The Great Freudian Drama

In which I enjoy the sun of St Ives and dive into the murky Oedipal depths of little Proust’s big bad mummy obsession. 

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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.

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A Night in Paris

In which I head to the spiritual home of all Proustians, and discover sunshine, big moustaches, grumpy waiters and spectacularly good roast lamb.

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I have a day and a night in Paris, on my way to a writer’s retreat in the Loire Valley. I’m delighted to be catching up with old friends from New Zealand, Rachel and Chris, who are, by wonderful coincidence, also in town en route to a wedding in Oslo. We are dining and staying the night with a mutual friend, Becky, who’s currently living and working here. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Of course, one never really needs an excuse to visit Paris. It’s a place I dreamed of visiting from the age of 10, when my brother sent me a postcard of the Pompidou Centre, with its crazy futuristic coloured pipes on the exterior of the building. It was love at first sight before I’d even got there, fuelled by a steady diet of French films, a heavy dose of French post-structuralist critical theory, and and the memory of all the bright young things who partied and died here: Marie Antoinette, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Serge Gainsbourg, Oscar Wilde – and, briefly, Carrie from Sex and the City. Paris is the birthplace of the four cornerstones of civilised modern existence: cinema, the metric system, the macaron and oral sex (the last one according to Foucault, anyway).

Paris is a place that delights tourists in much the same way that New York does, by presenting enough of the well-hewn cliches about “Paris life” to correlate with a first-time visitor’s fantasies. The wild boulevards are tree-lined, the cafes langorously paced and filled with chic-looking people drinking coffee and smoking in a guilt-free haze. Waiters with black aprons and Village People moustaches grimace at tourists and open bottles of Evian with their yellowing teeth. Immaculately dressed women in high heels walk little dogs on leashes through the Luxembourg Gardens. Debonair men with five o’clock stubble wear perfectly draped little scarves with leather jackets. The Art Nouveau-era Metro signs and shopping arcades effortlessly recall the era of Proust and the Belle Epoque. The views of the Seine are breathtakingly beautiful. Even the instantly recognisable Eiffel Tower manages to astound with its clean lines and startlingly modernist construction – and it’s chocolate brown (who knew?). Somewhere, there’s always a piano-accordion player cranking out the soundtrack from Amelie on a street corner.

There’s another side to Paris, of course, that first-time visitors may not see or choose to see. The streets are covered with discarded cigarette butts, Metro tickets and chewing gum, and the train stations are grim and filthy by comparison with other European cities. Parisians hailing from the former Empire states – Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal – don’t appear to be having as an exalted a time as their European compatriots, and there are beggars everywhere. Life in central Paris looks charming and well-appointed, but provides a smokescreen from the ugliness and unrest of the banlieues encircling the city. Unlike London or Berlin, which tends to wear its ugliness and disrepair alongside its beauty, Paris is an ageing courtesan, expertly applying layers of powder and a beauty spot to distract onlookers from the ravages beneath.

For today, anyway, I’m happy to revel in the simple pleasures that Paris offers in abundance to we of the bourgeoisie: good food, an easy pace, and a relaxed urbane energy that one can slip into like a favourite pair of silk pyjamas. Becky’s apartment is in a 300-year old building with a private courtyard. You push open a heavy iron fortress door, and suddenly you’re in the 18th century. I climb up four flights of winding stairs, panting slightly as I realise I’m not as fit I should be, and relieved that I only brought a small suitcase.

I shower and change, and then take a stroll down the road to the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s a hot sunny day and the gardens are full of Parisians taking the sun and eating delicious little ice creams. In keeping with the stately grounds of the palace (now housing the Senat, the upper house of the French parliament) and gardens, everyone seems very well behaved. There’s no drunkenness, no yobs with their shirts off, and definitely no one peeing against an ornamental palm tree. The large assault rifles carried by the gendarmerie standing guard outside the Senat might have something to do with the subdued atmosphere, but it’s all very pleasant.

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In the Orangerie – a building that I’m always disappointed when I visit to discover that it doesn’t contain orange trees – there’s an amazing exhibition of photographs of Paris during WWI. There’s a formal composition to most of the photos, but most of them are of ordinary people and situations, that seem to pulsate with life. It’s amusing to see how little the Gallic profile seems to have changed in 100 years: the locals still have broad faces and deep set eyes and big noses and robust jawlines, though teeth have appeared to improve since then. Most of the men sport spectacular moustaches, and everyone, male and female, are wearing hats. It’s heartbreakingly poignant seeing the excitement and optimism in the peoples’ faces as war is declared, and to see those looks disappear as the war drags on, replaced by expressions of grim determination. The photos hint at the social upheaval created by the war: women are photographed working as postal clerks and engine drivers, and there are some striking portraits of immigrants from the French colonies – Vietnam, Chad, Senegal – working in munitions factories for the war effort.

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I’m reminded of the chapter in Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life where he talks about Proust looking at paintings in the Louvre and trying to match them with people he knew in his own life. de Botton says that this exemplified Proust’s assertion that “aesthetically, the number of human types is so restricted that we must constantly, wherever we may be, have the pleasure of seeing people we know.” de Botton asserts that this is one of the grand purposes of art, and of Proust in particular – to feel at home everywhere. “[W]orlds that had seemed threateningly alien reveal themselves to be essentially much like our own, expanding the range of places in which we feel at home.” It’s a lovely thought, and seems to explain the enduring appeal of photography, which helps us feel a connection with the long dead from the past, and see ourselves in them. I make a mental note to re-read How Proust Can Change Your Life. It was certainly a fun read the first time around.

Then I’m off to meet my delicious French friend David and his even more delicious boyfriend Cedric. David and I have had a long debate about Cedric over the years. I didn’t meet him until last year, when I was convinced that he didn’t exist. Now that I have met him, I keep telling David that Cedric would, clearly, be much happier with me as his boyfriend. David politely disagrees, and so we must all go on living this pretence of happiness. It is difficult, but like Celine Dion, my heart will go on.

Our date starts off somewhat eccentrically, at a short concert of medieval English choral music at the Church of St-Germain-des-Pres, directed by a friend of David’s. Cedric tells me that St-Germain is one of the oldest churches in Paris, and it looks it: like most Gothic monsters, it’s very dark inside and has tiny windows (glass being rather expensive in those days). I tell Cedric that I think this would be a perfect place for our wedding. Not quite getting the joke (or politely pretending not to), he earnestly explains about the separation of church and state in France, and how marriage is primarily a civil ceremony. I really don’t mind where we get married, as long as Cedric says “I do.”

After the concert, which is lovely – polyphonic music of that era needs to be thrown up to the vaulted roof spaces drink. David has to do rather a lot of work, as my French and Cedric’s English isn’t quite good enough for us to tell each other what we mean to each other, but somehow we muddle through.

Then it’s off for dinner with Rachel and Chris and Becky, who have been shopping up a storm in the Marais all afternoon. Everyone is dressed up and looks wonderfully chic, if somewhat fatigued from carrying Rachel’s shopping bags home. It’s a glorious evening, full of wine and amazing food and conversations that feel like they’ve just been picked up from yesterday.

The Americans at the next table look on in horror as we order the cote d’agneau and the cote de boeuf. I want to assure them that it’s all ok – Chris is an oncologist specialising in bowel cancer, and he says red meat is fine as long as we eat up our green veggies.

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The lamb is particularly good, cooked to melt-in-the-mouth perfection, and there’s a bed of potatoes and onions cooked in the juices of the lamb that we hoover up. Rachel and I each order a mille fieulle, which is, we both agree, the closest thing we’ve each come to an orgasm with all our clothes on in at least a week.


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Afterwards, we walk home. Chris and Rachel are slightly drunk, but who can blame them, since they’re in Europe on holiday without their children. Their next stop is London, where they’ll be staying in my flat while I’m in France for the week. There’s a long complicated conversation about what to do with my keys when they leave, which I realise is perhaps best had in the morning. We end the evening in the cool airy living room of Becky’s apartment, drinking T2 tea and nibbling on chocolates, and watching the evening slowly fade to black.

Becky kindly invites me to come and stay for a long weekend over the summer. I’ll definitely be back, especially once I’ve got some more of In Search of Lost Time under my belt. Though my visit a few years ago to the Carnavalet Museum to see Proust’s cork-lined walls and small, uncomfortable looking iron-framed bed was a bit of a disappointment, there are many more Proust haunts I want to visit yet.