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…


  1. Maybe it’s just Proust’s way of getting back at philologists by characterizing them as a complete bore.

  2. Proust is not renowned for leaving stuff out. My guess is he found out about all this etymology stuff, discovered a way of putting it into his narrative, and therefore did. If at any point he’d asked himself, “Who on Earth could ever be interested in this”, then the work might have taken a whole other form completely.

  3. I rather liked that part, myself.

  4. The Cure of Combray has always been the literary character closest to my heart.

  5. Proust is not renowned for leaving stuff out.
    So, so true.
    I rather liked that part, myself.
    Tell me more. What did you like about it? Did you feel it served a purpose in the scheme of the book? Or did you enjoy it for its own sweet sake, so much so that you would be willing to read a spinoff volume, Brichot’s Etymologies? I know you’re a man of taste and sensibility, so I await your answer eagerly. I’d like to find a way to appreciate the passages in question.

  6. ‘Serve a purpose in the grand scheme’, no. But it isn’t Finnegans Wake–with a book like Proust’s, irrelevance is part of the pleasure. One might as well take Montaigne to task for digressing. So I think ‘sweet sake’ is right. There’s something particularly romantic about the etymology of place-names, words and their history embedded in the wilds of the landscape–I think this is suited to the memorative cataloguing integral to the Proustian experience. The wrongness of the etymologies is therefore half of the pleasure–just as memory can fail, so do words.
    As for the putative Etymologicon Bricottium, I’d love to see it.

  7. Are you taking notes? I read Proust a looong time ago and all I remember is a lot of moaning over Albertine.

  8. Very funny entry, and true! I must say I’ve always struggled with the question: Was Proust an artist or was he just paid by the word?
    Good luck with his book. Or should I say, Godspeed!
    I did want to suggest a good laugh and a little two minute read as you struggle through ‘Rememberence…” It’s a brief essay by Russell Baker, the retired (I think) humorist for the NY Times. The essay is called “Crawling Up Everest” but it’s all about Proust.
    Here’s the link:

  9. mollymooly says:

    Proust is not renowned for leaving stuff out.
    Maybe he didn’t want to make the same mistake as Tolstoy. Is there a yacht race in there?

  10. I think I have some idea of an answer to your questions.
    First, I think Proust (er, “Marcel”) is “welcomed” in this way because the society he’s describing depends on not explicitly “rejecting” anyone. For instance, if Oriane wants to avoid someone’s company, she’ll never say, “Go away, you’re not invited to my party”; she’ll say “Ah, tonight I’m just spending the evening in solitude by the fire,” even though everyone is perfectly aware that isn’t true. And that’s actually more or less what happens to Marcel when he attempts to pursue her in the second(?) book. Second, he does have some connections: through the Verdurin salon, through his friendship with the Swanns (particularly this last), as well as some of his other relations. I also got the impression that much of Marcel’s success was due to the Baron de Charlus’ wanting to get rutty with him and therefore taking him on as a sort of protege.
    As for the etymology, I think that including this is a way for Proust to connect spatiality with temporality. Remember the chapter “Place-Names: The Name,” followed in the next book by “Place-Names: The Place”? Proust’s project involves reconstructing not only his memory of his life, but also that memory as it relates to the spatial setting of its events. These elaborate etymologies, then, are an attempt to give depth and history–a sort of memory in itself–to the otherwise two-dimensional spaces through which he passes. That was my impression, anyway.
    I think that dismissing Proust as being a sort of maniacal encyclopedist is pretty misguided. The reason the Recherche is such a work of genius is that its huge assortment of characters and events is all interconnected, all part of a larger and coherent scheme–like in Ulysses, there are very few accidents here and certainly no elements just put in for the hell of it. It’s not like Dickens, who decides that there’s no better way of squeezing some mileage out of Great Expectations than including a chapter on balancing your checkbook.
    The question that’s always bugged me is: how does Marcel manage to successfully pretend for so long that Albertine is his cousin?

  11. To clarify. You’ve obviously already seen that there’s a “preservation of history in names” going on. But what I think justifies the inclusion is the broader point being driven home, which is that there are no places-names that don’t have a history. I also think there might be a sort of intertextuality going on with Bouvard and Pecuchet; not sure.
    Also, the transition between the Cure’s crude etymology and Brichot’s more “scientific” one seems to be an attempt to convey Marcel’s own deeper understanding of history.
    (but then, how could Proust have justified moving the “location” of Combray all the way across the country in the last book?)

  12. Similarly, “Moby-Dick” contains a preface entitled “Etymology.” [This is itself prefaced by: “(Supplied by a late consumptive usher to a grammar school) The pale Usher — threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.
    “) — perhaps a mocking reference to those Melville knew would spend their lives dissecting the book.] “Etymology” sketches the origins of the word “whale”; elsewhere in Moby-Dick, Melville digresses with sections on the zoology and ecology of whales.
    I haven’t read Proust but I think Slawkenbergius’ analysis applies to Moby-Dick as well: nothing is there by accident; the zoology sections add depth and history; all of it together is essential in understanding Ishmael, Ahab and the whale which is the book.

  13. “I think that dismissing Proust as being a sort of maniacal encyclopedist is pretty misguided.”
    I hope that shaft isn’t aimed in my general direction… nonetheless,
    “The reason the Recherche is such a work of genius is that its huge assortment of characters and events is all interconnected, all part of a larger and coherent scheme”
    I would take some convincing on this matter. It’s not a decidable matter, of course–one sees what one wants. And I’d rather read it as messy and digressive than as systematic and tightly interconnected. (It would be impossible to deny some or even much interconnection–but not system.) Still, young Slawk is clearly one of my sort–his intriguing site is worth looking at.

  14. slawkenbergius: I think you’ve made as good a case for the defense as can be made. I continue to be unconvinced that quite so many etymologies were needed to make the point, but your analysis is cogent. On the first point, however, I don’t buy it. It’s not that he’s not explicitly rejected, it’s that he’s eagerly and insistently invited. True, when he’s first mooning over the duchess she ignores him, but he was, what, fifteen then? It would have been really implausible for her to have welcomed him to her society, and besides, Proust wanted to make the point (for the umpteenth of an infinite number of times) that you don’t win somebody’s heart until you stop caring about them. And yeah, Charlus helps him because he’s hot for him, but the fact that he’s hot for him is part of the Mary-Sue-ism that needs to be explained. Everybody‘s hot for lucky Marcel! But remember that Marcel is welcomed even in circles where the louche Charlus is decidedly non grata (note use of feminine adjective to refer to this man-woman! — which reminds me, that lengthy passage full of bizarre psychomyth about inverts at the start of Sodome et Gomorrhe also strikes me as an esthetic flaw, comparable to the interminable excursus on History at the end of War and Peace.)
    Martin: Your comparison to Melville is extremely apposite. I’ll have to think about why I had no problem with Melville’s etymological musings.

  15. Finally read john’s Russell Baker link, which is hilarious: “July 20: Only six pages tonight. Proust remembers the church again and, in a plot complication, recalls a stained glass window… July 23: Tonight we read for three weeks and finish nine pages. Proust reads in his garden and remembers veal… Next week, says Tenzing, who has peeked ahead, the plot will thicken. He believes Proust is about to take a walk in the country.”

  16. Plot device, Hat! Plot device! Novels aren’t real.

  17. Well, if “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” is a plot device, then I guess I see where Michel Butor comes from.

  18. Great fun! When I first read the etymolgy section I wondered “Which etymologies does Proust believe are correct?” Several of Brichot’s are laughably bogus. (No, I am not a French scholar, nor do I have a dictionary of French etymologies, but at least a couple are quite obviously howlers.) But Proust seems to favor Brichot’s with a straight face. Otherwise I’d have said, with absolute certainty, that he had been tweaking the nose of Brichot’s original: V. C. L. Brochard (a particularly famous Greek scholar in his day). I’ve decided, since, that P. was indeed tweaking B. and that the humor is so dry that is difficult to make out — a joke that may even include allowing P.’s own character to accept them as legitimate at the cost of a vitiated relationship to the landscape.
    As for Albertine, I also had to set the book down more than once to rest a few days. P. was very interested in the (then early) field of psychology. He realized that he was “obsessive” and he is teaching the reader what obsession feels like from the inside: alternately fascinating, tedious and opressive. Furthermore, he seems to suggest that all “passionate love” is obsession at bottom (St. Loup and Rachel, etc.). There is another wonderfully dry joke to come out of it. He is clear that from the instant the agonies of the Albertine section were over he barely thought about her, never with emotion, and only in relation to new conquests he hoped to make (finally, St. Loup’s and Gilbertine’s daughter, even expecting her mother to play the madam of the house). It is the perfect finishing touch on a portrait of the obsessive.
    As for the location of Combray, Proust failed to correct many textuals errors, resulting, more often than not, from his constant hither-and-thither revisions and changes of plan. Finally, the bogus theories of the gay psyche, at various points in the volume, invite various explanations. At times it seems like Proust might have actually believed some of them. But one did not write highbrow gay fiction in those days, and, in other instances, I think he felt the need to be laughably naive about the subject of “inverts” as a matter of self-concealment. Think about it: a gay, Jewish, Dreyfusard offering the genteel public a three volume gay forray. Instead he chose to seem to laugh a bit along with his readers over the black-face anticks of those “poofs” as he slowly brought those readers to an attachment to them, as characters, that they could not have come to unguided.

  19. Excellent comment, GWP! I think I agree with all your points, including the dry humor at Brochard’s expense. (It would certainly be a mistake to think that Proust believed everything he has his narrator believe; people tend to go way overboard in reading the novel as an autobiography.)

  20. Checking to see if Russell Baker is still alive (he is), I find this noble sentence in Wikipedia:
    “While still hosting Masterpiece Theatre, he moved to Leesburg, Virginia (not far from his birthplace) where he remains.”

  21. And where his remains will remain when he remains no longer.

  22. Alas, the noble sentence has gone “the weight of old flitch”, as Cousin James had it, and is now replaced by a mere “He currently resides in Leesburg, Virginia.”

    Slawk’s theory seems as improbable as ever applied to any anatomy [in the Fryean sense]. All the parts may well cohere, but the notion that any of them are essential is absurd. Can you imagine an alternate universe with one Proustian dashing off a note to another in this vein: “Have just finished Cities. As always, masterful collection of details cohering into near-masterpiece. But due to most unfortunate omission of bogus etymologies, work as a whole completely meaningless. Yours etc.” I think not.

  23. Yes, the bogus etymologies still stick in my craw, and when I reread Proust I will probably skim/skip them.

  24. @John Cowan: I thought somebody had asked you this before, but I could not find it: What is your workflow like, that you so frequently comment on threads that have seen no action for years?

  25. Eh, going back through old threads via my recently-commented-on page is just something I do for a break. If I feel the need for a comment, I write one, but often I find that I have already written the comment I feel the need for.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    This happens to me too!

  27. The backwaters of River Hat are slow but deep indeed. Also they have some aberrant HTML at the bottom.

  28. What aberrant HTML are you referring to?

  29. <p><a href=’’ rel=’external nofollow’ class=’url’>Andrew</a>#comment-0′></p>

    Not malformed directly, but neither is it presenting the link to Andrew’s immortal comment about cheese in the same way as all the others. In my own code I’d be guessing that some s/// had misfired because last line (no LF?).

  30. Well, now I’m really confused. I Ctrl-F’d for “Andrew” and found nothing but Lars’s quotation. Where is the immortal comment?

  31. At the bottom of JC’s Commented-On LH Posts page.

  32. Andrew’s Immortal Comment

    Well, actually it just happens to be a comment that John’s script mangles, contrary to appearances its index is 2347290, not zero, but its sorted at the bottom as if it were.

  33. Thanks!

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