This is not my favorite time of the year. I have to work longer hours in a more stressful atmosphere, and I no longer have the weekends during which to unwind. My life becomes what I refer to as a “half life”—not to be confused with a radioactive isotope.
I still have dinner with Martine every evening, though the dishes I prepare (yes, I am the cook, even at this time of year) are usually simpler. After we eat, however, I disappear into my library and read until it’s time for bed, usually around 10:30 pm. At this time, however, I am more careful about the books I read: I insist on works that absorb and enthrall me. Right now, I am reading Lydia Davis’s masterful translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, here called The Way by Swann’s. At my side is a useful volume showing all the many paintings mentioned by Proust: Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles.
The above painting, Vermeer’s “A View of Delft,” plays a major part in The Captive, the fifth volume in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I present it here in its entirety:
The circumstances of his [the writer Bergotte’s] death were as follows. A fairly mild attack of uraemia had led to his being ordered to rest. But, an art critic having written somewhere that in Vermeer’s View of Delft (lent by the Gallery at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself, Bergotte ate a few potatoes, left the house, and went to the exhibition. At the first few steps he had to climb, he was overcome by an attack of dizziness. He walked past several pictures and was struck by the aridity and pointlessness of such an artificial kind of art, which was greatly inferior to the sunshine of a windswept Venetian palazzo, or of an ordinary house by the sea. At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious patch of wall. “That’s how I ought to have written,” he said. “My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.” Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter. “All the same,” he said to himself, “I shouldn’t like to be the headline news of this exhibition for the evening papers.”
He repeated to himself: “Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.” Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself: “It’s nothing, merely a touch of indigestion from those potatoes, which were undercooked.” A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants came hurrying to his assistance. He was dead. Dead for ever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by the artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—if then!—to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.
They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.
There have been many scholarly analyses of the little patch of yellow wall mentioned in The Captive, such as the one to be found by clicking here and scrolling down halfway.
The past translations by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff are still widely available, but they suffer from a stiffness and even prissiness that does not encourage new readers. I have many literate friends who have been so put off by the beginning of Swann’s Way that they laid the book aside and deprived themselves of the payoff to be found by sticking it out.
How I intend to survive the rest of this tax season—the most difficult part—is by holding fast to what moves me the most in literature. And Proust is very near the top.