Robert Saint-Loup RIP


When Schiller translated Macbeth into German, he dropped all the comic scenes, deeming them unworthy of a high tragedy. Had Schiller had the opportunity to translate Proust’s account of the death of Saint-Loup, I’m sure he would have cut about half, for it is truly Shakespearean in its mix of the high and low, tragedy and comedy.

The scene may actually be said to begin back at the brothel, where Marcel glimpses a figure he suspects is Saint-Loup rushing out the door, so rushed that he drops his prized croix de guerre. When Marcel finally arrives home after his adventures with Charlus, Francoise reports that Saint-Loup had stopped in, looking for his missing medal. What follows is a long comic passage featuring Francoise and the butler and their reflections on the war and assaults on the French language.

“Heavens above, Mother of God,” cried Francoise, “aren’t they satisfied to have conquered poor Belgium? She suffered enough, that one, at the time of her innovation.”

“I cannot understand how everybody can be so stupid. You will see, Francoise, they are preparing a new attack with wider scoop than all the others.”

…though he had once been a gardener at Combray and was a mere butler, he was nevertheless a good Frenchman according to the rule of Saint-Andre-des-Champs and possessed, by virtue of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the right to use the pronunciation “scoop” in full independence and not to let himself be dictated to on a point which formed no part of his service and upon which in consequence, since the Revolution had made us all equals, he need listen to nobody. (VI,219-220)

A curious interlude follows, where the third “I” of the novel, the author (after the narrator and Marcel) speaks. He delivers a speech on true patriotism, illustrated by an account of a fictional family.

In this book in which there is not a single incident which is not fictitious, not a single character who is a real person in disguise, in which everything has been invented by me in accordance with the requirements of my theme, I owe it to the credit of my country to say that only the millionaire cousins of Francoise…are real people who exist. (VI,225)

This is Proust’s transition from the preceding comic pages to the announcement of the death of Saint-Loup, the most patriotic, brave character in the novel. Marcel is flooded with memories of his friend.

For several days I remained shut up in my room, thinking of him. I recalled his arrival the first time at Balbec, when, in an almost white suit, with his eyes greenish and mobile like the waves, he had crossed the hall adjoining the great dining-room whose windows gave on the to the sea. (VI,227)

The narrative focus continues this roving path. Next we return to Francoise and her elaborate performance of grief. Then Marcel reflects again on Robert, this time remarking on his character, flawed though it might be. The Duchessse de Guermantes’s genuine grief is acknowledged, though not without placing it in context.

But then when I recall all the little malicious utterances, all the ill-natured refusals to help each other which this friendship had not excluded, I cannot help reflecting that in society a great friendship does not amount to much. (VI,234)

In the final passage of this scene, we read a little story featuring Morel and a fresh example of his vile behavior, yet who seems to be indirectly redeemed by Saint-Loup when he is sent to the front lines and fights bravely.

This passage on the death of Saint-Loup cannot easily be defined as tragic or comic. It is quintessential Proust, a composition that circles a central theme, developing it through many sets of eyes and multiple emotional and psychological levels.

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