August 5, 2016
The Art of the Novella Challenge 50: The Lemoine Affair
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Lemoine Affair
Author: Marcel Proust
First published: 1904-8
Page count: 100
First line: In one of the last months of the year 1907, at one of those “routs” of the Marquise d’Espard thronged with the elite of Parisian aristocracy (the most elegant in Europe, according to M. de Talleyrand, that Roger Bacon of the social organism, who was both a bishop and Prince of Benevento), de Marsay and Rastignac, Comte Félix de Vandenesse, the Ducs de Rhétoré and Grandlieu, Comte Adam Laginski, Maître Octave de Camps, and Lord Dudley, formed a circle around Mme the Princesse de Cadignan, yet without arousing the jealousy of the Marquise.
I’d been putting this one off, partly because it’s available in digital form only, so it hadn’t been there on my shelf to pick up and dip into, and partly because I was saving it for a treat at the end of this now rather rallentando reading project. Ah, yes, Proust. I feel it necessary to admit that I’ve not read the Recherche, or at least not beyond the first volume. I tell myself this is because its daunting size doesn’t fit my busy, often compromised and predetermined reading schedule, and also because I studied French, and once read half of the first volume in the original, and so felt I ought to try to read the whole thing like that. Nu-huh. Proust is not Camus, you need a dictionary by your side for practically every paragraph.
So: I’d been looking forward to this Melville House novella, which I’d never heard of — and in fact that was another reason for not dipping into it; as something unknown by this utterly familiar writer (we all know Proust, even if we haven’t read him), I wanted it to come to me as fresh as possible.
And thus my disappointment. The Lemoine Affair is not really a novella at all, but a series of pastiches written for Le Figaro newspaper, and then collected in the 1918 book Pastiches et Mélanges. The pastiches are nine in number, with the targeted authors running from the internationally renowned and read (Flaubert, Balzac) to the merely renowned (the Goncourt brothers, Sainte-Beuve, Saint-Simon, Michelet) to the—here, at least—completely unknown (M. Émile Faguet, Ernest Renan, Henri de Régnier).
The common subject for the pieces, chosen at random, as the author explains in a prefatory note, is a then-recent scandal that captured the public imagination, in which one Henri Lemoine managed to cheat the De Beers company out of over a million francs with a supposed means of manufacturing synthetic diamonds. Naturally the subject itself is rather beside the point. The point of pastiche is the virtuosity of the performance, and the harsh light—both revealing and reductive—that it lands on its intended targets.
The question needs putting, however: is it possible to enjoy, or even appreciate, the pastiche of a writer about whom one has no former knowledge? Disregarding Balzac and Flaubert for the moment, here is the opening to the short piece “by” Henri de Régnier:
I do not like the diamond at all. I see no beauty in it. The little beauty it adds to that of human faces is less an effect of its own than a reflection of theirs. It has neither the ocean clarity of the emerald, nor the unbounded azure of the sapphire. I prefer the smoky glint of the topaz to it, and above all the twilight charm of opals. They are emblematic and twofold. If moonlight makes half of their face iridescent, the other seems tinged by the pink and green glints of sunset. We are not so much amused by the colors it presents to us, as we are touched by the dreams it conjures up. To one who can encounter nothing beyond himself except the form of his own fate, they show an alternative and taciturn face.
Now then. I’ve never read Régnier, nor heard of him, and I’d bet that the same goes for most of you. Bearing this in mind, is it enough that we recognise a certain style of purple prose, a heightened and reached-for exquisiteness that only rings hollow when it should divinely chime? It is not. The problem with pastiche (as with dream sequences in novels) is that it works counter to the normal reading process. Normally reading means interpreting a string of signifiers in order to elicit a complex of referents that the reader then synthesises to arrive at a particular meaning. The prose is a prism, of sorts: it refracts the ray of the reader’s attention to produce meaning, and the meaning of the words is congruent with their significance. We want them for what they mean.
With pastiche, this projected meaning is irrelevant. Now we are supposed to be interpreting the signs as markers of the target writer’s characteristics. The prism now splits the reader’s attention differently, so that the meaning of the words is over here (in what they represent), but their significance is over there, in what they tell us about the style of the target writer. It is like a film projector that casts white light, or nonsense, while we listen to the whirrs and clicks of the machinery. The images that are produced are irrelevant, meaningless — rather as they are in the description of a dream in prose. A dream is a narrative whose meaning is to be found in interpretation of the images produced. What happens—what we go to the trouble of interpreting/manufacturing/‘seeing’—is irrelevant.
In fact, pastiche is even more problematic, as a form, than parody, which at least has a satirical target. You write parody in order to attack and belittle (although, as with any kind of satire, you risk justifying and normalising that which you attack), but you pastiche in order to… what? Prove it can be done? Here, for instance, is an extract from Proust’s take on the Goncourt journals:
And on the staircase I met the new ambassador from Japan who, seeming ever so slightly freakish and decadent, making him resemble a samurai holding, above my folding Coromandel screen, the two pincers of a crayfish, graciously told me he had long been on assignment in the Honolulu Islands where reading our books, my brother’s and mine, was the only thing capable of tearing the natives away from the pleasures of caviar, a reading that was prolonged till very late at night, in one go, with interludes consisting only of chewing some cigars of the country that come encased in long glass tubes, which are supposed to protect them during the crossing from a certain distemper the sea gives them.
Yes! Bravo! It captures and shrinks the narcissism, the name-dropping and the overexcited sentences of the target, but to what end? It would have brought delight or dismay, as x, to Proust’s contemporaries, but really you do have to have read the journals, and care about their authors, to get anything beyond the shallowest appreciation from this.
However, if pastiche is reductive, i.e., if it reduces a writer’s style to a series of observable traits, it is also needlessly expansive: it takes the same amount of verbiage as the original to show that it can do this. It is a strangely inefficient procedure. The Balzac, for instance, is merely tedious—a reduction of the novelist to pompous windbag—but its very tediousness makes it otiose. By parodying Balzac it’s made something more boring than Balzac, and the longer it goes on, in order to make its point, the more depressing the experience of reading it is. Surely we had got the point already? (Which reminds me of Geoff Dyer, in Zona, asking “how quickly a film can become boring. Which film holds the record in that particular regard? And wouldn’t that film automatically qualify as exciting and fast-moving if it had been able to enfold the viewer so rapidly in the itchy blanket of tedium?”)
The Flaubert is better, because the pastiche plays with the writer’s poetic realism, rather than social engineering, and it manages to build towards a climax that mixes the bathetic with the actually moving, so that the irony shimmers and it’s not clear how far we’re supposed to be affected, or why. Interestingly, something different but equally interesting happens in the Régnier piece. Here are its final sentences:
Lemoine had a cold. From his nose, which he forgot to wipe, a little mucus had fallen onto his shirtfront and onto his suit. Its viscous, warm core had slipped down the linen of one, but had adhered to the cloth of the other, and held the silvery, fluent fringe that dripped from it in suspense above the void. The sun, piercing them, confused the sticky mucus with the diluted solution. One could make out just the one single succulent, quivering mass, transparent and hardening; and in the ephemeral brilliance with which it decorated Lemoine’s attire, it seemed to have fixed the prestige of a momentary diamond there, still hot, so to speak, from the oven from which it had emerged, and for which this unstable jelly, corrosive and alive as it was for one more instant, seemed at once, by its deceitful, fascinating beauty, to present both a mockery and a symbol.
To a certain extent this is, clearly, parody. Proust is having Régnier compare some snot to a diamond. Once you overlook the bathos of the comparison, however, it is a brilliant piece of writing, attentive to the physical properties of the subject (the sun “[confusing] the sticky mucus with the diluted solution”) and alive to the symbolic potentialities. The construction and exploration of its metaphor is a serious piece of work, and if this is symptomatic of Régnier’s writing, then he should, I think, have been at least partly gratified. It is certainly symptomatic of Proust’s own style, and I suppose it is a by-product of pastiche and parody that in them we reveal at least as much about ourselves as about our targets.