Marcel Proust Meets Mystery Science Theater 3000
Those of you who know me know I’m a Marcel Proust nut. I’ve read the monster novel several times in several translations, I once started a dummy email address with his name in it that stuck because I never figured out how to merge Google accounts, and I even made a failed attempt to learn how to read French so I could go at the Search in the original. It’s almost obsessive, I know. Sometimes Proust’s audacity and control inspire me in my own work; sometimes they remind me how much my own work stinks. Either way, there are far worse things a guy could obsess about.
I read a lot about Proust, too, and some of those books get pretty obscure. Take The Memoirs of Ernest A. Forssgren, Proust’s Swedish Valet, which will never be made into a movie by Jerry Bruckheimer. It is a minor book, interesting only to true nuts, but what makes it worth mentioning are the hilarious annotations by William C. Carter (who wrote a strong Proust bio a decade or so ago). Carter understands the historical importance of Forssgren’s thin memoir, but it’s clear he thinks very, very little of Forssgren. He can’t mention that Forssgren “was an amateur linguist” without following that with “with the emphasis on amateur,” and the book is full of footnotes such as “This statement is very suspect” and “This is simply laughable” and regular digs at Forssgren’s memory and writing ability. My personal favorite: “Forssgren apparently intended to attribute this line to Proust but forgot to enclose it in quotes.” Or maybe it’s “We can see from this document that Forssgren was capable of misspelling the simplest, most common French words — even ‘France’ itself.”
At first Carter’s asides seemed gratuitous, like the comments a frustrated academic would make in a Nabokov novel. But Carter is no frustrated academic. He’s quite a successful one, a master of his material. As the book dragged on, it was Carter’s notes that kept me reading, not Forssgren’s writing. The commentary was as funny and pointed as the core text was meandering and confusing. It was like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000: the wiseasses in the theater are more entertaining than what they are watching.
Before we leave Forssgren, probably forever, let me mention that early in the book there is a list of his items donated to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most of it is what you’d expect — the typescript of his memoir, some signed Proust books — but one made me laugh out loud: “a copy of Forssgren’s proposed phonetic alphabet to reform the spelling of the English language.” Good luck with that, Ernest.