Sunday, June 24, 2007

Proust: "I only ever saw her wearing a hat"

Here's a short story from Proust, illustrating the narrator's contention that "our own contribution to our love — even if judged solely from the point of view of quantity — is greater than that of the person we love." This contention harmonizes with what Proust's narrator elsewhere says of love: that it is a matter of projecting onto another "a state of our own self." Thus love (on these terms) might develop and flourish no matter how limited the acquaintance with its object:

A former drawing teacher of my grandmother's had had a daughter with an obscure mistress. The latter died soon after the death of the child; and this was such a heartbreak to the drawing teacher that he did not long survive her. During the final months of his life, my grandmother and some ladies from Combray, who had never so much as wished to refer in his presence to the woman, with whom he had never officially lived and who had occupied little space in his life, decided to contribute to a fund that would give the little girl a life annuity. It was my grandmother's proposal; but some ladies proved reluctant: Was the child really worth it? Was she actually the daughter of the man who believed he was her father? One can never be sure, with women like her mother. . . . However, it was decided; and the child came to thank them: she was ugly and bore a marked resemblance to the old drawing teacher, thus dispelling all doubts. Her hair being her best feature, one of the ladies said to the father, who had brought the child, "What lovely hair!" My grandmother added, thinking that, the fallen woman being now dead and the drawing teacher almost dead, there could be no harm in alluding to past events of which everyone had feigned ignorance at the time, "It must run in the family. Did her mother have such lovely hair?" To which the father gave a guileless reply: "I don't know — I only ever saw her wearing a hat."

From In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve (New York: Penguin, 2002), 438-39
Like so much of Proust, this passage is both comic and poignant, with a range of motives and responses to consider: the guarded reluctance of proper ladies; the effort, on someone's part, to find something nice to say; and framing those more genteel responses, the narrator's grandmother's unhesitating generosity (she embodies all that is best in Combray) and her pragmatic choice (seeing as the drawing teacher is "almost dead") to speak openly of the past. And finally, the poor teacher's response. "I only ever saw her wearing a hat": meaning what? That she kept it on in — a carriage perhaps?
All Proust posts (Pinboard)

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