Proust Book Group Meeting 3 : Comedy in Combray

Proust Book Group

the comic genius that is Proust

Meeting 3 : Comedy in Combray  (again)

This meeting we came armed with passages that we found funny ready to share with each other.

We used  Scott-Moncrieff, Lydia Davis and Proust (of course), to help.

The Art of Translation

Our Rosie Green (recycling queen) turned up today, armed with the Scott-Moncrieff and the Lydia Davis translations. We acknowledged that translation was a difficult art but concluded that we had no idea why Lydia Davis had got the job. When reading for the humour Rosie showed us how Davis had squeezed all humour out of what Proust had clearly intended to be ‘comedy gold’,  often giving originally amusing episodes a specifically melancholic twist.

The Davis translation often dampened the original humour, so much so that the wonderfully observed Aunt Leonie episodes take on a melancholic, pathetic hue.

We found that Davis’ kill-joy translation missed the mark frequently. When Proust uses the word ‘illettrée’ to describe Franςoise, Moncrieff uses the word ‘unlettered’. Davis on the other hand uses ‘ignorant’ which is clearly what Proust does not intend as he later calls her ‘intelligente’.

Comedy in Combray

Who knew? Clearly not me before we started reading Proust. But I do now.

Comedy. We discussed this in some detail but, working on the premise that less is more, here is just one passage to share about the narrator’s friend, Bloch.

Proust builds Bloch up to show why the members of his family do not like him.

He first displeases his father.

…  Il avait commencé par agacer mon père qui, le voyant mouillé, lui avait dit avec intérêt:

—«Mais, monsieur Bloch, quel temps fait-il donc, est-ce qu’il a plu? Je n’y comprends rien, le baromètre était excellent.»

Il n’en avait tiré que cette réponse:

—«Monsieur, je ne puis absolument vous dire s’il a plu. Je vis si résolument en dehors des contingences physiques que mes sens ne prennent pas la peine de me les notifier.»

—«Mais, mon pauvre fils, il est idiot ton ami, m’avait dit mon père quand Bloch fut parti. Comment! il ne peut même pas me dire le temps qu’il fait! Mais il n’y a rien de plus intéressant! C’est un imbécile.

… He had begun by annoying my father, who, seeing him come in with wet clothes, had asked him with keen interest:

“Why, M. Bloch, is there a change in the weather; has it been raining? I can’t understand it; the barometer has been ‘set fair.'”

Which drew from Bloch nothing more instructive than “Sir, I am absolutely incapable of telling you whether it has rained. I live so resolutely apart from physical contingencies that my senses no longer trouble to inform me of them.”

“My poor boy,” said my father after Bloch had gone, “your friend is out of his mind. Why, he couldn’t even tell me what the weather was like. As if there could be anything more interesting! He is an imbecile.”

The narrator’s father says that he is an idiot, an imbecile, and Proust has shown that this is the case by the pompous language Bloch uses. Proust adds to the humour by having an indulgent dig at his father too who fails to see the pomposity of the language, instead choosing to judge Bloch for not finding the weather interesting. His father too misses the point.

Puis Bloch avait déplu à ma grand’mère parce que, après le déjeuner comme elle disait qu’elle était un peu souffrante, il avait étouffé un sanglot et essuyé des larmes.

—«Comment veux-tu que ça soit sincère, me dit-elle, puisqu’il ne me connaît pas; ou bien alors il est fou

Next, Bloch had displeased my grandmother because, after luncheon, when she complained of not feeling very well, he had stifled a sob and wiped the tears from his eyes.

“You cannot imagine that he is sincere,” she observed to me. “Why he doesn’t know me. Unless he’s mad, of course.”

Bloch then displeases the narrator’s much loved grandmother who questions, more understandably, his sincerity in the sobs and tears he yields to when he hears that she is feeling a little unwell.

Et enfin il avait mécontenté tout le monde parce que, étant venu déjeuner une heure et demie en retard et couvert de boue, au lieu de s’excuser, il avait dit:

—«Je ne me laisse jamais influencer par les perturbations de l’atmosphère ni par les divisions conventionnelles du temps. .. j’ignore celui de ces instruments infiniment plus pernicieux et d’ailleurs platement bourgeois, la montre et le parapluie

And finally he had upset the whole household when he arrived an hour and a half late for luncheon and covered with mud from head to foot, and made not the least apology, saying merely: “I never allow myself to be influenced in the smallest degree either by atmospheric disturbances or by the arbitrary divisions of what is known as Time… I am wholly and entirely without instruction in those infinitely more pernicious (besides being quite bleakly bourgeois) implements, the umbrella and the watch.

Proust then builds up by saying that, if that wasn’t enough, Bloch has managed to displease ‘everyone’.  Not only is he late, not only does he not apologise, but he also dares to justify himself by dissociating himself from the constraints of time and weather, eschewing such bourgeois instruments as watch and umbrella (and so insulting everyone present). Yet even this ridiculous behaviour isn’t enough to banish Bloch.

What is enough is presented as a comic crescendo. The reason Bloch is no longer welcome is to do with something as bathetic as gossip.

.. Et on l’aurait encore reçu à Combray si, … il ne m’avait assuré avoir entendu dire de la façon la plus certaine que ma grand’tante avait eu une jeunesse orageuse et avait été publiquement entretenue. Je ne pus me tenir de répéter ces propos à mes parents,…

And he would still have been received at Combray but for one thing. … having informed me …that he had heard it said on unimpeachable authority that my great-aunt herself had led a ‘gay’ life in her younger days, and had been notoriously ‘kept.’ I could not refrain from passing on so important a piece of information to my parents…

His great-aunt had had a tempestuous youth, apparently, and the image of the narrator unable to stop himself telling his parents is deliciously hilarious. And, here Proust pokes fun at himself as this is precisely what he will do throughout the book. Pass on gossip, expose, share what he has heard and seen, about not just his own life but the lives of others.

Looking forward to our next meeting already!

NEXT MEETING – Thursday, 2pm, June 25th
Focus for discussion : Loss of innocence in ‘Combray’


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