Was Marcel Proust A Comedian? On the Unexpected Humor of In Search of Lost Time
Michael Wood Considers an Overlooked Aspect of the French Novelist's Body of Work
Among the many dolls mentioned in Greta Gerwig’s film Barbie there is one associated with time and memory and literally named after Marcel Proust. It didn’t sell well. Perhaps Mattel got the wrong writer. They could have gone for the same Marcel, but as a comedian, a French, philosophical, disguised partner of Dickens. Critics have been finding Proust funny since 1928—he died in 1922. Christopher Prendergast’s Mirages and Mad Beliefs (2013) has a chapter on Proust’s jokes, and in 2015 Elizabeth Ladenson published a marvelous essay called “Proust and the Marx Brothers.”
And yet. This claim for comedy in Proust always comes as a surprise and is instantly forgotten. Why is this? I don’t know the answer to the question, but a guess or two about its grounds may help us to understand it a little better.
I read Proust when I was in college. I looked forward to the experience, I knew it would be rich and serious. That was why I kept putting it off, waiting for the moment when I was ready for culture. Imagine my surprise on discovering the book was actually funny. One moment in that first volume stood out for me, and still stands out. A Paris society hostess, in the habit of laughing fiercely at her guests’ jokes, dislocated her jaw one day because she was overdoing her appreciation. Now she can’t laugh, only simulate mirth by cautiously miming her delight, while her husband laughs as loud as he wants. This is good knockabout stuff, but the great Proustian joke comes in the narrator’s reason for what happened. It was not so much a bodily event as a linguistic one. The lady was in the habit, we learn, of taking all figurative remarks literally. In English she would have cracked her sides or laughed her head off.Proust’s humor often has to do with misreadings or over-interpretations.
How exactly would a habit of thinking cause physical damage? The joke sounds serious about social behavior but also contains a fantasy. This is not Proust’s only mode of comedy, but it is a favorite, and I’d like to look at two more examples. In the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, the narrator returns to Paris after a long absence. He picks up his former life by going to a party and is astonished by how old everyone is. He is so attached to his astonishment that he pretends he is seeing something else: a fancy dress ball where his friends and acquaintances have overdone the costumes and the make-up. Too much powder and wrinkles and white hair. But then he lingers too long and too pedantically in this fantasy, and we realize the whole scene is not about his surprise or his friends but about his denial of time, his own aging. He thinks this is a joke but it isn’t. Not for him anyway.
Proust’s humor often has to do with misreadings or over-interpretations, and his question is usually not what happens but to whom and when. His logic is echoed in Robert Zemeckis’ film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) when Bob Hoskins and Roger, human and toon, are handcuffed together by accident, and Hoskins has lost the key. They dangle around together for quite a while until Roger just wriggles his hands free. Hoskins is outraged and says, “Do you mean you could have taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?” Roger is surprised by the question, and says, “No, not at any time. Only when it was funny.”
We are close to the theory of laughter devised by Henri Bergson, Proust’s cousin by marriage. The flexible, connected human being becomes a machine and falls down a hole it hasn’t seen. For Proust we do this not by becoming a machine but just by being human—a larger theory of the banana peel. And the joke often lies not in the slippage but in the fact that no one expects it. We could say, too simply but not falsely, that the narrator of In Search of Lost Time doesn’t always have Proust’s sense of humor. When towards the end of the novel, everything goes right for the narrator, a series of happy chances giving him a new theory, of time and memory, he comments, “It seemed…as if the signs which were…to bring me out of my despondency and renew my faith in literature were intent on multiplying themselves.” This feels like charming naivete on his part, but for his author, the arranger of the over-eager signs, it is a clear reminder of who is in charge.
One of the best of Proust’s performances in this line occurs in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. The narrator’s talks about waking in bed at night and not knowing at once where he is. He works through various possibilities and then tells us that “the angel of certainty” has fixed things for him. He is awake and at home, he knows where everything is. Some two hundred pages later he realizes he was mistaken. He re-enacts his error, then takes off in a direction Roger Rabbit would certainly have approved.
Of course by the time morning approached, the brief uncertainty of my waking would long since have dissipated. I knew which room I was actually in, I had reconstructed it around me in the darkness…I had put back the mirrors and restored the chest of drawers to its usual place. But scarcely had the daylight—and no longer the reflection a last ember on the brass curtain-rod which I had mistaken for it—traced on the darkness, as though in chalk, its first, white, correcting ray, than the window along with its curtains would leave the doorframe in which I had mistakenly placed it, while, to make room for it, the desk which my memory had clumsily moved there would fly off at top speed, pushing the fireplace before it and thrusting aside the wall of the passageway; a small courtyard would extend in the spot where only a moment before the dressing-room had been, and the dwelling I had rebuilt in the darkness would have gone off to join the dwellings glimpsed in the maelstrom of my awakening, put to flight by the pale sign traced above the curtains by the raised finger of dawn.
We can think of Walt Disney as well as Zemeckis, but perhaps the cinema of Georges Meliès, his moving pictures full of photographed magic, would be closer to the effect. And what do we make of the sheer pleasure in the sight of the room busily correcting itself, the combination of intimate realism and animated objects? Is the desk in a hurry because it feels guilty? The cliché of the raised finger of dawn admirably completes the scene. Nature (or daylight) is the scolding teacher who indicates to the narrator that he must do better next time.
Michael Wood’s Marcel Proust is available now from Oxford University Press.