Proust’s Humor


 

France is at war and Parisian society does its part by adapting to the new circumstances. Proust here unleashes his full comic powers, which resemble Jane Austen’s irony in the delightful gap between what is said and what is meant. A few examples follow.

Mme Verdurin has by now ascended to the height of society and she now welcomes all to her salon, including the “bores” and not including all of the “faithful”:

Another noticeable change was that, as more and more smart people made advances to Mme. Verdurin, inversely the number of those whom she dubbed “bores” diminished. By a sort of magical transformation, every bore who had come to call on her and asked to be invited to her parties immediately became a charming and intelligent person. In  short, at the end of a year, the number of bores had dwindled to such an extent that “the fear and awfulness of being bored,” which had filled so large a place in the conversation and played so great a role in the life of Mme Verdurin, had almost entirely disappeared….And the terror of being bored would doubtless, for want of bores, have entirely abandoned Mme Verdurin had she not, in some slight degree, replaced the vanishing bores by others recruited from the ranks of the former faithful. (VI,56)

Wartime shortages have forced Mme Verdurin to move her salon to a large hotel, where everyone is absorbed in discussions of the war effort.

After dinner the guests went upstairs to the Mistress’s reception rooms, and then the telephoning began. But many large hotels were at this period peopled with spies, who duly noted the news announced over the telephone by Bontemps with an indiscretion which might have had serious consequences but for a fortunate lack of accuracy in his reports, which invariably were contradicted by events. (VI,63)

The Dreyfus case is now ancient history; everyone is a Dreyfusard now. Society adopts change in its own way.

In society (and this social phenomenon is merely a particular case of a much more general psychological law) novelties, whether blameworthy or not, excite horror only so long as they have not been assimilated and enveloped by reassuring elements. It was the same with Dreyfusism as with that marriage between Saint-Loup and the daughter of Odette which had at first produced such an outcry. Now that “everybody one knew” was seen at the parties given by the Saint-Loups, Gilberte might have had the morals of Odette herself but people would have “gone there” just the same and would have thought it quite right that she should disapprove like a dowager of any moral novelties that had not been assimilated. (VI,52)

 

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