Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Proust’

Girl with a Pearl Earring

September 9, 2013

Ham and High Literary festivalGreat excitement is brewing chez Emilybooks, for next week I will be interviewing Tracy Chevalier at the Ham and High Literary Festival. I would love to see some friendly unheckling literary faces in the crowd, so do come along if you fancy it. (Might I also suggest a little browse of other festival events, while you’re at it, as there are all sorts of interesting talks, from the likes of Judith Kerr, Maggie O’Farrell, Deborah Moggach, and Dannie Abse.)

Next week, we will be talking about Tracy Chevalier’s brilliant new novel The Last Runaway, which has just come out in paperback, but I couldn’t resist the excuse to read – at long last – Girl with a Pearl Earring as well.

What a wonderful book! I expect most of you know the premise – a fictional rendering of the story behind this beautiful painting by Vermeer:

 Girl with a Pearl Earring

The novel begins with Griet chopping vegetables. We quickly learn that her father was a tiler, but has been blinded in an accident, so the family has fallen into poverty and Griet is sent to be a maid in the house of Vermeer. The artist suspects she will be well-suited to the job of cleaning his studio as she has a sensitivity to colour – shown in the way she lays out slices of vegetables in a colour wheel before putting them into the soup, and also because her father’s blindness has made her good at leaving things where they are meant to be. Ironically, this need for things to be left exactly as they were is one felt just as keenly by a blind man as by a painter, who sees so well.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierGriet sets off to this new household, different in so many ways to her own. It is Catholic, wealthy enough to afford maids and meat, and ruled over by two mistresses: Vermeer’s wife Catharina – sour, jealous, endlessly popping out babies – and her mother Maria Thins, who one senses is really in charge, certainly of the house’s finances. There are several children, but most notable is awful Cornelia – malicious, cunning and cruel in the way that only little girls can be.

Griet quickly wins the reader’s respect. Like all the best heroines, she is put in a tough situation but quietly rises to the challenge. We see this straight away when Tanneke, the older maid, shows her the laundry:

She pointed to a great mound of clothes – they had fallen far behind with their washing. I would struggle to catch up.

Rather than despairing at the task ahead, or indeed naively dismissing it, Griet assesses the situation:

Including me there were ten of us now in the house, one a baby who would dirty more clothes than the rest. I would be laundering every day, my hands chapped and cracked from the soap and water, my face red from standing over the steam, my back aching from lifting wet cloth, my arms burned by the iron. But I was new and I was young – it was to be expected I would have the hardest tasks.

Then she quietly gets on with it:

The laundry needed to soak for a day before I could wash it. In the storage room that led down to the cellar I found two pewter waterpots and a copper kettle. I took the pots with me and walked up the long hallway to the front door.

Griet displays the same calm objectivity with the rest of her new life. She notes a problem – a difficult person or task – assesses exactly what the trouble is and then quietly goes about it as best she can. A practical and clear-headed heroine.

The one real boon of Griet’s new life is her contact with art. She is let into Vermeer’s studio to clean – a place where the children, his wife and the other maid are not allowed:

It was an orderly room, empty of the clutter of everyday life. It felt different from the rest of the house, almost as if it were in another house altogether. When the door was closed it would be difficult to hear the shouts of the children, the jangle of Catharina’s keys, the sweeping of our brooms.

This room is a special place, a quiet sanctuary. She savours her time alone cleaning in there, and slowly it becomes hers as much as it is Vermeer’s. It is an interesting take on Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, for while the studio isn’t Griet’s own space, she asserts her presence and comes to share it with Vermeer.

Vermeer notices her artistic eye and it’s not long before he asks her to assist him, teaching her how to grind the colours and mix the paints, and explains elements of composition and colour to her. He arranges it so that she can sleep in the studio’s attic to give her more time to help him. There is a key moment when she sees what is needed in one of his paintings before he does, and rearranges it for him.

‘I had not thought I would learn something from a maid,’ he said at last.

As a counterbalance to Griet’s settling into her new life, Chevalier lets us watch the threads of her old life slowly unravel. Every Sunday she visits her family, and we see the relationships fracture. Meanwhile, Griet is pursued by the butcher’s son. While our practical heroine can see how he would provide food for her poor family and how kind he is in the way he cares for and helps her, she is repulsed by the blood under his fingernails, and – we can see, before she admits it to herself – he doesn’t equal her enigmatic, and clean-handed, master Vermeer.

While Chevalier builds everything up to a moment of taboo-breaking romance between Griet and her master, she is too intelligent an author to give in to this tension. Instead, a more subtle relationship is formed between them, erotic yet chaste, in which they come together over their work rather than physically. We know that Griet will eventually pose for him, and we sense that this could be her undoing…

While Griet’s position as a maid from a poor family is emphasised throughout the book, so is her agency and her ability to negotiate her own path. Chevalier describes the middle of the Market Square:

There the stones had been laid to form an eight-pointed star set inside a circle. Each point aimed towards a different part of Delft. I thought of it as the very centre of the town, and as the centre of my life.

We are always wondering which way Griet will go. There are new directions offered throughout the book, but there are just as many occasions when a way is closed to her. Not long after she has gone to the Catholic quarter to  Vermeer’s house, she learns that the area where her own family live has been quarantined because of the plague, and so she may not go back. She is allowed into Vermeer’s studio, and yet she is locked in there at night for fear of her stealing the mistress’s jewels. She may help Vermeer, yet we wonder how far along that path she will be allowed to go. When she is posing for Vermeer, his friend warns her to be careful:

Take care to remain yourself … The women in his paintings – he traps them in his world. You can get lost there.

Characters and circumstances conspire to trap Griet, to close off a path and to bully her into submission, either to the lusty advances of a man, or the mean actions of a woman. And yet Griet – our quiet, practical heroine – manages to cool-headedly resist and remain herself, treading her own path, albeit with just enough nearly getting lost to keep you gripped.

Daphne and Tracy Chevalier

And what did Daphne think? Well, poor Daphne is having some trouble with her left eye, and now goes about with it closed, poor thing, giving her a somewhat piratical look. She will be going to the vet to have it flushed out next week, but in the meantime I think her vision of the world is a little wonky and perhaps reading a book that makes such a contrast between a blind man and an artist, with so much thinking about art and composition and colour was rather an insensitive choice. Also, as a strict vegetarian, all the descriptions of the meat at the market were quite upsetting for her. Nevertheless, she agrees that Chevalier has a fine prose style and, as we know, Daphne, like Griet, is not afraid to go exploring, and will always find her way out of a trap!

Incidentally, Vermeer also came up in Proust (see last week’s post). Swann is writing an essay about him, although I very much doubt that Charles Swann would have come up with anything as fun, engaging and gripping a work as Tracy Chevalier.


Proust gave me the flu

September 2, 2013

A few weeks ago, I found myself going to a wedding in Brittany, which was a delight in part for the chance to spend rather a lot of time on a train. Trains are probably my third favourite place to read (after in the bath and in bed), as they offer such long stretches of book time, punctuated with lovely views out of the window. They are also free from the many problems that plague other modes of transport, such as feeling sick, overcoming irrational fears of death, or having to mapread.

Swann's WayI decided this would be the perfect opportunity to at last get around to reading some Proust. Swann’s Way – the first volume of In Search of Lost Time – has been sitting on my shelf for years now, tempting me with the treats that so many say lie inside, yet also keeping me at arm’s length, knowing that this isn’t a book to be attempt when jammed on the tube, or when otherwise distracted with London life. To be honest, I felt more than a little daunted by it. It’s massive. It’s seminal. It’s one of those books you’re forever being told you’re not old enough to read, and wouldn’t it be awful to read it too early and so not enjoy one of the great works!

It took me a little while to settle in to Swann’s Way. As I sat on the Eurostar, I kept peeking over the husband’s shoulder at the glossy magazine he was reading and wondering if I was a glutton for punishment. Why Proust, when I could just read the Proust Questionnaire at the end of Vanity Fair?

I felt impossibly self-conscious with my Proust. I could barely get through a sentence without thinking about everyone else who’d read that sentence. I kept wondering what Virginia Woolf would have made of it, or E.M. Forster, or even Jane Gardam. I am reading Proust, I kept telling myself. This is the real deal. If I am anything like Alain de Botton, it will change my life.

So it was a shaky start. I think it always takes a little while to settle in to the classics, to adjust to their slower pace, their long serpentine sentences. But by the time I got off the train at Paris, I was hooked.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to be sitting on a TGV the next morning, reading about Combray while looking out at exactly that landscape! It is such a sensuous book, I could almost smell the ‘bitter-sweet scent of almonds emanating from the hawthorn-blossom’ and the myriad other scents that perfume the pages as I looked at their real-life counterparts flashing past the window.

What struck me above all is how clever Proust is with his long winding sentences. They twist and turn, wrongfooting you with every comma, until you come to the end and it all falls perfectly into place. Here is one of my favourites, from ‘Swann in Love’, the second part of the book, which explores Swann’s love affair with Odette:

He would go and join her, and when he opened the door, on Odette’s rosy face, as soon as she caught sight of Swann, would appear – changing the curve of her lips, the look in her eyes, the moulding of her cheeks – an all-absorbing smile.

When I first read this I was jolted after ‘face’, feeling there must be some mistake, you don’t open a door on someone’s face. I began again and realised what he does with that comma after ‘door’ is allow a sudden shift in agency from the action of Swann opening the door to Odette’s change in expression as she catches sight of Swann. Then there is another shift as the description of Odette’s smile – ‘changing the curve of her lips…’ is relayed as witnessed by Swann. It is though this smile is as intensely felt by each of them – Odette as she moves and Swann as he observes it. How perfectly intimate for two lovers to share such a flirtatious sentence. How impossibly clever of Proust to convey an emotion even in his syntax.

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel SparkSo many of Proust’s sentences are every bit as good as this one. It is such luxurious prose, so rich. As it happened, when I got back to London after the wedding, still in the middle of Swann’s Way, I quickly re-read Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington for this Spectator article. I alighted upon a wonderful anecdotal description of Proust, from Spark’s Mrs Hawkins:

It’s about everything in particular.

She’s exactly right. Proust pays particular, minute attention to every little detail, resulting in these wonderful long sentences that perfectly capture each tiny gradation of everything.

Everyone goes on about the famous madeleine moment as being the epitome of wonderful writing about memory. (By the way, two things you might not know about that moment: 1. It’s dipped in lime-blossom tea; 2. It’s 50 pages in, not right at the beginning.) For sure it is good, but I thought just as good was the way Proust writes about music. This is also from ‘Swann in Love’:

The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. . . . But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils. . . . This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him, and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.

What a long quotation – and this is just picking out key bits from two whole pages – but I hope that from here you can see how well he writes about that inexpressible, tantalising power of music. He captures, perfectly, the way a certain exquisite phrase can get under your skin and lift you out of yourself, and how hard it is to pin it down, or conjure the same feeling in any other way. (Incidentally, for more on the actual phrase of music that inspired Proust, see this intriguing blog.)

Who am I to write about Proust? All I can say is that I loved it more than I’d anticipated and would thoroughly recommend it for a holiday or a long train journey. I finished it when I went to Andalucia last week for some villa relaxation with friends – many of whom were reading Laurie Lee, to my intense delight! I lay by the swimming pool in the hot Spanish sun and was utterly absorbed in Proust’s luxurious, endless sentences.

It was only once I’d finished Swann’s Way that I was struck with flu. Literally, no sooner had I put it down than my throat started to ache. The last few days of the holiday were Proustless and snot-filled, and my husky snottiness continues now I am back in London.

I worry that the only cure is to read more Proust. While Swann’s Way was heavenly, I fear that the remaining six volumes might have to wait until I spend rather a lot more time in France than a weekend’s train journey. Until then, I shall stick to hot lemon and honey, into which I might just dip a madeleine.

Daphne and Proust

Proust is, of course, Daphne’s cup of tea. She particularly loves the slow pace and long sentences.

A Literary A-Z

November 7, 2011

The lack of last week’s post was in part because I was tied up writing the first of my fortnightly columns for the Spectator’s Book Blog (cue applause, thank you). It was also thanks to the horror of tackling a rather tricky trio of letters for the next instalment of my Literary A-Z. PQR. Not quite a football team, but not far off. PQ aaaargh is closer to how it feels.

But I can delay no longer. Here it is.



P has to be Proust. I say this not having read any Proust. I base my judgement almost entirely on my father’s opinion, where Proust is held higher than any other author. I do want to read Proust, and, as a teenager, often threatened to do so, but this prospect filled my father with terror. ‘No, you shall not read him yet,’ he said, with near-Victorian sternness. ‘You are too young.’

I don’t think I minded that much. Yes, I felt a bit patronised, and said, more than once, ‘It’s so unfair. I hate you.’ (All in the name of Proust.) I think I might even have begun Swann’s Way out of spite, but after a couple of paragraphs, I realised that it was rather slower than the books to which I was used, so I quietly replaced it on the shelf. Back to such teenage classics as Junk and Goodbye Johnny Thunders.

But I do have one – albeit tenuous – Proustian connection. At my hen party (written about at great length in this post), a dear friend presented us with a batch of home-baked madeleines. A literary treat, and delicious to boot. In no time, we were reminiscing about the good old days … and I’m sure that’s more-or-less Proust’s point.

I suppose, if one were to be strict and disallow Proust, either on the (not unreasonable) grounds that I’ve not read any, or on the grounds that my father’s other favourite reading material is Winnie the Pooh in Latin … then I’d go for Orhan Pamuk. I did think that Snow was really terribly good. And The Museum of Innocence wasn’t bad either. Just a shame it went on and on and on a bit too much in a post-modern imitation of the narrator’s obsession over the girl. But there we go, take your pick. Proust or Pamuk depending on how lenient you are feeling.



Perhaps Q should go to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who did, after all, style himself as the initial ‘Q’. This Cornish author wrote a few Robert Louis-Stevenson style stories, but the reason I’d heard of him was in his guise as an anthologist. He created the Oxford Book of English Verse in 1900, which was the big poetry anthology until the seventies. That’s quite a long time. I quite like the idea of his editing a quintessentially English book, which people pocketed as their companion while they roamed the Empire.

But I’m not sure it’s fair for an anthologist to take the biscuit, so it shall have to go for the only other Q I can think of: Thomas de Quincey.

I was very excited about reading Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I remember reading about him at university, as an influence on Virginia Woolf. Apparently some of her more hallucinatory prose was in part thanks to her Quincean reading material. Of course, when I eventually got round to reading it, a few years later, when a damaged copy was lying around the bookshop, I expected his crazed language to seep into my own writing too. I hoped that by reading about opium I might even do a Coleridge.

Sadly not. Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a bit of struggle to get through. There was a lot of preamble and the actual opiumy bits felt rather overblown and silly. I suppose I did always quite like the way he talked of ‘eating’ opium, as opposed to taking it. It made me wonder if this were a literary pre-cursor of the current vogue for drug dealers to call drugs ‘food’. But I digress.

As neither of these are particularly satisfactory, perhaps we could go completely off-piste and say Queen. As in the band. Bohemian Rhapsody has some pretty wild, silly lyrics.

Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango!

Twentieth-century opium eating?



Phew. This one’s easier. It must be Salman Rushdie, although I did spare a (brief) moment to consider an author of the same initials, Samuel Richardson. Incidentally, while I was engaged in the distraction-fuelled putting-off of this piece, I saw that on Twitter Salman Rushdie was staging a #literarysmackdown between Richardson and Sterne. Little did he know that, over at EmilyBooks, the former was already engaged in a literary smackdown against his nibs himself.

But Rushdie wins hands down. Clarissa was so exhaustingly long, and while the whole letter device was quite fun and addictive, she pretty swiftly got on my nerves.

Granted, several people find that Rushdie’s writing gets on their nerves pretty swiftly too. But I am firmly of the school of thought that finds his writing imaginative, inventive, invigorating and really quite incredible. I read The Satanic Verses first, when travelling around Spain with my Muslim best friend, after leaving school. Perhaps it was a bit insensitive of me. She was more than a bit cross about it. But, as I told her then, in no uncertain terms, it is a wonderful book.

Then I went on to study Salman Rushdie at university, as part of the post-colonialism course. At Oxford, where life feels rather determinedly old-fashioned, studying books that aren’t classics and can be bought somewhere other than Blackwells, felt like sticking a finger up at the establishment. Bring on the revolution, I told myself, while others were quietly getting on with Chaucer and the Romantics.

So perhaps it is in part thanks to the intoxication of naïve student days, but I have since reread Midnight’s Children and loved it just as much. And apparently Rushdie’s children’s books are pretty brilliant too. Luka and the Fire of Life is one I’d like to read when I’m next feeling a bit poorly.

Gosh I hope that S, T and U are easier!