Monday, February 20, 2017

Lost time reading Marcel Proust

Hawthorns in blossom

By Moristotle

As a direct result of visiting Paris last year with my wife, for our 50th wedding anniversary, I have finally been applying myself to reading Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu [In Search of Lost Time]), which I had been meaning to read ever since my wife read it over 35 years ago, in the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation (1920’s), before we moved from California to North Carolina.
    We have owned the revised translation, by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (Random House, 1981), for about 30 years, so you see what a lengthy intention mine has been!
    I had been reading mostly by listening in bed, but this wasn’t working, because I would usually fall asleep in about five minutes – ten minutes before my player stopped automatically. But last week I committed to making up the lost time by reading the missed text from the printed book – no more rewinding! (And I’ve now found the text on the Internet, so I can take advantage of the better contrast – and font size – afforded by my iPad.)

    The new procedure has even resulted in my being able to follow Proust’s long sentences better and stay awake longer listening, sometimes even restarting my player for another 15 minutes after it stops. I’m already up to p. 190 (of 1,018) in Volume I (of III). At this rate, I’ll finish in a very few more years!
    Anyway, I loved reading about hawthorn blossoms yesterday, and I thought I’d share a few of Proust’s sentences and some hawthorn photos, both of which I found on the Internet [the words seem to have been text-scanned automatically, so don’t depend on their accuracy]:

I found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn blossom. The hedge resembled a series of chapels, whose walls were no longer visible under the mountains of flowers that were heaped upon their altars; while underneath, the sun cast a square of light upon the ground, as though it had shone in upon them through a window; the scent that swept out over me from them was as rich, and as circumscribed in its range, as though I had been standing before the Lady-altar, and the flowers, themselves adorned also, held out each its little bunch of glittering stamens with an air of inattention, fine, radiating ‘nerves’ in the flamboyant style of architecture, like those which, in church, framed the stair to the rood-loft or closed the perpendicular tracery of the windows, but here spread out into pools of fleshy white, like strawberry-beds in spring....
    But it was in vain that I lingered before the hawthorns, to breathe in, to marshal before my mind (which knew not what to make of it), to lose in order to rediscover their invisible and unchanging odor, to absorb myself in the rhythm which disposed their flowers here and there with the light-heartedness of youth, and at intervals as unexpected as certain intervals of music; they offered me an indefinite continuation of the same charm, in an inexhaustible profusion, but without letting me delve into it any more deeply, like those melodies which one can play over a hundred times in succession without coming any nearer to their secret. I turned away from them for a moment so as to be able to return to them with renewed strength....
    And then I returned to my hawthorns, and stood before them as one stands before those masterpieces of painting which, one imagines, one will be better able to ‘take in’ when one has looked away, for a moment, at something else; but in vain did I shape my fingers into a frame, so as to have nothing but the hawthorns before my eyes; the sentiment which they aroused in me remained obscure and vague, struggling and failing to free itself, to float across and become one with the flowers. They themselves offered me no enlightenment, and I could not call upon any other flowers to satisfy this mysterious longing. And then, inspiring me with that rapture which we feel on seeing a work by our favorite painter quite different from any of those that we already know, or, better still, when some one has taken us and set us down in front of a picture of which we have hitherto seen no more than a penciled sketch, or when a piece of music which we have heard played over on the piano bursts out again in our ears with all the splendor and fullness of an orchestra, my grandfather called me to him, and, pointing to the hedge of Tansonville, said: “You are fond of hawthorns; just look at this pink one; isn’t it pretty?”

    And it was indeed a hawthorn, but one whose flowers were pink, and lovelier even than the white....
    ...Suddenly I stood still, unable to move, as happens when something appears that requires not only our eyes to take it in, but involves a deeper kind of perception and takes possession of the whole of our being. A little girl, with fair, reddish hair, who appeared to be returning from a walk, and held a trowel in her hand, was looking at us, raising towards us a face powdered with pinkish freckles....
    I gazed at her, at first with that gaze which is not merely a messenger from the eyes, but in whose window all the senses assemble and lean out, petrified and anxious, that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body; then (so frightened was I lest at any moment my grandfather and father, catching sight of the girl, might tear me away from her, by making me run on in front of them) with another, an unconsciously appealing look, whose object was to force her to pay attention to me, to see, to know me. She cast a glance forwards and sideways, so as to take stock of my grandfather and father, and doubtless the impression she formed of them was that we were all absurd people, for she turned away with an indifferent and contemptuous air, withdrew herself so as to spare her face the indignity of remaining within their field of vision; and while they, continuing to walk on without noticing her, had overtaken and passed me, she allowed her eyes to wander, over the space that lay between us, in my direction, without any particular expression, without appearing to have seen me, but with an intensity, a half-hidden smile which I was unable to interpret, according to the instruction I had received in the ways of good breeding, save as a mark of infinite disgust; and her hand, at the same time, sketched in the air an indelicate gesture, for which, when it was addressed in public to a person whom one did not know, the little dictionary of manners which I carried in my mind supplied only one meaning, namely, a deliberate insult.
    “Gilberte, come along; what are you doing?” called out in a piercing tone of authority a lady in white, whom I had not seen until that moment, while, a little way beyond her, a gentleman in a suit of linen ‘ducks,’ whom I did not know either, stared at me with eyes which seemed to be starting from his head; the little girl’s smile abruptly faded, and, seizing her trowel, she made off without turning to look again in my direction, with an air of obedience, inscrutable and sly.

    And so was wafted to my ears the name of Gilberte, bestowed on me like a talisman which might, perhaps, enable me some day to rediscover her whom its syllables had just endowed with a definite personality, whereas, a moment earlier, she had been only something vaguely seen. So it came to me, uttered across the heads of the stocks and jasmines, pungent and cool as the drops which fell from the green watering-pipe; impregnating and irradiating the zone of pure air through which it had passed, which it set apart and isolated from all other air, with the mystery of the life of her whom its syllables designated to the happy creatures that lived and walked and travelled in her company; unfolding through the arch of the pink hawthorn, which opened at the height of my shoulder, the quintessence of their familiarity – so exquisitely painful to myself – with her, and with all that unknown world of her existence, into which I should never penetrate. [pp. 150-155, in the “Combray” subsection of the “Swann’s Way” section; Gilberte is Swann’s daughter]
Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle


  1. Oh Morris, how absolutely lovely. Don't be in any rush. If this is the only thing you ever read from this point on (and I would say the same for me), what a glorious book to live in. It's funny, reading this extract, the writer I am most reminded of is Virginia Woolf. I don't recall her ever mentioning being inspired by Proust. Thanks for spreading such flowers!

    1. Well, I think I agree!
          I googled "virginia woolf on marcel proust" and found this, on, a blog:

      "Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf. She loved his novel, but loved it rather too much. There wasn't enough wrong with it—a crushing recognition when one considers Walter Benjamin's assessment of why people become writers: because they are unable to find a book already written that they are completely happy with. And the difficulty for Virginia was that, for a time at least, she thought she had found one....

      "Virginia Woolf first mentioned Proust in a letter she wrote to Roger Fry in the autumn of 1919. He was in France, she was in Richmond, where the weather was foggy and the garden in bad shape, and she casually asked him whether he might bring her back a copy of Swann's Way on his return.

      "It was 1922 before she next mentioned Proust. She had turned forty and, despite the entreaty to Fry, still hadn't read anything of Proust's work, though in a letter to E. M. Forster, she revealed that others in the vicinity 'were being more diligent.' 'Everyone is reading Proust. I sit silent and hear their reports. It seems to be a tremendous experience,' she explained, though appeared to be procrastinating out of a fear of being overwhelmed by something in the novel, an object she referred to more as if it were a swamp than hundreds of bits of paper stuck together -with thread and glue: 'I'm shivering on the brink, and waiting to be submerged with a horrid sort of notion that I shall go down and down and down and perhaps never come up again.'

      "She took the plunge nevertheless, and the problems started. As she told Roger Fry: 'Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures—there's something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can't write like that.'

      "In what sounded like a celebration of In Search of Lost Time, but was in fact a far darker verdict on her future as a writer, she told Fry: 'My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? . . . How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp.'" [There's more.]
      Another blog,, quotes a little more of that last bit:

      "My great adventure is really Proust. Well – what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical – like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake...."

  2. What an amazing and beautiful display of wording throughout! Loved it, Morris. Thanks for posting this.