Dreaming of Proust

Alfred George Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

Alfred George Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

When you’re a hopeless intellectual like me, you, too, will have dreams that smack of literary criticism. This one is from last Saturday night. Despite the hot, humid weather we’re having in Los Angeles, I had just begun re-reading the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in the David Grieve translation called In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. (That title alone gives rise to dreams of a sort.)

Marcel has finally won the right to go to the theater to see the great actress La Berma (thought to be Sarah Bernhardt) as Racine’s Phèdre, albeit chaperoned by his grandmother. Feeling he is about to be exposed at long last to the holy grail, Marcel awaits the magical moment. It comes, but, alas, the lad is disappointed. Although he claps and cheers madly with the audience, Marcel feels that the actress did not live up to her hype.

That’s where my dream begins. I am thinking: Well, now, the entire heptology is full of disappointments: In the first volume Swann is cruelly deceived by his love, Odette de Crécy … but marries her anyhow. Marcel idealizes the ancient nobility of the Oriane, Duchesse de Guermantes, but gives us ample opportunities throughout the series to see how trivial her decorous life has become. As for Palamède, Baron de Charlus, he is given to affairs with lower class young men and, in the final volume, ends up being flagellated by one of them in a male bawdy house. Albertine does wind up in a relationship with Marcel, but he agonizes constantly that she is bi-sexual. Besides, she dies young.

Again and again, it almost seems as if Proust’s grand theme is either “You can’t always get what you want” or “Nothing is as good as it seems at first.”

And that’s where my dream left off. In the end, though, I rejected my dream interpretation. Marcel’s inner life is so vivid and intense that all the disappointments still make it all worthwhile. If that negativity were the only thing I got from reading Proust, why would I be reading the seven volumes for a third time? (Er, aside from THAT, I mean).

Incidentally, the original Stevens portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (above) is at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, near my place of work.