by Roger Shattuck*
Inducements: The inordinate length of Proust's novel (3000 pages) goes
a long way toward explaining the scarcity of readers. Even Russian
novelists usually limit themselves to half that length. Balzac's
one-hundred-volume print-out of all French society comes in separate
packages; the links between the volumes serve as a special reward for the
perservering. 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.
The Life of
an Enfant Nerveux: If forced to make the distinction,
most of us would indicate a deeper and more lasting interest in people
than in works. We ascribe greatness or goodness more readily to an individual
person, accountable for the actions of his whole life, than to a deed
detached from its context of individual agency and motivation in a person's
life. One could with good reason interpret the history of Western civilization
as a sustained attempt to divert us toward a concern with good works,
both ethical and artistic. Religion and esthetics have devel-oped along
curiously parallel paths. Yet fundamentally our attention directs itself
toward men and women, their temperaments and their lives. Only a lifetime
provides an adequate unit of significance and value. (We have also cultivated
a powerful materialist doctrine: the tendency to judge a man not by what
he is or does, but by what he owns.)
What is for you the greatest unhappiness? To be separated from maman (13). Not to have known my mother and grandmother (20).Even for the era these are precocious answers, steeped in literary attitudes, and displaying the capacity to speak the truth within certain limits of coyness and insecurity. No bumbler wrote these apothegmatic lines.
At twenty this young sensitive had to face the painfulof what he would do with himself. For close to fifteen years he temporized and spent his days and nights essentially in the provinces of his mind looking for the capital. He entered the university and took a degree in law and another in literature. He also qualified by competitive examination for an unsalaried library position, and then never started work. For several years his best efforts went into two complementary activities: writing short stories and literary sketches for the news-papers and symbolist reviews, and cultivating the ele-gant families of the friends he had made at school and during military service. He memorialized his success in both lines with the publication of his first collection, Pleasures and Days (1896). It was an overly elegant edition illustrated by a salon hostess, Madeleine Lemaire, with a preface by Anatole France. It looked like the work of a dilettante with powerful connections, even though it does not read that way.
The strongest presence in Proust's life at this juncture was Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezenac. Fifteen years older, he had everything Proust thought he wanted. The Count was descended from the model for D'Artagnan of Dumas' The Three Musketeers and could claim most of European nobility as relatives by blood or marriage. Immense wealth enabled him to cultivate an esthetic manner and 'way of life remarkable enough to have already inspired one notorious book, J.K. Huysmans' A Rebours (Proust's character Baron de Charlus is based upon Montesquiou). He was also a published poet of some note and flaunted his homosexuality with enormous style. Proust fawned on him for several years before he could pull away, and the fascination never disappeared entirely. When Montesquiou mentioned his young friend once in Print, Proust had to light a pistol duel with a critic who seized the occasion to ridicule him as "One of those small-time fops in literary heat." No one was hurt.
The Dreyfus Affair exploded in November 1897. Proust, aged twenty-six, was intensely committed to the Dreyfus cause from the start. He helped get Anatole France's signature for the Petition of the Intellectuals, attended every session of Zola's trial, and was active in support of Colonel Picquart, the second hero of the affair. This public behavior placed Proust in the opposite camp from both his family (his father knew practically every minister) and most of his society hostesses. He recorded the harrowing tension and the human consequences of these events in sections of a novel he had been working on in spurts and fragments for some four years. Jean Santeuil provides scenes from the sad yet charmed life of a young man who can never pull himself together and is forever protected from above. After some eight hundred pages without form or continuity, Proust abandoned the manuscript in apparent dissatisfaction.
He was still in the provinces. His next discovery was John Ruskin, the English art critic and social thinker. Between 1899 and 1905 Proust spent much of his time reading him and making "pilgrimages" to the sites in France and Italy about which Ruskin had written. He went on to translate two of Ruskin's books (with the help of his mother and an English girl friend), and to write prefaces that grew until they almost swallowed the texts they were intended to present. Proust performed a dance with Ruskin similar to the one he had performed with Montesquiou. For a time Ruskin's combination of esthetic sensitivity, scholarship, and social thought won his deep admiration. Later he found Ruskin guilty of a false idolatry of art and of a masked moralism. This long encounter with Ruskin was deeply profitable for Proust. He was able to clarify his own ideas on art and to acknowledge to himself that fiction was still his goal. In 1902, at the peak of his Ruskin absorption, he wrote to Prince Antoine Bibesco:
... a hundred characters for novels, a thousand ideas keep asking me to give them substance, like those shades that keep asking Ulysses in the Odyssey to give them blood to drink and bring them to life, and that the hero pushes aside with his sword.At thirty, Proust was already a deeply eccentric man, and still living at home on an allowance. His preferred schedule of rising in the late afternoon and going to bed at dawn estranged him from his own family. The events of the next few years came perilously close to paralyzing him. His younger brother, a doctor following in their father's footsteps, married in 1903 and set up on his own. At the wedding Marcel was a grotesque, semi-invalid figure in several overcoats and mufflers. A few months later their father died, and Mme Proust devoted herself for two years to caring for Proust's asthma and hay fever, and helping him translate Ruskin. She also organized dinners for his friends in their apartment. Then, after a short illness, Mme Proust died in 1905. Her son lay for almost two months in sleepless seclusion in the apartment, and then spent six weeks in a private clinic. After this, his nocturnal and neurotic behavior became more pronounced than ever.
The shift I have mentioned in Proust's career took place over the next four years -- not a single event or development, but a gradual convergence of forces already at work. He began to withdraw slowly from his salon life and saw his friends in restaurants late at night. He could now have homosexual affairs by hiring young men as chauffeurs or secretaries. Writing a series of literary pastiches increased his conviction that he must find his own style and his own form. Meanwhile, his writing was becoming more and more autobiographical. In 1908 his drafts of a projected critical essay, Against Sainte-Beuve, kept turning into personal narrative whenever he let them take their course. If Proust had any revelation, it must have been the discovery that he could accommodate his irresistible autobiographical impulse in the novel form. During a lull in his writing in January 1909, he apparently had an unexpected and compelling surge of memory over a cup of tea into which he dipped a madeleine. When he described the incident in the preface he was writing for Against Sainte-Beuve, a number of similar reminiscences came to mind. Some missing element had fallen into place, and now it seemed as if he were at work on a wholly new book. Yet it was really the same one-the book begun in Pleasures and Days, tried again and laid aside in Jean Santeuil, tried once more in the anecdotal pages that open the preface to Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, carried on in Against Sainte-Beuve. Endowed with a new plan but no firm title, this transmuted work took possession of him during the spring of 1909 and filled the rest of his life. By August, he wrote proudly and optimistically to Mme Emile Strauss, one of his hostesses: "I have begun-and finished-a whole long book." About the same time he gave a few details to Alfred Vallette, a possible publisher for it.
I'm finishing a book which, in spite of its provisional title, Against Sainte-Beuve: Recollection of a Morning, is a genuine novel and an indecent novel in some of its sections. The book ends with a long conversation on Sainte-Beuve and aesthetics.We should probably be grateful that Vallette refused Proust's novel then, for it was many years and hundreds of pages away from being finished. But at least it was begun, and already getting out of control.
These developments were the signal for Proust to modify his life of indecision and distraction. In the fall of 1909 he announced to his friends a kind of with-drawal and retreat, referring mysteriously yet resolutely to the long work ahead of him. His caginess about the title and plan of his novel made it sound like a scientific discovery or a military secret. In 1910 he sealed himself into the bedroom of his new apartment by lining it with cork, and sent out irregular reports on the page count he had reached. A few close friends like Georges de Lauris and Reynaldo Hahn, sworn to confidence, were allowed to read the oilcloth covered notebooks. They gave him the encouragement he needed. Of course, Proust did not retire completely from Parisian life as he had known it. He kept up with his friends and, at intervals, muffled in outlandish clothes, dropped in on an elegant hostess just as her party was breaking up. He even went occasionally to a music hall or an art gallery, and he listened to concerts and plays by subscribing to a service that allowed members to hear live perform-ances over the telephone. But from now until his death in 1922, his novel took precedence over everything else. The tide had turned. His forays into the outer world and the bulk of his letters were either means of obtaining information for his writings or attempts to arrange the proper publication and reception for his work. For the latter purpose he pulled every string, used every connection, and called in every outstanding debt available to him. Yet four publishing houses refused his book. After a cursory look, André Gide turned it down for Gallimard as too snobbish and amateurish. He soon changed his mind. Grasset, a new house, finally published it, at the author's expense, in 1913. All Proust's advance work was barely sufficient to launch this first of two projected volumes. By the time Gallimard published the second volume after the war, the manuscript had grown unsuppressibly, frighteningly, like a carniv-orous vine that would finally entwine and devour its owner.
The remainder of Proust's life takes on a mythological quality. His nocturnal, bedridden, disorderly work habits Seem heroic. In his private life he mixed low-grade hedonism with deliberate psychological and moral ex-periment. What looks degraded to some of us may be edifying to others. This man of shrewd medical insight mercilessly punished his frail body and refused proper advice, even from his brother. He followed what he told Louis de Robert was his "only rule": "to yield to one's demon, to one's thought, to write on everything to the point of exhaustion." When he was awarded the prestigious Goncourt prize in 1919 for the second volume of the novel, A l'ombre des Juenes Filles en Fleurs, the event barely ruffled the waters in his special universe of nurture and devotion. Hs work had become a living being, making demands of its own. "For me it had turned into a son. The dying mother must still submit to the fatigue of taking care of him." He knew he had given birth.
The last decade of Proust's life displays an outward life gradually abdicated in favor of a work-both the inward process and the material product. Yet there is nothing reluctant or tragic about his abdication. It does not resemble the two great royal departures of the era, when a Spanish king bowed to republicanism and an English king chose love of a commoner over royalty. With surprising confidence Proust simply decided in favor of the dense tropical growth he felt within him. For he discovered that it was at last assuming a shape it had not exhibited earlier. Throughout his life, Proust composed in a discontinuous fashion. Except possibly in the earliest short stories, he did not start at the be-ginning of a narrative and follow it through to the end. Observations and incidents and characters came to him in disparate fragments direcfly based on his day-to-day experience. His notebooks seem to be in total disarray in spite of the dazzling insights they carry. In reading Jean Santeuil, still virtually a notebook, one rarely receives the sense of a direction in which events are moving. It drifts to a standstill. The prose pieces Proust wrote for the abandoned essay-novel, Against Sainte-Beuve, display this desultory quality to an even greater extent. He seems totally at sea.
But after 1909 he has a chart and a course. The "very exacting composition" Proust lays claim to in a letter to Louis de Robert in 1912 was the major new element that had entered his work and claimed his energies. In the Search he holds his characters and his story in an iron grasp. Lengthy digressions and hernia-like extensions of a single scene or sentiment do not mean that be has lost track of where his characters are going and what they have already been through. Considering its length, unfinished condition, and the handicapped circumstances in which he wrote the novel, it contains extraordinarily few repetitions and inconsistencies. The over-all design and the narrative links rarely waver, a difficult feat in view of the complex strategies of divulgence and development he set for himself. Yet Proust never relished the final stage of assembling and fitting. 'Writing is easy for me," he wrote Gallimard. "But to patch things together, to set all the bones, that's more than I can face. For Some time I've realized that I leave out the best pieces, because I would have to fit this detail to that one, and so on." Even so, beneath all that flesh Proust did set the bones of his narrative and cre-ated strong joints to carry the sustained movements of its development.
The other major shift in Proust's writing after 1909 concerns the narrative voice in which he wrote. With a few revealing exceptions, Jean Santeuil employs the third person to designate a "hero" very close to Proust in biographical and psychological terms. The opening pages of On Reading Ruskin, and the preface to Against Sainte-Beuve, use the I without feint or dissembling to represent Proust as a real person and signatory. In none of these texts has he found his true discursive pitch and pace. Somewhere in the early stages of the Search, however, when he still thought it was Against Sainte-Beuve, a double reaction occurs. It is both a fusion and a fission attacking the I. First of all Proust calls in both the Scantily veiled third-person of Jean Santeuil and his various uses of the first person. He combines them into the je of the Search -- both narrator and character, a double personage in one pronoun. At the same time takes himself, his life, and his character, and divides them up among a number of characters in the novel: Charlus, Bloch, Swann, as well as Marcel and the Narrator.
This fission-fusion process explains why it is so un satisfactory to keep asking if Marcel or the Narrator represents Proust. There can be no doubt that the Search embodies a version -- both revelation and disguise --of Proust's life. The links are too evident to discount, from the setting and action to details like the Narrator having translated Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies. But Proust's disclaimers are equally powerful. He insists that his book be read as a self-contained story and not as autobiography masquerading as fiction. It would be foolish to insist on one of these approaches to the exclusion of the other. Toward the end of the novel one comes upon an odd passage which makes a tiny step toward reconciliation. There is nothing like it elsewhere in the Search.
In this book, in which every fact is fictional and in which not a single character is based on a living person, in which everything has been invented by me according to the needs of my demonstration, I must state to the credit of my country that only Francoise's millionaire relatives, who interrupted their retirement in order to help their needy niece, are real people, existing in the world.Here, I believe, Proust is pointing out to us a kind of vestigial navel cord, a detail which proves that his vast work does not coincide with actuality but was born from it. Ideas of slow gestation and final parturition do greater justice to the novel's origins than concepts of literal imitation or of complete autonomy.
In Proust's final years the autobiographical nature of the Search seems less significant than the literary nature of its author's life. He prepares us for this perspective with the much quoted line in which he attacks the failure of Sainte-Beuve's critical method to take into account what true wisdom should have told him: "... that a book is the product of a different self from the one we display in our habits, in society, in our vices" . This may be as close as we can come to gospel. But there is a further question. Need we assume that the authorial self has been formed prior to the composition of the work? Valery liked to point out that, as the criminal may be the product of his crime, so the author may be the product of his literary work. What I have said about Proust's "abdication" points to a sense in which, as author, be was the product of his work in progress. In the cases most crucial to literature, writing is less a record of what has actually happened to someone than a discovery-creation of what might potentially happen to people, "author" included. The symbiotic relationship between man and book grows as much out of aesthetic as out of biographical factors. The development of "the other self" who wrote the Search can be traced within the novel itself, but not in terms of finding keys to characters and identifying incidents transposed from Proust's life. They are incidentals. Mysteriously and steadily, the Search secreted its true author, the literary creature we call Marcel Proust.
The biographical Proust spent his last three years in bed, in great part in order to escape the demands of literary celebrity. Surrounded by galley proofs, manuscripts, and strange potions, he lived his unfinished book as totally and exclusively as an author can without losing his sense of reality. What kept him sane and even practical was the desire to assure his work an enlightened readership. He answered most letters (but not one from an American girl who had read his novel steadily for three years and then rebuked him: "Don't be a Poseur. . . . Tell me in two lines what you wished to say"), contributed to newspaper surveys on trends and styles, and took time to write two superb essays on his masters: Flaubert and Baudelaire. His remarks about the tonality of tenses and the place of metaphor in their work apply also to his own. An occasional Lazarus-like sortie formed part of the pattern. Shot up with adren-alin and caffeine, he submitted to a ceremonial midnight meeting with James Joyce at a large supper party for Diaghilev, Picasso, and Stravinsky. Neither author had read the other's work. They talked about the only other subject that mattered to them: their health. Another time, Proust let himself be taken to the fashionable 1920s nightspot, Le Boeuf sur le toit. He never shed his heavy overcoat and was almost swept into a drunken brawl. Meanwhile the work never stopped, even during the final months. Most of all Proust feared the affliction that had tortured Baudelaire at the end: aphasia. Yet, beneath the complaints, Proust found a wonderful excitement in the tension between his mission to finish his work and his simple mortality. Three months before the end, he answered "a little question" submitted to various prominent persons by the newspaper, l'Intransigeant: "If the world were coming to an end, what would it mean to you?"
I believe that life would suddenly appear wonderful to us, if we were suddenly threatened with death as you propose.Death had long since become his faith, his inspiration. The final complication was pneumonia. He died on November 18, 1922.
An Overdetermined Universe:
At intervals throughout the Search, Marcel goes to stay
in a strange place. Each time it is as if he has to reconstitute from
scratch all his perceptions and habits, the whole orientation of his life.
Toward the middle of the novel, he visits his close friend Saint-Loup
in Doncieres, a town where Saint-Loup is doing his military service in
the cavalry. What strikes Marcel first on arriving is the "perpetual,
musical, and warlike vibratility" that hangs in the air. For several pages
after that the whole narrative texture is woven out of unfamiliar sounds.
He notices Saint-Loup's modified accent. The crackling fire in his friend's
barracks room makes Marcel think that someone must be in there while he
stands listening in the hall outside the closed door. Once he enters the
empty room, the ticking of an unseen clock seems to come from all directions
until Marcel has spotted it and given the object and the sound a specific
location. And then this acoustical disorienta-tion infects everything,
even Marceys friendship for Saint-Loup and his sense of his own identity
in the world. In other words, when his impressions are most vivid, he
loses his bearings. Marcel's "auditory hyper-esthesia", which Saint-Loup
specifically mentions here as making life difficult for his visitor, serves
not to fix the world more clearly in place for Marcel but to send it skittering
off toward new patterns and multiple vanishing points. The disconcerting
effect of strange sounds throws every element of life into play again,
and thus into jeopardy. Even familiar sensations recover significance
1 Critical attention to Proust shows no sign of flagging and has begun to dispel the misconceptions and to probe the Paradoxes I have mentioned. Among recent critics Gilles Deleuze, Gérard Genette, René Girard, and J.-F Revel have Produced line studies in French. The books by Leo Bersani and George Stambollan in English maintain a comparable level of discourse.
2In a volume of provocative psychoanalytic studies, L'Arbre jusqu'aux racines, Dominique Fernandez interprets the whole of the Search, and this sequence in particular, as an elaborate feint on Proust's part to distract our attention from his jealousy of his younger brother and disappointment in his father, and from the overpowering domination of his mother. Thus, according to Fernandez, Proust masks the true origins of his homosexuality and protects the myth of the happy family. Many of Fernandez' points are persuasive, but he has a distressingly narrow belief in "precise psychological causes" from which all human behavior will "necessarily flow." Those causes reduce a novel to an excrescence of a psychological case history. I cannot acept this tight deter-minism on any level of life or literature. Proust's novel makes revelations that transcend his particular case and cannot be read back into it. There, in fact, lies the principal justification for calling it a novel. Fernandez also argues that Jean Santeuil is a better and more courageous book than the Search because it reveals more about Proust's neurosis than the final novel. Though Fernandez argues his premise very resourcefully, his conclusion does not follow.
*Copyright ©1974 by Roger Shattuck, Chapter I of Marcel Proust, published by the Viking Press, Inc.