Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 20, 2020

Mon Ami, Marcel, et Mois, Chez Swann

Now, the funny (or odd, I suppose you would say,) thing (were you inclined to say either funny or odd things, whether or not they involved parenthenses, which this sentence obviously does, which is likely neither funny nor odd, although one might claim it is) is that saying something is odd is not nearly or in any way — when you consider it, which I have, and I invite you to consider it here, too — not nearly the same thing as saying something is funny, because while something that strikes one as odd may, indeed, invoke laughter, but that’s not quite the same thing as invoking humor, because then — as Marcel and I often observed on those endlessly long afternoons at Mme. Swann’s “at homes” — there was very little laughter (there being little wit on display in the room, despite Odette’s admiration for what she called, in that peculiar way she had of using English words, including “wit,” even if Bergotte, already long past his prime, and relegated to imitating himself attempted to be “witty”) however it long it was it seemed we spent in the luxuriously appointed rooms M. Swann had outfitted in which Mme Swann could entertain those of us who spent those uncountable hours, hoping only for a glimpse of Gilberte, despite the fact we knew she’d departed before her mother’s visiting hours, and was walking along the Champs-Élysées with some young man who was going to steal her attention not only from Marcel, who thought he was in love with her (and had filled several journals in that terrible handwriting of his with speculation about whether Gilberte was or was not in love with him, which he’d insisted I read, and — despite my advice to the contrary — insisted on including in possibly the most boring portion of that endless book of his) but from me, as well, and distract not only Marcel but me from writing the world’s longest sentence — that being the thing we’d both agreed would be our lifelong quest — although while I was simply amused by the notion of Swann and Odette’s daughter strolling under the trees in the Jardin des Champs-Élysées with a young man who’d go on to spend an undistinguished career as a chartered accountant, I knew Marcel was writhing in agony with the notion of it, and only endured those endless and “witless” (had it occurred to Odette to come up with an original thought of her own and call them that) afternoons, still hoping at least one of those afternoons in Mme Swann’s salon might actually be the place and time (ah, Marcel, you did have this fascination with “time,” did you not?) in which one could realize the dream of not only writing but — and here I must step aside from being a writer to playing the alternate role of critic — at least one phrase that conveys the sense of being in a place in which Gilberte was not present, because she, herself, was somewhere else, almost certainly laughing in that way she had, at something some other young man had said (which was probably more “odd” than “humorous,” which is where I think I began), walking under the trees in the Jardin des Champs-Élysées, and would, herself, be supplanted by Albertine (who I really must confess, again parenthetically, was extraordinarily attractive, which Marcel, himself, figured out in a heartbeat, and named the entire book he wrote about encountering her, “The Shadow of the Young Girls in Flower,” even though about half the book is actually about him agonizing about breaking things off with Gilberte, which had never amounted to all that much, but I could never convince him to delete those hundred pages or so he’d written about her) but Albertine, (and I met her one day on the beach at Cabourge), really was extraordinarily attractive, and it’s no wonder Marcel was fascinated by her.

That’s one sentence. A clever trick you can learn if you read about 1.26 million words from Monsieur Proust.

I’ve been thinking about M. Proust and his generation during this time of pandemic distress.

Proust was born in Paris on July 10th, 1870. At that time, Paris was in the final stages of the siege and famine that had gripped the city, following the assault from Prussia. There were no horses, cats, dogs or rats alive in Paris, all of them having been eaten for food. The artist Edouard Manet was one of innumerable Parisiens standing guard on the barricades. In his home, like many Parisiens, Manet had burnt much of his furniture to provide heat during the previous winter. Charmingly, M. Manet loved the big “artillery coat” he’d been issued.

Marcel’s father, Adrien Proust, an eminently acknowledged and highly praised physician, was in the field with the French army, working in tent hospitals, in a day before there were antibiotics, when anaesthesia was rare, and hard to come by.

M. Proust died in 1922, at the age of 51, having also survived the First War, and I think we owe it to ourselves to remember that one can still write, even when things don’t look all that cheery, as they currently do not.

And he wrote an extremely good book, by the way, although it takes a long time to read. I hope you enjoyed attending Mme. Swann’s “at home” with Marcel as much as I did.

© Brad Nixon 2020, with a nod to the master, Monsieur Proust.


Responses

  1. You did a good job of imitating Proust’s long, long sentences. When I was in college I read one of his books in French. My strategy with those long sentences was to plunge in and just not stop, hoping my mind would make things fall into place by the time I reached the period.

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    • Ah, how I envy you that you’ve read even one of those sentences in the original, let alone an entire book. Beyond my skill, I fear. Merci.

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  2. Proust’s longest sentence is 958 words. Sorry, but I just don’t have the concentration to wade through such a dense thicket of words. Makes me dizzy. I’m more of a “cablese” guy. Think Hemingway.

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    • At first, I must admit, one feels daunted by those astounding sentences. But as Bill tells Jake in Hemingway’s own “The Sun Also Rises,” “Never be daunted.” Those sentences are impressive works of verbal architecture, and one can read them over and over, and picture Marcel composing them, although — I’ll admit — He could have used the help of an editor.

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  3. My immediate thought was of Pascal’s famous sentence: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

    My next thought was of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Like Proust, people seem moved to love or hate the work, and one critical assessment I’ve read is that both are over-written. Still, I re-read the Quartet regularly, and never have made it through Proust. It amuses me that I experience Proust as prolix, but never have forgotten Durrell’s use of ‘prolix’ in one entirely bawdy bit of verse.

    With Proust, I feel my boots being sucked off by impossibly sticky mud. With Durrell, I tread through the muck with ease, and enjoy the sights along the way.

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