Thursday, August 17, 2006

Comedy by Swann’s Way

I'm going back to the parts of the Proustian Epic that made me laugh.

Legrandin is an acquaintance of the narrator’s family, who happens to be a social-climbing snob who couldn’t quite admit to his snobbery. The narrator relates that his "Mama was infinitely amused each time she caught Legrandin in flagrante delicto in the sin that he would not confess, that he continued to call the sin without forgiveness, snobbishness." His obsession is with hob-nobbing with those he considers the upper-class. So concerned with the social glamour of his associations, he often pretends not to recognise the narrator’s family, so that it will not reflect poorly on him.

One of the funniest scenes in Swann’s Way takes place when the narrator and his grandmother were planning a holiday to Balbec. Legrandin has a sister living only a mile from the place. The narrator’s father thought of asking Legrandin for the sister’s address, just in case:

…my father, curious, irritated, and cruel, said again:

"You know Balbec so well—do you have friends in the area?"

In a last desperate effort, Legrandin’s smiling gaze reached its highest degree of tenderness, vagueness, sincerity, and distraction, but, no doubt thinking there was nothing else he could do but answer, he said to us:

"I have friends whever there are companies of trees, wounded but not vanquished, which huddle together with touching obstinacy to implore an inclement and pitiless sky."

"That was not what I meant," interrupted my father, as obstinate as the trees and as pitiless as the sky. "In case something should happen to my mother-in-law and she needed to feel she was not at all alone in an out-of-the-way place, I was asking if you knew anyone there?"

"There as everywhere, I know everyone and I know no one," answered Legrandin, who was not going to give in so quickly; "I know a great deal about things and very little about people. But in that place the very things themselves seem to be people, rare people, delicate in their very essence, disappointed by life. Sometimes it is a manor house that you encounter on a cliff, by the side of a road, where it has stopped to point its sorrow toward the still pink evening where the golden moon rises while the returning boats, fluting the dappled water, hoist the flame of evening on their masts and carry its colors; sometimes it is a simple solitary house, rather ugly, its expression shy but romantic, which conceals from all eyes some imperishable secret of happiness and disenchantment. That land which is so lacking in truth," he added with a Machiavellian delicacy, "that land of pure fiction makes poor reading for a child, and is certainly not what I would choose and recommend for my little friend, already so inclined to sadness, for his heart, already so predisposed. Climates of amorous confessions and vain regrets may suit a disillusioned old man like me, but they are unhealthy for one whose temperament is not yet formed. Please believe me," he went on insistently, "the waters of that bay, already half Breton, may act as a seedative, though a questionable one, on a heart like mine that is no longer undamaged, on a heart for whose wounds there is no longer any compensation. They are contraindicated at your age, my boy. Good night, neighbors," he added, leaving us with that evasive abruptness which was his habit and, turning back toward us with a doctor’s raised finger, he summed up his advice: "No Balbec before the age of fifty, and even then it must depend on the state of the heart," he called to us.

Although my father talked to him about this again in our subsequent encounters, torturing him with questions, it was a useless effort … M. Legrandin, had we insisted further, would have ended by constructing a whole system of landscape ethics and a celestial geography of Lower Normandy, sooner than admit to us that his own sister lived a mile from Balbec …

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