Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The sea at Balbec

À la recherche du temps perdu includes some memorable seascapes. You get the impression that Proust’s descriptions would be much more impressive than the paintings he describes by his fictional seascape painter, Elstir. Here for example is one of Proust’s sentences on the view from his narrator’s window at Balbec, where he notes the way the waves recede to that point in the distance where they resemble the glaciers one sees in the backgrounds of the Tuscan Primitives:

'Fenêtre à laquelle je devais ensuite me mettre chaque matin comme au carreau d'une diligence dans laquelle on a dormi, pour voir si pendant la nuit s'est rapprochée ou éloignée une chaîne désirée, -- ici ces collines de la mer qui avant de revenir vers nous en dansant, peuvent reculer si loin que souvent ce n'était qu'après une longue plaine sablonneuse que j'apercevais à une grande distance leurs premières ondulations, dans un lointain transparent, vaporeux et bleuâtre comme ces glaciers qu'on voit au fond des tableaux des primitifs toscans.'

(from Project Gutenburg)

Marcel Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours (1896) includes a beautiful passage headed ‘Seascape’. He thinks of the sea at Normandy, or rather ‘the wooded paths from which you occasionally catch sight of it and where the breeze mingles together the smell of the salt, damp leaves and milk…. Suddenly I would see her; it would be on one of those days of somnolence beneath a dazzling sun, when she reflects the sky that is as blue as she is, only paler. Sails white like butterflies would be dotted over the motionless water, happy not to move any more, almost swooning in the heat. Or alternatively, the sea would be rough, yellow in the sunlight like a great field of mud, with swells that, from such a distance, would appear stationary and crowned with dazzling snow’ (trans. Andrew Brown). The last two sentences are like paintings, but the first part of the quotation here hints at the full power of words, with the subject moving through the landscape and the different senses engaged.

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