Saturday, September 02, 2006

Colette and Proust meet

Cross-posted at Involuntary Memory

Stefanie recently wrote about commonplace books; I'm afraid I'll never be organized or energetic or diligent enough to keep one of those, so thank goodness for the blog, where I can at least keep track of some of the quotations I admire from my reading. Now why I can be organized and energetic enough to post on my blog every day but not enough to keep a commonplace book, I'm not sure, but, anyway, here's something I'd put in my commonplace book if I had one.

The quotation is taken from Colette's autobiographical novel Claudine en Menage (translated as Claudine Married), and it describes Claudine's meeting with a young man who is obviously Proust. I realize that calling it an autobiographical novel is complicated, but Judith Thurman, Colette's biographer, and others regularly look to the Claudine novels for information -- however difficult to sort out -- about Colette's life. Thurman describes the passage as Colette's "fictional version of her encounter with the young Proust at Mme Arman's [which] gives us a glimpse of the way she was beginning to project an exaggerated stage version of herself in public." What's cool about it for me is, simply, that it's a meeting between two of my literary heroes:

One Wednesday [she writes], at the house of old Ma Barmann [Mme Arman], I was cruised, politely, by a young pretty-boy of letters. (Beautiful eyes, that kid, a touch of conjunctivitis, but never mind ...). He compared me ... to Myrtocleia, to a young Hermes, to a Cupid by Proud'hon; he ransacked his memory and secret museums for me, quoting so many hermaphroditic masterpieces that ... he almost spoiled my enjoyment of a divine cassoulet, the specialty of the house ...

My little flatterer, excited by his own evocations, didn't let go of me .... Nestled in a Louis XV basket chair, I heard him, without really listening, parade his literary knowledge .... He contemplated me with his long-lashed, caressing eyes and murmured, for the two of us:

Ah, yours is the daydream of the child Narcissus; it's his soul, filled with sensuality and bitterness..."

"Monsieur," I tell him firmly, "you're delirious. My soul is filled with nothing but red beans and bacon rinds."

This strikes me as perfect, capturing both Colette and Proust -- or at least stereotyped, exaggerated, fictionalized versions of them -- with devastating accuracy. From the illness, to the ransacking of his memory, to the extensive literary knowledge, to the dreaminess, Colette seems to get Proust down pat. And Colette (Claudine) gets to have the attention of a famous person, and gets to condescend to him too, calling him her "little flatterer" quite dismissively, and getting the final, funny last word in.

But, lest we think these two figures will always be at odds, Thurman goes on to say:

The "young pretty-boy of letters" who wasn't yet "Proust" had recognized the true face and impure true feelings of the young misfit who wasn't yet "Colette" and understood the narcissism forced upon her by her imposture.

I shall see, as I read through the biography, where, if anywhere, this relationship goes.