Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 3, 2010

Week 9 of Proust

Within a Budding Grove, pp. 326-344


Marcel’s musings on the Bois de Boulogne, at the end of Swann’s Way, made me want to hop on a plane and stroll along its allées, looking for hints of Paris 130 years ago. I took the cheaper route instead, and watched Gigi, which begins and ends in the Bois, and whose lead characters are very much like Odette and Swann.

But now, I’ve moved on to the next volume, which starts with a long introduction to a performance by Mme. Berma (based, no doubt, on Sarah Bernhardt) in Racine’s Phèdre. In Marcel’s imagination, Berma is god-like, someone to be worshipped, and he whips himself into an emotional frenzy at the thought of finally seeing her on stage in a classic of French theater. Will the doctor and his parents give permission? Will there still be tickets left? Should he, perhaps, not go, because going might make his parents unhappy? But when will Berma ever again perform in Phèdre?

Titian's Assumption, Venice

Of course, such high expectations can only end in disappointment, and we can see it coming well before Marcel does.

He has a tendency to romanticize about art, envisioning the moments when he sees famous works for the first time in situ. There’s a bit about Venice — though he hasn’t been there yet, he expects certain works by Titian and Carpaccio will be not just stunning, but an experience akin to ecstasy — and his dreams of seeing Berma are similar.

My first view of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in The Louvre was a disappointment. It was so small!  There was no frisson of emotion at being so close to a legend. (Nothing like what I felt one evening, when I saw Lauren Bacall standing behind me at the entrance to a play.) I expected something within me to change upon seeing that famous portrait, but nothing happened.

Marcel’s and my disappointments upon meeting our dreams in real life raises two questions: are our most thrilling imaginings always betrayed by real life? would we give up those imaginings, in exchange for no more betrayals?

Chocolate madeleines, peppermint tea

I know I wouldn’t, and I suspect Marcel (and Proust) would agree. Despite the frequent betrayals, there’s always the possibility of greatness that goes beyond our most reckless fancies, and that’s what we hope for as we jump into each new experience, regardless of previous failures.

Dr. Johnson called remarriage “the triumph of hope over experience”; the same could be said of life in general. Marcel keeps hoping — that Gilberte will finally realize she’s in love with him, that art will finally live up to his expectations, that his parents will finally recognize his genius as a writer.

Well, let’s see where Marcel’s dreams take him next, as we continue chez Mme. Swann.



  1. In Paris I had the same feelings when I stood in front of this small piece of art:-) Maybe I shouldn´t have seen Monet’s water lilies before (giant paintings)…
    Interesting thoughts and great still life!…and enjoy your trip !

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