Books: Cultural Amnesia — Marcel Proust |
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Marcel Proust (1871–1922) wrote a long book that even the most casual reader usually makes longer by adding notes on the endpapers. À la recherche du temps perdu exists to be annotated. A commonplace book in the classic sense, it is, itself, a set of annotations to all the works of art that Proust has read, looked at, listened to or otherwise enjoyed—and to everything he knows about nature, natural science, love, sex and the workings of the mind. This book you are reading now could easily have been ten times as long if it had contained nothing else but expansions on the notes I have made from reading Proust in several editions over the course of forty years. (In view of that threat, I have confined myself to a single short essay at this point, but you will have noticed, elsewhere in the book, that reflections on Proust tend to creep in when other writers are under consideration: a ubiquity of relevance by which, when it is acknowledged, one of his admirers will often spot another, whereupon they will start discussing Proust in lieu of the previous topic.) Forty years and no end in sight. War and Peace is big book too, but you are through it comfortably in a week, and all set to start again one day. À la recherche du temps perdu is never done with, because it keeps growing while you are reading it. Like no other book in the world, Proust’s book leads everywhere: a building made of corridors, and the walls of the corridors are made of doors. The student can happily find an entrance through the Modern Library’s six-volume In Search of Lost Time. This covetably handsome set, bravely decorated with photographs of the author, is basically the 1920 Scott Moncrieff translation (published serially throughout the 1920s under the title of Remembrance of Things Past) which was revised in the 1980s and 1990s by Terence Kilmartin and D. J. Enright. The whole enterprise took three-quarters of a century fully to materialize in English, and no student’s bookshelf should be without it. But it might not be long before the urge arises to read the text in the original.

This urge should not be resisted. Pedants and snobs are fond of declaring that only accomplished French speakers can catch Proust’s tone. That might be so, but the tone is only one of the things to be caught. There are whole levels of complexity that can be opened up by an elementary knowledge of written French, and the elementary knowledge is likely to expand usefully as the recherche goes on. I myself learned what French I have from reading Proust. It took me fifteen years before I could read confidently during the day without a dictionary, and even then I took home a list of words to be looked up in the evening. (A Larousse is essential to back up an ordinary dictionary: as Pasternak said of Pushkin, Proust is full of things.) But the mental improvement was well worth any feelings of inadequacy. The idea that your French needs to be perfect in the first place if you are to appreciate France’s greatest writer is as absurd as the idea that you need to be able to read music in order to appreciate Beethoven’s late quartets. If Beethoven had thought that, he would never have written them. Similarly, with Proust, a book entirely dependent on its language would not have interested him. When he was younger he was preoccupied with style, but always as a measure of compression and intensity; and he put the preoccupation behind him when he matured into a freedom that was all discipline, and a discipline that was all freedom.

Even his social climbing was dedicated to his art. There can be no doubt that he found the high life fascinating, but nothing is too mundane to get into the book, and its true aristocrats are artists. In Britain up to the present day, even in the work of such a clever critic as John Carey, it is often assumed that the concept of high art, because it was once the property of the landed gentry, is part of a traditional mechanism to repress the common people, and should therefore be denied its prestige. The Americans suffer less from that idea, but if it ever needed countering, the mere existence of Proust would be enough to do it. He places art firmly in the possession of those who love it, whatever their origins might be. His gentry, in fact, are those most likely to succumb to the epidemic Philistinism of the prejudice against Dreyfus. Zola was the most famous liberal commentator on the Dreyfus case but it was Proust who saw the matter through. In foreseeing the corrosive effects of licensed anti-Semitism on the civil order, Proust opened yet another door, the one leading into the accumulating political disaster of France between the wars. How so frail and troubled a man could have had all this strength and wisdom in him is a mystery. The mystery has been often explored, but George D. Painter’s two-volume biography Marcel Proust is still the book to read about his life. (William C. Carter’s single hefty volume is a valuable corrective but not a replacement.) The best single critical book is Jean-François Revel’s Sur Proust, if only because Revel firmly warns us off the standard wild goose chase of looking for the novel’s structure. It might have one, but only in the sense that we think we have learned something about the structure of the universe when we are told that space is curved.

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“There is no man, however wise,” he said to me, “who has not, at some time in his youth, said things, or even led a life, of which his memory is disagreeable and which he would wish to be abolished. But he absolutely should not regret it, because he can’t be assured of becoming a sage—to the extent that that is possible—without having passed through all the ridiculous or odious incarnations that must precede that final incarnation.”


IN PROUST THERE are few figures that the narrator finds lasting cause to trust, but Elstir, the veteran and venerable painter, is one of them. The sage, said Elstir, must forgive himself his past faults. Elstir forgot to add that the sage should also correct them. Proust says it for him elsewhere: those we like least are those most like us, but with the faults uncured. It is always dangerous to say “This is what we read Proust for.” There are people who read Proust just for the clothes. But those of us who read Proust for his remarks about life will always be wondering whether À la recherche du temps perdu is really a work of art at all. A work of imagination: yes, of course, and supremely. But is it a novel? Isn’t it a book of collected critical essays, with the occasional fictional character wandering in and out of it? After the composer Busoni read Du côté de chez Swann, he complained to Rilke that although he had quite enjoyed the opinions about music, he thought the rest of the book was a bit like a novel. Isn’t it a work of encyclopaedic synthesis? Thomas Mann, in his diaries, took notes on the way that Proust had taken notes. He especially praised the detail of Proust’s interest in flying beetles. Isn’t it a work of philosophy? Jean-François Revel, in his brief book Sur Proust—the commentary on Proust that almost gives you the courage to do without all the others—is clearly fascinated with the possibility that Proust might have restored philosophy to its position of wisdom. Often, in the long shelf of his writings, Revel argues that philosophy, having ceased in the eighteenth century to be queen of the sciences, has, in modern times, no other role except to be wise. In Sur Proust he casts his author as a character in a drama: the drama of philosophy reborn. Revel calls À la recherche one of the rare books that even in their weaknesses offer an example of “totally adult thought.”

Proust’s example drives Revel to philosophical aperçus of his own. Passion, says Revel, consists of seeing in the finite an infinity that doesn’t exist. Revel floats the notion that Albertine might have been an even more interesting jailer had she been faithful: the thin end of a wedge into Proust’s view of sex and jealousy. (E. M. Forster, from closer to home, had similar reservations, and erected them into a principle designed to cover Proust in general: he said that Proust’s analytical knife was so sharp it came out the other side.) On the political plane, Proust is praised by Revel for keeping a level head against collective barbarism through his moral intransigence and his perspicacité psychologique. The collective barbarism was the anti-Semitic nationalism already poisoning French politics when Proust the social butterfly was preparing to write his novel. Revel is only one reader of Proust, but his readings are enough to hint at the richness that À la recherche would offer us even it were only a collection of critical remarks. It is, of course, much more than that: but one of the reasons it is much more than that is that it is never less. These qualities of non-fiction are useful to remember when we realize how many qualities of fiction the longest of all novels does not possess. It has, for example, no structure worth speaking of, and probably would not have attained to one even if Proust had been given another ten years to work on it. Characters would still have shown up twenty years too young at the last party, or twenty years too old, or simply still alive when they should have been dead. Devotees who say that À la recherche du temps perdu reminds them of a cathedral should be asked which cathedral they mean. It reminds me of a sandcastle that the tide reached before its obsessed constructor could finish it; but he knew that would happen, or else why build it on a beach?