Adelle Waldman reads Proust in the park and delights in his spot-on sense of humour. "Why didn't anyone tell me", she wonders...

Recently a friend and I were lolling about at a neighbourhood park when she asked why I was reading Proust--"other than for bragging rights." Had she asked me the question just a few hours earlier, I might have stumbled over something pompous or false. But it just so happened that I'd had an epiphany about "Remembrance of Things Past," and an answer at the ready: "It's funny," I said. "I expected Proust to be a lot of things, but no one ever told me how funny he would be."

I read her a passage I'd just encountered:

I was genuinely in love with Mme de Guermantes. The greatest happiness that I could have asked of God would have been that he should send down on her every imaginable calamity, and that ruined, despised, stripped of all the privileges that separated her from me, having no longer any home of her own or people who would condescend to speak to her, she would then come to me for asylum.

This captures Proust's sensitivity to the absurdities of human nature--and the amusement it affords him. It also highlights the exquisite quality of Proust's writing. The energy, the accelerating grandeur (not just "ruined" but also "despised" and "stripped of all privileges"), which conveys and yet mocks his growing excitement at the thought of his beloved's multiplying distresses, and builds expertly to the clincher. And what better word than "asylum": perfect in its sexlessness and implied power imbalance. (Ah, the egotism of love.)

Proust's humour has been, for me, one of the most striking elements of "Remembrance of Things Past" (or if you prefer, "In Search of Lost Time"), largely because I wasn't prepared for it. As I began the seven-volume opus, I knew to expect richly evocative descriptions, great intelligence and scope, analytical precision. I was also prepared for the occasional tedious bits, particularly his famously exhaustive meditations on inanimate objects. But now that I'm more than halfway through volume three, I can declare with confidence that Marcel Proust was a funny guy.

Why didn't anyone tell me?

Perhaps because Proust's humour isn't easily shared. The man shies away from the quick gag; the snicker-friendly quote (the passage above is a rare self-contained morsel). During another park outing, I found myself envious of the blithe pleasure my boyfriend was getting from his book. He was reading "Lucky Jim" and frequently erupting into peals of laughter. He could readily account for his chuckles with a quotation. To wit, here is Kingsley Amis's description of a hangover:

He lay...spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum....He felt bad.

Funny, sure. In vain, I tried to reciprocate, snipping a wry bit from a scene I was reading involving two long-winded diplomats who are trading personal favours, neither of them acknowledging the pettiness of what was transpiring. It took five minutes to recount the back-story--there were so many essential details about the characters and their convoluted machinations--how else would my boyfriend be able to pick up on the obvious humour in the contrast between the tremendous intelligence of the diplomats' speeches and the narrow selfishness of their desires? When I'd finally finished talking, he looked relieved. "That sounds...funny," he said and quickly turned back to "Lucky Jim".

That's the nature of Proust's humour--subtle and difficult, consisting of many moving parts. It tends to arise from a gradual accumulation of insights that are as shrewd as they are absurd. The results are priceless, but hard to package.

Consider this from Swann's Way. Young Proust meticulously observes and analyses the behaviour of his family members over dinner with their amiable neighbour M. Swann, who sent a bottle of Asti to Proust's elderly great aunts--a kind but modest gesture of goodwill. The aunts want to thank Swann for the gift, but their notions of delicacy are so strict that they believe mentioning it in front of the group will embarrass him:

My grandmother's their horror of vulgarity had brought to such a fine art the concealment of a personal allusion in a wealth of ingenious circumlocution that it would often pass unnoticed even by the person to whom it was addressed.

When another diner casually mentions a person who has nice neighbours, one of the aunts says loudly, "‘M. Vinteul is not the only who has nice neighbours,'" while "darting ...what she called a 'significant glance' at Swann," who, unfortunately, fails to pick up on this subtle tribute. (In fact, Swann is puzzled by the pair of silver-haired women, who keep giggling in his direction.)

After a few more minutes Swann begins to tell a story, at one point quoting Saint Simon, "Never did I find in that coarse bottle anything but ill-humour, boorishness and folly." Before he can continue, the other great aunt interrupts: "Coarse or not, I know bottles in which there is something very different." The Asti she means, of course, but alas, only her sister appreciates the reference; Swann is merely startled at the bizarre interjection. The aunts, in their ridiculous discretion, seem a touch senile.

Proust's gift is in detecting such barely visible minutia, portraying with both empathy and comic precision the self-deluded (and often self-aggrandizing) misconceptions that lurk beneath ordinary life. So the banana peels are few; the chuckles are cerebral in origin. Still, this is potent stuff--and really very funny.


Picture credit: Nathan Borror/flickr

(Adelle Waldman has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Village Voice and the New York Observer, among other outlets. Her last piece for More Intelligent Life was called "Just Marry Him". Based in New York, she is working on a novel about unmarried women.)