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Lost Time Thursday: Girl Watcher

Now, every morning, long before the hour at which she left her house, I went by a devious route to post myself at the corner of the street along which she generally came, and, when the moment of her arrival seemed imminent, I strolled back with an air of being absorbed in something else, looking the other way, and raised my eyes to her face as I drew level with her, but as though I had not in the least expected to see her. Indeed, for the first few mornings, so as to be sure of not missing her, I waited in front of the house. And every time the carriage gate opened (letting out one after another so many people who were not the one for whom I was waiting) its grinding rattle prolonged itself in my heart in a series of oscillations which took a long time to subside. [. . .]

On coming home from the Opera, I had added for the following morning, to those whom for some days past I had been hoping to meet again, the image of Mme de Guermantes, tall, with her high-piled crown of silky golden hair, with the tenderness promised by the smile which she had directed at me from her cousin's box. I would follow the route which Francoise had told me that the Duchess generally took, and I would try at the same time, in the hope of meeting two girls whom I had seen a few days earlier, not to miss the the coming out of a class or a catechism. But meanwhile, from time to time, the scintillating smile of Mme de Guermantes, and the warm feeling it had engendered, came back to me. And without exactly knowing what I was doing, I tried to find a place for them (as a woman studies the effect a certain kind of jewelled buttons that have just been given her might have on a dress) beside the romantic ideas which I had long held and which Albertine's coldness, Gisele's premature departure, and before them my deliberate and too long sustained separation from Gilberte had set free (the idea for instance of being loved by a woman, of having a life in common with her); then it was the image of one or other of the two girls seen in the street that I coupled with those ideas, to which immediately afterwards I tried to adapt my memory of the Duchess.

Little M. is at it again in The Guermantes Way, watching girls go by with half-imagined futures whirling around him like currents of air and water. There's a kind of gendered split in self-presentation right now: with regard to young women he tends to exaggerate his sense of himself as pressing his face against the window of a world he only partly understands, as though he were a wheezy enfant sauvage staggering around the village with an improbably soulful look on his face; with his male friends, he doesn't play the eternal outsider so much, though his "delicate health" still marks him out noticeably. His friend Saint-Loup is garrulously concerned about his ability to sleep in a strange hotel room when he comes to visit:

“Yes,” he resumes, “I assure you that I fully understand and sympathise with what you're going through. I feel wretched,” he went on, laying his hand affectionately on my shoulder, “when I think that if I could have stayed with you tonight, I might have been able, by chatting to you till morning, to relive you of a little of your unhappiness. I could lend you some books, but you won't want to read if you're feeling like that. And I shan't be able to get anyone else to stand in for me here: I've done it twice running because my girl came down to see me.”

And he knitted his brows with vexation and also in the effort to decide, like a doctor, what remedy he might best apply to my disease.

Saint-Loup is more than capable of chatting to anyone until morning and beyond, but is this really the best medicine for Little M.'s insomnia? Maybe not, but it assures Little M. that he has a friend, and that's better than CRUSHING HIS HEART by forbidding him a bunch of things, or making him lie in the dark all morning. Oh! And Little M. has also made peace with his former confusing disappointment in the actress Berma, by going back to the theatre, two years older and with a slightly better sense of perspective. I'm glad we cleared that up!

I like the duality. Little M. is an outsider and an insider; he has influential friends and connections, but his illness has made him accustomed to looking at his own world as if through glass. He wanders off into haughty observational monologues about How the World Works and is plunged into an icy sea of confusion over the meaning of a smile. He's growing up and he's still a child, and it seems very likely that in a few years the proportions will have shifted a little, but the essential situation will be the same. You could say that in a few words if you wanted to, but Proust has chosen to say it in a million. That's the kind of violation of conventional style-guide wisdom I like to see.

Of course, it's far from the only thing going on here – it's just the thing that makes the most persistent and coherent impression on me. I go back and forth about whether I should pick up a map to the plot and characters of In Search of Lost Time or not. On one hand, Little M.'s experiences pretty obviously have a lot in common with Marcel Proust's, and I'm reluctant to go out and mix them up with one another, and acquire a whole other set of characters who are and are not Little M.'s friends and family. At the same time, I worry that my reading of this book is going to keep on being shallow and repetitive: I keep thinking I'm reading every word, but then all of a sudden I'm a mile downstream in a totally different town and I don't know how it happened.

”. . .And what about your work? Have you settled down to it yet? No? You are an odd fellow! If I had your talent I'm sure I should be writing morning, noon and night. It amuses you more to do nothing. What a pity it is that it's the second-raters like me who are always ready to work, while the ones who could, don't want to!”

- some highly useful observations from Saint-Loup.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 16th, 2016 09:36 pm (UTC)
Oh, man, Saint-Loup. That is some harsh words you've quoted at the end! I feel vaguely shamed for my real-life work habits, ha.
Jun. 16th, 2016 09:42 pm (UTC)
Shamed for working too much, or too little? This diamond of encouragement cuts both ways! :)
Jun. 16th, 2016 10:00 pm (UTC)
Definitely too little in my case! I admire the drive of people "writing morning, noon and night", but admire from a distance only.
Jun. 16th, 2016 10:00 pm (UTC)
I was beginning to worry that Little M felt uneasy everywhere and among everyone, so it's a relief to realize that he feels at least some ease among his male friends. Perhaps eventually he will be able to talk to girls without suffering heart palpitations, too? This may be too much to ask.
Jun. 16th, 2016 10:14 pm (UTC)
Time will tell! I think he'll have to, eventually. But right now he's still losing himself in the fog of The Eternal Mystery of Girls on a regular basis. This would get annoying pretty quickly in a lot of other narrators, but Little M. is so hapless and vivid that any annoyance I manage to feel is completely drenched in affection.
Jun. 17th, 2016 02:04 pm (UTC)
I dunno...I feel bad for finding him creepy? Even as I know he is lost in his own world and trying to understand the one outside of himself.

Jun. 17th, 2016 10:43 pm (UTC)
Don't feel too bad! He's definitely erring on the side of creepy here, with all his hanging around outside Mme de Guermantes' house and going to great lengths to engineer "chance" meetings just to remind himself of her existence! If I don't find him particularly creepy, it's only because I've spent the past thousand-odd pages in his head, and feel like I know him too well not to sympathize (though seriously, maybe he could find a better hobby?)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


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