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Howard_MossPhoto: Wikipedia

In the preceding post we featured an excerpt from the first book (Swann’s Way) of Marcel Proust’s seven part novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu that touched upon gardening. Upon browsing the internet for comment on Proust’s work I came upon the book Magic lantern of Marcel Proust (1962) by Howard Moss that, in six chapters, discusses various aspects of the novel. They are: The Two Ways; The Gardens; The Windows; The Parties; The Steeples; The Way.

Naturally, we chose The Gardens in order to present an excerpt. The paperback edition of the book that I have seen at amazon.com (linked above) is subtitled A Critical Study of Remembrance of Things Past and that about covers it. I’ve only read The Gardens chapter that we have excerpted here but it proved quite interesting (as I hope you will find it – the entire book can be downloaded, in a variety of formats, at archive.org, here). Howard Moss was the poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine from 1948 until his death in 1987 and published a dozen or so books of poetry, plays and prose in that time. Moss’s Wikipedia page is a bit scant but more information is available at the web-site of The Poetry Foundation.

Aside from the text file, downloaded for working purposes for our excerpt, I’ve also downloaded the ePub version and will be adding it to my reader – the text file has considerable scanning errors so you might consider downloading the PDF for mobile purposes if the ePub proves too messy.

Continue reading then, below the jump, for a “critical study” of Proust’s symbolism on gardens in his monumental novel.

The Magic Lantern Of Marcel Proust

Chapter 2, The Gardens

By Howard Moss

The Macmillan Company, New York, 1962


The abbreviations in the text follow the English titles consecutively of The Modern Library edition in seven volumes published by Random House. When a volume is divided into two sections, Roman numerals indicate the section. Arabic numerals indicate the page. Swann’s Way: SW. Within a Budding Grove: WBG I and WBG II. The Guermantes Way: GW I and GW II. Cities of the Plain: CP I and CP II. The Captive: C I and C 11. The Sweet Cheat Gone: SCG. The Past Recaptured: PR.

II : The Gardens

“I had already drawn from the visible stratagems of flowers a conclusion that bore upon a whole unconscious element of literary work . . .”

If, like a botanist, one were to search through Remembrance of Things Past for flowers, one would be surprised at the size of the bouquet. Swann’s way is a country of lilac and hawthorn; hawthorn, particularly, is to be the flower that reminds Marcel of Combray. Its pink exquisite version is found on the way to Swann’s house, and  it is also a religious flower, whose white species not only decorates the church of Saint-Hilaire at Combray during festivals but “arranged upon the altar itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose celebration it was playing a part, it thrust in among the tapers and sacred vessels its rows of branches.” (SW 158) The Guermantes way is strewn with water lilies and violets. These flower images are not merely decorative. For the opening action of Swann’s Way takes place in a garden, and around that garden the rest of the novel gradually crystallizes, each memory lighting up a bit of space here, a piece of time there in the narrator’s fluid consciousness, until all its elements are solidified. This seemingly random process is actually rigidly circumscribed. As each of the characters, places, and themes appear, adding shape to the novel’s structure, and density to its coloration, the architectural mass of the novel accumulates power. Its form is mysteriously unknown to us at first; each fine stratum added to another builds up, finally, to solid rock. It is difficult sometimes to make out the shape of the rock; it is hidden by flowers whose forms are evocative and whose scents are overpowering.

Just as the madeleine dipped in tea — a tiny garden image in itself, for the tea consists of lime blossoms steeped in water — is the magic potion from which all of Combray is to be released, so Aunt Léonie’s garden, so real originally, becomes that ideal ground, the perpetual springtime of childhood.

We have three gardens to begin with: the one attached to Aunt Léonie’s house; the hawthorn and lilac along the Méséglise way; and the water lilies and violets that perfume the Vivonne along the Guermantes way. About each of these gardens, the three “families” cluster: Marcel’s, Swann’s, and the Guermantes’. They are all Combray, and around that magic land, that garden from which a child is expelled— in the same way that Adam was expelled from the garden of Eden, and for much the same reason — a universe begins to expand, as magical in its embodiment as the genie escaping from the bottle.

Tiny as Aunt Léonie’s garden is, it includes a Gethsemane. Swann’s ringing of the garden gate bell — a sound which is to re-echo throughout all of Remembrance of Things Past — carries the sound of doom to Marcel. It means he will be sent to bed early; his mother will forego his good-night kiss, that kiss upon which all his security and well-being depend. Marcel tries to force his mother to kiss him good night by sending her a note through Françoise, Aunt Léonie’s faithful servant and cook. When there is no response to this, he waits, trembling, at a turning of the stairs to intercept her. Her negative response — she is, after all, interested in “curing” him of his neurotic dependency — is surprisingly countermanded by Marcel’s father, who sees that Marcel is suffering and suggests that Marcel’s mother spend the night in his bedroom. Marcel falls asleep while his mother reads to him from George Sand’s novel, François le champi.

This forcing of the issue, this “involuntary” kiss seals Marcel’s fate. An emotional “fix,” it is the negative of a photograph that will be developed many times. In ridding himself of one anxiety, Marcel inherits others. Through this submission on his mother’s part. Marcel unconsciously learns that suffering is a way of being loved, that love, once freely given, can be demanded. By being willful, he has, paradoxically, been allowed to suffer a paralysis of the will. One other important thing should be noted: though it is his mother’s love Marcel needs, it is through the power of a man, his father, that he is permitted to receive it. Watching Swann, his mother, and his father in the garden through his window, waiting for his mother to relieve him of his agony, he becomes a spy, the watcher whose beloved object is kept under surveillance until what he must irrationally possess becomes his. The full flowering of the implications of this incident is elaborated in his love for Albertine, five volumes later, but here, at the very beginning, we have all the precipitating influences that will determine Marcel’s emotional life. Since there is no security in a possession based on anxiety, the act must be repeated over and over again. Love is not a choice but a desperate reassurance, and the greatest power such a love has is the cessation of anxiety. The repetition of this ritual is the psychological key to the character of Marcel, in which suffering and love are inextricably bound. (Marcel’s grandmother, though she also wants to “cure” him of his dependency, does not have the power to withhold a ritual token essential to his happiness. There is, also, no third figure behind his grandmother with whom Marcel can compete. Because of this lack of compulsion, it is his grandmother, rather than his mother, who represents genuine love throughout the novel.)

From this early event, the night Marcel’s mother spends in his room, we move backward and forward in time through a series of “gardens” — landscapes and seascapes — each of which is to be a place of suffering. The romance of Swann and Odette is pieced together by Marcel through the conversation and memories of other people. The relationship of Swann and Odette is the nourishing soil from which the emblematic tree of Marcel’s life is to spring. Each furthers various romantic illusions that are to influence Marcel’s life deeply. Through Odette, he is subtly connected in his youth with the themes of love and art. There are three incompatible “portraits” of Odette. Marcel first meets her as a boy at his Uncle Adolphe’s house in Paris where she is known to him simply as “the lady in pink.” He is aware that she is a courtesan though he hardly knows what the term implies. He knows she is “bad” and interesting, yet she seems so like everyone else, except for her air of luxury and refinement, the stylishness of her clothes. Later, when he sees Elstir’s portrait of her as “Miss Sacripant,” in which she is dressed as a man, he is disturbed by her again, partly because he knows her without quite recognizing her, partly because of the transvestite nature of the portrait itself. Between these two portraits, another intervenes: Swann’s comparison of Odette to the “Zipporah” of Botticelli.

Odette has, from the beginning, the excitement of the forbidden, a suggestion of evil, particularly since what makes her so is invisible to Marcel as a child, and becomes attached to the figure of Gilberte during his boyhood. Gradually joining Odette’s circle, one of the young men who pays court to her image rather than to herself, Marcel is caught up in the complication of her roles: the “fast” woman of Combray, the courtesan he meets at Uncle Adolphe’s, Swann’s wife in Paris, and the mother of Gilberte. Odette is a distillation of both the biological and social strands of the novel. She is the personification of a sexual secret, and she is fashionable. Proust creates a bouquet around her by associating her in a thousand ways with flowers: her winter garden, her chrysanthemums, her violets, her orchids. A courtesan’s life is lived in privacy — a privacy whose greatest compensation is luxury, and, to Odette, flowers are both luxuries and symbols of the luxurious. In a marvelous expansion of metaphor, Proust merges these various facets of Odette into a general observation on the relationship between flowers, trees, and women:

I had heard that Mme. Swann walked almost every day along the Allée des Acacias, round the big lake, and in the Allée de la Reine Marguerite. I would guide Françoise in the direction of the Bois de Boulogne. It was to me like one of those zoological gardens in which one sees assembled together a variety of flora . . . this, the Bois . . . was the Garden of Woman; and like the myrtle-alley in the Aeneid, planted for their delight with trees of one kind only, the Allée des Acacias was thronged with the famous Beauties of the day. (SW 597)

. . . from a long way off . . . long before I reached the acacia-alley, their fragrance, scattered abroad, would make me feel that I was approaching the incomparable presence of a vegetable personality, strong and tender; then, as I drew near, the sight of their topmost branches, their lightly tossing foliage, in its easy grace, its coquettish outline, its delicate fabric, over which hundreds of flowers were laid, like winged and throbbing colonies of precious insects. . . . (SW 598)

In Odette’s house, after her marriage to Swann, “There was always beside her chair an immense bowl of crystal filled to the brim with Parma violets or with long white daisy-petals scattered upon the water. . . .” (WBG I 237) In the passage quoted above, there is one reference to water, “the big lake,” and, interestingly enough, in a scene that connects two important gardens together, we get the same brief juxtaposition of the floral and the marine. It is the scene in the Champs-Elysées where Marcel wrestles with Gilberte. He saw her first in Swann’s garden at Tansonville, where she beckoned to him from a distance by sketching “in the air an indelicate gesture,” one he assumes is a deliberate insult, but which, for him, has a definite sexual connotation. In the second garden, the Champs-Elysées, we come upon this passage:

I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath with the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyse. . . . Perhaps she was dimly conscious that my game had had another object than that which I had avowed, but too dimly to have been able to see that I had attained it. (WBG I 193)

It is immediately after this scene, that Marcel has an involuntary memory. The moldy smell of the urinal in the Champs-Elysées reminds him of his Uncle Adolphe’s room at Combray. The linking of flowers and water — the Champs-Elysées and the water closet — of the later garden and the early one should not be lost on us, for it is through Uncle Adolphe that Marcel first met Odette, and it is Odette who makes possible, both biologically and socially, Marcel’s relationship to Gilberte.

The floral images of Swann’s Way are superseded by the marine images of Within a Budding Grove, and both kinds of images thread themselves through the remainder of the novel. Elstir’s paintings are a clue to this. Françoise’s asparagus, which Marcel describes in detail at Combray, turn up in The Guermantes Way in a painting of Elstir’s called “Bundle of Asparagus,” and in his painting of the harbor at Carquethuit, the land images — of the town, the church, the promontory— are painted in watery colors and forms, whereas the sea is depicted as if it were on land. The plain of Swann’s way, the river of the Guermantes way are, slowly, being joined.

Water lilies float on the surface of the Vivonne along the Guermantes way. It is a water pipe at the Princesse de Guermantes’ that restores to Marcel a moment in the “marine dining room” at Balbec. A bowl of water, a lake, a few drops of moisture, and a urinal connect the Champs-Elysées with the Combray of Adolphe, Odette, and Gilberte. They connect further with the underground bathing establishment at Balbec that Albertine used to frequent. It is there, after her death, that Marcel sends Aime, the headwaiter of the hotel, to investigate Albertine’s Lesbian connections. It would not be too farfetched to say that they prefigure Marcel’s trip with his mother to Venice. Proust connects everything with fine wire, and just as Swann and Odette use the word “Cattleya” — an orchid — as a code word for sexual intercourse, so it is to be another and rare orchid that waits to be fertilized by a bee in the Duchesse de Guermantes’ courtyard in that remarkable scene in which Charlus and Jupien meet, and, performing a ritual as predetermined as any in the instinctual world of biology, recognize each other as homosexual partners.

These images open out even further. Not only is the dining room at Balbec “marine,” but so are the dining room and garden at Rivebelle. And if a performance at the Opera is transformed into a subaqueous theatre of the Nereids, so an aquarium is the very metaphor Proust uses as a description of Charlus’ way of living:

And so M. de Charlus lived in a state of deception like the fish that thinks that the water in which it is swimming extends beyond the glass wall of its aquarium which mirrors it, while it does not see close beside it . . . the shadow of the human visitor who is amusing itself watching its movements, or the all-powerful keeper who, at the unforeseen and fatal moment . . . will extract it without compunction from the place in which it was happily living to cast it into another. (CP II 268-269)

Balbec itself is a “water garden;” on one side, it faces the sea; on the other the countryside where Mme. Verdurin’s estate, La Raspelière, is located, as well as the Cambremer’s estate, Feterne.

The garden deities move toward the water, and Marcel’s mother, a major one, is transferred from a garden to a seascape near the end of the novel when she and Marcel finally take the trip to Venice. By then, we have been through every female relationship of Marcel’s life. The figure of the mother outlasts them all. When we reach Venice, we have moved more than the great distance that separates the flowers and streams of Combray from the world’s only city of water. We have moved backward in time to that fateful moment when the seed is planted in the soil. A Gothic window overlooking the Grand Canal faces the same sort of view Marcel saw from the window of Aunt Léonie’s bedroom.

Swann is a kind of unwitting Mephistopheles to Marcel’s Faust. Through Swann, Marcel falls in love with the illusion of place, the idea of love, and the vocation of art. Swann is more than Marcel’s mentor, however. The very name of Swann is a magic essence:

The name, which had for me become almost mythological, of Swann — when I talked with my family, I would grow sick with longing to hear them utter it; I dared not pronounce it myself, but I would draw them into the discussion of matters which led naturally to Gilberte and her family. . . . All the singular seductions which I had stored up in the sound of that word Swann, I found again as soon as it was uttered. (SW 206-207)

Proust planned originally to divide Remembrance of Things Past into three parts: the Age of Names, the Age of Words, and the Age of Things. The preverbal magic of the name Swann, like the bell that sounds to announce his arrival, attaches itself to the Swann that is a world in himself as well as to the worlds Swann discloses to Marcel. This bewitched sensation repeats itself in the name “Guermantes,” and casts its spell on such notions as travel, love, and social position. It is the necessary luster through which Marcel apprehends the surface of reality. Swann is enchantment’s personification, and, as such, a blinder of vision in person; every delusion of Marcel’s life is threaded through the figure of Swann. There are three special reasons for this:

1) Swann is, in himself, a cause of Marcel’s pain, being the immediate though unknowing catalyst of Marcel’s agony on the night his mother withholds her good-night kiss.

2) Causing pain, Swann nevertheless has experienced its equivalent in his relationship to Odette.

3) Marcel follows Swann’s example throughout life, repeating the major experiences Swann undergoes, but transcends the limitations of Swann’s life by discovering the secret of time regained and by committing himself to the vocation of art.

Swann is the pilgrim without knowledge watched over by the enlightened proselyte who has outdistanced him. Swann is Marcel, the nonwriter; Marcel, the writer, is Swann transfigured. Swann acts as an example, frozen in the world of love and society, who glimpses the faintest lights of the world of illumination and hears the distant echoes of a world escaped from time. Like Marcel in the bedroom scene, Swann’s will is the index of his weakness. He acts, but against himself. Having come to see the emptiness of life, he sees nothing else. Swann’s great curse is that he is not an artist; he is a connoisseur of art. He is damned in the same way that a nonbeliever might be in a religious book who is always a hair’s breadth away from revelation and dies having missed the secret of redemption. He is sympathetic, but he is our study in error. Nevertheless, he leads a saint into the wilderness — and by furnishing a bad example, out of it — and near the very end of The Past Recaptured, the last volume of the novel, Marcel states clearly the influence of Swann on his life:

But if it had not been for Swann, I would not even have known the Guermantes, since my grandmother would not then have renewed her acquaintance with Mme. de Villeparisis and I would not have met Saint-Loup and M. de Charlus, which led to my meeting the Duchesse de Guermantes and, through her, her cousin, so that it was also through Swann that I happened at this moment to be in the house of the Prince de Guermantes, where the idea of the book I was to write had just come to me suddenly — which meant that I should be indebted to Swann, not only for its subject but also for the decision to undertake it. A rather slender stem, perhaps, to support in this way the entire expanse of my life! (PR 247-248)

Each of Marcel’s loves — Gilberte, Oriane de Guermantes, Albertine — belongs to special landscapes. Gilberte travels from Swann’s garden at Tansonville to the Champs- Elysées; the Duchesse de Guermantes from a legendary countryside filled with castles and feudal demigods to her mansion in Paris with its garden courtyard where a rare plant waits for a bee to fertilize it; and Albertine from the seaside at Balbec to imprisonment in Paris. Each of these flowers seemingly so firmly fixed in its original soil rises up from its roots and spreads its tendrils in various directions. To know Gilberte, Marcel pursues the Swanns. As he becomes an intimate of Odette’s drawing room, a friend of Swann’s, he moves further away from his original object, Gilberte. Starting out to be a lover, he ends up a family friend.

And Albertine is, from the beginning, part of a “little band.” Marcel falls in love with a group of girls at once — les jeunes filles en fieur. Capable of causing him the deepest anguish, Albertine is finally singled out. She, even more than Gilberte, is insubstantial. Gilberte is various but less diffused. There is the Gilberte who goes to tea parties, the Gilberte who is Swann’s daughter, the Gilberte who plays “prisoner’s base” in the Champs-Elysées. (It is interesting to note this game, for, later, Albertine is to be referred to as “the prisoner.”) In Albertine, Marcel attaches himself to an enigma, compounded of sea and sky — (“Albertine preserved, inseparably attached to her, all my impressions of a series of seascapes … I felt that it was possible for me on the girl’s two cheeks, to kiss the whole of the beach at Balbec”) (GW II 73)— and yet tantalizingly human, an enigma impossible of solution, for it would be just as easy to say that Albertine becomes attached to the enigma of Marcel. Albertine is cunning and devious, but in a kind of endless reflection of facing mirrors, it is impossible to tell where Marcel’s version of her ends and her own begins. With Gilberte, Marcel preserves her original image by detaching himself from her. With Albertine, he plunges into a sea that has no discernible depth. So convoluted, so sensitized does his love for Albertine become, that, in a kind of reverse recoil, she seems to ape the object she sees reproduced in his eyes. Albertine moves in a bourgeois world, conventional on the surface, intangible in reality, and filled with perverse glimmerings — a world of middle-class girls disporting themselves at the beach, disappearing into the countryside, playing “ferret,” which, like Gilberte’s game of “prisoner’s base,” Marcel is finally allowed to join. But what he joins is not an ordinary group of girls but a tangle of ambiguous goddesses, slipping in and out of each other’s identities — the mobile consciousnesses of the sea and the sky, which nevertheless exude the strong flavor of vegetation:

As on a plant whose flowers open at different seasons, I had seen, expressed in the form of old ladies, on this Balbec shore, those shrivelled seed-pods, those flabby tubers which my friends would one day be. (WBG II 267)

Through the Duchesse, the mysterious world of the Guermantes, so absolutely impenetrable to Marcel, he thinks, gradually becomes accessible. What is revealed is not the magic of ancient names and distinctions, but human failure, duplicity, and vanity. These three women are all shimmer and mystery when Marcel first meets them; they are processed, in time, by reality, but a reality in itself questionable, for the perceiver changes at the same time as the objects that undergo a metamorphosis beneath his gaze.

These three loves, though they are all failures, differ from each other in important ways. Marcel gives Gilberte up as if the suffering his love for her entails is too much to bear. He protects that love by refusing to allows it to be nurtured toward a conclusion; he draws back to avoid further pain. Haunted by doubt, doubt becomes obsessive. It is only late in life that he realizes that Gilberte was attainable. She confesses she was attracted to him, at the very end of the novel. At the time their relationship takes place, he withdraws in order to sanctify the image of his love rather than risk its failure. In this retreat, we have a narcissistic, almost masturbatory version of love. The picture, or image of the beloved, is more precious than its actual presence — just as the lantern slides of Genevieve de Brabant are always to be the ideal against which the Duchesse de Guermantes is to be measured. So the idealization of women — like places — is always fatally inconsistent with knowing them. Like the two ways, where geography becomes mental, so, here, physicality and personality become internalized. The true Gilberte exists inside Marcel, not outside him. Marcel destroys and preserves his relationship to her at the same time. Oblivion accompanies separation. But by not coming to any issue, the relationship forms an unconscious pattern for those of the future, as it reinforces the emotional patterns of his behavior toward women that began with his mother. If love can be deliberately demanded, it also can be deliberately killed.

Mme. de Guermantes inspires love by awe; her name is evocative, magical. She is not a person who turns into an illusion like Gilberte, or an illusion that turns into a person like Albertine. She is inhuman to begin with. Proust says that the love for a person is always the love of something else as well, and, in the Duchesse, Marcel becomes obsessed with the power of the feudal overlord who is still a member of the contemporary world — a world so select, so special, that, to Marcel, it might as well be the Middle Ages. If, with Gilberte, he falls in love with the legend of Swann, with the Duchesse, he falls in love with the history of France. It is not her wit, her style, her position, or her beauty that ultimately matter; it is that in her name she embodies a history; in her face and person a race; in her speech a landscape and an epoch; and in her manners a civilization. Though her intelligence, her modishness, her ton impress everyone as they do herself, to Marcel, after he has sifted the real jewels from the fake, it is another quality that counts: her conservativeness, in the real sense, for here, in person, is the prototype of something worthy of conservation. The Duchesse, the greatest lady of her day, and Françoise, the servant, share qualities in common. Their speech and their manners are feudal; the serf and the lord possess virtues enhanced by the existence of each other. The farmer and the landowner, still bearing the fragrance of the soil, enrich each other’s powers. In Remembrance of Things Past, Françoise and the Duchesse have no reason to meet. Yet they have more in common than either could possibly imagine. They are two terms that have become separated in one of Proust’s metaphors.

In the social world of the day, the Duchesse is something else again: she is powerful because of who she is, and more powerful because she knows how to exploit herself. Mme. de Guermantes lives a life Marcel can only imagine; since that is his chief way of perceiving life in general, she becomes a wheel within a wheel. A great lady smiles at him in church at Combray; he follows her through the streets of Paris; and imagines the ghost of her haunting the snow-hushed streets of the army town of Doncières.

What he is searching for is the enigma of history, the charm of the person exempt from humanity. As the Duchesse becomes human, she loses her charm and history its enigma. (In the same way, diplomacy becomes dull in Norpois, medicine absurd in Cottard.) Marcel spies on the Duchesse waiting along the route he knows she is to pass. As he did with his mother, with Gilberte, he watches her. By the time he knows whom he is watching, he is watching somebody else.

Albertine is the great love of Marcel’s life, and in Proust’s description and analysis of their relationship, we have the most original, hypnotic, and accurate dissection of obsessive love in fiction. Proust’s portrait of Albertine is a final accomplishment in a theory of personality implicit throughout the book. People do not only become different in time; they are different from time to time: the observer undergoes analagous changes. Proust’s characters seem to be attending a long costume party, in which one disguise is doffed after another, but their costumer is changing clothes at the same time. At the last great party given at the Princesse de Guermantes (the former Mme. Verdurin), he describes the decline and old age of his characters as if time had dressed them in various disguises. In truth, they were in disguise always; each revelation in Proust occurs from a slightly different angle. It is the process of character that defines it; since character is only made manifest in time, there is no other definition. Even a minor character like Legrandin illustrates this, for when we first meet him, he attacks snobbery violently. We meet him later and discover he is a snob; in fact, he is haunted by snobbery. And when we see him finally, after he has entered the Faubourg Saint-Germain through the marriage of his nephew, he is no longer interested in it, or going out to parties. The revolution has come full circle; the infatuation of a lifetime has wasted itself on nothing. If we can conceive of Legrandin being observed by viewers other than Marcel at various times in his life, we can see how many versions of Legrandin could be made up.

All these inconsistencies, all these turns of the screw, become consistent in the end. Realism in fiction never corresponds to reality in life, because it presupposes an impossible point of view — that one which lacks a viewer. A reality is always real to somebody. As soon as it is, the viewer must be included with the view. Proust argues against realism effectively and provides the ultimate demonstration. Proust is the most honest of novelists because he shows us not only how little we know about other people but how impossible it is to know them. It is a suspicion we have always had but hate to see confirmed. The confirmation does not warm us; nevertheless, we cannot deny it. Proust, like the genius psychologist he is, makes the inconsistencies take on a consistency of their own, just as Chekhov, in the theatre, shows us how the seemingly irrelevant lies at the heart of relevance. The patching together of what appear to be opposing traits performs a function similar to that of a metaphor, for only those actions that are dissimilar but capable of connection can create a whole character out of superficially irreconcilable kinds of behavior. The power of metaphor is not merely descriptive but psychological; the link between two things we were not aware of is revealed to us. Far- fetched it may be, even bizarre; we know instantly, though, whether it rings true. When it is successful, it has two virtues: it increases our sense of credibility by refusing to win us over easily, and it sharpens our sense of revelation. Mme. Verdurin’s anti-Semitism and her Dreyfusism would seem incompatible. Once we understand that she is a professional cause-monger who needs only a cause célèbre and can switch from Dreyfus to Debussy without a qualm, the inconsistency vanishes. It has helped, nevertheless, to make Mme. Verdurin real.

Charlus moves through Remembrance of Things Past like a mobile statue constantly being resculpted. The revisions have no effect on verisimilitude. Only once, in Proust, in the revelation of Saint-Loup’s homosexuality, is this sure grasp of the basic nature of personality questionable. Proust “springs” it on us; we don’t quite believe it. What we feel is his obsession to reveal rather than the truth of the revelation.

In this sense of character as metaphor, Albertine is Proust’s consummate creation.

Who is Albertine? She is the unknowable animal who calls forth the finest resources of Marcel’s intellect. The greatest analytical mind in the world is helpless confronted with a dog. It is Marcel’s fate to want to see what cannot be seen: the sex life of a plant, the emotional histories of the deep-sea creatures, the motivations of the dark. Marcel and Albertine are two liars hopelessly tangled together. She charms him by being out of the range of what analysis can reach. To keep her in focus for a further try, lured by what he cannot know, he falls in love with her.

Albertine is Marcel’s sensibility turned inside out and objectified. The greater pretense in their relationship comes from Marcel. Her reserve in the face of his jealousy, her lies, her restlessness all prod him on to another attack. If he knew, he keeps saying, he would be happy. But it is precisely because he doesn’t know that he loves her. A scientist in a dressing gown, he watches over a laboratory of falsehoods, the greatest one being that he is objective in regard to the truth. Marcel uses Albertine to keep from himself a truth about himself: he is not in love with Albertine, he is in love with what Albertine loves.

As such, he credits her with a power and a reality she doesn’t have. Albertine is addicted to games — particularly “diabolo” — clothes, cars, ice cream, planes. She is far simpler than he and far more deceptive. His lies are lies of the mind, hers of being. In Albertine, Marcel is matched against himself in a battle that cannot be finished. She holds within herself the two sexes in one and is, therefore, a constant re-enactment in her very existence of the ideal torture of the voyeur. Albertine is the window scene of Montjouvain, the courtyard scene of Charlus and Jupien played over forever and ever.

It is no wonder that her commonest attributes, her polo cap, her mackintosh, the way she plays the pianola, her stride along the front — every physical manifestation of herself— take on an Olympian sheen. Marcel grasps at every vestige of her reality because he has made her up the way the Greeks made up their gods: he needs constantly to be reassured that she is there, Albertine is both a deity in Proust’s “Garden of Woman” and the demon at the center of his vision, for he describes her as “a mighty Goddess of Time” under whose pressure he is compelled to discover the past. Starting out with the mystery of the animal, she ends up with the mysteries of eternity.

There is another important female deity at Combray, the owner of the house herself, Aunt Léonie. Like Marcel, she is a perpetual watcher, a hypochondriac confined to her bed, nursed on two equally powerful illusions: the illusion of her illness, and the illusion of its cure. Marcel inherits more from her than even he is at first aware of. Love becomes for Marcel a similar phenomenon, and, characteristically, takes on the symbolic form of illness. Like Aunt Léonie, Marcel develops an incurable disease, asthma. Suffocated by the scents of the flowers that he loves, he is forbidden the garden forever.