I attended two lectures on Proust at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston the other day, one on the paintings in In Search of Lost Time and the second on the music of Proust’s creation, the composer Vinteuil. The first talk was given by the author of Paintings in Proust, Eric Karpeles, who presents a visual companion to In Search of Lost Time. Read the excerpt here to get an idea of what he is up to.
A hundred years separates us from the publication of Swann’s Way and as readers we tend to lose the connections with the ecosystems of some books — so the talk was a way for me to insert myself into Proust’s world and his novel, one that really marked a break with older traditions. The following was a reading I used to prep myself for the talks.
Shattuck’s stressing of the principle of intermittence where living means to perceive different and often conflicting aspects of reality was supported explicitly in the talks and particularly the examples Proust used in music.
Among the handful of literary classics produced in this century(written in the 20th), Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is the most oceanic — and the least read. Joyce and Kafka, Faulkner and Camus sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Proust sells barely in the thousands. His substantial reputation as an extreme case of something — longwindedness, psychological vivisection, the snobbery of letters, salvation by memory — rests not on wide readership but on a myth of uniqueness that often hides his true attractions. In an era when the significance and the privileged status of the work of art are being both questioned and reinforced, this ultimate monument to the artistic vocation, banked high on all sides by interpretation and biography, refuses to sink back into the sands of time.
The inordinate length of Proust’s novel (three thousand pages) goes a long way toward explaining the wariness of readers. Balzac’s one hundred volume printout of all French society comes in separate packages the links between the volumes serve as a special reward for the persevering. The first two sections of Proust’s novel, “Combray” and “Swann in Love,” can stand separately and have earned many admirers. Yet true believers insist that there is no substitute for the cumulative effect of the whole work. Understandably, many readers hesitate to make the investment of time and attention required to assimilate even a fraction of the whole.
Compounding the challenge of sheer magnitude and of an extended plot, there is Proust’s style. His transcontinental sentences contribute to the appearance of a motionless plot. The original French is no easier than the translations. How can one follow a story line through such labyrinthine prose? One reason why true believers are right to insist on a full reading is that you cannot distinguish the plot if the first sections are all you have to go on. Proust’s first critics were at a terrible disadvantage; they had to interpret the whole from a few parts.
As a result, Proust had to serve as the sole qualified guide to his own uncompleted work. He devoted endless letters and several newspaper interviews to rebutting his critics and explaining episodes still to come. Gradually, Proust’s description of his work has been validated by several generations of critics. But for fifteen years his work appeared piecemeal in the face of enormous odds against comprehension. It looked at first like a conspiracy against readers.
Furthermore, the plot remains close to a romantic stereotype. Will the young protagonist of the Search succeed in becoming a writer? God save us from another story about a sensitive young artist trying to find his way! Poems about writing poetry, novels about becoming a novelist, literature preoccupied with the life of literature — what form of narcissism could annoy a discriminating reader more than this aesthetic self-absorption? Proust takes several measures to reduce the damage of the outworn plot.
He turns our annoyance at the posing young artist into indulgent laughter. He postpones the most crucial episodes of discovery of his vocation of art until the end of the story. And he fills the twenty-five hundred intervening pages with scenes and sensations and characters so vivid that we are sustained by this immediacy of experience. The protagonist records and animates so much of his physical and social milieu for us that we mostly forget about the overarching question of literary vocation. It’s always there, but shrouded, out of sight.
These objections to plot and style in Proust’s novel often arise from partial reading and incomplete understanding. Many of them can be traced to remarks by early commentators, some of whom were sympathetic. Edmund Wilson, one of the first and most perceptive of American critics, deeply admired Proust’s work; yet he called the Search “one of the gloomiest books ever written.” In this instance his critical acumen failed him. Proust’s novel earns its place in literature as a great comic tale, punctuated with smiles and guffaws.
Henry James produced a petulant formula: “inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine.” It is hard to read the sentence as anything but a mixed verdict. The volume of “tributes” a dozen English writers devoted to Proust in 1923 sows even more confusion. Joseph Conrad finds intellectual analysis at its most creative, but “no reverie, no emotion.” Three pages later, George Saintsbury insists on a “constant relapse upon — and sometimes self-restriction to — a sort of dream element.” Had they read the same author?
Arnold Bennett wrote more in outrage than in tribute and could not excuse “the clumsy centipedalian crawling of the interminable sentences.” There is Aldous Huxley’s description (though not in this same volume) of Proust as a hermaphrodite, toadlike creature spooning his own tepid juice over his face and body. On the centenary of Proust’s birth, in July 1971, the New York Times Book Review assigned its front page to the novelist William H. Gass for a discussion of Proust’s work. Gass’s rancorous article adds little to Bennet’s comments. “… there is no special truth in him…. Proust writes a careless self-indulgent prose, doesn’t he? … Epithet follows epithet like tea cakes in flutes of paper…. It is a style that endangers the identity of the self in its reckless expressions of it.”
The fact that many of these critics contradict one another does not discredit them collectively or individually. But it does mean that we must beware of incomprehension and prejudice. The most persistent negative judgments of Proust can be reduced to two. First, Proust’s work is boring because of slackness in both style and construction. Second, the moral universe of Proust’s work never breaks free from the attitude of a spoiled, sickly, adolescent snob, born to wealth on the fringes of high culture and high society. To these criticisms one could add two more that are less frequently voiced.
Clausewitz described war as the continuation of policy by other means. Like many authors, Proust often treated writing as a continuation of life by other means. The word can conquer where the flesh is weak. Having discovered this path, Proust became one of the great megalomaniacs of literature, unwilling (in part because of his semi-invalid condition in later years) to relinquish any small hold he could gain over other people by writing. In his letters he often mixed honey with acid. He dominated his mother with inter-bedroom memoranda and his friends with pitiful pleas for help. He sought to hypnotize his readers and to command the world from his sickbed. This sensitive weakling sought power and won it.
The last stricture is closely related. From Proust’s writings, as from an electric generator, flows a powerful current always ready to shock not only our morality but our very sense of humanity. He frequently undermines individual character as the source of anything coherent and reliable in our behavior. Love and friendship, honesty and sexuality crumble into mockeries of human relationships. Except for Marcel’s immediate family, no one in the Search escapes the curses of selfishness, self-contempt, and snobbery. Few grounds for human dignity survive Proust’s touch. The inhumanity of artistic creation seems to triumph over everything.
Quite deliberately I have begun with harsh and seriously distorted versions of Proust’s stature. I shall rebut these charges in the course of time. Meanwhile, I feel it is wise not simply to affirm his innocence but to ask for a far more illuminating verdict: guilty — but not as charged. For Proust had the power to modify, as he went along, the laws under which he wrote and under which he asks us to read. Neither the novel form nor “human nature” remains unchanged after he has passed. The problem is to detect and measure the shifts. Snobbery, megalomania, boredom, aestheticism, and instability of character do indeed loom large in the world
Proust creates. The first task of the critic is to prevent the uninitiated reader from reacting against these elements before one understands the role they are assigned in a remarkably coherent work of art.
No single theory or approach will make Proust easily and quickly available to all inquiring minds. The very resistance of his work to simplification and analysis constitutes its most evident general characteristic. Beyond this feature, however, we discover endless contradictions in the Search.
Walt Whitman lived at peace with the fact that he contradicted himself. He said that he contained multitudes. Proust asks the next question. How much of one’s multitudinous self can a person reveal or embody at one time? The first answer is plain common sense: it all depends. It depends on many things, from chance and volition to memory and forgetting. The second answer is categorical. No matter how we go about it, we cannot be all of ourselves all at once. Narrow light beams of perception and of recollection illuminate the present and the past in vivid fragments. The clarity of those fragments is sometimes very great. They may even overlap and reinforce one another.
However, to summon our entire self into simultaneous existence lies beyond our powers. We live by synecdoche [A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, or vice-versa. For example, referring to a congregation as the church or workers as hired hands.], by cycles of being. More profoundly than any other novelist, Proust perceived this state of things and worked as an economist of the personality. In himself and in others he observed its fluctuations and partial realizations. Through habit and convention we may find security in “the immobility of the things around us.”
Yet this appearance of stability affords only temporary refuge. We yield with excitement, apprehension, and a deeper sense of existence to the great wheeling motion of experience. On a single page Proust refers to that endless shifting process as both “the secret of the future” and “the darkness we can never penetrate.” He also has a word for it: our lot is “intermittence,” the only steady state we know. One of the early titles for his novel was “The Heart’s Intermittences.”
As in life itself, the scope of action and reflection encountered in the Search exceeds the capacity of one mind to hold it all together at one time. Thus the novel embodies and manifests the principle of intermittence: to live means to perceive different and often conflicting aspects of reality. This iridescence never resolves itself completely into a unitive point of view.
Accordingly, it is possible to project out of the Search itself a series of putative and intermittent authors. Precisely that has happened. The portraitist of an expiring society, the artist of romantic reminiscence, the narrator of the laminated “I,” the classicist of formal structure — all these figures have been found in Proust, approximately in that order of historical occurrence. All are present as discernible components of his vision and his creation. His principle of intermittence anticipates such veerings of critical emphasis. It is in the middle of a literary discussion that his Narrator observes, “On ne se realise que successivement.” It really means: one finds, not oneself, but a succession of selves. Similarly, Proust’s work is still going on in our gradual discovery of it.