Friday, April 12, 2019

Watching Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange

Alex and his droogs relaxing at the milk-plus bar.
“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

This statement by the prison chaplin in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange alludes to the central philosophical question of the film.  The movie explores sex and violence, nihilism and decay, conformity and individuality, freedom and behavior modification in a manner that was controversial when it was released in 1971.  It received an X-rating in America due to its sexual content.  Kubrick ended up personally withdrawing the film from distribution in the United Kingdom due to a disturbing rise of copycat violence in London and other cities.  Obviously, the film made a strong impression, but that is nothing new for a Kubrick work.

Though he never shied away from pushing boundaries and generating debate from his audience, Kubrick abhorred the violent reaction the film invoked. Still, due to its low-budget, it generated a healthy profit and made the director even more famous and wealthy.  It was “popular” enough due to Kubrick’s sense of the times.

Fresh off his success with 2001, Kubrick became fascinated with Anthony Burgess’ novel and saw in it the elements of the late-60’s, early-70’s zeitgeist.  It was a story involving youth.  It covered plenty of philosophical ground.  It questioned authority and somewhat glorified the counterculture movement of the time, albeit in a negative, anarchistic way.  Among other things, A Clockwork Orange seems to be saying to us that our humanity is rooted in evil as much as goodness, and psychological or cultural attempts to eliminate the choice of evil in mechanistic fashion, however beneficial the result to society, make us less human and are a violation of individuality.  

Alex DeLarge is one of cinema’s most enigmatic, anti-heroes.  He is dominant, aggressive, energetic, nihilistic, obsessed with sex and violence.  But he also appears to be fairly well-educated, somewhat creative, has a gift for language, particularly slang, has an outrageous sense of humor and is versed in the arts, particularly in Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  This striking mix of positive and negative attributes makes him distinctive, or at least pioneering, in the history of film.

Like Burgess’ novel, the film’s dialog and narration (by Alex) is laced with a strange mix of British and Russian slang words along with a few phrases that are just made-up.  Alex is the head of a small gang (called ‘droogs’).  Basically, he sleeps all day, frequents a bizarre “milk-plus” bar in the evenings, and then commits all sorts of despicable crimes at night in what is a slightly different (rather than futuristic) dystopian society.  

Although A Clockwork Orange is considered a great science fiction film, it takes place in the present (of its time), just a twisted version of it.  The only “futuristic” technology presented in the film is a behavior modification treatment.  But the society itself is not particularly advanced.  The often humorous, slightly militarized, paper-ridden bureaucracy, transportation and communications are not futuristic at all. 

We watch Alex and his droogs beat up a homeless old man, they fight a rival gang who are in the process of committing a well-choreographed rape scene, they then commit their own brutal rape by breaking into the home of a writer, crippling the man and raping his wife while Alex sings “Singing in the Rain” the whole time, an expression of what Alex calls “the in-out in-out” and “ultra-violence.”  

In the film’s so-called “Cat Woman” sequence, Alex assaults a woman with a large “piece of art” penis, ultimately bludgeoning her to death with the head of it.  The penis itself is used rather humorously.  Alex makes it rock back and forth on the table upon which it sits.  As he talks to his victim, we see the head of the erect penis twitching the foreground up and down juxtaposed against the woman in the background as we see her from Alex’s perspective.  The murder itself, while brutal, is not actually shown.  There is surprisingly little blood in the film given everything that happens.  But that doesn’t make the overall effect any less vicious and it certainly makes the film far less gratuitous than it could have been. 

Alex becomes disenchanted with his droogs when they attempt to remove him from power and do things their own way.  They are tired of the petty theft acts that do nothing more than keep them in money for the bars.  They aspire to something bigger.  But Alex won’t have it and hammers and slashes them into submission with his boot, walking cane and a knife (set humorously to classical music and shot in slow motion).  The droogs turn on Alex and he ends up being arrested and imprisoned for two years.

After that time, Alex undergoes the experimental “Ludovico” aversion therapy treatment.  His behavior is successfully modified and he is released early from prison.  Alex is no longer capable of hitting or harming anyone.  Moreover, inadvertently, the treatment’s use of Beethoven’s Ninth as background music for the shocking images of hatred and violence he is forced to watch renders this piece of music, which Alex prizes above any other form of art, unlistenable.  He gets nauseated and panics at the sound of it.  This leads to a twisted occurrence.  While the treatment successfully renders Alex docile, he is helpless against the wider violence of society itself, which now turns Alex into a victim.

The second half of the film is a symmetrical mirror of the first.  This time the homeless old man, the now crippled writer, and the droogs (now become police officers) each beat Alex and torture him in their own way.  Alex is no longer a criminal but he is no longer able to appreciate his life either.  Ultimately, all this, especially his inability to listen to Beethoven’s symphony, makes his already nihilistic life even worse.  It is not his choice, it is a newly uncontrollable, robotic aversion to life – meaningless is inflicted upon him rather than himself perpetuating within freedom. 

It would seem that we can modify the evil of one person, but that doesn’t make society as a whole any less wicked or violent.

Hopelessly miserable, Alex attempts to commit suicide.  But this, too, fails and he is approached by the government during his recovery.  The government will provide for him as long as he agrees to publicly go along with their public relations effort as part of their re-election campaign.  (They can’t afford the negative publicity around the experimental technique used on Alex.)  Alex does so, but in the end he is no longer “cured” but, rather, back to his old, twisted sexually aggressive and violent self.  The end.

I am a lifelong Kubrick fan but A Clockwork Orange is not one of his films that I have seen a lot.  This most recent viewing was only my fourth or fifth time through the movie and I haven’t seen it at all in over 20 years.  It remains one of Kubrick’s weaker works, in my opinion.  It feels more dated than most of his other films.  The film reeks of the late 1960’s in terms of fashion, design, and creative content.  It is a strange story, not giving the viewer much to latch on to or even care about.  True enough, Kubrick plugged into the spirit of his times with the film, but for that very reason, the film strikes me as stuck in the past and, therefore, less relatable for the viewer today.

Alex is evil through and through and I don’t care.  His despicable acts and those committed against him later on leave me unmoved.  Despite some of its philosophical underpinnings, it really isn’t a deep or profound movie.  I suppose the most that can be said is that it was a ground-breaking film for its time (along with Straw Dogs and Bonnie and Clyde) in terms of establishing violence as an acceptable form of entertainment – and even that isn’t saying much at all.  So shocking to audiences back in the day, A Clockwork Orange leaves me indifferent today.

But there are some redeeming qualities to the film that make it worth watching at least once.  The usual Kubrick strengths are readily apparent: cinematography and music.  While not grand, Kubrick’s camera work is impressive.  He uses a lot of wide angle lenses, low angles, and handheld shots to create a sense of disorientation and surrealism.  This is especially effective during close-ups of the violence sequences.  Meanwhile, the wide angles are not chosen to capture a wide image but, rather, because the shots in such lenses look “normal” in the middle of the screen but become more distorted and elongated along the edges bewildering the viewer.

One of the surprises of seeing this film again after a lapse of so many years was how much of the soundtrack is classical music.  As usual, the selections are superb matches for the moment.  Alex’s affinity for Beethoven’s Ninth comes into play several times.  It is even used to comic appeal in a “dance” sequence.  When Alex first puts a small tape of the symphony on his stereo we are treated to a wonderful job of editing shots of a poster of Beethoven, an erotic artwork of a woman with legs spread as Alex’s pet snake, Basil, probes her, and an absurd statue of four crucified Jesus’ dancing like chorus line girls.  The editing with the music is hilarious.  Don’t watch this film if you have a highbrow sense of the sacred.  Ha ha ha!

Humor was always a mainstay of Kubrick’s directing.  Almost all his films are funny in some way.  But I don’t recall laughing so much during my previous viewings of A Clockwork Orange.  Another example of when music and camera work together to comic effect is the ménage a trois sequence where Alex brings two girls back to his room for a bit of the “in-out, in-out."  

This is an orgiastic scene with full nudity that earned the original release of the film an X-rating.  But it is presented in fast motion so that the viewer can only catch a glimpse of what is actually happening.  The three of them end up in Alex's bed.  Then, after a nice roll around between the three of them, one girl gets up and dresses, Alex finishes with the second girl only to grab the first one and undress her again.  This also happens after the second girl dresses herself.  Very funny.  And it is all set to a synthesized version of the William Tell Overture which is so ridiculous (and mechanical as opposed to passionate) that I found myself belly laughing.  The whole sequence lasts less than a minute.

Other elements of humor include the ridiculous, militaristic, paper-ridden bureaucracy by which Alex is transferred from prison to the psychological facility where his behavior will be modified.   Also, a choreographed rape scene by a rival gang is more of a dance movement than a violation of the rather well-endowed woman depicted.  Her movements on stage and even as she escapes (the rape is interrupted by Alex and his droogs who are itching for a knife fight) are so obviously dance-like that it strikes me more darkly funny than tragic.

Uncharacteristically, Kubrick later conceded to some slight edits to A Clockwork Orange so that it obtained a more acceptable R-rating.  This served not only to open the film to a wider audience at the box office, but to make the eventual sale of the rights to broadcast television possible.  Today most versions of the film contain the original X-rated shots, which are now considered R-rated.  Times have caught up with Kubrick’s film, as it were.

Kubrick gets a “7” for A Clockwork Orange.  It is a weird, bewildering, distinctive film, for sure.  But, compared with 2001, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal JacketEyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon, it has not aged very well.  The timeless aspects of Kubrick’s brilliance are far less pronounced here.  It is definitely entertaining and worth watching, probably "essential" watching for any film aficionado, like most of Kubrick's films.  But it has never resonated with me the way the above mentioned films have as have even Lolita and Paths of Glory.  I'll be spending my "Kubrick time" with these other films before ever returning to the world of Alex DeLarge.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Reading Proust: Place-Names: The Place

The title of Within a Budding Grove is a lyrical rather than a literal translation of second book to Proust’s novel.  The book’s more accurate rendering from the French is In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, which is even more lyrical but also more sensual and perhaps a tad scandalous to English readers of the 1920’s.  This part of the novel was ready for printing in 1914 but was delayed due to the outbreak of World War One.  Finally published in 1919, it won France’s highest prize for literature and made Proust, already somewhat famous for his literary criticism, translations, and other works, a sensation across cultured Europe.

Though the boy’s naïve love relationship with Gilberte in the book’s first part plays into this title, the “young girls in flower” are principally the topic of the book’s second part, “Place-Names: The Place.”  Here, the narrator has grown into adolescence which transforms the quality of the narration to into a much more exciting, detailed, and passionate articulation of what was brewing within him since he met “the lady in pink” in Swann’s Way.

This part of the novel was my favorite during my first two readings and it is easy to understand why.  The reader becomes immersed in sheer joy of the teenage experience and how it expands the narrator’s sensual relationship not only with girls but with nature and the world.  Proust’s writing is this section is an immense pleasure to read.

We begin at a train station some “two years” after the events of “Madam Swann at Home.”  The narrator is traveling to the ritzy seaside resort of Balbec with his grandmother.  This is his first extended time away from his mother, with whom, it will be recalled from the first book, the narrator has a strong, almost neurotic attachment.  The trip is a rite of passage of the boy becoming a teenager.  It also marks the point in the novel where his special relationship with his grandmother is brought into sharp focus.

Proust’s novel is filled with humor.  There are almost as many funny passages dotting the narrative as there are philosophical explorations.  An example of this is found early on in this section when the narrator, who suffers from anxiety and asthma and frequent fatigue (much like Proust himself did), follows his doctor’s advice when confronted with the psychological challenge of leaving his mother and going on a long train ride to an unfamiliar destination.  The doctor prescribes partaking of alcohol to create a state of “euphoria” that is supposed to off-set any anxiousness.

“When I had explained to my grandmother how unwell I felt, her distress, he kindness were so apparent as she replied, ‘Run along then, quickly; get yourself some beer or a liqueur if it will do you good,’ that I flung myself upon her and smothered her with kisses.  And if after that I went and drank a great deal too much in the bar of the train it was because I felt that otherwise I should have too violent an attack, which was what would distress her most.  When at the first stop I clambered back into our compartment I told my grandmother how pleased I was to be going to Balbec, that I felt everything would go off splendidly, that after all I should soon grow used to being without Mamma, that the train was most comfortable, the barman and the attendants so friendly that I should like to make the journey often so as to have the opportunity of seeing them again.” (pp. 311-312) I’ve been there, funny.

At one stop along the train journey, the narrator notices a “milk-girl” in the early morning, servicing the train.  It is apparent that this sensual boy is now in his teens.  “Flushed with the glow of morning, her face was rosier than the sky.  I felt on seeing her that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become conscious anew of beauty and of happiness.” (page 318)  

Proust observes that in our daily routine our behavior becomes habitual and it is out of habit that beauty and happiness are diminished.  But being on the train, in a strange place and time, the narrator breaks through habit and becomes excited.  He imagines life with the milk girl there in the village.  “I felt the need to be noticed by her.  She did not see me; I called to her.” (page 319) But the girl never sees him.  This allows Proust to display the power of our imaginations upon our experiences as the narrator contemplates her after the train has pulled away.  Proust’s theory of habit is another philosophical element to the novel.

Initially, the narrator finds it difficult to make friends and is a bit jealous and frustrated with the way his grandmother so easily interacts with others at the resort.  Eventually, however, his friend Bloch shows up and he makes a new acquaintance, Robert de Saint-Loup, who will become his closest friend for most of the rest of the novel.

Saint-Loup is a sophisticated, charming young man, serving in the military, with a fine sense of humor and beholding a manner that easily meshes with the narrator.  Robert is engaged to be married and has a mistress that he regrets having to part with.  A routine of leisure is established.  The narrator meets another important character, the Baron de Charlus, a middle-aged gentleman who strangely treats the narrator in a bipolar way of being friendly toward him one moment then utterly indifferent the next.  He connects with the narrator in that he lends him a book by Bergotte, both admire the author.

Proust also conjures up in this section of the novel his fictitious painter, Elster, who resides at Balbec painting masterpieces known throughout Europe.  The artist befriends our teen and allows him to spend time in his studio.  Casually thumbing through odds and ends the narrator discovers a painting of Odette rendered by Elster around the time of the height of her affair with Swann.  

He has another moment of ephiphany, similar to the madeleine experience in Swann’s Way.  While riding atop a carriage he catches sight of the juxtaposition of three tall trees.  He connects these with the happiness of his Combray experiences earlier in the novel.  “That pleasure, the object of which I could only dimly feel, which I must create for myself, I experienced only on rare occasions, but on each of these it seemed to me that the things that had happened in the meantime were of little importance, and that in attaching myself to the reality of the pleasure alone could I at length begin to lead a new life.” (page 405)   

There are several marvelous passages about observing the ocean throughout this section.  The reader will recall that we caught a glimpse of this toward the end of Swann’s Way when, his memories wandering almost aimlessly, the narrator is suddenly found in his room at the Grand Hotel overlooking the sea with mahogany book cases underneath the spacious windows.  Now, we have returned to that same room.  Proust admires the beauty of the sea as he would hawthorn bushes.  Each day’s sea is unique to that moment.  No two seas are exactly alike.

“When, in the morning, the sun came from behind the hotel, disclosing to me the sands bathed in light as far as the first bastions of the sea, it seemed to be showing me another side of the picture, and to be inviting me to pursue, along the winding path of its rays, a motionless but varied journey amid all the fairest scenes of the diversified landscape of the hours.  And on this first morning, it pointed out to me far off, with a jovial finger, those blue peaks of the sea which bare no name on any map, until, dizzy with its sublime excursion over the thundering and chaotic surface of their crests and avalanches, it came to take shelter from the wind in my bedroom, lolling across the unmade bed and scattering its richest over the splashed surface of the basin-stand and into my open truck, where, by its very splendor and misplaced luxury, it added still further to the general impression of disorder.” (pp. 342-343)

Among other things, In Search of Lost Time is a sexual novel but it is more so a sensual one.  Proust constantly interweaves intimate human experience with nature to powerful effect. This is another part of Proust’s philosophy of habit.  By break through habitual behavior and actually seeing the intimacy of the moment connected with nature or with other persons we can recall the power of memory or make a new memory when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.  “…for existence is of little interest save on days when the dust of realities is mingled with magic sand, when some trivial incident becomes a springboard for romance.  Then a whole promontory of the inaccessible world emerges from the twilight of dreams and enters our life, our life in which, like the sleeper awakened, we actually see the people of whom we had dreamed with such ardent longing that we had come to believe that we should never see them except in our dreams.”  (pp. 607-608)  

The central force of the story which overshadows the interaction the many characters and the other happenings and experiences of the narrator is a “little band of girls” with whom the he becomes obsessed.  Actually, two bands.  He first encounters a group of “Norman girls”.  He immediately picks a taller, tanned girl.  “But it was not only to her body that I should have liked to attain; it was also the person that lived inside it, and with which there is but one form of contact, namely to attract its attention, but one sort of penetration, to awaken an idea in it.” (pp. 402-403) Proust’s translator repeatedly uses the word “penetrate” throughout this section for its obvious sexual connotation but also for all aspects of these girls, who are mysteries to be discovered by our narrator.

But this first group is but another passing opportunity for the teenager’s romantic imagination to run wild.  It is with a second “band” that the story truly becomes absorbed.  “I was going through one of those phases of youth, devoid of any particular love, as it were in abeyance, in which at all times in all places – as a lover the woman by whose charms he is smitten – we desire, we seek, we see Beauty.” (page 502)

The beauty he most immediately appreciates is that of physical attraction.  “…thanks either to its growing wealth and leisure, or to new sporting habits, now prevalent even among certain elements of the working class, and a physical culture to which had not yet been added the culture of the mind, a social group comparable to the smooth and prolific schools of sculpture which have not yet gone in for tortured expression, produces naturally, and in abundance, fine bodies, fine legs, fine hips, wholesome, serene faces, with an air of agility and guile.  And were they not noble and calm models of human beauty that I beheld there, outlined against the sea, like statues exposed to the sunlight on a Grecian shore?” (page 506) 

These girls are initially unapproachable by the teen and his imagination runs wild on the scantest of evidence.  “…for no more than a pretty outline, the glimpse of a fresh complexion, had sufficed for me to add, in entire good faith, a ravishing shoulder, a delicious glance of which I carried in my mind for ever a memory or a preconceived idea…” (page 515)  He must make do with not knowing them.  And this goes on for awhile. 

“…they did not come.  But to this primary uncertainty as to whether I should see them or not that day, there was added another, more disquieting: whether I should ever set eyes on them again, for I had no reason, after all, to know they were not about to set sail for America, or return to Paris.  This was enough to make me begin to love them.  One can feel an attraction towards a particular person.  But to release that fount of sorrow, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be – and this is perhaps, more than a person, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxiously to embrace – the risk of an impossibility.” (pp. 561-562)

“I loved none of them, loving them all….these girls eclipsed my grandmother in my affection….But when, even without knowing it, I thought of them, they, more unconsciously still, were for me the mountainous blue undulations of the sea, the outline of a procession against the sea.  It was the sea that I hoped to find, if I went to some town where they had gone.  The most exclusive love for a person is always a love for something else.” (page 563)

Ultimately, the teen meets the girls through Elstir, who knows them.  In particular, he meets Albertine Simonet, his true love for most of the rest of the novel.  “…the young cyclist of the little band, with her polo-cap pulled down towards her plump cheeks, her eyes gay and slightly challenging; and on that auspicious path, miraculously filled with the promise of delights, I saw her, beneath the trees, address to Elstir the smiling face of a friend, a rainbow that bridged for me the gulf between our terraqueous world and regions which I had hitherto regarded as inaccessible.” (page 578)

Late in the book, he still has yet to interact much with Albertine and her friend Andree is always nearby.  The narrator must make do with projecting his imagination into things, as is not uncommon in adolescence.  “Already, in itself, and even without the consequences which it would probably have involved, the contact of Albertine’s hands would have been delicious to me.  Not that I had never seen prettier hands than hers.  Even in the group of her friends, those of Andree, slender and far more delicate, has as it were a private life of their own, obedient to the commands of their mistress, but independent, and would often stretch out before her like thoroughbred greyhounds, with lazy pauses, languid reveries, sudden flexing of a finger-joint, seeing which Elstir had made a number of studies of these hands;  and in one of them, in which Andree was to be seen warming them to a fire, they had, with the light behind them, the golden diaphanousness of two autumn leaves.  But, plumper than these, Albertine’s hands would yield for a moment, the resist the pressure of the hand that clasped them, giving a sensation that was quite peculiar to themselves.  The act of pressing Albertine’s hand had a sensual sweetness…This pressure seemed to allow you to penetrate into the girl’s being, to plumb the depths of her senses, like the ringing sound of her laughter, indecent in the way that the cooing of doves or certain animal cries can be.” (pp. 680-681)

He and Albertine eventually find time alone together.  “She looked at me and smiled.  Beyond her, through the window, the valley lay beneath the moon.  The sight of Albertine’s bare throat, of those flushed cheeks, had so intoxicated me…that it destroyed the equilibrium between the immense and indestructible life which circulated in my being and the life of the universe, so puny in comparison….I bent over Albertine to kiss her.  Death might have struck me down in that moment and it would have seemed to me trivial, or rather an impossible thing, for life was not outside me but in me….in the state of exaltation in which I was, Albertine’s round face, lit by an inner flame as by a night-light, stood out in such relief that imitating the rotation of a glowing sphere, it seemed to me to be turning, like those Michelangelo figures which are being swept away in a stationary and vertiginous whirlwind.” (page 700-701)

But Albertine doesn’t allow him to kiss her.  Once more, the narrator experiences disappointment.  The book concludes with several pages addressing his relationship to both Albertine and to her friend Andree.  In Albertine Proust explores how one person can seem to be many things to another person.  The book ends on an unsatisfying note.  The teen is sick and cannot go out of doors.  Meanwhile, Albertine and her friends go off to spend the day elsewhere as the season comes to a close and the time arrives to leave the Grand Hotel at Balbec.

The manner in which our teen narrator experiences life is different from the boy in the first book.  The narrator in “Place-Names: The Place” possesses a defined attraction to things and a highly developed sensual appreciation for art and nature and the girls, of course.  These are no longer “vague” impressions.  He is acting upon tangible impulses within him.  

How Proust handles this unfulfilled erotic awakening is one reason I enjoy this section of the novel.  But there are also philosophical reflections on love and habit and memory, a myriad of new characters to discover, instances of humor, and a largely joyful and lyrical quality to the writing that invokes a remembrance of adolescence in the reader.  I have skimmed this section of the novel more than any other through the years since my last reading.  I hold this section dear because I can actually, if briefly, touch youth in this prose.  Somehow, the magic is there and Proust the magician casts a marvelous spell catapulting us into the next book, the novel’s longest.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Reading Proust: Madam Swann At Home

One of the many interesting puzzles about In Search of Lost Time involves the age of the narrator or, rather, narrators.  In Swann’s Way there is clearly an older, overarching narrator augmenting the narration of a young boy.  In Within A Budding Grove, the second book of the novel, the narrator begins as a slightly older boy, though of undetermined age.  Meanwhile, the overarching narrator (possibly multiple older narrators of various ages) is present throughout to provide details that the boy/teenager does not yet comprehend.

The book is divided into two lengthy parts.  “Madam Swann At Home” consists of about 300 pages while “Place-Names: The Place” becomes the longest section of the novel thus far weighing in at about 400 pages.   The reader is uncertain of the amount of time that actually passes in Part One.  Though two separate New Year’s Days are mentioned, the story reads as if a longer period of time has passed than it may seem.  The boyish narrator is more sophisticated than in the first book, but he is still a boy.  The reader is told that “two years” passes between Part One and Part Two.  The narrator is clearly an adolescent in the second part of Within a Budding Grove, though we still don’t precisely know his age.

Proust begins at the dinner table.  The boy’s family has invited the Marquis de Norpois, an ambassador of France.  This fellow encourages the boy’s interest in literature and writing and makes it possible for the boy to see a performance of Berma, Proust’s fictional acting artist.  Due to the actress’ sensational reputation, the boy has desired to see Berma perform for years but his father was opposed to it, largely due to his sickly nature and the advice of his doctor against going out in public like that.  When M. de Norpois states the boy would benefit from the experience, the father relents.

The Berma performance is another splendid passage of the novel, capturing the life of being among a late 19th-century audience at a theater.  But, in true Proustian form, the boy is disappointed by the actress’ performance.  It does not resonate with him no matter how hard he tries.  It is only when there is rapturous applause at the end that the boy, joining in with the enthusiasm, applauds loudly as well, feeling he had just seen something great that he didn’t quite understand.  Perhaps M. de Norpois can explain it to the boy later, he thinks.

At their next dinner together, M. de Norpois reads a prose fragment the boy has written.  The Marquis learns that the boy is a fan of Bergotte and goes into a diatribe on how the author is a “flute-player” who doesn’t really offer anything of significance.  The boy takes the double blow of having his piece critiqued as badly written and his favorite author being ripped to shreds as well.

This is a devastating moment for the boy.  “Shattered by what M. de Norpois had just said to me with regard to the fragment which I had submitted to him, and remembering at the same time the difficulties that I experienced when I attempted to write an essay of merely devote myself to serious thought, I felt conscious once again of my intellectual nullity and that I was not cut out for the literary life.” (page 63)

“I felt dismayed, diminished; and my mind, like a fluid which is without dimensions save those of the vessel that is provided for it, just as it expanded in the past to fill the vast capacity of genius, contracted now, was entirely contained within the straitened mediocrity in which M. de Norpois had of a sudden enclosed and sealed it.” (pp.  63-64) The boy has an existential crisis about writing and loses his motivation to pursue it.

Later that evening, the boy reads a newspaper clipping that gives the Berma performance an enthusiastic review.  In reading it, something happens to the boy.  “As soon as my mind had conceived this new idea of ‘the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art’, it, the idea, sped to join the imperfect pleasure which I had felt at the theater, adding to it a little of what it lacked, and the combination formed something so exalting that I exclaimed to myself: ‘What a great artist!’” (pp. 71-72)

All the while, interspersed with it in the prose, the overarching narrator tells us about life between Swann, Odette, and Gilberte.  Odette knowing Swann’s intellectual superiority compared with herself.  Swann’s fascination with the painter Vermer and Odette learning much of that. Swann still dealing with jealousy for his wife, Odette having tea parties, and Gilberte meeting the boy to play at a park along the Champs-Elysees.  Once they were playing and started to wrestle over an envelope Gilberte was holding and would not let the boy have.  

“I tried to pull her towards me, and she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I were tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath with the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, like a few drops of sweat wrung from me by effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyze.” (page 90)  The sensual, now sexual, journey of the young narrator is developing further, adding to what we saw in Swann’s Way

Next we get another Proustian element, twisted occurrences.  While the boy can play with Gilberte at the park he is not allowed to come to her home.  The Swann’s don’t particularly care for the sickly boy.  The boy attempts to get an introduction to the Swann home through M. de Norpois, but, the boy overplays his request with too much enthusiasm, the ambassador decides not to mention the boy to the Swanns.

The boy has a mischievous friend named Bloch.  In the presence of Dr. Cottard, the boy’s physician, Bloch lies that he had seen Mme Swann recently and she thinks highly of the boy.  Dr. Cottard takes this to mean that the boy already knows Mme Swann and thus facilitates the boy to finally meet Gilberte and Odette in their home.  The boy is immersed in the world of Mme Swann’s home life, a life of leisure and polite parties.

At one such party, the boy hears the little phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata of which he knows Swann is fond.  At first, the composition doesn’t affect the boy much at all.  But, gradually, the piece reveals itself.  “…even when I heard the sonata from beginning to end, it remained almost wholly invisible to me, like a monument of which distance or a haze allows us to catch but a faint and fragmentary glimpse.  Hence the melancholy inseparable from one’s knowledge of such works, as of everything that takes place in time.  When the least obvious beauties of Vinteuil’s sonata were revealed to me…those that I had first distinguished and preferred in it were beginning to escape, to elude me.  Since I was able to enjoy everything that this sonata had to give me only in a succession of hearings, I never possessed it in its entirety: it was like life itself.” (page 141) 

This is interesting not only because of the artistic, aesthetic implications but it also reveals a “succession” of hearings by the narrator.  The elegant banality and routine of Mme Swann’s lifestyle is in a sense timeless, yet time passes.  For the reader, we don’t know how many times the boy heard the sonata and over what period of time this “succession” takes place.  This part of the novel allows for more time to pass than it seems, in my opinion.  Or, it could be yet another older narrator butting in to talk about the experience of the piece after the boy matures.  Time, or certainly memory, has this murky quality to Proust.

Proust ponders how the passage of time allows for a masterpiece of art to be widely known.  “The reason why a work of genius is not easily admired from the first is that the man who created it is extraordinary, that few other men resemble him.  It is his work itself that, by fertilizing the rare minds capable of understanding it, will make them increase and multiply.” (page 142)

By happy coincidence, Bergotte is a friend of Charles Swann.  The boy ends up setting near the author at yet another luncheon.  While not disappointed with Bergotte, the boy still finds his manner of speaking to be almost completely at odds with the way he writes.  It takes some adjustment for him to relate to the man.  The boy learns that Bergotte does not think very highly of M. de Norpois’ world view.  The boy feels more comfortable around the easy-going Bergotte compared with the hypercritical ambassador and this makes an impression on him.

“…I felt on the one hand so intensely in sympathy with the work of Bergotte and on the other hand, in the theater, a disappointment the reasons for which I did not know, those two instinctive impulses could not be so very different form one another, but must be obedient to the same laws; and that that mind of Bergotte’s which I loved in his books could not be alien and hostile to my disappointment and to my inability to express it.  For my intelligence must be one – perhaps indeed there exists a single intelligence of which everyone is a co-tenant, an intelligence towards which each of us from out of his own separate seat, there is on the other hand but a single stage.” (page 195) 

Shortly afterwards, Bloch “overthrew my conception of the world and opened for me fresh possibilities of happiness…by assuring me that…women never asked for anything better than to make love.” (page 205)  He takes the boy to a “house of assignation.”  The boy meets some of the women there but does nothing because, well, he’s a boy.  But, here again, the problem of his age crops up.  While in the house, the boy notices a sofa that once belonged to his aunt, which was randomly sold after her death.  He has a peculiar memory of this sofa, in this place, at this time.

“…I remembered only long afterwards that it was upon the same sofa that, many years before, I had tasted for the first time the delights of love with one of my girl cousins…” (page 208)  The phrase “many years before” strikes me as rather odd.  He’s a boy, recently just a child, it would seem.  Yet he is thinking about something that happened to him years ago. 

Obviously, the narrator as a boy already has an advanced, if vaguely understood, sense of sexuality.  Once again, In Search of Lost Time is about many things, with the evolution and expression of the narrator’s sexual nature being a strong thread tying the novel together.  I find this passage striking.  He must have been 10 or so when he played around with his cousin.  Of course, it is also possibly that, as a boy, his sense of time is somewhat skewed and “many years” for him means a couple of years ago.  Still, it is an extraordinary admission made in a passing, matter-of-fact manner.

Most of the remainder of “Madam Swann at Home” is about the boy visiting Gilberte and Odette at their Parisian home, the endless social gatherings for adults and for children, the stylish manner in which the Swanns live, and, particularly, about his growing attraction for Odette’s mature, mysterious style and beauty.  Meanwhile, much as with the Swann-Odette saga of book one, the boy sees Gilberte one day with another boy and, with possessiveness and jealousy, eventually sublimates his love for the girl into indifference.

This is certainly the most difficult thing the narrator has yet experienced in the novel.  He copes by going out in the evenings “to drown my sorrows in the arms of women whom I did not love.” (page 275)  Again, this is puzzling to me.  Did the boy seek comfort from his sufferings in the house of assignation?  Who were these “women” that he did not love and what does it say that this young boy “drowns his sorrows” with them?  I can’t see how the narrator can be older than 12-13 at this point; still fairly young for that sort of “comfort.” 

Setting that aside, this section of the novel also affords Proust the opportunity to further develop his rather dark and twisted theory of love. The reader has seen examples of Proustian love in the Swann-Odette relationship and somewhat mirrored in the Gilberte relationship as well.  In brief, it is not so much that the object of our desire possesses qualities that are lovable, rather, love is more about the attraction and projection of love upon the object of our desires.  This ultimately leads to an unsatisfying cycle of magnetism, sparking physical pleasure that becomes habitual behavior.  Gradually, this gives way to jealousy and obsession when the object of our love focuses their attention to other possible partners.  Obsession gives way to neurotic resentment and, finally, indifference.

Proust had a pleasurable yet frustrating sex life.  Part of this was brought on by his homosexuality at a time when that was certainly unacceptable, it was the turn of the 20th century after all.  But most of it had to do with his passionately possessive personality in the relation to others, sexual or otherwise.  A couple of quotes will suffice to sample this perspective as Proust explores it in this part of Within a Budding Grove.

“We are, when we love, in an abnormal state, capable of giving at once to the most apparently simple accident, an accident which may at any moment occur, a seriousness which in itself it would not entail.  What makes us so happy is the presence in our hearts of an unstable element which we contrive perpetually to maintain and of which we cease almost to be aware so long as it is not displaced.  In reality, there is in love a permanent strain of suffering which happiness neutralizes, makes potential only, postpones, but which may at any moment become, what it would long since have been had we not obtained what we wanted, excruciating.” (pp. 213-214) 

“When we are in love, our love is too big a thing for us to be able altogether to contain it within ourselves.  It radiates towards the loved one, finds there a surface which arrests it, forcing it to return to its starting-point, and it is this repercussion of our own feeling which we call the other’s feelings and which charms us more then than on its outward journey because we do not recognize it as having originated in ourselves.” (pp. 252-253)

Even after he becomes indifferent to Gilberte, the boy continues to visit the Swann home.  Now, however, it is largely to interact with Madam Swann, who enjoys the boy’s maturity for his age and treats him kindly.  Poetically enough, the end of Part One is a sort of replay of the conclusion of Swann’s Way.  Madam Swann is gloriously attired and out for an early May afternoon stroll through Paris so that she might be seen and become to object of multiple male gazes.  This time, however, the boy is at her side.

“And as the average span of life, the relative longevity of our memories of poetical sensations is much greater than that of our memories of what the heart has suffered, now that the sorrows that I once felt on Gilberte’s account have long since faded and vanished, there has survived them the pleasure that I still derive – whenever I close my eyes and read, as it were upon the face of a sundial, the minutes that are recorded between a quarter past twelve and one o-clock in the month of May – from seeing myself once again strolling and talking thus with Mme Swann, beneath her parasol, as though in the colored shade of a wisteria bower.” (pp. 297-298)

Here the (much older) overarching narrator has taken over again, putting the memory into a grander context that will continue to unfold as the novel progresses.  As with so many little things throughout the novel, Proust allows the reader to experience the present moment as it happens but also reflects back upon this moment as a memory of his future self.  At the heart of this is the very search for “lost time” itself, which will be elaborated upon far more in the five books to come.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Do Democrats Want Donald Trump Replacing Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

I already harped on this a couple of times previously.  For the Democrats in 2020 the question is very simple.  Do you want to be right or do you want to win?

Young liberal Dems seem to be the most energized part of the party.  I would classify them as the only Democrats with as much energy as Trump's legions of hardcore supporters.  In 2020 Trump will have more than 60 million voters turn out and attempt to re-elect him.  Political passion, articulation, intelligence and bright ideas are not what elections are all about.  Elections are about numbers.  Presidential elections are about Electoral numbers.  That's all.

So the wonderful ideas of change and a supposedly "better" world and so-called "progress" are bankrupt without the numbers supporting them.

Do the liberal Democrats think there are more of them than there are conservative Republicans?  If they do, they are dead wrong.  There are not enough rabid liberals in America to offset the rabid conservative vote.  Conservatives outnumber liberals by a 35% to 26% margin.  Meanwhile, 35% of the rest of the country considers itself "moderate."  The number of liberals has increased in recent years as the number of moderates has slightly decreased.  The number of conservatives has remain largely unchanged since the 1990's.  Obviously, both sides need moderate support to win the presidency.  The question is, which side wants it more?

According to another Gallup Poll, Democrats favor moderation more than Republicans, but not by much.  While 54% of Dems favor moderation, 41% of the party favor left-wing politics.  That is a significant minority that can easily win the primary season if no one in the crowded Democratic candidate fails to inspire the centrist base.  A failure to inspire the moderate Democrats is numerical suicide when it comes to electing a presidential candidate as opposed to merely nominating one.  

Extremist views tend to do well in primaries because these preliminary elections are local and regional in nature.  This is basically how Donald Trump managed to emerge victorious over moderate Republicans in 2016, much to ire of liberals, who were demoralized after the election.

Now this demoralization has been transmuted into liberal fire.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  So says Newton's Third Law.  And so it goes in 2019 for the Democrats.  Frustrated and angry about Trump's election, they seem hellbent on offering an equally extreme alternative from the other side of the political spectrum.  This is understandable but it is also dumb politics.

Consider these news items from today:

CBS is worried that Joe Biden will be "too moderate" to win the Democratic primary.  Uh oh.  I'm no great fan of Joe Biden but if victory in the primaries depends on someone to the left of a centrist candidate, then Trump will be re-elected.

Quoting RedState: "The latest polls have Biden out in front of all other potential 2020 candidates, and he has kept that place for some time. Meanwhile, the 'woke' parts of the Democratic party fully reject Biden, and despite being apparently smaller in number than the quieter moderate Democrats, they are horrifically influential.

"In fact, their influence is so great that they catapulted Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) from somewhere in the back to third in the polls after her CNN hit. Her qualifications and accomplishments as a politician aren’t many, but for Democrats who rely on identity politics to guide them, Harris fits the part optically.

"The problem is that many in the Democratic party are too moderate for a radical like Harris, and a third have already expressed interest in jumping ship to a 3rd party candidate like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who has exhibited moderate left leanings.

"Democrats best bet in 2020 remains Biden, but between now and the elections, Biden and the Democrats could do any number of things to self-sabotage."

It is worth restating, as of today 33% of likely Democrat voters have "expressed interest in jumping ship to a 3rd party candidate."  If that continues to hold true, Trump will get to do whatever he wants with a second term.

Media liberal darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (ACO) has aggressively attacked moderate Democrats, indicative of the momentum of the liberals who, as I have shown, don't stand a chance to getting a president elected without support from the very moderates they are bullying.  In some sense this is nothing new.

"Liberals and moderates battled in the early 2000s over how to shape policy –  including what became the Affordable Care Act. Then Democrats, many of them moderates, were wiped out in the 2010 election. Now they're back in power, thanks to dozens of Democrats who won in red and purple districts. Those representatives want to hold onto their seats, but they're fighting to separate themselves from a progressive wing of the party that has become expert at using social media to draw attention to their policies."

Meanwhile, seeing all this happening, Bill Clinton's former chief-of-staff Rahn Emanuel sees the Democrat's "left turn" as making Trump's re-election more likely.  Quoting Emanuel: "The last thing we should do is serve him slow pitches over the plate that allow him to define us on his terms. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Democrats have been doing since he went before Congress in early February. It’s almost as if we've been duped into reading from his ready-made script.

"Earth to Democrats: Republicans are telling you something when they gleefully schedule votes on proposals like the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, and a 70 percent marginal tax rate. When they're more eager to vote on the Democratic agenda than we are, we should take a step back and ask ourselves whether we're inadvertently letting the political battle play out on their turf rather than our own. If Trump's only hope for winning a second term turns on his ability to paint us as socialists, we shouldn't play to type."

Extreme liberal bias in the Democratic Party is making Trump more palatable to mainstream voters. This article in The Daily Beast laments that: "The Democrats could try to show decency, expertise, and competence and advance a center-left agenda. They’d win easily. But no, that’d be too obvious."

Further: "As it stands right now, the Democratic Party is going out of its way to alienate a lot of middle Americans who still matter greatly in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Donald Trump’s radical presidency has created a backlash so great as to render his adversaries virtually unelectable."

I'm not sure that Joe Biden is the "best bet" for the Democrats in 2020.  But, quite clearly, the loud and forceful liberal wing of the party is pulling away from the moderates and risk alienating them.  If moderate Democrats don't show up at the poles in November 2020, or, worse, if they flip for Trump as the "lesser of two evils" then Trump will be re-elected.  And Ruth Bader Ginsberg, unless she continues to serve until she's 100, will likely be replaced on the nation's highest court by a judge more favorable to Trumpism.

This is a slow-moving train wreck.  It's still avoidable, but the Democratic field so far seems hellbent on driving centrists away even more than Donald Trump's heinous behavior can.  Or, perhaps more likely, the moderates may become disenfranchised and decide not to show up at all in 2020.

That is more or less what happened to George McGovern in 1972.  Richard Nixon was a dirty crook but he was re-elected by the greatest landslide in American Presidential history.  Those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it. "So many Americans do not like Donald Trump, just as so many did not approve of Richard Nixon. But just as Nixon's negatives were overshadowed by fear of the leftist McGovern, so those of Trump may be overcome by revulsion against the new socialist Democratic left."

Its high-time to open your history books my liberal friends.  Your self-righteous fantasies are overriding the reality of the numbers it takes to win.  Sure you can win in New York, Massachusetts, and California.  But to defeat Trump you will need to win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  You will need to put traditional "red" states like Georgia and Texas into play.  Can you see any liberal making either of these last two states competitive?  If so, please seek help.  See a shrink.

Do you want to be right or do you want to win?

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Reading Proust: Swann’s Way

After the first 200 pages or so of Swann's Way the reader is acquainted with Proust’s style and what to expect in terms of elaboration going forward.  The first part of the book continues on in Combray.  That we are seeing things from the perspective of a young narrator is indicated by such passages as: “The walls of the houses, the Tansonville hedge, the trees of Roussainville wood, the bushes adjoining Montjouvian, all must bear the blows of my walking stick or umbrella, must hear my shouts of happiness, these being no more than expressions of the confused ideas which exhilarated me, and which had now achieved the repose of enlightenment, preferring the pleasures of a lazy drift towards an immediate outlet rather than submit to a slow and difficult course of elucidation.” (page 218)

Much of Proust’s novel is sensual in its expression.  An early significant erotic moment comes when the boy is out late on a walk, his parents giving him permission to do so (it was a different, rural world then), and he happens upon two young women making-out in a naughty fashion.  He is a voyeur, seeing them from outside into the living room through a crack in the draperies as darkness falls.  It is pretty racy stuff for 1913 and reads fairly sexy today, though there is only a simple surface description of things, the narrator being a curious boy.  Considering his mysterious (for him) encounter with “the lady in pink” earlier, and his attraction for the little girl, Gilberte, who he saw near the fragrant hawthorns, there is a sensual awakening in the young narrator, splendidly expressed, yet never overtly proclaimed, by Proust.

The boy has an epiphany later when, while riding atop a carriage in the late afternoon, he is awestruck: “At a bend in the road I experienced, suddenly, that special pleasure which was unlike any other, on catching the sight of the twin steeples of Martinsville, bathed in the setting sun and constantly changing their position with the movement of the carriage and the windings of the road, and then a third steeple, that of Vieuxvicq, which, although separated from them by a hill and a valley, and rising from rather higher ground in the distance, appeared none the less to be standing by their side.” (pp. 253-254)

The boy is so overawed with this moment in time that he immediately writes about the event while still on the carriage, borrowing paper and pencil.  He decides to dedicate his life and future career to writing.  The passage where Proust “quotes” the boy’s writing is well done, he is largely imitating himself.  And it is at this point that the novel shifts entirely.

“Swann In Love” follows “Combray” and is the only portion of the novel written in traditional third-person perspective.  Instead of being narrated to, the reader is now in direct contact with the characters innermost feelings and motivations.  My belief is Proust chose this mode because it reflects events that happened before the boy was born and, therefore, could not possibly be narrated in the sense of the rest of the novel.

This section lasts for about 280 pages.   In a nutshell, it is the story of how the wealthy gentleman Charles Swann fell in love with and had intimate relations with Odette de Crecy.  They meet at one of Paris’ high-class salons late in the 19th century.  Proust gives us a wonderful examination of the salon life by introducing us to many characters of elite society.  Swann was not initially attracted to Odette though he enjoyed her company.  She was obviously not as educated as him, nor as graceful as others.  Rumors that she was somewhat of a lose cheat surrounded her. 

Then, just as when the boy experienced the hawthorns before seeing and falling in love with Gilberte, Swann experiences a piece of music that stirs something deep within him, affecting his feelings for Odette.  This is a fantastic, charming  passage of the novel.  Just as Proust celebrates the art of writing with the fictitious character of Bergotte, now he gives us the fictitious composer Vinteuil whose Sonata for Violin and Piano contains a “little phrase” that impacts Swann.

“With a slow and rhythmical movement it led him first this way, then that, towards a state of happiness that was noble, unintelligible, and yet precise….And reappear it did, though without speaking to him more clearly, bringing him, indeed, a pleasure less profound.  But when he returned home he felt the need of it: he was like a man into whose life a woman he has seen for a moment passing by has brought the image of a new beauty which deepens his own sensibility, although he does not even know her name or whether he will ever see her again.” (page 296)

This echoes the Madeline section earlier in the novel, where the narrator feels less and less enchanted with his memory of Combray with each additional bite of cake dipped in tea.  Each return of “the little phrase” impacts Swann less, yet the initial impression is profound.  Soon, this phrase of music becomes associated with Swann’s loving relationship with Odette.  The phrase is sometimes played in honor of the couple.
Yet Odette does not stay exclusive with Swann, though she does continue to associate with him at her preference.  The stresses brought about by their differences ultimately make Odette give up on her passion for Swann and offer it to other men.  For a long while, Proust plays with the reader (as with Swann) by making this side of Odette seem unclear, possibly just bad rumor.  But, as Swann’s possessiveness and jealousy grows, he discovers that Odette has been with others.  Before she came to Paris Odette was apparently a highly sought after courtesan and enjoyed lesbian sex as well.  All of this leads Swann to great suffering.  

Their relationship was once so passionate, involving a very sexy make-out scene while the couple was in a carriage, for example.  It drives Swann crazy to think of her, apparently ample, passion be directed toward others. He goes to great lengths to catch her with someone else.  He basically stalks her, so blind and ridiculous is his jealousy.  

“It was true that Swann had often reflected that Odette was in no way a remarkable woman, and there was nothing especially flattering in seeing the supremacy he welded over someone so inferior to himself proclaimed to all the ‘faithful’; but since he had observed that to many other men besides himself Odette seemed a fascinating and desirable woman, the attraction which her body held for them had aroused in him a painful longing to secure the absolute mastery of even the tiniest particles of her heart.” (page 385)

Swann’s possessive jealousy is ironic because other men always found Odette far more attractive than did Swann – yet that only made him want her all the more.  “’Looking at things quite honestly, I can’t say I got much pleasure last night from being in bed with her.  It’s an odd thing, but I actually thought her ugly.’  And certainly he was sincere, but his love extended a long way beyond the province of physical desire.  Odette’s person, indeed, no longer held any great place in it.  When his eyes fell upon the photograph of Odette on his table, or when she came to see him, he had difficulty in identifying her face, either in flesh or on pasteboard, with painful and continuous anxiety which dwelt in his mind.  He would say to himself, almost with astonishment, ‘It’s she!’ as though suddenly we were to be shown in a detached, externalized form one of our own maladies, and we found it bore no resemblance to what we are suffering.” (page 436)

It is true that “Swann In Love” is told in third-person.  But I discovered upon this third time through that the narrator does, in fact, pop his head up in the story momentarily.  When we come to the part where the boy’s Uncle Adolphe, who we met earlier secretly entertaining “the lady in pink”, becomes possessive of Odette himself and “tried to take her by force”, we discover more about why this uncle is shunned by the boy’s family.  And yet, when discussing this, out of nowhere, the narrative suddenly shifts to “my great-uncle Adolphe” and “my uncle” repeatedly for only one page.  

It is difficult to believe this is a mistake by Proust.  But why would he choose to write the word “my” in this briefly inconsistent fashion?  I spent some time after finishing Swann’s Way contemplating this, among many other things.  This savoring of Proust and considering the text more deeply is appealing to me; part of why I was looking forward to tackling this great novel again.  My guess, and it is an amateurish guess, of course, is that Adolphe is the connection between the boy and “the lady in pink”, a sort of nebulous innocent sexual awakening.  His short-lived reemergence as the narrator has to do with his great-uncle’s relations with Odette before he was born.  

Odette becomes indifferent toward Swann as she enters into various liaisons.  Swann’s suffering finally subsides to where he is almost able to keep the thought of his former lover out of his mind.  But then Vinteuil’s sonata and its “little phrase” reappears at a party he attends.  When he hears this, the flood of memory of his days in love with Odette comes back to him “without pity for his present desolation, the forgotten strains of happiness.”

“Swann dared not move, and would have liked to compel all the other people in the room to remain still also, as if the slightest movement might imperil the magic presence, supernatural, delicious, frail, that was so soon to vanish.  But no one, as it happened, dreamed of speaking.  The ineffable utterance of one solitary man, absent, perhaps dead (Swann did not know whether Vinteuil was still alive), breathed out above the rites of those two hierophants, sufficed to arrest the attention of three hundred minds, and made of that platform on which a soul was thus called into being one of the noblest altars on which supernatural ceremony could be performed.” (page 501)

Swann’s renewed persistence with Odette pays off in a few additional passionate moments with her but, generally, it only serves to strengthen his jealousy and possessiveness.  In his unceasing drive to discover Odette’s past, Swann gets her to offer him a partial confession that she has been with many men and women.  Circumstantial evidence indicates that it is still the case, despite their partial reconciliation, which is short-lived.  The deep, secure, exclusive love is gone. 

In the end, Swann becomes a rather pathetic creature; yearning of a lost love and an utter failure to influence is former lover.  He exclaims, rather comically, “’To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!’” (page 543)  This is sad but silly at the same time.  Not appealing and not his type?  That’s putting things rather mildly.  He has a relationship with a woman whose primary attraction for him was that she was in high demand by others.  It is laughably twisted, as is much of Proust’s novel.

“Place Names – The Name” is the final section of the first book – about 60 pages in length.  We find ourselves in a different summer, this time at a beach resort called Balbec.  The overarching narrator returns to mention that the room he now occupies in the story is one of the bedrooms racing through his mind at the beginning of the novel.  Specifically, he is in his room at the Grand Hotel de la Plage.  Proust is almost neurotically obsessed the details of whatever environment he established in the narrative.

“The Bavarian upholsterer who had been entrusted with furnishing this hotel had varied his scheme of decoration in different rooms, and in that which I found myself occupying  had set against the walls, on three sides of it, a series of low book-cases with glass fronts, in which, according to where they stood, by a law of nature which he had not perhaps foreseen, was reflected this or that section of the ever-changing view of the sea, so that walls were lined with a frieze of seascapes, interrupted only by the polished mahogany of the actual shelves.” (page 545)

These exquisite details belie the fact that we don’t stay here long.  This served as a brief introduction to Balbec, a place that plays a larger role in the second book of the novel.  The narrator’s mind is moving through time again.  We are back in Paris.  The boy is sickly and his doctor advises limiting physical exertion to walks with Francoise, the family cook.  At a park along the walk, the boy encounters Gilberte while playing.  This time the two strike up a friendship.  The boy immediately falls in love with the red-headed girl, matching the red hair of her father, Swann.  But to Gilberte the boy is just another potential playmate, sort of symbolic of the way Odette was with Swann.

And yet it is revealed that, somehow beyond the reader’s understanding, Swann has married Odette, Gilberte’s mother.  Proust does this on several occasions throughout the novel.  He takes characters and completely changes how things turn out involving them, often in opposition to what he has previously told us.  In this case, Swann’s suffering and Odette’s indifference mysteriously transform into a marriage.  Now the lengthy third-person background story makes more sense.  Proust offers us insight into the beginning of the relationship of Gilberte’s parents.  

The book’s finale begins with a shift to Odette, now Mademoiselle Swann.  After she became a mother she took to traveling by carriage through a park, then exiting and, dressed grandiosely, strolled back to her home, putting herself on display. “…when she reached the pigeon-shooting ground she would tell her coachman to ‘break away’ and to stop the carriage, so that she might go back on foot.  And on days when I felt that I had the courage  to pass close by her I would drag Francoise off in that direction;  until the moment came when I saw Mme Swann, trailing behind her the long train of her lilac skirt, dressed, as the populace imagined queens to be dressed, in rich finery such as no other woman wore, occasionally looking down at the handle of her parasol, and paying scant attention to the passers-by, as though her sole object was to take exercise, without thinking that she was observed and every head turned toward her.” (page 596)

Proust immediately takes this moment, grand in the boy’s eyes, and makes it funny.  Two gentleman observing Odette speak of sleeping with her and how “she still looks superb.”  Proust often takes the elevated nature of things and juxtaposes against baseness.  The frequent extreme contrasts and disorienting character shifts are a source of the novel’s humor.

On page 598 there is a break; an extra line on the page indicating another shift.  This time the overarching narrator returns of discuss the Bois de Boulogne, the avenue where Mme Swann took her walks.  He recalls the place through the span of his Parisian life.  He does this with a vivid description of a quiet place, with trees and natural beauty and the rumble of carriages.  But now things have changed.  In place of the carriages there are automobiles.

The narrator laments all this.  “Alas! There is nothing now but motor-cars driven by a moustached mechanic, with a tall footman towering by his side. “  The way hat styles have changed distresses the nostalgic narrator to the point he proclaims “there is no elegance left.”  But, he realizes that this is as it should be when any place collides with the passage of time.

“The places we have known do not belong to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.  They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” (page 606)

The “fugitive” nature of places and events to a human life is basically what In Search of Lost Time is all about.  To that extent, Swann’s Way is an excellent setup for the rest of the novel.  We have seen the world of the boy and of that world just before he was born.  In the next book he will grow older and the narration will become a bit more sophisticated, less vague past the surface of things.  We will return to the seascape views of Balbec, which Proust seemingly randomly introduces to the reader at the start of this section.

The difficulty of the first few pages of Swann’s Way make most people give up when attempting to read Proust.  Of those who manage to stick with it, most only finish the first book and never go any further.  Swann’s Way is the most popular section of the novel, perhaps due to the fact that it is the most common part of the novel to be academically taught.  But, Swann’s Way is like sticking your toe in the vast ocean of Proust to test the water, a short hike on a much longer and ever-broadening path.  Anyone gathering the stamina to continue the hike is rewarded time and again by the most amazing writing, a fascinating cast of characters, and a philosophical examination of life, love, the senses, the darkness of our nature, and things to consider when we long for our own past.