Musings on Proust, Part 9

Proust Goes for a Laugh

Proust had a bit of fun at his own expense in a comic bit that he put in is own words for a change, in Sodome et Gomorrhe.

In the midst of another long rumination on the feats and foibles of a fading French aristocracy, he suddenly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the “dear reader” directly, supposing that said reader would no doubt want to ask M. Proust why he is spending so much time on the physical and moral genealogy of a very minor character whose name the author (“or your hero, if it is not you you speak of”) is having trouble remembering, which has led, of course, to a long digression on the nature of memory.

He spins this into a dialogue lasting a couple of pages, playing both parts, of course, and finally telling the reader to “shut up, so I can get on with my story.”

A nice break from the general sternness of Proust’s lectures on flowers, nobility, homosexuals, architecture, and, well, everything….

But then, of course, Proust toggles his protagonist back into lecture mode, and we are schooled at even greater length on homosexuality (male and female), the foibles of the rich and noble in even greater detail than before, and the psychological manipulations “M” employs to keep Albertine devoted to him, including the tired old ploy of pretending to be in love with her best friend. I have finished Part One of this particular tome, and he shows no sign of consideration for the best friend’s feelings, but he may not care, since he suspects Albertine of being bisexual and of having a relationship with said friend, and he is exclusively focussed on his own jealousies, now that the field of competitors has essentially doubled. Because if he did care, he would explain in minute detail exactly how he cared, being, after all, Prout’s alter ego. in fact, he employs gaslighting, pouts, lies, and “poor me” arguments to bully Albertine into staying devoted to him, nagging her to rush over to him in the middle of the night for a few cuddles, and hounding her to cancel her other social engagements to sit with him in his room or roam the resort town of Balbec, or to accompany him on his show-off visits to noble locals.

He does cut away from all this to indulge in mocking the grammar and accents of various non-noble sorts that surround him, from the “loyal servant” Françoise, to the elevator operator who hoists him to his aerie in the hotel, to the hotel manager himself–always executed in a smarmy and decidedly unloving manner.

Basically, he’s being a complete ass. Maybe Proust means us to feel this way about “M,” but, even if so, it’s overdone. It also undercuts the never-yet-explained appeal that this pompous do-nothing has to his aristocratic friends. (Of course they are also largely pompous do-nothings, so it may be simply the birds-of-a-feather formula at work.) As I may have mentioned before, I suspect that Proust did not get invited to as many parties as his protagonist does.

And it’s all rendered in long, contorted sentences that are overwrought in every sense of that word, that all too often shame the French language. I am enjoying a break from La recherche and reading a Simenon, written in good, clean, vivid, undidactic French, deploying sentences that are not prison terms. Most gratifying.

Rick Risemberg