Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 12: Gardens of the Artists | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 12 :  Gardens of the Artists

Or would do, if we had no home to go to,
No wife and family. That fitted Proust,
Whose gift for populated loneliness
Had left him free, after his mother died,
To seek adventure. Though he scarcely moved —
In his book, Paris is the only city,
With Venice treated as a kind of suburb
Plus extra water and a quick side trip
To Padua, to check out the Giottos —
His mind was everywhere, assessing threads
Of quality and squalor that passed through
The upper layers of society
On their journey into space. The Verdurins
Play host to Ski, the Polish sculptor. Ski
Is a footloose exiled arts type who can do
A bit of everything and make it look
As if he isn’t even on the make.
What gets Marcel, though, isn’t his brass front
But the way his clambering mediocrity
Brings out the philistine pretentiousness
Of Mme Verdurin. She places him
Above Elstir for talent, because Ski,
Although his indolence befits his gift,
Knows no restrictions. ‘Ski paints anything
You ask: on cuff-links, lintels . . .’ There she stands,
Skewered in all her pomp, and far more sad
Than when she turns up in the Venice scene
Much later, far too old, a frump. One day,
And that day oddly soon, it seems, she will
Become the Duchesse de Guermantes. Yes, time
Gets warped by Proust, but when things don’t add up —
Some personage turns old and doddering
With dazzling promptitude, or else another
Shows up for the big party at the end
In strangely good shape for someone who must
Have been worm food for fifteen years at least —
It’s best to let them go, and concentrate
On how he handles the true calculus
Of character. Children he just can’t do:
It’s lucky no one has them. Any child
We meet in the vast layout of his pages
Is on its way to adulthood already,
And, when in Paris, neatly disappears,
Leaving the cast a free hand to wreak havoc
On one another’s love lives. That aside,
The social paradise Marcel inhabits
Is hyper-realistically shot through
With rancour and venality. Morel,
The lover of Charlus, has stature as
A violinist. Low birth reasserts
Its cheap grip, and by bribing the chauffeur
To hike the mileage he can take a cut
From the money Charlus pays out without looking.
Later we hear how Morel, as a soldier
Fights bravely at the front, but when he serves
As the Baron’s toy-boy, he exacts the price
By forcing his mean master to largesse.
Noblesse oblige, but the noble ends up cheated,
Cheated by love. In the self-consuming frenzy
That Proust believes to be love’s only form,
Frankness, he says, is quite impossible
Between the lovers, even about the past.
As their love deepens, they pretend they never
Said what they said beforehand, in the freedom
Of speech that should be part of their enjoyment,
But now can’t be. And yet by getting lost
In burning love’s miasma of bad faith
The imagination opens, as Bergotte,
Proust says, was educated by his women.
The same was true, we gather, of Elstir,
Who rose like Neptune through a sea of models,
And one of them, let’s try not to forget,
Was young Odette in her first days of hooking,
Before she bent herself to the long task
Of driving Swann out of his well-heeled mind.
The greatest aphorism in a book
Of aphorisms surely is, some think,
The one about how nothing is as precious,
In our possession of a certain woman,
As what she teaches us about ourselves
By causing us to suffer. Crackling stuff,
But scarcely Montesquieu (I mean the sage,
Not the exquisite toff), and anyway
Proust’s fragments, though they seem, sometimes, to claim
An independent life, have something else
In mind, a vast coherence like the sea,
The sea before the days of plastic bottles,
The sea that took down junk as if it were
The rain. In this, his special fortitude
Is to accept that all he most adores
In life — even the arts, even the souls
(Those gardens where no salon rules apply)
Of Elstir and Bergotte — is powered by
A maelstrom of desire, and might return
To tumult unless regulated by
The intellect, which is itself a passion.