I’ve posted, below the jump, an excerpt from Proust’s The Guermantes Way, the third book of the seven that constitute his novel Remembrance of Things Past. At the beginning of the second volume, Within a Budding Grove, the young teenage narrator describes how, after years of being denied due to his uncertain health to attend the theatre, he was allowed to go to a performance of Racine’s Phèdre by a renowned actress, Berma, of whom he had read so much. He had also read the play and longed to hear the lines spoken by Berma so as to bring them to life and raise the level of Racine’s art higher still. In the book he eagerly anticipates the afternoon:
My happiness in the prospect of not being separated from Gilberte made me desirous, but not capable, of writing something good which could be shewn to M. de Norpois. After a few laboured pages, weariness made the pen drop from my fingers; I cried with anger at the thought that I should never have any talent, that I was not ‘gifted,’ that I could not even take advantage of the chance that M. de Norpois’s coming visit was to offer me of spending the rest of my life in Paris. The recollection that I was to be taken to hear Berma alone distracted me from my grief. But just as I did not wish to see any storms except on those coasts where they raged with most violence, so I should not have cared to hear the great actress except in one of those classic parts in which Swann had told me that she touched the sublime. For when it is in the hope of making a priceless discovery that we desire to receive certain impressions from nature or from works of art, we have certain scruples about allowing our soul to gather, instead of these, other, inferior, impressions, which are liable to make us form a false estimate of the value of Beauty. Berma in Andromaque, in Les Caprices de Marianne, in Phèdre, was one of those famous spectacles which my imagination had so long desired. I should enjoy the same rapture as on the day when in a gondola I glided to the foot of the Titian of the Frari or the Carpaccios of San Giorgio dei Schiavoni, were I ever to hear Berma repeat the lines beginning,
“On dit qu’un prompt départ vous éloigne de nous, Seigneur,——”
I was familiar with them from the simple reproduction in black and white which was given of them upon the printed page; but my heart beat furiously at the thought — as of the realisation of a long-planned voyage — that I should at length behold them, bathed and brought to life in the atmosphere and sunshine of the voice of gold. A Carpaccio in Venice, Berma in Phèdre, masterpieces of pictorial or dramatic art which the glamour, the dignity attaching to them made so living to me, that is to say so indivisible, that if I had been taken to see Carpaccios in one of the galleries of the Louvre, or Berma in some piece of which I had never heard, I should not have experienced the same delicious amazement at finding myself at length, with wide-open eyes, before the unique and inconceivable object of so many thousand dreams. Then, while I waited, expecting to derive from Berma’s playing the revelation of certain aspects of nobility and tragic grief, it would seem to me that whatever greatness, whatever truth there might be in her playing must be enhanced if the actress imposed it upon a work of real value, instead of what would, after all, be but embroidering a pattern of truth and beauty upon a commonplace and vulgar web.
Unfortunately, perhaps due to his vague and over-amplified expectations, he is not swept away by the performance but feels a general disappointment with it without quite knowing why. A few years later he confides this to a famous painter, Elstir, who causes him to rethink his impressions but still, he remains unmoved.
Now, some years later he again attends a performance of Phèdre, again with Berma in the starring role, and re-evaluates Berma’s art; in so doing, Proust casts light on art in general in his insightful manner that bears scrutiny by us today.
Continue reading then for this excerpt on Berma from The Guermantes Way…