located near Christchurch College.
Then back to our rooms for a quick shower before eating out at ‘La Cucina‘, a family-run Italian restaurant just ten minutes walk away from Magdalen College at 39-40 St Clement’s Road.
‘La Cucina’ proved to be a great find. The food was excellent and plentiful, and the service was charming. I shared what has to be the most generous portion of vegetarian antipasti I’ve ever had, followed by a great pasta and clam dish. Given that each of us had a starter, a main and several glasses of wine the bill came in at a very reasonable £90 for 4.
Feeling pleasantly full and ready for bed it was good to know that we had a very short walk back to where we were staying.
Next morning, after a great night’s sleep in a bed more comfortable than my own, we made our way to Magdalen’s great medieval Hall.
As I tucked into my full English breakfast with my yogurt, fruit, cereal, croissant, toast, butter and jam all lined up I suddenly remembered why I’d put on two stones in weight when I had been living in catered halls as a student many years ago. But that’s where the parallels began and ended, the neon lighting strips of the canteen where I’d eaten as a student bearing no resemblance at all to the Harry Potter-esque surroundings in which I now found myself. I couldn’t help but feel a little awestruck at the very beauty and grandeur of the setting and wished I’d tried that little bit harder at school…
For the candle-lit suppers?
Our 24 hours in Oxford was passing quickly. We just had time to have a wander round Magdalen, with its cloisters, quads, past its deer park and into its chapel.
And as we did so we became more and more ecstatic. The awe that had started for me in the refectory reached its crescendo in the chapel when I took this for the original –
I was surprised, but not as much as I should have been given that I knew it was in Milan. But, after my ‘You had me at hello’ moment where I’d been robbed of all critical faculties in the refectory, I was now ready to believe that anything was possible here in this most inspiring and magical of places.
Shame I’d not taken my glasses…
Still, the chapel was beautiful, and as the organ played, so my spirits, not to mention imagination, soared.
Our twenty-four hours were up. But what a glorious twenty-four hours they’d been.
Accommodation : Longwall Street refurbished double room with ensuite (Magdalen College) cost £105 including breakfast
Grand High Tea at the Grand Cafe£23.45
Dinner at La Cucina, St Clements £20-£35
Bus Tour of Oxford £13.50
visit the Ashmolean
try the Turl Street Kitchen for lunch and Quod for dinner
Back in August I bravely embraced my child, fighting back my selfish tears. He’d travelled the world. He’d gone to university. But I knew that this time it was different. His adult life was about to start and he wouldn’t be looking back. He was leaving the nest for the final time and my heart was breaking.
Fly my boy, fly! May your life be full of joy. Oh , my special one! Words cannot express the depth of my love for you nor my anguish at saying this one goodbye.
As I drove home from the train station I had to pull over, my eyes temporarily blinded by the tears that they could no longer contain. And I let them fall, full and heavy over my cheeks, my head awash with images of Tom. My happy, smiling Tom. Tom. The pain and the beauty of the past, brought back so intensely in the moment, took my breath away.
But now, at the start of October, it’s just bitter.
Because he came back. Why?
Nothing’s changed. He’s still my lovely, beautiful joy of a child. But why did he come back?
Now don’t get me wrong, he can always come back. But to come back when he’d never intended to (and I’d been planning to re-decorate his bedroom and turn it into a workroom) hasn’t been good for him. And, perhaps not more to the point but a consideration to bear in mind, it’s not been good for me either (workroom aside). To see him moping around when he should be out embracing life is painful. I understand his frustration at not knowing what he wants to do with his life. I do. I really do.
But I’ve discovered a frustration equally real.
That is, the very real frustration of the parent of a grown-up child living at home. A parent who knows best. Or, at least, thinks she does.
You could say it’s a sign of the times – grown-up children all over the land having to live with their parents because of student debt, lack of jobs, rising property prices.
I know this.
I also know what Tom could do to prevent this. And therein lies the rub because now he’s back in my house it’s oh so difficult not to tell him this. I’m torn between on the one hand letting him find his own way and on the other, sharing with him the wisdom of my very considerable experience.
I endeavour to do the former as I realise the importance of making your own mistakes but when I see him falter (and that’s the problem, that I can see it ), I resort to letting him have ‘my wisdom’, both barrels. But, looking down just one of the barrels of my experience-loaded shotgun Tom can only see the smoke. What’s happening to my little fun boy?
‘It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it, and that’s what gets results…’
This old Bananarama/Fun Boy Three song has been going round in my head for some days now and it’s only in the writing up of the words that I fully understand why…
It’s clearly time to rethink my approach ( nearly wrote ‘attack’…). I want what’s best for Tom. I want Tom to know this and to understand that I will do all in my power to support and help him.
Maybe I’m not as smart as I like to think I am.( Cue Dean Friedman song.)
Clearly the overt advice isn’t going down well. Think, think, think.
I know, I’ll make him a cake. And not just a Victoria Sponge. Oh no. A raspberry and hazelnut cake with hazelnut liqueur and mascarpone topping.
This goes down well. I may not be as smart as I like to think I am but I’m smart enough. Back in the parenting game And so, fuelled with maternal zeal, I consider my next move.
And then I have it. A calendar. A Christmas Advent Calendar. Genius! Take that Dean Friedman…Back of the net!
While Tom argues with himself about what he’s definitely not going to do with his life as he doesn’t want to sell out, and he wants to make a difference, and he doesn’t want to be a hypocrite, and he’ll think about doing that job he supposes as a stop-gap, and his arm is twitching, and his work experience is boring and he certainly wouldn’t want to be doing that at the age of 40, and he doesn’t see himself as a corporate type or the type who…. I find that I am surprisingly happy just agreeing and cutting out little felt shapes. Whereas before I might have finished his sentence with ‘the type who earns money?’ now I spend hours nodding supportively, making gently sympathetic sounds, all the while cutting out numbers, squares, holly leaves, berries…
In fact, I decide to show my love for all three grown-up children in the same felt-advent-calendar way. Hmm. Foil covered chocolate coins in the pockets? Tom likes this idea. We think as one.
Strangely, Tom has just told me that he is now leaving home to start his life. My Fun Boy is back in the game. But not without his Christmas Advent Calendar .
Where the wisdom-loaded shotgun failed Cake and Christmas prevailed. Up yours Dean Friedman!
The image of those philosophers of yesteryear, Bananarama and The Fun Boy Three, is from the siobhanfaheyrealm.blogspot.com
‘Un livre est le produit d’un autre moi que celui que nous manifestons dans nos habitudes, dans la société, dans nos vices’.
(A book is the product of another self than the one that we show in our habits, in society, in our vices.)
Discuss with reference to ‘Combray’.
It’s been a delight to read and re-read the same piece of writing. And this is particularly the case with Proust as the writing is so very dense.
At this week’s meeting we tackled the difficult question about the idea of the creative self. The quotation that makes up the title is from a work by Proust entitled ‘Contre Sainte-Beuve’, a work in which Proust attacked the notion expounded by Sainte-Beuve that the person who creates should not be distinguished (or distinguishable) from the person as they present themselves in society. Proust clearly disagreed with this, hence his writing of ‘Contre Sainte-Beuve’.
He then went on to challenge Sainte-Beuve’s supposition further in his writing of ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’. And nowhere is there greater evidence of this than in Combray where we are presented with the great composer and musician, Vinteuil, who is seen in society as someone to be pitied.
One specific example : Vinteuil
In his devotional duties as father his attention to his wayward daughter is considered misplaced. Even in a detail as slight as adjusting his daughter’s shawl to prevent her from feeling cold he renders himself ridiculous seeking to protect a daughter who seems to grow in strength on the condition that he diminishes. The assumption is obvious – a seemingly weak and blind father cannot be capable of great artistic achievement. Oh how wrong this is and when we read ‘Un Amour de Swann’ we see Swann’s surprise, and downright denial, when he discovers that the ‘phrase musicale’ that he so loves is by Vinteuil.
-Je connais bien quelqu’un qui s’appelle Vinteuil, dit Swann, en pensant au professeur de piano des deux soeurs de ma grand-mère.
– C’est peut-être lui, s’écria Mme Verdurin.
-Oh! non, répondit Swann en riant. Si vous l’aviez vu deux minutes, vous ne vous poseriez pas la question…mais ce pourrait être un parent …, cela serait assez triste, mais enfin un homme de génie peut être le cousin d’une vieille bête. …
-I know someone called Vinteuil, said Swann, thinking of the piano teacher to my grandmother’s two sisters.
-It’s perhaps him, exclaimed Mme Verdurin.
-Oh!No, Swann replied laughing. You’d only have to see him for 2 minutes to know not to ask that question…but he could be related…, it would be quite sad, but then a man of genius can be the cousin of an old fool…
one general observation
Ironically, Swann, as an artist ‘manqué’, is also presented as a fool in love in ‘Un Amour de Swann’ . This contrasts with the Swann we see in ‘Combray’, where Proust also hints at another Swann, the one interested in art and ideas yet who conceals what he really feels. Personality itself is seen as multi-faceted where the facets are sometimes contradictory and this informs Proust’s notion of the artist.
one real-life example
And who better to provide us with this than Proust himself? Turned down for publication by the very eminent André Gide because he deemed that the Proust that he had met was too lightweight to have written anything of particular merit, it was only later, when he had actually read Proust’s work, that Gide realised the magnitude of the mistake he had made.
Now, I’ve never been to a book group where the start of a novel has been discussed with such enthusiasm nor indeed at such length, nor indeed read and re-read so many times.
And it’s been a joy.
And so, it’s with a mixture of regret – at leaving Combray behind – and excitement – at what’s to come – that I have to say that, at last, it is time to move on…
Next meeting : ‘Un Amour de Swann’ – love and jealousy
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