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Originally published Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

A tangy translation of Proust's "Lemoine Affair"

"The Lemoine Affair," Marcel Proust's sendup of an early 20th-century scandal involving fake diamonds, has been reissued in a delicious new translation by Charlotte Mandell.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Lemoine Affair"

by Marcel Proust, translated by Charlotte Mandell

Melville House, 94 pp., $10

Here's a delicious little bonbon for those who like sophisticated humor. The deeper your knowledge of French literature and history, the more fully you'll be able to appreciate the delicate weaponry Marcel Proust uses to skewer his fellow writers in this series of nine brief pastiches — getting in a few good jabs at himself along the way. It's hilarious.

Proust anchored his faux essays in "The Lemoine Affair" in an early 20th-century scandal: A fellow named Lemoine claimed to have discovered how to manufacture diamonds from coal and somehow managed to gull the president of DeBeers (the world's foremost diamond dealer) out of a million francs to get in on the action. Of course Lemoine ended up in jail, but not before his escapade had gotten a lot of press. Proust took the news story and filtered it through the minds of a handful of writers, including Balzac and Flaubert. His ability to mimic (and wildly exaggerate) their linguistic foibles is uncanny.

The funniest part of these spoofs is how little these great minds actually have to say about Lemoine. Oh, the name-dropping! The learned asides! Sentences clad in grand thoughts skitter indiscriminately from subject to subject, pirouette until the reader is dizzy, then dart away with a triumphant flourish. (Think Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin.)

In the chapter titled "Critique of the novel by M. Gustave Flaubert on 'The Lemoine Affair' by Charles Sainte-Beuve, in his column in The Constitutional," moral outrage masquerades as literary criticism. Proust spoofs the critic attacking an essay Flaubert supposedly wrote about the scandal. At one point, Proust has the critic Sainte-Beuve shout his indignation directly at Flaubert: "And there is more reality in the smallest study by — I'll say Sénac or Meilhan, by Ramond or Althon Shée — than in yours, so laboriously inexact! Don't you yourself feel how wrong it is?"

Times are tough right now, and humor is in short supply. This little Proust, ably translated into English for the first time by Charlotte Mandell, is a good remedy to have on hand.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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