Travesty in Woolf and Proust
Travesty in Woolf and Proust
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter places Virginia Woolf in conversation with Marcel Proust by reading passages from À la recherche du temps perdu alongside Jacob's Room and Orlando, as well as Woolf's letters and diary entries on Proust. There is what might be called a Proustian moment in Chapter 7 of Jacob's Room, but it is not really a Proustian moment, more a travesty of one. In describing how the whole of the Combray of the narrator's childhood emerges from a cup of tea, Proust deploys a conceit whose success depends on a flirtation with the bathetic and grotesque. Disproportion and the possibility of comic deflation are never far away when Proust is in this mood, especially in metaphors of transformation and creation. Proust's metaphor, like the novel itself for Woolf at the time, relegated to the order of gossip. Whether through a “Proustian moment” or a “travesty of one,” the chapter here suggests that both Woolf and Proust show a fascination with time, sexuality, and “metaphorical flights”.
There is what might be called a Proustian moment in Chapter 7 of Jacob’s Room (1922), but it is not really a Proustian moment, more a travesty of one. An image on which the famous madeleine episode depends is dismissed as a faddish distraction for dinner parties. Here is Proust:
And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character and form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
(Swann’s Way 51)
In describing how the whole of the Combray of the narrator’s childhood emerges from a cup of tea, Proust deploys a conceit whose success depends on a flirtation with the bathetic and grotesque. Disproportion and the possibility of comic deflation are never far away when Proust is in this mood, especially in metaphors of transformation and creation. After writing his first prose poem about the steeples of Martinville the young Marcel clucks like a hen who has laid an egg, the work as a whole is compared to a “boeuf en daube” and to a dress as well as to a cathedral, and time, in the final sentence of Le Temps Retrouvé, has us teetering on the stilts of the years. Stiltedness is courted frequently, deliberately, in both the overarticulated syntax and overelaborated imagery of Proust’s metaphorical flights.
Woolf’s invocation of the paper flowers is sardonic, even a little condescending, the elaborated lyricism of Proust undone by briskness:
About this time a firm of merchants having dealings with the East put on the market little paper flowers which opened on touching water. As it was the custom also to use finger-bowls at the end of dinner, the new discovery was found of excellent service. In these sheltered lakes the little flowers swam and slid; surmounted smooth slippery waves, and sometimes foundered and lay like pebbles on the glass floor. Their fortunes were watched by eyes intent and lovely. It is surely a great discovery that leads to the union of hearts and foundation of homes. The paper flowers did no less.
What for Proust was a sacramental moment becomes a mere conversation piece, Proust’s metaphor, like the novel itself for Woolf at the time, relegated to the order of gossip. I say (p.260) at the time since Woolf had not yet read Proust. She finished the first draft of Jacob’s Room on 4th November 1921, and on 21st January 1922 she mentions to E.M. Forster that she is still to take the plunge: “Everyone is reading Proust. I sit silent and hear their reports. It seems to be a tremendous experience, but I’m shivering on the brink, and waiting to be submerged with a horrid notion that I shall go down and down and perhaps never come up again” (L2 499). “Everyone is reading Proust.” Everyone else, that is.
The metaphor of submersion, a troubling one, is maintained in a letter to Roger Fry, Saturday 6th May 1922, where Woolf proposes to sink herself in Proust: “I have the most violent cold in the whole parish. Proust’s fat volume comes in very handy. Last night I started on vol 2 [A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fl eur] of him (the novel) and propose to sink myself in it all day. Scott Moncrieff wants me to say a few words in an album of admiration. Will you collaborate? If so, I will: not otherwise” (L2 525). The editors of Woolf’s letters gloss volume 2 as A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fl eur, but Woolf will have been in fact reading the second volume of Swann’s Way in Scott Moncrieff’s translation. A l’ombre did not appear until 1924. The letter continues in a fascinating passage which evokes a tone of eroticised panic under the spell of Proust’s writing, especially at the level of the sentence as she conflates the desire for expression with the idea of writing as erotic experience: “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly see out the sentence. Oh, if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures—there’s something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me; it becomes an obsession” (L2 525). She is so “stimulated” and “saturated” that she must give up reading and pick up the pen. The parenthesis “there’s something sexual about it” comes across as a modest acknowledgement of the force of surrounding words: “titillates,” “desire,” “cry,” “vibration,” “saturation,” “intensification,” “procures,” “sexual,” “feel,” “seize,” “stimulates,” “nerves”. It is all summed up in the phrase “the nerves of language”; she feels she can write like that, but she is also passing on the pen, writing so that the reader might feel similarly.
On the 3rd of October 1922, she is writing again to Fry of her “great adventure” being Proust, gasping with both amazement and a sense of pleasure which she insists again is physical. (Ulysses, at the time, gets shorter shrift.)
My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished—my martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.
By April 1925 Woolf is confessing in her diary to being “embedded,” blending images of sex and submersion. She continues:
(p.261) Since I wrote, which is these last months, Jacques Raverat has died; after longing to die; & he sent me a letter about Mrs Dalloway which gave me one of the happiest days of my life. I wonder if this time I have achieved something? Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut & as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me & make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.
The phrase “as tough as catgut & as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom” presents a formulation which, by combining enduring hardness and materiality on the one hand (catgut—which never comes from cats, by the way—continues to be useful and create beauty long beyond the lifespan of the creature which provided it) with a sense of the evanescent and immaterial on the other, gives a pre-echo of what was to become for Woolf a summative phrase, “granite and rainbow”—granite being fact and rainbows being the shifts of personality and consciousness. There is a difference, though, in that the catgut and the butterfly’s bloom belong in the sphere of the animal. Granite and Rainbow (1958) is of course the title of a posthumous collection of essays, the term featuring in one of those essays, “The New Biography” (1927), and also in Orlando (1928) written two years after the diary entry on Proust.
The opposition operates along temporal co-ordinates as well, with the enduring weighed against the fleeting in an insistence on capturing both simultaneously, and Woolf and Proust share a fascination with the multiple forms of duration, both in a Bergsonian sense, about consciousness and time, and in a narratological sense, as in Gérard Genette’s study of Proust, where duration features as one of the aspects of narrative time. Proust combines the sweep of decades with the miniaturised analysis of an instant, and in his most celebrated sections like Combray employs what Genette call the pseudo-iterative, describing what is said to have happened repeatedly over a series of spring holidays with a level of detail which would be more appropriate to a single event. This is one of the challenges which Proust sets Woolf.
When Harold Nicolson met Proust in 1919, at two dinners associated with the Paris Peace Conference, their conversation turned on two topics. One was homosexuality. Nicolson noted in his diary “We discuss inversion. Whether it is a matter of glands or nerves. He says it is a matter of habit. I say, ‘surely not.’ He says, ‘No—that was silly of me—what I meant was that it was a matter of delicacy.’” “He is not”, Nicolson records, “very intelligent on the subject” (224–25). Which subject? Intelligence or habit? Either way, this is a bit rich, even for the Ritz. The other topic of conversation, at an earlier dinner, an equally “swell affair,” was time, and the relation of time both in terms of historical event and of everyday routine. When Nicolson responds to Proust’s request to tell him how the committees work, he starts off by saying “Well we usually meet at 10, there are secretaries behind.” “‘Non, non’, says Proust: ‘n’allez pas trop vite’—don’t go too quickly. You arrive at the Quai d’Orsay. You climb the stairs. You go into the room. And then’.” “So,” continues Nicholson, “I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all; the handshakes, the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time. ‘Mais précisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas (p.262) trop vite’” (224–25). Nicolson was a serious diplomat engaged with the drawing of new European boundaries and writing copious and detailed memoranda about the momentous events of his time. He was equally assiduous as a writer who produced biographies of Verlaine, Swinburne, Byron and Tennyson. To be told to slow down thus, that his detail was insufficient, would have been disconcerting.
This takes us, via two unusually intimate degrees of separation, from Proust back to Virginia Woolf and the writing of Orlando in 1927, a year when one of the big hits was a song called “I’ve Danced with a Man, Who’s Danced with a Girl, Who’s Danced with the Prince of Wales.” Elizabeth Shore, in “Virginia Woolf, Proust and Orlando” rightly points out that many of Woolf’s supposedly Proustian traits—the idea of character as something multiple and indefinite, the shared use of metaphor and image—predate her reading of Proust. Shore does say, however, tha t moments of Proustian recollection are more likely to be found in Orlando, a novel which is itself much preoccupied with questions of time. In Orlando, Woolf combines the sweep of centuries with moments of pause. The artificialities of calendar and clock are evoked, then pointedly suspended. When Orlando pauses to summon his thoughts and material, Time freezes like the ice on the river, becoming itself something solid, if transiently so, yet the headlong, giddy rapidity of Woolf’s prose is somehow freed, unabated. Even the reading of Proust is suspended as Woolf flits over the surface like a skimming stone.
As the anxiety of influence may also be an anxiety of impotence, the fear that what one is writing is no more than a travesty, in Proust the apprenticeship of the young writer is stalled by various parodies of what his work might become. Such is the nature of the pastiche of the Goncourt Journal in Time Regained, while in A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fl eur the diplomat M. de Norpois advises Marcel to put aside his prose poem in homage to Bergotte and follow the example of a young acquaintance of his, “who has recently produced two volumes, one The Sense of the Infinite on the Shores of Lake Victoria and a short treatise, less weighty but written with a lively, not to say cutting pen, on the Repeating Rifl e in the Bulgarian Army which put him quite in a class by himself” (Within a Budding Grove 488–89). Orlando transforms a similar anxiety into a flight, as Woolf put it, into comedy, into travesty of the respected forms of biography and history. Woolf’s anxiety is repaired by the headlong ease and light-heartedness of a masquerade. It is also an exercise in travesti, in the original French sense of the word, and Proust and Woolf show themselves to be equally interested in both senses, the slow intensities in Proust being compensated for by a series of quick-change acts, as games are played with identity and sexuality as well as with time and duration. The young girls in blossom are, at first sight, splendidly boyish. The epistemology of the closet, the dynamics of sexual orientation, always tend towards a transformation of male to female: the male the chrysalid stage and the female the new.
I will end with two scenes of writing. First, in Orlando, and in the pause between fingering the quill and the plunge of quill into inkhorn, we read the following passage, a deliberation about unwieldy sentences, granite and rainbow, memory, sewing and seamstresses:
As this pause was of extreme significance in his history, more so, indeed, than many acts which bring men to their knees and make rivers run with blood, it behoves us to ask why he paused; and to reply, after due reflection, that it was for some such reason as this. Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon (p.263) us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon; Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer ‘Yes’; if we are truthful we say ‘No’; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect rag-bag of odds and ends within us—a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.
There is no evidence that Proust read Woolf, but he would have enjoyed the juxtaposition of a policeman’s trousers with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil. Shore, in the article previously cited, compares the invocation of memory as seamstress with an earlier passage where the shuttle of the years weaves threads between seemingly independent memories, but misses a crucial passage towards the end of Time Regained, in which Proust’s narrator also dwells on which metaphor is best for the composition of his resolved work. The image is of dressmaking rather than tapestry, reminding the reader that the novel she is about to finish is not just a cathedral of art but also a grandly comic costume drama:
And—for at every moment the metaphor uppermost in my mind changed as I began to represent to myself more and more clearly and in a more material shape the task upon which I was about to embark—I thought that at my big deal table, under the eyes of Françoise, who like all unpretentious people who live at close quarters with us would have a certain insight into the nature of my labours…I should work beside her and in a way even as she would have worked herself (or at least as she had worked in the past, for now, with the onset of old age, she had almost lost her sight) and, pinning here and there an extra page, I should construct my book, I dare not say ambitiously like a cathedral, but quite simply like a dress. Whenever I had not all my “paperies” near me, as Françoise called them, and just the one I needed was missing, Françoise would understand how this upset me, she who always said that she could not sew if she had not the right size of thread and the proper buttons.
(Time Regained 1090)
Nicolson, Harord. Peacemaking, 1919. London: Constable, 1945
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. 3 vols. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
Shore, Elizabeth. “Virginia Woolf, Proust and Orlando.” Comparative Literature 31.3 (Summer 1979): 232–245.
Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. 1922. Oxford: Published for the Shakespeare Head Press by Blackwell, 2004.
——. Orlando: a Biography. 1928. Oxford: Published for the Shakespeare Head Press by Blackwell, 1998.
——. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 vols. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975–1980.
——. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 vols. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977–1984.