Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Reading Proust: Finishing Sodom and Gomorrah

We saw how the telephone affected communication as a rather odd novelty earlier in the novel.  In Part Two: Chapter Three of Sodom and Gomorrah Proust introduces the reader to the invention of the “motor-car” and the “aeroplane.”  By now, the narrator and Albertine are almost constantly together.  She complains that Mme Verduirn’s villa is so far removed from other places she enjoys visiting, which prompts him to order a car (which comes with a driver at this stage, the general public is too accustomed to horses and carriages to handle a motorized vehicle.)  Spoiling her at every opportunity, he gives her new clothes to wear, which she adores and wants to show off with the top back on the convertible.  “We could lower it later on when we wished to be more private,” the narrator mentions.  There is little doubt what is on his mind.

Suddenly, places that used to take up an entire day going to and returning from are accessible in a matter of minutes.  This brings a revolutionary experience.  “Distances are only the relation of space to time and vary with it.  We express the difficulty that we have in getting to a place in a system of miles or kilometers which becomes false as soon as that difficulty decreases.  Art is modified by it also, since a village becomes its neighbor in a landscape whose dimensions are altered.” (page 538)

To the amazement of both, the couple arrive at Mme Verdurin’s in no time.  The narrator is looking forward to fooling around with Albertine after their visit, but this plan becomes endangered when Mme. Verdurin decides that she would enjoy traveling the afternoon with the young couple in the newfangled machine.  The narrator becomes doubly annoyed when Albertine seems perfectly fine with the suggestion.  The narrator flat out lies to Mme Verdurin “that because of some trouble which had befallen Albertine and about which she wished to consult me, it was absolutely essential that I should be alone with her.”  This is taken as being rude.  But it works.  Then Proust treats the reader to short easy on how the automobile alters human perception normally accustomed to horse and buggy.

“The face of the countryside seemed to us entirely changed, for in the topographical image that we form in our minds of separate places the notion of space is far from being the most important factor.  We have said that the notion of time segregates them even further.  It is not the only factor either.  Certain places which we see always in isolation seem to us to have no common measure with the rest, to be almost outside the world…But the motor-car respects no mystery, and, having passed through Incarville, whose houses still danced before my eyes, as we were going down the by-road that leads to Parville, catching sight of the sea from a natural terrace over which we were passing, I asked the name of the place, and before the chauffer had time to reply recognized Beaumont, close by which I passed thus without knowing it whenever I took the little train, for it was within two minutes of Parville.” (pp. 548 – 549)

In the meantime, M. de Charlus and Morel (Proust presents the latter as a manipulative scoundrel in spite of his musical talents) are also darting about the countryside of Normandy, enjoying themselves.  At a fancy lunch Morel confides to M. de Charlus his desire to have a virgin.  “’Do you know,’ said Morel, anxious to excite the Baron’s senses in a fashion which he considered less compromising of himself (although it was actually more immoral), ‘what I’d like would be to find a girl who was absolutely pure, make her fall in love with me a take her virginity.’

“M. de Charlus could not refrain from pinching Morel’s ear affectionately, but added ingenuously: ‘What good would that do you?  If you her maidenhead, you would be obliged to marry her.’

“’Marry her?’ cried Morel, feeling that the Baron must be tipsy, or else giving no thought to the sort of man, more scrupulous in reality than he supposed, to whom he was speaking.  ‘Marry her? No fear! I’d promise, but once the little operation was performed, I’d ditch her that very evening.’” To which the smitten Baron reacts coldly, immediately asking “what about me?”  Morel says he would take the Baron with him, of course, but Proust tells us that “was the least of his worries.” (pp. 553 – 554)

Oddly enough, after his slightly disorienting but revelatory experience with the automobile, the narrator chooses to go for a horseback ride through the back-country to the Verdurin’s.  This is strange since at no point previously has he revealed or expressed any enjoyment or capacity for riding.  But, Proust has a splendid reason for putting him in the saddle and it affects our narrator more profoundly than traveling by car.  

“Suddenly, my horse reared; he had heard a strange sound; it was all I could do to hold him and remain in the saddle; then I raised my tear-filled eyes in the direction from which the sound seemed to come and saw, not two hundred feet above my head, against the sun, between two wings of flashing metal which were bearing him aloft, a creature whose indistinct face appeared to me to resemble that of a man.  I was as deeply moved as an ancient Greek on seeing for the first time a demi-god.  I wept – for I had been ready to weep the moment I realized that the sound came from above my head (aeroplanes were rare in those days), at the thought that what I was going to see for the first time was an aeroplane.  Then, just as when in a newspaper one senses that one is coming to a moving passage, the mere sight of the machine was enough to make me burst into tears.” (page 582)

In the meantime, the relationship between the Baron and Morel parallels that of the narrator and Albertine.  M. de Charlus become increasingly possessive of the violinist, who, upon realizing this, becomes increasingly indifferent toward the Baron, ultimately detesting him in some ways. This causes great drama and desperation between them until, finally, Morel begins to invent excuses to not be with the Baron any longer.  This leads M. de Charlus to attempt a ridiculous, disingenuous ploy.  He will fake a duel in an attempt to secure Morel’s affections.  The scheme works, to an extent.  Morel arrives to talk the Baron out of the fictitious duel, agreeing to stay with him, if necessary, to prevent it.  The Baron is overjoyed, but conceals it well.

This only gives the Baron a brief respite from his torturous possessiveness for Morel, however.  “When he was certain of their effect, he longed for Morel to fall out with him forever, for, knowing very well that it was the contrary that would happen, he could not help dwelling upon the drawbacks that would be revived with this inevitable liaison.  But if no answer came from Morel, he lay awake all night, had not a moment’s peace, so great is the number of things of which we live in ignorance, and of the deep, inner realities that remain hidden from us.” (page 646)

Then the novel comes to another delightful, and perverse, Proustian episode.  The Prince de Guertmantes meets Morel, without knowing who he is (the Prince doesn’t know Mme Verdurin), and is taken by him, offering him money to spend the night in a brothel together.  For Morel this offer is “a twofold pleasure…in the remuneration received from M. de Guermantes and in the delight of being surrounded by women who would flaunt their tawny breasts uncovered.  In some way or other M. de Charlus got wind of what had occurred and of the place appointed, but did not discover the name of the seducer.”  (page 650)

So begins second comedy of errors involving the Prince in Sodom and Gomorrah.  The Baron, “mad with jealousy,” summons Jupien to bribe the “woman who kept the establishment.”  This secures the two of them access to secluded rooms and passageways inside the brothel so that they can see into the room where the Prince and Morel are to meet.  M. de Charlus is comically out of his element with all this intrigue and this part of the novel, like so many other fragments and sections previously, is a fun read.  

What transpires is a farcical game of cat and mouse, with M. de Charlus and Jupien moving about the high-class brothel secretly, attempting to catch Morel with the Prince, all parties moving from one room to another in an attempt to either spy upon or consummate the rendezvous as the brothel staff try to accommodate everyone’s divergent requests.  Morel, suspecting he is being watched, ends up scared stiff and, basically, unresponsive.  Things don’t get much better when the Prince wants to try again, this time at a villa he has rented.  He has this “quirkish habit” of decorating wherever he goes with “family keepsakes” in order to feel more at home.  Morel arrives and is asked to wait the Prince in the sitting-room.    

“But when Morel found himself alone, and went to the mirror to see that his forelock was not disarranged, he felt as though he was the victim of a hallucination.  The photographs on the mantelpiece (which the violinist recognized, for he has seen them in M. de Charlus’s room) of the Princess de Guermantes, the Duchess of Luxemburg and Mme de Valleparisis, left him at first petrified with fright.  At the same moment he caught sight of a photograph of M. de Charlus, which was placed a little behind the rest.  The Baron seemed to be transfixing him with a strange, unblinking stare.  Mad with terror, Morel, recovering from his preliminary stupor and no longer doubting that this was a trap into which M. de Charlus had led him in order to put his fidelity to the test, leapt down the steps of the villa four at a time and set off along the road as fast as his legs would carry him, and when the Prince (thinking he had put a casual acquaintance through the required period of waiting, not without wondering if the whole thing was entirely prudent and whether the individual in question might not be dangerous) came into the sitting-room, he found nobody there.” (pp. 655 – 656)

So, basically, with all parties attempting to advance their own agendas to realize private designs or desires, in typical, comical Proustian fashion, virtually nothing happens at all.  The Baron never sees Morel do anything and the Prince, inadvertently, scares the young man away.

Proust uses the amusing little incident as a break from the otherwise tortured mind of the narrator with regard to Albertine.  Over the course of more than 100 pages, the reader encounters little glimpses of the narrator’s inability to steady himself regarding how he feels and what to do about his girlfriend.  Common expressions include: “…I was perhaps in love with Albertine, but I dare not let her see my love…” “…we must be in love with one another after all…” “I was beginning to fall in love with Albertine…” “…it was when I ceased to love her…” “…when I loved her again…” “…I no longer felt any jealousy and scarcely any love for her…”

He becomes “chained to the daily necessity of seeing Albertine.”  He arranges “to be with Albertine so that she should not be alone with other people…” The two of them, obviously full of mutual physical attraction, are often “clinging to one another.”  But later, no doubt exhausted from all these emotional, neurotic gymnastics, he thinks of the joy of traveling “…to lead a new life, and so made me want to abandon any intention of marrying Albertine.”

It is worth noting that our narrator is not a very appealing protagonist.  He is sneaky, he lies, and his constant vacillation for his girlfriend gets rather annoying to read about.  And yet, it is genuine.  There is no shortage of human beings who have been mentally torn apart by the polarity of jealousy and desire to be free of it.  Plus, there is the fact that, whereas he suspects her of all manner of sexual perversity and unfaithfulness, he himself, who has by his own admission had countless sexual encounters with every girl from his cousins, to the entire “little band,” to many others mentioned in passing, doesn’t seem to hold the same standards to himself as he does to her.  He is as selfish and disturbed as a character can possibly be where sexuality is concerned. 

“The idea of marrying Albertine appeared to be me to be a madness.”  This is where things stand as Sodom and Gomorrah enters into its short fourth chapter of Part Two.  The narrator announces to his mother that he has definitely decided against Albertine and he convinces himself that he might be, in fact, in love with Andree instead.  Then something happens that requires us to go back to Swann’s Way to fully understand. 

Recall that Vinteuil is Proust’s fictitious composer representing his appreciation of the Art of music.  The “little phrase” in his piano sonata plays an important part of Swann’s love for Odette in the first book.  It is just after Vinteuil’s death that the narrator, as a boy, is given permission by his parents to stay out as late as he pleases one hot summer afternoon which passes into early evening.  He is hiking and playing in the glory of nature near Combray when he happens upon Vinteuil’s home, now inhabited by his daughter.  He finds a shady spot to rest and ends up falling asleep.

The boy awakens to sounds coming from a partially open window of the sitting-room inside the house.  In his first act of voyeurism that later comes to help define him as a character, the boy witnesses, without being seen, of course, as his sleep and stillness leaves him invisible with the coming of darkness, Vinteuil’s daughter with a friend in the room.  The two young women are in the throes of passion.

“In the V-shaped opening of her crape bodice Mlle Vinteuil felt the string of her friend’s sudden kiss; she gave a little scream and broke away; then they began to chase one another about the room, scrambling over the furniture, their wide sleeves fluttering like wings. Clucking and squealing like a pair of amorous fowls.  At last Mlle Vinteiul collapsed on to the sofa, with her friend lying on top of her.” (Swann’s Way, page 228)

The friend laughs ecstatically and proceeds to spit on Vinteiul’s photograph before their passion really heats up.  The shade is drawn and the boy can’t see any more.  The boy summarizes his impression of the friend: “It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure, that seemed to her attractive; it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil.  And as, each time she indulged in it, it was accompanied by evil thoughts such as ordinarily had no place in her virtuous mind, she came to see in pleasure itself something diabolical, to identify it with Evil.” (SW, page 232)

This makes a deep and last impression on the boy, now a young man in our story, whereupon he and Albertine discuss going to the Verdurins for the usual Wednesday afternoon salon.  He mentions that he hopes Mme Verdurin will share with him some additional works by Vinteuil, as he has only had the pleasure of hearing the piano sonata and would like to know more of the composer’s work.  He feels no need to mention the man by name since he is unknown and he doesn’t see how Albertine could have ever heard of him.  But she is a naturally inquisitive character and asks who it is.  To which the narrator answers:

“’My dear child, when I’ve told you that his name is Vinteuil, will you be any wiser?’  We may have revolved around every possible idea in our minds, and yet the truth has never occurred to us, and it is from without, when we are least expecting it, that it gives us its cruel stab and wounds us forever.

“’You can’t think how you amuse me,’ replied Albertine…’You remember my telling you about a friend, older than me, who had been a mother, a sister to me, with whom I spent the happiest years of my life, at Trieste, and whom in fact I’m expecting to join in a few weeks at Cherbourg, where we shall set out on a cruise together…is the best friend of Vinteuil’s daughter, and I know Vinteuil’s daughter almost as well as I know her.” (pp. 701 - 702)

The narrator is thunderstruck.  He describes “a new phase of undreamed-of sufferings that was opening before me.”  Already suspicious of her, weaving pathetically in and out of feelings of love, jealousy and possessiveness for her, he feels this bit of information confirms her bisexuality, which she has constantly and emphatically denied, “beyond any shadow of doubt.”  

His reaction triggers as “nervous irritability” that he soon sees as a “sickness” within himself. He has visions of her soon leaving for Cherbourg and reviving “her old habits.”  Afterwards, his mother finds him in their hotel suite, having been up all night, distraught and in tears, wondering what is troubling her son.  Without understanding the great existential gravity upon him, she points through the window out to the beach at Balbec, offering the splendid view as solace.  But all he can see is Albertine, in place of her friend, with Mlle Vintueil, her distinctive laugh fused with that of the friend into “voluptuous laughter.”

Regretfully, he says to his mother: “’I was deceiving myself, I deceived you in good faith yesterday, I’ve been thinking it over all night.  I absolutely must – and let’s settle the matter at once, because I’m quite clear about it now, because I won’t change my mind again, because I couldn’t live without it – I absolutely must marry Albertine.’” (page 724)  The splendid book, filled with such a variety of wonderful prose, comic and tragic, surprising plot twists, challenging ideas and satisfying musings on sexuality among other topics, abruptly ends there.  I am 2,877 pages into the novel.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Reading Proust: Continuing Sodom and Gomorrah

At the end of Part Two: Chapter One there is a short section of the novel entitled “The Intermittencies of the Heart.”  The narrator, upon learning that Mme Putbus will be staying at Balbec, immediately arranges a visit there as well, along with his mother and Francoise, in hopes of taking advantage of a possible opportunity to fulfill his sexual fantasies with Mme. Putbus’ “gorgeous” chambermaid.  But things don’t turn out that way.  All his planning a scheming and anticipation is abruptly shattered.

“Upheaval of my entire being.”  With that simple phrase the narrative takes an unexpected turn.  The narrator is suddenly struck with “cardiac fatigue” at the realization of being at Balbec without his deceased grandmother.  Although she died in the middle of The Guermantes Way, some 560 pages ago in the novel, the full weight of her passing hits the narrator only now.  For Proust, this is due to how memory works.

“For with the perturbations of memory are linked the intermittences of the heart.  It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually our possession…of they remain with us, for most of the time it is an unknown region where they are of no use to us…But if the context of the sensations in which they are preserved is recaptured, they acquire in turn the same power of expelling everything that is incompatible with them, of installing alone in us the self that originally lived them…The self that I then was, that had disappeared for so long, was once again so close to me that I seemed still to hear the words that had just been spoken…” (pp. 211 – 212)

All the love and tenderness and sadness stored up for his grandmother are immediately released upon his return to the seaside resort where he spent time with her back in Within a Budding Grove.  He cannot bear to look at the sea or to socialize with anyone.  Albertine, who has rearranged her schedule to meet him there, is refused when she asks to see him.  He declines party invitations and wallows in his room over his grandmother’s death instead.  He recalls her face, her expressions, the little things she did for him.  His mother, concerned at her son’s sudden depression, insists that he go lie on the beach, but he chooses to lie in the folds of the dunes where no one can see him.

When he finally feels up to seeing Albertine again, she is in an unpleasant mood about how “dull” life at Balbec seems this year.  He escorts her back to where she is staying and then decides to take the carriage back along a route that he used to travel with his grandmother.  And he is surprisingly lifted out of his despair by seeing a natural place in a different season.

“But on reaching the road I found a dazzling spectacle.  Where I has seen with my grandmother in the month of August only the green leaves and, so to speak, the disposition of the apple-trees, as far as the eye could reach they were in full bloom, unbelievably luxuriant, their feet in the mire beneath their ball-dresses, heedless of spoiling the most marvelous pink satin that was ever seen, which glittered in the sunlight…But it moved one to tears because, to whatever lengths it went in its effects of refined artifice, one felt that it was natural, that these apple-trees were there in the heart of the country, like peasants on one of the high roads of France.  Then the rays of the sun gave place suddenly to those of the rain; they streaked the whole horizon, enclosing the line of apple-trees in their grey net.  But these continued to hold aloft their pink and blossoming beauty, in the wind that had turned icy beneath the drenching rain: it was a day in spring.” (pp. 244 – 245)

Throughout the novel, Proust uses nature as a companion to strongly felt intimate experiences.  An example in Swann’s Way would he the boy’s fascination with the hawthorns just before he sees Gilberte for the first time.  The seascapes and surrounding flora are connected to “the little band” of girls in Within a Budding Grove.  I have previously considered in detail the use of fog and mist in various parts of The Guermantes Way.  Earlier in Sodom and Gomorrah it was the orchid and the bumble-bee just before the narrator’s discovery of M. de Charlus’ homosexuality.  Now we see it again, a profound experience of natural beauty, as apple-tree blossoms, acts as a tonic to the depressed young man.  Perhaps above all else, Proust is an aficionado of the aesthetics of beauty in nature, art and literature.  He shows us the importance of such things to a richly lived life as the novel proceeds.

Slowly, the narrator emerges out of his funk.  “Certain dreams of shared affection” with Albertine renews his desire for happiness, though he has yet to experience the need for carnal pleasure again.  She makes sure he is aware of certain days she will be traveling and won’t be available, so they can maximize their time together.

Then, we encounter another example of the multiple levels of narration in the novel.  His renewed interest in Albertine leads his reminiscences of previous encounters with “the little band” that have not been revealed to the reader until now. "I must confess that many of her friends – I was not yet in love with her – gave me, at one watering-place or another, moments of pleasure. The obliging young playmates did not seem to me to be very many. But recently I thought of them again, and their names came back to me. I counted that, in that one season, a dozen conferred on me their ephemeral favors. Another name came back to me later, which made thirteen. I then had a sort of childish fear of settling on that number. Also, I realized that I had forgotten the first, Albertine who was no more and who made the fourteenth." (pp. 255 – 256)

This is a remarkable piece of text for a variety of reasons. First of all, it directs our attention to three possible subjectivities of the narrator – the self having moments of pleasure with young playmates, the self recollecting upon the experiences and fearing the recall of only 13 encounters, and the overarching self summarizing all this.  Secondly, with so much minutia and intimate detail given to the reader during the course of the novel, it is easy to trust that Proust is telling you everything in the his story, but he isn’t.

For whatever reason, certain facts are held back and there is a mere illusion of completeness through excessive detail.  When exactly did the narrator enjoy these “ephemeral favors”?  Did he go to Balbec on other occasions which we do not know about?  Or did he fool around with 13 other girls while he was chasing Albertine during his first stay, with his grandmother, at Balbec?  Thirdly, it introduces another problem for the novel that I will dwell on later, exactly when does he fall in love with Albertine?  Lastly, this text features the mechanics of memory itself, and the struggle to recall past events both in the short term and over a distance of time.

Most of the rest of Sodom and Gomorrah is about jealousy, although it is about quite a lot of other things too.  The narrator gradually becomes more jealous of Albertine, without ever telling her that he loves her.  The concern here is, realizing how Proust connects jealousy with love, it would seem that he does in fact love her if only because he becomes so obsessively jealous of her.  Perhaps the novel gives us a negative declaration of love.  That would be rather Proustian.

So things don’t become too tedious, Proust gives us the side story of M. de Charles meeting a fantastic young violinist, Morel, and how jealousy enters that relationship as well.  It can be used by the reader for comparative purposes as examples of Proust’s philosophy of love and jealousy.  But it is also a break from the narrator’s relationship with Albertine.  It offers us the dynamics of this other relationship that plays out on the Normandy coast during summer holidays.  In either case, it is remarkably well-written, as I have given ample quotations to prove, and highly entertaining to read.  Taken as a whole, Sodom and Gomorrah is my favorite complete book in the novel and is in many ways consistently the strongest writing of Proust’s work.

One of the many things that attract him to Albertine is her laugh.  It is that that he recalls coming out of his funk over his grandmother’s death.  The memory of her laughter makes him desire happiness again.  And it is with that laugh that she and several other girlfriends carry on around a piano inside a train station, as they are all awaiting the train.  While he watches with an older physician acquaintance, Dr. Cottard.  “The fact was I just heard her laugh.  And this laugh at once evoked the fleshy-pink, fragrant surfaces with which it seemed to carry with it, pungent, sensual, and revealing as the scent of geraniums, a few almost tangible and secretly provoking particles.  One of the girls, a stranger to me, sat down at the piano, and Andree invited Albertine to waltz with her.” (page 263)

As they watch, the narrator remarks on how well the two of them dance together.  Dr. Cottard does not have his spectacles with him.  He remarks: “’…I can’t see very well, but they are certainly keenly aroused.  It’s not sufficiently known that women derive most of their excitement through their breasts.  And theirs, as you can see, are touching completely.’  And indeed the contact between the breasts of Andree and of Albertine had been constant.  I do not know whether they heard or guessed Cottard’s observation, but they drew slightly apart while continuing the waltz.  At that moment Andree said something to Albertine, who laughed with the same deep and penetrating laugh that I had heard before.  But the unease it roused in me this time was nothing short of painful; Albertine appeared to be conveying, to be making Andree share, some secret and voluptuous thrill.” (page 264)

From this moment forward, the narrator becomes ever increasingly obsessed with Albertine’s possible bi-sexuality.  First, a word about Andree.  She was a significant character in Within a Budding Grove, close to Albertine and at the center of “the little band.”  At several points, the narrator finds himself attracted to her body and charm.  And, apparently from what we read earlier, he has perhaps made-out with Andree previously.  The narrator is, frankly, neurotic about Albertine’s possibly fluid sexuality, but it has nothing to do with Andree.  The interesting thing is, he isn’t upset or annoyed with her in the least, as subsequent interactions prove.  The narrator only sees Andree as a possible means to learn more about Albertine’s true sexuality.

The next time she is unavailable to meet him, he grows suspicious.  “I thought I could detect the presence of pleasures, of people, whom she had preferred to me.”  Obsession will turn into possessiveness as the narrative moves forward.  Every little thing she does arouses vague visions of other people enjoying themselves with her.  But where is love in all this?  “…in the future, my imagination played with the idea that Albertine might, instead of being the good girl that she was, have had the same immorality, the same capacity for deceit as a former prostitute, and I thought of all my sufferings that would in that case have been in store for me if I had happened to love her.” (page 276)

The remainder of Sodom and Gomorrah is filled with deflective declarations of love like this.  Is he saying he loves her? It seems he is just hypothesizing about a love for her.  And yet, much earlier, recall that, as an aside, reflecting on his 14 sensual exploits with the band of girls, he clearly states “I was not yet in love with her.”  So, it seems that he falls in love with her at some point.  But the novel itself makes it difficult to know exactly when.  The reader never reads where he declares his love for Albertine openly to Albertine, it is always only mentioned as a possibility or referred to objectively as “my love for her.” In this way Proust is the ultimate tease.

The narrator, in his budding neurotic jealousy and possessiveness, whisks Albertine away to Doncieres to show her off to his friend, Saint-Loup.  Albertine is obviously attracted to Robert, which actually relieves the narrator somewhat.  At least it is another guy.  But, soon, even her simple, youthful flirting with Saint-Loup is a source of resentment for her.  How could she!

The rest of the chapter, some 150 pages, is consumed with another social gathering.  It is an evening event at Mme Verdurin’s summer villa.  This gives the reader a break from the increasingly neurotic relationship of our narrator with his girlfriend and also introduces us to the relationship between M. de Charles and Morel.

One of the most shocking things for me as a reader, and it affects me as much this third time through as it did the first, is the off-handed manner with which the narrator informs us of the death of Charles Swann, who has played such a fundamental role in the novel so far.  We learn of this third-handedly, as it were.  Mme Verdurin is speaking of her association with the Princess de Caprarola who, in turn, “even mentioned the Verdurins’ name in the course of a visit of condolence which she had paid to Mme Swann after the death of her husband…” (page 364)

I am floored.  After all these pages, Proust only bothers to tell the reader of Swann’s end through gossip, with no details whatsoever, without even mentioning his name.  By trivializing the death of Swann is such a way, Proust is showing us the ultimate triviality of all our lives.  The man who is the focus of much of the first book, who loved Odette so passionately, who somehow ended up marrying her after she had lost all interest in him, with whom she had given birth to Gilberte, ends up as nothing more than a passing phrase of party conversation.  Very harsh.

Shortly after this, amidst the small talk of the gathering, the overarching narrator returns for a moment to project Proust’s philosophy of sexuality into old age.  He recalls “a glorious girl,” smoking a cigarette, with “…magnolia skin, her dark eyes, the bold and admirable composition of her forms.”  He only saw her one time and never identified her, but she keeps returning to his memory.  “I find myself at times, when I think of her, seized by a wild longing…We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time.  And so on until the unforeseen day, gloomy as a winter night, when one no longer seeks that girl, or any other, when to find her would actually scare one.  For one no longer feels that one has attractions enough to please, or strength enough to love.  Not, of course, that one is in the strict sense of the word impotent.  And for loving, one would love more than ever.  But one feels it is too big an undertaking for the little strength one has left…One can no longer face the strain of keeping up with the young.  Too bad if carnal desire increases instead of languishing!” (pp. 381 – 382)

The narrator’s memories continue to drift throughout the party.  He is worried about a conversation he had with his mother earlier that afternoon.  It pertains, almost abruptly, to his consideration of marrying Albertine.  His mother thinks Albertine “has good qualities” but that he “could certainly do a great deal better in terms of marriage.”  This throws him into a “state of doubt” about his relationship with Albertine and he decides to wait a little longer “so as to find out whether I really loved her.”  Again, love is expressed objectively and with hesitation, never directly with confidence.  Our slightly (thus far) neurotic narrator is experiencing psychological turmoil.

The party continues with the arrival of various guests, some of their back stories, conversations on gardening and art, typical Proustian stuff by this point in the novel.  At one point M. de Charlus and Morel, already in a relationship, play some music together.  Mme Verdurin has a competent sense for music and art, and Morel, a rising, greatly gifted violinist, is one of the prized “possessions” of her salon.  What is unexpected is the “exquisite” piano accompaniment by the Baron of the difficult sonata for violin and piano by Faure.  Other short pieces are performed afterward until Morel, tired of being put on display, insists on a game of cards to pass the remainder of the evening.

To be continued…

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Reading Proust: Beginning Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth book of In Search of Lost Time, is the last section of the novel to be fully completed by Proust and the last to be published before his death.  It begins by overlapping a seemingly minor occurrence in The Guermantes Way.  On page 784 of the previous book, the reader finds the narrator venturing out early one morning to visit the Duke and Duchess Guermantes upon their return to Paris.  But, he is too early, they have yet to arrive.  Later that afternoon, he decides to wait for their carriage, out of sight so as not to be too conspicuous upon their return, upon a staircase in the courtyard.  At which time he reports to have made a discovery that the telling of which is “preferable to postpone” so as not to interrupt the narrative of the moment.

The narrator is on the staircase at the start of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Passing time, he is observing the Duchess’ courtyard orchids.  He considers himself an amateur botanist and is wondering if he might observe a random insect entering a pistil that he finds particularly beautiful.  As it turns out, he spots a bumble bee.  He drifts downstairs for a closer look when his attention is unexpectedly directed toward M. de Charlus who crossing the square having just visited his aunt at the Hotel Guermantes, happens upon Jupien, owner of a waistcoat shop in the courtyard.

There begins a brief Proustian comic escapade between the two, who are unaware of the narrator’s presence.  Without speaking, the two men begin to flirt with one another by slight changes in their facial expressions and posturing, like a mating dance between birds.  One blinks a certain way, the other puts his hand on his hip, and so on.  “This scene was not, however, positively comic; it was stamped with strangeness, or if you like a naturalness, the beauty of which steadily increased.” (page 6)

The two make seemingly innocuous small talk until Jupien invites M. de Charles into his shop, adding “you shall have everything you wish.”  The sneaky narrator, his curiosity peaked, becomes disinterested in the bumble bee and maneuvers himself so that he can listen in on (he cannot see into the room) what transpires – which is sex between the two men. 

“For from what I heard at first in Jupien’s quarters, which was only a series on inarticulate sounds, I imagine that few words had been exchanged.  It is true that these sounds were so violent that, if they had not always been taken up an octave higher by a parallel plaint, I might have thought that one person was slitting another’s throat within a few feet of me, and that subsequently the murderer and his resuscitated victim were taking a bath to wash away the sins of their crime.  I concluded from this later on that there is another thing as noisy as pain, namely pleasure…” (page 12)

Up to this point, we have been led to believe in previous sections of the novel that M. de Charlus was, first, the open lover of Mme Swann (the boy narrator sees M. de Charlus from a distance at Tansonville {Swann's country estate}, in Swann’s Way) and, second, that he enjoys sexual pleasure with many different women.  So this will surprise the first-time reader on multiple levels.  Proust’s intent, obviously, is to maximize the shock, particularly in consideration that this was published in 1921.  But, he also uses this moment to springboard into one of the novels best sections, his philosophy on sexuality, which is, in itself, racy for its time.

To the narrator, as M. de Charlus begins the comical courtyard ‘dance’: “…for what was suggested to me by the sight of this man who was so enamored of, who so prided himself upon, his virility, to whom all other men seemed obviously effeminate, what he suddenly suggested to me, to such an extent had he momentarily assumed the features, the expression, the smile, thereof, was a woman.” (page 5)  After he overheard the intercourse, the narrator proclaims that the Baron was a woman in that moment.  “He belonged to that race of beings less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly precisely because their temperament is feminine, and who in ordinary life resemble other men in appearance only; there were each of us carries, inscribed in those eyes through which he beholds everything in the universe, a human form engraves on the surface of the pupil, for them is not that of the nymph but that of an ephebe. “ (page 20)

(As an aside, Proust’s writes longest sentence of the novel during this section.  It lasts for about three pages at 958 words.)

Proust proceeds to discuss the concept of the “man-woman” by describing a how certain men can be so seemingly like a woman when lying in repose in bed in the morning.  “…the invert vice begins, not when he enters into relations, but when he takes his pleasure with women…it is in vain that he keeps back the admission ‘I am a woman’ even from his demanding mistress (even if she is not a denizen of Gomorrah) when all the time, with the cunning, the agility, the obstinacy of a climbing plant, the unconscious but visible woman in him seeks the masculine organ.” (page 29)    

But, Proust is not just speaking of the “deception” of homosexuality.  He offers a wider view which is applicable to all possible sexual relationships, including threesomes, fluidity and a source of jealousy.  “Some – those no doubt who have been most timid in childhood – are not greatly concerned with the kind of physical pleasure they receive, provided they can associate it with a masculine face.  Whereas others, whose sensuality is doubtless more violent, feel an impervious need to localize their physical pleasure.  These latter, perhaps, would shock the average person with their avowels…the second sort seek out those women who love other women, who can procure for them a young man, enhance the pleasure they experience in his company; better still, they can, in the same fashion, take with such women the same pleasure as with a man.  Whence it arises that jealousy is kindled in those who love the first sort only by the pleasure which they may enjoy with a man, which alone seems to their lovers a betrayal, since they do not participate in the love of women…the other sort often inspires jealousy by their love-affairs with women.  For, in their relations with women, they play, for the woman who loves her own sex, the part of another woman, and she offers them at the same time more or less what they find in other men, so that the jealous friend suffers from feeling that the man he loves is riveted to the woman who is to him almost a man, and at the same time feels his beloved almost escape him because, to these women, he is something which the lover himself cannot conceive, a sort of woman.”  (pp. 30- 31)

Needless to say this makes for some rather complex sexual relationships which are probably more prevalent today than they were in 1921.  Proust is largely speaking of his own experience as a homosexual in this passage.  But, clearly his intent is to speak the sexual preferences of women as well.  The narrator, being a young man at this point, speaks mainly from the male perspective with the concept of “man-woman” sexuality.  But he readily ascribes to human sexuality the mixing of genders and sees a sort of yin-yang equality there. He emphasizes, more than pure homosexuality, male bisexuality while taking female bisexuality for granted.  Needless to say, for Proust, sexuality is impossible without jealousy; a dark view but an honest one from his erotic nature.  He doesn’t end on a dark note, however.

After this introspective section, the narrator returns to the story: “M. de Charlus had distracted me from looking to see whether the bumble-bee was bringing to the orchid the pollen it had so long been waiting to receive, and had no chance of receiving, save by accident so unlikely that one might call it a sort of miracle.  But it was a miracle also that I had just witnessed, about the same order and no less marvelous.  As soon as I considered the encounter from this point of view, everything about it seemed to me instinct with beauty.” (page 38)

Interestingly enough Proust designates this short 44-page section as “Part One” of the two-part 724-page volume.  This is indicative of the weight of its substance in comparison with the vastness of “Part Two” which is broken up into four chapters of unequal length.  Chapter One is about 200 pages long, Chapter Two about 270 pages, about 185 pages for Chapter Three while Chapter Four, a momentous moment in the novel, comes in at a mere 25 pages.

Chapter One is one of the funniest and most entertaining portions of the novel.  It features the height of the narrator’s social climb in terms of social events.  He attends a reception given by the Prince and Princess de Guermantes, one step up from the Duke and Duchess.  It starts with the narrator in great anxiety over whether or not he has even been invited to the party as he is about to enter it.  This is “formal” society, even in the afternoon.  “The usher asked me my name, and I gave it to him as mechanically as the condemned man allows himself to be strapped to the block.  At once he lifted his head majestically and, before I could beg him to announce me in a lowered tone so as to spare my own feelings if I were not invited and those of the Princess de Guermantes if I were, roared the disquieting syllables with a force capable of bringing down the roof.” (page 50)  

Halarious.  But Proust is just getting started.  The narrator meets the Princess and is informed by her that the Prince is in the garden.  The narrator’s objective, from that point forward, is to be introduced to the Prince for the first time.  Feeling awkward that the Duke and Duchess have yet to arrive (late again!) and recognizing only M. de Charlus at the large affair, he wades through a sea of strangers toward the great room’s doorway leading to the garden.  But he is almost immediately intercepted by a fellow piece of “debris” at the gathering, Professor E---.  The narrator tries to make use of him, but… 

“As he knew absolutely nobody there, and could not wander about indefinitely by himself like a minister of death, having recognized me he had discovered for the first time in his life that he had an infinite number of things to say to me, which enabled him to keep some sort of countenance.” (page 54)  The narrator manages to escape the clinging clutches of the professor when he sees a Marquis with which he is acquainted.  Perhaps he can secure his introduction via that route.

But when he attempts this he is inadvertently consumed by the Marquis’ wife.  “The instinctive attraction which urged Mme de Vaugoubert towards me was so strong that she went as far as to seize my arm so that I might take her to get a glass of orangeade.  But I extricated myself on the pretext that I must presently be going, and had not yet been introduced to our host.  The distance between me and the garden door where he {the Prince} stood talking to a group of people was not very great.  But it alarmed me more than if, in order to cross it, I had had to expose myself to a continuous hail of fire.” (pp. 63 – 64)

One interesting aspect of the novel is that the narrator rarely mentions anything about himself that would cause him to be endeared by these high class elites.  We know he was introduced to them initially through his friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup, who is one of their class.  After that, everyone willingly accepts him into their salons, parties, and dinners.  We also know is that he is the young man of a father of some renown, perhaps a diplomat or international businessman.  Without the narrator saying so, it is most likely due to his youth, rather than his background, that older women find him so appealing.  He is intercepted by another such woman in route to the garden door.

Only this time, the narrator does something that he hasn’t up until this point of the novel.  He knows the name of this woman but he cannot recall it, then, at the party.  Proust uses this moment to have a little fun with something he has had a lot of serious philosophical things to say about to this point – memory.  Having to awkwardly begin a conversation with someone who knows us but whose name escapes us is something almost everyone has experienced.  The narrator claims to quickly have caught himself, however, and the name soon came to him during their conversation.

Now, incredibly, the overarching narrator interrupts the young man narrator within the story itself to poke fun at him.  “…allow me, dear author, to waste a moment of your time by telling you that it is a pity that, young as you were (or your hero was, if he isn’t you), you had already so feeble a memory that you could not remember the name of the lady that you knew quite well.” (page 69)  There is a lot to unpack in that sentence.  First of all, two different levels of the novel’s narration reveal themselves to the reader, the overarching narrator critiques the other narrator.  Secondly, Proust obviously parodies his method of narration in the novel.  To what extent is the novel autobiographical?  That is one of the most controversial aspects of the novel.  For Proust, a literary critic of his time, to treat it so off-handedly reveals a subtle and profound sense of literary humor.  It is funny and high-art at the same time.

Finally, our narrator, young again, comes to the Prince in the garden.  Predictably, especially in the humorous spirit of this part of the story, the payoff of meeting the Prince is a mediocre experience.  From his haughty position of dignity, he greets the young man with a simple “Sir.”  The narrator is virtually star-struck until the Prince, in an effort to fill the void, utters: “’Do you plan to follow the career of your distinguished father?’ he inquired with a distant but interested air.  I answered the question briefly, realizing he asked it only out of politeness, and moved away to allow him to welcome new arrivals.

“I caught sight of Swann, and wanted to speak to him, but at that moment I saw the Prince de Guermantes, instead of waiting where he was to receive the greeting of Odette’s husband, had immediately carried him off, with the force of a suction pump, to the further end of the garden, in order, some people say, ‘to show him the door.’  So bewildered in the midst of the glittering company that I did not learn until two days later, from the newspapers, that a Czech orchestra had been playing throughout the evening, and that fireworks had been going off in constant succession.” (page 75)

But the farce is not over.  The narrator gets ahead of himself.  He is still at the reception, interacting with other people.  At one point: “There was a sort of royal procession to the buffet, at the head of which walked Her Majesty on the arm of the Duke de Guermantes.  I happened to arrive at that moment.  With his free hand the Duke conveyed to me from a distance of nearly fifty yards, countless signs of friendly welcome, which appeared to mean that I need not be afraid to approach, that I should not be devoured alive instead like sandwiches.  But I, who was becoming word-perfect in the language of the court, instead of going even one step nearer, made a deep bow from where I was, without smiling, the sort of bow that I should have made to someone I scarcely knew, then proceeded in the opposite direction.  Had I written a masterpiece, the Guermantes would have given me less credit for it than I earned by that bow.”  The narrator learns later though his mother that the Duchess: “…said that her husband had been lost in admiration of the bow, that it would have been impossible for anyone to put more into it.” (pp. 84 – 85)  

This simple bow is, perhaps, the social high-point of the novel for the narrator and reminds us that form always conquers substance at such gatherings.  Eventually the narrator meets Saint-Loup.  Robert is on 48 hours leave.  The two discuss M. de Charlus with the narrator attempting to verify that Robert is certain of the Baron being a womanizer.  Robert simply shrugs his shoulders, says he doesn’t blame the older gentleman and points to how de Charlus is carrying on with certain women at the reception.

Then the conversation turns to a subject that will sexually haunt the narrator off and on for the remainder of the novel.  Robert tells him that Mme Putbus has a chambermaid that “I tell you frankly, I’ve never seen such a gorgeous creature.”  This chambermaid will never actually appear in the novel.  But the idea of her as seen through Saint-Loup’s eyes conjures obsession, closely aligned with jealousy in Proust’s sexual philosophy.  It plays into his theory of memory as well, melding with another girl Robert has mentioned.

“Ever since Saint-Loup had spoken to me of a young girl of good family who frequented a house of ill-fame, and of the Baroness Putbus’s chambermaid, it was in these two persons that had now become coalesced and embodied the desires inspired in me day by day by countless beauties of two classes, on the one hand the vulgar and magnificent, the majestic lady’s-maids of great houses, swollen with pride and saying ‘we’ in speaking of duchesses. And on the other hand those girls of whom it was enough sometimes, without even having seen them go past in carriages or on foot, to have read the names in the account of a ball for me to fall in love with them…I fuse together all the most exquisite fleshly matter to compose, after ideal outline traced from me by Saint-Loup, the young girl of easy virtue and Mme Putbus’s maid, my two possessible beauties…” (page 166)

Robert and the narrator are joined briefly by Swann, who is showing signs of his illness.  Swann is aware of the gossip caused by the Prince abruptly taking him away for a private conversation.  In truth, it was a conversation about the Dreyfus Affair and the Prince was merely telling Swann that he now believes that Dreyfus is innocent.  Swann then adds:  “'People are very inquisitive.  I’ve never been inquisitive, except when I was in love, and when I was jealous.  And a lot I ever learned!  Are you jealous?’  I told Swann that I had never experienced jealousy, that I did not even know what it was. ‘Well, you can count yourself lucky.  A little jealousy is not too unpleasant, for two reasons.  In the first place, it enables people who are not inquisitive to take interest in other lives, or of one other at any rate.  And then it makes one feel the pleasure of possession, of getting into a carriage with a woman, of not allowing her to go about by herself.” (page 139) This reveals to the reader a bit more on Proust’s philosophy of love while simultaneously being foreboding about what is about to happen to the narrator.  Swann, in passing, refers vaguely to the darker aspects of jealousy and possessiveness as a “disease.”

Swann encourages the narrator to write Gilberte sometime, she’d love to hear from him.  The narrator is unmotivated to do so, however, as he is no longer interested in her.  Now that he has met her and socialized with her, he is no longer attracted to the Mme Guermantes either.  Nor is he interested in Albertine outside of “purely sensual desire” which he hopes to fulfill following the reception.  But Albertine is late for their date.  For the first time, the narrator feels a tinge of jealousy himself because he does not believe her excuse for being tardy.  Nevertheless, they proceed to “caresses and kisses.”  After which, he ceases to see her for some time in order to explore “other fairies and their dwellings.”   

To be continued…

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Lightning Bugs

A freeze frame of a rather blurry video I took tonight capturing about 15 fireflies as they flashed simultaneously in my front yard.
Living in the countryside, surrounded by more pasture and woods than houses, more cattle and chickens than people, each month of its own holds a natural spectacle that I look forward to and by which mark the passage of time.  In April, it is the brief, fragrant blooming of the Sweet Shrub, for example.  I associate June with Fireflies.  

Come around sundown, especially in recent days, I venture to my front porch which has a clear view to the west.  I watch the orange glow of the setting sun, sometimes reflected and expanded by clouds, sometimes just giving way to a big, darkening blue sky.  I love the feeling of this expansive space.  I have enjoyed thousands of marvelous sunsets from this very spot.  Many times, I have witnessed heat lightning over Alabama, some 30 miles away, on nights when storms approach from there.

My front yard measures close to an acre.  Far from my porch and taking up part of my western view is a large privet hedgerow that I basically allowed to grow there since 1993.  The hedge was small and sporadic when my house was built.  It could have been easily chainsawed away over a few days of manual labor.  Now it would take a bulldozer to handle it, though if that be the case the clearing would consume less than a day.  Progress, I guess.

As it is today the hedgerow is too thick to see through, so it hides the vehicles that randomly, mostly singularly, run up and down my road.  The birds love the large shrub canopy and make a big fuss sometimes as they flit about inside a hedge world whereas just outside, several hundred feet away through an open field, there is me sitting on my porch, looking over the hedgerow to a short ridge about 40 acres away.  There is only a large barn (mostly hidden by the hedgerow), a bunch of cattle, and a few horses between me and the tree line on the horizon.

You will see them as the sun starts to set beyond the ridge.  My large open front yard is filled with many hundreds of fireflies all in my mowed grass.  As the direct light of the sun vanishes, on cue, they begin to take flight from the ground and rise slowly.  Not all of them at once, but a few, just here and there to start with.  It isn’t that dark yet so you might not even notice them if you aren’t looking for them.

Then, as the light truly starts of fade and the world bathed in the hues of creeping darkness, more of them ascend at more frequent intervals so that the yard becomes a multileveled attraction of dozens and dozens of fireflies firing off randomly, alternately singular and in scattered groupings.  Occasionally masses of them will sync-up, firing at once like a trail of sparklers.

Fireworks, less obtrusive yet no less wondrous than those that people shoot on the Fourth of July, suddenly seem everywhere over my lawn.  Silently but brightly flickering, the insects fly upward, inch by inch, not in the least hurried by the coming of the evening sky.  Sometimes they will come to the shrubbery around the porch and hover there, flashing every few seconds.  I can stand up and walk up to them.  They do not recognize me.  They simply continue slowly upward, their haphazard brightness inches from my face.

By now the whole space above my yard is filled with fireflies gloriously firing in random patterns.  Even after a tough day I can come out here in June and observe them, sort of basking in them.  It never ceases to impress me and make me feel better.  They are like champagne that way, or a fresh shower. But soon the firing dissipates.  The first are the highest and stop altogether, the rest slow down and, as the swarm filters out into my woods and the land around me, they merely flash now and then; their dispersal is not the spectacle of their rising.

When I was a kid, and sometimes today, I called them “Lightning Bugs.”  I would chase them barefoot in the twilight of my parent’s farm.  At first I just caught them and watched the crawl around my open hand, waiting for the bug to flash on my skin and then flash again as it lifting from my hand, away.  When I was a pre-teen I would catch them with my cousins whenever they visited and, giggling, we’d put them in glass jars.  It was cool to watch a few dozen of them continue to flash in my bedroom as I was falling asleep.  We made sure to put aluminum foil over the jar lids and puncture little holes in it for ventilation.  I knew if I closed them up in a jar they would die.  Most of them would live until morning when I would set them free. 

Then, of course, there were the crueler times when I’d catch them and crush them in my grasp, pressing with the tip of my thumb.  When you squash a lightning bug it will often die continuously glowing, bright but not flashing at all.  This fades, of course, with the decay of whatever it is that makes these bugs work.  I don’t regret killing any of the many lightning bugs when I was a child.  I was a kid, they were merely entertainment for me.  

Summer backpacking and camping trips often include fireflies.  The most I’ve ever seen was one year at Swan Cabin, though I no longer recall exactly when.  I remember standing on the edge of the tall grassy, shrubby meadow beside the old cabin we only used to store our stuff, everyone camped in tents all around.  There were multitudes of the bugs, far more than what I have in my front yard, putting off a vibrant display that pulsed at times.  It was a remarkable moment, my best memory from that North Carolina mountain retreat.   

What a pity so many human beings, whether by living in the city or by being transfixed by their phones, never behold the wonder of the rising fireflies in twilight.  I am grateful that I do.  It is part of experiencing a space for so long it becomes a place.  A place where things change slowly, if at all.  A place where Junes are populated by thousands of distinct bugs. Then there are fireworks for free every sunset and sometimes it seems that I have it all to myself.  I accept my lifetime of lightning bugs and marvel at them still, as if I am that kid, laughing and chasing them with my cousins barefoot in the early evening.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Watching Chernobyl

Note: This review is full of spoilers, although a lot more happens than I mention here.

I barely remember Chernobyl.  It happened when I was 26 years old, just back from India.  The full extent of the disaster was unknown outside the Soviet Union in those days.  All the western public knew was based upon distant radiation readings in (then) West Germany and in Sweden and US satellite photographs.  Information was not so easily accessed or disseminated as it is today.  We had to mail letters to our friends far away.  They took days to get there.  Long-distance telephone calling was expensive.

Since then quite a bit has been uncovered by the world about the nuclear plant explosion at Chernobyl.  These past decades, I haven’t really been paying attention to new nuclear facts about events at the end of the Cold War.  So, for example, while I knew they had to construct a containment structure to secure the reactor, I never really learned the wider story of the debacle – and how close it came to becoming a global catastrophe. 

HBO’s Chernobyl is a dramatization of this historic event.  It is not without its flaws in its depiction of history.  For example, in the TV show a helicopter hovers briefly over the smoldering reactor and crashes from the intense radiation.  In reality, there was a chopper crash but it had nothing directly to do with the reactor.  So, there are some dramatic liberties taken. But the series is nevertheless true to the general reality of the situation in 1986, with striking effect.  It is well-written, extremely well-acted with three very fine performances supported by a effective cast, it is authentic to the rather dispiriting culture of the now-failed Soviet state, and it does not overly sensationalize the general events of that time.

The three great performances are delivered by Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, and Jared Harris.  Watson depicts Ulana Khomyuk, a fictionalized representation of the dozens of nuclear physicists and other scientists within the Soviet Union who raced against time to solve the complex problems presented by the explosion.  She is brilliant, gritty, unflinching, determined, yet measured.  Watson delivers Khomyuk as an equal to anyone she encounters, and superior to many.  Watson's acting provides the foundation upon which the other performances are grounded.  She is the first scientist outside of Chernobyl to discover the radiation leak and to deduce it came from an exploding reactor some 500 kilometers away.  

Skarsgard plays a real figure, Boris Shcherbina, a mid-level Communist Party official.  I have admired Skarsgard in previous performances.  He is very competent and here gives us a level-headed, no-nonsense bureaucrat with a sharp, dry sense of humor.  He is appointed by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (in a solid, if brief, performance by David Dencik) to visit the damaged reactor at Chernobyl and report back to the specially formed committee.  The more he learns, the deeper he is immersed by the undeniable magnitude of the tragedy, the more bedraggled he becomes.  Until his body seems to be almost just hanging there in space, while his face droops, weighted down by what his responsibilities.  First, nuclear contamination to more than 50 million people must be prevented, then he has to clean-up the unparalleled mess.  He ultimately calls the shots and orders everything needed for the massive operation that unfolds throughout the minseries.

He is ordering all of this equipment, men and materials at the request of Valery Legasov, Deputy Director of the country’s foremost nuclear research center in Moscow, portrayed extraordinarily by Jared Harris.  This nuclear physicist is being challenged by something that has never happened on the face of the earth before, a nuclear power plant meltdown following an explosion of its core, something every Soviet physicist agrees is impossible with this particular type of reactor.

Those plant workers who survived the explosion, along with many firemen who were initially sent to extinguish the enormous radioactive fire, are quickly airlifted to Moscow’s best hospital for treatment from radiation burns. Watson goes there to interview the plant operators “while they are still alive” in order collect data in an attempt to ascertain what could have possibly caused the explosion.  Meanwhile, Skarsgard and Harris, having finally contained the radiation fire (which belched radioactivity into the air for weeks, contaminating all animal and plant life, including the soil, not to mention thousands of humans), must next contend with a core meltdown that will eat through the protective pad under the reactor in about 4 weeks.

Harris plays an expert, highly knowledgeable scientist.  Although he doesn't understand how the reactor could have exploded, he knows the consequences of the subsequent decisions he makes.  He knows that to put out the reactor fire will require transforming it into a chaotic threat to the ground water table should it burn through that pad.  He determines that if miners can burrow under the reactor pad then a massive heat exchanger can be installed that will stop the meltdown.  In the meantime, he is dealing the fact that he is a dead man.  He already knows that the amount of constant radiation in the atmosphere he is working in will kill him a few years time.

Jared Harris is my new favorite living actor.  He played the lead masterfully in last year’s The Terror.  As Legasov, he is a great improviser, constantly frustrated with the Soviet state’s slowness to grasp the significance of the problem as well as his own inability to explain it to the non-scientific Party bureaucrats that are essential to make urgent and necessary things happen. Harris deftly conveys a character dealing with the complex demands of the radioactive cataclysm while wrestling with internal disturbance of his mortality and his utter helplessness but for the aid that Boris can provide at his request.

Harris teams up with Watson after her return from Moscow and ultimately determines what caused the explosion.  To oversimplify it, the relatively inexpensive use of graphite tips on the nuclear reactor rods could create a momentary burst of energy if they were reinserted under the unusual conditions created largely through human error at Chernobyl.  It was when the graphite hit the over-reactive core that the explosion occurred. 

To inform the audience of the technical complexity, Chernobyl uses the trial of the three men held accountable for the disaster which occurs in the final episode to fully explain the conditions that made the explosion possible.  Similarly, the series uses the special committee meetings in the beginning and middle episodes as a platform where Harris can explain the complex and incomparable situation to the state officials (and hence to the audience).

The series does a terrific job of capturing the rather muted and drab living conditions in the Soviet Union with paint peeling off all the walls and everything looking a bit grimy.  The instrumental details of the nuclear reactor control room are faithfully reproduced, as are the more mundane aspects of life such as mannerisms, clothing, furnishings, antiquated telephone systems, and widespread cigarette smoking to create an authenticity within which the drama powerfully plays out.

To help humanize the narrative, there is a side-story of one of the first responders (played by Adam Nagaitis, who was also excellent in The Terror).  His heroic but futile attempt to put out a fire he did not know can’t be extinguished with mere water exposes him to the radioactive core.  Then he is airlifted to Moscow for treatment. His pregnant wife (superbly portrayed by Jessie Buckley),  proceeds to fight through the security and bureaucracy to find him.  Only to witness the horrific transformation of his burns over several days until, writhing in pain, he dies and is buried with the other immediate victims, in lead coffins covered with cement. 

Chernobyl is a dramatization, not a documentary.  Despite its flaws and liberties with the actual course of events, it does not stray far from the general facts.  It creates spectacular, often heart-pounding, tension out of some fairly esoteric circumstances.  The workings of reactors and radiation make for mysterious enemies.  A reactor exploded when it shouldn’t have.  It rained radiation down on an area that eventually required 750,000 people to clean-up.  It almost contaminated a key river system in the Ukraine, along with all the land, forests, animals, towns and cities bordering the rivers.  But that was stopped.  Barely.  Between 4,000 and 93,000 people died as a result of all that radiation exposure.  Official Soviet propaganda admitted to a mere 31 deaths.

I was captivated by the fantastic intimate bleakness of this series.  Even though only about one million of us watched it in the US (with almost as many British viewers too), Chernobyl is a bona fide hit with both its viewers and the critics.  It captures a certain aspect of our zeitgeist.  It presently enjoys the highest IMDB rating of any film or television series in history, passing such admired series as Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and such films as The Godfather.  Jared Harris’ performance is magnificent and is already garnering a lot of Emmy buzz.  Rarely has so much dark yet fascinating and compelling entertainment been packed into a mere five episodes.  I'm not sure the series is truly better than the aforementioned programs/films but it is certainly the best thing on television I've seen this year.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Wolfgang Rihm: Music for Violin and Orchestra

Proof of purchase.

Naxos has given us two new CDs of music by contemporary classical composer Wolfgang Rihm.  I have admired Rihm’s music for many years.  His creative output is enormous and most of his 400-plus compositions have never been recorded, many have not even been performed.   His music ranges from dissonant to lyrical, from complex to accessible, and it varies throughout all forms of instruments.  Rihm is a true prolific genius of the classical music realm.

These new CDs collect what are essentially violin concertos of various lengths ranging from about 16 minutes to almost 31 minutes.  Both were recorded in March 2016 with Volume 1 becoming available late last year and Volume 2 just out this spring.  Being hypermodern, Rihm doesn’t bother with traditional forms of musical classification as the six named works featured here attest.  Volume 1 features both the earliest and the most recent violin orchestrations.

Dritte Musik is from 1993 and runs a little over 17 and half minutes.  As the name implies (“Third Music” in English) this was Rihm’s third foray into violin concertante.  Solo violin and percussion rupture out of nothing with the violin erratically bowed and plucked.  Violent passion and contemplative silence alternate and punctuate throughout the piece.  I find the percussion to be marvelous as the violin dances around, eventually giving way to the larger orchestra ebbing and flowing.  The multiple moments of reflective calm are constantly interrupted with glorious bursts and stabbing chords of orchestral power until the piece concludes almost imperceptibly with a few isolated chords by the violin. 

Lichtzwang was composed 1975-76 and is a much more atmospheric piece.  The orchestra is front and center here with woodwinds and flutes most forcefully accompanying the violin, which often shrieks with long-sustained notes at high registers like rays of light ripping through the sonic clouds of orchestration.  This gathers an ever-increasing sense of urgency, tempestuously until, suddenly, everything becomes nostalgically sweet; only momentarily, of course.  Electric organ adds an almost chorale effect to the piece.  Then, near the end, silence becomes the atmosphere through which violin, organ and supporting orchestra explore various ideas, fading away.

Composed in 2014, Gerdicht des Malers (“Poem of the Painter”) is one of my favorite pieces in this collection.  At 16:08 this music is shortest piece in the two-CD collection.  It is also a more delicate, subtle and whimsical work than the other offerings.  The combativeness often apparent in the previous pieces is set aside for something more like rumination, if not actually harmonic.  The typical Rihm passion is still here but the gentle sonic explorations make for a more pleasurable listening experience.  This is certainly one of the more accessible pieces offered.

CD Two begins with one of Rihm’s most performed works, Gesungene Zeit (“Time Chant”).  Composed in 1991-92, this is easily the most emotional piece in the collection, probably the quality that leads to its popularity.  The violin emerges softly, ethereal with wonderfully relaxed, layered sonic textures.  A massive work almost 28-minutes in length, this single-movement, concerto-like piece gradually adds more and more instruments to the melancholy mix until a certain rhythm is realized.  One of the most distinguishing characteristics of this work is the fact the violinist plays continuously, without pause, from start to finish.  The centerpiece of the work is a bit more agitated, but this only serves as a refreshing break from the otherwise measured nature of the composition.  The final portion exposes us to a swarm of strings, strong, slow horns, and a return to the otherworldly essence that makes this work a thing of true beauty.  Here and there, Rihm makes splendid use of silence and absence again as the music journeys to closure in singular, isolated notes on the violin.

Whenever I acquire new music by Rihm, I become acquainted with it over a series of obsessive hearings.  Initially, most of it feels foreign and not relatable to my amateurish musical palette.   Gradually, however, certain pieces stick in my head and I find myself joyfully ruminating over specific phrases.  Such is the case with Lichtes Spiel (2009) whose opening is hauntingly beautiful.  Aspects of it remind me of Anton Webern and Bela Bartok, both of whom I’m sure are inspirations to Rihm.  The opening is eloquent yet sophisticated.  The entire 17 and a half minute piece captives me with a sense of being constantly on the edge of familiarity without ever actually achieving such ease.  This is my favorite piece in the collection.  

COLL’ARCO completes the collection.  This concerto is the longest of the works presented, lasting just slightly under 31 minutes.  Composed in 2007-2008, this is the only work I was already familiar with, having first heard it back in 2013.  Initially, there is a dream-like, almost pastoral quality to this music.  Soon the violin becomes more aggressive, however, the music more ominous and brooding, despite brief moments of tenderness.  The ending affords the opportunity for much virtuosity by the violinist and concludes unexpectedly with a simple evaporation of sound after such a sprawling sonic journey.  Poof!  The work as a whole features more technique than passion.

Altogether, these 2 CDs are an exciting addition of my classical collection by one of my favorite living composers.  His credentials are a prolific and powerful catalog of music in every aspect of the classical genre from opera to solo works.  These violin pieces show his multifaceted talents are equally influenced by avant-garde and late Romantic styles.  The liner notes to CD 1 summarize Rihm’s massive body of work superbly: “Contemporary without being self-consciously ‘modern’, while making relatively infrequent recourse to the novel or unorthodox playing techniques favored by his contemporaries, these works are free in their evolution while lacking nothing in formal logic or expressive consistency – thereby making for music as cohesive as it is thought-provoking.”