Seduction of the Waiter
Is there a category for Proust’s hilarious technique of pasting snippets of one text onto an unrelated foundation story? Sometimes the snippet has a teeny modification. The result is a new high in color and humor. A fully blown demonstration of this technique (or form? – I don’t know what to call it) is the luncheon ceremony in the hotel dining room at Balbec on M’s second visit.
At Balbec, M. Nissim Bernard (Bloch’s great-uncle) is putting the make on a young waiter and quickly (very quickly) relieves the young man of his virtue. The waiter, forty years younger than his seducer, happily exchanges his innocence for shiny objects. M. Nissim Bernard had not expected so rapid a conquest. Afterwards, the older man unfailingly appears at the hotel lunchtime “ceremony” occupying his regular seat for the pleasure of viewing his boy race around the dining-room and of being waited upon by him as a stranger.
The hotel becomes theatre, spectacle, oriental temple, caravanserai and seraglio. As MP tells this story of seduction and conquest, he interlaces it with quotes from Racine plays – Athalie and Esther.
Athalie tells of a serious legitimist struggle between the kingdoms of Israel and Judea. Wicked Queen Athalie has usurped the throne in Israel and installed her false god Baal there. To ensure her throne and lineage she, on a rampage, kills all competing potential heirs except one – a toddler lying undetected among the princely bodies. To the rescue comes his loving aunt. The toddler heir is covered with blood and his little arms gratefully embrace her. The aunt describes the gruesome rescue.
Et soit frayeur encore, ou pour me caresser
De ses bras innocents je me sentis presser.
(Athalie, Racine, Act I, Scene 2)
Back to Balbec. Here is M. Nissim Bernard making a move on the young waiter. The other waiters become young Israelites. Snippets from Racine are enlisted to show how difficult is the path of virtue – when temptations of riches and gold are dangled. The final snippet suggests that the young man’s surrender to vice was joyous and justified because, basically, “Be merry now for tomorrow we may die” But all the sumptuous quotations from Athalie are snagged violently out of context. A specific (and delicious) example of the slightly altered snippet is the succumbing of the young waiter.
Et soit frayeur encore, ou pour le caresser
De ses bras innocents il se sentit presser.
(Vol II CP 872 )
Compare the altered version with the actual one from Racine above. Even if you read only broken French, you can appreciate the sly difference. Note the transformation by means of a few pronoun gender changes. Now, instead of the terrified aunt rescuing the little boy from certain death and his grateful and pitiable caress, we have the hotel waiter flinging his arms around his seducer! Other quotations in this particular scene are plucked from their serious and unrelated roots and replanted in the hotel-Temple.
Yet, somehow, in the inimitable way of the Search, there is a certain compassion for the ridiculous and aging M. Nissim Bernard whose betrayal by his new love is already adumbrated in the waiter’s coldness of manner.
I like to imagine MP sitting at his writing table, twirling his mustache(s), his Racine open to Athalie, searching and snagging just the right snippets to produce the fusion of these two scenes, the seduction of the hotel page and the tearful rescue of an innocent toddler.
Was Proust’s form already established? Is there a name for it? It’s not parody; it’s not pastiche. By standard definitions, parody is an imitative spoof which mocks the work it imitates. Pastiche is also imitation but doesn’t mock – perhaps it affectionately celebrates. Maybe literary critics have a name for Proust’s form, but I don’t know it.
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Here is the scene (Vol II CP 871-872):
The fact of the matter was that he was keeping, as other men keep a dancer from the corps de ballet, a fledgling waiter of much the same type of the pages of whom we have spoken, and who made us think of the young Israelites in Esther and Athalie. It is true that the forty years’ difference in age between M. Nissim Bernard and the young waiter ought to have preserved the latter from a contact that could scarcely have been agreeable. But, as Racine so wisely observes in those same choruses:
Great God, with what uncertain tread
A budding virtue ‘mid such perils goes!
What stumbling-blocks do lie before a soul
That seeks Thee and would fain be innocent.
For all that the young waiter had been brought up “remote from the world” in the Temple-Caravanserai of Balbec, he had not followed the advice of Joad:
In riches and in gold put not thy trust.
He had perhaps justified himself by saying:
The wicked cover the earth.
However that might be, and albeit M. Nissim Bernard had not expected so rapid a conquest, on the very first day,
Were’t in alarm, or anxious to caress,
He felt those childish arms about him thrown.
And by the second day, M. Nissim Bernard having taken the young waiter out,
The dire assault his innocence destroyed.
From that moment the boy’s life was altered. He might only carry bread and salt, as his superior bade him, but his whole face sang:
From flowers to flowers, from joys to keener joys
Let our desires now range.
Uncertain is our tale of fleeting years,
Let us then hasten to enjoy this life!
Honours and fame are the reward
Of blind and meek obedience.
For moping innocence
Who now would raise his voice?
October, 2022: We are reading Proust aloud in French in a senior community I joined as they were half-way through Sodome et Gomorrhe. This passage with the purloined quotations from Racine’s Athalie is one of the very funniest passages I have ever read. I am glad you agree: please post any comments you have regarding what to call this technique of Proust’s.