A Lacanian Theory of Literary Style

cbzxp31cwkj3bokbrne0This post will begin, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a disclaimer. Any attempt to conclusively map Jacques Lacan’s theoretical network of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic onto my own notion of textual ontology, is likely to fall short, or fall to the kind of failure that Louis Althusser’s attempts to hybridise Marxist theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic framework was prone to. Althusser incidentally neglected to take account of the Real, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in understanding it. But this is to perhaps miss the point, none of these categories can be expected to give a full account of themselves, let alone phenomena that they could be mapped to. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:

each of these three orders is singularly ill-equipped to be a guarantor or even a responsible custodian of Truth. The would-be truth-seeker will find that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility.

This is not because Lacan’s theories are incomprehensible, I don’t believe that they are. But if they’re not, they’re just about to cross that boundary. The difficulty of applying these to the act of literary criticism, let alone the apprehension of literary style, has to pass over, to some extent, the degree to which Lacan was engaged in formulating a particular mode of clinical practice. Most of his seminars and lectures, as they appear in the collection Écrits at least, are motivated by the act of analysing a particular patient, partially subverting the popular notion of these French theorists fecklessly knocking back the absinthe while stewing themselves on the divan.

As the polemic aspects of his seminars make clear, Lacan was acutely aware of what we might call the Californian School, which had taken Sigmund Freud’s writings, in a commercial, lifestyle-oriented direction, which aimed to ‘heal’ the subject, de-fragment their psyches and ‘cure’ them of their neuroses. Lacan was horrified by the anti-intellectual tendencies of this school, as well as its simplistic ideation of ‘the ego,’ the actualisation of which the Californian school, and some other French analysts who should know better, took to be the aim of the psychoanalyst. Lacan’s writings, if we could treat them monolithically, therefore aim to complicate the notion of the ego, and undermine our sense of ourselves as a single, complete, individual subject.

The irony of this is that what is probably Lacan’s most well-known contribution to psychoanalysis, the mirror stage, has come to represent this very same tendency of egocentric psychoanalytic thought. The mirror stage is the point at which the human subject, in their first or second year of life, will understand themselves, in simplistic terms, as a singular being, or an autonomous self. It should be noted that no actual mirror is required for this to take place, it can occur in as simple a gesture of the baby moving their arm or something. Some might mistake this moment as something to be celebrated, the moment of the subject declaring itself, or developing a sense of mastery over its own body, but this would be an error. Instead, the mirror stage inscribes the tragic condition of the human subject, as it is not the ego that they identify with, but an ego-effect or Imaginary of the self, which now exerts power over them. In his words:

What is involved in the triumph of assuming…the image of one’s body in the mirror is the most evanescent of objects, since it only appears there in the margins.

This identification is a prelude to the subject’s fall into the Symbolic, an ever-extending network of exchanged meanings in consistent flux. This Symbolic order functions in much the same way as Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories regarding differential economies of signification. As we all know, no signifier (word or image) can be said to truly mean anything. If they do convey sense, it is in the distinction that exists between them and other signifiers, i.e. a tree is a tree because it is not a cat. This ego-effect instantiated at the mirror stage plays much the same role, and as a result it is fragmented, indecipherable and unknowable, as it is wrought out of milieu composed of everything that we understand it not be; it is how we, and our desires, remain mysterious and imperceptible, even to ourselves.

So, how can we make these theories, an amalgam of psychoanalytic discourse and theoretical linguistics pertinent to the reading of a literary text? Well, if we elaborate embroider our sense of the position of the reader somewhat, and transpose it into Lacan’s terms, we might be able to make something productive of the model. He saw the unconscious as not only constructed through language, but by the laws that govern our understanding of language, which explains his dependence on linguistics. We might quarrel with Lacan’s somewhat reductionistic take on the mind’s processes, and many did. The dead end that structuralist linguistics presented was too much for some, and Jacques Derrida gave him a sidelong rebuke once or twice but thereafter both remained too proud to overtly respond to the other. One could at least accept the fact that even if the unconscious isn’t structurally analogous to language, it must be outlined in these terms in the therapeutic encounter. Thereby, the repressions and other operations of the mind remain literary and rhetorical tropes.

One of Lacan’s concern in egocentric psychology was that the analysand was being overwhelmed and projected onto by the ego of the analyst, who, Lacan also believed, was insufficiently analysed themselves in the process. The myopia of both patient and analyst should be equally subject to these techniques, making the therapeutic process truly dialectical:

He communicates to the analyst the outline of his image through his imploring, imprecations, insinuations, provocations and ruses…as these intentions become more explicit in the discourse, they interweave with the accounts with which the subject supports them, gives them consistency…the analyst, who witnesses a moment of that behaviour, finds in it…the very image that he sees emerge from the subject’s current behaviour is actually involved in all of his behaviour.

In the apprehension of a literary text, I think, we see a similar process. Any given reader is driven to exert mastery over the textual materials; as we run our eyes over every word, we wish to understand them, to make them submit or yield themselves up to us. When they do not, we become frustrated. In pursuit of meaning, we also bring our own preconceptions, the discourses of which we are composed of and determined by; only very specific segments of the text’s meaning will be accessible to any given reader. To give an example, a reader of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway who is familiar with London’s topography, will come away with an acute sense of the novel’s landscape, and substantially more detail about Mrs. Dalloway’s position in the social hierarchy of the society of her time than someone who is not. This latter reader, from Paris say, who is familiar with impressionist painting, might notice a certain tendency in Woolf’s prose, to emulate the impressionist style of ambiguous expression, distorted subject and object relations and the use of interior sensibilities to depict reality. In this way, both readers are reading the same book, but very different ones at the same time.

And of course, both these readings develop their own momentum, and move irrevocably towards a certain conclusion. We notice phenomena that accord with our perspective, and gloss over material that contradicts it, especially when outlining an argument in a paper or blog post, as these media require demonstrative examples, rather than lengthy quotations. In this way, we come to identify with a textual imaginary, reminiscent of the ego imago of the mirror stage. Unbeknownst to us, the text is readily circulating through the Symbolic, iterating diffuse and infinitely referential meanings which are created and disbarred in our act of reading. In this schema, the Real would correspond with the unread sections of the text, that which is inaccessible or missed in the act of reading. It is important to say that the Real does not correspond to reality, Lacan means two very different things when he uses these words. In this case, I cannot give a direct example, as this would be antithetical to the notion; it’s slightly impossible to literalise as a phenomenon.

As a prose stylist in his own right, Lacan favoured digression, paradox and wordplay. Incoherence, excess, wordplay, these compose the lexicon of the experimental psychoanalyst.  He praised James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its supposed capacity to access the language of pure signification, without offering any footholds for the reader; in apprehending his style we are confronted with the impossibility of tracing the turning over of signifiers. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the Wake, but it nevertheless allows us to develop an idea of what we should be looking for when we interpret our novels, not merely pursuing similarity, or seeking in it our own reflections; such is the role of the naive positivist; not the serious interpreter. A unified textual style or meaning is therefore a consolatory myth, one which we erect as a buttress agains the impossible, overwhelming quantity of meaning which confronts us when we read a novel. But this is perhaps the point. Lacan’s sense of the ego depends on paranoiac knowledge and networks based on exclusion. Our very ‘selves’ are just images; our personalities alienated responses to indifferent forces.

Sound and Fury in William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’

thesoundandthefurycoverThe title of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury has its origin in a somewhat obscure soliloquy given by Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s play,Macbeth. It reads:

There would have been a time for such a word.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the phrase comes under some pressure. ‘Sound’ and ‘fury’ are not, in Faulkner’s usage at least, abstractions of which the tale of life is full. The double-use of the definite article suggests a more particularising motivation; it is The Sound and The Fury. With this in mind, I control effed the text for uses of sound and fury, because what turned up presumably means something to somebody.

April Seventh, 1928

Sound Count: 3

Fury Count: 0

As the chapter that Benjy narrates is the first one, one could argue that The Sound of the title is the moaning noise that Benjy makes, the moaning bellow that serves as the clearest indication to those of us capable of restraining ourselves from Sparknotes or Wikipedia summaries despite how adrift they may feel in this novel, that Benjy is neurologically impaired. In a way that is, again, presumably significant, he is often unaware that he makes this sound at all, the reader is only capable of coming to the understanding that he is when putting Jason’s complaints about Benjy’s constant ‘bellering,’ next to how often other characters instruct Benjy to hush.

June Second 1910

Sound Count: 12

Fury Count: 1

The Sound, for Quentin, is almost certainly the ticking of clocks, the ringing of bells and markers of time’s passing in general. Like Benjy’s The Sound, it passes in and out of his awareness: “You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while, then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear.”

Unfortunately for Quentin, even when this sound terminates, he gains no respite from interminable clock-ticking/bell-ringing. Even the absence of sound evokes violence and despair: “The bird whistled again, invisible, a sound meaningless and profound, inflexionless, ceasing as though cut off with the blow of a knife.”

Quentin’s The Fury appears in one of his extended degenerating mélange of voices, within which it is very difficult to situate oneself. Again, what emerges is Quentin’s overwhelming fatalism and desperation: “until someday in very disgust he risks everything on a single blind turn of a card no man ever does that under the first fury of despair or remorse or bereavement he does it only when he has realised that even the despair or remorse or bereavement is not particularly important to the dark diceman and i temporary.”

April Sixth 1928

Sound Count: 2

Fury Count: 0

Its perhaps only fitting that Jason’s The Sound, is the ‘hollow sound’ that soil makes as Quentin is being buried, its low sound’s reverberation subverting Mrs. Compson’s remark which appoints Jason her only hope, a son who is resentful enough of the opportunities that Quentin received to fleece maintenance money intended for her.  Even the hollow sound fades, it re-surfaces later as ‘no sound’ from upstairs.

April Eighth 1928

Sound Count: 16

Fury Count: 1

Fury receives a rather bathetic treatment in the final chapter of the book. Jason, finding that his stolen money has been stolen in turn, holds the travelling show in town responsible and assaults the first member of it he comes across. Their struggle is awkward and ungainly, neither are triumphant: “Jason tried to grasp him in both arms, trying to prison the puny fury of him.” The anti-climax chimes with Jason’s failure to, 1) get his money back and 2) successfully carry out some sort of gesture, no matter how pointless, which might redeem the Compson’s from their over-determined misery. The Puny conclusively defuses all the potential rawness and hazard of The Fury.

Anne Enright ‘Taking Pictures’

2860066Just below there, I talked about Anne Enright’s use of the short story forms as a means of affording space for thought and/or contemplation, signalled by Enright’s self-consciously retrospective focalising. I didn’t mean for this to sound too mindfulness-y, but that’s perhaps inevitable when talking about such things. The reason I think this is relevant to Enright, all the same, is for a particular reason.

When I was reading one of the stories, the salaciously entitled ‘In The Bed Department,’ Kitty, manages to find time between her two adolescent sons and her job to have a brief relationship with a man she meets in a local theatre group. Reading this story, I was reminded of what the poet Marianne Moore once said about unfair aspects of life to the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “One is always having to go to market or drive the children somewhere. There isn’t time to wonder, is this right or isn’t it?” Kitty is trying to work that out for herself, the escalators in the department store in which she works are a striking metaphor for how we order experience and how we categorise what happens to us as good or bad:

“Kitty was suspicious of the escalator, or more properly the escalators, as there were two of them, one falling and one rising…She disliked the push of the motor, and under that, the loose, light clacking sound of something she could not analyse. A chain perhaps, that ran freely deep in the machine.”

David Foster Wallace, speaking on surrealism in the David Lynch film Blue Velvetand in his own writing once said:

“being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities. But in fact it upped them…whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real…most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra realism, it’s something on top of realism.”

In this schema, surrealism is a super-imposed topos, hovering just above the realness of the world, which bears most of the burden of proof.

In Enright’s fiction, it’s almost the other way around, as if Dali-esque archetypes, abstract interiors without individuation find themselves in relatively affluent South Dublin suburbs and “normal” family environments, or at least, in family environments where normality is expected.

As is her wont, Enright returns to the escalator metaphor:

“She could not bear the lopsided sight of the stalled steps, like someone endlessly limping at the other end of the shop floor…They packed around the central pivot like big slices of metal pie, then separated out on the way up, dangling their triangular bases into space.”

She then buttresses it further with boisterous working-class repair men who leave Kitty ambivalent. Such seemingly extraneous detail takes the rather straightforward escalator/categorising of experience metaphor from us and leaves us with a far more intricate and over determined vehicle, never mind all the interrelations of the organic/inorganic in the metal pie, or the radicalism of using such a pedestrian (literally, pedestrian) machine to characterise an inner state.

But Kitty is never stifled by all this. She becomes pregnant as a result of the aforementioned fling, but she doesn’t tell anyone. Most importantly, she deliberately doesn’t tell the man, who makes an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to follow up on their affair in a bungled phone call.

The final paragraph reverses the trajectory of Veronica at the end of The Gathering, who rather spectacularly concludes with: “I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”

Kitty: “Her life was changing, that was for sure, though she seemed to be standing still. But, ‘Up or down?’ she wondered. ‘Up or down?’ The children threw the plane back in the air and circled again on the end of its wire. Kitty walked on. It had been a baby, she knew it. She had been visited. How could it be down, when she felt such joy.”

Anne Enright’s ‘The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch’

200px-eliza_lynch_1855A lot of Anne Enright’s critics opine the supposed lack of interiority in her novels. James Wood, writing on What Are You Like?, says that the characters appear as “neurasthenic clowns” and in a review of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, Julie Myerson writes that the protagonist, “doesn’t feel so much like a person as a collection of brilliantly dashed off observations, arch comments and frayed titbits of Celto-Latin nymphomania.”

Yes, if you are in pursuit of the Cartesian notion of a human mind, a whirring cog in a clockwork universe, don’t read Enright. Eliza Lynch is not necessarily present in The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch in the way that the title, a very sensual, individually focalised and suggestive one, might lead you to believe. I like to think that Enright might be writing against a particular strain in historical novels which could be evident in novelisations of the life of say, Marie Antoinette, adverb-heavy, YA novelism-laden.

One thing that I think a lot of historical novels which take women as their subjects leave out, probably for commercial reasons, are just how grim, to put it mildly, the past was for women. What we often have is a largely sanitised protagonist and milieu, with one eye to the BBC mini-series, who often tells us more about our contemporary concerns than those of the past. Though I can’t really speak on the exact differences between the two, being alive now, and not having read very many commercially successful historical novels.

Enright does not go in for such sentimentalising of female subjects lost in the mists of time; instead, we have frequent suggestions that none of what we are reading is real. And I don’t mean that in the old-standard postmodernist way, where the author-prosthesis footnotes a text and makes frequent references to how tiresome the endless re-hashing of discordant signifiers are, Enright’s use of this technique is far more radical. At one point the narrator states (with contextual clarifiers, admittedly) that “she cannot relax, because she is not real.” This itching at the reality of Lynch persists with: “Eliza was never alone.” (the tree falling in the forest with no one to perceive it argument) or in the following bald riposte to a narrative event, which appears in parentheses “it was not true.”

This is because in order to survive in the time in which she did, Lynch was forced to ceaselessly reinvent and outfit her self relative to the caprices of male power. A key component of this theme is Lynch’s intermittent descriptions of particular outfits, given witty names such as ‘The Bluebottle,’ (“a grey so dark it is black. Tablier of dull peacock sheen.”) ‘The Housey Housey,’ (“otter-coloured taffeta trimmed with black silk moss”) and ‘The Medea’ (“to be worn with diamonds, when I get them.”).

This awareness of how fraught her life with the Francisco Solano López, president of Paraguay is, how required she is to be always ‘on the move,’ exhausts her, at one point she becomes convinced that there has been a mutiny on the ship on which she is travelling and walks from her cabin “to see who the new masters of my fate might be.” It stands to reason that few reviewers would appreciate the ‘lack’ of Eliza’s identity. Apart from the spectacular language, it is a historical novel that reads like actual an actual history book, where the personages therein have no free will and are determined wholly by circumstance.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time: Time Re-Gained’ and Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’

time-regainedWhen I started Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time and, indeed, when I had finished Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, the only awareness that I had of French literature was limited to Gustave Flaubert’s one volume novel Madame Bovary, which I tapped out of reading at around page seventy, firstly because my idealistic commitment to reading it in French was proving very difficult and I was too pig-headed to change over to the English translation. The three or four page rant the guy gives in the pub about agriculture and rational philosophy seemed to be overly explicit thematising on Flaubert’s part, too holistic, too nineteenth-century and too boring. I went on to something else, Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1970, I think. Apart from this, I had no knowledge of French literature, with the possible exception of Samuel Beckett if he counts and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which is magical of course, but not terribly applicable to Proust.

As such, I was on the lookout for comparisons that could be made between Flaubert’s novel and Proust’s. The most obvious point of comparison could perhaps be found in the ballroom scene in the early stages of Madame Bovary, when the newlyweds Emma and Charles attend a fairly swish party in the castle of La Vaubyessard, hosted by the Marquis and Marquesse d’Aubervilliers. What follows is a rather famous description of the wealth and luxury of the party, both of which are augmented through Emma’s inflected perspective on reality and her desire to enter into her abstract notion of what that society is:

“Their clothes, of better cut, seemed to be of softer material, and their hair, gathered in curls at their temples, had the sheen of finest pomade. Their complexion was that of wealth, the shade of white that enhances the pallor of porcelain, the watered shimmer of satin, the shine of beautiful furniture, maintained in the peak of health by a simple and exquisite diet. Their necks moved effortlessly in low cravats; their long sideburns rested on turned-down collars; they dabbed their lips with handkerchiefs embroidered with large initials and from which rose sweet smells. The older ones looked youthful, while there was something middle-aged about the young men’s faces.”

This is a really vivid sequence and stands out among the almost a third of the novel that I’ve bothered to read. The description is subtly grounded in Emma’s point of view (how else would the words ‘better’ and ‘softer’ have a point of reference?), the strikingly luxurious diction is accentuated by the languorous undulation of the sentences but most of all, the people it supposedly describes are encumbered; they become mere referents for the materiality of their appearance, which is precisely the point. This is a mechanism deployed to emphasise Emma’s naiveté.

The closing sections of the final volume of In Search of Lost Time contains an equally striking description of a soirée, although it is so for very different reasons. Marcel, the narrator, is at this point in the novel, an old man and has recently returned to high society after a long period of seclusion. He has recently realised that his lifelong literary ambitions, if they are to be fulfilled, will be realised by bringing to life in prose the world that he now occupies, that of the Parisian upper and middle classes. This world then begins to manifest itself in a rather macabre and abject manner:

“it is more as a jigging puppet, with a beard made of white wool, that I saw him twitched about and walked up and down in the drawing-room, as if he were in a scientific and philosophical puppet show, in which he served, as in a funeral address or a lecture at the Sorbonne, both as a reminder of the vanity of all things and as a specimen of natural history…puppets which were an expression of Time, Time which is normally not visible, which seeks out bodies in order to become so and wherever it finds them seizes upon them for its magic lantern show.”

Marcel has arrived at a party and finds all of his friends so aged and changed, that he is unable to recognise any of them, and casts them as old marionettes, manoeuvred by the invisible hand of time, jostled along by threads (a word he later uses in relation to the links that bring us to other people that we meet in our lives) that only he, the author can perceive. In some ways, he makes himself the puppet master, at a safe distance from the decline visible in his extended group of friends.

That irrevocable agent of time may be responsible, but its him that gawps over it for a hundred or so pages, describes each one of his supposed friends past their prime in detail. Exactly why Emma perceives this age-reversal dynamic in the crowds of the upper crust remains for me to puzzle over, but if I was to reach for a fun, if unlikely explanation, I could sit it next to the final paragraph in the Proust quotation, which seems to evoke some sort of composite of the mythological beings of the changeling and the succubus, of immortal hermit crab people, capable of ‘entering’ these marionette bodies as they wish to. Probably not, never mind.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time: The Fugitive’ as speculative fiction

Speculative fiction is a straightforward enough concept to grasp. As the name indicates, it creates a breach in fiction’s conventions of representation and violates the rules that traditionally govern the world in which fiction takes place. In short, a speculative fiction begins with a ‘what if?’

Jorge Luis Borges is one of the most skilled practitioners of speculative fictions, though he rarely needs more than twenty or twenty five pages to exhaust his capacity to work through every aspect of the world that he has conjured up. Being as I am on the last volume of á la recherche I cannot over-emphasise how grateful I am to him for his capacity for brevity.

Of course, there are very few novels that don’t fall into the category delineated above; novels that are propelled by a question in the mind of the author are not a niche genre. There are certain coping mechanisms that one finds oneself devising when making one’s way through a 3500 page novel and one of them is to fixate on the abject strangeness of many of its key moments, many of which seem to border on aspects of science-fiction sub-genre.

Carol Clark, the translator of The Prisoner writes: “practical considerations of money, which would be at the centre of a novel by Balzac or Zola, seem to be of little importance here. Again, one feels that Proust is carrying out a thought experiment: let there be a young man M and a girl A, living in flat F. Let the money available to M be infinite.” The use of the term ‘thought experiment’ conveys how bizarre the novel can be. The Prisoner describes how Marcel’s lover Albertine moves into his apartment and how Marcel expends seemingly endless funds on lavish gifts for her. When she leaves him, he promises her a Rolls Royce and a yacht if she returns. All this focus on the financial inconsistencies glosses over the fact that Albertine’s aunt, Mme Bontemps, seems to be perfectly fine with her daughter living unmarried with a seemingly endlessly wealthy society dilettante with neurasthenia.

It’s not even fanciful to posit the existence of shape shifters in Proust’s novel, Odette de Crécy somehow manages to de-age as the novel continues; this is commented on by the narrator frequently with an appropriate incredulity and the scope of Albertine’s face seems to change dramatically at some point after In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, to an extent that I don’t think can be attributed to the normal changes brought about by adolescence. This presumably serves a metaphorical end about the multiplicity of self and the necessary masquerades adopted by people in the normal course of society life, a necessity that is only bolstered when one deviates from the proscribed sexual ‘norm,’ as very few characters in this novel don’t.

Proust also engages in a kind of description that I find myself noticing quite a bit recently, and that is prose that attempts to grapple with reality on a quantum level, to convey phenomena that are not visible to the naked eye:

“the whole sky was filled with that radiant, palish blue that the walker lying in a field sometimes sees over his head, but so uniform, so deep that one feels the blue of which it is made was used without any admixture and with such inexhaustible richness that one could delve deeper and deeper into its substance without finding an atom of anything but that same blue.”

It is this willingness to represent the ineffable in text that Proust’s best moments of confrontational strangeness that gets him his best moments as we see in the above, wherein an anonymous and yet universal representation of man ‘the walker,’ falls into the sky endlessly, which is at once the sky and also seems to prefigure some kind of undiluted cordial, perhaps anticipating the famous madeleine dissolved in tea. The paragraph is positively bristling with paradoxes and abstrusities, least among which is the suggestion that one can simply ‘find’ an atom, that atoms can be ‘pure’ and that they are colour-coded.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time: Sodom and Gomorrah’

35750-_uy200_At this stage, the fourth volume of six in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, it doesn’t need saying that Proust is a hyper-critical author. He doesn’t allow his characters to get away with anything and dwells for sentence after sentence after sentence on their most minute flaws and concealed insecurities. However, there seems to be shades of difference in Proust’s treatment of particular characters based on their class. Regardless of how denigrating he may be towards the Guermantes or the Princess de Parma, their characterisations retain an idealised quality, their personas never lose their sheen of seemingly fundamental decency. The origin of this positive discrimination is somewhat unclear, as the focalisation of In Search of Lost Time’s perspective is so overdetermined. Blame could lie with the narrator, M, who is, after all, hopelessly besotted with all members of the aristocracy, regardless of the depth of their ignorance. Some blame could well be attached to Proust himself, with one eye on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s admiration of rich people, for being in some self-evident way different from the have-nots.

Characters such as Charles Morel and Françoise lack this ‘upper-class’ status, which would otherwise have allowed for their redemption, at least partially, from M’s perspective. Therefore, there is something altogether crueler about M’s probing evisceration of Françoise’s character, considering she is employed as his family’s servant. Françoise also has the dubious honour of being the only character that M has told to her face exactly what he thinks of her, something that he would not dare do to someone with a secure place on a social scale of any kind (as yet, anyway, I have only read the first four parts of six): “’You’re an excellent person, I said smarmily, you’re kind, you’ve a thousand good qualities, but you’re no further on than the day that you arrived in Paris, either in knowing about women’s clothes or in how to pronounce words properly and not commit howlers.’”

M’s identification of Françoise’s primary failing as linguistic is, I believe, revealing. First, her way of speaking is wholly idiosyncratic, because she is from rural France and was not formally educated. This can be seen in her occasional tendency towards exaggeration, at occasions like being found by a member of the family in the kitchen, particularly when she is with her daughter: ‘She’s just had a spoonful of soup, Françoise said to me, and I forced her suck on a bit of the carcass,’ so as thus to reduce her daughter’s supper to nothing, as though it would have been wrong for it to be plentiful. Even at lunch or dinner, if I made the mistake of going into the kitchen, Françoise would make as if they had finished and even apologise by saying: ‘I just wanted a bite of something,’ or ‘a mouthful.’ Her supposed ineptitude in expressing herself exasperates M, who constantly demonstrates his facility in doing so with an endlessly proliferating sequence of sub-clauses erupting at the least prompting.

This relates to another reason for preferring Françoise above all others that populate Proust’s ‘world entire,’ as parts in the novel that feature her are generally an occasion of humour, as M’s frustration with her manifests itself in a haughty and staccato sentence style, often a welcome relief from his normative mode. The second part of In Search of Lost TimeIn The Shadow of Young Girls In Flower, contains what I believe to be the funniest part of the entire novel, if I can be allowed to decide this with two volumes remaining. This section of the novel describes a holiday that M, his grandmother and Françoise take in the coastal town of Balbec. They stay in a hotel and Françoise makes the acquaintance of a number of staff members, butlers and servants, etc. This has unexpected effects for M and his grandmother:

“she had also gotten to know one of the wine waiters, a kitchen-hand and a housekeeper from one of the floors. The result of this for our daily arrangements was that, whereas at the at the very beginning of her stay Françoise, knowing no one had kept ringing for the most trivial reasons, at times when my grandmother and I would never have dared to ring 0 and if we raised some mild objection to this,. she replies, ‘Well we’re paying them enough!’ as thought she herself was footing the bills – now that she was on friendly terms with one of the personalities from below stairs, a thing which had initially seemed to augur well for our comfort if either of us happened to have cold feet in bed, she would not countenance the idea of ringing, even at times which were in no way untoward; she said it would ‘put them out,’ it would mean the…servants’ dinner-hour would be disturbed and they would not like that…The long and short of it was that we had to make to do without proper hot water because Françoise was a friend of the man whose job it was to heat it.”

If that didn’t split your sides, Proust may not be the best place for you to get your laughs.

M probably gets annoyed as he does because he doesn’t want someone competing with him, in the realm of linguistic play, least of all an uneducated woman of the servant class, self-obsessed little twerp that he is.