This has been a good year for Proust, for seasoned Proustians as well as aspiring readers of his masterwork, A la recherche du temps perdu. We have two new biographies, not including Jean-Yves Tadié’s superb Marcel Proust: A Life, hailed in France in 1996 and recently published here in English, and we have Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way, condensing into a portable volume the professor’s useful ideas from his earlier critical works. 
All this Proustiana has brought a flood of daily reviews and commentary, amusing in what it scarcely conceals: how few people have actually read the novel. Our journalists are increasingly inclined, or seem obliged, to call A la recherche the greatest novel of the twentieth century, taking their cue perhaps from Graham Greene’s comment that “Proust was the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, just as Tolstoy was in the nineteenth.”
But the consensus is mystical, mired in longing and embarrassed ignorance. I was happier when they were calling Ulysses the greatest, though I prefer Proust to Joyce, because that sounded more sincere. I do not know personally ten people who have read Proust’s novel whole, and yet the work cannot really be appreciated any other way. Like a cathedral, it must be seen from all points of the compass, and from inside and out, to understand its perfections. The second-best read man I know has not read A la recherche (though he has enjoyed the first volume, Swann’s Way) for the compelling reason that he has not had time to study its four-thousand pages. They are not for speed reading. At twenty pages per hour, the trip takes two-hundred hours. In that time you might peruse War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Bleak House, and Middlemarch, and still have time left over for several James novellas. No one is advised to read Proust’s masterpiece before those other books.
Most well-educated people have not finished A la recherche for the same reason that most well-traveled people have not visited Antarctica: it is a long and expensive journey of uncertain value. Reports are unreliable. Whom do we trust to advise us to go or stay home? No one who has really been there wants to think he has wasted his time. So he will lavish upon the remote continent the most extravagant praises, sure that no one at the party will protest, calling Proust the Rembrandt, the Beethoven, the Einstein of prose fiction, praises befitting the effort of the journey. Those who have given it up in mid-career, like Aldous Huxley, returning with tales of disappointment and disgust, are even less to be trusted. They have not been there.
So we bide our time, hoping for the leisure to read Proust, all of his mysterious novel, and find out things for ourselves. And, if life is generous, the time comes while one still has the eyesight and concentration to appreciate the peaks and caverns of this rangy masterpiece.
Although I dislike the fashion of criticism that diverts attention from a book toward the critic’s own experience, in discussing Proust that mode seems unavoidable. He himself invites this sort of reflection, indeed he insists upon it in volume VII, Time Regained:
I thought more modestly of my book and it would be inaccurate even to say that I thought of those who would read it as ‘my’ readers. For, it seemed to me that they would not be ‘my’ readers but the readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers—it would be my book but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.
The more valuable recent writings about Proust, such as Edmund White’s incisive monograph with its homosexual emphasis, are those with a well-defined voice and point of view. Putting aside for a moment the superiority of Jean-Yves Tadié’s scholarship (he was the editor of the Pléiade edition of Proust’s work), the overwhelming reason to choose his biography over William C. Carter’s very good one is that Tadié is a Frenchman, completely at home in the complex culture that spawned the genius of Illiers/Combray. Tadié’s personality is immediately evident in his sentences, in the interplay of the concrete and the abstract: “A life can be interpreted like a sonata or a play: so it is better to imitate la Berma and choose a transparent, invisible approach. Which is not to say that the writing of it would suffer: style is made up of sacrifices.” It is not hard to imagine M. Tadié himself, witty, proud, and a trifle long-winded, as a character in The Guermantes Way. Next to him, Professor Carter sounds like a polite, well-informed tourist or American tour guide, deferential, discreet, anonymous. You may go to Professor Carter for the facts, but why do that when for the same price you can get from M. Tadié the facts and the feelings?
Proust was born in 1871, the son of an eminent Catholic doctor and his Jewish wife. Marcel and his brother, Robert, two years younger, grew up in the family home in Paris near the Champs-Elysées, spending holidays with relatives in the country towns of Auteuil and Illiers. These provided material for the creation of Proust’s fictional village, Combray. At the age of nine, the boy suffered his first asthma attack. In 1882 he entered the Lycée Condorcet where he excelled in literature and philosophy. After a year in the army as a subofficer, in 1890 he studied law and political science at the Sorbonne. During the 1890s Proust began publishing stories and essays in newspapers and literary reviews. Despite his bourgeois background, the handsome, charming young writer climbed into the highest circles of French society, among the aristocratic families of the Faubourg St. Germain. He published his first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours, in 1896, and about the same time he began translating the work of John Ruskin, who had an enormous impact on Proust’s style.
The deaths of his father in 1903 and his mother in 1905 left Proust a wealthy man, but he was so depressed after his mother died that he spent time in a sanatorium. Proust’s most fulfilling relationship had been with his mother; he is not known to have had any romantic intimacies lasting much longer than a year. He soon gave up his social life, moving to an apartment on the Boulevard Haussmann with a cork-lined room from which he rarely stirred, fearful of the asthmatic and nervous attacks which left him helpless, and determined to devote every waking hour to the composition of the novel that would become A la recherche. Tadié has reconstructed the process by which a book of essays, Contre Sainte-Beuve, in 1909, metamorphosed into the autobiographical novel that Proust called Intermittences du coeur before naming it A la recherche du temps perdu.
Professor Carter acknowledges his debt to Tadié (the unrivalled authority on the composition of Proust’s novel) in dozens of footnotes, not to mention naming his book after Tadié’s. Did Carter know the French scholar’s eponymous book would appear in English only months after his own was published? He is fortunate, I think, that Tadié’s did not come out first. In Tadié’s discussion of the friendship between the twenty-seven-year-old Proust and the poet Anna de Noailles, he quotes from her letter in the six-volume Correspondance générale— the best word-portrait of the young Proust I have ever read:
Marcel Proust in his happy, active, listless youth: his beautiful eyes like a Japanese nightingale—a gaze filled with brown and golden liqueur—are questioning, as if hanging on some delightful and charming piece of advice that he seems to be eagerly expecting from us. . . . Marcel Proust was not asking questions, he did not obtain information through contact with his friends. It was he himself who, in meditative silence, was posing questions to himself. . . . Even though his manner and the sound of his voice were extremely gentle, his conversation abounded in affirmations and no one could be more spontaneous, or was less doubtful of the truth. He said what he believed, he poked judicious fun at other people’s tastes, he made up his mind judged himself. He would have defended his convictions against the whole world.It is the perfectly apposite quote that makes Marcel come alive in Tadié’s chapter. Not only is this passage absent from Carter’s book, but the Correspondance générale (edited by Proust’s brother, Robert) is not even included in Carter’s bibliography.
When I was a boy, the English translation of Proust’s novel was called Remembrance of Things Past, a lovely but false title which the Scotsman C. K. Scott Moncrieff cribbed from Shakespeare’s sonnet XXX: “When to the seasons of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of things past.” It has been difficult to give the title up, though anyone with a smattering of French has always known it was wrong. But I am so grateful for the revisions of the translation now called In Search of Lost Time, first by Terence Kilmartin in 1980, then by D. J. Enright ten years later—not only for their accuracy but also for their greater fluency —that now I may let go of the quaint old title, even as I was relieved of the translation’s many difficulties.
I read the first volume, Swann’s Way, in my teens. Charmed by the beauty of the prose, the fineness of the impressions, the narrator’s childhood struggles with love and identity, and then swept up in the Parisian love story of the elegant Jewish socialite Charles Swann and the courtesan Odette, I went on to the second volume. Within a Budding Grove, with its raptures of adolescent love—hopeless crushes on Swann’s wife, Odette, and her daughter, the blond Gilberte, then on the dark-haired darling Albertine—is a pleasing sequel, full of the poetry of the seaside Brittany resort Balbec and seascapes as only Proust could render them, either directly, or indirectly as he describes the paintings of his Whistler-like character Elstir. All of these things make a novel very appealing to a young reader in love with love and poetry and France.
So it was not until I came to the middle of the seemingly interminable third volume, The Guermantes Way, that I suffered the doldrums and jumped ship. Proust and I parted company for a few years. That book largely concerns Marcel’s crush on the preposterously aristocratic Duchesse de Guermantes, and our young hero’s ascent into the lofty society of the Faubourg St. Germain; one of its major themes is snobbery. Marcel is not so much in love with this social paragon as he wants to be the Duchesse de Guermantes. Marcel longs to be accepted into the world of snobs, and he is an insufferable snob himself. Nothing could have been of less interest to me at the age of seventeen, in the mid-sixties, and so I stopped reading the novel.
I did not return to Proust until college when I began to study French in earnest. Then I was urged to read Proust as the master of a rare prose style that combined certain virtues of French, English, and German: French clarity, English richness, and German command of abstraction. So I read Combray (the first half of Swann’s Way) in the original language, and my effort was richly rewarded. Professor Shattuck in Proust’s Way says that anyone who can comfortably read “Camus in the original should tackle the Search in French. The translation will not turn out to be much easier.” I disagree with the beginning of his sentence, but I heartily endorse its conclusion, “and one should at least make the attempt.”
What we learn from reading the French is that the translation is trustworthy; Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright deliver most of Proust’s imagery and thought, and much of his tone. What the English lacks—beyond the inimitable music of the French —is a certain limpidity, and also, paradoxically, an architectural firmness and precision. Sentence by French sentence it is as if one were viewing, from the portal, an exquisite Gothic chapel made entirely of crystal, so that both the façades and interior structures may be seen at a glance.
And these enchanting sentences, with their lively variety of length, their perfectly balanced vectors of adventure, their suspensions and surprises always satisfyingly resolved, are congruent with the structure of the whole novel. They promise that no matter how arbitrarily the story seems to be moving that there will be, in good time, a payoff, that it will all, eventually, come out right in the end. Ezra Pound, who was one of Proust’s very first advocates, once said that technique was the true test of a writer’s sincerity. That we are in the hands of a master is unmistakable in Proust’s French, if the English leaves any room for doubt.
Parfois à l’exaltation que me donnait la solitude, s’en ajoutait une autre que je ne savais pas en départager nettement, causée par le désir de voir surgir devant moi une paysanne que je pourrais serrer dans mes bras.Translating these forty French words calls for sixty words of good English, sacrificing Proust’s gem-like concentration in order to unpack the meaning.
My study of his French sentences at last convinced me that someday I would, I must return to Proust, and read as much of the Search as time would allow. In English.
Edmund White’s little book, published last year, reminded me of my vow to finish the Search, and White’s modest discussion of Proust’s sexuality provided me with a useful key to the novel and the courage to begin again. Reading a book as long as Proust’s requires charity of all kinds, including suspension of disbelief: some characters and situations in this novel are not true to life, and it is helpful to know they were not simply drawn from life. Some of these men and women are disguised, “in drag,” to use White’s phrase. Proust preferred not to be widely known as a homosexual; more importantly, he did not want his book to be narrowly read as a story about homosexual love.
When I first read Proust in 1965 I had little understanding of homosexuality in general, and absolutely no understanding of Proust’s temperament in particular. All I knew about the author was that he was asthmatic and frail most of his life, and that illness limited his worldly experience while he nursed his sensitivities and refined his intelligence. Edmund White explains the extent to which Marcel, Proust’s narrator-hero, differs from his creator, while implying (if I do not mistake him) that illness is a metaphor for several kinds of otherness, of remoteness from family, friends, and society. White shows how the hero’s heterosexual adventures encode Proust’s homosexual love affairs. Perhaps none of these ideas is indispensable (there are appreciative readings by Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle, and Howard Nemerov, in The Oak in the Acorn, that disregard Proust’s real life), but Mr. White is a sympathetic guide through some passages of the novel, particularly Marcel’s woman troubles, situations which I find puzzling, unreal, and unsavory.
With Mr. White’s book at my side I launched into the novel once more, page one of my 1923 edition of Swann’s Way, “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” and then sailed right through it. No wonder—this being my third time, I recalled much of the story. Proust gets us into bed with him, and from that cozy beginning he engenders a unique intimacy. I was so exhilarated I ran out and treated myself to the state-of-the-art Modern Library Edition (1998) of Within a Budding Grove as revised by Kilmartin and Enright. And that flew by just as swiftly. By then I felt confident, even though I was nearing the Scylla and Charybdis of The Guermantes Way, where so many brave readers have been drowned. I figured I didn’t need any of these new-fangled translations. I would run with my old 1925 double-volumed Moncrieff of the Guermantes. But eighty-or-so pages out to sea, I was becalmed. It was just about the same spot I had come to grief in 1965, lovesick Marcel’s obsessions over the Duchesse de Guermantes. Marcel’s passion seemed not only pointless but also boring and silly, and so did the sentences. It was either me or the book. I decided it must be the book (recalling Proust’s impeccable French) and went to the bookstore to fetch the new translation of The Guermantes Way.
I could not put it down, or any of the rest. I had begun Swann’s Way on February 9, and I read the last page of Time Regained, on May 15. I did not cheat or skim; with the exception of a notoriously pedantic three pages on place-names, I did not skip a page, nor did I give up a sentence until I felt I had understood it.
Once before, indeed, in the church at Combray, she had appeared to me in the blinding flash of a transfiguration; with cheeks irreducible to, impervious to the colour of the name Guermantes and of afternoons on the banks of the Vivonne, taking the place of my shattered dream, like a swan or a willow into which a god or nymph has been changed, and which henceforward, subjected to natural laws, will glide over the water or be shaken by the wind.
The revised translation, published in six handy and attractive volumes (The Captive and The Fugitive are bound together), is so far superior to the old Moncrieff that, with the best intentions, I would not have finished the novel without it.
While the structure of the book is complex, with hundreds of characters growing and mingling over more than fifty years, the plot, as in many great works of literature, is almost primitively simple. It is a Bildungsroman, or “novel of education.” More strictly speaking it is a Kunstlerroman like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, in which the young hero finally becomes a novelist. Young Marcel wants to become a writer, but the world (his friends and lovers) and his own physical and mental infirmities are standing in the way. By far the most fascinating and vigorous obstacle is Marcel’s need to love and be loved. Love is the major theme; love which in Proust’s universe arises only in pursuit of the unattainable, and can survive only in an atmosphere charged with jealousy. It is romantic, tempestuous, Latin. For many of us, the kind of “love” that shakes and rattles these French characters has not been endured since junior high when one had a crush on a teacher, or “went steady” with another fickle adolescent to see who could break whose heart first. Proust devotes hundreds of pages to the workings of jealousy, and, if you have as little fascination with that passion as I do, those pages are slow going. We are a long way from Tristan und Isolde or even Anna Karenina. Proustian love is love in a minor key, paradoxical, intellectual, doomed, damned, and destructive. Marcel will be much better off without it, but not before he has suffered, and learned love’s hard lessons, as a bittersweet inoculation.
At the heart of this “novel of education” is Marcel’s passion for the beautiful Albertine. Their love story spans volumes II–VI of A la recherche like the nave of Notre Dame. Tadié explains that the book was constructed from the outside in—the first and last volumes were first written, then the middle of the novel was gradually expanded to fit the story of Albertine and Marcel.
On the rebound from his childhood romance with Swann’s blond-haired daughter, the wealthy, sophisticated Gilberte, Marcel journeys in his grandmother’s care to the seaside town of Balbec, on the Normandy coast. There, captivated by a “little band” of girls his age who play together on the beach, he soon makes their acquaintance. Curiously, delicate Marcel becomes one of them, the little band of girls, all the while falling in love with them abstractly and studying them as a type of human perfection and youthful beauty, as if they were blossoms on an apple tree in spring. This is one of Proust’s more poetic illustrations of his Platonism, in which the whole novel is drenched. He falls in love with Albertine’s type, as figured forth in the group of nymphs, before he focuses on the specific girl herself.
Albertine Simonet, a poor relation raised by her wealthy aunt, Mme. Bontemps, is beautiful of cheek and nape and limb, sturdy, voluptuous, with a head of shiny black curls that is like nothing outside of a Baudelaire poem. Marcel falls in love with her, and so did I. She is cheerful, wise, kind, truthful, and agreeable to a fault, especially in Marcel’s eyes (once she has fallen in love with him) since he can find no other fault with her. Albertine is a dreamgirl, a wonder, one of Proust’s greatest characters (though less distinct than the famous Baron de Charlus). Without the sweetness of Albertine to balance Marcel’s acerbity the story would be unbearable. It is almost unbearable anyway to witness Marcel’s progress from a starry-eyed wooer (before she loves him) to a sadistic slave-master (after she has fallen for him) so obsessed with fantasies of her betraying him, with men and women, that he makes her an abject captive in his parents’ house. “She was so effectively caged that on certain evenings I did not even ask her to leave her room for mine, she whom at one time all the world pursued.” Proust makes us love Albertine more than Marcel does, so we find ourselves on the sidelines screaming at our benighted hero: “How can you be such a jackass? How can you treat her so shabbily, lie to her, tease and torment her, abusing her in every way short of the rod. . . . Can’t you see she really loves you?” The simple answer of course is no. Marcel can’t see that she loves him, because his fatal flaw is that he cannot understand or enjoy love, neither the giving nor the receiving of it, in the sensible world. The spirit world is more congenial. He loves his sainted grandmother, but never so dearly as after she is dead and buried.
To return to Graham Greene’s analogy between Tolstoy and Proust, the most striking contrast between these great novelists is evident in Tolstoy’s superior knowledge of the world—Proust seems a precocious, loquacious, needy child beside him. And unlike the discreet Henry James, Proust is willing to risk making a fool of himself in the service of his art, in pontificating about so many things he only narrowly understands, or things of which he is wholly ignorant, such as heterosexual love. His comic genius is in turning this to his advantage. Proust is the boldest of writers. He will leap from the particular case to the general, from his own narrow experience of love he will deduce the experiences of lesbian and heterosexual love, etc.; he constantly employs the first-person plural in his editorials, enlisting us in opinions we cannot possibly share.
So we get, haphazardly, pages of astonishing perception and then passages of appalling stupidity. “Every person we love is to us like Janus, presenting to us a face that pleases us if the person leaves us, a dreary face if we know him or her to be at our perpetual disposal.” I wish I could say that epigram was served up in a spirit of irony, but it wasn’t. “Do we not find every day that adultery, when it is based upon genuine love, does not weaken family feelings and the duties of kinship, but rather revivifies them?” No, Marcel, we don’t. And your bourgeois neighbors didn’t either—not every day or at all.
What nearly put me off the novel was my suspicion that Proust and his foolish narrator were one and the same, that Marcel’s desperate beliefs—that love is not possible between flesh-and-blood people, and that even the dearest friendship, such as Marcel’s lifelong bond with Robert St. Loup, is only a meretricious distraction from the true purpose of life, which is solitary contemplation of the self—were the author’s opinions. It is one thing to be entertained by a fictional monster, but quite another thing to spend two-hundred hours with a real one, separated only scantly by the writer’s death in 1922 that left him at large in those potent sentences.
Not until volume VI, The Fugitive (“Albertine disparue”), after Marcel has lost his treasure, did I realize that Proust was fully aware of his protagonist’s folly. Marcel is paying dearly for the abuse of his mistress. Grieving the loss of Albertine, he groans: “So what I believed to be nothing to me was simply my entire life. How ignorant one is of oneself.” Indeed, and at that moment Proust’s superior understanding overtakes us in waves, bringing back with it the whole dark comedy. We may never be sure exactly what Proust thought about love and human relationships, but certainly he knew far more than his hero, in order to have made such sport of him.
My struggle with Marcel’s narcissism, his snobbery, his monomaniacal jealousy, would, I think, have pleased the author. How is a reader to learn anything from such a “novel of education” if one does not grow as exasperated with the hero as he does with himself on the verge of enlightenment? And perhaps the author would be all the more satisfied with my resistance to Marcel, knowing that I was an American. Time and again Proust gently makes fun of Anglo-American morality, especially the foursquare English sense of “fair play.” Even as he praises the British for rushing to the aid of France during the Great War for reasons totally idealistic and altruistic, he thinks it a naïve and silly, though charming, act. As an American, I am probably more judgmental than a European reading Proust, more moralistic and defensive, less content to stand by and watch these strange Frenchmen doing their mean things to one another, while taking voyeuristic pleasure in it.
But let me tell you how this book can work on you, how it can make the strange thing seem suddenly familiar. It is in Sodom and Gomorrah, a while after Albertine has given herself to him body and soul, that Marcel begins to distance himself from her in cruel ways, such as pretending he has fallen in love with her best friend. He enjoys the sadness he sees in her eyes, his power over her. “I was merely . . . making more perceptible, accentuating more markedly, that binary rhythm which love adopts in all those who have too little confidence in themselves to believe that a woman can ever fall in love with them, and also that they themselves can genuinely fall in love with her.” For several pages I had been outraged, furious with Marcel, when suddenly I lifted my head from the book, seized by a revery. At the age of twenty-one, I had been in love with a dark-haired girl not unlike Albertine, and I had done something just as unkind to push her away. Ashamed of it, I had banished the memory, buried it as too ignoble to be part of my past, and I had not thought of the incident in almost thirty years. I had forgotten about my youthful cruelty; Marcel Proust had remembered. In that moment of reading, reading Proust and reading myself, my sense of moral superiority crumbled to dust, and thereafter I remained on a human level with Marcel, however much I might dislike him.
The plot, of course, is no more than that, a primitive chassis upon which Proust mounted a most marvelous and complex vehicle. One by one Marcel overcomes the obstacles that keep him from his vocation as a writer: his vanity and desire for prestige, his social ambitions, and the desire for love, erotic love as well as friendship. The story of Marcel and Albertine is the centerpiece to a triptych of love stories; to its right is the bourgeois melodrama of Charles Swann and Odette, to the left is the broad comedy of the homosexual Baron de Charlus’s passion for the opportunistic bisexual violinist Charles Morel. The side panels lend perspective to the irony and pathos of Marcel’s story in the middle.
Proust artfully balances these narratives, laying one aside when it runs out of steam, picking it up again when another story is exhausted. Just when you think you cannot bear another page of Marcel’s harangues on love and jealousy, or time and memory, the delightfully wicked Baron de Charlus comes waddling onstage, sounding like Ernie Kovacs’s outrageous monocled poet Percy Dovetonsils, and the novel springs back to life.
In Proust’s fiction we enjoy a pleasing counterpoint of romance and irony, humor and pathos, a balance of which Proust boasts, indirectly, in praising the sincerity of the baron: “How unfortunate it is that M. de Charlus is not a novelist or poet. . . . He cannot get stuck in an ironical and superficial view of things because a current of pain is perpetually reawakened within him.” If Charlus could be a novelist, he would be like Proust, who was never pickled by irony, but who prized it as a necessary antidote to the sentimentality that frequently swamped the baron.
If I were going to recommend a single book as companion to A la recherche it would be Roger Shattuck’s Field Guide, which in 250 pages manages to provide all that is necessary to understand the novel, in case there is anything that Proust himself has left insufficiently explained. Most worthy Proust scholars begin with the caveat that there is little they can say about the novel by way of interpretation or explanation that the author has not included gratis along with the story. This is true. But Professor Shattuck has drawn up Proust’s résumé, and a twenty-page essay on “The Work and Its Author,” which may help a new reader to avoid some of the muddles I experienced. And his twenty-five page essay “How to Read a Roman-Fleuve” is the guide proper to this particular roman-fleuve. It includes not only a concise plot summary, but also a description of places and major characters, as well as diagrams and discussions of the main love affairs in the book and the society scenes, which consume so many pages. An essay on “The Comic Vision” reminds us that some of Proust’s humor may be lost in translation, and “Proust’s Complaint” analyzes the paradox of desire that torments Marcel throughout the novel. Marcel only wants what he does not have, what he has he does not want. “It is this clouding of the mind at the moment of achieving what it most desires, this ‘infirmity in my nature,’ that I call Proust’s complaint,” writes Mr. Shattuck.
Mr. Shattuck never locates Marcel’s dilemma in the history of French philosophy, where it certainly has earned a place. Of Proust’s philosophical and aesthetic themes, I think that the most interesting also happens to be the central question in French thought from the seventeenth century until the middle of the twentieth. This is the Cartesian problem of existence and solipsism. Marcel does not debate the ontological questions or dilate upon them as he does upon the mysteries of time and memory, but his very life is an essay in solipsism. “Question as I might, it was myself who answered, I learned nothing more.” Much of Proust’s life was lived in a bubble; because of his illness he was ill equipped to deal with the world, and his wealth enabled him to live in isolation. So his book engages the Cartesian problem at a very personal level, turning it into drama. Insofar as A la recherche may be said to achieve tragic stature, it is because of Marcel’s poignant failure to overcome his loneliness—though in the end he manages to arrange a heroic peace with it. In art, which transcends temporal reality, he eventually will find consolation for the love he has sought in vain in the temporal world. For the reader who is not blessed, as Proust was, with the gift to achieve immortality through art, it may seem a cold comfort.
Fans of Jean-Paul Sartre may recall that the hero of his philosophical novel La Nausée (1938), Antoine Roquentin, reaches the same conclusions as Marcel, and a similar peace, after a long meditation on the absurdities of essence and existence. Sartre’s exquisite novel is so deeply indebted to Proust that we can read it as a two-hundred page variation on the Proustian themes, reshaped to anticipate the despair of Camus and Beckett that will be called existentialism after the Second World War.
Proust has never received his due as a proto-existentialist, as Kafka and Dostoyevsky have, probably because of his enduring reputation as a romantic symbolist. It was Edmund Wilson in the 1920s who called Proust “the first important novelist to apply the principles of Symbolism to fiction.” Wilson observed that Proust had been young in the Eighties and Nineties, when symbolism was in the air. Proust’s romantic sensibility naturally thrived upon the technique of using concrete figures—the madeleine, the bumble-bee and orchid, the seawaves—to stand for abstract realities such as the persistence of memory, generation and regeneration, and the soul’s journey. And Plato and Kant pointed the way to the “higher worlds.”
Proust is an odd hero in twentieth-century literature, an anachronism, being at once a romantic, a Platonist, and an impressionist, an artificer of a baroque, old-fashioned roman-fleuve that is in so many ways the antithesis of streamlined modern art. So much of modern painting and literature is a reaction (however respectful) against impressionism; Proust’s prose is impressionism’s crowning achievement. So much of the Anglo-American language of modernism is a demonstration against rhetoric and ornamentation; Proust’s sentences are the most complex and elaborate in French literature. One has to look to the nineteenth-century English and German to find anything like them.
Then there is the strange influence of Platonism, Plato direct, and Plato via Kant. Plato hovers over Proust’s pages, as daemon, as tutelary spirit, just as Aristotle and Aquinas accompanied James Joyce on his journey. It was Joyce whose ideas and sensibility prevailed during the period we now call High Modernism: Eliot and Pound, Beckett and Stein, Hemingway and Moore quickly shook off the traces of romanticism, and banished the abstractions and mysteries associated with Platonism in favor of the concrete, measurable world and spare, strict language. Clinging to an endangered tradition, Proust, among novelists, and W. B. Yeats, among poets, rode into the twentieth century high on the horse of romanticism before riding out on a horse of a duskier color. Yeats began as a dreamy Pre-Raphaelite, an aesthete in love with Ireland’s romantic, heroic past. He ended as an ironist, furious with Ireland’s folly and man’s treachery to man, but, like Proust, convinced of the heuristic, transfiguring value of literature.
Poet and sculptor, do the work Nor let the modist painter shirk What his great forefathers did, Bring the soul of man to God, Make him fill the cradles right.Proust started out, in Swann’s Way, as an aesthete, a sighing romantic, and survived, in Time Regained, as a creditable comedian and historian of capitalist culture. After many years and thousands of pages of disappointment and disillusionment, he ended up a cynic in the ancient sense, and the father of French existentialists, with a belief in no redemption or transcendence but in the glory of art.
From The New Criterion Vol. 19, No. 2, October 2000