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From: Peter Stephenson <pws@ibmth.df.unipi.it>
Subject: (urth) Hawthorns, nenuphars, mind, society, the Virgin, Hell, etc.
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 16:04:00 +0200

I said I'd report back if I found anything relevant in Proust on the
subject of hawthorns.  This turns out to be embarrassingly rich for what in
Claw is only about two pages (and I would certainly not have spotted it
without Roy's work on flowers).  But I think it's interesting to see a
particularly strong reference to Proustian imagery since, although Wolfe is
a known fan, there are few overt references apart from the opening of Fifth
Head.  Presumably Wolfe's subconscious is working overtime (suprised?).

Here's the paragraph again, from C. XXIII, Jolenta, about half way through
the chapter in my distinctly yellowing Arrow paperback:

  I heard the sound of water sliding over stones, and having no better goal
  to seek made for it.  We passed through a hawthorn hedge show spotted
  white blossoms seemed from a distance to present an insurmountable
  barrier, and saw a river hardly wider than a street, on which swans
  sailed like sculptures of ice.  There was a pavilion there, and beside it
  three boats, each shaped like the wide flower of the nenuphar.  Their
  interiors were lined with the thickest silk brocade, and when I stepped
  into one I found that they exuded the odor of spices.

(See, I didn't even change odor to odour.)  Note the nenuphar as well as
the hawthorn in the same paragraph --- that's why I'm fairly confident the
connection is there.  He's even used the French name for it, minus acute.
Hawthorn, by the way, is aubépine, hope `le quoted-printable' is OK for
most readers.

I should say at the start that flowers are ubiquitous in Proust, too:
lilacs, irises, jasmine, orris root, tisane, cattleya, many of which I
can't even spell in English, all have some kind of association usually more
personal than conventional, though in some cases, as here, they seem to
step over the bounds from the individual to the universal.

`Swann's Way' is really `the way by Swann's house'.  It's one of two walks
from the narrator's aunt's house in Combray, the other being the
`Guermantes Way' (the title of book three: Guermantes is both a place and
the aristocratic family who have owned the land for centuries).  The
difference between these two ways will acquire a heavy symbolic load.
Swann's way is the way of the intellect, of the inner senses --- and
sensuality in Proust is never too far from sensuousness.  The Guermantes
way is the way of society and social climbing; it's somehow associated with
the darker side of sex and sexual perversion, opposed to the more direct
way of the senses associated with the other way.  Swann himself, and the
Guermantes themselves (particularly the Baron de Charlus), are the personal
representatives of the two ways which come to stand for them.  Although
it's not immediately relevant to Wolfe, I've appended the passage where
Proust introduces this theme (all translations home-made, from the
Flammarion edition, 1987), since it's a wonderful introduction to Proust.

However, the hawthorns first turn up in the church in Combray some pages
before --- luckily there's a resumé at the back, or this would have taken
days longer.  They are associated with the Virgin Mary, decking the church
for May, `Mary's month' (p 217):

  ... placed on the altar itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose
  celebration they took part, their branches, attached horizontally to one
  another in a festive arrangement, were strung out towards the torches
  and the sacred vessels, enlivening still more the festoons of their
  greenery on which were scattered, as on a marriage train, a profusion of
  little bunches of buds of a brilliant whiteness.

Maybe one can begin to see what it means when Severian and Jolenta go
through the hedge of hawthorns.  But there's more to it than virginity and
decoration: after the service (p 219):

  On leaving the church I knelt down before the alter, and as I stood up I
  smelled all of a sudden a bittersweet almond odour(*) escaping from the
  hawthorns, and noticed on the flowers little places whiter than the rest,
  on which I supposed this scent must be hidden like the taste of marzipan
  under a dusting of breadcrumbs(**) or like the cheeks of Mlle Vinteuil
  under their red freckles.  Despite the silent immobility of the
  hawthorns, that intermittent scent was like the murmur of an intense
  life which made the altar vibrate as a rural hedge probed by living
  antennae where, on some stamens(***) which were almost red and which
  seemed to have kept a springlike virulence, one thought to see the
  provoking power of insects now metamorphosed into flowers.(****)

(*) I get away with it this time.
(**) I haven't done very well with `comme sous les parties gratinées le
  goût d'une frangipane', but being culinary it was never really supposed
  to be translated.
(***) `étamines' can mean both `stamens' and `bunting'.  I have translated
  it once each way; neither really seems right.
(****) Phew.

This is an introduction to the sensual associations of hawthorns.  Mlle
Vinteuil, whose father is a music teacher --- and, we later learn, a
composer --- is also a dweller along Swann's way.  Later (p 246), the
narrator is walking with his father and grandfather past Swann's house
itself, where there is a hawthorn hedge, because they think the Swanns are
out (Swann has made an unsuitable marriage, detailed later in the book in
`Un Amour de Swann', usually translated as `Swann in love').  The passage
is too long to quote at length (it is, incidentally, the part which
convinced my mother she couldn't take Proust), but it starts:

  I found them quite humming with the scent of hawthorns.  It was as if the
  hedge formed a suite of chapels that disappeared beneath their strewn
  flowers, heaped up in their resting place, while beneath, the sun spread a
  chequerboard of light as if it had just passed through a stained glass
  window; their perfume wafted, so oily, so fixed in its form as if I
  had been before the Virgin's altar and the flowers, just as much adorned,
  each held with a distracted air a glittering bouquet of bunting...

(at this point it gets difficult).

He goes on to compare the hawthorns both to music and to painting.
Finally, he notices a girl in the garden:  it's Gilberte Swann, who rather
more than Mlle Verdurin (soon to be regarded as even more unsuitable than
Mme Swann) is the object of the narrator's youthful longings.

Enough of hawthorns.  The way to Guermante is described as much more
arduous, requiring a fine day, by the banks of the river Vivonne (p 281):

  Soon the course of the Vivonne was choked with water plants.  First of
  all they were isolated, such as a water lily placed miserably in a
  current which gave it so little rest, like a mechanical ferry that is no
  sooner by one bank than it has to come back from where it came, eternally
  making the double crossing.  Pushed towards the bank, its stem unfolded,
  lengthened, spun out, and reached the extreme limit of its tension just
  at the point where the current picked it up again, the green rope folding
  up on itself once more and taking the poor plant back to its point of
  departure in such a way that it did not remain a second before starting a
  repetition of the same movement.  On walk after walk I found them
  always in the same predicament, making me think of a type of neurotic,
  amongst whom my grandfather counted my aunt Léonie, who down the course
  of the years shows the changeless spectacle of bizarre habits which they
  believe each time to be about to shake off and which they always keep;
  caught in the gears of their own illnesses and manias, their futile
  efforts at struggling to escape only ensure their continued machinations,
  playing the escapement to the strange, inevitable and fatal daily
  routine.  The water lilly was one of those, similar to one of the
  wretches whose singular torment, repeated endlessly throughout eternity,
  excited Dante's curiosity and would have forced him to make the
  condemned man himself tell the tale of the details and the cause at
  greater length had not Virgil, striding ahead, forced him to catch up at
  top speed, as my parents did me.

(`Water lily', of course, is nénuphar; I have used the more standard
English translation.)  Later, there are more `travaux d'horticulture
aquatique' with `jardins de nymphéas', a plant which Cassell's Concise
Dictionary isn't able to shed light on.  According to the notes, the Dante
reference is to Inferno XXIX; there's a reminder about the descent to
Avernus on p 284 where it's thematically associated with the source of the

To return to Jolenta, it seems to me Wolfe is also drawing together the two
worlds, on the one side that of the intellectual senses of the hawthorn
hedge itself, and of the gardens the pair pass through:

  Couples lay on the soft grass beneath the trees and in the more refined
  comfort of summerhouses and seemed to think our craft hardly more than a
  decoration sent idly downstream for their delectation, or if they saw my
  head above the curved petals assumed us intent upon our own affairs.
  Lone philosophers meditated on rustic seats, and parties, not invariably
  erotic, proceeded undisturbed in clerestories and arboriums.

The summerhouse recalls Combray and the `lone philosophers' are also
telling.  On the other side, there is the world of voluptousness, desire
for its own sake, the incessant, almost manic need for what other people
may not be able to provide which matches the Guermantes way, represented in
the water lily boat:

  Jolenta's desire was no more than the desire to be desired, so that I
  wished, not to comfort her loneliness as I had wished to comfort
  Valeria's, nor to find expression for an aching love like the love I had
  felt for Thecla, nor to protect her as I wished to protect Dorcas; but to
  shame and punish her, to destroy her self-possession, to fill her eyes
  with tears and tear her hair as one burns the hair of corpses to torment
  the ghosts that have fled them.  She had boasted that she made tribadists
  of women.  She came near to making an algopholist of me.

(Exercise: try translating that into French.)

I've said quite enough about this passage, but the exercise suggest other
possible Proustian connections.  For example, the narrator's female
counterparts in each book can perhaps be very loosely identified: Thecla
with Gilberte, Dorcas with Albertine, Jolenta with Mlle Vinteuil (who
doesn't appear all that much).

Appendix:  The two « côtés » at Combray: Du cÔté de chez Swann, p242

  For there were two `ways' leading from Combray for our walks, so opposed
  that we did not even leave the house by the same door if we wanted to go
  one way or the other: the way to Méséglise-la-Vineuse, also known as
  `Swann's way' because in that direction we passed by M. Swann's property,
  and the way to Guermantes.  Of Méséglise-la-Vineuse, to tell you the
  truth, I knew nothing more than the `way' and the strangers who came
  strolling to Combray on a Sunday, people whom none of us, this time not
  even my aunt, `knew from Adam', and whom by that token we took for
  `people who must have come from Méséglise'.  As for Guermantes, one day I
  would know it better, but only much later; however, if Méséglise was for
  the whole of my adolescence something as inaccessible as the horizon,
  hidden from view, so far away that you went over the folds of a terrain
  which was already nothing like that of Combray, then Guermantes appeared
  to me more like the end point, ideal rather than real, of its own `way',
  a sort of abstract geographical expression like the equator, the pole, or
  the orient.  So to `set off for Guermantes' to go to Méséglise or vice
  versa would have seemed to me an expression as devoid of sense as to set
  off to the east to go to the west.  My father always spoke of the
  Méséglise way as the most beautiful vista of a plain which he knew and of
  the Guermantes way as the archetypal river landscape, and in conceiving
  of them thus as two entitites I ascribed to them a cohesion and unity
  which belong only to the creations of the mind: the least portion of
  either seemed precious, showing its particular excellence, while beside
  them both, before I had arrived on the sacred ground of one or other, the
  purely material paths, in the midst of which they were posited as the
  ideal view of a plain and the ideal river landscape, only remained worth
  looking at for a spectator in love with the dramatic arts, like the
  narrow streets next to a theatre.  But, much more than their geographic
  separation, I felt between them the distance between the two parts of my
  own brain in which I thought of them, one of those intellectual distances
  which are only there to keep apart, to separate and put into another
  plane.  And this demarcation was made all the more absolute by our habit
  of not going both ways in the same day or in a single walk, but one time
  the Méséglise way, another the Guermantes way, which enclosed them in a
  manner that made each distant and unknowable from the other, in the
  closed and uncommunicating vessels of different afternoons.


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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