Monday, 5 September 2011

Paremiology and literature

I've long been interested in the relationship between folkloric items and their presentation in literary material. (It's one of the things I touch on in a talk I'm giving on St Clement's Day celebrations to the South East London Folklore Society in November). There is, I think, a tendency to underestimate the capacity of literary authors to be inventive and adaptive with traditional material, and to assume that how they present an item in their fictional, created world is identical to the way it is used in the ethnographic world around them.
A corresponding tendency is to look at literary works primarily for their folkloric content. I confess to a sinking feeling on learning that Archer Taylor's first reaction to a William Faulkner novel was 'He doesn't use many proverbs!' (1) This seems to me to miss the point on a number of levels, but that might simply be because there is no further record of what he made of the novel as a work of literature.
However, paremiology is actually an area where a straightforward reading of folkloric material can be possible in literary text. I was reminded of this after some summer escapist reading, having finally got round to Arthur Bernède's Belphégor (1927). Many of the characters use proverbial expressions, but they do so in direct speech. One might have to take into account personal characterisation employed by the author, but the proverbs here are familiar and seem to employ standard forms. Characters describe a situation more than once as 'clair comme l'eau de roche' (clear as crystal). Alain Rey and Sophie Chantreau record the phrase but give no historical antecedents (2).
Rey and Chantreau do not record the expression 'Un homme prévenu en vaut deux' (forewarned is forearmed), found in Belphégor, but it is noted in online collections of French proverbs along with the variant 'un homme averti en vaut deux'.
Another other proverbial item that leaped out at me was when the protagonist insists 'j'ai toujours eu pour principe de ne jamais vendre la peau de l'ours avant qu'il fût à terre' (I've always made a point of never selling the bear's skin before he's down). While the second part of the phrase is variable, the bearskin element is widespread, most famously found in La Fontaine's Fables. Rey and Chantreau note that in Middle French the specific mention of 'the bear' wasn't necessary (3).

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1) Quoted in Jan Harold Brunvand, 'My Summer with Archer, and Some Unfinished Business: The 1999 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture', Western Folklore, 58.1 (1999), 4.
2) Alain Rey and Sophie Chantreau, Dictionnaire d'Expressions et Locutions (Paris: Le Robert, 2007), p. 201.
3) Rey and Chantreau, pp. 664-5.

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