In which I enjoy the sun of St Ives and dive into the murky Oedipal depths of little Proust’s big bad mummy obsession.
It’s a lovely sunny day in St Ives. It’s the weekend now, so there are few more tourists and day-trippers filtering into the town for breakfast.
In the morning papers, the news is full of the Tour de France cycle competition travelling to Yorkshire. The weather has been, uncustomary, beautiful and sunny, sending foreign correspondents swooning over the lusciousness of the English landscape. It’s the first time the race has taken place in England, and it’s being hailed as a triumph for British cycling, and even for the tourist industry. The French are, apparently, in love with the North of England, and plan to flock to Yorkshire in their thousands this summer. What a shock they’ll get when they get there expecting Wuthering Heights and discover grim industrial towns and terrible weather. The news coverage reads like wishful thinking writ large into patriotic hysteria by a country desperate to be Great Britain again. That said, it’s nice to read a positive story in the news for a change.
I spend the afternoon with a guy, M, who I met on a chat site. He’s a red-headed rugby-playing Welshman with a cute smile and a vaguely shy sheepish manner. (It’s not until much later that I realise he bears a striking resemblance to an old friend of mine, which makes me feel slightly pervy). M lives in a small town in rural Wales, and has recently broken up with his partner of nine years. He’s staying with his ex’s parents in a caravan outside St Ives, which sounds a bit grim.
We have a coffee on the beach. He’s a bit gutted that he’s suddenly single on the verge of turning 40, and says he’s overwhelmed by the dating scene, which has gone digital since he was last single. We share a few battle stories from life on the front line of online dating. He says men want to get married as soon as they meet him. I remember my friend Chris describing something similar of his experience of dating: men with a long history of secure relationships are usually relaxed and easy with emotional intimacy, which attracts less confident men like flies. As we walk back to my B&B, M and I joke to each other that we love each other and that we’re going to get married as soon as possible.
Afterwards, we go back to the Beachcomber’s Cafe for a cream tea. M is very much of the view that the jam goes on first and then the cream as a kind of industrial sealant to hold in the jam. He builds a mighty structure on top of his scones, like two miniature Volkswagens. As we say goodbye, he looks suddenly embarrassed, and holds out his hand for me to shake it. I give him a hug, which he only half-receives, his body stiff as a board. We promise to keep in touch, and go our separate ways.
I have a leisurely four hours before my sunset beach stroll and dinner at 9, so head back to my armchair in the bay window for some more Proust. I get through an unprecedented 15 pages. It’s a tiny amount in relation to the entire book, but it’s loaded with hair-raising details of little Marcel’s great Freudian battle to secure his mother’s goodnight kiss and avoid the wrath of his father.
Sitting at dinner, the narrator realises that his parents won’t let him stay, and so prepares his thoughts:
so as to be able… to devote the whole of the minute Mama would grant me to feel her cheek against my lips, as a painter who can obtain only short sittings prepares his palette and does in advance from memory, guided by his notes, everything for which he could if necessary manage without the presence of the model.
I’m reminded of the extreme fragility of a certain kind of sensitive child – in other words, me – intelligent enough to have foreknowledge of consequences and pain to come, but not old enough to control his environment or modulate his feelings.
The narrator’s father intervenes angrily, as if reading word for word from Freud: “No, really, leave your mother alone, you’ve already said goodnight to each other as it is, these demonstrations are ridiculous. Go on now, upstairs!” I find this moment strangely familiar and upsetting. Little boys, gay and straight, are inevitably punished for being sensitive and for uncontrolled outbursts of feelings – something that stays with many of us all our lives.
Once again, the narrator becomes overwhelmed by his senses, prompting some extraordinarily atmospheric detail:
That detested staircase which I always entered with such gloom exhaled an odour of varnish that had in some sense absorbed, fixated, the particular sort of sorrow I felt every evening and made it perhaps even crueller to my sensibility because, when it took that olfactory form, my intelligence could no longer share in it.
Frazzled, but still determined, the boy sends a note to his mother (something I remember doing with my mother as a child), via the maid, Françoise. Like many writers of Proust’s generation and sensibility, his descriptions of servants are both romantic and denigrating, viewing Françoise and those of her class as representing some old and authentic indigenous wisdom about the nature of the world. Her behavioural quirks:
seemed to have anticipated social complexities and worldly refinements such that nothing in Françoise’s associations or her life as a village domestic could have suggested… to her…. [L]ike those primitive men whose senses were so much more powerful than ours, she could immediately discern, from signs imperceptible to us, any truth that we wanted to hide from her.
It’s easier and more convenient, of course, for people keeping servants to imagine their servants uncomplaining and contented to follow ancient hierarchies, rather than just paying them properly.
There’s a lovely moment where the narrator links the memory of his childhood self with that of Swann, who he first assumes “would surely have laughed at the anguish I had just suffered if he had read my letter”. With the advantage of adult hindsight, he notes that “a similar anguish was the torment of long years of [Swann’s] life and no one, perhaps, could have understood me as well as he… the anguish that comes from the feeling that the person you love is in a place of enjoyment where you are not.
I’m amazed here by how delicately and carefully Proust builds his narrative. The book still appears plotless at this stage, but slowly and carefully he constructs a picture of Swann, through casual repetition, until he starts to feel familiar to us. A bit later, the child overhears his family gossiping about Swann’s “wretched wife” who is living “with a certain Monsieur de Charlus”. There’s a long, not entirely successful metaphor where the narrator compares his joy at Françoise delivering his letter to his mother, to that of an adult man (like Swann, presumably) who waits to speak to his beloved at a ball. It’s a little bit too much foreshadowing with not quite enough context, though it may make more sense once I’m up to the “Swann In Love” chapter.
As the child narrator sits at the corner of his bed, he resolves to see his mother before falling asleep, and “to kiss her whatever the cost.” There’s an eerie silence to this scene, as if the child is preparing to commit a crime or sit an exam. “I had gone too far along the road that led to the fulfilment of my desire to be able to turn back now,” he reports. Proust intensifies the emotional atmosphere by casting our attention outside the window:
Outdoors, too, things seemed frozen in a silent intentness not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating and distancing each thing by extending its shadow before it, denser and more concrete than itself, had at once thinned and enlarged the landscape like a map that had been folded and was now opened out.
Elsewhere, he describes distant noises from the nearby village “like motifs so well executed by the orchestra at the Conservatoire that, although you do not lose a single note, you nonetheless think you are hearing them far away from the concert hall.”
The child stands in the hallway waiting to see his mother, anticipating and almost expecting his punishment. (Is this the beginning of the narrator/Proust’s masochistic tendencies?) To his surprise, his father, who he describes as having no principles, takes pity on him, and instructs Mama to take him to bed with her. “We’re not brutes”, the father says, dressed eccentrically in a pink and violet Indian cashmere shawl tied around his head for “attacks of neuralgia”.
Then suddenly, mid paragraph, Proust pulls us back into his central theme – the loss and recovery of the past:
This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of [my father’s] candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last for ever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have become difficult for me to understand.… The possibility of such hours will never be reborn for me. But for a little while now, I have begun to hear very clearly, if I take care to listen, the sobs I was strong enough to contain in front of my father and that did not burst out until I found myself alone again with Mama. They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is quieting down around me more and more now that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamour of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening.
It’s a beautiful moment, though Proust is careful to essay the dark psychological undertones of the scene. His father is established as a despotic patriarch who gives and withholds affection, his behaviour retaining an “arbitrary and undeserved quality that was so characteristic of it and that arose from the fact that it generally resulted from fortuitous convenience rather than a premeditated plan.” The child’s own sadness becomes regarded “no longer as a punishable offence but as an involuntary ailment that had just been officially recognised, a nervous condition for which I was not responsible”, no doubt setting in stone the narrator/Proust’s identification of himself as an invalid. And his triumph in securing a kiss, rather than keeping him in the reassuring grip of childhood, raises him “to the dignity of a grown-up and brought me suddenly to a sort of puberty of grief, of emancipation from tears.” The narrator recognises a loss as well as a gain, by causing his mother’s judgement to weaken, shattering the illusion of his mother as a goddess: [t]his evening was the beginning of a new era, would remain as a sad date…. it seemed to me that with an impious and secret hand I had just traced in her soul a first wrinkle and caused a first white hair to appear.”
And so we learn that Proust’s style, which seems so impressionistic and unfocused (like his father’s moods) have in fact been carefully constructed. He knows the emotional responses he wishes to engage and the psychological milestones he wants to traverse, and so he lays it all out for us within a disarmingly simple anecdote from childhood.
My passage tonight finishes with a lovely reminiscence about his grandmother, who, like Proust’s own grand-mere, was a huge influence on his aesthetic tastes. His grandmother buys him a series of classic books (including the philosopher Rousseau), which are possibly beyond a boy of six or seven. “She judged frivolous reading to be as unhealthy as sweets and pastries,” he tells us, but “it did not occur to her that a great breath of genius might have an even more dangerous and less invigorating influence on the mind even of a child than would the open air and the sea breeze on his body.” When the child’s parents protest at the appropriateness of her choices, the grandmother responds: “‘My dear daughter, she said to Mama, I could not bring myself to give the boy something badly written.’”
The narrator writes that his grandmother “could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive an intellectual profit, and especially the profit which beautiful things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasure elsewhere than in the satisfactions of material comfort and vanity.” She buys gifts for the family that are too old to be useful, but which are “more disposed to tell us about the life of people of other times than to serve the needs of our own life.” It’s unsurprising that she detests the “vulgarity and utility” of photography, preferring to fill the boy narrator’s room with paintings and prints. And he reports, deliciously, of her disastrous attempts at presenting gifts to strangers:
The family could no longer keep count, at home, when my great-aunt wanted to draw up an indictment against my grandmother, of the armchairs she had presented to young couples engaged to be married or old husbands and wives which, at the first attempt to make use of them, had immediately collapsed under the weight of one of the recipients. But my grandmother would have believed it petty to be overly concerned about the solidity of a piece of wood in which could still distinguish… a lovely invention from the past.
His grandmother’s taste for the antique, in decor and language, appears to have rubbed off on Proust, who, like her, fills his novels with commendations of “those old things that exercise such a happy influence on the mind by filling it with longing for impossible voyages through time.”
The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek words: “nostos”, meaning “returning home”; and “algos” meaning “pain”. Proust is, then, a true nostalgist: an artist who longs for the past, knowing that such a return is impossible and irrecoverable. How extraordinary, then, to create a scene that is so redolent of the pain of childhood, and so celebratory of our sentimental means of recapturing it. Though I’m rather pleased that his grandmother didn’t give me any gifts of furniture.