Thursday, December 26, 2013

Marcel as Pug

This may be no more than a quibble--and anyway, I suppose there is a vast literature on the topic with which I am vastly unacquainted--but let me quibble away.  One thing I really don't get about "Marcel" in the novel is how he gets to be buds with all these important people.  Robert Saint Loup showers him with friendship.  Madame de Villeparisis takes him for a drive in the country.  Swann addresses him (even when a child) as "vous."  Even La Duchesse de Guermantes gravely smiles at him from her box at the theatre.   After a while you begin to think you are reading about "Pug" Henry, the Robert Mitchum character in the Herman Wouk novel who just happened to meet everybody  who was anybody in World War II.   Or Mel Brooks' 2,000-year-old man, who knew Jesus Christ ("thin lad …  Always asked for water").

You may not notice it on first or second reading (I don't think I gave it any thought until just now).  But once you do think of it, you can't help but think of it as absurd.  Who is this wimpy, neurasthenic  after all, who gets singled out and taken in hand by the good and great?   So posed, this is a problem that needs some sort of solution.

I suppose there are various lines of attack.  You could put this off as a mere literary convenience, but Proust doesn't seem to allow that. Elstir the painter for example, is insistent that it is he and not St. Loup whose visit he solicits--no mere happenstance here.    You could simply throw in your hand and write  it off as just the odd bit of  narcissism ("how could everyone not love me?") and I suspect there has to be some of that. 

But if you must have a respectable explanation, I think I can offer a possibility. That is Proust-the-author (similar to, but not the same as "Marcel" the protagonist) does in fact seem to have been almost preternaturally shrewd in his literary or artistic, not to say his human, judgments (In this respect, for whatever it may be worth, he is entirely unlike the 2,000 year old man.  The Brooks routine is funny precisely because Brooks does not get it.  I'm arguing that Marcel really does.). It is just remotely possible that some grownups, men of the world and suchlike, really did take a fancy to this kid, and really did find themselves treating him as a person who must be taken seriously, no matter his age and his superficially unprepossessing manner.  Maybe Proust-the-author can't quite show all this in the novel because, living inside this bubble of sympathy--maybe he never noticed it.

Maybe, but I don't think that will quite wash. If Proust-the-author is so insightful about so much else in the world (and he was) how did he not notice this curiosity of relationships surrounding Marcel-the-character.  I confess that beyond this offering, I got nothing.  And I'll have to learn either to ignore it (actually, I probably can do that) or go back to treating him like "Pug" Henry or the 2,000-year-old man.

Afterthought:  Another example: Johnson's Boswell.  Nobody, and particularly not Boswell, can comprehend what the great man thinks of the impressionable young puppy.  But Johnson's affection for the young man seems sincere and enduring.

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