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Proust’s Eyes

Jan Peter Tripp, Marcel Proust (etching), from Unrecounted

When W.G. Sebald’s book of poems Unrecounted was published posthumously in 2003, I was frankly puzzled and a tiny bit disappointed. I rather liked Sebald’s brief poems, just as I liked Jan Peter Tripp’s etchings; but I didn’t much like them together. To match every poem with an image of a set of eyes seemed overly deterministic. It’s one thing to feel that the eyes have a special quality as Sebald does in Austerlitz, where he speaks of “the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking”. But it’s another thing entirely to suggest that there is some value or insight that the reader can obtain by looking at many pairs of eyes. That struck me as just a little too mystical for Sebald. (For more on Unrecounted see my earlier post.)

On the whole, Sebald didn’t pay much attention to the physical traits of the people that appear in his books of prose fiction and he certainly didn’t give extraordinary powers to the eyes – though he might say that someone’s eyes “shone with sheer wonderful life” (The Emigrants) or something equally vague. This really came home to me as I started to read Swann’s Way (in Lydia Davis’ relatively recent translation) for the first time in, um, decades. Proust uses the eyes to transmit an astonishing amount of information about character and intention in a flash. Here is what the narrator says when he first sees and becomes enamored with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte :

I looked at her, at first with the sort of gaze that is not merely the messenger of the eyes, but a window at which all the senses lean out, anxious and petrified, a gaze that would like to touch the body it is looking at, capture it, take it away and the soul along with it…

And here he is on the receiving end of a momentary, almost non-existent glance from one of his father’s friends:

Near the church we met Legrandin, who was coming in the opposite direction escorting the same lady to her carriage. He passed close to us, did not break off his conversation with his neighbor, and from the corner of his blue eye gave us a little sign that was in some way interior to his eyelid and which, not involving the muscles of his face, could go perfectly unnoticed by the lady he was talking to; but seeking to compensate by intensity of feeling for the somewhat narrow field in which he had circumscribed his expression, in the azure corner assigned to us he set sparkling all the liveliness of a grace that exceeded playfulness, bordered on mischievousness; he overrefined the subtleties of amiability into winks of connivance, insinuations, innuendos, the mysteries of complicity; and finally exalted his assurances of friendship into protestations of affection, into a declaration of love, illuminating for us alone, at that moment, with a secret languor invisible to the lady, a love-smitten eye in a face of ice.

Or here, two pages later:

But at the name of Guermantes, I saw a little brown notch appear in the center of each of our friend’s blue eyes as if they had been stabbed by invisible pinpoints, while the rest of the pupil reacted by secreting floods of azure.

Using the eyes as a window on the soul or as a mouthpiece for true character is a great literary device with a long tradition, one especially suited to Proust, who always wants to leave us uncertain about the objectivity of his narrator’s perceptions.

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