Thursday, March 18, 2010


Proust's THE PRISONER in the new translation by Carol Clark ( or The Captive in other translations) is a study in the power of jealousy to make love especially intense. This is a remarkable vision of the passion Marcel feels for Albertine, but it is also a profound psychological analysis of the way in which he understands love. The last hundred pages are especially marvelous to read, especially following the section on Marcel's visit to the Verdurins. Some wonderful pithy sentences: “Love is space and time made apprehensible to the heart” (356); “we love only what we do not possess” (355); “we can find everything in our memory: it is a kind of pharmacy or chemical laboratory, where one's hand may fall at any moment on a sedative drug or a dangerous poison.” (361). Then there are those lovely passages about the Fortuny dresses that Marcel wants Albertine to have – partly because they are associated in his mind with Venice.  Here is one from the 1920s:

I particularly found the analysis of art (347ff) to be remarkable for his insights into Vermeer, Hardy, and Dostoevsky, starting of course from the music of Vinteuil, which echoes through the entire latter half of the book. Ironically at the end of the volume Marcel and Albertine visit Versailles, not Venice, whose architecture and gondoliers have haunted him throughout.

The opening pages of the book set an interesting theme in motion. Marcel meditates on the instability of one's own personality, establishing that we are many “people” in different circumstances, and that it is not a simple matter to know or understand one another. I suspect this concern of his is indebted to Freud's insights into the unconscious, although it is inherent in earlier psychological thought, as evidenced in R.L.S.'s Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde and in the work of Conrad and others who explore the idea of the double. Frequently in this volume, Proust points to the multiplicity of persons within a single character.

The extensive visit to the Verdurins, which Marcel makes alone, without Albertine, parallels the salon of the Duchess de Guermantes, where the subtext revolved around the Dreyfus affair. At the Verdurins Charlus is compromised without an expected passionate defensive response. Mme. Verdurin attempts to separate Morel from Charlus, and each offer Morel impressive “gifts” for him to reject one and accept the other. It is perhaps not precisely a subtext in this section, but certainly a profound concern in these pages is Charlus' homosexuality and Morel's bisexuality. These issues are explored in remarkable depth in the Verdurins' salon, with most characters offering views of both acceptance and rejection.

Another impressive theme running through the book is the question of repetition as a necessary ingredient in art. Repetition implies memory, which implies the recollection of past events, central to the entire book, and Marcel begins with the seven note melody from Vinteuil, which Morel plays at the Verdurins.. He them speculates on repetition in Venetian architecture, in the works of Hardy, which he sees as utterly repetitive from novel to novel, and on to Vermeer, whose work he interprets as repeating the same motifs again and again.

And of course, we see in this volume a great deal of repetition, not only within the volume, but repetitive of events in earlier volumes. Nothing could make the painfulness of Albertine's bedtime kisses in the last pages more intense than our memory of the significance of the bedtime kiss of Marcel's mother in Swann's Way. These kinds of repetitions – and many more than I can mention here – act as armatures for the novel as a whole, and they help us interpret its inner meanings and show us how events take on meaning partly through their very return into our consciousness. It is part of the ineffable beauty of this volume.

Monday, March 8, 2010


THERESE RAQUIN by Emile Zola is a dark and somber tale of a woman born illegitimately of an Algerian mother and a French father, then abandoned by her father and put into the hands of his sister. Therese is thus an Africanized Frenchwoman living in a household with her aunt and her aunt's son Camille. Mme. Raquin is a haberdasher and operates a shop outside of Paris for a time. But soon Camille and Therese begin to grow up, and eventually they decide to marry, although there is no passion between them.

Camille is a sickly man and had been a sickly boy. But he got a job in civil service when Mme. Raquin, with an invested fortune of 40,000 francs, moves her shop to a dark but serviceable passageway street near the Seine. At first the marriage is workable, although Therese is by no means satisfied. Then, Camille brings home a fellow who works with him and who had come from the same village they had lived in. Laurent is a dilatory fellow who imagines himself a painter, although his work is a scribble. He visits the Raquins frequently and one day when no one is there to see them, Laurent seizes Therese and they make passionate, violent love in the rooms above the shop. Zola is impressive here because of the level of passion in their embrace and their relationship, implying subtly that Therese's African blood supplies what the cold and weak French blood cannot.

Their affair continues unabated for a while and the two of them cannot get enough of each other, although no one seems to notice what they are doing. Laurent takes afternoon strolls and sneaks in the back door of the shop and goes up to Therese's room and makes love to her day after day until they realize they cannot go on as they are. Therese is fed up with the sickly Camille, and when they are out on an afternoon picnic the three of them go out in a rickety boat on a lake. Camille is frightened to begin with but he goes along and Therese and Laurent determine to drown him. Camille fights, bites Laurent on the neck, but ultimately drowns.

Guilt begins to rise almost immediately in Laurent's heart, and for days he visits the morgue near the Seine to look at all the drowned victims, most of whom are horribly bloated, with their skin peeling from their faces. These are great scenes – his constant visitations are like scenes from a horror film. Ultimately, Camille appears on one of the slabs, and at least now Laurent knows he is dead, but instead of reassuring him, the sight of Camille unnerves him. The face of Camille is burned into his imagination. The crime that he and Therese have committed is perfect in that no one suspects them. Witnesses among the boaters at the scene back up Laurent's story that Camille stood up in the boat when he should not have done.

So the genius of the novel is that no one can implicate them in the crime except themselves. And once that is clear the novel takes on an intense psychological cast, with all the “action” taking place inside the minds of the criminals. Mme. Raquin becomes paralyzed and thinks they love her, but learns, because of the angry outbursts of the two who now hate one another because of their own guilt over the crime, that they are murderers. She is tormented beyond measure, but cannot communicate what she knows. Therese and Laurent cannot touch one another sexually because their nightmares and their growing guilt poison their relationship. What they wanted they now have – freedom to enjoy their sexual fantasies – but guilt makes all that impossible.

Eventually, Laurent beats Therese and their hatred for each other grows. She meanwhile, pretends that her aunt has forgiven her, which disgusts Laurent. Yet nothing satisfies them, and ultimately their guilt and their hatred for each other drive them to suicide with prussic acid. What makes this such a compelling novel is the intensity with which Zola explores the psychological effects first of passion, then guilt. A television series was made of this book, but the qualities that make Zola's book distinct are not those that lend themselves to visual portrayal. The plot is simple and direct, while the language is fulsome and sensual in ways that films can rarely capture. What the TV series may have revealed is the passion of the characters, and that would make it worth seeing. But the book is a 19th century artifact and, while nodding at the stage, especially in the morgue scenes, it remains a tale told rather than a tale shown.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Way We Live Now

Anthony Trollope's remarkable novel, The Way We Live Now, is 825 pages in my 1950 Alfred A. Knopf edition. I might mention that my book smells slightly old, and slightly damp. I found it, of course, on a shelf in a basement of a second hand store and when I saw it I realized that I had wanted to read it for many years and now had my chance.

To get the most obvious question out of the way first, the answer is yes, that in so many ways this book, which was published in parts in an American magazine beginning in 1874, is very much up to date and describes much of the way we live now. He is said to have written the book in response to the several large financial scandals of the 1870s. I presume they somewhat parallel the scandals of the first decade of our own century.

Trollope curiously includes a character, Mrs. Carbury who resembles his own scribbling mother, a woman author who does not get much encouragement from the publishing fellows in her immediate society. The problems of publication are quite different today, but the fright of trying to make a living as a writer is doubtless much the same if we go by Mrs. Carbury's experience.

But most striking for our time is the intense emphasis on money throughout the book. At its center is Augustus Melmotte, a master financial wizard who takes London by storm, is reckoned to be the wealthiest man in town, but who is suspected of being a rogue on the run from the continent. Melmotte has no manners whatever, and his bluntness is a blight on his immediate circle. He actually manages to be elected to Parliament from Westminster by virtue of plowing cash in the appropriate circles. . . does this ring a contemporary bell? And in Parliament he speaks to members as if they were waiters, and they do not approve.

Naturally, he turns out to be a con man of the dimension of our modern Mr. Madoff, wrecking the lives of many, losing a fortune, and unlike modern con men, commits suicide with prussic acid, not a pleasant way to go. But before he goes, he takes in a number of upper class but impecunious gentlemen and lords with his scheme for a Mexican railway to Vera Cruz. He sells shares at a high rate, and might have continued to flourish if it had not been for his hasty dealings with a piece of property whose bill of sale he casually forged. Once that was out he was out.

There are several romantic subplots, with Hetta Carbury refusing her cousin and preferring his friend, whose own situation is questionable. Marie Melmotte who, it turns out, has her own money, is refused by several adventurers hoping for her fortune but who assumed once Melmotte was dead that there was none. She, as a last resort, heads to America.  Even Mrs. Carbury ends the novel with the hope of a happy relationship with the editor of a local paper.

I have not seen the TV special that was done in 2001, but I think I will make an effort. I found the novel most interesting and assume the televised version, with David Suchet as Melmotte, would be quite worth seeing.