Monday, March 26, 2012

Proust, his mother, and humor

The March 22 issue of the London Review of Books features a piece by Michael Wood on Proust and his mother that has reads as if Wood is actively thinking through the problem he's set for himself as he writes. I know that's not what's going on, actually, that any essay along those lines that is even halfway readable is going to be much more a performance of thought than a representation of actual thought processes, but it's a quality I love to find in criticism nonetheless, that sense that, rather than bring us a settled question or a completed argument, the writer is letting us see his mind at work. It's familiar, in more slapdash fashion, from the blogosphere, and even in the more formal confines of the LRB it retains one of the key animating qualities of the blogosphere: the feeling that even as we're doing nothing but read, we're participating in this projet of thought.

Wood opens with a couple of lines that I'll be carrying with me for a good while:
There are texts that seem to require a certain craziness of us, a mismeasure of response to match the extravagance of their expression.
Proust, clearly, is one. Another that comes to mind--despite the stagnation of the World's Least Popular Book Club--is Marguerite Young's Miss Macintosh, My Darling. How, after all, but by craziness can one respond to the extravagance of this passage?
Thus in that night of my fourteenth birthday, night which should be greater revelation than the sunlight which conceals so much--I stood by the tumultuous sea, listening to the long, melancholy roarings of the waters under the near sky where, in the partings of the curtain of streaked fog, the bloodless moon was like a white, thin skull drifting without purpose over the many roofs, the dark towers, the abandoned golf course, the grassy tennis courts, the hidden archery ranger, over the foaming headlands, the saddle of rock, the spur. The waves broke like primal memories of things unknown breaking on my consciousness. I was filled with an almost unbearable excitement as I realized the immensity of life, that which, through its necessary imperfections, might weave a higher perfection than the faultless and restricted days such as I had known. What if everything should be false and nothing true, nothing true of these humped, naked dunes wreathed with seaweed, patched with bayberry and beach rose and meadows of billowing Queen Anne's lace and clumps of wild grass, nothing true of the low, stunted, blackened spruce and hemlock, the leaping tides, the tongues of surf, the sudden sparks of diminished stars? Then all false things should be true, I thought, as true as Miss Macintosh who was so very truthful, her red hair gleaming in the sunlight, in the stale nimbus of familiarity, her eyes severe with a resigned but cheerful purpose, her ways methodical even though the winds should blow her athwart. If all false things were true, however, then all true things should be false like my false mother who postulated merely as her theory the outer world, the blowing cherry trees beyond the surf line, the lanes where she had never walked. Where was the truth which should not fail?
But I'm getting sidetracked. Wood applies that lens of mismeasured response to Proust, and, specifically to Proust's relationship to his mother. It's a wonderfully interesting essay, bringing in a number of different critical and biographical opinions on Proust and drawing on letters to and from his mother, including this one, which Jeanne Proust wrote to Marcel after a vigorous family quarrel that had ended with Marcel slamming the door hard enough to break the glass in its panels:
My dear little one,

Your letter did me good--your father and I were left with a very painful sense of things. I must tell you that I had not thought for a moment of saying anything at all in the presence of Jean [the servant] and that if that happened it was absolutely without my knowledge. Let's think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple--the symbol of an idissoluble union.

Your father wishes you a good night and I kiss you tenderly.


I do however have to return to the subject in order to recommend that you don't walk without shoes in the dining room because of the glass.
Wood points to the episode's fictional analogue in Jean Santeuil and cites a couple of different opinions from critics and biographers on the significance of the episode and Jeanne Proust's invocation of the broken glass of Jewish marriage ceremonies. Of the postscript, he writes, "there is something about [it] that makes it a sort of mockery, probably just a bit of what we would now call passive aggression: patent further talk about what we are not going to talk about." But I'm inclined--without, mind you, a shred of actual evidence--to take that a step further: what I hear when I read that postscript is perfect Proustian humor. Proust's mother is making a sort of joke that Marcel would make in In Search of Lost Time, a combination of the joke built simultaneously on what we can't help but say even as we're boldly proclaiming that we won't be saying it and on the kernel of absurdity that lies at the heart of our grandest, most self-important gestures. It's the part of Proust that I think would have enjoyed this passage from Edward St. Aubyn's Bad News:
Diplomats, thought Nicholas, long made redundant by telephones, still preserved the mannerisms of men who were dealing with great matters of state. He had once seen Jacques d'Alantour fold his overcoat on a banister and declare with all the emphasis of a man refusing to compromise over the Spanish Succession, "I shall put my coat here." He had then placed his hat on a nearby chair and added with an air of infinite subtlety, "But my hat I shall put here. Otherwise it may fall!" as if he were hinting that on the other hand some arrangement could be reached over the exact terms of the marriage.
It's easy to see that absurdity in others, much harder to acknowledge it in ourselves, as Jeanne Proust is doing by deflating the passion of the family argument. Her joke is nonetheless most obviously at Marcel's expense, and, in context, is unlikely to have been seen as funny. But at this remove what it suggests to me is that mother and son shared not just all the emotional ties and dependencies we know about, but also (even more so?) a sense of humor.

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