Day Thirty-One: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, pp. 3-30

From "When it was first suggested..."to "'...Of course I'm not disappointed!'"

The narrator's comment in Swann's Way about "the mystery of personality" seems to apply particularly well here at the opening of the second volume, in which we learn that the foolish Dr. Cottard we met at the Verdurins in the first volume has now become "a scientific man of some renown," and that Swann is now regarded as "nothing but a vulgar swank," at least by the narrator's father. "This statement of my father's may require a few words of explanation," the narrator interjects, "as there may be some who remember Cottard as a mediocrity and Swann as the soul of discretion."

Both men have reinvented themselves -- in Swann's case an adaptation to "a new position for himself, ... far below the one he had formerly occupied, but suited to the wife with whom he must now share it." The narrator notes that there is some anti-Semitism in the current view of the sudden vulgarity of "this man (who in former days, and even now, could show exquisite tact in not advertising an invitation to Twickenham or Buckingham Palace) braying out the fact that the wife of an undersecretary's undersecretary had returned Mme. Swann's visit."
In his gushing ways with these new friends and his boastful citing of their exploits, Swann was like the great artist who takes up cooking or gardening late in life and who, though modest enough to be untroubled by criticism of his masterpieces, cannot bear to hear faint praise of his recipes or flower beds.

As for Cottard, now "Professor Cottard," "it is possible to be unread, and to like making silly puns, while having a special gift that outweighs any general culture, such as the gift of the great strategist or the great clinician." And Cottard has apparently emerged as a gifted diagnostician. The narrator observes that "the nature we display in the second part of our life may not always be, though it often is, a growth from or a stunting of our first nature, an exaggeration or attenuation of it. It is at times an inversion of it, a turning inside out." So Cottard has shaved his beard and mustache and cultivated a cold and taciturn manner -- except when he's with the "little circle" at the Verdurins "where he instinctively became himself again."

These transformations of personality are, I think, central to the novel, which is not only a search for lost time but often also a search for the lost self that time has carried away. In his introduction, Grieve notes how often Proust switches point of view from the narrator as a young man to the narrator in his later years, sometimes to the confusion of the reader. And that Proust doesn't specify the narrator's age, so that we're never quite sure how old he is at any given time in his remembrances of things past. I think this is key to Proust's examination of memory. We assume that the narrator is a mature man, telling us about what it was like to be a child anxiously awaiting his mother's goodnight kiss, but in telling us the story he becomes that child again, giving us more than any mere scouring of our memories could really supply. We are what we create ourselves to be.

But we are not the sole creators of ourselves. One theme apparent in the opening pages of this volume is the influence of others, not only family and friends, but of society as a whole in shaping the person. Both Swann and Cottard are who are they have become because they are responding to the expectations of others. And the pompous Marquis de Norpois, the narrator's father's new friend, holds sway over the narrator's parents.
By strengthening in my father's mind the high opinion he had of M. de Norpois, and thereby also fostering in him a higher opinion of himself, she felt she was fulfilling the wifely duty of making life sweet for her husband, just as she did when she saw to the excellence of the cooking and the quietness of the servants.

M. de Norpois also plays a key role in fulfilling the narrator's desire to see the actress La Berma. Although the doctor has forbidden him from going to the theater, fearing that the overexcitement would be hazardous to his health, the narrator, under the influence of the praise of the writer Bergotte (in the little book given him by Gilberte), continues to plead for the opportunity: "By day and night my mind was haunted by the knowledge of the divine Beauty which her acting would be bound to reveal." And it is de Norpois who sanctions his going to see La Berma perform in two acts from Phèdre.

But the experience is disillusioning, not at all the transport that the narrator has been expecting: "I sat there and listened to her as I might have read Phèdre, or as though at that moment Phèdre herself was saying the things I was hearing, without La Berma's talent seeming to add anything at all to them.... [S]he blurred the whole speech into a toneless recitative, blunting the keen edges of contrasts which any semi-competent performer, even a girl in a school production, could hardly have failed to bring out." When the applause breaks out, he is momentarily lifted out of his disappointment:
I let the cheap wine of this popular enthusiasm go to my head. Even so, once the curtain had fallen, I was aware of being disappointed that the enjoyment I had longed for had not been greater, but also of wishing that, such as it was, it would continue, and that I was not obliged to leave behind me forever, as I walked out of the auditorium, this life of the theater in which I had just shared for a few hours.

We've seen the narrator disappointed before: in his first sight of the Duchesse de Guermantes. But he conquered that disappointment quickly, overcoming the ordinariness of her appearance by dwelling on the cultural and historical significance of the family she represents. Now he hopes that de Norpois will illuminate him on the excellence of La Berma. But he receives only platitudes and received opinions from the Marquis:
"I have never seen Mme. Berma in Phèdre, but I have been told she is outstanding. It must, of course, have been quite a thrill for you.

M. de Norpois, being incomparably cleverer than I was, must be in possession of the truth that I had been unable to derive from La Berma's acting.... Concentrating my whole attention on my impressions, which were hopelessly confused, with no thought of shining or finding favor, but in the hope of gaining from him the truth I sought, I made no effort to substitute set phrases for the words that failed me, I made no sense, and eventually, so as to have him say straight out what was so admirable about La Berma, I owned up to my disappointment.

"What's that?" exclaimed my father, appalled at the poor impression my ineptness might make on M. de Norpois. "How can you say you didn't enjoy it? Your grandmother told us you didn'[t miss a word, that you just stared and stared at her, that nobody else in the whole auditorium lapped it up the way you did!"

"Well, yes, I was listening as hard as I could, to see what was so great about her. I mean, she's very good..."

"Well, then, if she's very good, what more do you want?"

And after de Norpois delivers himself of some more inanities about the reputation of La Berma, the narrator finally concludes, "He's right, you know! ... What a lovely voice, what simple costumes! How clever of her to think of doing Phèdre! Of course I'm not disappointed!"

On the one hand we have here an amusing but fairly commonplace bit of satire on bourgeois received opinions and their potentially deleterious effect on the bright and inquisitive mind of an original and aspiring artist. But what makes this more than just a comic moment is the way the experience of disillusionment works on the narrator. Just a few pages earlier, his father has touted de Norpois as an authority on becoming a published writer. We have learned that the narrator inherited Aunt Léonie's estate, so he has the wherewithal to make his way in whatever career he chooses. So his father urges him to show de Norpois something he has written. What he produces is the piece about the three steeples that he wrote on their ride back from a walk on the Guermantes way. "I had written it in a state of exhilaration which I felt it must convey to anyone who read it. But my exhilaration must have failed to touch M. de Norpois; and he handed it back to me without a word."

What we have here is failure to communicate.

No comments: