In 1906, a young Marcel Proust, still in grief over the death of his mother and uncertain about his literary prospects, approached Le Journal (and possibly several other Parisian newspapers) with the notion of writing a humour column featuring Proust's own jokes and riddles. Primarily Proust saw this as a means of offsetting the sensationalist and gruesome (and wildly popular) faits divers, which featured lurid tales of murder and suicide.
It has generally been assumed that nothing came of his discussions with the various publishers, but a recent discovery has shown that Proust wrote and submitted a number of his jokes. None of them made it to print. Despite the damage inflicted on the papers by the owner, who fed much of the material to his pet goat Sylvain, there is still more than enough extant text to reveal a writer approaching the height of his powers. We present his manuscripts here in serial form.
Q: For a long time I had trouble crossing the road. The lane that ran from our house in Combray like a thread laid carefully along the lap of our housemaid Clothilde, winding its way to the town centre, where at the hook of the cathedral it wove itself into the great hub of streets and alleyways that radiated outwards, carrying all the members of my family and the citizens of the town back and forth on their myriad duties, also ran from Combray out into the countryside, and from there to meet with greater roads yet, highways of ancient Rome that still bore the impress of foot and hoof from classical times, roads that ran to Paris and beyond. To stand on one side of that unassuming road, with its low ditch on one side and its border on the far side marked by a yet greater ditch, an incubator of bulrushes and long waving grasses, which in their willowy grace called to mind the women that would visit me in my sleep and in my waking dalliances with the imagination, trading light and shadow in a graceful economy of exchange, producing a serrated beauty that seemed to inflame a dormant sense of touch transmitted through the eyes, seemed to drain me of resolve and produce a sensual reverie that would have held me in its spell throughout the afternoon had not my mother, with her soft questioning voice, called me back for the afternoon meal. I would turn and rush back to the house, elated at the sound of her voice, my heart full and my cheeks burning with the prospect of her attentions. In truth I would often wander down to the roadside for the sole purpose of waiting there for her call, to force her to raise her eyes from her business and search for me. As the angle of light would pivot gently in the sky, the shadows in the bulrushes deepen and the waving grasses take on depth as they transmitted a golden light, the anticipation of her call would play up and down my thin young limbs, tugging at my heels and shoulders. Finally the moment would come when she would call, and I would turn and sprint, a hound released after fowl, into her arms.
On one such afternoon I spied a chicken standing across the road, pecking at something unseen among the sedge. It reminded me, in its distracted air, of an old friend who visited regularly when
[Here five hundred pages are missing]
be that in crossing a road to retrieve a chicken pecking at errant grains, only to find that the chicken, as you step out into the road, rights itself with purpose, and as it fixes you with an inimitable stare, struts also into the road, meeting you as you were set to meet it, that it is yourself you meet, as the chicken likewise meets itself at the centre, thereby passing over to the opposite side, whereby both you and the chicken turn to face your counterpart, and it is only yourselves that you truly face?
A: I lost track of what I was saying around 20 000 words in. Let's say that the chicken was looking to get to the other side of the road, and we'll leave it at that, okay? Tell you what, you want to monkey with this a little, shave it down a bit, I don't mind. You could say that the chicken was throwing itself into the road, under the wheels of a rampaging bicyclette or the heel of l'homme des chaussures cruelles. Whatever. Just - just do it. Do this for me, would you?