Sense of the Infinitely Repeating Bulgarian Rifle


M. de Norpois dashes young Marcel’s hopes to be a writer. Marcel is not yet able to see just how comically and grotesquely pompous this man is and so de Norpois’s lessons on the nature of literature are deeply hurtful. He does persuade Marcel’s father, however, that literature can be a successful career choice, giving this as an example:

“He, too, chose to leave the Quai d’Orsay, although the way had been paved for him there by his father, and without caring what people might say, he settled down to write. And certainly, he’s had no reason to regret it. He published two years ago–of course, he’s much older than you–a book about the Sense of the Infinite on the western shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza, and this year he has brought out a short treatise, less weighty but written with a lively, not to say cutting pen, on the Repeating Rifle in the Bulgarian Army; and these have put him quite in a class by himself.” (II,32) 

But the very terms he employed showed me Literature as something entirely different from the image that I had formed of it at Combray, and I realised that I had been doubly right in renouncing it. Until now, I had concluded only that I had no gift for writing; now M. de Norpois took away from me even the desire to write. (II,31)

M. de Norpois has an animus against Marcel’s favorite writer, Bergotte, and his criticism of the writer upsets all Marcel’s notions of fine writing. This being the antipode of Marcel’s evolving aesthetic, I quote at length.

…I saw that what I valued a thousand times more than myself, what I regarded as the most exalted thing in the world, was for him at the bottom of the scale admiration, “I do not share your son’s point of view. Bergotte is what I call a flute-player: one must admit that he plays very agreeably, although with a great deal of mannerism, of affectation. But when all is said, there’s no more to it than that, and that is not much. Nowhere does one find in his flaccid works what one might call structure. No action–or very little–but above all no range….when the map of Europe has undergone radical alterations and is on the eve, perhaps, of undergoing others more drastic still, when so many new and threatening problems are arising on every side, you will allow me to suggest that one is entitled to ask that a writer should be something more than a clever fellow who lulls us into forgetting, amid otiose and byzantine discussions of the merits of pure form, that we may be overwhelmed at any moment by a double tide of barbarians, those from without and those from within our borders. I am aware that this is to blaspheme against the sacrosanct school of what these gentlemen term ‘Art for Art’s sake,’ but at this period of history there are tasks more urgent than the manipulation of words in a harmonious manner. (II,61)

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