Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jane and Marcel

Yesterday I mentioned that I was deciding between returning to Proust and starting Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life (1997). Well, I chose Austen, but I unexpectedly encountered a Proustian moment as well, in a passage from Austen's epistolary novel Lesley Castle (1791), written when she was sixteen and never published. Tomalin quotes the following lines from the book, representing a letter by the sister of a woman who, on her wedding day, has just learned that her bridegroom has been thrown from a horse and is expected to die:
Dear Eloisa (said I) there's no occasion for your crying so much about such a trifle (for I was willing to make light of it in order to comfort her) I beg you would not mind it--You see it does not vex me in the least; though perhaps I may suffer most from it after all; for I shall not only be obliged to eat up all the Victuals I have dressed already, but must if Henry should recover (which is however not very likely) dress as much for you again; or should he die (as I suppose he will) I shall still have to prepare a Dinner for you whenever you marry any one else. So you see that tho' perhaps for the present it may afflict you to think of Henry's sufferings, Yet I dare say he'll die soon, and then his pain will be over and you will be easy, whereas my Trouble will last much longer for work as hard as I may, I am certain that the pantry cannot be cleared in less than a fortnight.
Tomalin says that the woman's self-centered obsession, reaching its comic peak at the casual acknowledgment of, "as I suppose he will," compares favorably to Dickens. I don't think it has the overflowing richness of language of Dickens at his best, but considering that Austen was but a teenager when she wrote Lesley Castle, the fact that the comparison can even be made is astonishing.

Rather than Dickens, though, I found myself reminded of Proust, and specifically the scene at the end of The Guermantes Way (1921) where Swann, exasperated by the intransigence of the Duchesse de Guermantes, reveals to her and the Duc that his doctors have told him that he will be dead in mere months. The astonished response of the Duchesse is perhaps her most unguarded moment in the book, revealing her to be temporarily foundered:
"What on earth are you telling me?" the Duchesse broke out, stopping short for a second on her way to the carriage and raising her handsome, melancholy blue eyes, her gaze now fraught with uncertainty. Poised for the first time in her life between two duties as far removed from each other as getting into her carriage to go to a dinner-party and showing compassion for a man who was about to die, she could find no appropriate precedent to follow in the code of conventions and, not knowing which duty to honour, she felt no choice but to pretend to believe that the second alternative did not need to be raised, thus enabling her to comply with the first, which at that moment required less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that there was one. "You must be joking," she said to Swann.

"It would be a joke in charming taste, replied Swann ironically. "I don't know why I'm telling you this. I've never mentioned my illness to you before. But since you asked me, and since now I may die at any moment . . . But please, that last thing I want to do is to hold you up, and you've got a dinner-party to go to," he added, because he knew that for other people their own social obligations mattered more than the death of a friend, and as a man of considerable politeness he put himself in her place. But the Duchesse's own sense of manners too afforded her a confused glimpse of the fact that for Swann her dinner-party must count for less than his own death.
To her (limited) credit, the Duchesse hesitates, but that very hesitation angers the Duc, who brushes off Swann's revelation with a reminder to his wife that they are in danger of being late--only to abruptly change his mind when he realizes the Duchesse is wearing the wrong shoes. He sends her back to change, then dismisses Swann with a brusque obliviousness that is breathtaking:
"Good-bye, my dear boys, he said, thrusting us gently away, off you go, now, before Oriane comes down. It's not that she doesn't like seeing you both. on the contrary, she's too fond of seeing you. If she finds you still here, she'll start talking again. She's already very tired, and she'll be dead by the time she gets to that dinner. And quite frankly, I have to tell you that I'm dying of hunger."
While the sixteen-year-old Austen plays her scene solely as comedy, Proust is master of a wider range of effects: the startling callousness of the Duc and Duchesse set against the self-effacing frankness and honor of Swann render the scene both pathetically comic and deeply moving. But the resemblance between the scenes is undeniable, revealing an unexpected affinity, both of thought and apprehension of the social self, between Austen and Proust--a pleasant surprise on a day when time's perpetual insufficiency forced me to choose.

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