A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian revisits Marcel Proust’s masterpiece in this essay on literature and memory, exploring the question of identity—that of the novel’s narrator and Proust’s own.
This engaging reexamination of In Search of Lost Time considers how the narrator defines himself, how this compares to what we know of Proust himself, and what the significance is of these various points of commonality and divergence. We know, for example, that the author did not hide his homosexuality, but the narrator did. Why the difference? We know that the narrator tried to marginalize his part-Jewish background. Does this reflect the author’s position, and how does the narrator handle what he tries, but does not manage, to dismiss? These are major questions raised by the text and reflected in the text, to which the author’s life doesn’t give obvious answers. The narrator’s reflections on time, on death, on memory, and on love are as many paths leading to the image of self that he projects.
In Proustian Uncertainties, Saul Friedländer draws on his personal experience from a life spent investigating the ties between history and memory to offer a fresh perspective on the seminal work.
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“Proust?” a French acquaintance asked me when told about my endeavor. “Why Proust?” My answer had been vague, and the question was to the point: why Proust? The vagueness of the answer was also to the point: I couldn’t tell clearly why I had decided to work on Proust, or maybe I didn’t want to tell. One thing was sure: I had not the competence and certainly not the intention of becoming one more “specialist” of Proust. And yet my desire to write specifically on À la recherche was not haphazard; I was certain about that. Was it due to the beauty of In Search? Its complexity? Without any doubt those aspects played a role, mainly in my rereading In Search time and time again. But wasn’t there more? Wasn’t I rereading it because it responded to some need, to something in my personal life that called for delving into that book, something that was intimately attuned to it? Some themes in the novel were close to my own ruminations over the decades, mainly about identity.
Whatever the motivation may have been, I started rereading In Search with particular attention. Soon I noticed aspects that I had failed to see before, and as I soon realized after some inquiry, seemed to have generally escaped attention. Of course, I felt once more the extraordinary pull of a text that, as for so many other readers, was not only the greatest novel of French literature but one of the most important novels ever written.
Given that there is hardly any plot, In Search is easily summed up: it is the life story of a Narrator whose main desire since childhood has been to become a writer. As he doubts his literary talent, he spends decades of his adulthood in idleness, devoting himself to social climbing from his middle-class background into the highest reaches of the French aristocracy. It is only in late adulthood that he discovers, by pure chance, through a kind of epiphany triggered by a surge of involuntary memory, that he has the creative literary gift that will allow him to fulfill his ambition. He then starts writing the story of his life that will, in great part, tell what he remembers from his years of idleness, years that, unknown to him, have been in fact years of preparation. From then on, his writing will indeed be a search for lost time, which in the original French is both “time forgotten that has to be discovered again” and “time squandered that has to be retrieved or regained.”
While the Narrator tells us that as far as writing went, he remained inactive until late in adult life, possibly to add importance to the quasi-magic impact of involuntary memory, Proust himself, although fixated on social climbing and plagued by sporadic illness, wrote assiduously during all these years: short stories, published when he was twenty-five, in 1896, under the title Les plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days); a novel some eight hundred pages long ( Jean Santeuil), unpublished during his lifetime; another book of literary criticism that also contained fragments of a novel (Contre Sainte-Beuve), also published only posthumously; and various lighter articles for newspapers and journals, mainly pastiches of well-known authors. Remarkably, all these early writings, the published and the unpublished, include an ever-growing number of themes that will reappear in the great novel, which he started sometime in 1909 (the last two volumes were only published after the author’s death in 1922, at age fifty-one).
The time “squandered” by the Narrator gave us, the readers, the extraordinary descriptions of French society during the Belle Epoque, particularly of the high bourgeoisie (the Verdurins and their salon) and the aristocracy at its highest reaches, the Faubourg Saint-Germain (represented by several salons, but mainly by that of the Duc and the Duchesse de Guermantes). The Narrator doesn’t subject us to social analysis but in a constant flow of observations, moving from the magnificent homes and material surroundings of the quasi-mythic aristocratic families to their personalities, presents their taste, their silliness, and their nastiness, particularly as expressed by their conversations.
According to Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish emigrant living in Paris, the French novelist and political figure Maurice Barrès described In Search as the work of “A Persian poet in a porter’s lodge” (Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” Illuminations, 209). This amusing description isn’t off the mark. One of the most striking aspects of the novel resides indeed in the endless conversations that unveil with extraordinary subtlety (the Persian poet’s subtlety and not the porter’s one) the psychological characteristics of the main characters that populate the Narrator’s world. Incidentally, not all great minds enjoyed that subtlety. According to his recent biographer, de Gaulle told his son that he did not like Proust’s preciousness, his contorted style, and his artificial milieu, where the main point of existence was society dinners ( Jackson, De Gaulle, 712).
The story unfolds on many levels, particularly at that of social description, as just mentioned, but also, constantly, at that of the Narrator’s personal reactions, observations, choices, and feelings. At this personal level there is much passion and pain, and weaved throughout the emotional twists and turns, magnificent evocations of nature, the arts, literature, and, among so many other different microcosms, the street sounds of Paris waking up to a new day.
We receive the narration from a fictional avatar who recalls the course of his own life from childhood to the moment, decades later, when he feels able to start writing. The Narrator’s memories follow very closely the author’s biography. My attention will be directed to those issues in the avatar’s text that, as mentioned, seem not to have been noticed but which appear crucial to me. But my interpretations will not always remain within the confines of the text; at times they will lead from the text to the author’s personal world, and often from that world to a further understanding of the text.
This back-and-forth from text to author and from author to text characterizes the core of my approach and demands some further explanation. On a number of crucial issues, the fictional Narrator swerves away from his biographical model and offers weird statements, contradicting what we know of the author’s life: such discrepancies are manifestly intentional. Then, however, at times very soon after and in other cases hundreds of pages later, a small detail is mentioned that affirms the opposite of previous statements. For some reason, the Narrator’s strange, contradictory statements haven’t drawn enough attention among Proust’s scholars.
My aim, of course, will not be to figure out solely what the Narrator means, but to investigate what he seems to mean, or hide, in order to understand the author’s sly hints or attempts at camouflage by using the Narrator’s statements. And, it will be from that angle, by trying to decipher the author’s strategy on the basis of the Narrator’s equivocations, that I will approach the major themes, as well as some other issues, less important in the context of this essay.
One may counter that In Search is a work of fiction, that the Narrator is a wholly invented character whose autobiography, points of view, and attitudes—whether closely mirroring those of the author or in complete opposition to them—should be considered entirely independent of him. Proust himself asserted on several occasions that the life story told by the Narrator had nothing to do with his own life, and quite a few commentators followed him in this. Yet in other instances he admitted that the story told by the Narrator was in many respects very close to his own life. It is this second interpretation that I have adopted: the Narrator’s story is not Proust’s autobiography, but it is close enough, as I hope to show, to allow for the questions I will be asking. A number of interpreters also adopt this position. In George D. Painter’s biography of the 1960s, for example, there is hardly any character or event described in the novel (even minor characters, secondary events, and earlier writings) that cannot claim an original in the author’s life. That said, the Narrator creates composite portraits or somewhat twists the rendition of events, but we cannot dismiss Painter’s erudite references, even if it became clear over time that corrections were necessary.
William C. Carter’s more recent biography offers a very nuanced assessment of the proximity between author and Narrator: “In his letters and notes to himself about the novel, Proust usually spoke of the Narrator as ‘I,’ making no distinction between himself and his fictional persona . . . Still, Proust was engaged not in writing his autobiography but in creating a novel in which there are strong autobiographical elements. The symbiosis between Proust and his Narrator can be explained by the hybrid origin of the story. Having begun as an essay in which the ‘I’ was himself, as the text veered more and more toward fiction, the ‘I’ telling the story became both its generator and its subject, like a Siamese twin, intimately linked to Proust’s body and soul and yet other” (Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life, 474). Further on in the biography, Carter adds an important comment: “As Proust lived more and more in the world he invented, he came to embody the Narrator rather than the other way around” (ibid., 603). Another biographer, Jean-Yves Tadié, put it succinctly: “It is extraordinary to see how Proust allows nothing of his life to be wasted. One might well suppose, then, that one could put a real name to each character, a real event to each event in his fiction” (Tadié, foreword to Marcel Proust, Letters to His Neighbor, 12).
As for Proust himself, on occasion he forgot his own admonitions and recognized a close similarity between In Search and his life. In a letter of November 1913 to René Blum, a friend of his first publisher, Bernard Grasset, he evoked, for example, the discovery brought about by the taste of a piece of cake dipped in a cup of tea: “thus part of the book is a part of my life that I had forgotten and that I suddenly discover again in eating a piece of madeleine dipped in tea, a taste that ravishes me before I had recognized and identified it, as I used to eat some of it every morning in the far away past [ jadis]; thereupon my life of that time resurrects . . . All people and gardens of those years of my life are born from a cup of tea” (Proust, Lettres, 637, my translation).
The overarching issue of this essay will be the question of identity, particularly that of the part-Jewish identity of the Narrator and, less thoroughly so, that of his homosexuality. How does the Narrator define himself? We know, for example, that the author did not hide his homosexuality, but the Narrator did. Why the difference? We know that the Narrator tried to marginalize his part-Jewish background. Does it reflect the author’s position, and how does the Narrator handle what he tries but does not manage to dismiss?
These are major questions raised by the text and reflected in the text to which the author’s life doesn’t give obvious answers. And this isn’t all. The Narrator’s reflections on time, on death, on memory, and on love, as well as the many paths leading to the image of self that he projects—do they mirror what we know about the author’s perceptions? The menu offers quite a few dishes, but the meal hasn’t yet been cooked . . . And as the Narrator is the chef, I decided to designate him with a capital.
I am writing in English (as I did for several previous books), which in this case may look somewhat eccentric; it requires using a translation of Proust’s novel and other texts. It seems that at this point (2017 and beyond) the most frequently and preferably utilized translation of In Search of Lost Time—and the one I will use—is the one published by Modern Library in North America. This is C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s, successively amended by Terence Kilmartin, D. J. Enright, and Andreas Mayor to incorporate corrections and additions introduced by the French editors into the original text. One of the most remarkable aspects of this translation, it seems to me, is the rendition of Proust’s sumptuous style and its unusually long but characteristic sentences into a language that typically favors short, declarative sentences, without losing the poetry of it all.