It’s a new year and time to brush away the cobwebs…
take down the tree (distraction activity one)
show you my oh-so-funny Proust Christmas card. He’d have split his sides at this… (distraction activity two)
re-assess why I’m writing a blog. Do I really quite like the cobweb look? Goes with my home after all.
As you might have guessed I’ve let it slip for a while.
Easily distracted, I lost focus which led to a phase of existential angst. I mean, why was I writing a blog in the first place? To give some meaning to my formless little life? Failed on that score. To keep a record of places I’ve been? Couldn’t keep up. A file to keep the notes for the Proust reading group? Now that would have been so useful today at the first Proust reading group meeting of the year. And what about the sewing? What about that? As for the cooking and the eating?
As my formless little life became more formless so I had to let it go. It was all getting out of control.
Too busy (cooking and eating most of the time), I let it drift off, sad and lonely, bobbing about, anchorless, until it got swept out to the very edge of the big world wide web (because, as we all know, it’s a flat world, like any other), only to fall over the side and float about in a big, getting bigger all the time, cloud, full of useful things, as well as cobwebs and other stuff that nobody knows exist.
And I was happy with that. For a while. But then 2 things happened. Plus one discovery.
The first was that I wrote a novel. Surely I should have written about that? But I felt too self-conscious to confess to this. Then I wanted to look back at my notes on Proust on Mme de Villeparisis (who? Quite. That’s why I wished I’d uploaded them here). But I’d been too lazy to add them.
As for the discovery. Oh how sad for me! I’d curbed my worst writing excesses, sparing my nearest and dearest from reading about their foibles and idiosyncrasies of which they have many (instead forcing myself to go to cafes and restaurants to have something useful to post here). I hadn’t wanted to upset the poor, sweet loves. In fact, subconsciously, and on every other level, I’d wanted to please them. However, when I realised that not one of them (and I have an unbelievably large family) could be arsed (yes, arsed. Swearing can be such a comfort in times of family betrayal) to even remember that I had a blog, never mind remember what it was called, I decided that I would start again. Evidently there was going to be no chance that they were ever going to read it so I decided to give it another go. And vent my inner bad fairy who’s not been invited to the all-the-fairies-in-the-kingdom party.
Wonder if I’m adopted?
Now, in an ideal world I should have two blogs, one for Proust and one for my novel (and three if you count the rest of the hotch-potch of posts and pages) all far, far away from one another BUT in the real world, my real world, life is just a mish-mash to which I struggle to give some intelligible order. So, why try? Why pretend by imposing a perfect structure on a gloriously imperfect, haphazard set of disparate experiences? Why indeed. Let the writing chaos begin.
Happy New Year and I wish you every joy and success in your own gloriously imperfect lives and endeavours.
Summer is fast disappearing and we have dug out our forgotten copies of Proust and tried to remember what it was all about.
As we have stalled at different places in the book we decided to go
with our slowest reader from p143 of Volume 2 ( Penguin Kilmartin
edition), in The Guermantes Way.
We have been reading together for about one year now and have agreed that quality, not quantity, works best for us. So we gave ourselves 2 weeks to read about 40 pages to half way down p187. We all managed to achieve this and were happy to take a bit more time to just enjoy it.
This is what we covered:
Page 143. the Elstirs, as an excuse to see Mme de Guermantes. N (the narrator) mocks his younger self while at the same time showing the real importance of art in life. St Loup promises to write to her, and we and N believe he has done this but only a few pages later it becomes apparent that he has not. We all liked the description of “setting our mental stage with little puppets…”, and felt it applied to all of us.
Jupien is briefly mentioned here, almost as a non-sequitur, but we
think this is part of Proust’s way of weaving stories in and he will
P.146. We noted that his admiration for Mme De Guermantes is of a
similar pleasure he might get from a work of art, like “watching the
brush strokes of a great painter.”. We would have liked to have seen
the red dress.We also like the humour of him pretending not to be
interested in her.
p.147 Seems to be about the power of the dream in creativity – the
dream creates something more intensely artisitic than in real life.
The theme of synaethesia.
p.157. The pear trees in blossom. images of virginal beauty and art
with religious overtones which refer to the Jeunes Filles en Fleur of
the previous book, and provide a stark contrast for the introduction
of Rachel, who is immediately recognised as a cheap tart, not worth 20 francs. The story of St Loup’s love for her has clear parallels to
that of Swann and Odette..
St Loup is shown as deluded and tormented. For him she is an ideal,
in contrasted to N’s view of her. But all is much more complex as
usual; the Narrator’s opinion of her slowly rises as his experience
shows him her great talents as an artist. He is learning the truth
p.163. Aimé the waiter, is part of the homosexual theme which threads through the novel, clearly there, though obliquely referred to.We felt that St Loup’s unconscious/ suppressed homosexuality is shown, for instance, by the fact he notices that Aimé might be attractive to Rachel.
p170 There is also comedy in the appearance of M de Charlus, clearly interested in Aimé, but this is misinterpreted by St Loup, in a
self-centred way as being about himself. He seems not to recognise his uncle’s homosexuality – (or not to want to).
p174. N’s drunken image in the mirror – the theme of fractured personality.
p.177 The humiliation of the actress and the theme of sadism. We spent some time discussing the subtleties here of the difference between hatred, (which he attributes to Rachel and her friends here) and sadism (which would just be to take pleasure in cruelty).
p186 Rachel flirting with the dancer to torment St Loup, his suffering and the 2 unexpected outbursts of violence which shockingly rupture his aristocratic civility. We felt they were at the same time painful and comic, and that again there are strong allusions to homosexuality in these scenes.
We all felt that while at times we had to puzzle out what was meant in a long difficult passage (and sometimes fail), that we were finding it was getting a bit easier, that you can develop a bit of an ear for his
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??
‘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
When Swann likens Odette de Crécy to Botticelli’s Zipporah, in ‘The Events of the Life of Moses’, we know that his love has reached a place from which there is no turning back. He goes so far as to keep a reproduction of the painting on his desk to remind him of her. By focusing on the artistic image Swann’s love develops into a jealous obsession. Ironic, and completely telling, that Odette herself shows an ignorance and insensibility to Botticelli’s work.
‘Everyone is reading Proust’ (Virginia Woolf to E.M. Forster, 1922)
I’m starting to notice him everywhere. Even in a letter written by Virginia Woolf to Roger Fry which I stumbled upon after having seen ‘Life in Squares’, a drama about the Bloomsbury set, shown on BBC last Monday.
‘Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! … And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures – there’s something sexual in it…Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me : it becomes an obsession.’
And not only am I noticing people talking about Proust, but I’m finding that what Proust writes is making me see the world differently.
Take our last book group meeting, for instance.
Here we discussed the idea that ‘ ‘Un livre est le produit d’un autre moi que celui que nous 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), the belief, expressed by Proust in ‘Contre Sainte-Beuve’ that man and artist are distinct. Where one can appear socially ridiculous, the other can create beauty, express truth.
Which brings me back to the BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set, ‘Life in Squares’ which started Monday 26th July…
The first episode did seem to inadvertently prove Proust’s point. To witness the confused liaisons, sexual exploits, self-indulgent vagaries of this spoilt, privileged set rendered them more ridiculous than artistically sublime. If the intention was to make them seem brave, unconventional, uncompromising it failed.
But that’s not to say that the Bloomsbury set failed to achieve this in their art.
Nor does it mean that I’m not going to watch it next week. Hell no.
And, by way of celebration, I thought I’d re-read some of their work, take a new look at their paintings, and make a Boeuf en Daube to eat while watching next week’s episode.
Boeuf en Daube? Why it’s Mildred’s masterpiece of a dish which appears in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’. As the first programme concentrated on the tangled sexual lives of this artistic group, the dish which so seduces William Bankes in Woolf’s novel, seems a fitting offering for the second episode.
‘It was rich, it was tender. It was perfectly cooked.’
An ‘exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish… The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs Ramsay thought, diving into that soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion – a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound – for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman….’
(To the Lighthouse 1927)
Now who wouldn’t fancy a bit of boeuf en daube after that? And so, here it is, a recipe for Mildred’s –
‘Boeuf en Daube’
1.5 kg stewing beef, cubed
150 g unsmoked back bacon, de-rinded and cut into lardons
3tbsp plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 handfuls black olives pitted
700ml red wine
2 cups beef stock
1 tbs tomato puree
1 bouquet garni
for the marinade
1 bay leaf
1 stalk celery
3 strips orange peel
2 red onions
3 garlic cloves
10g parsley, chopped
10g thyme, chopped
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/3 cup olive oil
Prepare marinade by combining all ingredients in a bowl.
Toss steak and bacon in marinade.
Add wine and brandy.
Cover and place in fridge for 24 hours.
Next day, preheat oven to 140 degrees.
Remove beef from marinade -pat dry on kitchen towel.
Coat in seasoned flour.
Heat oil and brown the meat. Add bacon.
Transfer to plate.
Add beef stock to pot. Add tomato puree, scraping brown bits with wooden spoon.
Remove orange peel and bouquet garni.
Add fresh bouquet garni to marinade.
Pour marinade, fresh tomatoes, onion and olives into pot. Bring to boil.
Simmer for 20 minutes.
Add meat and cover.
Put in oven for 1 1/2 – 2 hours.
Discard bouquet garni.
And there you have it – Boeuf en Daube : food to watch artists misbehaving by.
I feel a Bloomsbury Dinner Party coming on. Or perhaps not…
Proust Book Group – loss of innocence in ‘Combray’ by Connie
Like the rest of the group, I was struggling to find the “loss of
innocence” theme in Combray when I was reading this week.
Obviously we all found something in the end and had plenty to talk about.
Talking is what brings the book alive for me and fires me up to go
back and read some more, which is what I did afterwards – I confess
that part of me wanted to catch up a bit as I was falling behind.
And almost immediately I found a passage which is so obviously about sexual awakening.
It was buried in the middle of a long passage – I could so easily
have missed it rushing to get through it in time for our bookgroup.
Did anyone mention it today and I didn’t notice? Quite likely.
It begins with a description of the walks he is now old enough to
make alone and the strong feelings the landscape evokes in him, which are mixed up with a vague sexual yearning for the “peasant-girl” he wishes for. Back home in Combray, at the top of the house he stands “in the little room that smelt of orris root”, looks out at the Castle of Roussainville which he has just seen on his walk, and ” with the heroic misgivings of as traveller setting out on a voyage of exploration or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge ofself-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which for all I knew was deadly – until the moment when a natural trail like that left by a snail smeared the leaves of the flowering blackcurrant that drooped around me.” (page 172 Penguin, Kilmartin translation)
This is clearly a sexual exploration and with it he evokes the intense
fear and excitement he felt then, but described in a mock-heroic light by the narrator as experienced adult. Part of the fear must surely stem from a feeling of religious transgression.
There are many references to his sexual and romantic longings and no single moment of loss of innocence, but this seems to be an important moment – one where he takes a big step into the adult world.
This meeting we came armed with passages that we found funny ready to share with each other.
We used Scott-Moncrieff, Lydia Davis and Proust (of course), to help.
The Art of Translation
Our Rosie Green (recycling queen) turned up today, armed with the Scott-Moncrieff and the Lydia Davis translations. We acknowledged that translation was a difficult art but concluded that we had no idea why Lydia Davis had got the job. When reading for the humour Rosie showed us how Davis had squeezed all humour out of what Proust had clearly intended to be ‘comedy gold’, often giving originally amusing episodes a specifically melancholic twist.
The Davis translation often dampened the original humour, so much so that the wonderfully observed Aunt Leonie episodes take on a melancholic, pathetic hue.
We found that Davis’ kill-joy translation missed the mark frequently. When Proust uses the word ‘illettrée’ to describe Franςoise, Moncrieff uses the word ‘unlettered’. Davis on the other hand uses ‘ignorant’ which is clearly what Proust does not intend as he later calls her ‘intelligente’.
Comedy in Combray
Who knew? Clearly not me before we started reading Proust. But I do now.
Comedy. We discussed this in some detail but, working on the premise that less is more, here is just one passage (albeit it a long one) to share about the narrator’s friend, Bloch.
Proust builds Bloch up to show why the members of his family do not like him.
He first displeases his father.
… Il avait commencé par agacer mon père qui, le voyant mouillé, lui avait dit avec intérêt:
—«Mais, monsieur Bloch, quel temps fait-il donc, est-ce qu’il a plu? Je n’y comprends rien, le baromètre était excellent.»
Il n’en avait tiré que cette réponse:
—«Monsieur, je ne puis absolument vous dire s’il a plu. Je vis si résolument en dehors des contingences physiques que mes sens ne prennent pas la peine de me les notifier.»
—«Mais, mon pauvre fils, il est idiot ton ami, m’avait dit mon père quand Bloch fut parti. Comment! il ne peut même pas me dire le temps qu’il fait! Mais il n’y a rien de plus intéressant! C’est un imbécile.
… He had begun by annoying my father, who, seeing him come in with wet clothes, had asked him with keen interest:
“Why, M. Bloch, is there a change in the weather; has it been raining? I can’t understand it; the barometer has been ‘set fair.'”
Which drew from Bloch nothing more instructive than “Sir, I am absolutely incapable of telling you whether it has rained. I live so resolutely apart from physical contingencies that my senses no longer trouble to inform me of them.”
“My poor boy,” said my father after Bloch had gone, “your friend is out of his mind. Why, he couldn’t even tell me what the weather was like. As if there could be anything more interesting! He is an imbecile.”
The narrator’s father says that he is an idiot, an imbecile, and Proust has shown that this is the case by the pompous language Bloch uses. Proust adds to the humour by having an indulgent dig at his father too who fails to see the pomposity of the language, instead choosing to judge Bloch for not finding the weather interesting. His father too misses the point.
Puis Bloch avait déplu à ma grand’mère parce que, après le déjeuner comme elle disait qu’elle était un peu souffrante, il avait étouffé un sanglot et essuyé des larmes.
—«Comment veux-tu que ça soit sincère, me dit-elle, puisqu’il ne me connaît pas; ou bien alors il est fou.»
Next, Bloch had displeased my grandmother because, after luncheon, when she complained of not feeling very well, he had stifled a sob and wiped the tears from his eyes.
“You cannot imagine that he is sincere,” she observed to me. “Why he doesn’t know me. Unless he’s mad, of course.”
Bloch then displeases the narrator’s much loved grandmother who questions, more understandably, his sincerity in the sobs and tears he yields to when he hears that she is feeling a little unwell.
Et enfin il avait mécontenté tout le monde parce que, étant venu déjeuner une heure et demie en retard et couvert de boue, au lieu de s’excuser, il avait dit:
—«Je ne me laisse jamais influencer par les perturbations de l’atmosphère ni par les divisions conventionnelles du temps. .. j’ignore celui de ces instruments infiniment plus pernicieux et d’ailleurs platement bourgeois, la montre et le parapluie.»
And finally he had upset the whole household when he arrived an hour and a half late for luncheon and covered with mud from head to foot, and made not the least apology, saying merely: “I never allow myself to be influenced in the smallest degree either by atmospheric disturbances or by the arbitrary divisions of what is known as Time… I am wholly and entirely without instruction in those infinitely more pernicious (besides being quite bleakly bourgeois) implements, the umbrella and the watch.”
Proust then builds up by saying that, if that wasn’t enough, Bloch has managed to displease ‘everyone’. Not only is he late, not only does he not apologise, but he also dares to justify himself by dissociating himself from the constraints of time and weather, eschewing such bourgeois instruments as watch and umbrella (and so insulting everyone present). Yet even this ridiculous behaviour isn’t enough to banish Bloch.
What is enough is presented as a comic crescendo. The reason Bloch is no longer welcome is to do with something as bathetic as gossip.
.. Et on l’aurait encore reçu à Combray si, … il ne m’avait assuré avoir entendu dire de la façon la plus certaine que ma grand’tante avait eu une jeunesse orageuse et avait été publiquement entretenue. Je ne pus me tenir de répéter ces propos à mes parents,…
And he would still have been received at Combray but for one thing. … having informed me …that he had heard it said on unimpeachable authority that my great-aunt herself had led a ‘gay’ life in her younger days, and had been notoriously ‘kept.’ I could not refrain from passing on so important a piece of information to my parents…
His great-aunt had had a tempestuous youth, apparently, and the image of the narrator unable to stop himself telling his parents is deliciously hilarious. And, here Proust pokes fun at himself as this is precisely what he will do throughout the book. Pass on gossip, expose, share what he has heard and seen, about not just his own life but the lives of others.
Looking forward to our next meeting already!
NEXT MEETING – Thursday, 2pm, June 25th
Focus for discussion : Loss of innocence in ‘Combray’