Sunday, June 03, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 8: Bonjour, Mrs. Robinson

Okay, I realize this is a duh observation, but Marcel is waaaaaaaaay more into Mme. Swann than he is into Gilberte, the putative object of his adolescent affections. What's that all about? I mean, he's supposed to be so entranced with this girl, and then he's like, "So I went over to her house, where her mom lived, and I was so excited because her mom wears this amazing floral perfume and has all these kick-ass dresses, dude, just thinking about her mom makes me want to eat another madeline, if you know what I mean."

(And as a tangent, I know there's a whole lot of debate about the exact status of Proust's sexuality, and I know I'm no authority on the subject, but seriously, no completely straight man has ever paid that much attention to women's clothing. He's, like, naming the fabrics of her tea gowns! Mme. Swann's tea gowns, that is--Gilberte's, he doesn't even bother to mention. She might be sitting at the table naked, for all we know. Though probably not. Anyway, my basic point being: Go ahead, find me a straight man who knows what crepe de chine is, much less can identify it in an outfit. I'm just saying.)

This doesn't really surprise me, though. I mean, Gilberte's always been more of an idea than a reality to him. First he was entranced with her, before he even met her, because he knew she got to hang with Bergotte, his favorite author. Then he met her on the garden path for, like, 30 seconds. They don't even exchange words, and he's in love. Which you could say was sweet, except... you know, she's not even a person to him. She's a pair of blue eyes, some golden hair, and a symbol of a world he finds tantalizingly mysterious, exotically sophisticated, and close but not quite attainable.

Poor Gilberte. I'm glad she's going to dump Marcel's sorry ass (and it's pretty obvious that she's going to, eventually). Because I've been someone's symbol before, and it sucks. Nothing you say, nothing you do, registers with the other person, because you don't really exist for them. You're noticing the way their mouth quirks when they smile, and the weird way they tear their bread into little pieces before eating it, and the shape of their hands, and they notice... not much, really. Which may be why Gilberte gets almost no physical description in Young Girls. He doesn't really remember. All he remembers is what she meant in his own formation as a young man.

To be fair, though, young Marcel is a symbol to Gilberte, as well. It's pretty obvious that she first gets into him because her parents don't approve--admittedly, not the freshest plot device ever, but then again, Proust was writing before the age of sitcoms, so maybe it was, back in his day. It's also obvious that the more her parents come to dote on Marcel--and the more he starts to identify with them--the less interest she has in him. To which I say: You go, girl! Find yourself a bad boy with a motorcycle and a starter tattoo and really piss the 'rents off. After all, what else is adolescence good for?

Well, if you're Marcel, evidently it's good for hanging out with your girlfriend's mom, listening to her play piano and making note of the exact amount of fringe on her walking jacket. Seriously, there's page after page about Mme. Swann--how she dresses, how she decorates the apartment, how she busts out the English mid-sentence. Gilberte? Some bizarro bit where she claims no child would ever want to outlive her parents. Ummmmmmmmwhaa? Marcel, you never mentioned she was crazy until now--might want to have told us that previously.

Gilberte's all over the map--first domineering, then sweet, then full of filial devotion, then self-centered and heartless. She never comes together as a unified person. But that makes sense, because she never was a real person to Marcel. I'd love to hear this whole story from her perspective. Proust tries to give it to us through implication, but he never really succeeds because he never understood her in the first place. I have a feeling she'll leave this story just as much a symbol as when she entered it, her internal life the same vague blur it was when she was standing on that garden path.

Proust even makes reference to this a few pages earlier with M. Swann, who is convinced his new mistress is cheating on him, even though she's actually very faithful, because he can only see her as the next in line of "The Women Who Made Him Jealous." Again: poor mistress. I hope she got some nice jewelry out of it, because it had to have been a drag and a half to be trapped in a relationship with a guy who can't see you as anything but an amalgamation of everyone else he's ever slept with prior to you. But what's a girl in that era going to do, get a job? (Not that anyone seems to have a job in this book. All this money for cakes and crepe de chine, and as far as I can tell everyone spends their days eating and visiting each other and taking walks in the park. Nice work if you can get it.) Anyway, Proust is obviously thinking about lovers-as-symbols. But I don't think he's completely honest with his own tendency to do the same thing. He never understood whoever it was upon whom he based the Gilberte character, and so he can never make her side of the story particularly clear.

The girl-as-symbol thing, though depressing, makes a fair amount of narrative sense to me, and I'd be willing to go along with it, except that once again, Proust can't manage to stay true to his own internal logic. Because while he's currently going on and on about how he's fascinated with Gilberte because she's a part of the Swanns' world, just 100 pages ago he was telling us that he was fascinated with the Swanns because they were a part of Gilberte's world. So now I'm left wondering, What's real? Has he been fascinated with the Swanns all this time because he thinks Mme. Swann is hot? Because they know Bergotte? Because they're Gilberte's parents? Or has he been fascinated with Gilberte because she's the Swanns' daughter? Proust, you flighty devil, help a girl out and just tell me: Who's zooming who?


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