I am falling asleep, Marcel says, taking a young girl in his arms.

December 20, 2011

There was a time when he was always taking long aimless walks, but today it’s different. He has a goal in mind, a date deep in the Combray countryside. The landscape expands as he travels. His parents have returned to Paris in preparation for Madame’s gynecological appointment (though Marcel did not know this), so he’s not pressed to return home early; in fact, he’s rather inclined to stay out for the afternoon, find a spot to settle down in, and read a good book.

He has The Stones of Venice to read, he has his umbrella in case of a sudden downpour, and he has his spyglasses, a neat pair that folds up and fits comfortably in a side pocket. In his novel, Marcel rather forgets to mention how often he kept a pair of opera glasses on his person; how often he used them, peeking across the low hills at lovers in the woods, spying on strangers and casual friends, intimate friends and at times his own lovers. You learn to forgive the great artist his little peccadilloes…and he would tell you he was studying the landscape, the birds, the wind in the willows,  that sort of thing…but Marcel had a bit of the voyeur in him, even at an early age.

In Search of Lost Time tells the incident this way. Marcel has walked out to Montjouvain, the house which was once owned by M. Vinteuil and is now occupied by his daughter, Mademoiselle Vinteuil. M. Vinteuil had recently passed away and his daughter is in deep mourning. Marcel portrays himself as nonchalant about visiting the area: he was fond of the reflections in the small pond next to the house; it was hot; he finds a shady spot on the hill above the house…oh, just with a view into the sitting room window, that’s all…and falls into a deep sleep. No one is around; the countryside is sepulchral.

Thus for Marcel the world is a kind of bedroom; he awakes in time to see Mlle. Vinteuil (insofar as he recognized her) a mere inches away, though in fact in the privacy of her own home, dressed in deep mourning. We had not gone to see her, my mother had not wanted to because of a virtue of hers which alone limited the effects of her goodness; her sense of decency; but she pitied her deeply.

He awakes into a preternatural world of slippery pronouns and antecedents: the world inside the window is open to his consciousness. Mlle. Vinteuil’s friend returns; the scene that follows is cinematic and suffused with a weird intuitive omniscience—for not only does Marcel see too much, he knows too much. We enter a labyrinth.

Imagine a film. It would stage the scene as if for an old Charlie Chaplin silent, not really black-and-white, but tinted, not really silent, but orchestrated: Marcel is peering through his opera glasses, hidden in the pine trees. Fade and cut to an old-fashioned, Victorian interior. There is too much furniture for such a small space. A young woman is pacing about, fussing with a picture. An older woman comes into the room; they embrace in silence; the young woman breaks free, moving to the window. The camera freezes, holds our attention: she is about to close our access to this world.

Subtitle: “No, leave them open, I’m hot.”

As if their steps are choreographed, they move around the room, circling each other. The camera circles the circling women, coming closer as they move together. They embrace again. The older woman kisses Mlle. Vinteuil on the neck; she opens a button. The camera very close here; the two women are fragile, sensual, sexual—just for a brief moment.  Mlle. Vinteuil breaks free, but falls back on the couch; in a semi-predatory way the older woman hovers over the supine figure.

Subtitle: “Oh that picture of my father is looking at us.”

This said softly by Mlle. Vinteuil as the two women and the camera focus on an old M. Vinteuil, shabby and sorrowful. The camera blurs on the picture and clears again on Marcel—who is in fact the person doing the looking. Marcel is deep in thought, but what are those thoughts?

Out of an instinctive generosity and involuntary courtesy she did not speak the premeditated words that she had felt were indispensible to the full realization of her desire. And time and again, deep inside her, a timid and supplicant virgin entreated and forced back a rough and swaggering brawler.

Her scrupulous and sensitive heart did not know what words ought to come to her spontaneously to suit the scene that her senses demanded. She faced far away from her true moral nature as she could to find a language that would fit the depraved girl she wanted to be, but the words she thought that girl would have uttered sincerely seemed false on her own lips.

Now choose:

Marcel is asleep and has dreamt these thoughts he attributes to Mlle. Vinteuil.

Marcel, deeply homosexual himself, is able to enter imaginatively into the situation of Mlle Vinteuil, articulating thoughts she doesn’t quite know she has.

Marcel is an imaginative boy; he’s projecting things that aren’t really there.

Marcel is making reasonable inferences based on the behavior of Mlle. Vinteuil.

There is another realm: the realm of the ‘mind’, the realm of ‘the spirits’, the realm of Geist. Marcel is in touch with it.

The camera watches as Marcel falls back into a sound sleep, a young girl in his arms. He chooses Geist.


4 Responses to “I am falling asleep, Marcel says, taking a young girl in his arms.”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    Thanks Thomas, and have a happy–and healthy–new year.

  2. Thomas Davis Says:

    In my translation of Proust I had trouble finding this passage, Jim. This passage is clever, though, and thoroughly delightful. I have to agree with John. The idea of a silent movie is clever and helps us see the character Marcel in a different light. Voyeur indeed!

  3. extrasimile Says:

    You know, John, you’re spoiling me with these astute comments. I was indeed trying to underscore the curious narrative situation that Proust gets into with this scene and the silent movie conceit seemed worth exploring. There is a book ‘Proust at the Movies’ which I have looked at, but not read, and that perhaps put the silent movie idea into my head. When Proust was writing, the silent movie was developing into an art.
    And yes, I probably should have put the photograph in. It would have complemented the silent movie rather nicely, but I was primarily interested in the situation with Marcel looking in at a scene and attributing complex motivation and understanding that he could not possibly know. Narrative complexity is of course a main dish at the Proust banquet.
    The idea of introducing a different voice—the person telling this story about the story—also proved too interesting to pass up.
    By the way, John, (and Betsy, to follow up on yesterday’s conversation) this is not my first foray into the supreme arrogance of rewriting the masters. See my ‘improvement’ of a Henry James chapter from ‘A Portrait of a Lady’ https://extrasimile.wordpress.com/2009/04/24/chapter-xiv/
    And Betsy (and you too, John, if you find yourself with a few minutes to spare) my thoughts on this as it relates to the Borges’ story ‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote’ can be found here: https://extrasimile.wordpress.com/2008/09/19/turbulance/
    And Betsy, the Psycho remake was by Gus van Sant.
    May the Ghost of Christmas Presence visit you both this year,

  4. John Stevens Says:

    I remember this passage, although I’ve had to look it up again on my Kindle. There’s a shocking twist in the action when the friend expresses a wish to spit upon the photograph of Mlle Vinteuil’s deceased father.
    Your concept of the silent film presentation is imaginative, because the action – seen close-up but from a distance – would have been silent, and yet Proust supplies dialogue. And your alternative explanations for Marcel’s suppositions about what’s going on are ingenious. Bravo!

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