Proust Book Group Meeting 2 : Comedy in Combray

Proust Book Group Meeting 2 : Comedy in Combray

Proust
Proust

So! After starting off by wondering if we would be able to find any comedy at all in Combray, it turns out that we’ve hit such a rich comic seam that we are going to carry the discussion over to our next meeting (Thursday June 18th).

in translation
in translation

Here are our three comic examples that we looked at this session –

1) the narrator waking, remembering the pinches of his great uncle, then covering his head with a pillow before returning to his dream for protection

…j’avais réussi à m’éveiller pour échapper aux mains de mon grand-oncle, mais par mesure de précaution j’entourais complètement ma tête de mon oreiller avant de retourner dans le monde des rêves.

... I had succeeded in making myself wake up to escape my great-uncle’s fingers; still, as a measure of precaution, I would bury the whole of my head in the pillow before returning to the world of dreams.

This extract got us started. More playful than laugh out loud, here we see Proust teasing us and and playing with spaces, times and states of consciousness, all the while gently sending himself up.

2) then we looked at the Asti episode ( where Flora and Céline express their gratitude in their own inimitable ways)

«Il n’y a pas que M. Vinteuil qui ait des voisins aimables», s’écria ma tante Céline … tout en jetant sur Swann ce qu’elle appelait un regard significatif. En même temps ma tante Flora qui avait compris que cette phrase était le remerciement de Céline pour le vin d’Asti, regardait également Swann avec un air mêlé de congratulation et d’ironie…

“M. Vinteuil is not the only one who has nice neighbours,” cried my aunt Céline …while darting what she called a ‘significant glance’ at Swann. And my aunt Flora, who realised that this veiled utterance was Céline’s way of thanking Swann intelligibly for the Asti, looked at him with a blend of congratulation and irony…

The sisters understand each other’s code. They believe it is subtle, refined, worthy of praise.

”il y a des jours où la lecture des journaux me semble fort agréable…”, interrompit ma tante Flora, pour montrer qu’elle avait lu la phrase sur le Corot de Swann dans le Figaro. «Quand ils parlent de choses ou de gens qui nous intéressent!» enchérit ma tante Céline. «Je ne dis pas non, répondit Swann étonné….

“I do not agree with you: there are some days when I find reading the papers very pleasant indeed!” my aunt Flora broke in, to show Swann that she had read the note about his Corot in the Figaro. “Yes,” aunt Céline went one better. “When they write about things or people in whom we are interested.” “I don’t deny it,” answered Swann in some bewilderment…

They have a clear mission yet their execution fails to hit the target completely as seen in the word étonné (translated as ‘some bewilderment’).

And so their ‘thanks’ goes on. And so they are surprised (where we are not) when the narrator’s grandfather says –

”Vous ne l’avez pas remercié pour l’Asti”, ajouta mon grand-père… «Comment, nous ne l’avons pas remercié? je crois, entre nous, que je lui ai même tourné cela assez délicatement», répondit ma tante Flora. «Oui, tu as très bien arrangé cela: je t’ai admirée», dit ma tante Céline. «Mais toi tu as été très bien aussi.» «Oui j’étais assez fière de ma phrase sur les voisins aimables.»

Hullo! you two; you never thanked him for the Asti!” he went on,…”What! we never thanked him? I think, between you and me, that I put it to him quite neatly,” replied my aunt Flora.”Yes, you managed it very well; I admired you for it,” said my aunt Céline.”But you did it very prettily, too.” “Yes; I liked my expression about ‘nice neighbours.'”

The Asti episode plays like a parody piece based on misunderstanding. Celine and Flora’s self-congratulatory blindness is exquisitely revealed, delighted as they are by the flowery obtuseness of their fine expressions. Double entendre gone wrong and understood only by themselves.  Cf. Molière and’Les Précieuses Ridicules’?

3) there there’s aunt Léonie

Tante Léonie…, depuis la mort de son mari, mon oncle Octave, n’avait plus voulu quitter, d’abord Combray, puis à Combray sa maison, puis sa chambre, puis son lit et ne «descendait» plus, toujours couchée dans un état incertain de chagrin, de débilité physique, de maladie, d’idée fixe et de dévotion.

aunt Léonie who, since her husband’s (my uncle Octave’s) death, had gradually declined to leave, first Combray, then her house in Combray, then her bedroom, and finally her bed; and who now never ‘came down,’ but lay perpetually in an indefinite condition of grief, physical exhaustion, illness, obsessions, and religious observances.

Here, as Jane pointed out in the meeting, Proust builds up to the punch line. Proust introduces the character of Leonie  in this sentence then goes on to develop the ideas he has sown here.

In so doing, Proust provides us with an affectionate but no less well observed portrayal of a hypochondriac (again, perhaps, a reference to Molière, this time his ‘Malade Imaginaire’?).

Elle ne parlait jamais qu’assez bas parce qu’elle croyait avoir dans la tête quelque chose de cassé et de flottant qu’elle eût déplacé en parlant trop fort, …; puis, dans l’inertie absolu où elle vivait, elle prêtait à ses moindres sensations une importance extraordinaire; … à défaut de confident à qui les communiquer, elle se les annonçait à elle-même, en un perpétuel monologue qui était sa seule forme d’activité. Malheureusement, ayant pris l’habitude de penser tout haut, elle ne faisait pas toujours attention à ce qu’il n’y eût personne dans la chambre voisine, et je l’entendais souvent se dire à elle-même: «Il faut que je me rappelle bien que je n’ai pas dormi»…

She never spoke save in low tones, because she believed that there was something broken in her head and floating loose there, which she might displace by talking too loud; … besides, in the life of complete inertia which she led she attached to the least of her sensations an extraordinary importance, …not having a confidant to whom she might communicate them, she used to promulgate them to herself in an unceasing monologue which was her sole form of activity. Unfortunately, having formed the habit of thinking aloud, she did not always take care to see that there was no one in the adjoining room, and I would often hear her saying to herself: “I must not forget that I never slept a wink”…

In the characterisation of Tante Léonie Proust gives us an indulgent exposure of his aunt’s circumscribed world where the trivial is elevated to the solemn. This is brought out when she spies a person she doesn’t recognise in Combray. Then, to heap ridicule on top of ridicule, Leonie’s behaviour is rendered still more ridiculously comic when she sees a dog she doesn’t know.

On connaissait tellement bien tout le monde, à Combray, bêtes et gens, que si ma tante avait vu par hasard passer un chien «qu’elle ne connaissait point», elle ne cessait d’y penser et de consacrer à ce fait incompréhensible ses talents d’induction et ses heures de liberté.

Everyone was so well known in Combray, animals as well as people, that if my aunt had happened to see a dog go by which she ‘didn’t know at all’ she would think about it incessantly, devoting to the solution of the incomprehensible problem all her inductive talent and her leisure hours.

The deduction process is elevated and given a seriousness that the facts don’t merit.

Leonie is seen as the star in her own narrative. Sometimes main actress, sometimes director of her own play.

Leonie does not appear in the novel again yet her comic obsession with her perceived ill health in Combray foreshadows the narrator’s own nervous ailments and she could be said to be a caricature of the narrator as writer himself.

And there was more. Much more. But we’ve decided to keep that for another day.

Proust
Proust

Next meeting : Thursday 18th June

Focus : to continue to look at humour/ comedy in Combray. To choose one passage that we find comic to discuss at Proust book group.

5 thoughts on “Proust Book Group Meeting 2 : Comedy in Combray”

      1. Thanks for this Patrick. It sounds exactly what we’re looking for. I presume you are the Marcel Proust tweets man?

  1. I’m revising and found this. Thank you. Clear and helpful that you’ve put the English too. I’ve not seen the comedy in Proust before but your examples are clear. I’ll have done my exams by the time of your next meeting. Shame. I’ve found some Spark notes on Proust if they help with your book study group. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/swannsway/ Don’t think they did anything on comedy though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.