Day Eleven: Swann's Way, pp. 129-146

From "He had in fact asked my parents ..." to "... the Champs-Élysées where she lived in Paris." 

The narrator goes to dinner at M. Legrandin's but finds him no less enigmatic. When the narrator tries to inquire into Legrandin's acquaintance with "the ladies of Guermantes," Legrandin retreats into florid evasions: "Deep down, I care for nothing in the world now but a few churches, two or three books, scarcely more paintings, and the light of the moon when the breeze of your youth brings me the fragrance of the flower beds that my old eyes can no longer distinguish." He claims that he is still a radical, "a Jacobin in my thinking." But the narrator senses that

another Legrandin whom he kept carefully concealed deep inside himself, whom he did not exhibit because that Legrandin knew some compromising stories about our own, about his snobbishness, had already answered by the wound in his eyes, by the rictus of his mouth, by the excessive gravity in the tone of his answer, by the thousand arrows with which our own Legrandin had been instantly larded, languishing like a Saint Sebastian of snobbishness.

The narrator takes this knowledge of the second Legrandin home with him, and his parents take delight in what they have learned about their friend. "My mother was infinitely amused each time she caught Legrandin in flagrante delicto in the sin that he would not confess, that he continued to call the sin without forgiveness, snobbishness." And the father, who knows that Legrandin's sister, Mme. de Cambremer, lives near Balbec, where the grandmother plans to spend a summer vacation, delights in trying to make Legrandin confess that he knows someone in the area. But he evades the question with extravagant circumlocutions, and they conclude that

M. Legrandin, had we insisted further, would have ended by constructing a whole system of landscape ethics and a celestial geography of Lower Normandy, sooner than admit to us that his own sister lived a mile from Balbec and be obliged to offer us a letter of introduction.

This glimpse of the social mores of Combray yields to another when the family goes out on one of its walks and decides to go "Swann's way" rather than "the Guermantes way." The narrator informs us that his parents "had ceased to visit Tansonville since Swann's marriage," but believing that Swann's wife and daughter were in Paris, they decide to take a shortcut through the park. They're mistaken, however, and the narrator gets his first glimpse of Swann's daughter, Gilberte.

Her dark eyes shone, and since I did not know then, nor have I learned since, how to reduce a strong impression to its objective elements, since I did not have enough "power of observation," as they say, to isolate the notion of their color, for a long time afterward, whenever I thought of her again, the memory of their brilliance would immediately present itself to me as that of a vivid azure, since she was blonde: so that, perhaps if she had not had such dark eyes -- which struck one so the first time one saw her -- I would not have been, as I was, in love most particularly with her blue eyes.

The setup for this encounter is telling: The narrator has just been admiring a pink hawthorn.

Inserted into the hedge, but as different from it as a young girl in a party dress among people in everyday clothes who are staying at home, the shrub was all ready for Mary's month, and seemed to form a part of it already, shining there, smiling in its fresh pink outfit, catholic and delicious.

Only about twenty pages earlier, the narrator has described for us the hawthorns adorning the altar at Saint-Hilaire for the celebration of "Mary's month." Mary is, of course, the emblem of virginity -- like the "young girl in a party dress." But the narrator dwells on the pinkness of the flower, on the buds "which revealed, when they began to open, as though at the bottom of a cup of pink marble, reds of a bloody tinge." The language here is sensual, hinting at pubescence and menstruation. And Gilberte's behavior toward the narrator is hardly virginal:

she allowed her glances to stream out at full length in my direction, without any particular expression, without appearing to see me, but with a concentration and a secret smile that I could only interpret, according to the notions of good breeding instilled in me, as a sign of insulting contempt; and at the same time her hand sketched an indecent gesture for which, when it was directed in public at a person one did not know, the little dictionary of manners I carried inside me supplied only one meaning, that of intentional insolence.

(I'm trying not to venture too far into Proust commentary and criticism at this point, but I couldn't resist Googling "Proust Gilberte 'indecent gesture'," and there's plenty of discussion of this passage.)

And then Gilberte is called away by her mother, who is accompanied by Charlus. And the narrator is left to reflect on the encounter.

I thought her so beautiful that I wished I could retrace my steps and shout at her with a shrug of my shoulders: "I think you're ugly, I think you're grotesque, I loathe you!" But I went away, carrying with me forever, as the first example of a type of happiness inaccessible to children of my kind because of certain laws of nature impossible to transgress, the image of a little girl with red hair, her skin scattered with pink freckles, holding a spade and smiling as she cast at me long, cunning, and inexpressive glances.

Note that Gilberte's hair, previously described as "blonde" or "reddish-blonde," has here become simply red, and that the pinkness of her freckles is emphasized.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'v e just begun Time Regained. Marcel discovers while walking in a Combray he no longer idealizes, with Gilberte, that she had been in love with him too as a child. So they recall the period. He learns the 'man' walking with Gilberte all those years ago was actually the Lea of Balbec dressed as a man. Marcel's jealousy of this male figure killed his love for Gilberte. But I'm not sure Lea was one of the Balbec lesbians. Can someone write and tell me.