Ce beau français un peu individuel: Proust et la langue
Sylvie Pierron's innovative study maps out the intersection of national and individual language, of linguistic tradition and experimentation in A la recherche du temps perdu. Reflecting a crisis in French national identity following the defeat at Sedan, Proust's novel, Pierron argues, embodies a tension between reactionary and progressive trends in language. Within this frame, Pierron's study offers new readings of individual characters' idiolects, and explores the interdependence of the narrator's evolving perspectives on language and his path to creation. The structure of the study echoes this dual evolution, and the paradoxes that Pierron skilfully evokes throughout her study are present from Part One, where the apparent purist of 'Contre l'obscurité' is also lured by the verbal innovations of writers as diverse as Racine and Maeterlinck. The next section of the study immerses the reader in the richly composite curiosities of language usage in A la recherche. Here, Pierron extends the narrator's already plural identity: he becomes the philologist whose metalinguistic commentary ranges from normative remarks on the anomalous features of individual characters' speech to broader considerations on 'la langue française'. Neologisms, jargon, private languages, slang, borrowings, pastiche and mispronunciation represent just a selection of the quirks written into the linguistic textures of the novel. These are exhaustively catalogued and their features and effects analysed by reference to such measures as their inclusive/exclusive function or their voluntary/involuntary status. The unity behind this heterogeneity of speech habits is 'excess': each pushes back the boundaries of standard language and/or the speaker's normal linguistic context. This polyphony of voices is not merely ornamental, as Pierron rightly demonstrates, but rather a dynamic construction that creates (and shows the reader how to create) meaning within the novel. More generally, too, it dramatizes the shifting shape of the French language. The narrator-philologist's linguistic authority may be confirmed here, but Pierron deftly resists resolving the novel's inherent tensions by highlighting, in the following section, how language also evades and defies the narrator. Particularly suggestive is the discussion of polysemantic terms such as 'langue'. Its erotic, gustatory and verbal [End Page 408] meanings coincide in Albertine's 'demolition' of her ice-cream in La Prisonnière: her pastiche of the narrator, or 'theft' of his 'langue', marks a symbolic extension of her erotic power over him. Being stripped of the power of language and the illusion of power over language is, argues Pierron, a necessary step if the narrator is to adopt a revolutionary attitude to it and so realize his vocation to write. The study thus comes full circle to the Symbolist–Classicist debate with which it opened. Pierron's concluding discussion of Proust's linguistic experimentation persuasively argues that the true audaciousness and the true aesthetic tension of Proust's enterprise can be found in its transposition of Symbolist poetic experimentation onto a novelistic scale. This valuable study is of interest as a systematic 'reference guide' for those working on specific elements of language usage, as well as making a significant contribution to our understanding of the role of language in the narrator's evolution to creation.