Books: Cultural Amnesia — Sainte-Beuve |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869) was the illustrious nineteenth-century French man of letters who got a bad press from a long line of good writers, from Flaubert through Proust to Vladimir Nabokov: it was his bad reputation, rather than his renown, that outlived him. The student should be slow to join in the denigration. Sainte-Beuve really was the greatest literary critic of his time, even though he sometimes gave too much praise to mediocrity, and not enough to genius. Nor did he miss out on every genius. His advocacy and understanding of Victor Hugo led to a close friendship, although his love affair with Madame Hugo was not calculated to reinforce it. That was probably the best thing about Sainte-Beuve’s multifarious energy (he was poet and novelist as well as critic): he was willing to live outside the categories. He had a nose for the everyday, and he found the everyday everywhere. For such a writer to make criticism his main creative effort was without precedent. Throughout his life, the weekly essay was his characteristic form, and finally it was the wealth of observation, invention and reasoning that he was ready to pour into an apparently casual piece that marked him out. Read today, his volumes of weekly pieces are still a good way of building up strength in one’s reading of French, because even when the subject was ephemeral he gave it permanence with his registration of contemporary detail, so the reader is usefully driven to the dictionary and the Larousse. (The presence of that latter volume on your desk is a sure sign that you are on the right track.) As a literary grandee, Sainte-Beuve took a prominent place at the celebrated Parisian restaurant Magny’s, where all the literary world came to dine and the brothers Goncourt surreptitiously wrote down the conversation. (Dinner at Magny’s, by Robert Baldick, can be recommended as ranking high in the sumptuous genre of gossipy books about Parisian artistic life.) The concept of a literary world—a milieu which surrounds the outstanding literary figures, ameliorates their natural isolation and incidentally provides an honourable and useful life for those who are not outstanding—was represented for nineteenth-century France by Sainte-Beuve, as it was represented for eighteenth-century England by Dr. Johnson. The literary world turns the café into a campus, with conversation as a permanent seminar. Sainte-Beuve’s triumph was to have his conversations with the public as well as with the writers. In the universities he was less uniformly successful. Appointed by Napoleon III as professor of Latin poetry at the College de France in 1854, he was shouted down by rebellious students. Later on, as a senator, he retrieved his reputation as a champion of liberal thought. He had set the style for the public intellectual speaking through a newspaper column to an audience of those either literate or aspiring to be so. The role was open to abuse, but it became the natural centre of critical energy, and modern civilization owes Sainte-Beuve a permanent debt for having played his part without stinting his talents.

* * *

Every circle of society is a little world apart; to the extent that one lives in it, one knows everything and believes that everyone must know the same things; and then, ten years, twenty years, thirty years having gone by, the circle is broken and vanished, not a sign is left, nothing is written down, and one is reduced to guessing about the whole thing, to bringing it back on the basis of the vaguest hear-say and through feeble echoes.


QUITE APART FROM its manifest truth, this is Sainte-Beuve at his best: a best we can’t afford to ignore. Plenty of his critics—critics of the critic—have striven to help us forget all about him. Ernst Robert Curtius thought that Sainte-Beuve’s long critical career had given French literature a coherence and a continuity that were absent from German literature because no comparable figure to Sainte-Beuve existed. But very few figures comparable to Curtius have ever shown the same enthusiasm about Sainte-Beuve, and many of them have decried him as a shameless puffer of journey-work, the exemplar and protector of the second-rate. Nabokov, always on the lookout for novelists unjustly praised, loathed him, and with some reason. Sainte-Beuve certainly had a gift for slighting the gifted while rabbiting on endlessly in praise of mediocrities. Flaubert poured the energy of genius into the job of demonstrating how thoroughly Sainte-Beuve had misunderstood him in the matter of Salammbô. As for Proust himself, it can be said that his whole career was one long version of his polemic Contre Sainte-Beuve. The music critic Edward Hanslick carried a comparatively slight burden: as the object of Wagner’s scorn, he was the involuntary model for Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but at least he had only one opera aimed at him. Sainte-Beuve was the target for the whole of À la recherche du temps perdu. He was lucky to be dead.

But in literature there is, or ought to be, such a thing as a right of precedence, and the chronological facts say that Sainte-Beuve sounded like Proust before Proust did. At one stage I read all the way through the collected Causeries du lundi columns in a bunch of disintegrating paperbacks I bought from a bouquiniste on the Left Bank. With torn and faded yellow wrappers thinner than their pages, the books were sadly battered little bundles that fell open anywhere and eventually fell apart. It was one of the ways I learned French: a lundi a day, underline every word you don’t know, keep going for as long as you get the sense, look up the hard words afterwards. Later on I replaced those tatty collections of Sainte-Beuve’s weekly output with a glistening Pléiade set, and although I never took the Pléiade volumes down from the shelf with the same alacrity, they had their use, principally for checking up on just how completely the star critic had missed the point of most of the great writers of his time. Had Nabokov exaggerated about Sainte-Beuve’s peculiar tolerance for the uninspired? Not really. Eventually, in a fit of madness, I supplemented the set of Sainte-Beuve’s literary criticism with a complete Pléiade three-volume set of his unwieldly sociological masterpiece Histoire de Port-Royal, just in case I ever wanted to get on top of whatever he had had to say about Jansenism. It hasn’t happened yet, but might. My point now is that with all these books of his on my shelves, I still would have missed this particular paragraph, because even though I read him for his tone rather than as a guide, and therefore could have read him writing about anything, it still would have been unlikely that I would have read the correspondence through. I have all the correspondence of Voltaire, and enjoy dipping into it: but I will probably never read it through. You need to be very mad about an author to follow him down all his alleys, because you will be spending time on his minutiae that you could be devoting to someone else’s main event. (Sometimes the correspondence is the main event: Madame de Sévigné put everything she had into her letters, and there is nowhere else to find out who she really was.)

The blunt truth about all the attendant writings of even the greatest writers is that we must almost wholly rely on the machinery of scholarship, publishing and reviewing to draw our attention to the little things that piece out the big picture. Somebody had to edit at least seventeen volumes of Sainte-Beuve’s general correspondence, and somebody else had to read them with reasonable thoroughness, before a piece could appear in the TLS from which I could seize this paragraph and copy it out into my journal. I did so for two reasons: for the truth of what it said, and because it reminded me of Proust. At the time—more than a quarter of a century ago—I had not yet lived with Proust long enough to realize that the connection might go a long way beyond mere coincidence, or the fact that the two men wrote in the same language. As the years went by, however, the way Proust’s mind worked became a more open book—his book, always, but less puzzling, if even more daunting. Proust the great writer stood more and more revealed as Proust the great critic. He was a great critic because he responded to all the arts at the level of their creation. He could not see a painting, hear a piece of music or read a stretch of prose without joining in with the painter, the composer or the writer. It was always as if he had been there, collaborating.

He had been there even with the despised Sainte-Beuve. In Sainte-Beuve’s prose, the vehicle for opinions Proust found fatuous, he had found something profound that he could use, as he found something he could use in everyone to whom he paid attention, even if all they did was make cakes. With Sainte-Beuve I think it was the additive measure: the way the paragraph steadily unfolds an argument. In Sainte-Beuve’s weekly grind of journeyman judgement, most of the arguments did not reach very distinguished conclusions. He said himself that he praised the dullards because “for me it is truly an affair of equity.” A pretty damning confession.

But a judge’s opinion can be wrong and still have distinction in the way it incorporates observations about life. The distinguishing mark of Sainte-Beuve’s opinions was the confidence of generalization he could put into them. In that, the young Proust saw a possibility. He would not have seen it in this letter, which he could not have read: but the letter—and this is why I seized on it—is a distillation of Sainte-Beuve’s characteristic manner, which Proust might have abominated but could not avoid, because it was part of the landscape. Somewhere in Sainte-Beuve’s steady outpourings that chugged away reliably like les égouts beneath the streets, Proust saw a way forward for himself. Later on he might have forgotten where he saw it. He was not a mean man and would not have belittled Sainte-Beuve just to discredit the source of a debt. It is a diverting mind game to imagine how Sainte-Beuve would have reviewed the complete (more accurately, the never-completed) À la recherche du temps perdu. He probably would have missed its significance. But he might well have spotted the rhythm of his own prose, transformed in the taking over and put to a more ambitious use, yet undeniably, in his opinion, pinched.

Great writers get away with absorbing the discoveries of lesser writers. If the great writer is great enough—T. S. Eliot, for example—he can even get away with saying outright that he steals them. The person stolen from is seldom heard to complain, being already dead; but sometimes he is almost the star’s contemporary, and on a few occasions there is no almost about it. Robert Graves went through an embarrassing phase of being hopping mad about how W. H. Auden had helped himself to the cadences of Laura Riding. Graves, who had the misfortune to be Riding’s husband, was thought to be slightly potty on the subject, but it is quite possible that Auden had seen her verses, absorbed some of her rhythmic quirks, and incorporated them into his upcoming work. Only one critic ever blew the whistle on Hugh Mac-Diarmid’s flagrant thefts from E. E. Cummings: the Scottish critics thought their man had droit de seigneur, and hardly anybody else cared. MacDiarmid was probably speaking the truth when he said he never consciously stole from anyone. He could steal hundreds of lines without batting an eyelid. Only the psychopathic plagiarist counts on getting caught. Most plagiarists are just submitting themselves to influence. It isn’t even necessary for the raptor to lift a finished idea: a mere suggestion can be enough. Among my acquaintances, there are at least two novelists who will nick any good phrase they hear in conversation, and at least one who knows he is doing it. His justification, as far as I can make out, is that he would have thought of it eventually anyway. He is probably right. Proust would have ended up writing like Proust even if he had never read Sainte-Beuve. But without reading Sainte-Beuve, Proust would have been a bit slower to realize the way that Proust was meant to sound.