A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs
One of the good things about going to the slaughterhouse is that I'm in the truck for five-hours, to and fro. This Wednesday—as almost always—I listened to Neville Jason's reading of Marcel Proust's Remembrance Of Things Past—the Moncrieff translation. Specifically I listened to Volume 2, Within a Budding Grove, where the narrator is at the hotel in Balbec musing about the "Simonet girl". I don't know why I remember this passage from previous readings, but I do:
I stepped out of the lift, but instead of going to my room I made my way further along the corridor, for before my arrival the valet in charge of the landing, despite his horror of draughts, had opened the window at the end, which instead of looking out to the sea faced the hill and valley inland, but never allowed them to be seen because its panes, which were made of clouded glass, were generally closed. I made a brief halt in front of it, time enough just to pay my devotions to the view which for once it revealed beyond the hill immediately behind the hotel, a view that contained only a single house situated at some distance, to which the perspective and the evening light, while preserving its mass, gave a gem-like precision and a velvet casing, as though to one of those architectural works in miniature, tiny temples or chapels wrought in gold and enamel, which serve as reliquaries and are exposed only on rare and solemn days for the veneration of the faithful. But this moment of adoration had already lasted too long, for the valet, who carried in one hand a bunch of keys and with the other saluted me by touching his sacristan’s skull cap, though without raising it on account of the pure, cool evening air, came and drew together, like those of a shrine, the two sides of the window, and so shut off the minute edifice, the glistening relic from my adoring gaze.
À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, Marcel Proust (1919); translated as Within a Budding Grove by Moncrieff (1924), Kilmartin (1981) and Enright (1992); the page numbers, 521-522, are from the Modern Library Edition.
Proust describes for the reader what the Narrator sees through the windows with his eyes. In his article for Le Figaro, Sentiments filiaux d'un parricide he mentions eyes are important to understanding the past.
Our eyes play a greater part than we are prepared to admit in that active exploration of the past to which we give the name of memory. If, when someone is scrutinising an incident of his past in an endeavour to fix it, to make it once again a living reality...
Proust had no camera, that I know of. Recall that Virginia Woolf's great aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), an early photographer—being described as the Annie Leibowitz (1949...) of her day—was given her first camera in 1863 when she was 48 years old. He didn't need a camera, Proust made pictures with the assemblage of his words.
Proust's language is eye-ready; it is as if he'd first taken a photograph of what he describes. Among many other things memory—according to Proust—has the distinctness of uniting the past with the present. We hear him tell it of a real person that he met, Princess Mathilde, in his Sentiments filiaux d'un parricide (1907),
It was that she saw: something we shall never see. At such moments, when my glance met hers, I got a vivid impression of the supernatural, because with a curious and mysterious nearsightedness, and as the result of an act of resurrection, she was linking past and present.
By most accounts Proust began writing À la recherche du temps perdu in 1908, but its subject seems to have been his whole life. All writing done is in the past; we read it in the present as that present too slips into the past and that is a marvelous subject for a novel.
The valet in charge of the landing had opened the window... then the Narrator tells us:
I made a brief halt in front of it, time enough just to pay my devotions to the view...
The Narrator specifically and people in general had a horror of draughts: evil and sickness were brought in on them, they thought. Why didn't the Narrator say something about the open window to the valet? Perhaps it was anomalies like this, and then, the creative-strange comparison to a divine experience when he saw the house in the landscape through the open window that make me remember the scene. Maybe these oddities are my madeline and lime blossom tisane?
The scene closes when the valet...
...came and drew together, like those of a shrine, the two sides of the window, and so shut off the minute edifice, the glistening relic from my adoring gaze.
And the Narrator enters his psychedelic room of maritime reflections.
Mais en les prononçant, je sentais qu'ils étaient déjà devenus inutiles, car dès le début de mon remerciement, d'une ardeur réfrigérante, j'avais vu passer sur le visage de l'ambassadeur une expression d'hésitation et de mécontentement et dans ses yeux, ce regard vertical, étroit et oblique (comme, dans le dessin en perspective d'un solide, la ligne fuyante d'une de ses faces), regard qui s'adresse à cet interlocuteur invisible qu'on a en soi-même, au moment où on lui dit quelque chose que l'autre interlocuteur, le Monsieur avec qui on parlait jusqu'ici - moi dans la circonstance - ne doit pas entendre.
À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919 Marcel Proust, Loc. 823 of 8912.
But as I uttered them I sensed that they were already superfluous, for from the beginning of my speech of thanks, with its chilling ardour, I had seen flitting across the face of the Ambassador an expression of hesitation and displeasure, and in his eyes that vertical, narrow, slanting look (like, in the drawing of a solid body in perspective, the receding line of one of its surfaces), that look which one addresses to the invisible interlocutor whom one has within oneself at the moment when one is telling him something that one’s other interlocutor, the person to whom one has been talking up till then—myself, in this instance—is not meant to hear.
Translated as Within a Budding Grove, 1992 Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright, P. 68.
The emphasis is my own.