Little patch of yellow wall


It must be one of the most famous walls in literature, the little patch of yellow wall before which the novelist Bergotte dies in  A la recherche du temps perdu:

Finally he stood in front of the Vermeer, which he remembered as having been more brilliant, more different from everything else he knew, but in which…he now noticed for the first time little figures in blue, the pinkness of the sand, and finally the precious substance of the tiny area of wall.  His head spun faster; he fixed his gaze, as a child does on a yellow butterfly he want to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That is how I should have written,’ he said to himself. ‘My last books were too dry, I should have applied several layers of  colour, made my sentences precious in themselves, like that little patch of wall.’ He knew how serious his dizziness was.  In a heavenly scales he could see, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow.  He could feel that he had rashly given the first for the second….He was repeating to himself, ‘Little patch of yellow wall with a canopy, little patch of yellow wall.’ While saying this he collapsed onto a circular sofa….

The Prisoner (vol 5 of A la recherche du temps perdu) in Carol Clark’s translation (Allen Lane 2002) p. 169.

Musing on this wonderful riff on life-in-art, art-in-life, Gert was reminded of another patch of yellow seen by a dying man, this time in one of her favourite short stories, Tobias Wolff’s Bullet in the brain.

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game.

Wolff’s subject, too, is a bookish man more in love with literature than life, but how different the resonances of the two visions of yellow are. A subject for a PhD, perhaps….

Hop over to this site to read Tom Lubbock’s interesting piece on the painting Bergotte is looking at: html

And you can read Bullet in the brain here:

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7 thoughts on “Little patch of yellow wall

    1. Recently my life consists of co-authoring a history of Holy Family cathedral for its centennial history, and applying to MFA low-residency programs. I’ll try to read the Tobias Wolff as a break in that routine (and some of your other recent posts too).

  1. It was with a start of surprise that I saw Proust heading your blog today. I meant to tell you that I’ve started reading ‘A la recherche’ in French. Because I know the beginning so well, I’m swimming along, and revelling in the lovely long lines and rhythms.

    What a terrific passage you’ve chosen! I don’t know the Tobias Wolff story, but will have to look it up.

    And here’s a bit of Wyatt Mason – remember I mentioned his essay on Proust and translation? I think what he has to say applies very well to the patch of yellow wall.

    ‘Proust’s style is built on deferral and qualification. The
    declarative is often undercut by the ruminative, and the ruminative
    transformed into the metaphorical. Just as metaphor transfers the
    relationship of one set of objects to another, Proust’s prose is
    always shuttling us between the literal and the figurative, the
    direct and the indirect, in the hope that the incoherent itch will
    find relief through the salve of articulation, and by articulation
    attain the cure of truth.’

  2. As always, Dorothy, you come up with something that I have to go away and think about. I love the declarative-ruminative-metaphorical transition and I think that’s exactly what happens- but I’m not so sure about the “incoherent itch”. That just doesn’t feel like Proust to me.
    I’m tackling it in French too, but the second vol “Un Amour de Swann” which I think I told you I read long ago in uni. It certainly helps to have read it in English, though!

    My imagination has been occupied by this “little patch of yellow wall” since the first time I read it.

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