Wednesday, June 24, 2015


After a lengthy period of what can only be described as dithering, summer seems finally to have settled on Chicago. So it's appropriate that the mail has brought me correspondence from a vacation getaway: my mysterious Texan correspondent has appeared again, this time with a postcard of the seaside.

The ascription to Calais locates it in place, and the other elements let us locate it in time: somewhere in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, definitely pre-war, when bathing tended to yield to strolling, and the costumes for either were full-coverage and heavy.

But Calais carries insufficient romance for my correspondent, who prefers to imagine it as elsewhere.

Balbec! The name Proust gave to Cabourg, the oceanfront town where he spent every summer from 1907 to 1914, and where his fictional alter ego, Marcel, first sets eyes on Albertine and her set. It is on the way to Balbec that he realizes he has become indifferent to his first love, Gilberte:
There are instances, albeit infrequent, in which, the passing days having been immobilized by a sedentary way of life, the best way to gain time is to change place. My journey to Balbec was like the first outing of a convalescent who has not noticed until that moment that he is completely cured.
To be well in that way, however, is not in Marcel's character, so the freedom from Gilberte only opens the door for his next obsession--one that he would alternately fight and embrace through the rest of his life: Albertine, whom he first sees with her set on the promenade in Balbec.

Balbec plays a part as well in A Dance to the Music of Time, its appearance Anthony Powell's most open acknowledgment (aside, perhaps, from the title) of his debt to Proust. Late in The Military Philosophers, the final volume of the war sequence, Nick Jenkins is traveling through recently liberated France with a contingent of English and foreign military officers, and an officer asks where they are:
"C-A-B-O-U-R-G, sir."

As I uttered the last letter, scales fell from my eyes. Everything was transformed. It all came back--like the tea-soaked madeleine itself--in a torrent of memory . . . Cabourg . . . We had just driven out of Cabourg . . . out of Proust's Balbec. Only a few minutes before, I had been standing on the esplanade along which, wearing her polo cap and accompanied by the little band of girls he had supposed the mistresses of professional bicyclists, Albertine had strolled into Marcel's life. Through the high windows of the Grand Hotel's dining-room--conveying to those without the sensation of staring into an aquarium, was to be seen Saint-Loup, at the same table Bloch, mendaciously claiming acquaintance with the Swanns. A little further along the promenade was the Casino, its walls still displaying tattered playbills, just like the one Charlus, wearing his black straw hat, had pretended to examine, after an attempt at long range to assess the Narrator's physical attractions and possibilities. Here Elstir had painted; Prince Odoacer played golf. Where was the little railway line that had carried them all to the Verdurin's villa? Perhaps it ran in another direction to that we were taking; more probably it was no more.
Jenkins's colleagues, unaware of the flood of literary memory that has swept over him, continue their practical inquiries, but Proust resurfaces as soon as his thoughts are his own once more:
Proustian musings still hung in the air when we came down to the edge of the water. It had been a notable adventure. True, an actual night passed in one of hte bdrooms of the Grand Hotel itself--especially, like Finn's an appropriately sleepless one--might have crowned the magic of the happening. At the same time, a faint sense of disappointment superimposed on an otherwise absorbing inner experience was in its way suitably Proustian too: a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent; to rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.
Or, as Howard Moss puts it in The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust,
Actuality contends with the haunted coastline of the imagination. . . . Place, then, is one of the first instigators of expectation and, therefore, one of the cornerstones of disenchantment.
In my reading of Dance, that scene also represents something larger: the moment when the strain and fear of war finally begin to ebb, and the possibilities of a normal life returning begin to seem less improbable. The war sequence of Dance is justly praised, but critics rarely note what I think is its most impressive quality: the sense Powell conveys of how disruptive the war was, even for those who came through it with relatively small losses. Even if you don't count the daily strain of the late 1930s, Nick Jenkins essentially lost six years of his life to forces beyond his control. Not only can he not find the time or emotional clarity to write, but he also can barely find anyone who is even slightly sympathetic to the world of books and ideas. The resulting deprivation is thrown into stark relief when he meets Pennistone, and the two talk books like men sharing a canteen while lost in a desert.

Thus, when Balbec breaks upon him, I see it as a release, a reminder that, despite the losses entailed by war, literature--and the whole world of books and culture that it signifies--remains, can be called up. And if it can remains, then it can be re-inhabited. V-E Day is in the offing; after some unquestionably doubtful moments, life, it turns out, will go on.


  1. The Levantine sound of the name has always struck me as odd. The Methodists in this country founded seaside resorts with Biblical names--Rehoboth and Bethany--but one understands why they did so.

  2. There are instances, albeit infrequent, in which, the passing days having been immobilized by a sedentary way of life, the best way to gain time is to change place. My journey to Balbec was like the first outing of a convalescent who has not noticed until that moment that he is completely cured.