Proust's Way: A Field Guide to 'In Search of Lost Time'by Roger Shattuck
An illuminating work that serves as both an introduction to Proustperhaps Europe's most enduring twentieth-century novelistand a searching reinterpretation of his work. Since beginning his career, Roger Shattuck has been mesmerized by one writer. First came Proust's Binoculars, a short, brilliant study published in 1964. Then came Marcel Proust,
An illuminating work that serves as both an introduction to Proustperhaps Europe's most enduring twentieth-century novelistand a searching reinterpretation of his work. Since beginning his career, Roger Shattuck has been mesmerized by one writer. First came Proust's Binoculars, a short, brilliant study published in 1964. Then came Marcel Proust, commissioned by Frank Kermode for the Modern Masters series, which won the National Book Award in 1974. A series of essays, lectures, and reviews followed. Now, like Richard Ellmann, whose constant outpourings on Joyce resulted in his triumphant biography James Joyce, Roger Shattuck written a new and definitive work. Devoting special care to Proust's masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (traditionally translated as Remembrance of Things Past), Shattuck laments his subject's defenselessness against zealous editors, praises some translations, examines Proust's place in the path of aesthetic decadence blazed by Baudelaire and Wilde, and presents Proust as a novelist whose philosophical gifts were matched by his irrepressible comic sense. Proust's Way, the culmination of a lifetime of scholarship, will serve as the next generation's guide to Proust.
The New York Times Book Review
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THE WORK AND ITS AUTHOR
Among the handful of literary classics produced in this century, Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time is the most oceanicand 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 somethinglong-windedness, psychological vivisection, the snobbery of letters, salvation by memoryrests 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.
Obstacles and Inducements
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 magnitudeand 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 literaturewhat 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 uponand sometimes self-restriction toa 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 interbedroom 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: guiltybut 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, 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" (I 6/i5). 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" (II 67/iii 81, 82). 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 structureall 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 réalise que successivement" (III 380/v511). 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.
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 an entire 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 aesthetics have developed 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 person not by what one is or does, but by what one owns.)
It is not surprising, therefore, that the biography of so curious a figure as Proust should exert a fascination equal to that of his literary work. I suspect that more readers have read through George D. Painter's biography of Proust than have reached the end of the Search. Furthermore, Proust's work lies in very close proximity to his life. On two occasions toward the end of the novel, when he supplied a first name for his Narrator-hero, Proust used his own, Marcel (III 75, 157/v 91, 203). Writers' lives are neither holy ground nor useless appendages. Without some knowledge of Proust's biography, we would remain blind to a whole section of countryside surrounding his work and lending meaning to it.
Proust's life began with the Paris Commune of 1871 and ended in fame and exhaustion four years after World War I. In those fifty-one years he lived two closely interlocking careers. Beginning very early, this sensitive, gifted young man with something slightly exotic about his soft manner and dark look carried out a brilliant escape from his bourgeois background and from the professional career expected of the eldest son of a prominent Paris doctor. He accomplished this feat by ingratiating himself with the wealthy and sometimes aristocratic families of his schoolmates at the Lycée Condorcet. By the age of seventeen, exploiting his talents as a mimic and conversationalist, he was visiting literary salons and learning his way in society. In his midthirties, soon after the death of both his parents, his first career as a somewhat eccentric man of the world gave way to another activity: literature. Up to that point Proust's writing had served his social ambitions or had been kept hidden. He now reversed the poles of his existence. For the last fifteen years of his life, his social connections and his worldliness furnished the raw material of his writing.
It was a shift, never a clean break. Proust claimed that he wrote parts of his first book at the age of fourteen (JS 902), and there is little reason to doubt him. Just a month before he died, suffering terribly and aware of how much remained to be done on the final volumes of his novel, he dragged himself out of bed to go to a party given by the Comte and Comtesse de Beaumont. The overlap of careers was extensive. Nevertheless, the general movement of Proust's life pivots on an obscure point, somewhere between 1905 and 1909, in which north and south changed places. He became a converta convert to true faith in himself as the novelist of his own conversion.
Such a schematic version of Proust's life keeps things simple and clear. It glosses over minor conflicts of fact and major conflicts of interpretation. There are good reasons for us to seek a closer knowledge of how Proust became a convert to his own calling. The most systematic and the least satisfactory explanations of Proust's life are pseudomedical. Son and brother of prominent doctors, Proust was himself a contributor to this line of thought. Inevitably he had heard that the terrors and upheavals of the Commune (his father was almost shot by accident) had affected his mother's pregnancy. Sickly at birth, he nevertheless survived. Nine years later came his first serious attack of asthma; he received all the attention he could want, and his condition stabilized during youth and early manhood. The attacks recurred in his midtwenties, at about the time he was coming to terms with his homosexuality. Mostly from his own testimony we know that he was prone to hypochondria and was fascinated by voyeurism and certain forms of sadomasochism. Psychoanalysts have produced resounding terms to apply to the roots of his condition. When Serge Béhar speaks of "infantile neurosis developing into cenesthopathy in the adult," he is affirming a diseased condition of the organic sensation of existence and well-being. Perhaps: but this ground is as treacherous as it is fascinating. And I wonder if the technical vocabulary really improves on the term Proust's family applied to him very early and which he cites frequently in Jean Santeuil: un enfant nerveux.
It is significant that all psychological studies of Proust accept his identification of the determining childhood scene: the good-night kiss described near the opening of the Search. But to what extent is it part of Proust's biography? To what extent is it fiction? In the earlier Jean Santeuil version of the scene, the little boy revels in the power and freedom he finds when he finally triumphs over his mother's refusal to leave her guests and come to his room to kiss him good night. The same scene in the Search emphasizes a strong aftertaste of disappointment over the fact that his mother and father give in to his importunings. Their capitulation, the Narrator states, undermines what little willpower the boy has to control his moods. No one has gone further than Proust himself in probing the complete significance of this scene. But we cannot for that reason read it unquestioningly as autobiography.
Heredity provides another way of explaining Proust's temperament and behavior. George Painter seems to accept the "facts" of Proust's "hereditary neurasthenia" and calls attention to a similar condition in a paternal aunt who became a recluse. André Maurois lays great emphasis on the mingling of two parental strains: French-Catholic and Jewish. One cannot readily attribute contrasting character traits to these two races or religions as true genetic strains. On the other hand, the marriage did combine two contrasting cultures. In Proust's sensibility one soon detects the jostling opposition between city and country, between cosmopolitan Paris and provincial, semipastoral Illiers/Combray. His father never lost the brusque manners of a village grocer's son. Dr. Proust was the first of a long line of farmers and tradesman to leave Illiers. Mme Proust, fifteen years younger than her husband, was the highly educated, art-loving daughter of a wealthy stockbroker. Her brother was a bachelor and ladies' man; her mother had connections in elegant society and in the world of literature and the arts. Proust practiced neither Judaism nor Catholicism yet remained close to both faiths. The tidal movement of the Search arises not from a contrast of races or religions but from a geographical and intellectual exchange between city culture and country culture. We glimpse it first in the "two ways" that polarize the child's world of Combray, and later in the contrast between Combray itself and Paris.
Whatever Proust's medical and psychological condition may have been, and whatever his heredity, he found his own path into the Parisian life of la belle époque. He had an agile mind, a prodigious memory (especially for poetry), and a hypersensitive discernment of other people's feelings and reactions. Despite frequent illnesses during his teens, he was healthy enough to excel in school, especially in philosophy. The philosophy teacher Darlu, who tutored him privately for a year, made a profound impression on him and introduced him to the idealist analysis of the contrast between appearance and reality. Very early, Proust fixed on reading and literature as the locus of his interests. He apparently experienced puppy love a number of times. In the most intense instance, his parents discouraged his desires for Marie de Benardaky, insisting that she was socially too far beyond his reach. Taking advantage of a law discriminating in favor of the rich and educated, Proust volunteered at eighteen for one year of military service. Though he did not distinguish himself as a soldier, he made several good friends among the other privileged young men and later called that year the happiest of his life.
One of the favorite pastimes in that leisured self-conscious society was a modified game of truth or consequences played by filling in an elegantly printed questionnaire. Some families kept albums containing these questionnaires along with other mementos of their friends and relatives. In Proust's case we have two such documents, one written at thirteen and the other at twenty. Despite the artificial circumstances, Proust's answers furnish two unmatchable probes of these early years of the slow bloomer. Where possible, I quote both sets of answers.
What is for you the greatest unhappiness? To be separated from maman (13). Not to have known my mother and grandmother (20).
In what place would you like to live? In the land of the Ideal, or rather of my ideal (13). In the place where certain things I want would come to pass as if by enchantmentand where tender feelings would always be shared (20).
Your ideal of earthly happiness? To live near all my loved ones, with the charms of nature, lots of books and musical scores, and, not far away, a French theater (13). I'm afraid it isn't high enough, and I'm afraid of destroying it by telling it (20).
For what faults do you have the greatest indulgence? For the private life of geniuses (13). For those I understand (20).
Your principal fault? Not to know how, not to be able, to will something [vouloir] (20).
What would you like to be? Myself, as people I admire would like me to be (20).
Your favorite quality in a man? Intelligence, the moral sense (13).
Your favorite quality in a woman? Tenderness [douceur], naturalness, intelligence (13).
Your favorite occupation? Reading; daydreaming; poetry (13). Loving (20).
Your present state of mind? Annoyance [ennui] over having thought about myself to answer all these questions (20).
Even for Proust's hothouse milieu, 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 painful question of 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 philosophy. 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 newspapers and symbolist reviews, and cultivating the elegant 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 extorted from 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-Fezensac. Fifteen years older, he had everything Proust thought he wanted. The Count was descended from the model for D'Artagnan of The Three Musketeers and could claim most of European nobility as relatives by blood or marriage. Immense wealth enabled him to cultivate an aesthetic manner and way of life remarkable enough to have already inspired one notorious book, Huysmans' A rebours. 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 fight 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.
It was during this time that the Dreyfus affair exploded in November 1897. Proust, aged twenty-six and fully committed to his Jewish heritage, joined 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 much of 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 the 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 girlfriend) and to write prefaces that grew until they almost swallowed the works 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 aesthetic 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 December 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 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 yearsnot 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. Composing 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 some dry toast. 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 onethe 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 begunand finisheda 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: Recollections 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 thousands of pages away from having 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 1910 he announced to his friends a kind of withdrawal 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 performances over the telephone. But from 1910 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 later 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 irrepressibly, frighteningly, like a carnivorous 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 appear heroic. In his private life he mixed low-grade hedonism with deliberate psychological and moral experiment. What looks degrading 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 jeunes filles en fleurs, the event barely ruffled the waters in his special universe of nurture and devotion. His 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" (III 1041-42/vi 522). He knew he had given birth.
The last decade of Proust's life displays an outward life gradually abdicated in favor of a workboth 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 that would occur shortly thereafter, 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 beginning of a narrative and follow it through to the end. Observations and incidents and characters came to him in disparate fragments often directly 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 he has lost track of where his characters are going and what they have already been through. Considering its length, its unfinished condition, and the handicapped circumstances in which he wrote the novel, it contains extraordinarily few repetitions and inconsistencies. The overall design and the narrative links rarely waver.
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, 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 passages 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 the scantily veiled third person of Jean Santeuil along with his various uses of the first person. He combines them into the je of the Searchequally narrator and character, a double personage in one pronoun. At the same time Proust 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, both of whom say I.
This fission-fusion process explains why it is so unsatisfactory to keep asking if Marcel or the Narrator represents Proust. There can be no doubt that the Search embodies a versionboth revelation and disguiseof 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 that 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 Françoise's millionaire relatives, who interrupted their retirement in order to help their needy niece, are real people, existing in the world. (III 846/vi 225)
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. Images 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" (CSB 221-22/OAL 99-100). 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? Valéry 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, he 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 finish his work and to assure it 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 adrenaline 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 a 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 received "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?" Proust knew when to be brief. "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 Doncières, the 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" (II 70/iii 86) 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 disorientation infects everything, even Marcel's 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 hyperesthesia" (II 72/iii 88), 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 and urgency.
This dense network of perpetually reconstituted connections among impressions, feelings, meanings, and words constitutes one of the fundamental qualities of Proust's work. He conveys it in the resonance of the prose and in the overall architecture of the action. The superb opening of the book, in which the Narrator puts himself together like Humpty-Dumpty out of fragmentary impressions of waking and dreaming, is baffling at first. Nothing created out of so many elements could be simple. Even when the Narrator fails to achieve this self-creation ex omnibus (dialectically the equivalent of ex nihilo), the writing itself emits a powerful sense of the links among the things around us and our experiences of them. Proust writes from deep inside the world of Baudelaire's correspondances, close to Leonardo's universe where the painter said he saw actual lines connecting objects in a form of visible geometry.
In one respect this sense of the plenitude of relations between things runs counter to a human temper often treated in modern literature. In writers like Kafka and Camus we discern a quality of emptiness that it is hard to describe. For K and Meursault, experience generates very little motivation to undertake anything, to oppose the world or to affirm oneself. They act out of gratuitous impulse or yield to mere circumstance. In Proust the opposite is true. Multiple desires and motivations converge on every action and often impede its execution. Marcel goes to unbelievable lengths to explain to himself the behavior of the women in his life. For them as for him potential motives are often spelled out in a series of either/or propositions. But one motive will never prove to be the correct one and eliminate the others. After two pages of speculation on the character and behavior of one of his oldest friends, Gilberte Swann, Marcel throws up his hands. "None of these hypotheses was absurd" (III 708/vi 26). The mystery of Proust's world arises not from gratuitousness or from the absence of motivation but from the conflictingly overdetermined quality of most actions, and from the adaptability of most actions to a great number of attributions. Until Marcel reaches a wider wisdom, what happens around him is not indifferent but overwhelming.
Meet the Author
Roger Shattuck, author of Forbidden Knowledge and Proust's Way, has won the National Book Award. He lives in Vermont.
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