Posted by: Lizzie Ross | December 10, 2010

“Tell Sparta” people


Dreyfus (photo H Roger-Viollet)

Within a Budding Grove, pp. 386-406

Lesson 1: Don’t read Proust while in a reclining position (say, on one’s couch), wrapped in layers of blanket, on a rainy afternoon. I kept falling asleep through most of the latest 20 pages, so it took me about 5 hours to make this week’s meager progress. To paraphrase The Who, hope I finish before I get old!

Lesson 2: Even 20 pages of truly dense ruminating prose can hold some gems. For example, this section reminded me of the social one-up-manship well known to all Luciaphiles.

Although Tilling may equal only the tiniest corner of middle-upper-class Paris, the scrabble to get on top and stay there — and to be sure that everyone knows you’re on top — is the same in both places. As Odette and Charles aim for the best guests and pretend not to care, I could see Lucia and Georgie conniving against Daisy (for her guru) and Mapp (for Mallards). Did EF Benson read Proust?

One of the best lines is from Marcel’s mother, who watches the Swanns’ contortions with total comprehension. Marcel’s father can’t understand why they’d want to invite someone so low-class and low-value as the Cottards, but his mother gets it:

Mamma, on the other hand, understood quite well; she knew that a great deal of the pleasure which a woman finds in entering a class of society different from that in which she has previously lived would be lacking if she had no means of keeping her old associates informed of those others, relatively more brilliant, with whom she has replaced them. Therefore, she requires an eye-witness who may be allowed to penetrate this new, delicious world (as a buzzing, browsing insect bores its way into a flower) and will then, as the course of her visits may carry her, spread abroad, or so at least one hopes, with the tidings, a latent germ of envy and of wonder. Mme. Cottard, who might have been created on purpose to fill this part, belonged to that special category in a visiting list which Mamma … used to call the ‘Tell Sparta’ people.

We all know a few Tell Sparta people, but to what extent do we cynically use them to engender envy as they broadcast news of our party guests? Something to consider as we plan gatherings for this holiday season!

NB: The Dreyfus affair enters the scene, briefly, in this section, and for the first time (I think, although I might have missed earlier references), Marcel states that the Swanns are Jewish. After reading de Waal’s memoir, these overlaps with the Paris branch of the Ephrussi family resonate.

And another thing: I haven’t spent this week reading just the 20 pages of Proust. I also whipped through Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life (both are great fun), as well as some articles and work for school.


  1. au contraire! you must read Proust lying down! you *must fall asleep every page! you must reread the same section over and over again without noticing! it must NOT make sense, either!

    whatever gives you the notion that Proust is a book like any other — one to be read (Damn, English lacks perfected forms of verbs! I must improvise!) … read from cover to cover rather than read in (or better yet, “read about”)?? hain?!

    one reads in Proust, not reads Proust!

    give it up!

    i have been reading Proust for three years and have not yet made it through book one!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: