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Robert Cantwell
December 17, 1973
Stitched unobtrusively through the rich fabric of Marcel Proust's writing is a quiet exuberance for sport, for gentle pastimes he enjoyed himself and for the harsh brilliance of Jockey Club society that he portrayed in 'Remembrance of Things Past'
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December 17, 1973

Bright Threads In His Tapestry

Stitched unobtrusively through the rich fabric of Marcel Proust's writing is a quiet exuberance for sport, for gentle pastimes he enjoyed himself and for the harsh brilliance of Jockey Club society that he portrayed in 'Remembrance of Things Past'

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They seem to Marcel never to be able to encounter an obstacle without wanting to jump over it. When they come onto the deserted dance floor of the casino in the afternoons they enter at a run and slide, arms outstretched like children skating on ice, totally unaware of how beautiful and graceful they are. They laugh often, sing and annoy the elderly guests, and seem so hard and knowing that he imagines they must be the mistresses of professional fighters or cyclists.

He watches them from a distance, figures with golf bags out at play, a group of young girls enjoying "that mastery over their limbs which comes from perfect bodily condition and a sincere contempt for the rest of humanity." They are intelligent, but without interest in intellectual matters, alert and quizzical, living illustrations to a semi-invalid of "the unknown and potential happiness of life." It is a life that Marcel feels he can never get to know, but increasingly he is thrilled by the very sight of them, and when he comes upon them on the walk, outlined against the sea, he thinks of them as "a bower of Pennsylvania roses adorning a garden on the brink of a cliff."

Easily amused by anything ludicrous, they are turned off by people who are thoughtful, sensitive, shy or constrained, qualities, they say, which "don't appeal." But they make an exception in his case, and soon he is spending most of his time among them, awkwardly trying to keep up with the games they play naturally, philosophizing over matters they take for granted. His first impression of them was altogether wrong. They are the daughters of well-to-do families, followers of a new informal fashion, the products of a new wealth and leisure and the habit of physical culture. In love with all of them, he gradually centers on Albertine, "the bacchante with the bicycle" and "the frenzied muse of the golf-course." She has laughing eyes and colorless cheeks, her polo cap giving her a tough, rakish air. The novel turns imperceptibly into the story of their love affair. "Now I was keenly interested in golf and lawn-tennis," he remembered. "The world seemed more interesting to me...I was a new man."

The new man spent lazy afternoons on picnics in the shade of grassy knolls overlooking the sea, took part in children's games like king-of-the-castle or who-laughs-first. During one of these games Albertine interrupts to hand him a folded piece of paper on which she has written: "I love you." Professor Milton Hindus of Brandeis University in A Reader's Guide to Marcel Proust says that Albertine wrote it as a joke. If so, Marcel was mercifully spared the humor. He took it seriously. And, in fact, it is difficult to think of another work so honest in its portrayal of people in love. If he was fascinated by golf scores and her knowledge of the boat races at Cowes, she was equally interested in his knowledge of art—"How much I have learned from you!" she says. Or while he marvels at her skill on horseback she is impressed by his knowledge of society or the story of his duel: "What very choice seconds!" He carries a picnic basket and a gift for Albertine or, sometimes, for one of the girls who would accompany them. "They had gathered close round me...their faces...almost touching one another.... Joy sprang with such sudden violence into her translucent face, flushed in an instant, that her lips had not the strength to hold it in and allowed it to escape in a shout of laughter.... And yet we talked so little...what I was feeling infinitely outweighed the paucity, the infrequency of our speech, and brimmed over from my immobility and silence in floods of happiness, the waves of which rippled up to die at the feet of these young roses."

Last year preliminary work began on a movie of Remembrance of Things Past, an undertaking comparable to the filming of Tolstoy's War and Peace. The English dramatist Harold Pinter was given the task of reworking the story, twice as long as War and Peace, into a 3�-hour movie script. After three months of immersing himself in the book, Pinter launched into his screenplay. He found that the novel was a succession of fine and detailed visual images, that Proust's imagination was cinematic.

Pinter followed the route of Proust pilgrims to the scenes in the novel, from the boulevard Haussmann to the Grand Hotel in Cabourg and decided that the film should be made in France, entirely faithful to the turn-of-the-century setting and strictly adhering to Proust's story, with much of the dialogue in Proust's own words. The film was originally planned for release in 1975, but mounting costs (the estimate is now $6 million) have threatened that schedule, and two masterpieces—Pinter's script has been called the best ever written—are involved, making cost-cutting extremely difficult.

The very exactitude of Proust's descriptions sometimes has gotten in the way of filming scenes in the novel, and this is particularly true of the passages that summon up the moving story of Marcel's initiations into Albertine's sporting world. Glimpses of the little band of girls at the seashore present no problem. Lots of young athletic female bodies appear in the script as do scenes of the Jockey Club, but the relationship between the intellectuals and sports defies depiction. "Do you remember the scene which takes place on a cliff top overlooking the sea?" Pinter asked when discussing the project recently. "There are flowers, and a butterfly flitting among them. In the distance a steamboat chugs along in the water. As Marcel watches the boat the butterfly occasionally obliterates it from his vision. Proust depicts the scene with faultless imagery. I wanted to put it in the script. My director, Joe Losey, laughed. Can you imagine trying to explain to a steamboat captain—hired at an exorbitant day rate—that you want him to sail back and forth, to and fro, trying to follow the course of a butterfly on a mountaintop 20 miles away?" So that scene did not make the movie script.

Albertine vanishes from the story in The Guermantes Way, which occupies volumes five and six of Remembrance of Things Past, and so does sport. The next book, Cities of the Plain, is bitter and mordant, somber and ill-lit as an old Hollywood blue movie, and only a shade less explicit. A pervasive theme is homosexuality. Proust's treatment of the subject shocked some of the French literary community for he exposed cruelty, secrecy and blackmail under the brilliant surface of society. Even Albertine is tainted. Her reappearance brings back for a time something of the earlier liveliness and high spirits, but gradually one becomes aware she has changed. How much of this change is in Marcel's own active imagination, how much in her own character is left vague. The world of sport in which she still lives now seems almost as mysterious and as interwoven with deceit as the world of high society. Sport now means automobiles, yachts and flying. Marcel's concern now is trying to give her what he thinks she wants. He begins using informants to keep track of her, and he quizzes Albertine about her actions when she is away from him, triumphant when he can trip her up in some contradiction and puzzled that she looks at him uncomprehendingly, with tormented eyes.

He concludes that he can never really know her unless she becomes his prisoner. In the two volumes of The Captive she is just that, not quite locked up in his home but always under surveillance, every moment of her days accounted for, a submissive and uncomplaining prisoner. Their life turns into a tormented alternation of love and indifference; he decides to marry her, and 10 pages later declares, "I was no longer in love with Albertine." This vacillation in his feelings toward Albertine has been growing since Cities of the Plain. At one moment he wonders at the profound emotion that has overwhelmed him—"My love for Albertine"—and at the next he reflects, "Every day she seemed to me less attractive." When he decides, "The idea of marrying Albertine appeared to me to be madness," he soon has a second thought: "I am quite clear about it now in my own is absolutely necessary that I marry Albertine." She tells him that he has changed her: "I am appalled when I think of how ignorant I should be if it were not for you." But as he watches her, seeing the shapely legs now pumping his player piano instead of her bicycle pedals or the shoulders that he once saw bowed under her golf bag now leaning against his bookcase, he is not altogether pleased with her transformation. What a relief it would be if, when she goes riding, she simply rode off on her horse and never returned! At the end of the book he decides to break with her, but while he is composing in his mind the well-chosen words to tell her, he finds that she has run away. The volume that follows is The Sweet Cheat Gone—an odd English translation of Albertine Disparue since Albertine, whatever else she has become, is not a cheat and she is sweet only once in a while. As Marcel sets out in anguish to bring her back, she is killed when her horse throws her against a tree.

Sport as such enthralled Marcel Proust for only a short part of his life, and sport occupied only small parts of the panorama of Remembrance of Things Past—but they were the happiest, richest, most interesting parts. Proust came out of the long years of laboring over his book into a society that had been changed beyond recognition. Swann's Way was not published until 1913, when he was well along with the rest of the story, but publishing was suspended during World War I, so the next two volumes did not appear until 1918. Proust still saw a few people in society, but many of his old acquaintances had been killed in the war. A sportsman who remained one of his few close friends was Armand, Due de Guiche. His ancestors had been at Versailles in the court of Louis XIV, and the whole family was involved with horsebreeding and racing. The Marquise de Clermont-Tonnerre, who became the historian of the horsey set, was his half sister. But even the horsemen had changed. Guiche was a polo player of reputation, but his main interest was the study of optics, and he became an authority on aerodynamics when flying developed into a science. He married Elaine, the daughter of the Comtesse de Greffuhle, who had been a 12-year-old when Proust first knew her mother. Proust maintained his friendship with the duke till his death. He was a welcome guest at the Guiche family chateau at Mortefontaine despite the embarrassing occasion some years before when he had arrived in white tie and tails to find everybody else in tweeds, going fishing. The Jockey Club continued to exist, but its character changed. The membership list now included two dozen Americans, headed by General John J. Pershing, and the clubhouse was soon moved to a secluded, inconspicuous location on the rue Rabelais. Nothing of the swagger of the Jockey Club's great days survived the war; its tone became grave, sedate, dignified, so much so that, to people who did not know its history, the description in Remembrance of Things Past was incomprehensible.

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