Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Grotesque Proust - exploded shells, board meetings, and kangaroos

Yes, grotesque, Proust is grotesque.  It’s the second book, isn’t it, that has the woman who laughs so hard she dislocates her jaw?  Proust’s humor is often of this nature.

The second climax or discovery from the end of Time Regained, after the series of memory-inducing sensory events, is a dramatic piece of grotesquerie.  The narrator has been absent from Paris for many years due to his illness.  When, in this scene, he finally returns to society he discovers that all of the glamorous celebrities of his youth have become hideous old people, unrecognizable.  The women have all remarried, so they do not even have the same names.  And if they have grown old, so has the narrator.

Does this seem like much of an insight, that time passes and people age, change, and die?  In context, though, the effect is profound.  I have been following these characters for thousands of pages with a certain picture or impression in mind, so it is difficult to suddenly change my idea – I share the narrator’s difficulty picturing a fat Odette.  The 1999 Raoul Ruiz film of Time Regained uses a camera trick – the familiar actors are suddenly replaced with elderly actors in the same clothes.

The narrator is talking to an actress first encountered back in the second book (she now “looked like a rose that has been sterilised”) who does not remember who the narrator is:

Then I told her who I was and at once, as though the sound of my name had broken a spell and I had lost the look of an arbutus tree or a kangaroo which age no doubt had given me, she recognised me…  (993)

Just for a moment, I imagine the actress wondering how a kangaroo got in to the party, and why no one else notices it.  The filmmaker for some reason did not film this idea.

The narrator bumps into another character – everyone is at this party:

…the significance of his physiognomy had been altered by a formidable monocle.  By introducing an element of machinery into Bloch’s face this monocle absolved it of all those difficult duties which a human face is normally called upon to discharge, such as being beautiful or expressing intelligence or kindliness or effort.  (996)

Now I am just enjoying a rummage through this final novel.  Here we have Proust describing women’s fashion during the war.  He is as savage as Karl Kraus:

… for instead of Egyptian ornaments recalling the campaign in Egypt, the fashion now was for rings or bracelets made out of fragments of exploded shells or copper bands from 75 millimetre ammunition, and for cigarette-lighters constructed out of two English pennies to which a soldier, in his dug-out, had succeeded in giving a patina so beautiful that the profile of Queen Victoria looked as if it had been drawn by the hand of Pisanello…  (744)

And here Proust is describing me:

And indeed, since they fail to assimilate what is truly nourishing in art, they need artistic pleasures all the time, they are victims of a morbid hunger which is never satisfied.  So they go to concert after concert to applaud the same work and think they have a duty to put in an appearance whenever it is performed just as other people think they have a duty to attend a board meeting or a funeral.  (928)

I would not call this kind of joke or description – Proust the satirist, savage Proust – frequent.  They are often hidden in other kinds of writing.  I am lulled into realism when suddenly there is a kangaroo or a mechanical head or Pisanello, all in surprising places.

What a writer.  I’ll read it all again someday, complaining the whole time, trying not to laugh too hard.


  1. Grotesque Proust? You pique my curiosity. I shall have to revisit Proust since my faded, tattered memory does not include impressions of the grotesque. In any case, even though my blogging has been erratic (due to life's monkey wrenches -- also grotesque), I continue to follow your blog with keen interest.

  2. What's an example from the beginning, from Swann's Way? How about Françoise constantly preparing asparagus dishes because she hates another servant who has an asparagus allergy? Françoise is a good source for Proustian grotesquerie, even if too much of it is tied up in her malapropisms which are so tedious in translation.

    "Grotesque" is not Proust's primary mode, not at all, but it is shot through the whole long series.

  3. Interesting! But I wonder if I have the tenacity and endurance to tackle Proust (again) at this point in my life. Still, you raise a very important issue: tedious (and inaccurate) translation. Oh how I wish I could read Proust in French. However, my "F" in college French 101 was enough to convince me that I should stick to English. In any case, if I take on Proust (via Moncrief), you have generously alerted me to a quality that I would probably otherwise overlook. Thanks.

  4. D. G. Myers was recently reading Proust, talk about endurance. I wonder how far he got. There is usually no great reason to read books to the end. Sometimes just a taste will do.

  5. When you speak of Myers, and say, "I wonder how far he got," you seem to imply past tense. I am concerned.

  6. Myers was on Twitter earlier today, going nuts over the forthcoming William Giraldi novel. He is presumably going to review it somewhere.

    Twitter is the place to keep up with Myers. "Keep up" is the wrong phrase. For me, Twitter is the place to lag behind Myers.

  7. He makes quite grotesque things go out of Mme de Guermantes's mouth in The Guermantes Way. She's got this nasty French sense of humour that aims at humiliating someone.

    I know it doesn't come often with his name but Proust is funny. The descriptions of the Verdurin crowd are hilarious sometimes.

  8. Very true - Mme de Guermantes, and Charlus, too, are routinely grotesque. Or outrageous or larger-than-life or whatever word is helpful.

    Proust is often comic without being funny. His fundamental theme that people are not what they seem is essentially comic. But he often is genuinely funny. The Verdurin crowd - yes, often really funny.