July 10, 2011
By all accounts, MARCEL PROUST (1871-1922) was the funniest man in Paris. During France’s Belle Époque, the decades before World War One that historian/Proustian Roger Shattuck calls “The Banquet Years,” Proust haunted both litterateurs and the nobility in their salons with his caustic wit and almond-eyed stare. (A French/Jewish Oscar Wilde, he stood only 5’6″ but struck many as tall — just one of the vagaries of memoire volontaire.) So why isn’t the multi-volume À la recherche de la temps perdu packed with jokes? Perhaps because French authors and publishers dismissed him as a society columnist, a dilettante, a snob; he had to demonstrate that he was deathly serious. In fact, many of his social-climbing side characters’ puns and jokes fail miserably; and although Swann, Proust’s alter ego/protagonist of the first novel, is genuinely funny, he is best known for his muflerie, an insouciant, almost bullying off-color humor that he’s largely set aside as he’s grown older and fallen in love.
The books are still comic, though, in a Kierkegaardian sense, and rich in slapstick. In Le temps retrouvé, on his way to a party, the narrator Marcel stumbles on uneven paving stones; his mind is flooded with involuntary memories of Venice, then with reverie on the nature of memory, and how this discovery unlocks the mystery of art. After pages of this, Marcel discovers that he is still staggering along the street, Chaplin-like; when he is nearly hit by a car, it sends the coachmen into fits of laughter. Both messages were received: it was time, finally, to write and rediscover the past, to work in solitude, at night if necessary, by electric light, for as long as the author’s frail body would sustain him, for as long as there still remained enough time.
READ MORE about members of the Anarcho-Symbolist Generation (1864-73).