Friday, November 18, 2016

Marcel's swimming trunks I was coming by myself past the Casino on my way back to the hotel, I had the sensation of being watched by somebody who was not far off. I turned my head and saw a man of about forty, very tall and rather stout, with a very dark moustache, who, nervously slapping the leg of his trousers with a switch, kept fastened upon me a pair of eyes dilated with observation. Every now and then those eyes were shot through by a look of intense activity such as the sight of a person whom they do not know excites only in men to whom, for whatever reason, it suggests thoughts that would not occur to anyone else—madmen, for instance, or spies. He trained upon me a supreme stare at once bold, prudent, rapid and profound, like a last shot which one fires at an enemy at the moment when one turns to flee, and, after first looking all round him, suddenly adopting an absent and lofty air, by an abrupt revolution of his whole body turned to examine a playbill on the wall in the reading of which he became absorbed, while he hummed a tune and fingered the moss-rose in his buttonhole. He drew from his pocket a note-book in which he appeared to be taking down the title of the performance that was announced, looked two or three times at his watch, pulled down over his eyes a black straw hat the brim of which he extended with his hand held out over it like a visor, as though to see whether some one were at last coming, made the perfunctory gesture of annoyance by which people mean to shew that they have waited long enough, although they never make it when they are really waiting, then pushing back his hat and exposing a scalp cropped close except at the sides where he allowed a pair of waved 'pigeon's-wings' to grow quite long, he emitted the loud panting breath that people give who are not feeling too hot but would like it to be thought that they were. He gave me the impression of a 'hotel crook' who had been watching my grandmother and myself for some days, and while he was planning to rob us had just discovered that I had surprised him in the act of spying; to put me off the scent, perhaps he was seeking only, by his new attitude, to express boredom and detachment, but it was with an exaggeration so aggressive that his object appeared to be—at least as much as the dissipating of the suspicions that I must have had of him—to avenge a humiliation which quite unconsciously I must have inflicted on him, to give me the idea not so much that he had not seen me as that I was an object of too little importance to attract his attention. He threw back his shoulders with an air of bravado, bit his lips, pushed up his moustache, and in the lens of his eyes made an adjustment of something that was indifferent, harsh, almost insulting. So effectively that the singularity of his expression made me take him at one moment for a thief and at another for a lunatic.
This is our first glimpse of the Baron de Charlus, in a marvelous kinetic, comic description. De Charlus is uncomfortable being observed observing. The feeling young Marcel has that de Charlus is a lunatic is reinforced by subsequent events:
I lingered a few moments still, then went upstairs, and was greatly surprised when, a little later, having heard a knock at my bedroom door and asked who was there, I heard the voice of M. de Charlus saying dryly:

"It is Charlus. May I come in, sir? Sir," he began again in the same tone as soon as he had shut the door, "my nephew was saying just now that you were apt to be worried at night before going to sleep, and also that you were an admirer of Bergotte's books. As I had one here in my luggage which you probably do not know, I have brought it to help you to while away these moments in which you are not comfortable."

I thanked M. de Charlus with some warmth and told him that, on the contrary, I had been afraid that what Saint-Loup had said to him about my discomfort when night came would have made me appear in his eyes more stupid even than I was.

"No; why?" he answered, in a gentler voice. "You have not, perhaps, any personal merit; so few of us have! But for a time at least you have youth, and that is always a charm. Besides, sir, the greatest folly of all is to laugh at or to condemn in others what one does not happen oneself to feel. I love the night, and you tell me that you are afraid of it. I love the scent of roses, and I have a friend whom it throws into a fever. Do you suppose that I think, for that reason, that he is inferior to me? I try to understand everything and I take care to condemn nothing. After all, you must not be too sorry for yourself; I do not say that these moods of depression are not painful, I know that one can be made to suffer by things which the world would not understand. But at least you have placed your affection wisely, in your grandmother. You see a great deal of her. And besides, that is a legitimate affection, I mean one that is repaid. There are so many of which one cannot say that."

He began walking up and down the room, looking at one thing, taking up another. I had the impression that he had something to tell me, and could not find the right words to express it.

"I have another volume of Bergotte here; I will fetch it for you," he went on, and rang the bell. Presently a page came. "Go and find me your head waiter. He is the only person here who is capable of obeying an order intelligently," said M. de Charlus stiffly. "Monsieur Aimé, sir?" asked the page. "I cannot tell you his name; yes, I remember now, I did hear him called Aimé. Run along, I am in a hurry." "He won't be a minute, sir, I saw him downstairs just now," said the page, anxious to appear efficient. There was an interval of silence. The page returned. "Sir, M. Aimé has gone to bed. But I can take your message." "No, you have only to get him out of bed." "But I can't do that, sir; he doesn't sleep here." "Then you can leave us alone." "But, sir," I said when the page had gone, "you are too kind; one volume of Bergotte will be quite enough." "That is just what I was thinking." M. de Charlus walked up and down the room. Several minutes passed in this way, then after a prolonged hesitation, and several false starts, he swung sharply round and, his voice once more stinging, flung at me: "Good night, sir!" and left the room. After all the lofty sentiments which I had heard him express that evening, next day, which was the day of his departure, on the beach, before noon, when I was on my way down to bathe, and M. de Charlus had come across to tell me that my grandmother was waiting for me to join her as soon as I left the water, I was greatly surprised to hear him say, pinching my neck as he spoke, with a familiarity and a laugh that were frankly vulgar:

"But he doesn't give a damn for his old grandmother, does he, eh? Little rascal!"

"What, sir! I adore her!"

"Sir," he said, stepping back a pace, and with a glacial air, "you are still young; you should profit by your youth to learn two things; first, to refrain from expressing sentiments that are too natural not to be taken for granted; and secondly not to dash into speech to reply to things that are said to you before you have penetrated their meaning. If you had taken this precaution a moment ago you would have saved yourself the appearance of speaking at cross-purposes like a deaf man, thereby adding a second absurdity to that of having anchors embroidered on your bathing-dress. I have lent you a book by Bergotte which I require. See that it is brought to me within the next hour by that head waiter with the silly and inappropriate name, who, I suppose, is not in bed at this time of day. You make me see that I was premature in speaking to you last night of the charms of youth; I should have done you a better service had I pointed out to you its thoughtlessness, its inconsequence, and its want of comprehension. I hope, sir, that this little douche will be no less salutary to you than your bathe. But don't let me keep you standing: you may catch cold. Good day, sir."
I love that whole passage, and the entire long episode of de Charlus at Balbec. It's not merely de Charlus' queeny misogynist homosexuality that made me think immediately of Charles Kinbote, it's also--maybe especially--the over the top theatricality of de Charlus' lunacy, his easily-wounded pride and lashing out. I do not think I am wrong in claiming that Nabokov was influenced by this character of Proust's.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nothing to see

On Friday afternoon I was walking down the hill from the dry cleaner, thinking as one does about Aquinas and his five arguments for the existence of God. Naturally enough I rolled around the idea of first cause, which led to thinking about the originating moment of existence, which in turn led to an attempt to imagine the moment before the Creation. At that point, dear reader, my eyes crossed and my head began to swim because I found it impossible and greatly disorienting to try imagining nothingness, the complete absence of the natural universe. It felt like a very lonely place, because in order to imagine Nothing, I had to also imagine myself attempting to observe this Nothing, so there we were: Nothing and me. Which is not, of course, Nothing, because in Nothing there is neither observer nor observed, and trying to imagine that gave me a bitch of a headache. Luckily, by then I'd reached my front door and was able to hang up my dry cleaning and brew a pot of coffee, which I drank in the garden while the cat sat on the arm of a nearby Adirondack chair and ignored me as best as she could.

Yesterday morning I was walking from the train station to my office and I looked up at the sky, noting with some satisfaction that the clouds were behaving in a less threatening manner, retreating upward from my fair city and breaking apart here and there to display a deep blue heaven edged with sunlit cumulus fluff, very pretty indeed. Lower down, near the horizon, all was still a mix of gray and silver, layer upon layer of nimbus and wet. Not for the first time I thought that if the sky were fixed, like a landscape, like a mountain range or an archipelago, we'd long ago have given names to the geography of the sky and written myths about the gods and mortals suspended up there. There's Bartleby's Wall, we'd think, or The Medusa's Hair, and when the moon passed behind a cloud bank we'd remember the stories of the inhabitants of the far side of those clouds, people who dance in moonlight, wisps of cloud raised by their rhythmic feet. The development of high-altitude aircraft would mean detailed maps of these unseen regions and subsequent disappointment over the absence of floating palaces and villages. "There's nothing up there," we'd say.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

as the pressure ridges collapsed

Today at lunch I finished drafting the penultimate big section of the novel-in-progress I'm calling Nowhere But North. The draft is now about 82,000 words long, and I figure I've got about 15,000 more words to add to that number. I don't know what those words will be yet, but I have a couple of pages of notes to help me along. The book seems okay so far, and I think it will be the best thing I've written, which is what I always think of my latest novel. I might have the first draft completed by Christmas, which would be nice. The section I just wrote and the section to come are both quite tense, and I wouldn't mind relaxing. Nor would I mind having the time to concentrate on reading and not writing for a while.

Although not writing is not really on the agenda, because when the draft of Nowhere is completed, I will set it aside and set to work revising the thing I wrote last year or whenever it was, a novel-in-stories called Antosha!, preparatory to sending that off to agents and publishers nationwide for their rejecting pleasures. I will repeat the process in 2018 with the by-then-revised-and-rewritten Nowhere But North and then, by God, I will have done with being a novelist. I'm getting long in the tooth for this game, you boys. Conventional wisdom advises a writer against making such announcements publicly, but what do I care about conventional wisdom?

Anyway, I have been away for a week in beautiful Banff Alberta, at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival with Mighty Reader. I climbed Mount Tunnel, or Tunnel Mountain, whichever you prefer. As did thousands of other tourists, walking up the switchback path, some of them with little kids, others with tiny yappy dogs on leashes. It's not a technical climb, as the professionals say. I'd thought that I'd finish this latest section of Nowhere in Banff, and even kidded myself that I'd have time to write the whole remaining expanse of novel, but it turned out that I was easily distracted by festival events, the World Series (go Cubs!), the Bow River and all manner of very nice weather that called me away from my pen and paper and out into the world. It was my first visit to Banff. I wouldn't mind going back. Mighty Reader and I are quite fond of Canada, so it's nice we live so close. Though of course it's good to be back home. The cat claims to have missed us, which is heartwarming.

View of Bow River valley from Tunnel Mountain. Photo by Mighty Reader

Wednesday, November 2, 2016