The other night, in our Long March through Proust (begun last November), my wife and I finally finished Cities of the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe)—it certainly ends with a bang!—and I now have a question and a complaint. The complaint is an artistic one, and I have not seen it mentioned anywhere: it seems utterly implausible that the narrator is welcomed into the circle of every single person he meets. The problem is not that he’s a self-absorbed cad, since so is pretty much everyone else in those circles, it’s that he’s a nobody from nowhere. His father is a Permanent Secretary in some Ministry or other, which is respectable but not so imposing as to open all doors; the family is well off but not so rich as to open all doors; he himself is an adolescent with lots of fantasies and a deep knowledge of the repertoire of the Paris ballet companies but no ability to do anything significant for anyone. As far as I can make out, a plausible response on the part of an aristocrat being introduced to him would be a vague smile, a limp handshake, and a quick retreat. Instead, every single person, even the goddam Prince de Guermantes, insists that he come to tea/dinner and meet the very best people in France—their normal companions won’t do for this young man, no, it’s got to be the cream of the cream. I’d call it a Mary Sue except that the hero is so repellent. (“Say, honey, could you come help me scout out a restaurant where I can seduce the woman I’ll be taking out to dinner instead of you?”) But you can’t help me with that; I’m just griping to get it out of my system.
The question is this: what the devil are all those etymologies doing in the latter part of Cities of the Plain? On p. 917 of my edition there occurs the following paragraph:
“I shall be all the more delighted to meet her,” I answered him, “because she has promised me a book by the former curé of Combray about the place-names of this region, and I shall be able to remind her of her promise. I’m interested in that priest, and also in etymologies.”
That is followed by four pages of detailed etymological discussion, beginning:
“Don’t put any faith in the ones he gives,” replied Brichot, “there is a copy of the book at la Raspelière, which I have glanced through, but without finding anything of any value; it is a mass of error. Let me give you an example. The word bricq is found in a number of place-names in this neighbourhood. The worthy cleric had the distinctly odd idea that it comes from briga, a height, a fortified place. He finds it already in the Celtic tribes, Latobriges, Nemetobriges, and so forth, and traces it down to such names as Briand, Brion, and so forth. To confine ourselves to the region in which we have the pleasure of your company at this moment, Bricquebose means the wood on the height, Bricqueville the habitation on the height, Bricquebec, where we shall be stopping presently before coming to Maineville, the height by the stream. Now there is not a word of truth in all this, for the simple reason that bricq is the old Norse word which means simply a bridge. Just as fleur, which Mme de Cambremer’s protégé takes infinite pains to connect, in one place with the Scandinavian words floi, flo, in another with the Irish word ae or aer, is, beyond any doubt, the fjord of the Danes, and means harbour. So too, the excellent priest thinks that the station of Saint-Mars-le-Vetu, which adjoins la Raspelière, means Saint-Martin-le-Vieux (vetus). It is unquestionable that the word vieux has played a great part in the toponymy of this region. Vieux comes as a rule from vadum, and means a passage, as at the place called les Vieux. It is what the English call ford (Oxford, Hereford). But, in this particular instance, Vêtu is derived not from vetus, but from vastatus, a place that is devastated and bare…
(The French is below the cut.) Now, I love etymologies as much as anyone and more than most, but I tend to like my etymologies in reference works, where I can be reasonably sure they’re plausible. The musings of a fictional character about fictional place names are of much less interest. I grasp that there are artistic points being made about the preservation of history in names, about the importance of perspective (X says this, but Y says that; I used to believe this, but now I believe that, and it changes the way I think about things), all well and good, but four pages? My wife, who loves Proust and has sat without complaint through hundred-page descriptions of trivial chitchat at posh dinner parties, begged me to skip over the next such section (for the etymologies do not end there, oh no, every time Brichot turns up he feels the need to bring a little more lexical enlightenment)—I had to point out to her that the etymologies helped her get to sleep quickly and probably produced a good sound sleep. But seriously, what’s the point of these passages? After the bricq and the fleur, the fjord and the vetus, what possible gain is there in going on about vasta and holm and carque and dozens of other odd bits of nomenclature? Inquiring minds want to know.
Ne vous fiez pas trop à celles qu’il indique, me répondit Brichot; l’ouvrage, qui est à la Raspelière et que je me suis amusé à feuilleter, ne me dit rien qui vaille; il fourmille d’erreurs. Je vais vous en donner un exemple. Le mot Bricq entre dans la formation d’une quantité de noms de lieux de nos environs. Le brave ecclésiastique a eu l’idée passablement biscornue qu’il vient de Briga, hauteur, lieu fortifié. Il le voit déjà dans les peuplades celtiques, Latobriges, Nemetobriges, etc., et le suit jusque dans les noms comme Briand, Brion, etc… Pour en revenir au pays que nous avons le plaisir de traverser en ce moment avec vous, Bricquebosc signifierait le bois de la hauteur, Bricqueville l’habitation de la hauteur, Bricquebec, où nous nous arrêterons dans un instant avant d’arriver à Maineville, la hauteur près du ruisseau. Or ce n’est pas du tout cela, pour la raison que bricq est le vieux mot norois qui signifie tout simplement: un pont. De même que fleur, que le protégé de Mme de Cambremer se donne une peine infinie pour rattacher tantôt aux mots scandinaves floi, flo, tantôt au mot irlandais ae et aer, est au contraire, à n’en point douter, le fiord des Danois et signifie: port. De même l’excellent prêtre croit que la station de Saint-Martin-le-Vêtu, qui avoisine la Raspelière, signifie Saint-Martin-le-Vieux (vetus). Il est certain que le mot de vieux a joué un grand rôle dans la toponymie de cette région. Vieux vient généralement de vadum et signifie un gué, comme au lieu dit: les Vieux. C’est ce que les Anglais appelaient «ford» (Oxford, Hereford). Mais, dans le cas particulier, vieux vient non pas de vetus, mais de vastatus, lieu dévasté et nu…