Tag Archives: Marcel Proust

135Journals Book Club: In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust, Part 4

29 Apr







Alfred Dreyfus is stripped of his rank and publicly humiliated. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Now I have entered the third book, The Guermantes Way
The narrator’s family moves from Combray to Paris. They live in an apartment that shares a courtyard with the home of the aristocratic Guermantes family. This is the same family about whom he had often fantasized as a child (one of the two walks his family would take was “the Guermantes Way.” Although he hates the new apartment, he is OBSESSED with Madame Guermantes (which is confusing—is this is the same Mme Guermantes he found so ordinary before?). He takes endless walks just so he’ll cross paths with her, but she doesn’t really notice him.

There is a long section where he describes a second visit to the theater to see the famous actress Berma. Only this time he is not disappointed by her acting. Perhaps it is partly because he isn’t as sick with anticipation as he was the first time. But partly it is because he sees in her how she combines craft with something that is beyond craft. He also seems keenly, painfully aware to every intrigue among the various theatergoers—who, in high society, is there to see and who is there to be seen. Of course, Mme. Guermantes is there, so he practically has a coronary.

Later, he goes to a place called Doncières to visit his friend Robert St-Loup, a close relative of the irresistible Mme Guermantes. St.-Loup is a military officer, and spending time among the soldiers is quite fascinating to the narrator. Apparently St.-Loup has a high regard for the narrator’s intellect because he likes to show him off, and the other soldiers evidently find him charming as well. Meanwhile, he is quite engaged by long discussions of military history (interesting to me, perhaps not to the less nerdily inclined as it were), such as why certain locations are natural places for battles to take place because of their geography—either because they are at a crossroads of culture or because of their terrain. Also interesting is the discussion (and avoidance of discussion) of the issue of the day—L’Affaire Dreyfus. The subject of whether Dreyfus should have another trial is such a hot-button issue that in polite society—even in polite society, it is almost unbearable for anyone to speak about unless they are sure they are talking to fellow Dreyfusards or anti-Dreyfusards. (Here’s your handy guide to the Dreyfus affair in case you forgot the details. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair). St.-Loup, contrary to most aristocrats, is pro-Dreyfus. This event is very important because it stirred up a lot of anti-Semitism in France.

The narrator tries to get St.-Loup to wangle an introduction to Mme Guermantes because he can tell she thinks he’s an idiot because he always likes to take a walk exactly when she’s taking a walk. And he wants to get the photograph of Madame Guermantes St.-Loup has on his dresser.–a request that St.-Loup refuses. The intensity of his desires and his actions make  the narrator seem very manipulative and complex. He certainly doesn’t come off as a very noble person. I was thinking about that. He could have whitewashed what a dreadful little wretch he was—after all, it’s his book, he can write anything he wants. But I think—or rather, I feel, I intuit—that what he is trying to get at more than anything else is the truth of HIS STORY. To avoid speaking of this constant, painful yearning he has for one unsuitable object or person after another would be a way of NOT telling his story. He needs to lay out the facts of the case as he sees them. As he experiences them. Most importantly, as he FEELS them. It is strange to think of him as both sensitive and insensitive at the same time. But these two things are not at all opposites. He is deeply sensitive to himself. It’s other people with whom he is not in sympathy. In reality, that kind of person can be most unpleasant, or at least artificial in his dealing with others. But I will have to give him credit because he used this quality, this excruciating sensitivity, to write something that has a universal quality to it. The emotions he describes are deeply individual, yet at the same time, it is easy to relate to one’s own less than noble emotions, whether it’s spending time at a party trying desperately to get a seat close to someone you find amusing or attractive, rather than be in some boring Siberia with worthy but dull people, or making a fool out of yourself by arranging your days so you can “accidentally” bump into someone you have a crush on.

Writing Prompt: What is something foolish you have done to get closer to someone whose attention you craved?

135 Journals Book Club: Notes on the journey of reading Proust (The First Six Percent)

25 Apr


Marcel Proust at age 15 (1887). I am so digging the bowtie. Definitely know what to give my boys for Christmas now. From Wikimedia.

Guess what I have on my Kindle Fire? That’s right, seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s strange and magnificent Remembrance of Things Past, or as it is now more accurately known, In Search of Lost Time (active, not passive, get it?).  I got it for free, and as it has long been one of my ambitions to find out what is so important about eating madeleines and to understand what the BFD is about M. Proust, I am actually starting to read it. This is going to take a while. I have read approximately a kajillion pages and my Kindle informs me that I have read six percent of the Seven Volume set, and only have 36 hours and 15 minutes to go. You would think that someone who had read six percent of something would not feel qualified to write a review. That is true. I am writing a qualified review. Because even at six percent, I feel as if I have learned a lot of things about writing, thinking, and the importance of detail.

 Fight now I will tell you what I’ve learned. The play-by-play, as it were. The narrator of the first book, Swann’s Way, is a high-strung, sensitive boy who dreams of being a writer, but doesn’t know what he wants to write. The first scene of the book is about his intense desire to have his mother give him a good-night kiss while she is busy entertaining their sophisticated and wealthy neighbor, M. Charles Swann. M. Swann has had an “unfortunate marriage” and the narrator’s family haven’t seen much of him recently, certainly not with his wife and daughter (especially because the wife is having an affair with someone else). But he is a lovely and generous man. The boy, remembered by the man he becomes, is semi-aware of the goings-on of the wealthier members of the town of Combray, the country village where the family has their second home, and where all of the action in the first six percent of the book takes place. A number of other characters are introduced—sickly Aunt Leonie, who enjoys lime-flower tisanes (and the narrator loves watching the lime expand in the water), the regal Guermantes family, an earthy and devoted maid, Francoise, and others. Throughout the pages, the narrator wonders about the nature of memory, the importance of small and specific moments. He includes lengthy descriptions of how


This is not a conventional book. His pages are not filled with dialog. But there is something compelling about this delicate boy who is constantly seized by violent awareness and sensation. He is almost skinless. The play of wind, the sight of flowers, afflict and attract him with an exquisiteness that is also painful. So do his own imaginings.


The power of beautiful things afflicts him. But it is those remembered things that have the most power. He says that nothing in the present can ever be as beautiful as those remembered things. That no flower will ever be as beautiful as the flowers he saw when he went on walks around the village of Combray with his father. And even then, at least on one occasion, he finds a kind of desperate relief from this sensitivity and observation by writing.


The memories of the past make me think. They make me want to write. It makes me want to remember exquisite moments.


The second part is about Charles Swann’s rather seedy romance with a floozy named Odette. Can’t say this stretch is giving me goosebumps the same way the first part did. But I have faith that things will come together.


And in the meantime, I will try to remember that even the most simple moments can seize you with a kind of violent beauty when they are remembered.


Writing Prompt: Oh please. You know what this is going to be. What is a haunting, excruciating moment you remember from your childhood?