Posted by: Lizzie Ross | August 20, 2010

Proust Update #7

pp. 293-305

A busy week, so not much progress. But I digress.

A treat this week (for me, and, I hope for you): I’ll do a basic parse of one of Proust’s sentences. Not a long one–way too difficult. But one that is fairly typical. Here it is:

Among the rooms which used most commonly to take shape in my mind during my long nights of sleeplessness, there was none that differed more utterly from the rooms at Combray, thickly powdered with the motes of an atmosphere granular, pollenous, edible and instinct with piety, than my room in the Grand Hôtel de la Plage, at Balbec, the walls of which, washed with ripolin, contained, like the polished sides of a basin in which the water glows with a blue, lurking fire, a finer air, pure, azure-tinted, saline.

“Ripolin” is paint. I’m sure you’ve figured out that Marcel is basically saying that the rooms at the Grand Hôtel are very different from those at Combray. Those are the bare bones of this sentence, but Marcel packs in so much more. First of all, we get the initial bit of information–that he envisions many many rooms as he tosses in his bed at night (we knew this from the first section, “Combray”).

Then he shows us the rooms at Combray: “thickly powdered …” etc. The air in these rooms seems thick, almost liquid, “edible”. Full of grains and pollen and imbued (“instinct”) with piety.

Then the rooms at the Hôtel: he compares the painted walls with a basin of clear water. But this part is complicated, because you have to read carefully through all the commas, to figure out what the walls contain. They contain the “finer air, pure, azure-tinted, saline”, that is, air finer than what the walls at Combray hold.

Combray is in the country near Paris, Balbec is by the sea. This sentence gives us a perfect evocation of the differences between the countryside and the shore. Anyone who’s been to the ocean after a long time inland will recognize the difference that Marcel describes with such particular detail.

That’s as far as I’ll go with that analysis. But imagine doing something along those lines several times per page, for 2000+ pages! Sometimes my mind glides over these, but sometimes I HAVE to stop and figure out what he’s doing. I know some of the credit goes to Moncrieff (the translator), but Proust, even in English, is a gorgeous writer.

So, the plot so far. Marcel is back as an active character (the bit about Swann’s affair with Odette happened before Marcel was on the scene). He was hoping to travel to Italy, but an illness has limited his travels to within Paris, particularly to the Champs-Elysées, where, as luck would have it, he has his second encounter with Gilberte (Odette’s daughter).

And suddenly, we’re back in the world of obsession and disappointment, where the woman (or girl — here, Gilberte) tortures the hero (Marcel) by sometimes showing up and sometimes not. Poor Marcel. It can only end badly.

One more treat: Monty Python’s skit, “The All England Summarizing Proust Competition”.  Enjoy!


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