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The Narrator and Molière: comedy in Sodome et Gomorrhe

September 11, 2011 13 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. Translated into English as Sodom and Gomorrah or Cities of the Plain (C.K. Scott Moncrieff) I used this translation for the quotes.

I thought that this volume is the most comedy-oriented so far and I imagined it deserved a special review. There’s no thinking or admiring hawthorn bushes. Molière and vaudeville hover over the book; the Narrator interacts with the reader:

« Tout ceci, dira le lecteur, ne nous apprend rien sur le manque de complaisance de cette dame ; mais puisque vous vous êtes si longtemps arrêté, laissez-moi, monsieur l’auteur, vous faire perdre une minute de plus pour vous dire qu’il est fâcheux que, jeune comme vous l’étiez (ou comme était votre héros s’il n’est pas vous), vous eussiez déjà si peu de mémoire, que de ne pouvoir vous rappeler le nom d’une dame que vous connaissiez fort bien. » C’est très fâcheux en effet, monsieur le lecteur. All this,” the reader will remark, “tells us nothing as to the lady’s failure to oblige; but since you have made so long a digression, allow me, gentle author, to waste another moment of your time in telling you that it is a pity that, young as you were (or as your hero was, if he be not yourself), you had already so feeble a memory that you could not recall the name of a lady whom you knew quite well.” It is indeed a pity, gentle reader.

Reading it again, it resonates with theatre too. In Molière’s play, a character can be alone on stage, talking to the public and explaining the situation or his intentions.

The evening at the Princesse de Guermantes is clearly the opportunity to mock the aristocrats. The Narrator is more used to them now and the awe is gone. He observes them with a caustic eye and sees how vapid, snobbish and silly they can be. They are down from their pedestal. This stems from a double phenomenon: on the one hand, the Narrator is more mature and on the other hand, he’s used to them now. The repetition of diners dispels the magic.

Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was ‘no help,’ they had made up their minds not to be silent but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia; without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to breathe, the interval was filled by the murmurs of the Grandee of Spain who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

The bourgeois world, ie the Verdurins, isn’t better. Madame Verdurin may have good taste in art, her world is as codified and as narrow as the aristocratic circles. The Narrator ridicules them too. He also makes fun of the employees at the Grand Hotel, but the tone is kinder. Comedy is spread through the novel in the description of characters or in particular scenes. References to Molière are frequent and that’s why I think there’s an assumed aim at comedy and irony in Sodom and Gomorrah. I could quote many comical passages, I laughed a lot and Proust proves again how funny he is. I thought that in the previous volumes, he was observant and amused. In this one, I thought he was still incredibly observant but also more nasty. The Narrator himself is never nasty but he reports other people’s speeches. Here is M. de Charlus unleashing his irony on Mme de Surgis:

Peut-être aussi M. de Charlus, de qui l’insolence était un don de nature qu’il avait joie à exercer, profitait-il de la minute pendant laquelle il était censé ignorer qui était le nom de ces deux jeunes gens pour se divertir aux dépens de Mme de Surgis et se livrer à ses railleries coutumières, comme Scapin met à profit le déguisement de son maître pour lui administrer des volées de coups de bâton.

Perhaps too M. de Charlus, whose insolence was a natural gift which he delighted in exercising, took advantage of the few moments in which he was supposed not to know the name of these two young men to have a little fun at Mme. de Surgis’s expense, and to indulge in his habitual sarcasm, as Scapin takes advantage of his master’s disguise to give him a sound drubbing.

I really thought there was a deliberate constant reference to Molière who used comedy to violently criticize his time. Proust isn’t soft with his world either. In the previous quote, Scapin is a valet in Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière. He’s a scoundrel who plots against his master to help the son’s master marry the girl he loves. Now, the Narrator describes the lift-boy’s way of speaking, using a comparison with Molière:

J’ai pas pour bien longtemps, disait le lift qui, poussant à l’extrême la règle édictée par Bélise d’éviter la récidive du pas avec le ne, se contentait toujours d’une seule négative. Haven’t any too much time,” said the lift-boy, who, carrying to extremes the grammatical rule that forbids the repetition of personal pronouns before coordinate verbs, omitted the pronoun altogether.

Oops, Bélise, the pedantic character of The Learned Ladies was lost in translation. And now Céleste and Marie, the two chamber maids, playfully chiding the Narrator:

Ah! Sac à ficelles, ah! Douceur ! Ah perfidie ! Rusé entre les rusés, rosse des rosses! Ah! Molière!

Oh! The story-teller! Oh! The flatterer! Oh! The false one! The cunning rogue! Oh! Molière!”

This sounds like the passage in L’Avare. (Ma cassette!) or in Les Fourberies de Scapin (“What the devil was he doing in that galley!”) or maybe Toinette, the energetic maid in Le Malade Imaginaire. It reminds me of the scenes where characters yell and dupe others which are rather frequent in Molière’s plays. The English version is slightly bowdlerized, btw.

Medecine and physicians are attacked, as the Narrator sees his doctor more often than he’d wish to and as Cottard is a famous physician. It starts softly with a general sentence like this one:

C’est que la médecine a fait quelques petits progrès dans ses connaissances depuis Molière, mais aucun dans son vocabulaire.

The fact is that medicine has made some slight advance in knowledge since Molière’s days, but none in its vocabulary.

It’s an allusion to a famous scene in Le Malade Imaginaire where Purgon stabs Argan with complicated medical words and words in Latin and Greek. Purgon’s power over Argan partly lays in his supposedly superior knowledge. But he’s totally inefficient as a physician. This play is also present in the following phrase:

Il est tombé de la neurasthénie dans la philologie, comme eût dit mon bon maître Pocquelin. He has lapsed from neurasthenia to philology, as my worthy master Pocquelin would have said.

Pocquelin was Molière’s real name and it’s another allusion to the Malade Imaginaire. He died on stage when he was playing Argan. And another one, directed at Cottard:

L’éminent professeur, dit Brichot, s’exprime, Dieu me pardonne, dans un français aussi mêlé de latin et de grec qu’eut pu le faire M. Purgon lui-même, de moliéresque mémoire ! The eminent Professor,” said Brichot, “expresses himself in a French as highly infused with Latin and Greek as M. Purgon himself, of Molièresque memory!

Argan, the main character of Le Malade Imaginaire, thinks he’s sick and is in the power of his doctor, named M. Purgon. This play is a strong attack against charlatans and so-called doctors. It’s not exactly flattering for Professor Cottard, who’s an eminent physician too.

On another tone, here is Cottard speaking:

Vous avez, dit Cottard, une veine de… turlututu, mot qu’il répétait volontiers pour esquiver celui de Molière. You have,” said Cottard, “the luck of… turlututu,” a word which he gladly repeated to avoid using Molière’s

The missing word is “cocu” (a “cocu” is a deceived spouse) There’s a French idiom that says “avoir une chance de cocu”, ie to be very lucky. It’s colloquial. I hope you have a footnote in your English edition for that sentence or it must be rather obscure. One of Molière’s plays in entitled Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire.

What is really interesting is that characters from all social classes (employees at the hotel, artistocrats and bourgeois) refer to Molière. As a great fan of Molière too, I wanted to point out the wonderful tribute Proust does to that playwright, the most popular of French theater, the one that even the dullest French teacher cannot ruin. I didn’t remember all these references to Molière and honestly, Molière isn’t the writer I’d associate to Proust at first thought. Proust’s image is more linked to digressions, thoughts and reverie than to comedy. I suppose that it comes from the first volumes but Sodom and Gomorrah anchors Proust in the tradition of French literature and French “spirit” in other ways than his love for Balzac. It’s all in the nasty but witty observations and descriptions. I don’t know how to call that, but I can hear the particular tone used to utter those cutting remarks that are the basis of French sense of humour. In the 17th C literature, the Narrator’s grand-mother may worship Madame de Sévigné, the Narrator himself prefers Molière.

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