July 10, 2019

The Girl With the Bicycle: Summer Music on Proust’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

The performers in Friday morning’s backyard circus are identified in the Audubon guide as Common Grackles, “a very familiar species on suburban lawns, striding about with deliberate steps,” searching for insects, nesting “in small colonies,” and perching “in adjacent treetops to sing their creaking, grating songs.” What held me and had me smiling, however, was the visual music they were making as they gathered, one by one, on the long limb of a hemlock tree until six of them were sitting in a row, the limb rocking under them, as if they were sharing the fun. It may be a common sight for this common species, but I never saw it before and I doubt that I ever will again.

To go from watching birds riding a limb to reading Proust, who was born on July 10, 1871, is easier said than done, considering that each of the three volumes of the 1981 Random House edition of Remembrance of Things Past tops a thousand pages. With five days to deadline, all I can do is pack my knapsack with possibilities (birds, summertime, the seaside, the moon landing, the primal joy of victorious athletes) and prepare for the voyage by reading around in the edition of Proust’s Letters edited and translated by Minna Curtis. My guide is the 20-year-old English girl I encountered there. Proust’s biographer George D. Painter says it was “the beautiful Marie Nordlinger” who led Proust “near to the heart of the labyrinth.” Short and slender, “with delicate Pre-Raphaelite hands, dark eyes, full lips, and a look of warm sincerity and intelligence,” the talented young painter/sculptor from Manchester was “a godsend” in Proust’s struggle to translate John Ruskin into French. A note in my 1949 edition of the Letters says that she “not only initiated him into the English texts but supplied him with endless information and assistance” and was “the only woman younger than himself, highly intellectual and of his own social background with whom he ever seems to have carried on a friendship.”

Marie’s contact in Paris was her cousin, the composer/performer and Proust’s close friend, Reynaldo Hahn. In a variation on the Jules and Jim scenario François Truffaut filmed half a century later, both she and Proust were in love with Reynaldo. Like Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine, Marie delighted in riding a bicycle, and it was the image of “the girl with the bicycle” that sparked Proust’s conception of Albertine, a character who dominates Remembrance of Things Past much as Catherine does Jules and Jim.

In Volume 2 of Painter’s biography, the first chapter is titled “Visits from Albertine” and covers the 1903-1904 period following the death of Proust’s father. Painter notes that “Never in his father’s lifetime could Proust have received a young girl in his bedroom, yet shortly after his death, Marie became  a constant visitor.” In his letter to Marie from September 1904, Proust tells her, “The idea that you find your visit ‘improper’ … seems to me enchanting and has made me laugh a lot. As if it were you who were the young man and I the young girl.” Although Painter acknowledges that Proust’s relationship with Marie was most likely “one of comradely affection and nothing more,” he’s sure that her idyllic visits “were remembered when, out of many girls and three young men, he created Albertine.”

“An Assembly of Birds”

After Friday’s six-birds-on-a-branch moment, I was alert to the imagery accompanying the narrator Marcel’s first view of Albertine with her bicycle amid the five or six young girls descending on the sea front at Balbec (Cabourg in “real life”), “as different in appearance and manner from all the people one was accustomed to see at Balbec as would have been a flock of gulls arriving from God knows where.” Marcel observes them “impeding the passage of other people in an agglomerate that was at once irregular in shape, compact, weird and shrill, like an assembly of birds before taking flight.”

Captioning World
Cup Champions

The images of fiercely joyous female force lighting up Monday’s New York Times offer evidence of the timely timelessness of Proust, as in the way phrases about the girls in the book’s seaside sequences cohere with the photographs of the American women’s soccer team celebrating the winning of the World Cup, “eyes animated with self-assurance and the spirit of comradeship …. an invisible but harmonious bond.” Progressing “along the esplanade like a luminous comet,” the band of girls “could not set eyes on an obstacle without amusing themselves by clearing it, either in a running jump or with both feet together, because they were all brimming over with the exuberance that youth so urgently needs to expend.” Theirs were “graceful deviations in which caprice is blended with virtuosity …. a certain blend of grace, suppleness, and physical elegance,” and ultimately “a sort of shimmering harmony, the continuous transmutation of a fluid, collective and mobile beauty.”

   Celestial Analogies

Another topical phenomenon I found reflected in my reading of Proust is the media attention gathering momentum ahead of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. In Marcel’s first detailed glimpse of Albertine with the band of girls, he catches “her smiling, sidelong glance, aimed from the centre of that inhuman world which enclosed the life of this little tribe, an inaccessible, unknown world wherein the idea of what I was could certainly never penetrate or find a place. …If she had seen me, what could I have represented to her? From the depths of what universe did she discern me? It would have been as difficult for me to say as, when certain distinguishing features in a neighbouring planet are made visible thanks to the telescope, it is to conclude therefrom that human beings inhabit it, and that they can see us, and to guess what ideas the sight of us can have aroused in their minds.”

The moon makes an appearance in another sequence connecting the narrator and Albertine: “Only at the moment when her gaze was directly coincident with mine, without slackening its movement it grew perceptibly duller. So on a starry night the wind-swept moon passes behind a cloud and veils her brightness for a moment, but soon will shine again.”

Visions of Marie

My first association with the girl from Manchester was Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” whose “house he can’t unlock” because she forgot to leave him the key. I also imagined her in “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (with “your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show”) and “Visions of Johanna.”

There are four visions of Marie in P.F. Prestwich’s The Translation of Memories (Peter Owen 1998). The first, a photograph of her with the bicycle is captioned in her own words: “The only thing I had in common with Albertine was that I rode a bicycle!” The girl in the picture looks downright solemn compared to Marcel’s vision of “the young bicyclist of the little band, with, over her dark hair, her polo-cap pulled down towards her plump cheeks, her eyes merry and almost importunate.” For one thing, the hat Marie’s wearing is so large and cumbersome that it casts a shadow on her eyes. Stranger yet, or perhaps not strange at all given the Albert hidden  in Albertine, the “vivacious beauty” seen by those who knew her could almost be mistaken for a man in drag, an idea at odds with the portrait in oils on the facing page, where she looks cool and beautiful and regally elegant. In a photograph of Marie in her studio outside Manchester, she’s the image of the intense young artist at work. Finally, the image that turns up most often online is the pastel portrait from 1902 where she most closely resembles George Painter’s allusion to warmth, sincerity, and intelligence, not to mention Dylan’s “sad-eyed lady.”

The Last Letter

Proust ends his first letter to Marie in January 1899 with reference to her “rare and unusual mind,” and “that graciousness of yours, as fresh as a branch of hawthorn.” This was not a casual compliment, as she would discover when she read Swann’s Way, where it’s in May, the “Month of Mary,” that Marcel remembers “having first fallen in love with hawthorns.” The depth of his feeling for Marie illuminates the last letter he ever wrote her, December 8, 1906, which is headed Chère, chère, chère, chère  Mary” and begins, “Chère amie, how near you are to my heart, and how little your absence has separated you from me! I think of you constantly with such tenderness and indestructible regret for the past. In my ravaged life, in my demolished heart, the place you hold is sweet.”

Proust has good reason to hold her in his heart considering the gift of Japanese water flowers she brought to him in the spring of 1904. Purchased for a few centimes during an afternoon stroll along the Seine embankment, “the wonderful hidden flowers” enabled him, as he wrote her, to “make a Spring of my own.” More than that, the flowers, which open in water, inspired the coda to the most famous passage in his work, the closing lines of the “Overture” to Swann’s Way:

And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”