Saturday, March 09, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (VI): Funeral Rites

After a long illness, Oscar Thibault, the grand paterfamilias of the Thibault family, has died, and among his papers his son Antoine finds instructions for his funeral which demonstrate the same robust mixture of self-regard, compulsion for control, pious embarrassment, and rationalization that had characterized Oscar's entire adult life. In the version below I have retranslated the funeral instructions but used some of Stuart Gilbert's readings from the original translation. The "Institution" at Crouy is a reform school, and the "pupils" could equally well be called "inmates."
I desire that after a low mass has been said at Saint Thomas Aquinas, my parish, my body be brought to Crouy. I desire that my obsequies be celebrated there in the Institution's chapel, in the presence of all the pupils. I desire that, in contrast to the service at Saint Thomas Aquinas, the funeral service shall be carried out with all the dignity with which it may please the Committee to honor my mortal remains. I would like to be led to my last resting place by the representatives of the charitable works that have, over the course of many years, accepted the good offices of my devotion, as well as by a delegation of that Institut de France of which I have been so proud to have been welcomed as a member. I also wish, if the regulations permit, that my rank in the Order of the Legion of Honor might assure me of a military salute from that Army which I have always defended in all my words, writings, and my votes as a citizen. Finally, I wish that those who express the desire to pronounce a few parting words over my grave be permitted to do so without restriction.

In writing this, it is not that I hold any illusion about the vanity of these posthumous glories. I am already filled with anxiety at the thought of having one day to make my reckoning before the Supreme Tribunal. Nevertheless, after exposing myself to the illumination of meditation and prayer, it seems to me, that in those circumstances, the true duty consists in imposing silence on a sterile humility, and to arrange matters so that, at the time of my death, my existence may, if it please God, be held up one last time as an example, with the aim of inspiring other great Christians among our grand French bourgeoisie to devote themselves to the service of the Faith and Catholic charity.
This is all, by the way, prefatory to the "detailed instructions" Antoine also finds, which Martin du Gard spares us.

I can't help thinking that it would have been amusing if Harry Mathews had these instructions in the back of his mind as he drew up, for The Conversions, the elaborate Last Will and Testament of Grent Oude Wayl, which decreed, among other things:
That the organist of St. James's Church, Madison Avenue and 71st Street, Manhattan, choose a suitable musical composition to accompany the departure of my remains to their place of burial; that the score of this composition (notes, rests, clefs, key and time signatures, and all indications of speed, phasing and dynamics) be reproduced at fifteen times its printed size in the form of pancakes; and that these cakes be obligatorily eaten by any and all such persons who attend the reading of this my Last Will and Testament, excepting those specifically invited thereto. (In the event of non-compliance with this provision, I have instructed my faithful servant Miss Gabrielle Dryrein, of 2980 Valentine Avenue, The Bronx, to give to the press all information kept in my files concerning liable parties.)
I'll leave the unexpected outcome of Mr. Wayl's funeral for future readers of The Conversions to discover, but as for the pancakes, "The organist at St. James's, who had planned a twenty-nine minute Tragic Rhapsody of Widor, was warned of the consequences and changed to a unison version of O God Our Help in Ages Past; so that the forced feeders had only twenty-eight notes to swallow between them, and — the hymn being all in wholenotes and halfnotes — hollow ones at that."

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