Monday, September 12, 2016

"I am greedier than any of you"

    Meanwhile M. Verdurin, after first asking Swann's permission to light his pipe ("No ceremony here, you understand; we're all pals!"), went and begged the young musician to sit down at the piano.
    "Leave him alone; don't bother him; he hasn't come here to be tormented," cried Mme. Verdurin. "I won't have him tormented."
    "But why on earth should it bother him?" rejoined M. Verdurin. "I'm sure M. Swann has never heard the sonata in F sharp which we discovered; he is going to play us the pianoforte arrangement."
    "No, no, no, not my sonata!" she screamed, "I don't want to be made to cry until I get a cold in the head, and neuralgia all down my face, like last time; thanks very much, I don't intend to repeat that performance; you are all very kind and considerate; it is easy to see that none of you will have to stay in bed, for a week."
    This little scene, which was re-enacted as often as the young pianist sat down to play, never failed to delight the audience, as though each of them were witnessing it for the first time, as a proof of the seductive originality of the 'Mistress' as she was styled, and of the acute sensitiveness of her musical 'ear.' Those nearest to her would attract the attention of the rest, who were smoking or playing cards at the other end of the room, by their cries of 'Hear, hear!' which, as in Parliamentary debates, shewed that something worth listening to was being said. And next day they would commiserate with those who had been prevented from coming that evening, and would assure them that the 'little scene' had never been so amusingly done.
    "Well, all right, then," said M. Verdurin, "he can play just the andante."
    "Just the andante! How you do go on," cried his wife. "As if it weren't 'just the andante' that breaks every bone in my body. The 'Master' is really too priceless! Just as though, 'in the Ninth,' he said 'we need only have the finale,' or 'just the overture' of the Meistersinger."
    The Doctor, however, urged Mme. Verdurin to let the pianist play, not because he supposed her to be malingering when she spoke of the distressing effects that music always had upon her, for he recognised the existence of certain neurasthenic states—but from his habit, common to many doctors, of at once relaxing the strict letter of a prescription as soon as it appeared to jeopardise, what seemed to him far more important, the success of some social gathering at which he was present, and of which the patient whom he had urged for once to forget her dyspepsia or headache formed an essential factor.
    "You won't be ill this time, you'll find," he told her, seeking at the same time to subdue her mind by the magnetism of his gaze. "And, if you are ill, we will cure you."
    "Will you, really?" Mme. Verdurin spoke as though, with so great a favour in store for her, there was nothing for it but to capitulate. Perhaps, too, by dint of saying that she was going to be ill, she had worked herself into a state in which she forgot, occasionally, that it was all only a 'little scene,' and regarded things, quite sincerely, from an invalid's point of view. For it may often be remarked that invalids grow weary of having the frequency of their attacks depend always on their own prudence in avoiding them, and like to let themselves think that they are free to do everything that they most enjoy doing, although they are always ill after doing it, provided only that they place themselves in the hands of a higher authority which, without putting them to the least inconvenience, can and will, by uttering a word or by administering a tabloid, set them once again upon their feet.
    Odette had gone to sit on a tapestry-covered sofa near the piano, saying to Mme. Verdurin, "I have my own little corner, haven't I?"
    And Mme. Verdurin, seeing Swann by himself upon a chair, made him get up. "You're not at all comfortable there; go along and sit by Odette; you can make room for M. Swann there, can't you, Odette?"
    "What charming Beauvais!" said Swann, stopping to admire the sofa before he sat down on it, and wishing to be polite.
    "I am glad you appreciate my sofa," replied Mme. Verdurin, "and I warn you that if you expect ever to see another like it you may as well abandon the idea at once. They never made any more like it. And these little chairs, too, are perfect marvels. You can look at them in a moment. The emblems in each of the bronze mouldings correspond to the subject of the tapestry on the chair; you know, you combine amusement with instruction when you look at them;—I can promise you a delightful time, I assure you. Just look at the little border around the edges; here, look, the little vine on a red background in this one, the Bear and the Grapes. Isn't it well drawn? What do you say? I think they knew a thing or two about design! Doesn't it make your mouth water, this vine? My husband makes out that I am not fond of fruit, because I eat less than he does. But not a bit of it, I am greedier than any of you, but I have no need to fill my mouth with them when I can feed on them with my eyes. What are you all laughing at now, pray? Ask the Doctor; he will tell you that those grapes act on me like a regular purge. Some people go to Fontainebleau for cures; I take my own little Beauvais cure here. But, M. Swann, you mustn't run away without feeling the little bronze mouldings on the backs. Isn't it an exquisite surface? No, no, not with your whole hand like that; feel them properly!"
    "If Mme. Verdurin is going to start playing about with her bronzes," said the painter, "we shan't get any music to-night."
From Swann in Love. When I read these scenes, I think that I've seen this party before, and then I remember the gatherings with the Veneers and the Podsnaps in Our Mutual Friend, though the Podsnaps are more like Marcel's family than they are like the Verderins, so bound by custom. They are all judgmental, though, in their own ways. Swann in Love is a funny book, hysterically so in places, even if Proust can be as mean spirited as the characters he lampoons.

I have also just noticed the theme of invalids who construct and maintain their own infirmities, a recurring motif of Swann's Way. Everyone in Proust's world is an invalid, suffering under imaginary disabilities.


  1. I wonder why Proust would populate his fictional world with
    "everyone" as "invalid, suffering under imaginary disabilities." I wonder if there is an author projection involved. Hey, I have no idea about the answer, but you posit such an interesting motif that the question arises. On an unrelated note, I recall a colleague who so completely identified with Proust (personally and professionally) that he immersed himself in Proustian reading, research, and writing; he also made sure people knew he was "suffering" in life. I wonder if there is a connection and answer lurking in all of that babbling.

  2. Postscript: In spite of the colleague's Proustian phase, he eventually snapped out of it, and he went on to teach in Europe and writer crime/mystery fiction. He also managed to get badly beaten by several fellows after making sexual advances to the wrong fellow in a Moroccan bar. But he survived. Weird fellow!

    1. But who among us hasn't made that mistake?

  3. Part of what Proust is doing, at least in Swann's Way, is mocking himself and his various delicate natures. The Aunt Leonie character is said to be a parody of Proust himself. Aunt Leonie has to remind herself that she's an invalid, that "of course I never sleep a wink." Her helpless state is an active role she takes in the family, something she does rather than something that happens to her.

  4. "I don't believe any of you suffer as I do," cried Amy, "for you don't have to go to school with impertinent girls, who plague you if you don't know your lessons, and laugh at your dresses, and label your father if he isn't rich, and insult you when your nose isn't nice."

    "If you mean libel, I'd say so, and not talk about labels, as if Papa was a pickle bottle," advised Jo, laughing.

    "I know what I mean, and you needn't be statirical about it. It's proper to use good words, and improve your vocabilary," returned Amy, with dignity.

    from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Marcel Proust (1919).

  5. I wonder if there is a good study of Romantic/Victorian/Edwardian invalidism. I think of Sophia Peabody (Hawthorne) and Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) and Alice James in particular. Being an invalid allowed certain privileges, including time to dream and create. And I am reminded of the uncle in "The Woman in White," who is rather odious but intent on dreaming over his artifacts ("playing about") and being a hothouse flower.

    1. That would be an interesting study. I don't know anything about the history of illness, of depression, of the lives of moneyed women, etc etc.

      But I also thought about that uncle, with his delicate humors, his abused footman and his disdain for all visitors. I know people who aspire to that sort of attitude.

    2. It does take considerable wealth to carry it off without being disabused of the notion that one is so very important, I imagine.

  6. I looooove the idea that the Marches are somehow hanging out with Andrée and Albertine at Balbec.

    1. Laurie could also easily be a Proust character, especially once he starts slumming around Europe.