Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 14: We’ll Always Have Paris | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 14 :  We’ll Always Have Paris

Proust left behind him a great lie more deadly
Than any hatched by Albertine. He said
That love consumes itself in jealousy
And can’t survive a marriage. How could he
Know such a thing? A passion is just nature,
And nature boasts at least one butterfly
That plants a stink-bomb in the female after
Having his way with her, so that no other
Male butterfly will want her. There are human
Societies like that, but we try hard
To keep their males from marrying our daughters.
A marriage is what civilization makes
Out of an urgency. Proust saw all that
But placed no value on the battle damage —
The fraying patience, even with the best
Will in the world, and, when there is the worst,
The betrayals, the retreats from the betrayals;
The nagging thought that you have been held back,
And, even more corrosive, that you have
Held back the one whose life is joined to yours;
The living hell of seeing your child sicken,
As Proust himself was sick, but this is worse,
Because there will be nothing left but loss —
All these and all the other disappointments
(They haunt even your moments of shared laughter
At your sheer luck in having found someone
Better than you to help you find where passion
Is meant to lead beyond delirium)
That come after the love-storm and before
The soul lies down to sleep. And it’s from those,
Of course, that we become wise, if we do:
Which makes a nonsense of Proust’s fine idea
That early youth is when we learn what matters.
The opposite, it could be said, applies:
Only the married learn a thing. Proust never
Found any of that out except by dint
Of observation, never quite the same
As going through the mill. He didn’t have to:
He had his marvellous book to write. His freedom
From all ties makes him childish: and yet what
A child. To wish him different would be like
The wish for a nice Wagner. Proust is worth
A mass, like Paris. At the end of Casablanca
Bogart and Ingrid Bergman part forever
With the motto that rings bells still in young hearts:
We’ll always have Paris. And so we do:
But the city is intact by chance. If Proust
Could rise for just a day from Père Lachaise
And walk awhile he would see little different
Apart from that dull shaft on Montparnasse
(Let’s not forget, though, that the Eiffel Tower
Was brand new in his time, as was the church
Of Sacré Coeur perched mosque-like on Montmartre:
It’s just that they both happened to look good)
But he would soon hear that the Wehrmacht marched
Triumphant down the Champs-Élysées and
The Jews left from the Drancy velodrome
For the journey east to death. Paris survived,
But might, had Hitler settled in to govern,
Have echoed what occurred in Petersburg
After the revolution, when the high life
Of title, taste and patronage was exiled
Or just wiped out. Catastrophes like that,
As well as all the millions that they kill,
Derail the history even of the arts:
Who now remembers the Troubetzkoy sculptures
(He had a way of making metal look
As crisp as biscuit that left Rodin seeming
Almost ham-fisted by comparison)
Of those princesses and grand duchesses
Or just plain duchesses and bankers’ wives,
Or the pastel portrait by Pasternak’s father
Of a Jewess of the high-born bourgeoisie?
Eliminated like class enemies,
Even as images proscribed for decades,
They dropped from our regard. In Stalin’s fiefdom —
I speak as a Kerenskyite, a Kulak,
A Wrecker and a Social Fascist who,
From hopeless passion for Akhmatova,
Might just have stuck around to be wiped out —
It was Year Zero always. The belle époque
Of Russia came to Paris. Diaghilev
Was Proust in all but name. The Little Phrase
Of Vinteuil teasing us throughout the novel —
It’s there and there again like all those drawings
By Watteau studying the different ways
A woman’s smile could look: drawings that Proust
Admired, thrilled by the science of an artist —
Undoubtedly pays tribute to Saint-Saëns,
But echoes also, surely, that sublime
Descending cadence signalling the end
Of Petroushka, and I think always of how
Mass murder sent its ripples to New York
And gave us Balanchine: a tragic gain.
Cultures can die, or flee. Proust knew that well.
Behind the shimmer, harsh truths rule his book.
Here is no fantasist. His poetry
Begins in prose, and we should not allow
An ignorance of French to keep us from him,
For he is more than style: or say it this way,
His style is more than his own language. Start
With Scott Moncrieff’s translation, which well might
Arouse an ache to make a start on French
(It isn’t that hard, once you realize
That it’s impossible. Courage, mes braves!)
But will enrich you even if you don’t
Get enough French to travel on the Metro,
Saying without a blush the lovely name
Of the Gate of Lilacs. Poetry: and yet
The way Proust thinks has music of its own
More beautiful than anything inherent
In his native tongue — for in that, after all,
Sade and Céline wrote too — and in the spell
Of Proust’s great paragraphs we hear and see
The ocean into which we all, as he did,
Must sink back, our achievements left behind —
Whether a necessary task fulfilled
Or else whole symphonies — and be reclaimed
By nature, which has no mind of its own
But simply makes us welcome, as the ashes
Of Maria Callas, spread on the Aegean,
Were first a cloud, and then a mist, then nothing
But an everlasting song reduced to atoms
Which, though they drift apart, are still together
In the memories of those of us who live.