‘Filial Sentiments of a Parricide’
The story is done in the form of a newspaper article, and is sometimes referred to as such, and seemed to be one when first published in Le Figaro sixteen months after his mother's death. It was begun just before Proust began his major work, In Remembrance of Times Past, but it does deal to an extent with our ways of recalling the past.
Proust recalls his friend, M van Blarenberghe, and in the effort to recall what was a casual acquaintance sees more in him than he had been aware of at the time. His enhanced view of the man is affected by the letters he receives from him in response to Proust’s own letters sympathising with van Blarenberghe for the loss of his father. Also Proust sets his own consciousness partly in the past because he feels as if he is writing for his own dead parents, and this is an aspect of his sense, now, of living more as their son than as himself.
The modern reader may be surprised by the confidence with which Proust rethinks the nature of van Blarenberghe on what might seem very flimsy evidence, and himself still very much affected by grief for his own parents.
The story is provocative in that it raise a number of themes, which the reader is left to ‘add together’. Proust puts off answering Blarenbergh’s sensitive reply to his, Proust’s’, original letter by thinking about two things which perhaps we are supposed to connect with the main event of the story. The first is his sense of the weather coming from far off, and indeed of the universe being ‘close’ to him, and he connected to the stars as if by threads. The second, and related to that, is again about distance and connection, but this time by the pleasure of reading the newspaper as if it were all tittle-tattle and quite distant from himself, when of course for the people involved the news stories are very closely part of their lives. And this comes home suddenly to him when he sees the story far off but close to himself, the death of van Blarenberghe and his murder of his mother. The closeness of this, and yet its distance sends Proust into all kinds of comparisons with great tragedies. This may be a variation on the theme of close versus distance. The drama is ‘real’ and yet imaginary, horrific and yet beautiful, noble and yet evil. Being played on in the distance, and through letters and news stories, it is also something like a drama.
His tendency to see van Blarenbergh generously leads him to see him as in some way mislead by the gods or himself into murdering his own mother. One thing we don’t find out – because it is all so distant – is what lead van Blarenbergh to loose his self-control, or perhaps temporarily go mad, and in some way be deceived, and kill his own mother (“What have you done?”. Proust is able to see in the stark opposition between mother-love and mother-murder ways in which for him children always destroy their mothers, through the anxiety they cause them. Perhaps this was a part of Proust’s own experience. But at the same time as being destroyed by their children, Proust allows, mothers are also blessed in them.
On this contradiction of the difference or similarity (which?) between the life-enhancing and the death-dealing, that the story ends. I don't know sufficient about Proust's life to comment on the idea that in some way this story is about Proust's own mother, and guilt he felt about her.
QUESTIONS TO THINK ABOUT
1 Is it credible that Proust should be so moved by a stranger’s letter? Or is there something else driving him?
2 The story gives no motivation for van Blarenbergh. Proust assumes something noble and tragic. What does he really know about him? Or do these questions miss the point?
3 What ‘evidence’ does Proust give for van Blarenbergh’s nobility?
4 What does Proust mean by his comparison of a newspaper murder to Greek tragedy?
5 In what sense do we kill our mothers?
6 In what way is the story about distances - psychological, temporal, imaginative, moral?
7 Proust denied that he was in some way excusing murder. What is his attitude to this one?