Impressions de la recherche

Although my knowledge of French literature is rather shamefully fragmentary, I’ve at least, this year, managed to close one gap: I read À la recherche du temps perdu between January and last week-end. This was where I found a very funny allusion to esoteric monographs (it’s in the second book, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs).

Did I like the book? This is probably far from the right question to ask in any case, but it’s therefore worth investigating in a post-modern spirit. Since I finished the whole of the seven volumes in about seven months, during which time I had to take care of many other activities, and also started (and often stopped) reading a fair number of other books, I was certainly finding something in Proust that kept me engaged in his work.

One technical aspect of Proust’s style that struck me was how he manages to capture the way that crucial events or characters will first appear informally and casually in life. Here’s for example the first time the narrator meets Gilberte while playing at the Champs-Élysées:

Retournerait-elle seulement aux Champs-Élysées? Le lendemain elle n’y était pas; mais je l’y vis, les jours suivants; je tournais tout le temps autour de l’endroit où elle jouait avec ses amies, si bien qu’une fois où elles ne se trouvèrent pas en nombre pour leur partie de barres, elle me fit demander si je voulais compléter leur camp, et je jouai désormais avec elle chaque fois qu’elle était là.

And here is the first appearance of the jeunes filles, among whome is Albertine:

J’aurais osé entrer dans la salle de balle, si Saint-Loup avait été avec moi. Seul je restai simplement devant le Grand-Hôtel à attendre le moment d’aller retrouver ma grand-mère, quand, presque encore à l’extrémité de la digue où elles faisaient mouvoir une tâche singulière, je vis s’avancer cinq ou six fillettes, aussi différentes, par l’aspect et par les façons, de toutes les personnes auxquelles on était accoutumé à Balbec, qu’aurait pu l’être, débarquée on ne sait d’où, une bande de mouettes qui exécute à pas comptés sur la plage — les retardataires rattrapant les autres en voletant — une promenade dont le but semble aussi obscur aux baigneurs qu’elles ne paraissent pas voir, que clairement déterminé dans leur esprit d’oiseaux.

This comes with no warning or no articifial build-up of something is going to happen, drumroll, drumroll.

I was also very touched by the last pages, which certainly affected my overall impression and reaction in a way that I’ve only felt before when finishing Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (after which I went into a rather intense faulknerian phase during my PhD years). It seems that to understand Proust (as much as I can…), I would have to re-read the whole text, in the light of these last pages. Is that the expected reaction? It could well be… Will I do it? Who knows…

On a different note, I was amused to see that while the first Pléiade edition is a rather straightforward edition of the novel with short notes and biographical information (rather like the Library of America editions of Faulkner, for instance), the second edition succombs

Proust, compared
Proust, compared

to editorial inflation on a magnificent scale: the variants, esquisses, notes and notes on the esquisses, take up more space than the actual text!

Here is the first volume of the old edition:


compared with the second of the new edition:


This can of course be helpful, as are certainly useful the 125 pages of Liste des personnages cités which allow you to quickly locate all the places where Rembrandt, or the Marquis de Norpois, or Saint Simon, or any other character, real or imagined, makes an appearance in the whole text.


(There is a similar list for names of places and names of works of arts, again real or imagined).

Another thing I noticed is that the first edition doesn’t use accented letters as capitals at the beginning of sentences, while the second does:

No accent
No accent

compared with

Second, accented
Second, accented

Is the Kierkegaardian idea true? and other queries

In February, I was invited to give talks in Bristol and Oxford, and I spent the night after the second talk in a guest room of Worcester College. While looking at the brochure explaining the history of this college, I noticed that a previous guest had left a cryptic inscription, which I took a photograph of:


Can anybody make a guess of what is the first line? It is

What is the **** historical perspective?

but I can’t read the missing fourth word!

And what is the Kierkergaardian idea, really?

On diplomats

Quizz: who wrote

Il a publié il y a deux ans (…) un ouvrage relatif au sentiment de l’Infini sur la rive occidentale du lac Victoria-Nyanza et cette année un opuscule moins important, mais conduit d’une plume alerte, parfois même acérée, sur le fusil à répétition dans l’armée bulgare, qui l’ont mis tout à fait hors de pair.

or, in translation:

He has published two years ago (…) a book concerning the feeling of Infinity on the occidental shore of the Victoria-Nyanza lake, and this year another booklet, less important but written with a lively, and even piercing, pen, on the repeating rifle in the bulgarian army, which have made him rather peerless.

This reminds of the curiously little-known hilarious “Antrobus stories” of diplomatic mishaps:

It was during one of those long unaccountable huffs between ourselves and the Italians. You know the obscure vendettas which break out between Missions? Often they linger on long after the people who threw the first knife have been posted away. I have no idea how this huff arose. I simply inherited it from bygone dips whose bones were now dust. It was in full swing when I arrived — everyone applying freezing-mixture to the Italians and getting the Retort Direct in exchange. (…) So while bows were still exchanged for protocol reasons they were only, so to speak, from above the waist. A mere contortion of the dickey, if you take me, as a tribute to manners. A slight Inclination, accompanied by a moue. Savage work, old lad, savage work!

(from “The game’s the thing”, where a soccer game between the English and Italian embassies rather degenerates.)

More things of the day(s)

(1) Today’s Word of The Day in the OED: afanc, which we learn is

In Welsh mythology: an aquatic monster. Also: an otter or beaver identified as such a monster.

Maybe the Welsh otters, like their rugbymen, are particularly fierce?

(2) Yesterday’s Google doodle, in Switzerland at least, celebrated the 57th birthday of Gaston Lagaffe


I’ve heard that Gaston


is mostly unknown to the US or English, leaving many people with no reaction to the mention of the contrats de Mesmaeker


or to the interjection Rogntudju!.


This lack of enlightenment is a clear illustration of the superiority of the continental mind.