The Daily Proust
A day-by-day, spoonful by spoonful, chronological reading of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, a.k.a. In Search of Lost Time, a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past -- towering monument of French literature, and the greatest novel ever written. Certainly the greatest 3,000 page novel anyway.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003  

Proust Moment, May 20, 2003

The Steeple of Saint-Hillaire

The church dominates Combray; this man-made structure poking it’s head above God’s creation is the first thing you see, long before you get there. Here’s that Ruskinian touch I alluded to earlier. Ruskin liked making the point that the central idea of art is to praise what’s real; an artist fails when he strives for absolute originality and succeeds when he reflects what is already there. Or something like that – it’s in one of those lectures in The Laws of Fesole.

Consider here how the church has a curiously human quality to it. It has the symmetry of a human face, becomes suddenly moody, scares off the jackdaws making their home in the tower, and just as spontaneously forgiving when it welcomes them home. Marcel’s grandmother loves the church much as she loves nature. She loves what is genuine. (Remember this is a woman of unerring taste.) The church also displays a “consciousness of itself,” which also appeals to Marcel’s grandmother, as well as Marcel, if not with quite the same level of religious passion.

“From a long way off one could distinguish and identify the steeple of Saint-Hilaire inscribing its unforgettable form upon a horizon beneath which Combray had not yet appeared; when from the train which brought us down from Paris at Easter-time my father caught sight of it, as it slipped into every fold of the sky in turn, its little iron cock veering continually in all directions, he would say: “Come, get your wraps together, we are there.” And on one of the longest walks we ever took from Combray there was a spot where the narrow road emerged suddenly on to an immense plain, closed at the horizon by strips of forest over which rose and stood alone the fine point of Saint-Hilaire's steeple, but so sharpened and so pink that it seemed to be no more than sketched on the sky by the finger-nail of a painter anxious to give to such a landscape, to so pure a piece of 'nature,' this little sign of art, this single indication of human existence. As one drew near it and could make out the remains of the square tower, half in ruins, which still stood by its side, though without rivalling it in height, one was struck, first of all, by the tone, reddish and sombre, of its stones; and on a misty morning in autumn one would have called it, to see it rising above the violet thunder-cloud of the vineyards, a ruin of purple, almost the colour of the wild vine.
Often in the Square, as we came home, my grandmother would make me stop to look up at it. From the tower windows, placed two and two, one pair above another, with that right and original proportion in their spacing to which not only human faces owe their beauty and dignity, it released, it let fall at regular intervals flights of jackdaws which for a little while would wheel and caw, as though the ancient stones which allowed them to sport thus and never seemed to see them, becoming of a sudden uninhabitable and discharging some infinitely disturbing element, had struck them and driven them forth. Then after patterning everywhere the violet velvet of the evening air, abruptly soothed, they would return and be absorbed in the tower, deadly no longer but benignant, some perching here and there (not seeming to move, but snapping, perhaps, and swallowing some passing insect) on the points of turrets, as a seagull perches, with an angler's immobility, on the crest of a wave. Without quite knowing why, my grandmother found in the steeple of Saint-Hilaire that absence of vulgarity, pretension, and meanness which made her love—and deem rich in beneficent influences—nature itself, when the hand of man had not, as did my great-aunt's gardener, trimmed it, and the works of genius. And certainly every part one saw of the church served to distinguish the whole from any other building by a kind of general feeling which pervaded it, but it was in the steeple that the church seemed to display a consciousness of itself, to affirm its individual and responsible existence. It was the steeple which spoke for the church. I think, too, that in a confused way my grandmother found in the steeple of Combray what she prized above anything else in the world, namely, a natural air and an air of distinction. Ignorant of architecture, she would say:

“`My dears, laugh at me if you like; it is not conventionally beautiful, but there is something in its quaint old face which pleases me. If it could play the piano, I am sure it would really play.’ And when she gazed on it, when her eyes followed the gentle tension, the fervent inclination of its stony slopes which drew together as they rose, like hands joined in prayer, she would absorb herself so utterly in the outpouring of the spire that her gaze seemed to leap upwards with it; her lips at the same time curving in a friendly smile for the worn old stones of which the setting sun now illumined no more than the topmost pinnacles, which, at the point where they entered that zone of sunlight and were softened and sweetened by it, seemed to have mounted suddenly far higher, to have become truly remote, like a song whose singer breaks into falsetto, an octave above the accompanying air.”

--"Combray," Swann's Way

posted by Rodney Welch | 2:51 PM
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Monday, May 19, 2003  

Proust Moment, May 19, 2003

Line of Demarcation

The church faces the Rue Saint Hillaire and is bordered by the homes of M. Rapin and Mme. Loiseau, yet it is distinct and seperate, existing in its own holy space. Even as the overgrown fuchsias from Mme. Loiseau's window-sill touch the church wall, they aren't really touching it, in Marcel's mind, because the church is untouchable; material yet impervious to material reality. Flowers are living things, things of the organic world; the church is eternal, and will survive every living thing that surrounds it, visits it, touches it, attends it, looks at it.

"The church! A dear, familiar friend; close pressed in the Rue Saint-Hilaire, upon which its north door opened, by its two neighbours, Mme. Loiseau's house and the pharmacy of M. Rapin, against which its walls rested without interspace; a simple citizen of Combray, who might have had her number in the street had the streets of Combray borne numbers, and at whose door one felt that the postman ought to stop on his morning rounds, before going into Mme. Loiseau's and after leaving M. Rapin's, there existed, for all that, between the church and everything in Combray that was not the church a clear line of demarcation which I have never succeeded in eliminating from my mind. In vain might Mme. Loiseau deck her window-sills with fuchsias, which developed the bad habit of letting their branches trail at all times and in all directions, head downwards, and whose flowers had no more important business, when they were big enough to taste the joys of life, than to go and cool their purple, congested cheeks against the dark front of the church; to me such conduct sanctified the fuchsias not at all; between the flowers and the blackened stones towards which they leaned, if my eyes could discern no interval, my mind preserved the impression of an abyss."

--"Combray," Swann's Way

posted by Rodney Welch | 1:23 AM
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Sunday, May 18, 2003  

Proust Moment, May 18, 2003

The Apse of Combray

What's an apse? Here's our friend Henry Adams: "a semicircular space at the end of an axis of a church, intended to house an altar, and along the walls of which chapels may be arranged." Here are three pictures of the one at Chartres, to give you an idea: 1, 2, 3.

However, the apse of Combray looks nothing like the apse of Chartres. The apse of the church of Combray is ugly. But it is also, to our Narrator, what signifies the church, and the sight of an ugly apse ever since has served him as a kind of madeleine:

"And then the apse of Combray: what am I to say of that? It was so coarse, so devoid of artistic beauty, even of the religious spirit. From outside, since the street crossing which it commanded was on a lower level, its great wall was thrust upwards from a basement of unfaced ashlar, jagged with flints, in all of which there was nothing particularly ecclesiastical; the windows seemed to have been pierced at an abnormal height, and its whole appearance was that of a prison wall rather than of a church. And certainly in later years, were I to recall all the glorious apses that I had seen, it would never enter my mind to compare with any one of them the apse of Combray. Only, one day, turning out of a little street in some country town, I came upon three alley-ways that converged, and facing them an old wall, rubbed, worn, crumbling, and unusually high; with windows pierced in it far overhead and the same asymmetrical appearance as the apse of Combray. And at that moment I did not say to myself, as at Chartres I might have done or at Rheims, with what strength the religious feeling had been expressed in its construction, but instinctively I exclaimed `The Church!'"

--"Combray," Swann's Way

posted by Rodney Welch | 11:12 PM
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Saturday, May 17, 2003  

Proust Moment, May 17, 2003

Four Dimensions of Space, and a Sentence to Match

Like the porch, the holy water stoup, and the memorial stones, the colors of the church's two tapestries, depicting a somewhat local version of the coronation of Esther -- she looks like a guermantes -- show signs of age, of colors running, giving the picture a new dimension, just as light at different times of the day changes the look of the stained glass. The crenelations of age give the church a character to be nowhere seen in the town: by still withstanding the onslaught of history, the church has become history.

Here, quoted below, is a fine example of the Proustian sentence, of which have already seen many fine examples: the sentence which is bent on absorbing everything in its path before reader (or writer) is allowed to catch his breath. I sometimes think of Proust as I think of Faulkner, that in moments of inspiration they look at grammatical periods as stumbling-blocks, potential log-jams. Proust takes us from a) a brief catalogue of church artifacts to b) his own entrance into the church, which makes him think of being in a fairy-land, to a consideration of how c)the 11th Century church had withstood the ravages of time, and d) how it was built in a most barbarous age, although most signs of that time are hidden within the church walls, except for e) a deep groove on the tower stair (decapitation?), which f) -- a rather strained pathetic fallacy here -- is hidden from view by a gothic arcade, much as a sensible set of older sisters would keep an immature younger brother from the eyes of strangers (had Proust been reading Austen or Sand of late?), this very tower which g) once looked down upon Saint Louis and h) also has a crypt which i) you can tour under the direction of the caretaker Theodore or his sister, who will guide you by candle-light to j) the tomb of King Sigeburt's daughter, which has a deep hole in it, which k) according to legend, is from a church lamp, which flew from the apse of the church and buried itself in the stone on the night the girl was murdered. (If someone out there could fill me in on this bit of Merovingian history, I'd be most appreciative.)

Did I miss anything? Buckle your seatbelts:

"All these things and, still more than these, the treasures which had come to the church from personages who to me were almost legendary figures (such as the golden cross wrought, it was said, by Saint Eloi and presented by Dagobert, and the tomb of the sons of Louis the Germanic in porphyry and enamelled copper), because of which I used to go forward into the church when we were making our way to our chairs as into a fairy-haunted valley, where the rustic sees with amazement on a rock, a tree, a marsh, the tangible proofs of the little people's supernatural passage—all these things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space—the name of the fourth being Time—which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother; rearing into the sky above the Square a tower which had looked down upon Saint Louis, and seemed to behold him still; and thrusting down with its crypt into the blackness of a Merovingian night, through which, guiding us with groping finger-tips beneath the shadowy vault, ribbed strongly as an immense bat's wing of stone, Theodore or his sister would light up for us with a candle the tomb of Sigebert's little daughter, in which a deep hole, like the bed of a fossil, had been bored, or so it was said, "by a crystal lamp which, on the night when the Frankish princess was murdered, had left, of its own accord, the golden chains by which it was suspended where the apse is to-day and with neither the crystal broken nor the light extinguished had buried itself in the stone, through which it had gently forced its way."

--"Combray," Swann's Way

From history to myth to history and back to myth. One moment, many impressions. No wonder these Proust moments take so long to digest.

On this matter, it's worth quoting Roger Shattuck in his 1974 book Marcel Proust:

No single theory or approach will make Proust easily or quickly available to all inquiring minds. The very resistance of his work to simplification and analysis constitutes its most evident general characteristic. Beyond this feature, however, we discover endless contradictions in the Search. Walt Whitman lived at peace with the fact that he contradicted himself. He said that he contained multitudes. Proust asks the next question. How much of his multitudinous self can a person be or embody at one time? The first answer is plain common sense: it all depends. It depends on many things, from chance and volition to memory and forgetting. The second answer is categorical. No matter how we go about it, we cannot be all of ourselves all at once. Narrow light beams of perception and of recollection illuminate the present and past in vivid fragments. The clarity of these fragments is sometimes very great. They may even overlap and reinforce one another. However, to summon our entire self into simultaneous existence lies beyond our powers. we live by synecdoche, by cycles of being. More profoundly than any other novelist, Proust perceived this state of things and worked as an economist of the personality. In himself and in others he observed its fluctuations and partial realizations. Through habit and convention we may find security in "the immobility of the things around us." Yet it affords only temporary refuge. We yield with excitement, apprehension, and a deeper sense of existence to the great wheeling motion of experience. On a single page Proust refers to that endless shifting process as both "the secret of the future" and "the darkness we can never penetrate." He also has a word for it: our lot is "intermittence," the only steady state we know.

As in life itself, the scope of action and reflection encountered in the Search exceeds the capacity of one mind to hold it all together at one time. Thus the novel embodies and manifests the principle of intermittence: to live means to perceive different and often conflicting aspects of reality. This iridescence never resolves itself completely into a unitive point of view. Accordingly, it is possible to project out of the Search itself a series of putative and intermittent authors. Precisely that has happened. The portraitist of an expiring society, the artist of romantic reminiscence, the narrator of the laminated `I,' the classicist of formal structure -- all these figures are to be found in Proust, approximately in that order of historical occurrence. All are present as discernible components of his vision and his creation. His principle of intermittence anticipates such veerings of critical emphasis. It is in the middle of a literary discussion that his Narrator observes, "On ne se realise que successivement." It really means: one finds, not oneself, but a succession of selves. Similarly, Proust's work is still going on in our gradual discovery of it."

(Want more? Go here. I've suddenly realized I could have saved myself a lot of typing if I had looked at it first.)

posted by Rodney Welch | 11:25 PM
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Friday, May 16, 2003  

Proust Moment, May 16, 2003

Painter of Light

No, we are not discussing the egregious hack. We are discussing the way light pours through stained glass in the church at Combray, altering the picture over the course of a day.

Before we go into it, though, pardon me if I pause to reflect on the great English art critic John Ruskin and the great American historian Henry Adams, who keep coming to mind in these passages where Proust is in church, for a number of reasons.

First of all, they both wrote at length about Chartres Cathedral, which is about as old as the church at Combray, albeit a good deal more impressive.

Second, Proust was an early disciple of Ruskin, whose The Bible of Amiens he translated into French. When Proust writes of the church at Combray, as he does here, you can't help but sense traces of Ruskin describing Chartres Cathedral -- both have the same sense of awe. And you have in Ruskin what you have in Proust: a near constant meditation on the art of nature and the art of mankind, of the sometimes rebellious relationship of the latter to the former.

In the pages ahead, where Proust describes the church at Combray, he focuses on how very distinct the church is, how it's a holy place that carries with it a weight of history. It's worthwhile, I think, in regard to the Proust passage, to note what both Ruskin and Adams said about where, exactly, that sense of holiness comes from: the absolute unswerving belief of the people who built the church.

Here is Ruskin, in his Oxford lecture "The Relation of Art to Religion":

"You have [in Chartres] the most splendid coloured glass, and the richest sculpture, and the grandest proportions of building, united to produce a sensation of pleasure and awe. We profess that this is to honor the Deity; or, in other words, that it is pleasing to Him that we should delight our eyes with blue and golden colours, and solemnize our spirits by the sight of large stones laid one on another, and ingeniously carved."

Adams goes a good deal further in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Adams noted how the glass-workers specifically worked in such a way as to please a deity. The glassworker "was in the Virgin's employ; he was decorating her own chamber in her own palace; he wanted to please her; and he knew her tastes, even when she did not give her personal orders … His reward was to come when he should be promoted to decorate the Queen of Heaven's palace in the New Jerusalem, and he served a mistress who knew better than he did what work was good and what was bad, and how to give him his right place. Mary's taste was infallible; her knowledge like her power had no limits; she knew men's thoughts as well as acts, and could not be deceived. Probably, even in our own time, an artist might find his imagination considerably stimulated and his work powerfully improved if he knew that anything short of his best would bring him the gallows, with or without trial by jury; but in the twelfth century the gallows was a trifle; the Queen hardly considered it a punishment for an offence to her dignity. The artist was vividly aware that Mary disposed of Hell."

This is not, as I said, what Proust is directly focusing on in the next few pages, but I think you discern it at the edges. The church is holy, unique, distinct, set off from all else, he notes. And I suspect it's at least partly because it was built with a holy intent, unencumbered by the Age of Enlightenment or Reason or whaterver.

Anyway, here is Proust in the church at Combray:

"Its windows were never so brilliant as on days when the sun scarcely shone, so that if it was dull outside you might be certain of fine weather in church. One of them was filled from top to bottom by a solitary figure, like the king on a playing-card, who lived up there beneath his canopy of stone, between earth and heaven; and in the blue light of its slanting shadow, on weekdays sometimes, at noon, when there was no service (at one of those rare moments when the airy, empty church, more human somehow and more luxurious with the sun shewing off all its rich furnishings, seemed to have almost a habitable air, like the hall—all sculptured stone and painted glass—of some mediaeval mansion), you might see Mme. Sazerat kneel for an instant, laying down on the chair beside her own a neatly corded parcel of little cakes which she had just bought at the baker's and was taking home for her luncheon. In another, a mountain of rosy snow, at whose foot a battle was being fought, seemed to have frozen the window also, which it swelled and distorted with its cloudy sleet, like a pane to which snowflakes have drifted and clung, but flakes illumined by a sunrise—the same, doubtless, which purpled the reredos of the altar with tints so fresh that they seemed rather to be thrown on it for a moment by a light shining from outside and shortly to be extinguished than painted and permanently fastened on the stone. And all of them were so old that you could see, here and there, their silvery antiquity sparkling with the dust of centuries and shewing in its threadbare brilliance the very cords of their lovely tapestry of glass. There was one among them which was a tall panel composed of a hundred little rectangular windows, of blue principally, like a great game of patience of the kind planned to beguile King Charles VI; but, either because a ray of sunlight had gleamed through it or because my own shifting vision had drawn across the window, whose colours died away and were rekindled by turns, a rare and transient fire—the next instant it had taken on all the iridescence of a peacock's tail, then shook and wavered in a flaming and fantastic shower, distilled and dropping from the groin of the dark and rocky vault down the moist walls, as though it were along the bed of some rainbow grotto of sinuous stalactites that I was following my parents, who marched before me, their prayer-books clasped in their hands; a moment later the little lozenge windows had put on the deep transparence, the unbreakable hardness of sapphires clustered on some enormous breastplate; but beyond which could be distinguished, dearer than all such treasures, a fleeting smile from the sun, which could be seen and felt as well here, in the blue and gentle flood in which it washed the masonry, as on the pavement of the Square or the straw of the market-place; and even on our first Sundays, when we came down before Easter, it would console me for the blackness and bareness of the earth outside by making burst into blossom, as in some springtime in old history among the heirs of Saint Louis, this dazzling and gilded carpet of forget-me-nots in glass."

--"Combray," Swann's Way

posted by Rodney Welch | 10:55 PM
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Thursday, May 15, 2003  

Proust Moment, May 15, 2003

The Entrance

Like nothing else in this provincial backwater, the church at Combray offers a transformative experience, and Proust is typically careful to fix his eye on every particular and absorb its spiritual and sensual weight. The first thing he notices is the effect of time on the building; it is worn by use And is slowly returning to the earth:

"How I loved it: how clearly I can see it still, our church at Combray! The old porch by which we went in, black, and full of holes as a cullender, was worn out of shape and deeply furrowed at the sides (as also was the holy water stoup to which it led us) just as if the gentle grazing touch of the cloaks of peasant-women going into the church, and of their fingers dipping into the water, had managed by agelong repetition to acquire a destructive force, to impress itself on the stone, to carve ruts in it like those made by cart-wheels upon stone gate-posts against which they are driven every day. Its memorial stones, beneath which the noble dust of the Abbots of Combray, who were buried there, furnished the choir with a sort of spiritual pavement, were themselves no longer hard and lifeless matter, for time had softened and sweetened them, and had made them melt like honey and flow beyond their proper margins, either surging out in a milky, frothing wave, washing from its place a florid gothic capital, drowning the white violets of the marble floor; or else reabsorbed into their limits, contracting still further a crabbed Latin inscription, bringing a fresh touch of fantasy into the arrangement of its curtailed characters, closing together two letters of some word of which the rest were disproportionately scattered."

--"Combray," Swann's Way

posted by Rodney Welch | 11:31 PM
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Wednesday, May 14, 2003  

Proust Moment, May 14, 2003

News of the World

Francoise is Aunt Leonie's connection to the world of Combray. The bedridden aunt observes the goings-on of the town from her window, then waits for Francoise to come up and attend to her so she can talk to her about whatever she has seen; if she gets impatient, she just rings incessantly.

Francoise is the perfect companion, more than happy to assess the day's mundane events. Why, it looks like Mme. Goupil is running late for church. Mme. Imbert was just seen carrying some fine stalks of asparagus; some discussion here as to where she got them. There's Dr. Piperaud moving steadily along the Rue de l'Oiseau; a child must be ill. The passing-bell just tolled; oh yes, Mme. Rousseau passed away the other night. "In this way Francoise and my aunt made a critical valuation between them, in the course of these morning sessions, of the earliest happenings of the day."

Combray is the kind of small town where each new day is pretty much like the last, and the smallest departure from routine is cause for mild alarm. Strangers in town are a particular source of news and interest; a young girl in the company of Mme. Goupil, for instance, suggests out of town visitors, who will probably be entertained with a mid-day luncheon, which Aunt Leonie, "who had renounced all earthly joys," will enjoy by proxy at the appointed hour. In Combray:

"... a person whom one 'didn't know at all' was as incredible a being as any mythological deity, and it was apt to be forgotten that after each occasion on which there had appeared in the Rue du Saint-Esprit or in the Square one of these bewildering phenomena, careful and exhaustive researches had invariably reduced the fabulous monster to the proportions of a person whom one 'did know,' either personally or in the abstract, in his or her civil status as being more or less closely related to some family in Combray. It would turn out to be Mme. Sauton's son discharged from the army, or the Abbe Perdreau's niece come home from her convent, or the Cure's brother, a tax-collector at Chateaudun, who had just retired on a pension or had come over to Combray for the holidays. On first noticing them you have been impressed by the thought that there might be in Combray people whom you 'didn't know at all,' simply because, you had failed to recognise or identify them at once. And yet long beforehand Mme. Sauton and the Cure had given warning that they expected their 'strangers.' In the evening, when I came in and went upstairs to tell my aunt the incidents of our walk, if I was rash enough to say to her that we had passed, near the Pont-Vieux, a man whom my grandfather didn't know:

"`A man grandfather didn't know at all!' she would exclaim. `That's a likely story.' None the less, she would be a little disturbed by the news, she would wish to have the details correctly, and so my grandfather would be summoned. `Who can it have been that you passed near the Pont-Vieux, uncle? A man you didn't know at all?'

"`Why, of course I did,' my grandfather would answer; `it was Prosper, Mme. Bouilleboeuf's gardener's brother.'

"`Ah, well!' my aunt would say, calm again but slightly flushed still; `and the boy told me that you had passed a man you didn't know at all!' After which I would be warned to be more careful of what I said, and not to upset my aunt so by thoughtless remarks. Everyone was so well known in Combray, animals as well as people, that if my aunt had happened to see a dog go by which she 'didn't know at all' she would think about it incessantly, devoting to the solution of the incomprehensible problem all her inductive talent and her leisure hours."

--"Combray," Swann's Way

posted by Rodney Welch | 11:19 PM
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