209. (Marcel Proust)

From the “Proust and Other Matters” blog, a debate from an old Yahoo Proust listserv, over the name of “Cambremer,” which features as a joke first in Swann’s Way, but then centrally in Sodom and Gomorrah, when the lift boy fails to correct his pronunciation, “Camembert”:

Dear Sharon,

Today, I just wanted to correct your interpretation of the jokes about the name Cambremer. The joke about the name is mentioned in ‘Swann in Love’ – too lazy tonight to search for the exact reference (sorry).

As mentioned in Swann in Love, the beginning of the name is missing one syllable : that syllable is : ‘onne’ – for Cambronne! Cambronne was that French general, who, facing the charge of the enemy at the end of the battle of Waterloo (all Europe against Napoleon) became famous for having shouted ‘Merde’ and kept fighting.

From then on, the word “Merde” (caca) became euphemized as ‘le mot de Cambronne’.

The full name should be – if we follow the malignant comment of Oriane de Guermantes and Swann at the Saint-Euverte matinee – Cambronnemerde !

Dear Nicole,

Thank you! Out of your storehouse of learning, you always enrich our conversations – I remember, gratefully, a while ago your Latin citations – plus others.

Now here we have a wee dispute! If “Cambremer” is the “root name” and that root is one syllable short at the front and it “falls short” at the end, then TWO additions need to be installed to complete the “full name.” One goes AT THE FRONT of the root (a prefix) and the other AT THE END of the root (a suffix). Your explanation of the Cambronne historical reference is important – it explicates what hovers allusively in the background of this joke – thank you for that. wish I knew more history! But, doesn’t your solution “Cambronnemerde” fail AT THE FRONT? Wouldn’t the full name “Cacabremerde” fulfill these front and the back requirements – while still hauling in the (important) historical allusion?

I am totally in the blind here, since I am also too lazy tonight to hunt for the two spots – in my M/K English edition which, perhaps, could help. The French would be better …. but if I delay my date with Morpheus I could make this a longer and more complicated post – over a short matter! (;-)

Bonne nuite Nicole,
Am I missing something? I always read the pun as “Cambremerde” (I have
always pronounced ‘Cambremer’ as kahm-bruh-mare, so it’s not far to go to
add a final ‘d’).

Mark, Nicole,

True, the “Cambremer” ends badly – hence one corrects the ending by adding “de”. But the ending is not our debate. The name BEGINS badly too! NB: There is a “double abbreviation.” See quotes below. What can the bad beginning be – the bad beginning is “ca” but “ca” is an “abbreviation.” So, what is “ca” an abbreviation OF? Keeping Nicole’s historical note in mind, I claim that “ca” is an “abbreviation” of “caca” … hence I firmly hold my ground: the full unabbreviated name with its beginning-and-ending additions is Cacambremerde – not Cambremerde (Mark) or Cambronnemerde (Nicole). The result invokes Combronne – sotto voce.

Here it is 4:30 am! I am sitting at my computer laughing my head off – hoping that the neighbors will not be wakened by the lucubration of the mad woman next door. I thank you for this truly critical debate!

The debate over the name is both responsive to the imagination of fiction and continuous with the novel’s subject. In Sodom and Gommorah, on their way to a party at the Verdurin “Wednesday Salon,” the haughty academician Brichot expatiates at length on the history of the place names in the (Norman) region surrounding Balbec, correcting the etymologies advanced by a local priest. The following is significantly redacted:

Your abbe was hypnotised by Duneville. But in the Eure-et-Loir he would have found Chateudun, DunleRoi in the Cher, Duneau in the Sarthe, Dun in the Ariege, Dune-les-Places in the Nievre, and many others…But the fact is, the abbe is mistake. Douville was never Donville, but Doville, ‘Eudonis villa,’ the village of Eudes. Douville was formerly called Escalecliff, the steps up the cliff. About the year 1233, Eudes le Bouteiller, Lord of the Escalecliff, set out of the holy land; on the even of his departure h3 made over the church to the Abbey of Blanchelande. By an exchange of courtesies, the village took his name, whence we have Douville today. But I must add that toponymy, of which moreover I know little or nothing,g is not an exact science; had we not this historical evidence, Douville might quite well come from Ouville, that is to say les Eaux, the Waters…

Proust is satirical at Brichot and his ilk, the pedant scholar who claim triumphs over rivals with coy disavowal of interest in the matter; he is also playing a game with readers who would attribute significance to the very names he has fabricated as lures for the interpreting maws of mind. In this, he is at one with a modernist delight in extending the apparent significance of the arbitrary, through imagining a world thick not just with the particular but with the names of the particular, with the strange significance that attaches to names and proper nouns differently than to even the most enthralled description. Fiction writers could never have failed to have cared about names, from the listing of ships to the allegorical possibilities of the early 18th century novels; from the historical echoes in Scott’s names to the significance intimated by the Dickensian genius, or the unaccountably fine-tuning of James’ names, both a name itself and the presentation of a name (in speech-tags, address, lists, or letters) are consummate to the art of fiction.

Proust is at one with the tradition, even as his nameless narrator remains a cipher who would free himself from the significance in names elsewhere in the novel (the girls named from boys; the names that, like Dickens, near-pun; the perfume of place associated with certain words). But he takes this aspect of a novelist’s art in a novel direction too.

Proust relishes Brichot’s performance; it is a moment, peppered through the novels, when a character, motivated by the quest for distinction (or elsewhere for the desired object), performing the habitual grotesquerie into which their life has grown, suddenly, without meaning it, stumbles into a realm of imaginative possibilities that, abused and ignored by the character, testifies nonetheless to something of value in the narrator’s eyes. Brichot is fatuous and dull, but Ruskin doing much the same thing with names (and Proust perhaps has Ruskin’s divine etymologies in mind) would not be; nor would the narrator of the novel, seeing into the richness of things more than an occasion for the display of cultural capital.

It is a characteristic of Proust’s balancing act that the moments of severest satire and embarrassed comedy at those most in thrall to distinction and desire also serve to expose passions, instincts, and objects that would, elsewhere, for the narrator, or even for that same satirized character on more propitious occasion, be admired as transcending the desire and claims to distinction that lead to them. Proust’s satire, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s description of wit, “involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.”

Is that true for every novelist? Not for all, I think; the experience in Proust is resolved at a moment, but no moment is definitive. The names catch light, but the light changes, and the names change with it; not as common nouns or most verbs change, with our knowing always that another side is there to be brought out of the shadows and into play later, but as entities whose significance, perhaps intensely personal, or whimsical, or elevated, may never be said to endure beyond that moment, and may be grounded not on anything essential on the observer, or the name itself, but only on their relating as they do for that moment, in relation to moments previous and, when the significance of a name is born in the recollection of it, subsequent to the moment itself.

What does T.S. Eliot mean by his strange phrase “implicit in the expression of every experience”? Perhaps we read too fast if we take “expression” to mean solely the articulation of that experience; Proust suggests that it might mean also the emanation, the carrying forth, or the realization of an experience in the configurations of life. It might mean too that in the expression of the experience of the interpretation of names that we know through Brichot, we ought also to recognize another experience of interpretation of names, more or less silly than his, and to both smirk at his and to be lenient towards it, accordingly. Thus the magnanimity of Proust.


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