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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.

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust

September 9, 2011 14 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. 1921/1922 English titles: Cities of the Plain or Sodom and Gomorrah. All the quotes come from the Scott Moncrief translation.

After a long introduction on homosexuality – another post, if I have enough time – the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time opens with a worldly diner at the Princesse de Guermantes. The Narrator is now a great friend of Oriane de Guermantes and is well-acquainted with the aristocratic world. He’s used to meeting them and notices their flaws and ridicules. We hear again of those ludicrous first names (Adalbert, Herminie, Antioche, Arnulphe, Victurnien, Amanien) but the Narrator has lost his illusions and sees the hypocrisy behind the politeness:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

The Duchesse de Guermantes is as delicate as ever:

« La proximité de la dame suffit. Je me dis tout d’un coup : « Oh ! mon Dieu, on a crevé ma fosse d’aisances », c’est simplement la marquise qui, dans quelque but d’invitation, vient d’ouvrir la bouche. Et vous comprenez que si j’avais le malheur d’aller chez elle, la fosse d’aisances se multiplierait en un formidable tonneau de vidange. »

The proximity of the lady is enough. I say to myself all at once: oh, good lord, someone has broken the lid of my cesspool, when it is simply the Marquise opening her mouth to emit some invitation. And you can understand that if I had the misfortune to go to her house, the cesspool would be magnified into a formidable sewage-cart.

And I don’t have enough space to quote another of her verbal pearls. The Dreyfus Affair is still tearing apart the French society but the wind is shifting.

Ensuite et surtout, un assez long temps avait passé pendant lequel, si, au point de vue historique, les événements avaient en partie semblé justifier la thèse dreyfusiste, l’opposition antidreyfusarde avait redoublé de violence, et de purement politique d’abord était devenue sociale. C’était maintenant une question de militarisme, de patriotisme, et les vagues de colère soulevées dans la société avaient eu le temps de prendre cette force qu’elles n’ont jamais au début d’une tempête.

Moreover and above all, a considerable interval of time had elapsed during which, if, from the historical point of view, events had, to some extent, seemed to justify the Dreyfusard argument, the anti-Dreyfusard opposition had doubled its violence, and, from being purely political, had become social. It was now a question of militarism, of patriotism, and the waves of anger that had been stirred up in society had had time to gather the force which they never have at the beginning of a storm.

The innocence of Dreyfus isn’t acknowledged yet but more and more people support his cause. His detractors radicalize and the opposition between the two sides is violent. 

After a long description of that evening, the Narrator leaves to Balbec again. The departure and arrival are quite different from the first time as he now knows the place very well. In the Grand Hotel, he stays in the same room as the year before and the descriptions of the employees are little gems of comedy. He’s comfortable with this room even if it’s not the best one in the hotel. He can endure it as long as he doesn’t have to tame a new environment. At first, he’s happy to be in that room again until it reminds him that his grand-mother is dead. All the sorrow he hasn’t felt or has pushed aside crashes upon him. Mourning starts and Proust wrote beautiful pages about recovering from the death of a beloved one. That kind of pain is still ahead of me but I empathized with his description.

The Narrator’s months in Balbec are also an opportunity to get acquainted with the Verdurin circle. Indeed, the Verdurins rent a house from a now destitute aristocratic family, the Cambremer. This announces the shift in social circles that the last volumes will emphasize. The members of the circle join the parties by train, getting on the same carriage one by one. At the last station, cars wait for them. Proust depicts marvelous moments on that local train. The protegees socialize (I love that English word, it doesn’t have a French equivalent and at first, it was a puzzling notion for me.). They share easy banters or discuss etymology or literature. Professor Cottard, Saniette are there. And so is the Baron de Charlus, in love with Morel, a gifted violinist that Madame Verdurin sponsors. The Narrator takes advantage of that time to make out with Albertine. 

The Narrator’s relationship with Albertine continues. From my perspective, I thought “Poor Albertine”. The Narrator is as whimsical as a spoiled child – which he was, of course. He expects her to be available at any time of night and day. For example, he asks her to come to his place at 1 am. They had a rendezvous after his diner at the Princesse de Guermantes and she stood him up. He imagines her having fun with friends in a café and he’s so jealous that he insists on her coming to his place despite the late hour. Albertine’s freedom surprised me. She can go wherever she wants. Was it common or is it a sign that she doesn’t belong to a respectable family? Or as the real Albertine was a man, did Proust forget that a woman wouldn’t have had such a liberty? When they are in Balbec, they spend a lot of alone (and intimate) time together. She’s supposed to be his cousin but everybody knows it’s a front. It respects social conventions and doesn’t oblige his acquaintances and friends to show a public disapproval. His social circle pretends to buy the story and lets them do what they want.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be loved by the Narrator. His mind is tortuous, his imagination is wild and he makes scenes for details. He’s a little tyrant and wants to have power over her. After all, he’s always had women at his service: his mother, his grand-mother, Françoise. There’s a parallel between Swann’s love for Odette and the Narrator’s love for Albertine. They are not built on reality, on the real person or on the nice moments they spend together. Their love is fueled by imagination and jealousy. Swann doesn’t love Odette until he realizes he could lose her. The Narrator doesn’t love Albertine until he imagines she could have a homosexual relationship with Andrée or another friend.

After all this time, people start to expect a wedding (wait, what about the cousin front?) and his mother informs him of the gossip. Does he intend to marry her? With an incredible gift for guilt and psychology, she lets him understand she’d rather he didn’t marry her. She doesn’t think Albertine is a good match. So far, he has pushed the question aside but now, he’s forced to think it through.

In this volume, the Narrator has an idle life. Writing and working aren’t on his program. I felt him more actor of his life than spectator like before. Although he’s still ill, there’s more vitality, it’s less contemplative and there are very few digressing on art, on woman’s beauty or feelings. I suppose that’s also why I found this volume more caustic and purposely comical. (I’ll try to write something about that too.) I also enjoyed reading about the new technologies. He talks about “téléphonage” for “phone call”, and no one uses that word now. I smiled when he describes the first times he rented an automobile and wonders at all the things he can do in one afternoon.

PS: I mentioned in my post on Rilke that sometimes he sounded like Proust. Here is Proust sounding like Rilke.

dès que, pour y parcourir les artères de la cité souterraine, nous nous sommes embarqués sur les flots noirs de notre propre sang comme sur un Léthé intérieur aux sextuples replis, de grandes figures solennelles nous apparaissent, nous abordent et nous quittent, nous laissant en larmes.

as soon as, to traverse the arteries of the subterranean city, we have embarked upon the dark current of our own blood as upon an inward Lethe meandering sixfold, huge solemn forms appear to us, approach and glide away, leaving us in tears.

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