October 22, 2017
Proust Meets Monty Python
On this day in 1909, Marcel Proust dipped his madeleine in tea and tumbled into the childhood memory that triggered the seven-volume, fourteen-year, Remembrance of Things Past (or, as some now prefer, In Search of Lost Time):
And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine....
The first volume (Swann's Way) was rejected by publishers and printed at Proust's own expense, but the book continues to hold its ranking in the top handful of 20th century novels. A handful of recent biographies also continue the debate over what to make of Proust's legendary eccentricities -- the all-night writing; the sexual quirks; the invalidism; the almost total reclusion in a cork-lined room (so thick it was sold to a wine-bottling company), from which Proust would sometimes emerge, always dressed in black and white, to sit in some salon-corner "like a wounded crow."
Those who have read all seven volumes of Proust's novel report it to be a profound experience. Those wanting help with the project might consider Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel or Roger Shattuck's Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time; those wanting a different sort of introduction or an alternative might consider Harold Pinter's screenplay of the book (never filmed, but published and highly praised in book format, and adapted for the stage by Britain's National Theatre) or Raul Ruiz's recent film, Time Regained; those wanting the proverbial 'and now for something completely different' might look out for Monty Python's "All-England Summarize Proust Competition" (episode 31, 1972). Here contestants are given fifteen seconds to do their Proustian best -- actually, thirty seconds: one go in swimsuit and one in evening dress. First up is Harry Bagot:
Proust's novel ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, the forfeiture of innocence through experience, the reinstatement of extra-temporal values of time regained; ultimately the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of a humane religious experience, re-stating as it does the concept of intemporality; in the first volume, Swarm, the family friend visits . . . [GONG]
Second up, Ronald Rutherford:
Er, well, Swann, Swann, there's this house, there's this house, and er, it's in the morning, it's in the morning -- no, it's the evening, in the evening and er, there's a garden and er, this bloke comes in -- bloke comes in -- what's his name, er just said it -- big bloke -- Swarm, Swarm . . . [GONG]
When contestant three, the Bolton Choral Society, has their contrapuntal effort booted, the prize is given -- surprise -- to the woman with the biggest breasts.