Proust's English, by Daniel Karlin

Marcel's fascination with a cross-channel love-hate relationship
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The Independent Culture

Freud could have coined his wonderful idea of the "the narcissism of small differences" specifically to explain the Anglo-French peacetime rivalries that have flourished ever since the guns fell silent over the battlefield of Waterloo. Both nations wallow blissfully in a swamp of mutual fetishes and fantasies, where every minor divergence in custom and culture becomes a sign of some vast spiritual chasm.

Most of this is intellectual and historical junk, of course - but at least it's amusing junk. This scrupulously learned but witty and playful book shows that the oddities of Anglo-Gallic attitudes gave a lasting theme to one of the world's finest comic writers.

At one level, Marcel Proust was as committed an Anglophile as ever graced French fiction. He had close English friends and shared the dapper clubman's style beloved by dandies and socialites in fin-de-siècle Paris. He famously laboured to translate John Ruskin, despite his lack of formal education in English. And, as Daniel Karlin so shrewdly illustrates, he peppered the epic length of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu with Anglicisms, from "cocktails" to "five o'clock tea"; from "tennis" to "bridge"; from "darling" to "flirt".

An identification with the neighbour-rival makes sense for Proust, both a social and a sexual outsider in Parisian high society. Karlin follows, in plenty of intriguing detail, the love-affairs and hate-affairs with English ways and words that bloomed in France a century ago. Always sticking closely to Proust's novel, he moves from the clubs and courses of Paris to the smart resorts of Normandy and the libraries and classrooms where writers either embraced or rejected the "impure" sounds of English.

Freud would suspect that every public Anglophile (or Francophile) is repressing an inner Anglophobe (or Francophobe). So it proves with Proust, in whose fiction Englishness wears a "Janus face", turned towards "vanity and spiritual death, but also towards the salvation of art". The novelist who loved mixed and composite art, and mixed and composite people, still uses English phrases time and again to signal "false consciousness, insincerity and self-deception".

You'll sometimes find the real "gentleman" in Proust, but you'll find the phoney "snob" almost everywhere. And if that says a lot about the writer's amibivalent soul, maybe it bears on the truth of the cross-Channel culture - so near and yet so far - that always fascinated him.

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