Thursday, April 25, 2013

Proust Makes Fun of His Characters

There's a lighter side to Proust and its in this marvellous passage. Its a kind of a shaggy dog story that meanders through a typically Proustian bit of purple prose, a character who speaks as Proust himself writes, and winds up with a brutal bit of self parody. He is describing how two close social acquaintances can torture each other—the one by demanding a social favor and the other by refusing it, while both seek to obscure the reality of what is a kind of life and death matter: the protection of social networks and social value.  Legrandin doesn't want to share his social consequence with his competitors or unequals but, caught in a friendly social interaction (in which he is, himself, indulging in a kind of self promotion) he can't quite figure out how to escape without being deliberately rude and directly turning down his "friend."(1)

The Narrator's father has a friend, Legrandin, with whom they have a kind of close intellectual and familial relationship—but its one that can't be used to extend influence beyond the local into wider and more important world of other kinds of social relations up the ladder.

Legrandin has met them by chance and is extolling the virtues of nature and of the seaside towns:

“Balbec! The most ancient bone in the geological skeleton that underlies our soil, the true Ar-mor, the sea, the land's end, the accursed region which Anatole France—an enchanter whose works our young friend ought to read—has so well depicted, beneath its eternal fogs, as though it were indeed the land of the Cimmerians in the Odyssey.  Balbec; yes, they are building hotels there now...” 
“Indeed! And do you know anyone at Balbec?” inquired my father.  “As it happens, this young man is going to spend a couple of months there with his grandmother, and my wife too, perhaps.” 
Legrandin, taken unawares by the question at a moment when he was looking directly at my father, was unable to avert his eyes, so fastened them with steadily increasing intensity—smiling mournfully the while—upon the eyes of his questioner, with an air of friendliness and frankness and of not being afraid to look him in the face, until he seemed to have penetrated my father's skull as if it had become transparent, and to be seeing at that moment, far beyond and behind it, a brightly colored cloud which provided him with a mental alibi and would enable him to establish that at the moment when he was asked whether he knew anyone at Balbec, he had been thinking of something else and so had not heard the question. As a rule such tactics make the questioner proceed to ask “Why, what are you thinking about?” But my father, inquisitive, irritated and cruel, repeated: “Have you friends, then, in the neighborhood, since you know Balbec so well?” 
In a final and desperate effort, Legrandin's smiling gaze struggled to the extreme limits of tenderness, vagueness, candour and abstraction; but, feeling no doubt that there was nothing left for it now but to answer, he said to us: “I have friends wherever there are clusters of trees, stricken but not defeated, which have come together with touching perseverance to offer a common supplication to an inclement sky which has no mercy upon them.” 
“That is not quite what I meant,” interrupted my father, as obstinate as the trees and as merciless as the sky. “I asked you in case anything should happen to my mother-in-law and she wanted to feel that she was not all alone there in an out-of-the-way place, whether you knew anyone in the neighborhood.” 
“There as elsewhere, I know everyone and I know no one,” replied Legrandin, who did not give in so easily. “The places I know well, the people very slightly. But the places themselves seem like people, rare and wonderful people, of a delicate quality easily disillusioned by life....” (143)

The emphasis is mine, because I can't have the pleasure of reading this passage out loud to you.

(1) Proust has a lot to say about the ways in which friendship is limited or fostered by social distance--sometimes people interact more freely across great cultural and class divides, sometimes they are so competitive with their near equals that years of quarrelling and estrangement can follow very minor infractions.

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