Prolix Proust

Bell is no uncritical admirer of Proust. For instance, he knows that Proust can be tedious at times.

 He could not leave out. Insignificant facts, platitudinous reflections, the obvious, the well worn, the thrice-told, all, all are set down beside what is stranger, subtler and truer than anything that has been set down in imaginative literature since Stendhal at any rate. Because he will not eliminate he is indiscriminate. He will treat facts as though he were a man of science rather than an artist. Indeed, in his way of piling instance on instance he reminds me sometimes of Darwin; also for piling thus high he has the man of science’s excuse–he accumulates that truth may prevail. Proust was too profoundly in earnest not to be repetitious sometimes. Subtlest of analysts, subtlest of observers, he is not a subtle expositor. Far too much of what he says is redundant. Really he seems not know which of his ideas and observations are surprising and which are trite. Occasionally his lack of finesse makes one positively uncomfortable, and his humour become so elephantine sometimes that one hardly knows which way to look…

Assuredly Proust had a sense of humour; but in his writings he was rarely witty, except of course in his parodies. In life he seems to have been delicious often. The Princess Antoine Bibesco once told me a story that redounds so pleasantly to the credit of his wit that I shall make bold to repeat it. Proust, who always was eager to be put right in matters of deportment and convention, had been taken to task by his friend,Prince Antoine, for talking about  “de Musset”. the particule nobiliaire, explained the prince, cannot stand first: you must say “Musset” or “Alfred de Musset” or “Monsieur de Musset”. Proust kissed the rod, grateful though crestfallen. A few days later the prince, meeting Proust on hs way home from a luncheon-party, asked whether there were any good pictures in the house from which he came. “Pas grande chose”, replied the chastened novelist, “et cependant il y a un beau portrait par ce peintre que vous appelez Dyk.” (27-28)

For all this tediousness, clumsiness, repetition and lack of discrimination blame Proust’s passion–his strength and inevitable weakness–his passion for truth. It is odd to remember that throughout his youth this devoted servant of truth posed as a slightly frivolous aesthete and as such was accepted. There was something of Oscar Wilde about him. If he never walked down the rue de la Paix with a lily in his hand, habitually he went out to dinner with a camellia in his buttonhole, and in society affected a manner so exaggeratedly polite, sympathetic and ingratiating that his friends to define his peculiar attack coined the verb “proustifier”. Had he decided before the publication of Swann, he would have left the reputation of a drawing-room decadent. As an aesthete he haunted the salons: especially those of the adorable Madame Strauss and the impressive Princess Mathilde [Napoleon’s niece]–good hunting grounds for a future memorialist. He profited by his popularity. To know Madame Strauss must have been a liberal education. She it was who, the first night some opera or other, put Gounod, with his mania for saying incomprehensible things, in his place:

“Qu’en pensez-vous, cher maitre?”

“C’est rhomboïdal.”

“Ah, cher maitre, j’allais le dire.”

And Proust himself tells us how the princess, after trying in vain to dissuade her nephew from joining the Russian army, burst out–“Quelle obstination! Mais malheureux, ce n’est pas une raison parce que tu as eu un militaire dans ta famille…” C’est déjà assez Guermantes. (32-33)


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