L’Ironie proustienne. La vision stéréoscopique
This impressive volume, the third in Champion's series Recherches proustiennes, directed by Annick Bouillaguet and Brian Rogers, is a systematic attempt to analyze the various levels on which irony operates in A la recherche du temps perdu and how those levels interact "stereoscopically." Its thoroughness, wide-ranging bibliography (which pays attention to Anglo-Saxon as well as French criticism, both on irony in general and on Proustian irony and humour) and readability will make it a useful reference work for proustiens, upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. [End Page 436]
The work is divided into four parts. The first examines the brands of irony, wit and humour employed by certain characters and by various groups in the novel (the dilettante, the "mondain", etc.) to maintain a distance between themselves and lesser beings. The analysis of the part sadism plays in the irony of characters like Charlus, Françoise and the Narrator is important: "le schéma de l'interaction ironique se superpose à celui de la cruauté proustienne et de son alliage de jouissance et de culpabilité" (34). The text also notes neatly that for the "célibataires de l'art" like Swann, it is wit and irony that serve as the simulacra of creativity. Terraced upon the characters' various ironies are the Narrator's ironic perspectives on them, and it is, in part, this superimposition that produces stereoscopic effects.
The opening thesis of the second part, which deals with Proustian satire and its targets – doctors, the nobility, snobs, those in love – may be questioned by some. Duval contends that the fit between satire and the novel as genre is problematic because the former is a force for dislocation and anarchy; the adoption of this satirical bent would thus account for the heteroclite nature of Proust's work. Is it really logical, however, to argue that the vocation of the modern novel is to be linear and tailored? Still, her view rightly underlines the oft-repeated observation that the novel in Proust's hands floats between a number of genres. And yet, a chicken-and-egg question remains. Is the Argus-like effect of Proustian perspectivism the consequence of a choice about novelistic form? Cocteau interpreted the pauses and trips to the narrative periphery in A la recherche as an extension of Proust's character and his oral voice. Reading the text, Cocteau heard that voice as "un système d'écluses, de vestibules, de fatigues, de haltes, de politesses, de fous-rires." A point made forcefully in this section (158) is that Proust's attachment to theatre, rites, codes and ceremonies, especially related to the idea of death, allows him to "stage" satire to great effect. The section closes with a very satisfying re-opening of the debate about the various levels of the Proustian "I" in which Duval shows how the novel develops its normative values via the ironic interaction of two personae, the naïve hero and his indispensable complement, the Narrator: "le héros est à la fois la cible du narrateur et son apprenti" (271).
If satire is seen as a force for disintegration in part two, irony – somewhat ironically – is presented as a crucial structuring tool in part three. The maieutic nature of A la recherche is embedded in the topos of its structure: the novel is an uninterrupted series of reversals of meaning out of which eventually surfaces the pleasure of recognition and knowledge, and the formation of laws. The irony of constant inversions thus effects a gradual realization of "truth" (237).
Part four addresses the irony resident in the self-reflexivity of Proust's novel. Duval reminds us how most Proustian characters are "boîtes à malice," constructed around a gap between exterior appearance and inner meaning, and that the regularity of these "surprises" and the regularity of reversals of meaning in the plot, work against the mimetic effects of fiction (407). She points, in addition, to the implausible, anti-fiction effects of the self-directed irony surrounding the differentiation between hero, author, Narrator and man of letters Marcel Proust (444-462). There is a fundamental, irony-based gamesmanship bordering on fantasy that sits at the heart of the novel's conception. It began, in Contre Sainte-Beuve, as the revelation of an aesthetic theory that required occultation by a preliminary illusion. In the end, asserts Duval, although its writing never did end, A la recherche operates on a single structural platform: "En [End Page 437] adoptant le 'je', Proust a pu le diviser, et en procédant par duplication et disjonction, il a adopté une logique de la duplicité ironique avec tous ses principes corrélatifs" (435).
Some of the formatting choices for this edition leave a mixed impression. The adoption of a chapter-numbering style that mimics technical manuals (3.1.1, 3.1.2, 3.1.3) will not necessarily please readers in the humanities and although the narrative runs to 490 pages before bibliography and index, one wonders whether the dizzying ensemble of chapter headings and sub-headings – approximately 150 in all – are a help or a hindrance.