À la recherche du Temps perdu
Copernique Marshall et Paul Dubé
Marcel Proust was born in Paris on the tenth of July, 1871. At the age of nine he was suddenly stricken with an attack of asthma and from that time on he claimed the privileges of an invalid fortunately relieved by wealthy parents from the necessity of any concern with a livelihood. The doting father and mother watched over him with exaggerated care and developed in him a morbid affection. He attended school irregularly, passed the summer at the seaside, and amazed the parents of his childhood companions by the perfection of his behavior in the drawing room. Later on he abandoned the study of law at the Sorbonne for the career of valetudinarian and man-about-town, frequenting the best society and occasionally writing rather precious little essays for the aristocratic pages of Figaro.
As early as 1890 (when he was nineteen years old) he had also begun to take notes for an elaborate work which he was already projecting but none of his friends appears to have taken his literary pretension as anything more than the self-deception of a dilettante. He was universally liked because of a charm to which everyone who knew him has testified and because of a determination, carried to fantastic lengths, to do the considerate as well as the socially correct thing. He had not, however, written anything which displayed any conspicuous talent and it was not thought likely that he would. Then, in 1905, his mother died and he began that process of cutting himself more and more completely from the world which was to bring him at last to a strange self-imprisonment in the bedroom from which, after the most elaborate preparations, he only occasionally sallied forth in order to seek some bit of information from the head waiter at the Ritz or, as one lady remembers, to ask to see a hat worn some twenty years before.
From childhood Proust had regarded himself as primarily a spectator. There were many things which he could know only by watching, and this fact doubtless encouraged him to make watching an end in itself. Nevertheless, contemplation became something much more than merely a substitute for the activities he could not indulge. His theory was that the quality of a direct experience always eluded one and that only in recollection could we grasp its real flavor. Now that the death of his mother had severed the only tie which bound him to the life of the world, he retired in order that he might discover and record what his experience had been. Apparently he discussed with no one the nature of the work he was to write, but by 1906 the first seven hundred pages had been written and by 1913 Swann's Way had been published. Proust died in 1922, but the last volume of his work did not appear until 1927.
Even these few facts are sufficient to make it clear that Remembrance of Things Past is a life work in more than one sense. It was not only the thing upon which he depended to justify his assumption of the writer's role ; it was also, and for himself, the real meaning of his life. So far as outward events are concerned the "I" of the novel is not exactly Proust, but the personalities of the two are identical and if the events are not copied from life they are intended to be a perfected equivalent of those experiences which he had or ought to have had in order to reach what he would have regarded as a perfect realization of his own potentialities. And what is true of himself is true of the other personages. They are all composites but composites carefully put together out of the most significant aspects of various real persons in such a fashion as to make each the complete realization of some ideal character towards which it seemed to him these various acquaintances were tending. Having come at last to reject completely that active participation in life which had never, in his case, been very full, he was determined to construct for himself out of memory and imagination a more than satisfactory substitute. That is what Remembrance of Things Past is.
One of the publishers to whom the first section, Swann's Way, was submitted sent it back with the words : "I cannot understand why a gentleman should employ thirty pages to describe how he turns and returns on his bed before going to sleep." Since that time many would-be readers have doubtless laid the volume down with a similar reflection but the loss has been theirs alone. Proust knew with uncommon exactness what it was he was about; he has a purpose in everything that he does, and even what appear to be digressions of inordinate length actually occupy a carefully proportioned and predetermined place in a structure whose architecture can only be understood when one stands off and regards it as a whole. The first rule for reading him is, therefore, complete submission to an author who will certainly take you where you ought to go and who will give you, not only vivid descriptions, subtle analyses, precise portraits and full participation in a strange new sensibility, but also compose all these things into a vast symphonic structure which is probably the most amazing thing of its kind in literature. Nevertheless the reader about to embark upon so long a journey will profit somewhat by having a general idea of the course before him. What, then is Remembrance of Things Past about?
The whole is cast into the form of an autobiography in which, nevertheless, the narrator himself plays a role not very much larger than that of certain other characters. It begins with his account of how he was accustomed to spend his sleepless nights in an effort to recapture the elusive memory of certain events in his childhood and it describes what some of these fragmentary memories were. Presently it tells how one of them was suddenly recaptured in its entirety when the taste of a little cake brought back a certain instance in childhood connected with the same taste and then, abandoning this incident until the last volume of the whole work, the narrator launches into the recollections of his youth. Gradually the tragic story of a certain Mr. Swann detaches itself and the history of his jealousy-wrecked life is told in full. Meanwhile the narrator has been growing up. He moves in aristocratic circles and becomes absorbed in the study of manners and their meaning. He falls in love, first with a whole group of girls, then, in succession, with two individuals in whose company he goes through strange emotional adventures. Meanwhile he meets many other persons whose lives cross his in one way or another and in particular he falls under the influence of the powerful M. de Charlus whose greatness and final downfall constitute perhaps the most impressive of all the single stories. Presently the social organization whose traditions he has been studying with such care disintegrates; he himself falls deeper and deeper into his illness and suddenly we realize that we are back again where we started. The author is ready to begin the writing of his book and we learn at last the real significance of the little cake. Through an extraordinary series of psychological adventures the past has been recaptured-not merely remembered but totally recalled and become, in the process, Art. The narrator no longer cares to live. He has lived and, what is more, he has grasped (and recorded) in its entirety the experience of living.
So much for the incidents. In what manner are they told and what tlualities are revealed? These are questions which the reader will probably find himself answering in different ways as he becomes acquainted one after another with the extraordinary variety of Proust's powers. In the Ineginning he will find himself in a twilight world of extraordinary fascinal ion and will be amazed at the precision with which Proust has recreated I lie world between sleep and waking. No sooner, however, has he had time to formulate this impression of Proust as a master of twilight psychology Ilian he will find himself aware that characters and stories, remarkable now for their dramatic completeness, are emerging. Thus the story of Swann's love, brilliantly objective, forms a novel complete in itself and not yet perceived to be part of a larger pattern. A little further on, the narrator returns again to the experience of his boyhood; one is introdticed to the aristocratic Guermantes; and one meets the group of bourgeois music lovers united under the leadership of the redoubtable Madame Verdurin. Faced with this extraordinary collection of vivid personages, one is tempted now to hold the opinion that it is as a creator of characters Ihat Proust most conspicuously excels. One recognizes a whole gallery of grotesques-almost Dickens-like in the brilliance of the caricature-and later one will have to add many others, including even the fascinating licit: perverse M. de Charlus who is carried through his social triumphs, gradually allowed to disintegrate under our eyes, and then finally is exposed at his horribly comic nadir when he complains to the proprietor of a certain establishment where he has gone to have himself whipped by a milk boy, that the latter is insufficiently insulting. On the other hand, the greater part of four whole volumes in the original edition is devoted to the story of the narrator's love for Albertine and as one reads some of the passages of tortured self-analysis, one returns again to the idea that Proust is most remarkable in the description of subjective states, in following the involutions of his spirit and in communicating his egotistical absorption in the poignancy of a cherished pain.
Yet for all its variety there is unity in the work. Somehow all the characters and all the discourses go together. Remembrance of Things Past is no brilliant miscellany, for it achieves some single effect to which not only all the stories but also the revelation of Proust's strange personality contribute. No one could possibly be more detached than he and no one could have. less of faith in anything. Indeed the story of the novel might with some justice be said to be the story of his disillusion with the only thing in which he made even an effort to believe-namely, that tradition of noblesse oblige which the members of the aristocracy ought to follow but which, so obviously, they do not. Yet the total effect is not one of chaos or of despair, because the work itself is beautiful even if the material which composes it is not, and in that fact lies the key to the secret. Proust's greatest invention was the invention of a form, of a method by means of which events could be arranged in a pattern having a formal beauty and a formal meaning capable of replacing the beauty and the meaning lost to those who, like himself, had no moral or religious faith capable of giving them any other kind.
Externally the method is one in which the normal chronological order of narrative is often subordinated to a quasi-musical arrangement of material by means of which similar or antithetical persons, situations and moods are rhythmically balanced against one another so as to create a pattern which does not depend upon the order of time but upon the sense of recurrence. At the same time every presentation of material is dominated by the author's obsession with Time and the need of the artist to escape from its tyranny. The past must be recovered; but that is not all. It must be made permanent, and it can become that only when grasped by the imagination in such a way that every moment implies the past and the future because its true significance lies in its being part of a pattern extending from the past into the future. Living experience cannot be fully significant because it is isolated and transitory; it becomes significant only, when it is contemplated in connection with those parts of the pattern which Time separates but which really belong together. Let us, then, consider first the external aspects of the method and afterwards the end to which it is subservient.
Proust himself spoke of the various themes whose full significance would not be clear until, in the later volumes, they had begun to combine. This remark of his suggests the analogy with music, and one may begin the study of his method in some unit like the first volume, much as one might study the structure of a symphony by considering the first movement alone. Here one may commence by noting, for example, how the incident of his mother's failure to kiss him good night is first referred to on page ten, is dropped like a musical phrase, reappears successively on pages eighteen, twenty-one and twenty-seven, but does not receive its full development until the last volume when the narrator is standing in the anteroom of the Guermantes residence. Moreover this method is the one followed consistently throughout the book in which the themes play about one another like the motifs of a fugue. Each separate scene is related to others by the fact that some emotion or thought or observation recurs in each. The love affair with Gilberte is looking forward to a fuller development of the same themes in the love affair with Albertine and even the elaborate analysis of the process of forgetting the latter, which fills nearly a volume, is anticipated in the more summary tale of Gilberte by a few pages on that "irregular process of oblivion" which is destined to be later so elaborately developed.
The motifs appear one by one. It would be possible to go through the work and to note, as-one would note in a symphony, that at this point or that each one of the themes-love, taste, manners, etc. is introduced for the first time merely in passing before it is returned to again and again for more and more complete development. In Swann's Way, for example, the slight, apparently purposeless incident centering about the daughter of Vinteuil serves to suggest the theme of homosexuality later so elaborately treated and, though probably no reader who did not turn back would realize the fact, the very first pages of the whole work hint at most of the major themes. Thus the escape from Time is alluded to on page four where it is immediately followed by the incident of the magic lantern, which, as the first work of art introduced, serves to suggest the technique by which Time is to be transcended. One result of this arrangement is to make the novel in another respect like a piece of music, for of it may be said, more truly even than of most great novels, that the second reading is more rewarding than the first. To know what is coming does not detract from the pleasure-is indeed necessary to the full enjoyment of it-since each incident is, like a musical theme, only enriched by a knowledge of the variations to follow.
This original and perfected form has its own self-justifying beauties, but to consider the intention which determined its choice is to be led back again to that obsession with Time whose influence is discoverable in every detail of Proust's work. Thanks to the method which disregards chronology he was able to bring together, for purposes of contrast or comparison, widely separated periods, or, as he himself said, to show men as monstrous creatures straddling between the distant past and the present. Moreover it was necessary for his purpose to do just this because the full horror of 'l'ime had to be revealed in order that the miraculous joy which comes through the escape from it might be properly appreciated.
In the pages of the novel the commonplace fact that faces grow old and characters change becomes, for him, something to be analyzed with a fascinated terror. But this change in faces is only trivially important in comparison with that change which takes place in character. Hence it came at last to seem to him that it was folly to speak of Albertine, of Charlus, of himself even, as though any one of them were an entity maintaining its identity while time flowed past; and he realized that if his novel was to attain the full significance which he wished, it must manage somehow, not only to attain timelessness itself, but also to suggest the triumph of Time over the persons and the experiences which the novel alone could rescue. Proust's problem as an artist was, then, the problem of finding the means of rescuing something from the flux, of establishing in the eternity of art the experiences which he had undergone or observed. But how was this to be accomplished? What was the bridge between the two realms? There was memory of course, and memory seems to the uninitiated the only enemy of Time. Through its aid the days that are passed may be recovered after a fashion. But memory collects rather than joins together, and what it gives us is a bag of detached and dissimilar fragments. The aggregate of them is the thing which we ordinarily call ourselves, but it remains only an aggregate, not a meaningful whole. From the dilemma presented by the fact that memory reveals its impotence at the same time that it seems the only instrument we possess, Proust was rescued by an essentially mystical experience-by the discovery that for him there was possible a kind of memory not identical with the ordinary sort: a vision of the eternity in which even the most completely forgotten experience has already taken its place. Since this vision was mystical, it is, by very definition, not to be explained in any terms except its own; yet it cannot be repeated too often that in it lies the meaning of the novel, every detail of which it controls. And if we cannot analyze further a thing ultimate in its own nature, we can at least note the quality which it bestows, can at least ask how it determines the impression produced by the work which it dominates. In the first place, it gives to Remembrance of Things Past that curiously detached and passionless character which the novel preserves even when passion is being so brilliantly described; it enables Proust to write a work so cool, so calm and so pure that its artistic perfection is never disturbed by anything which seems to arise in a mere human being whose impartiality can be disturbed as-occasionally at least-that of most writers is by the private passions or desires of a man. In the second place, it furnishes him with his particular means of achieving an effect which every really great work of art must in some manner produce; it supplies him with a point of view from which even calamitous events can be seen as no longer actually painful. Always aware of the whole of which any incident is a part, he can, in his novel, calmly accept his own sufferings as well as the sufferings of others because it is the pattern of which they are a part, rather than either the pleasure or the pain of the moment, of which he is most acutely aware; and by thus seeing the passing events of time as part of a static eternity in which the end is simultaneous with the beginning, he achieves that indifference which is not the indifference of the insensitive but the indifference of the gods. Events become, even as he recounts them, already a part of legend and thus life is magically transmuted into art. He himself, as well as M. Swann and M. de Charlus, are no longer mere human beings but analogous to the figures painted upon the slides of the little magic lantern which had fascinated him so long ago and which he had described at length early in the first volume of his work. The suffering and the wickedness of his own characters have now ceased to have any significance except as parts of a formal design; the first is no more painful and the second no more terrifying than the distress of Geneviève de Brabant or the wickedness of her implacable enemy Golo when these two, emerging as they were always ready to do from eternity, bodied themselves forth on the wall against which the beams of the lantern were directed. IV Very diverse opinions have been expressed concerning the rank which ought to be accorded to Proust as a novelist, but whatever other qualities he may or may not have, one can hardly,deny him a freshness of vision which makes his novel very unlike any other. Whether narrating a series of events, describing a scene, or cataloguing the contents of the mind of a character at any moment, he is certain to select incidents, to set down particulars, and to list details which most would have omitted in favor of certain others now in their turn passed over by Proust. The result is the creation of a strange new world. Perhaps we recognize its elements even though we have not ever before been consciously aware of their existence; but the whole which they compose is new. We enter the pages of Remembrance of Things Past as we might enter a realm totally unfamiliar, and before we are aware of the fact we have closed a door behind us, forgetting the standards and the conventions of familiar life as completely as we forget its personages. For the world which the novel reveals is more than merely strange; it is also so consistent, so self-sustaining, and so logically complete that we are never by any reference led back to the other world of our ordinary concerns. In contemporary literature we are far more accustomed to literary virtues of another sort. In the novels of a Sinclair Lewis or a Theodore Dreiser it is the closeness of their relation to everyday existence which strikes us most often. These novelists see what we ordinarily see, stress what we ordinarily stress, and judge as we ordinarily judge. One can, indeed, hardly distinguish the point at which reading leaves off and daily experience begins. The pages seem to merge into the stream of contemporary life and it is this fact which gives to them the kind of importance which they have. But it is this fact also which prevents us from doing what it is impossible not to do in the case of Proust-from, that is to say, entering a possible world entirely different from the one we know best and shutting the door behind us. Moreover, it must be admitted that, quite aside from the delight afforded by the mere freshness involved, the spiritual world of Proust has elements of charm lacking in most contemporary novels because of the fact that the sensibility everywhere exhibited is of an extraordinary sort. He was disillusioned enough with many things-with morals, for example-and he had neither any code nor any standards besides those which his taste supplied. Yet in the midst of what might seem to be anarchy there were still capacities and faiths which he retained. He still believed, for example, in the sufficiency of the senses-at least as furnishers of the material which contemplation might transform. On the other hand, he never, like so many moderns, found himself in a universe limited and debased by the impossibility of escape from psychology, anthropology and Freudianism. The world was still absorbingly, still amazingly, interesting. Womenmost women-were to him magical and mysterious. Conversations were witty, artists incalculably great. In a word, he respected his desires, his tastes and his amusements, and hence, though experience might be predominantly painful, it was neither meaningless nor mean. And that perhaps is the secret of the individual charm of his world. It is one viewed with the critical freedom of modern thought and one in which skepticism rules. Yet it is somehow glamorous as well.
No man was ever more completely than Proust a slave to sensations; no man ever lived more entirely by and for the nerves; but by shutting himself off from all but the memory of these sensations he not only recovered them with unexampled fullness but recovered them in a state more nearly pure than would have been possible for anyone who had a living future which could occupy him with plans and desires-recovered them, that is to say, unmixed either with his own personal concerns or with those moral fervors and antipathies which, for such at least as he, are in fact no part of a personal concern. It cannot, of course, be denied that Proust's work fails to afford that "synthesis of modern life" which has been the subject of so much discussion or that, indeed, it fails even to treat the themes which the age seems to impose. Most of the novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries felt constrained to take life seriously in a sense that Proust does not, since, and with a clear conscience, he permits himself to live the charmed life of a dilettante, not troubling himself much about the fate of civilization, acting as though there were nothing more important than the careful discrimination between shades of feeling, and devoting himself with the selfishness of the contemplative saint to the achievement of his own private salvation. He does not hope to dominate or even to influence the civilization of which he is part, but instead-and again like the most other-worldly of monks-only to find some way of accepting the evil inevitably woven into the fabric of any life which takes place in time. Is it not true, on the other hand, that the very critics who have found Proust insufficiently "modern" have also been demanding "form"; that they have grown weary of mere document and discussion; and that here in Proust's novel they are presented with one of the most perfect formal ' designs ever achieved by a writer of prose fiction?
Is it not true, also, that he has been more successful than any other modern writer in finding a way of achieving order and peace for himself and his readers without removing them from modern life?
Remembrance of Things Past is Proust's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and if the life which it defends seems to us a very odd one, at least the defense is successful and Proust in his novel has achieved certain qualities (like charm and order and peace) which seemed to have departed forever from modern literature. His world has definitely taken its place in the not very long list of those possible worlds which art creates; Charlus, Saint-Loup, the Duchesse de Guermantes, Françoise and Madame Verdurin have definitely taken their places in the not very long list of characters who are more real than reality. Something-both in the particular sense defined by Proust and in the more general sense in which the phrase is applicable to all great literature-has been rescued from Time. It is not often that that can be said.
Joseph Wood Krutch
(Joseph Wood Krutch - November 25, 1893 – May 22, 1970 - was an American writer, critic, and naturalist, best known for his nature books on the American Southwest and as a critic of reductionistic science. )
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