Thursday, February 01, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 3: OMG, that’s sooooo Norpois!

Okay, so near as I can tell, the first 50 pages of Young Girls is mostly devoted to what an asshole M. de Norpois is. Which has been a little hard for me to fathom. I mean, I get that I’m supposed to find him contemptible, not fit to spill a drink on, but he just… as supervillains go, he’s a little lame. In fact, that’s M. de Norpois in a nutshell: a little lame. Not super lame. Not awful. Not completely stupid. I mean, he’s traveled, he’s worked in diplomacy, he’s great at remembering people’s names (which, if that’s his evil superpower, then I am impressed, because I swear I need to be introduced to someone five times before it starts to stick, and it’s always so awkward with the “So nice to meet you!” and the “Um, yeah, that’s what you said at the last party” and the… but I digress.), and yes, he’s kind of a blowhard, but that’s hardly a capital offense—if it were, you’d never have to worry about finding an empty barstool again in your life.

But that’s not really his main crime. No, if you read on, you realize that poor Norpy (...too far?) has done something much more heinous: He disses Marcel’s writing. Right. How’s that song go? Something like, “One day, when I’m a famous writer, I’m going to write about everyone who was ever mean to me and then they’ll be sorry!” A very popular tune among memoirists. Oh, Marcel, I thought better of you, dude. Please, please be bigger than this. Because I have 500 more pages to go here, and if it’s all about how no one ever recognized you as the Most Awesomest Genius Artist Person Ever, then it’s going to be a looooooooong five clicks, kna’mean? Please, rise above it, I’m begging you.

But while we’re wallowing, I do have to point out one wonderfully bitchy passage that made me kind of want to buy my favorite impenetrable French author a chartreuse:

“But forewarned, as we know, is forearmed, and he just kicked the insults aside,” [M. de Norpois] said, with even greater force, and a glare that made us stop eating for a moment. “As a fine old Arabian proverb puts it: ‘The dogs bark, the caravan moves on.’” M. de Norpois paused, watching us to see what effect this quotation would have on us. It had a great effect: his proverb was well known to us. All worthy men had been using it that year instead of “Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind,” which was in need of a rest, not being a hardy annual like “To labor and seek for no reward.”

Okay, that’s just a little bit of all right, is what that is. Overabuse of “exotic” proverbs—now there’s an evil I can understand. And it’s one that continues to this day. My own pet peeve is the “interesting times” one. You know, “There’s an ancient Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ And the people of [insert country/province/family of note] are cursed indeed…” I swear on the soul of Mencken, I do not know how many times I’ve seen lazy writers start out news stories or columns with that chestnut, intoning it with stentorian solemnity as if it hadn’t been similarly intoned fifty bajillion skillion times before. Seriously, go ahead and google that puppy; you’ll see what I mean. Chinese curse. Interesting times. That shit’s Norpois, is what it is.

In my own work, I’ve taken to red-penning it as “cliché” and allowing its use only in shorthand versions—i.e., “…it was certainly very interesting, in the Chinese-curse sense of the word.” People argue with me about it sometimes, but someone has to guard the gates and the fools put this bitch in charge.

Again, I digress. But it did strike me as another fun game (and if I’m ever going to make it to the end of this thing, I’m going to need all the fun and games I can get): What sage proverbs or observations can you think of that have been overused to the point of triteness? What’s Norpois in your book? Go ahead, you can tell me. Marcel would.


Blogger ranger_hotsauce said...

"Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty."
"WWJD". Actually, even pointing out the overused triteness of that one is a touch Norpois, I think.

8:24 PM  
Blogger shutupproust said...

Dude, almost anything that gets printed on a bumper sticker is de facto Norpois. Good call. (Can we also put that damn "Dance like no one's watching, love like you've never been hurt, blahdeblahblah giggle like you're being tickled by a unicorn" one in the Norpois category, while we're at it?)

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Mr_Blog said...

There's a whole lot of clichés that I find repugnant, but for something to be a Norpoism a large measure of stupidity or lack of imagination on the part of the utterer would seem to be called for.

So, "Support The Troops", unmodified, is the purest form of a bumper sticker example. If someone adds "...bring them home," at least that's one step above.

The one thing I can think of that is pure and unadulterated Norpois, that necessarily indicates mediocrity on the part of the speaker (I've written about this elsewhere and I'll do so again here), is "There's no silver bullet."

It is shorthand for I am a total no-hoper to begin with, and I have lived down to that promise by failing to achieve my objective now. However, I am too craven to admit my incompetence, so I submit to you that the task you've given me is either impossible or too complex to solve with anything other than a commitment of time and resources that is larger than what I have at my disposal, and which I am going to ask you for now. But don't expect a solution even then, because there's no silver bullet, as noted in my previous utterance...

12:53 PM  
Blogger shutupproust said...

Good points. Maybe for something to be truly Norpois, it has to be bracketed in some way to show how sage and impressive it is. Like, "There's an old saying that applies here: Blahblahblah." (I'd like to also nominate the "Eskimos have 100 words for snow" for Norpois status--especially since, like the Chinese curse saying, it's given an exoticism it doesn't deserve. The "Chinese" curse was actually cribbed by a Kennedy speechwriter from, as near as I can tell from some cursory Internet browsing, a 1950s sci-fi story. And Eskimos, in turn, have nowhere near 100 words for "snow." They have more than we do, but not by a whole lot. Faux exoticism should definitely net a term extra Norpois points. Norpoints?)

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But like all of Proust's charcters, Norpois surprises us. When he offers to make a connection between the narrator and the Swann household, the narrator tells us that he was so overcome with joy that he wanted to kiss Norpois' hand. But the narrator doesn't do this: he doesn't do much outwardly at all. But somehow his unseemly joy at the prospect of having his name mentioned by Norpois at the Swanns is clearly perceived by Norpois. More: we are told that Norpois remembers this subliminal moment and even mentions it when the narrator's name comes up at a party decades later. Sure, Norpois is "bad": he's a foil for the narrator to define himself against. But at some level Norpois is capable of tapping into the same layer of subliminal desire and memory that means so much to the narrator. This is what's so fascinating about Proust.

11:58 AM  
Blogger shutupproust said...

But isn't that what you'd expect of Norpois? I mean, the dude's a practiced diplomat; it's his job to read people's expressions; Proust even says as much at one point while describing him. For Norpois to notice Marcel's desire isn't at all out of character. The fact that he doesn't agree to help our hero out is just Proust piling on the proof to show what a jerk Norpois is--as well as how haplessly blundering Marcel is at this age.

To my mind, Norpois is less a foil than yet another in a series of idols with feet of clay who fill the book so far. Norpois, La Berma, Bergotte, Gilberte--all the people Marcel's learned to respect and/or adore turn out to disappoint him. It's a perfectly fine theme for a book about late adolescence, but I do find it kind of heavy-handed at times. (All this with the caveat that I'm barely at p200 now, so maybe there's some massive revelation around the corner for me.)

8:01 PM  
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11:49 PM  
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8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here in France, those of us who revere Proust as the supremo of irony believe that a proper Norpois must meet several demanding criteria. It must be well-bred, brain-dead and utterly conventional. It must drip with pomposity and class consciousness. These fine traits have gone out of fashion with democracy and the universal suffrage. Modern politicians can't do Norpois anymore, instead they do Verdurins.

1:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norpois is, in Proust work's, a stupid diplomat contemplating its past glory as an ambassador, or a man wounded by the event of the "Dépêche d'EMS".
Ambassador in Berlin at the eve of the 1870 war between France and Germany, he warned the French goverment about the risk of the war, the duke of Grammont minister of foreign affairs overid his warnings and pushed Napoléon III to declare the war. Later on Norpois (Benedetti) was considered acountable about the 1870 desaster. Heartsick about what he felt as a trahison he tried during many years to defend his past activity.
When Proust visited Princess Mathilde, where Norpois was a proeminent and permanent guest, he tried to obtain an introduction to the "Carrière" (Ministery of Foreign Affairs) and Norpois did not support his plea thus the resentment of Proust to Norpois ( Comte Benedetti).
Anyway Benedetti was much than the caracter of Norpois he had been an excellent diplomat in the orient affairs, negociating withe Turkey and later obtaining for France the rigts to dig the Suez canal.

2:07 AM  

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