Le passé est un pays étranger. Ils font les choses différemment là-bas. Lesley Poles Hartley (« Le Messager »)
Pauvre Odette! Il ne lui en voulait pas. Elle n’était qu’à demi coupable. Ne disait-on pas que c’était par sa propre mère qu’elle avait été livrée, presqu’enfant, à Nice, à un riche Anglais? Proust
Après le jeu de société pour jeunes filles de bonne famille victoriennes … « La Recherche » elle-même!
Bridge, clubman, cocktails, darling, doper, fair play, five o’clock tea, films, flirt, gentleman, gin, globe-trotter, goddam, paddock, patronizing, pianola, tennis, toast, tommy, Tory, yachts, yachtswomen, et bien sûr, snob (49 fois) snobisme (41) snober (2), snobinettes, antisnobisme …
Etiemble s’en retournerait dans sa tombe: si l’on en croit l’universitaire britannique Daniel Karlin (« Proust’s English »), l’anglais fonctionnerait comme une véritable deuxième langue dans « La Recherche ».
Y identifiant plusieurs centaines de mots anglais (dont on sait la place dans le snobisme d’aujourd’hui), il montre à la fois l’ampleur de l’anglomanie de l’époque.
Mais aussi sa fonction comme une sorte de code secret à travers l’œuvre entière et chez ses principaux personnages.
Notamment Swann, le juif assimilé avec son nom à consonance anglaise, son appartenance au « Jockey-club, » son amitié avec le Prince de Galles (futur Edouard VII) et ses lettres à Twickenham et ses invitations au Palais de Buckingham dans ses poches.
Et sa femme, la demi-mondaine Odette avec ses tendances lesbiennes et sa très snob affectation pour les mots anglais mais qui se trouve aussi avoir été vendue, très jeune, à un riche anglais par sa propre mère.
Le tout de la part d’un écrivain qui, n’ayant jamais mis les pieds en Angleterre ni quitté la France (ou même la région parisienne ou la Normandie !), et, contrairement à sa mère polyglotte, ne parlant ni ne lisant couramment l’anglais, se passionnait pour Ruskin.
Mais y aurait-il là autre chose qu’un simple retour des choses après les plus de trois siècles d’imposition, par le Normand Guillaume et ses descendants, du français comme première langue de la cour d’Angleterre?
English is the key to Proust’s « doubleness », and the grit in the oyster of his French. Snobbery besides, his great subjects included the related one of etymology. He loved the way words are rubbed like old coins, names changing shape, competing and merging with other currencies, and he knew that the Academie’s propaganda about the classical purity de la langue française was simply fishing for compliments (two entries), then as now. That was why Proust was so fond of English, the vigorous bastard of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, swallower of all known tongues. And this was his view as an outsider, as a Jewish homosexual Dreyfusard bourgeois invalid artist: that English was the global future, more orgiastic than golf itself.
Swann’s way with Franglais
Lewis Jones reviews « Proust’s English » by Daniel Karlin.
Noticing the title of Daniel Karlin’s book, a colleague of his at Boston University remarked, « No he’s not. » Karlin replies, « And of course he isn’t. And yet… » It sounds ridiculous, but Professor Karlin’s thesis is that the sublime prose of A la recherche du temps perdu is a form of Franglais. It turns out to be a convincing thesis, as well as an amusing one.
Originally prompted by hospitality to refugee aristocrats, anglomanie – the rage for English fashion – has afflicted France since the mid-18th century, on and off, and in Proust’s day it was in a virulent phase. He never came to England (as the French call Britain), or learnt English, but he preferred English literature to French, and was mad about Ruskin – two of whose books, with much diligence and female assistance, he translated into French.
The Champs-Elysée was agog for le lunch, le garden-party and le five o’clock tea. Le sport was de rigueur. When Marcel first sees Albertine, among les jeunes filles en fleur, he assumes, rather snobbishly, that she and her gang are the underage mistresses of professional bicyclists – an « individualist » sport, promoted by the state to counter English team games such as le rugby. As his love blossoms she becomes, for him, « la muse orgiaque du golf ». He admired the game’s frivolity, and in that spirit deduced that the aim was to score as high a handicap as possible.
The word « snob » entered French in 1857, with Georges Guiffrey’s translation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Book of Snobs (1848). First published in Punch – in 44 « Snob Papers », under the rubric « The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves » – The Book of Snobs defined English snobbery. Proust, though, has more to say on the subject of snobbery, both in general and in particular, than every other author combined.
It is unsurprising to learn, therefore, that of the many English words in A la recherche – clubman, doper, fair play, films, flirt… gentleman, gin, globe-trotter, goddam… paddock, patronizing, pianola… toast, tommy, Tory… yachts and yachtswomen – snob is easily the most frequent, at 49 entries. Snobisme has 41. There are two entries for the nonce verb snober (glad to see it in the first conjugation), and one each for snobinettes and antisnobism.
Charles Swann, Proust’s beau idéal, has an English name, pronounced « Suoann »; except once, by his daughter, when betraying his memory, as « Svann »: « …a change, as she soon realised, for the worse, since it made this name of English origin a German patronymic ». Swann is a friend of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), a member of le Jockey Club, and has « a letter in his pocket from Twickenham », where the Orléans pretenders lived in exile. His wife, Odette, who used to be a cocotte, is given to vulgar anglicisms.
When Swann met her, Odette called herself de Crécy. As a young man at Balbec, Marcel meets the comte de Crécy, « an impoverished, but extremely distinguished nobleman », of English extraction. « I thought more than once of telling him, as a joke, that I knew Mme Swann, who as a courtesan had been known at one time by the name Odette de Crécy: but… »
Much later Marcel learns that the reason the comte is so poor is that he used to be married to Odette. Much earlier, vertiginously, Swann has defended his wife against charges of lesbianism: « Poor Odette!… She was only half to blame. Had he not been told that it was her own mother who sold her, when she was still hardly more than a child, at Nice, to a wealthy Englishman? »
Karlin notes that English in A la recherche tends to be associated with « social malfunction ». In a fashionable tea-shop, Odette wants to tell Marcel a secret. So she won’t be understood by neighbouring tables, and the waiters, she speaks to him in English. Sadly, the only person who doesn’t understand English is Marcel, so she confides to the entire room, while leaving him in the dark (a generous joke).
The only complete sentence of English occurs in Sodome et Gomorrhe, at a party chez the princesse de Guermantes; the young duc de Châtellerault arrives, on his first visit to that house, so the footman has never before had cause to announce him. Yet he and the footman have already met; a few days earlier they had casual sex in a street off the Champs. During this encounter the duke pretended to be English – the obvious explanation of his sexual preference. Pressed as to his identity, he kept repeating, in a French accent, « I do not speak french » [sic]. Now the duke must announce himself, so that his partner may announce him to the world, and he is in agony. Like many scenes in Proust, it reminds one of a Wodehouse story, but set in the adult world. As in Wodehouse, the footman lets the lord off, and has the last word, announcing him « loudly, distinctly, and with an intimate tenderness ».
Proust’s English is comprehensively argued. According to Karlin, English is the key to Proust’s « doubleness », and the grit in the oyster of his French. Snobbery besides, his great subjects included the related one of etymology. He loved the way words are rubbed like old coins, names changing shape, competing and merging with other currencies, and he knew that the Academie’s propaganda about the classical purity de la langue française was simply fishing for compliments (two entries), then as now. That was why Proust was so fond of English, the vigorous bastard of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, swallower of all known tongues. And this was his view as an outsider, as a Jewish homosexual Dreyfusard bourgeois invalid artist: that English was the global future, more orgiastic than golf itself.
Compared with the gargantuan feast that is the novel, this book constitutes a snack, albeit a well illustrated snack, and with a witty scholarly apparatus (shoddily bound, though). But for Proustians possibly not just for the moment quite up for the marathon of months – not until January, anyway – Proust’s English makes an evocative madeleine.