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This is from Proust:

Ces charmes d’une tristesse intime, c’était eux qu’elle essayait d’imiter, de recréer, et jusqu’à leur essence qui est pourtant d’être incommunicables et de sembler frivoles à tout autre qu’à celui qui les éprouve, la petite phrase l’avait captée, rendue visible.

And for those who want more context, the sentence preceding is:

C’est que la petite phrase au contraire, quelque opinion qu’elle pût avoir sur la brève durée de ces états de l’âme, y voyait quelque chose, non pas comme faisaient tous ces gens, de moins sérieux que la vie positive, mais au contraire de si supérieur à elle que seul il valait la peine d’être exprimé.

There are three words that are giving me trouble in this passage "jusqu'à", 'pourtant' and "d'être". As for "jusqu'à" I just haven't been able to see how it's compatible with the other meanings of "jusqu'à" which I'm familiar with, such as "until" or "up to here". As for "pourtant" what's confusing me is whether it is equivalent to 'bien que'; if so the sentence would be:

leur essence qui bien qu'elle soit incommunicables et de sembler frivoles à tout autre qu’à celui qui les éprouve, la petite phrase quand même l’avait captée, rendue visible.

But that cannot be right because 'incommunicables' is plural and "essence" is singular. The Moncrief/Kilmartin translation is just as confusing:

It was the charms of an intimate sadness that it sought to imitate, to re-create, and their very essence, for all that it consists in being incommunicable and in appearing trivial to everyone except him who experiences them, had been captured and made visible by the little phrase.

I had to verify "for all that" just to be sure since it's such a rare expression but, yes, it means "although". So by replacing the archaic and rare 'for all that' with something more intelligible it would be:

their very essence, although it consists in being incommunicable and in appearing trivial to everyone except him who experiences them, it still had been captured and made visible by the little phrase.

So in the English it seems that 'incommunicable' modifies 'essence'. Another thing I don't get is in "qui est pourtant d’être incommunicables", if 'est' is singular then why is "incommunicables" plural? I also don't see the need for the word "d'être"; it seems that if you crossed it out the meaning would be the same.

One other point, it's always good to double check, "captée" is feminine because "l" in "l'avait captée" refers to "essence" which is also feminine, right?

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    Please can you ask one question at a time. One of the reasons for closing questions is "This question currently includes multiple questions in one. It should focus on one problem only." Your title is "Not getting this meaning of 'pourtant'" but you are asking about "jusqu'à", 'pourtant' and "d'être". So what are you really asking in this question?
    – None
    Jun 22, 2023 at 6:02
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    Marcel Proust est à première vue un auteur fastidieux, difficile et peu accessible. People usually have strong feelings about his work, one way or the other as you can read on this forum for people who study French literature.
    – None
    Jun 22, 2023 at 6:59
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    @guillaume, done
    – bobsmith76
    Jun 22, 2023 at 7:57
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    I haven't seen that detail in the Q so: after looking it up in the original text, the phrase in question is a musical phrase. Jun 22, 2023 at 8:00
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    "alambiqué", cool, because I was just looking for a word for 'convoluted' the other day and settled on 'detourné' or "sinueux"
    – bobsmith76
    Jun 22, 2023 at 20:55

4 Answers 4

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Ces charmes d’une tristesse intime (A), c’était eux qu’elle essayait d’imiter, de recréer (B), et jusqu’à leur essence qui est pourtant d’être incommunicables et de sembler frivoles à tout autre qu’à celui qui les éprouve (C), la petite phrase l’avait captée, rendue visible (D).

There's an inversion of clauses (C) and (D) here by Proust that can be a tough nut to crack or look like an anacoluthon at first sight if you think that jusqu’à leur essence is some kind of object to essayait d’imiter, which it is not.

The things you're having trouble with will probably all make sense again if you flip (C) and (D) back into place and rephrase the whole thing as:

Ces charmes d’une tristesse intime, c’était eux qu’elle essayait d’imiter, de recréer, et [la petite phrase avait capté, rendu visible] jusqu’à leur essence qui est pourtant d’être incommunicables et de sembler frivoles à tout autre qu’à celui qui les éprouve.

This also makes the Moncrief/Kilmartin version true to the original.

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  • What about 'est ... d'être', assuming you can cross out 'pourtant'. I did look up whether 'est d'être' exists as a bigram in French and it does. Still, I've never seen it, what does it mean, why not simply just say 'est' rather than 'est d'être'?
    – bobsmith76
    Jun 22, 2023 at 8:26
  • Leur essence est [d’être incommunicables], literally "their essence is [being/to be incommunicable]" = "they are incommunicable in essence". Does that make sense? Arguably hefty stylistically, but... Proust. Jun 22, 2023 at 9:30
  • If "leur essence" was in a subclause, could you use 'soyant' in place of 'est d'être"? I'm trying to rewrite the sentence in such a way that that is the case, but it's not all that easy.
    – bobsmith76
    Jun 22, 2023 at 10:48
  • You mean present participle, i.e. étant? If I understand you correctly, it is tricky to do so, because from a logical perspective, present participle often reflects a cause-effect relationship whereas pourtant reflects contrast, opposition. Jun 22, 2023 at 11:24
  • You could go with a p.p at the beginning of the sentence like: Leur essence étant pourtant d’être incommunicables et de sembler frivoles à tout autre qu’à celui qui les éprouve, la petite phrase avait capté... but then you'd be stuck at expressing jusqu'à. Jun 22, 2023 at 11:29
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Ces charmes d’une tristesse intime, c’était eux qu’elle essayait d’imiter, de recréer, et jusqu’à leur essence qui est pourtant d’être incommunicables et de sembler frivoles à tout autre qu’à celui qui les éprouve, la petite phrase l’avait captée, rendue visible.

  1. Jusqu'à The usage of this preposition is detailed in the TLFi.

(TLFi) jusque B. − Jusque(s) + prép. + subst.[Indique l'idée d'une limite (parfois soulignée par inclus, inclusivement, (et) y compris) pour l'inclusion (effective ou imaginaire) dans une totalité, une série, un ensemble, le point initial étant éventuellement marqué par de, à partir de, ou depuis]
3. [Empl. gén. sans corrélatif] Synon. de même, y compris.
a) Jusqu(es) à + subst. [en position suj. ou compl. non prép.]
♦ Jusqu'à [Avec un subst. compl. non introd. par une prép.].
• Si tu devais mourir, j'envierais jusqu'à la terre qui épouserait ton corps! (Camus, État de siège,1948, 2epart., p. 261)
• Je l'avoue sans honte, j'aime encore Lélia, j'adore Consuelo et je supporte jusqu'aux ouvriers de George Sand : ils ont une sorte de vérité et expriment une part des idées et des passions de leur temps. Lemaitre, Contemp.,1885, p. 251.

"jusqu’à leur essence" is a cod of "avait captée" in conjunction with "l'" that is also a cod de "avait captée" because of a dislocation (same term in English: dislocation).

There is an error in thinking that "incommunicables" qualifies "essence". What "incommunicables" qualifies is "charmes"; this is why it is written in the plural.

  1. d'être If you had just "leur essence qui est incommunicables" you'd have another error: then the adjective "incommunicable" would be "attribut de « essence », and you'd have to write "incommunicable" in the singular. The infinitive "être" introduces an infinitive clause ("être incommunicables"); so the "essence" is not "something", but instead "to be something".

It was the charms of an intimate sadness that it sought to imitate, to re-create, and their very essence, for all that it consists in being incommunicable and in appearing trivial to everyone except him who experiences them, had been captured and made visible by the little phrase.

It follows that the Moncrief/Kilmartin version should be modified slightly to read as follows.

It was the charms of an intimate sadness that it sought to imitate, to re-create, and their very essence, for all that it consists in their being incommunicable and in appearing trivial to everyone except him who experiences them, had been captured and made visible by the little phrase.

In this way, we can make up for the impossibility to have agreement of an adjective in English.

Let's say in conclusion that if Proust is capable of turning elegant sentences, he is also prone to come up with slightly awkward constructions, and I believe this is one of them. His try at being emphatic by means of dislocation, inversions and use of redondant presentatives just piles up to the point of giving the impression of a clutter.

An initial presentative would have sufficed.

C'était ces charmes d’une tristesse intime qu’elle essayait d’imiter, de recréer, et la petite phrase avait capté, rendu visible jusqu’à leur essence qui est pourtant d’être incommunicables et de sembler frivoles à tout autre qu’à celui qui les éprouve.

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  • Thanks for the answer LPH, as for the comment that this is not one of P's best sentences, yea, I mostly agree, but as I said elsewhere, not all of his sentences are winners.
    – bobsmith76
    Jun 22, 2023 at 8:55
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    @bobsmith76 Saying this isn't Proust's best sentence because it is difficult to understand is missing the point: Proust doesn't try to be easy to read. That elitism is precisely the reason why he is known. You could sum up most of his books in one page without missing much of the plot. Jun 22, 2023 at 22:56
  • @AnneAunyme Vous ne partagez pas cette opinion sur laquelle je conclus ma réponse. Je ne pense pas que vous puissiez démontrer que cette phrase soit d'un style sans reproche ni même qu'elle soit logique, mais peut-être aimeriez-vous offrir une critique. Si on réduit la phrase à sa structure, à son ossature, en quelque sorte (« Ces charmes, c’était eux qu’elle essayait d’imiter, et jusqu’à leur essence qui est pourtant d’être incommunicables, la petite phrase l’avait captée. »), quel est selon vous le terme que remplace « l » ? « Essence » puisque « captée » se termine par le e du féminin ?
    – LPH
    Jun 22, 2023 at 23:54
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    Je n'ai pas le contexte mais je pense que ça réfère à tristesse par le truchement d'essence. Pour moi charmes d'une tristesse intime ne réussit pas à être davantage des charmes que de la tristesse, comme l'aurait autrement fait une incise. Jun 23, 2023 at 15:48
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    @LPH « l » se réfère, je pense, à « essence », en effet. Je ne prétends pas que le style de cette phrase soit irréprochable, juste que tout l'oeuvre de Proust est construit sur ce principe d'obfuscation du banal, et que c'est donc étrange de reprocher cela à cette phrase spécifique Jun 24, 2023 at 13:06
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Pourtant is Nevertheless or However in English.

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Maybe you would get it rewriting the sentence like this, with the same meaning.

Ces charmes d’une tristesse intime, c’était eux qu’elle essayait d’imiter, de recréer, jusqu’à leur essence. Pourtant, leur essence est d’être incommunicables et de sembler frivoles à tout autre qu’à celui qui les éprouve. La petite phrase l’avait captée, rendue visible.

Here, the meaning of "pourtant" is close of "nevertheless". She tries to imitate these "delights" while, in essence, they can't be. In a way, "pourtant" is here to amplify the meaning of the beginning of the sentence.

But that cannot be right because 'incommunicables' is plural and "essence" is singular.

I think "incommunicables" refers to the "charmes", not to the "essence". The essence of these delights ("charmes") is that they are incommunicable. / Leur essence (singular) est qu'ils sont incommunicables (plural).

I hope I'm not too muddled...

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