The red shoes

red shoesThe extract below from Proust’s monumental novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, recounts the infamous scene in which the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes, impatient to leave for a grand evening dinner, can barely find time to talk to their dear friend Charles Swann, who has little time to live.

In this incident, Proust captures the petty, selfish, and superficial side of those occupying the highest circles of the Parisian aristocratic world.


The red shoes – Marcel Proust

“Listen, Basin, I’d like nothing better than to follow you to the moats of Vincennes, or even to Taranto. And by the way, my dear Charles, that’s just what I wanted to tell you when you were telling me about your St. George’s in Venice, you see Basin and I, are thinking of spending next spring in Italy and Sicily. If you were to come with us, just think what a difference it would make! I’m not just thinking of the pleasure of seeing you, but imagine, after all you’ve told me so often about the times of the Norman Conquest and ancient times, imagine what a trip like that would become if you came with us! I mean to say that even Basin, I mean, Gilbert, would benefit from it, because I feel that even the claims to the throne of Naples and all that sort of thing would interest me if they were explained by you in old Romanesque churches or in tiny villages perched on hills like primitive paintings. But now then, let’s take a look at your photograph. Open the envelope,” the Duchess said to a footman.

“Please, Oriane, not tonight; you can look at it to-morrow,” implored the Duke, who had already been making signs of alarm to me on seeing the huge size of the photo.

“But I enjoy looking at it with Charles,” said the Duchess, with a smile at once archly sensuous and psychologically subtle, for in her desire to be friendly to Swann she spoke of the pleasure which she would have in looking at the photo as though it were the pleasure a person who is unwell feels he would find in eating an orange, or as though she had managed to combine a jaunt with her friends with giving information to a biographer as to some of her favourite pursuits.

“Very well, he can call on you again with that in mind,” declared the Duke, whom his wife was obliged to obey. “You can spend three hours poring over it, if that’s what amuses you,” he added ironically. “But where are you going to stick such a monstrous whatnot?”

“Why, in my room, of course. I want to have it in my sight.”

“Oh, just as you please; if it’s in your room, I’ll probably never get to see it,” said the Duke, without thinking of the revelation he was so blithely making of the negative state of his conjugal relations.

“Very well, you will take it out with the greatest care,” Mme. de Guermantes told the servant, multiplying her instructions out of politeness to Swann. “And see that you don’t crumple the envelope, either.”

“So we must respect even the envelope!” the Duke muttered to me, throwing his arms up. “But, Swann,” he added, “I, who am only a poor married man and thoroughly prosaic, what I really admire about this is how you managed to find an envelope of that size. Where did you dig it up?”

“Why, at the studio of the photographer who’s constantly sending out these sort of things. But the man’s a fool, for I see he’s written on it ‘The Duchess de Guermantes,’ without putting ‘Madame.’”

“I’ll forgive him for that,” said the Duchess nonchalantly; then, seeming to be struck by a sudden idea which enlivened her: “Well you haven’t said whether you’ll come to Italy with us?”

“Madame, I’m afraid that really won’t be possible.”

“Oh well! Mme. de Montmorency has all the luck. You accompanied her to Venice and Vicenza. She told me that with you one saw things one would never see otherwise, things no one had ever thought of mentioning before, that you showed her things she’d never dreamed of, and that even in the well-known things she’d been able to appreciate details which without you she might have passed by a dozen times without ever noticing. Obviously, she has been more highly favoured than we are to be…. You’ll take the big envelope with Mr Swann’s photograph,” she said to the servant, “and you’ll deliver it, courtesy of me, this evening at half past ten to the home of Mme. la Comtesse Molé.”

Swann burst out laughing.

“I’d like to know, all the same,” Mme. de Guermantes asked him, “how, ten months beforehand, you can tell that a thing will be impossible.”

“My dear Duchess, I’ll tell you if you insist, but, first of all, you can see that I am very ill.”

“Yes, my dear Charles, I don’t think you look at all well. I’m not happy with your colour, but I’m not asking you to come with me next week, I’m asking you to come in ten months. In ten months one has time to get oneself cured, you know.”

At this point a footman came in to say that the carriage was at the door. “Come on, Oriane, horsey up,” said the Duke, already pawing the ground with impatience as though he were himself one of the horses that stood waiting outside.

“Very well, in a word tell me what’s to stop you coming to Italy,” the Duchess asked as she rose to bid us good-bye.

“But, my dear friend, it’s because I shall have been dead for several months. According to the doctors I consulted last winter, this thing I’ve got—which may, for that matter, carry me off at any moment—won’t in any case allow me more than three or four months to live, and even that is a generous estimate,” Swann replied with a smile, while the footman opened the glazed door of the hall to let the Duchess out.

“What on earth are you saying?” cried the Duchess, pausing for a moment on her way to the carriage, and raising her fine eyes, their melancholy blue clouded by uncertainty. Caught for the first time in her life between two such different obligations as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner and showing pity for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the correct ruling to follow, and, not knowing which to choose, felt it better to make a show of not believing that the latter alternative need be taken seriously, in order to follow the first, which at the moment demanded less effort on her part, and thought that the best way of resolving the dilemma would be to deny that any existed.

“You jest,” she said to Swann.

“It would be a quite charming jest,” he replied ironically. “I don’t know why I am telling you this; I’ve never said a word to you before about my illness. But since you asked, and as now I may die at any moment… But above all, I don’t want you to be late; you’re dining out, remember,” he added, because he knew that for other people their own social obligations took precedence over the death of a friend, and he was able to put himself in her place thanks to his instinctive politeness. But the Duchess’s politeness enabled her also to perceive in a vague way that the dinner to which she was going must count for less to Swann than his own death. And so, while continuing on her way towards the carriage, she let her shoulders droop, saying: “Don’t worry about our dinner. It’s of no consequence!” But this put the Duke in a bad humour, who exclaimed: “Come on, Oriane, don’t stop there chattering like that and swapping tragic stories with Swann; you know very well that Mme. de Saint-Euverte insists on sitting down to table at eight o’clock sharp. We need to know what you want to do; the horses have been waiting a good five minutes. I beg your pardon, Charles,” he continued, turning to Swann, “but it’s ten to eight already. Oriane is always late, and it’ll take us more than five minutes to get to old Mme. Saint-Euverte’s.”

Mme. de Guermantes strode towards the carriage and uttered a final farewell to Swann. “You know, we can talk about this another time; I don’t believe a word you’ve been saying, but we must discuss it calmly. I expect they gave you a dreadful fright, come to lunch, whatever day you like” (with Mme. de Guermantes, lunches always resolved everything), “you’ll let me know the day and time,” and, lifting her red skirt, she set her foot on the step. She was about to get into the carriage when, seeing this foot exposed, the Duke cried in a terrifying voice: “Oriane, what were you thinking, you poor creature? You’re still in your black shoes! With a red dress! Go upstairs quickly and put on your red shoes, or rather,” he said to the footman, “tell the lady’s maid to bring down a pair of red shoes at once.”

“But, my dear,” replied the Duchess gently, annoyed to see that Swann, who was leaving the house with me but had stood back to allow the carriage to pass out in front of us, could hear, “since we’re late.”

“No, no, we’ve plenty of time. It’s only ten to; it won’t take us ten minutes to get to the Parc Monceau. And, after all, what would it matter? If we turned up at half past eight they’d have to wait for us, but you can’t possibly go there in a red dress and black shoes. Besides, we shan’t be the last, I can tell you; there’s the Sassenages, and you know they never arrive before twenty to nine.”

The Duchess went up to her room.

“Well,” said M. de Guermantes to Swann and myself, “us poor, down-trodden husbands, people laugh at us, but we are of some use all the same. Had it not been for me, Oriane would have been going out to dinner in black shoes.”

“It’s hardly an eyesore,” said Swann, “I’d noticed the black shoes and they didn’t bother me in the least.”

“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” replied the Duke, “but it looks better for them to match the dress. Besides, you needn’t worry, she’d no sooner have got there than she’d have noticed them, and I’d have been obliged to come home and fetch the others. I’d have had my dinner at nine o’clock. Good-bye, you youngsters,” he said, gently pushing us away, “hurry along, before Oriane comes back down. It’s not that she doesn’t like seeing the two of you. On the contrary, she’s too fond of your company. If she finds you still here she’ll start talking again, she’s worn out already, she’ll get to the dinner table quite dead. Besides, I tell you frankly, I’m starving. I had a wretched lunch this morning when I got off the train. There was a hell of a béarnaise, I admit, but despite that I shan’t be at all sorry, not at all, to sit down to dinner. Five to eight! Oh, women, women! She’ll give us both indigestion. She’s not quite as tough as people think.”

The Duke felt no compunction speaking this way of his wife’s ailments as well as his own to a dying man, because these ailments interested him more, seemed more important to him. And so whether simply out of good breeding and good humour, after politely leading us out, he bellowed in a stage voice from the porch to Swann, who was already in the courtyard: “Now look here, don’t let yourself be knocked back by the doctors’ nonsense, damn them. They’re asses. You’re as sturdy as the Pont Neuf. You’ll bury us all!”

(Translation by John Lyons)


See also

Marcel Proust – The intermittences of the heart

Madeleines – A Proustian experience

Our night better than our days

Our night better than our days

The day returns the day is now everywhere
The earth opens and slides and dies and disappears
But already the living have accepted their fate
In the dimensions of man a star goes out
And the woman lifts her leaden child

The sea’s palace rears up in the azure
Today like yesterday the moor with its pale bells
The hand with no future the bird with no omen
The houses’ robes totally resistant to love
The road monotone under the feet of the poor

The sun’s not far away and you who are still sleeping
Slowly arise shepherding your last dream
Towards the appeasement of space and your breast
Is like the earth to the seed that will germinate
A very precise source of need

We’ll see your evening again again see your night
And all will be tinged with nudity again
The light will shed its leaves on your forehead
Everything will be swathed in your delicate secrets
And sleep will live forever until break of day.

Paul Éluard

(translation by John Lyons)


Notre nuit meilleure que nos jours

Le jour revient le jour est maintenant partout
La terre s’ouvre et glisse et meurt et disparaît
Mais déjà les vivants ont accepté leur sort
Dans l’épaisseur de l’homme une étoile s’éteint
Et la femme soulève son enfant de plomb

Le palais de la mer se dresse dans l’azur
Aujourd’hui comme hier la lande aux cloches pâles
La main sans avenir l’oiseau de nul présage
Les robes les maisons bien fermées à l’amour
La route monotone sous les pieds des pauvres

Le soleil n’est pas loin et toi qui dors encore
Tu montes lentement menant ton dernier rêve
Vers l’assouvissement de l’espace et ton sein
Et semblable à la terre au grain qui germera
Très précise fontaine de nécessité

Nous reverrons ton soir nous reverrons ta nuit
Tout sera de nouveau teinté de nudité
La lumière perdra ses feuilles sur ton front
Tout sera recouvert de tes légers secrets
Et le sommeil vivra sans fin jusqu’au matin.

The intermittences of the heart – Marcel Proust

“For the intermittences of the heart are closely linked to the troubles of memory. Without doubt, it is the existence of our body, to us akin to a jar in which our spiritual nature is enclosed, that leads us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession.” (translation by John Lyons)

A thought for the day, taken from Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust’s monumental exercise in voluntary memory, in which he seeks to reclaim the narrative of his past life. The work is permeated with episodes of involuntary memory, some ecstatically joyful, others full of the pain of loss and lost love.

Disjecta Membra

What are our memories
           but living thoughts
and feelings
           our minds a ragbag
of experiences
           of hopes and dashed
expectations
           of moments of tenderness
set against the shifting veil
           of darkness and light
and that never-ending tussle
           between precision
perfection
           and sheer chaos

John Lyons 

Nocturne in broad daylight

Jules Supervielle
Jules Supervielle

Jules Supervielle (1884-1960) was born into a French-Basque family living in Uruguay. Aged ten, he was sent to Paris, where he completed his education at the Sorbonne. For the rest of his life, he divided his time between Uruguay and France. He was friends with André Gide, Paul Valéry and Jacques Rivière, and in 1923, he met the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, a crucial influence on his later work. The poem below is a fragment from La fable du monde, published in 1938. See also “I dream you from afar.”

Nocturne in broad daylight

The slowness around me
Casts its net over the furniture
Imprisoning the light
And familiar objects.
And Time, its legs crossed,
Looks me in the eye
And sometimes it stands up
To examine me a little closer,
Then it goes back to its place
Like a satisfied prince.
And here in my whole body
The Feeling of Life,
Red and white ants
Composing a human being.
And Space revolves around me
In which everyone finds their place
From the high stars
To those who observe them.
And every day that I endure
Under my shadowy thoughts
I live among these figures
Layered around me
Like between Pyramids.

Jules Supervielle

(translated by John Lyons)


Nocturne en plein jour

La Lenteur autour de moi
Met son filet sur les meubles
Emprisonnant la lumière
Et les objets familiers.
Et le Temps, jambes croisées,
Me regarde dans les yeux
Et quelquefois il se dresse
Pour me voir d’un peu plus près,
Puis il retourne à sa place
Comme un prince satisfait.
Et voici dans tout mon corps
Le Sentiment de la Vie,
Blanches et rouges fourmis
Composant un être humain.
Et l’Espace tourne autour de moi
Où chacun trouve sa place
Depuis les hautes étoiles
Jusqu’à ceux qui les regardent.
Et chaque jour que j’endure
Sous mes ombreuses pensées
Je vis parmi ces figures
Comme entre des Pyramides
Autour de moi étagées.

Aldo Pellegrini: The subversive effect of poetry

aldo-pellegrini_bwThe Argentinian poet, Aldo Pellegrini (1903-1973), was the founder of the first Surrealist group among Spanish-speaking writers. In his writing he called for a poetry “free from the schemes of reason, free from social norms, free from prohibitions, free from prejudice, free from canons, free from fear, a poetry free from its own preconceptions.” 

Below, along with two poems dating from 1952, I have translated the first two paragraphs of an essay he published in Buenos Aires in 1965 which outlines his poetic manifesto.


Aldo Pellegrini: The subversive effect of poetry (extract).

There is a force in man, that comes from the simple fact of living, it conditions his destiny fatally. This force is visible at every turn through the manifestations of love, which tends to transcend the individual in communion with the whole, has its own laws that are irreducible to rational schemes. Poetry appears as an expression of that impulse toward fulfilling a vital destiny, and the inevitability of that fate is revealed in poetry as an indisputable fact. Poetry is not, therefore, an amusement or luxury, but a necessity, just as love is. All other needs, even the most urgent, are subordinate to those two, which ultimately are the two aspects of the same primordial energy that gives true meaning to life. If we penetrate deeply into the meaning of the old saying “Man does not live by bread alone,” we will see that the lucidity of popular wisdom reaches a similar conviction. To go without poetry would be to renounce life.

Considered thus, the poetic exists not only in words; it is a way of acting, a way of being in the world and existing with people and things. Poetic language in its different forms (plastic form, verbal form, musical form) merely objectifies in a communicable manner through the appropriate signs of each particular language, the expansive force of the vital. As a result, the poetic world is in everyone, to the extent that every individual is an integral being. Lautreamont’s clear slogan, “Poetry should be made by everyone,” has no other meaning. Whoever ignores poetry is a mutilated being, as is whoever ignores love.


No subject

He who sings out of not knowing
he who saturated with ignorance
runs along the belly of the dark Fridays
he who throws fingernails into the street
and hides his life in corners
who enraged chews on silence
seeks his subject.

A subject
a subject that changes
a subject that changes with the steam of digestions
a subject illuminated by the glow of parched tongues
a subject pursued by the rumble of empty eyes
the subject of luminous hunger, the subject of the cry of ecstasy
the subject of resounding brows
the subject of ears where words are liquefied.

The eyes out of their sockets
a shaft of light that causes the gaze to bleed
staring in the direction of microscopic subjects
hands outstretched
that reach the final disintegration of subjects.

Subject that changes in a man who doesn’t change
in the cave of subjects, unchanging man
I am condemned by the time of times
to be myself.

*

The spiders’ feast

O so you’ve woken up?
a prodigious morning opens wide the windows
last night’s tree has left a mark
on the skin of your forehead.

Yes, you’ve woken up
shaking off your mantle of cobwebbed sleep
You’ve put to flight the crowd of blind rats
that gnawed at you as you slept.

You’re awake, where you off to now?
you abandon your night wealth for the great void of day
and with pale weakness you build your aimless march.

You’re awake, let’s mount
the narrow stairs to the end of time
there to surprise the lost minutes
life escapees.

No
a sudden discouragement holds you back
before a heavenless space where terrified mists
of inexplicable gentleness
transform those who advance into wind.

Marine algae of hope
pointless hours lurk behind the golden door
words chained to a deep secret
diamond discouragement shines inwardly
those who dare to smile lose their place in the world.

Where’re you off to without me? looking for your solitary feast
your drunkenness of signs and cataracts
your cage of freedom
where unknown friends sup your fluid gestures
and poison glares at you with phosphorescent eyes.
Prepare for your feast
the feast of hands that crush each other
the feast of creaking sweat
there where the lethargy of your flesh
throws itself into a dark dance.

Your feast is the feast of spiders
that ferociously devour your night wealth
to feed their endless misery
there submerged in boundless oblivion
you’ll buy reasons to laugh
You’ll purchase a roar to fill your silence

Aldo Pellegrini

(translation by John Lyons)

The lyre among the shades

Sonnets to Orpheus

Sonnet 9

Only those who have already
raised the lyre among the shades
can foresee
the infinite praise.
 
Only those who consumed  
poppies with the dead,  
will not lose the least
of their notes.
 
Our reflection in the pond  
may often blur:  
know the picture.
 
Only twixt the twin realms
will our voice turn  
gentle and everlasting

Rainer Maria Rilke

(translation by John Lyons)


 

Sonnett 9

Nur wer die Leier schon hob
auch unter Schatten,
darf das unendliche Lob
ahnend erstatten.

Nur wer mit Toten vom Mohn
aß, von dem ihren,
wird nicht den leisesten Ton
wieder verlieren.

Mag auch die Spieglung im Teich
oft uns verschwimmen:
Wisse das Bild.

Erst in dem Doppelbereich
werden die Stimmen
ewig und mild.

The murder of Federico García Lorca

Gelman
Juan Gelman (1930-2014)

Reds

it’s raining on the Río de la Plata and it’s almost
36 years since they killed Federico García Lorca but
what’s the relationship between that
outer reality and this inner unreality? or
what’s the relationship between that outer unreality
and this inner reality?
 
I don’t know the river’s gray line  
looks like the knife with which they slit the sky
looks like the knife with which they slit childhoods in Azul
slit childhoods in Santa Fe and other places in the republic
sometimes forever or always forever
it’s one of the country’s great agonies
 
that’s for sure in the west
the sunsets are not inflamed by the sun here
children’s blood inflames the republic’s sunsets  
children from Salta children from Tucumán little angels
blood evaporated or fallen swept away by the sunset
each and every each and every day
 
and what’s that got to do the death of Federico García Lorca
with the execution of Federico García Lorca in Granada in 1936?
or the sunset in the west of Spain
that is inflamed not by the sun but from the blood
of Federico García Lorca poet
each and every each and every day
 
I don’t know I don’t know
“child, you’re going to fall into the river!” said Federico García Lorca
“when he was lost in the water I understood” said Federico García Lorca
“within the rose there’s another river” said Federico García Lorca
but why does his blood inflame
Granada each and every day every day?
 
and the children of Azul Santa Fe Tucumán Salta
why do they inflame the sky of the republic
beneath which they have forgotten them or pretend to forget?
why did they fall into the river were lost
in the water went to the river of another rose from
ugly poverty?
 
what’s the relationship between that
outer reality and this inner unreality? or
what’s the relationship between that outer unreality
and this inner reality?
when did they kill Federico García Lorca in Tucumán?
when was he shot in Azul Santa Fe Salta?

Juan Gelman

(Translated by John Lyons)


In this poem, Juan Gelman – of Ukrainian origin and one of Argentina’s greatest poet – draws a parallel between the murder of the poet Federico García Lorca by Franco’s fascist troops at the start of the Spanish Civil War and the slaughter of innocents in Argentina during the so-called Dirty War (the name used for the period of United States-backed state terrorism in Argentina from 1976 to 1983). Azul, Santa Fe, Salta and Tucumán are representative provinces of Argentina, though the military dictatorship spread terror throughout the country.

Vietnam

 

espriu
Salvador Espriu (1913-1985)

Vietnam

I’m not young and I’ve always seen
injustice and fear all around me
It’s always been this way,
I gratefully learned  
from the heavy books of the good old days.
I live in a country that’s not free,
very tired, cruel, corrupt, very cowardly,
I have to live in an unworthy country
but the rest of the world is no better.
 
And I can raise only a few fragile words
against the contempt of the lords of power,
the princes’ lips are just smiling,
barely a smile that comes from oblivion
and then dictate forever
icy laws of fear and force,
a firm support  
most generous crutches
upon which the lame  
may walk towards death.
 
How will I fight with nothing
but useless words,
what good is the cry of the dreamer?
I wake up slowly and in silence I contemplate
the great bonfire lit in the far south,
the shame and dishonour of all peoples
It will spread everywhere  
and in it we shall burn,
now someone has understood
but soon everyone will know
that we’re completely lost.

Salvador Espriu

(translated by John Lyons)


“Vietnam” by the great Catalan poet, Salvador Espriu, was written in 1968, ostensibly as a denunciation of the Vietnam War, but was aimed more particularly at fascism and the corrupt regime of Franco’s Spain which sought to suppress Catalan culture.

Sonnets to Orpheus, Sonnet x

Sonnets to Orpheus

Sonnet x

I greet you who never left my heart
ancient sarcophagi through which
the happy waters of Roman days
flow like a wandering song.
 
Or those as open as the eyes
of a happy shepherd upon awakening
– full of silence and the sucking of bees –
around whom enchanted butterflies flutter;
 
I greet all those wrenched from doubt,
mouth again agape who already knew
what it means to be silent
 
We know, my friends, don’t we know?
Both configure the hour that wavers  
on the human face.

Rainer Maria Rilke
(translated by John Lyons)


 

Die Sonette an Orpheus

Sonett X

Euch, die ihr nie mein Gefühl verließt,
grüß ich, antikische Sarkophage,
die das fröhliche Wasser römischer Tage
als ein wandelndes Lied durchfließt.

Oder jene so offenen, wie das Aug
eines frohen erwachenden Hirten,
—innen voll Stille und Bienensaug—
denen entzückte Falter entschwirrten;

alle, die man dem Zweifel entreißt,
grüß ich, die wiedergeöffneten Munde,
die schon wußten, was schweigen heißt.

Wissen wirs, Freunde, wissen wirs nicht?
Beides bildet die zögernde Stunde
in dem menschlichen Angesicht.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Morning moon

moon

Morning moon

The moon is an eye
           high above the horizon
it sees me
           it knows me
gales have blown
           but the moon is wholly
serene
           on this winter morning
birds cavorting
           in the strong breeze
my life continually
           ahead of me

This round disk of perfection

           with it shaded light
bountiful in its message
           of peace
geometries that lie
           at the heart of our being
are thrown into perspective
           and I go calmly
under its silent
           timeless gaze

John Lyons


Morgenmond

Der Mond ist ein Auge
           hoch über dem Horizont
es sieht mich
           es kennt mich
Stürme haben geblasen
           aber der Mond ist ganz
heiter
           an diesem Wintermorgen
Vögel tummeln sich
           in der starken Brise
mein Leben ständig
           vor mir

Diese runde Scheibe der Perfektion
           damit schattiertes Licht
reichlich in seiner Botschaft
           von Frieden
Geometrien die ruhen
           im Herzen unseres Seins
werden in Perspektive geworfen
           und ich gehe ruhig
unter seinem Schweigen
           zeitloser Blick