Review of Marcel
Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/30/06
‘I wondered if a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost.’
-Another Woman, Woody Allen
A la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust is not really a novel, by any stretch of the imagination, for it violates the precepts of novel writing- plot, characterization, etc., to an even greater degree than Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick does, and it is not considered an autobiography, because it twists facts, and uses fictive techniques for its nonfiction. In that sense it predates Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood by half a century in the claim to creating a new genre of writing. It might best be called a fictive memoir. Its only clear novelistic technique is the specificity of dialogue, although that is so specific as to almost totally abnegate the claims that it’s a memoir of any sort. The literal translation of the book is In Search Of Lost Time, which Proust preferred, for its duplicity of meaning- as both searching for time that has passed and time as literally lost, but the book has come to be called by the Shakespearean title Remembrance Of Things Past in English, due to the first translations by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, not long after the book was published, and the later amendations by Terence Kilmartin in the 1970s. I read the three volume, seven book boxed gray paperback version first published by Vintage Books in 1981. The first volume contains Swann’s Way and Within A Budding Grove, the second The Guermantes Way and Cities Of The Plain, and the third The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained (translated by Andreas Mayor). Of the many misconceptions about the book, including the contretemps over its being a novel or memoir (it’s really more of a memoir), and the correct title for the work, I feel the most compelling is whether or not the entire thing is a single work or seven distinct books in a series. I think it’s manifestly a single work, like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, for like that book, divided into five ‘books’, Remembrance Of Things Past really is a single narrative. And while the books of Les Miserables can all stand reasonably alone, none of the books in Proust’s work can, save, of course, for the first, Swann’s Way. Thus, I will refer to the whole work as the work, from hereon in.
That all said, Proust’s work is to literature what the sitcom Seinfeld was to television- a piece of art that glorifies nothing, in the sense that the whole work really is a document of thirty-three hundred plus pages of high society 19th Century French gossip. It is well-written, at its best, but ultimately barren in a philosophic and intellectual sense. Nothing really occurs in all the pages. This is mostly why, due to its lack of any real plot, the book cannot truly be called a novel- even if one were to grant it a hundred percent in the fictive department. The lead character, unnamed but presumably Marcel Proust (although I cannot recall a single utterance of the protagonist’s name- but I will from now on refer to him, the quasi-fictive lead, as Marcel, and the writer himself as Proust), is a typical French subject of the period, who has his ups and downs, and relates this in astonishing detail to the reader. Some of the descriptions are breathtaking examples of prose- the equivalent of what it must have felt like the first time someone peered into a microscope:
For a convalescent who rests all day long in the flower-garden or an orchard, a scent of flowers or fruit does not more completely pervade the thousand trifles that compose his idle hours than did for me that color, that fragrance in search of which my eyes kept straying towards the girls, and the sweetness of which finally became incorporated in me. So it is that grapes sweeten in the sun. And by their slow continuity these simple little games had gradually wrought in me also, as in those who do nothing else all day but lie outstretched by the sea, breathing the salt air and sunning themselves, a relaxation, a blissful smile, a vague dazzlement that had spread from brain to eyes.
Proust’s sentence structure can impress, but it can also bore. Much of the work is like riding a rollercoaster- there are a few pages of breathtaking excitement when the ‘moment’ described is in full fall from the top, but the long slow climb to the next peak is often excruciating. Not to belabor the point, but Proust makes Hugo look concise and cogent, even ‘sketchy’. This lends itself to very stop and start reading- the dull pages whiz by you by the dozens, even hundreds, and then a few pages slow you down and overwhelm you with quality and depth. It is difficult to break away from the text of the work, especially at those moments, and even read another work of literature while reading Proust, for there is a demand of focus required to most appreciate this plotless work, where description is the supreme reason for its existence. That said, the overall book is a very quick read. I read it in about the same amount of time most folk would read Moby-Dick, about fifteen percent of its length. Proust is more a philosopher than a wordsmith, and that’s the strength of the book, as well its weakness. Here is an excellent example of Proust at his absolute best, from Swann’s Way:
When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host. Instinctively, when he awakes, he looks to these, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth’s surface and the amount of time that has elapsed during his slumbers; but this ordered procession is apt to grow confused, and to break its ranks. Suppose that, towards morning, after a night of insomnia, sleep descends upon him while he is reading, in quite a different position from that in which he normally goes to sleep, he has only to lift his arm to arrest the sun and turn it back in its course, and, at the moment of waking, he will have no idea of the time, but will conclude that he has just gone to bed. Or suppose that he gets drowsy in some even more abnormal position; sitting in an armchair, say, after dinner: then the world will fall topsy-turvy from its orbit, the magic chair will carry him at full speed through time and space, and when he opens his eyes again he will imagine that he went to sleep months earlier and in some far distant country. But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke at midnight, not knowing where I was, I could not be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal’s consciousness; I was more destitute of human qualities than the cave-dweller; but then the memory, not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived, and might now very possibly be, would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself: in a flash I would traverse and surmount centuries of civilization, and out of a half-visualized succession of oil-lamps, followed by shirts with turned-down collars, would put together by degrees the component parts of my ego.
Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them. For it always happened that when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything would be moving round me through the darkness: things, places, years. My body, still too heavy with sleep to move, would make an effort to construe the form which its tiredness took as an orientation of its various members, so as to induce from that where the wall lay and the furniture stood, to piece together and to give a name to the house in which it must be living. Its memory, the composite memory of its ribs, knees, and shoulder-blades offered it a whole series of rooms in which it had at one time or another slept; while the unseen walls kept changing, adapting themselves to the shape of each successive room that it remembered, whirled round it in the dark.
As can be seen, Proust’s prose is clarified, it is not allusive, ala James Joyce’s Ulysses, nor is it larded with ill-wrought sentences like the garbage Post-Modernists like a David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers spew. Yet, no amount of two or three hundred pages of excellent oases can possibly make up for the deadening desert of three thousand pages that surround them. Similarly the islands of profundity are often lost in the glare from the seas of gossip. Also, the first few times a memory is examined, it is a very penetrating experience. After a few times, though, you know exactly the sort of approach Proust is going to take- he will go close up, he will back away, he will repeat this several times, with little or no variation over several pages, and then come to a conclusion that, while often beautifully phrased, could have been reached well before Proust actually gets to it.
Let me now give a brief summary of the book and its sections, with the proviso that because little actually happens in the work the summaries will be relatively brief, compared to those of often far shorter works, as the fact is that the how of what little occurs in the work is far more important than the what.
Proust spent most of his life as a typical dilettante, and this work very well captures that truth. In the last decade or so of his life, and posthumously, he worked on and published the work in eight installments in French (from 1913-1927), and the seven, previously mentioned, in English. The Marcel that Proust sketches is a Hollow Man of the sort T.S. Eliot limned in his poem of a similar title. The work starts with Marcel’s earliest perceptions, including his insomnia as a child, and sprawls out across his foppish life and many effete characters and caricatures.
The legendary genesis for the book comes from the famed ending of the
first section of Swann’s Way, Overture, where Marcel bites into
a madeleine dipped in tea, and his memories unfurl. Writers as prestigious as
Milan Kundera have used variations of this simple technique in their work, but
the end of Overture is none the less for its later influence, and justly
famous. It is a brilliant distillation of moment, idea, and art:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory- this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?
I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing it magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth. But how: What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.
And I begin to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof, but the indisputable evidence, of its felicity, its reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I rediscover the same state, illuminated by no fresh light. I ask my mind to make one further effort, to bring back once more the fleeting sensation. And so that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention against the sound from the next room. And then, feeling that my mind is tiring itself without having any success to report, I compel it for a change to enjoy the distraction which I have just denied it, to think of other things, to rest refresh itself before making a final effort. And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it; I place in position before my mind's eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.
Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too confused and chaotic; scarcely can I perceive the neutral glow into which the elusive whirling medley of stirred-up colours is fused, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate for me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste, cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, from what period in my past life.
Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has traveled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now I feel nothing; it has stopped, has perhaps sunk back into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will ever rise again? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and my hopes for to-morrow, which can be brooded over painlessly.
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
Unfortunately, there is not a single moment, despite later peaks, that comes anywhere near the brilliance of that moment, even in the later ‘autonomic reveries of memory’, although the death of Marcel’s grandmother is another justifiably famous section of the work. Each ‘book’ of the seven book work also gets more and more unfocused. The ‘real’ moment of the madeleine supposedly occurred in 1909. Three years later, Swann’s Way was done, and after failing to find a publisher Proust subsidy published it in 1913. Within A Budding Grove, the second book, was published in 1919, after being written through the First World War. Over the next few years The Guermantes Way (1920) and Cities Of The Plain (1921) were published, before Proust died in 1922. The last three books were published posthumously, although not in a finalized state: The Captive in 1923, The Fugitive in 1925, and Time Regained in 1927. That Proust did not get the final edit in these books shows in several ways- with the first two books, the so-called Albertine Cycle, being easily the two least well-written works, and Time Regained containing numerous errors of historical continuity from the earlier works. While a Proustian might dismiss criticisms of the final book by claiming that the whole work was just a dream, it does not wash, for there is no hint that the initial dream that opens Swann’s Way is continued unabated through the remaining books. Yet, from this moment of despair comes Proust’s whole work.
Marcel, the narrator, presumably born in 1871, the same year as Proust, is obsessed with his elders’ behavior, most prominently that of a powerful but ill man named Charles Swann, who resides in his town of Combray, and who falls in love with and marries a prostitute named Odette de Crécy (this all before Marcel’s birth), and has a daughter named Gilberte with him. Odette plays with Swann’s emotions and he seems to lap it up masochistically, even ignoring the advice of friends as to her true nature. Gilberte then becomes Marcel’s first love. Other prominent players are the elitist Guermantes family. They include the rakish Palamède de Guermantes, the Baron de Charlus, his nephew Robert de Saint-Loup, Marcel’s good friend, who later marries Gilberte, and the beautiful Albertine Simonet, who replaces Gilberte in Marcel’s heart, and becomes Laura to his Petrarch. There is also the phony Madame Verdurin, and the painter Elstir, whose paintings sometimes stir Marcel’s inner soul. Other, lesser, lights include pompous boors, self-righteous moralists, gutless politicians, talentless artistes, annoying dandies, naked hypocrites, and social climbers of every stripe. Much of the overall work is devoted to Marcel’s existential despairs, and how he extricates himself from them. That Swann’s Way, set earliest in time, parts of it even before Marcel’s birth, is the only book where Marcel is not the putative ‘lead’ character is why it is also the strongest of the books, as it is the least solipsistic of the books. Only in the last book, Time Regained, does anything resembling a typical novel structure return, as we again reach the point in Marcel’s life where Proust (or Marcel) originally gets the idea for the work, which is where we began Swann’s Way. One might even say that the fictive Marcel conjures up another version of Proust- the meta-fictive Proust, at this point.
In the other books the reader alternates between the ultimately selfish and puerile lives that Marcel describes, and his own contempt yet envy of them. In Proust, impressions of things matter more than the weight behind them, and the work, in essence, is an extended philosophical tract, even more than being a memoir, or novel. Of course, Proust’s apologists, when trying to justify the mounds of dull writing, usually state things like, ‘Well, he was trying to capture life, and thus he had to write dull passages.’ Uh- no. Art is artifice, and there’s absolutely no excuse for bad writing, dull nor otherwise, save the failure of the artist. And Proust fails far more than he succeeds in the thousands of pages, but the successes are far greater than anything other obscenely long works, like Infinite Jest or Finnegans Wake offer. One might even argue that Proust occasionally fails magnificently, as well.
The work is ultimately written memories, and it occurred to me that the best way for a reader to read it is to approach it as something that has already happened to you, that you’ve fussed and obsessed over, not something happening before you, as in most prose fiction. In that sense, absolutely nothing happens in the work, it has all happened. Yet, no reader has the obligation to do that, take a stance different from the common approach to reading a work, and this is one of the other major flaws of the work- that Proust never gives back as much as he asks from his readers. Had the work been a quarter the length, or a third, or a half, even, he might have come closer to meeting that expectation he has of his reader with his own largess, but he does not.
The work is at its weakest midway through, in Cities Of The Plain, which mostly charts the ethical and sexual demise of the Baron. Yet, perhaps the very nadir of the book is the linking passages that end The Guermantes Way and start Cities Of The Plain. Not only is the imagery and scene a weak end, but the start of the next book is a very poor start for a work that is claimed to be self-contained, as it immediately references prior incidents that end The Guermantes Way, and scenes from earlier in the whole work. Here is the end of that book and the start of Cities Of The Plain, back to back:
‘Well,’ said M. de Guermantes to Swann and myself, ‘we poor, down-trodden husbands, people laugh at us, but we are of some use all the same. But for me, Oriane would have been going out to dinner in black shoes.’
‘It’s not unbecoming,’ said Swann, ‘I noticed the black shoes and they didn’t offend me in the least.’
‘I don’t say you’re wrong,’ replied the Duke, ‘but it looks better to have them to match the dress. Besides, you needn’t worry, she would no sooner have got there than she’d have noticed them, and I should have been obliged to come home and fetch the others. I should have had my dinner at nine o’clock. Good-bye, my children,’ he said, thrusting us gently from the door, ‘get away, before Oriane comes down again. It’s not that she doesn’t like seeing you both. On the contrary, she’s too fond of your company. If she finds you still here she will start talking again, she is tired out already, she’ll reach the dinner-table quite dead.
Besides, I tell you frankly, I’m dying of hunger. I had a wretched luncheon this morning when I came from the train. There was the devil of a béarnaise sauce, I admit, but in spite of that I shan’t be at all sorry, not at all sorry to sit down to dinner. Five minutes to eight! Oh, women, women! She’ll give us both indigestion before to-morrow. She is not nearly as strong as people think.’
The Duke felt no compunction at speaking thus of his wife’s ailments and his own to a dying man, for the former interested him more, appeared to him more important. And so it was simply from good breeding and good fellowship that, after politely shewing us out, he cried ‘from off stage,’ in a stentorian voice from the porch to Swann, who was already in the courtyard: ‘You, now, don’t let yourself be taken in by the doctors’ nonsense, damn them. They’re donkeys. You’re as strong as the Pont Neuf. You’ll live to bury us all!’
While fine enough as a representation of the dilettantish speech of that crowd, it’s a very poor end, in and of itself, that just stops flat with a meager bon mot. Read as a single work there is not a reader who would not claim that Proust had ripped them off, intellectually and artistically. Here, now, the start of Cities Of The Plain, that could very well be the start of another paragraph, rather than the start of a separate, and claimed self-contained, work of fiction:
The reader will remember that, long before going that day (on the evening of which the Princesse de Guermantes was to give her party) to pay the Duke and Duchess the visit which I have just described, I had kept watch for their return and had made, in the course of my vigil, a discovery which, albeit concerning M. de Charlus in particular, was in itself so important that I have until now, until the moment when I could give it the prominence and treat it with the fullness that it demanded, postponed giving any account of it. I had, as I have said, left the marvelous point of vantage, so snugly contrived for me at the top of the house, commanding the broken and irregular slopes leading up to the Hôtel de Bréquigny, and gaily decorated in the Italian manner by the rose-pink campanile of the Marquis de Frécourt's stables. I had felt it to be more convenient, when I thought that the Duke and Duchess were on the point of returning, to post myself on the staircase. I regretted somewhat the abandonment of my watch-tower.
The Captive follows Marcel’s love life. Yet, Marcel remains barely sketched, overtly, even as we learn a great deal of him from his views of others, and his self-serving claims (within and without the artifice of the work) of the elites’ fawning over him for his company and insights. The two female loves of his life, Gilberte and Albertine (as well as the later Andrée), modeled after men (for the real Proust was a homosexual- thus all three have masculate names), are described in great external detail, but not internally. We only get Marcel’s most superficial impressions and imbuements of them, and because we have the limited point of view none of the vast panoply of characters in the work ever rises to ‘reality’ in the way, say, even the overtly heroic and swashbuckling Jean Valjean of Les Miserables does, much less the Nolan clan of far truer realist fiction pieces like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Marcel remains, by his own descriptions (or lack thereof) a veritable cipher. Marcel loves (or deludes himself into thinking his obsession is love) Albertine, but fears revealing his feelings, which she knows, and in turn fears hearing of, for she is ashamed of her sexual past and orientations. Regrets by both parties pile on until she eventually dies (or not?).
Yet, again, since this is not a novel, in conventional terms, realism is not a requirement (not that it is in stricter novels either), and by Time Regained the real thrust of the work comes into view, as Proust, and Marcel, lays out his views of life, truth, reality, memory, etc. To him there is the experience only, in retrospect, for the percipient is too busy with life at the time any particular occurrence happens, not the thing itself. Proust seemingly rejects any idea of objective reality, thus conveniently providing himself legal and literary cover for any possible charges of libel, as well. Thus, his past is modified, as all pasts must be, and his very acuity of detail, utterly impossible in reality, is explained away, and justified, for Proust has declared his past’s reimagining in memory is more real than its being was in reality. Yet, here is where another of the work’s greatest flaws enters- its and its author’s solipsism, for the book, in essence, is the book’s own tale of its creation, and its plot may be seen as the road Marcel took in becoming Proust. Some may term calling Proust solipsistic to be itself a tautology, but it’s not, for his self-reflexiveness takes its toll on the text and the reader. While Proust may exhibit great insight into his past, he does not do that with the other characters, and it could be argued he does not even try to do it. He simply does not care for the true motivations of the real people who inspired his non-Marcel characters. And when he does, or seems to, there seems to be a self-servingness to the inconsistencies a good reader will spot. While Proust is at his best describing both the inner terrains of his past, and the outer world he lived in- from telephones to airplanes, gossip to existential angsts, his dialogue, by and large, is very weak. His characters speak in ways that real people simply do not, be they 19th Century French elitists, or 21st Century Texans (differing accents and languages aside), and with none of the wit and charm that Oscar Wilde’s fops do. For example, the painter Elstir, advises Marcel with such banalities as:
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one can else can make for us, which no one can spare, us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.
Much of the dialogue is on this low and artificial, level of communication. Wit occurs in sparse little moments, and Proust’s reputation as a witticist is vastly overrated. Again, Oscar Wilde he’s not. Also, Proust seems to be a forerunner to the Politically Correct misconception that ‘we’re all artists’. He argues repeatedly, in direct and indirect ways, that everyone is capable of art- a palpably false claim, even as he- in the tenor and rest of his work, argues against it. He has one of his characters, Norpois the diplomat, even state:
I am aware that this is to blaspheme against the sacrosanct school of what these gentlemen term ‘Art for Art's sake,’ but at this period of history there are tasks more urgent than the manipulation of words in a harmonious manner.
In other sections, discoursing on Classical music and homosexuality, his ideas and phrasing are similarly weak. Marcel’s work-long vacillations over whether or not to write, or become a ‘writer’, become tiresome long before we circularly return, in Time Regained, to where we started in Swann’s Way.
By the second book, Within A Budding Grove, Marcel is with his grandmother, at a beach resort in Balbec, and later replaces the indifferent Gilberte with Albertine as his love, when he realizes Gilberte simply has no feelings for him. Yet, he remains ever effete, as well a narrator and character difficult to identify with. That is a key point in selling a story to a reader- not to have a ‘likeable’ character, but one that is ‘identifiable’ with, and Marcel simply is not someone easy for any reader to relate to, for he is effete, snobbish, and long-winded. I suspect this, even more so than the work’s length, is why it has never been a popular work of fiction. Yet, this second book simply does not stand alone. Within a few pages you would be lost if you have not read the first read Swann’s Way. If the whole work is viewed as a series of works this is a fatal flaw that manifests early, so the work has to be viewed as a unified whole, to even begin to argue for its success as a work of art. Marcel simply drifts along in this book, wondering if he will or should write, swooning over the actress Berma, or the works of the writer Bergotte, or Elstir’s paintings. Yet, in a deeper sense, the character he most connects with is Gilberte’s mother Odette, whom he admires unendingly:
And I learned that these canons according to which she dressed, it was for her own satisfaction that she obeyed them, as though yielding to a Superior Wisdom of which she herself was High Priestess: for if it should happen that, feeling too warm, she threw open or even took off altogether and gave me to carry the jacket which she had intended to keep button up, I would discover in the blouse beneath it a thousand details of execution which had had every chance of remaining unperceived, like those parts of an orchestral score to which the composer had devoted infinite labor albeit they may never reach the ears of the public: or in the sleeves of the jacket that lay folded across my arm I would see, I would drink in slowly, for my own pleasure of from affection for its wearer, some exquisite detail, a deliciously tinted strip, a lining of mauve satinette which, ordinarily concealed from every eye, was yet just as deliciously fashioned as the outer parts, like those gothic carvings on a cathedral, hidden on the inside of a balustrade eighty feet from the ground, as perfect as are the bas-reliefs over the main porch, yet never seen by any living man until, happening to pass that way upon his travels, an artist obtains leave to climb up there among them, to stroll in the open air, sweeping the whole town with a comprehensive gaze, between the soaring towers.
At the resort he meets his grandmother’s friend Madame de Villeparisis, and her grandnephew Robert de Saint-Loup, a young military man. Then, he meets Albertine, who will dominate his emotions through the rest of the work, and attempts to kiss her, but is rebuffed. But, these events are just touchstones for the excursions Marcel indulges in- such as describing in detail the Swanns on a routine walk through Paris.
By the third book, The Guermantes Way, Marcel is ready to enter Parisian life at the fin-de-siecle, living at the Hotel de Guermantes, and the book spends a great deal of time exploring the effect of anti-Semitism and the Dreyfus Affair on the social scenes of the wealthy and wannabes of the day. Marcel is a pro-Dreyfusard, but does not speak of his views in public. In Paris, Marcel meets up again with Robert de Saint-Loup, Madame de Villeparisis, who is writing her memoirs, and the nutty Baron de Charlus, who offers to show Marcel the ropes of hobnobbing. His relationship with Albertine also grows. Nothing much of substance occurs in this book, for it is more a satire and study of the elites, mostly the crowd about Madame Verdurin, than a book that chronicles any ‘big event’ (although one could say that of the whole work), and the ‘cliffhanger’, of sorts, is whether or not the Guermantes clan has extended an invitation to Marcel to go to yet another party. On a psychological level there has been critical comment over Marcel’s ‘sexual awakening’ in this book- his possible hints of his true sexuality, and a contrast made between him and the debauched Baron de Charlus.
The Cities Of The Plain (aka Sodom And Gomorrah) revolves around two archetypal society scenes: an evening party at the manse of the Guermantes, to which Marcel doubts he has been properly invited, and a dinner at the seaside house of the Verdurins, larded with banal conversation. Again, had Proust found the natural moments of poesy in such settings the scenes would have worked much better. The fact that he probably was true to the pallor of intellect afforded at such events does nothing to satisfy the poor reader. It is here where homosexuality is dealt with most blatantly- first as Marcel spies the Baron in an act of pederasty, then as his love Albertine tries to make him jealous with her lesbian flirtations with Andrée. He vows to woo Albertine forever from Sapphism and marry her, even as he joys in psychologically toying with her, making her jealous over other women who have an interest in him. Love, where once with Gilberte, was fresh and innocent, is now shorn of its ideals and idylls. In another of his existential riffs, Marcel wonders of the androgynous state of affairs between the sexes- both in mere looks and sexual attraction, in how much persons of the same sex can desire each other vis-à-vis desires for the opposite sex:
As by an electric current that gives us a shock, I have been shaken by my loves. I have lived them. I have felt them: never have I succeeded in seeing or thinking them.
Personally I found it absolutely immaterial from a moral standpoint whether one took one’s pleasure with a man or a woman, and only too natural and human that one should take it where one could find it.
Everyone seems to have secrets and agendas, even the Duchesse de Guermantes, whom he idolizes. Of her, he states, that she:
….allowed the azure light of her eyes to float in front of her, but vaguely, so as to avoid the people with whom she did not wish to enter into relations, whose presence she discerned from time to time like a menacing reef in the distance.
This aura of sexual and personal subterfuge leads into the first two books of the third volumes, what is called The Albertine Cycle, and the first of the books published posthumously, and thus never given final approval by Proust. These are The Captive and The Fugitive. Both chart Marcel’s and Albertine’s lives in Paris. He seems to be the possessive type, especially fearing her bisexual urges. They continue to play psychological games with each other, but these are quite weak works, and have often been correctly criticized for exactly that. Yes, Proust brings insight and a craft of word to their relationship that average writers lack, but neither Marcel nor Albertine are anything special- individually nor together, so the whole thing feels like one of those lesser Woody Allen sexual film comedies that his earliest fans grew to despise. Proust mixes petty jealousy with questions about ‘the quest for beauty and truth in art’, etc., but it’s old hat, being utterly solipsistic, and both done by others, and by Proust, better, in earlier soliloquies in the work. In The Captive he resorts to banalities as this:
It is better not to know, to think as little as possible, not to feed jealousy on the smallest concrete detail.
The two titles of the cycle refer to Marcel and Albertine, but it’s not clear which one occupies which role, and one could argue both fulfill both roles- Albertine as Marcel’s captive of love, and a fugitive from her self, and his captive state to his jealousy- to the point where he rhapsodizes about watching her asleep, as well a fugitive from reason. He writes:
She was so effectively caged that on certain evenings I did not even ask her to leave her room for mine, she whom at one time all the world pursued.
Yet the two books are weak, from start to end, especially the end of The Captive:
I rang for Françoise to ask her to buy me a guide-book and a timetable, as I had done as a boy, when I wished to prepare in advance a journey to Venice, the realization of a desire as violent as that which I felt at this moment; I forgot that, in the interval, there was a desire which I had attained, without any satisfaction, the desire for Balbec, and that Venice, being also a visible phenomenon, was probably no more able than Balbec to realize an ineffable dream, that of the gothic age, made actual by a springtime sea, and coming at moments to stir my soul with an enchanted, caressing, unseizable, mysterious, confused image. Françoise having heard my ring came into the room, in considerable uneasiness as to how I would receive what she had to say and what she had done. ‘It has been most awkward,’ she said to me, ‘that Monsieur is so late in ringing this morning. I
didn’t know what I ought to do. This morning at eight o’clock Mademoiselle Albertine asked me for her trunks, I dared not refuse her, I was afraid of Monsieur's scolding me if I came and waked him. It was no use my putting her through her catechism, telling her to wait an hour because I expected all the time that Monsieur would ring; she wouldn’t have it, she left this letter with me for Monsieur, and at nine o’clock off she went.’ Then- so ignorant may we be of what we have within us, since I was convinced of my own indifference to Albertine- my breath was cut short, I gripped my heart in my hands suddenly moistened by a perspiration which I had not known since the revelation that my mistress had made on the little tram with regard to Mlle. Vinteuil's friend, without my being able to say anything else than: ‘Ah! Very good, you did quite right not to wake me, leave me now for a little, I shall ring for you presently.’
This end, as can be read, sort of withers on the vine, and again reinforces the notion that the work is not a series of stand alone books, for The Fugitive picks up right where its predecessor leaves off. By The Fugitive’s end, however, Albertine and Marcel have broken up, as he seems to gravitate back to the idea that art is a higher pursuit than love, and she flees, apparently faking her own death in a riding accident. When she attempts to reconcile, later, it is Marcel who has lost interest.
The final book of the work, Time Regained, is the closing of the circle opened in Swann’s Way. Marcel has aged quite a bit in the interim between The Albertine Cycle and this book, and many of the other characters in the work are now dead. He is now a writer, or closer to the cusp of becoming one, but still feels unfulfilled and without purpose. He reflects on life, then decides to pursue what will become the work that has brought the reader to this point within it. After much of the pettiness and banality of the last three volumes this book is closer in tone to the first book as it, naturally, describes getting closer to the time of its own composition. There are some what would be called in the motion picture business, continuity errors, for people who have died resurface and other little things are off, but this is to be expected with these last three books since Proust did not give a final edit to the book, having died, and likely, due to the book’s acclaim, no editor felt he should touch the work. It’s a detriment, no doubt, although few will admit it. The book follows France during the Great War, in which Marcel’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup dies. At this point Marcel feels he has wasted his life, until he is invited to a matinee at the home of the Guermantes. It is there he is enthralled by his own memories. Their power revives in him his belief that he should write. He feels he owes it to the people in his life to revive them, restore their gigantism in his life via words. Despite the last book, itself, being four hundred pages, there are only three real events: a country stay with friends, the Great War, and a final party.
Yet, there is always Proust’s playing of mind games, such as when he
I thought more modestly of my book and it would be inaccurate even to say that I thought of those who would read it as ‘my’ readers. For, it seemed to me that they would not be ‘my’ readers but the readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers- it would be my book but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.
In a sense, this is true, for precious little truth is revealed of Marcel’s, nor Proust’s, family life- his Roman Catholic doctor father, nor Jewish mother, nor his vast familial wealth, nor his mother’s death in a sanitarium, are ever plumbed. And his real life of living asthmatic and hermitic in a cork-boarded apartment for the last fifteen years of his life is never touched upon in the work. To end, if this summary or syllabus seems somewhat pallid, I admit it is, for the actual work by Proust is not really about any of the above.
There is a fundamental difference between acts of greatness and actual greatness itself. Proust defines this difference as well as any other artist. While certainly Remembrance Of Things Past contains much great writing- in fact a hefty-sized novel’s worth of about three hundred pages, the whole work of thirty-three hundred pages cannot realistically be termed great. To willfully ignore the three thousand pages of often puerile, repetitive, obsessive, gossipy writing is to actually demean the three hundred pages of unequivocally great writing, by smearing the totality into a gray fog of undifferentiable verbal sludge. Yes, he has needlessly digressive, and clause-filled, sentences that can occupy a page, but if many meander and die of their own ennui and/or heft, is that a thing worth celebrating? It reminds me of the seemingly pointless world’s records that are charted by the Guinness Book Of Word’s Records. So what if someone made a kielbasa three hundred yards long, or the like? Did it taste any good?
There is also a question over what sort of writer Proust is. He is most often claimed as a precursor to the Modernists, or an early Modernist of the stream of consciousness variety, but even in his obscenely Byzantine sentences there is a clarity and lack of obfuscation that is not present in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, nor even William Faulkner. In fact, Proust is the absurdly baroque and filigreed end of the Romantic movement, with ornate frills and all- more of an Impressionist, though, than full on Romantic. He is a literary Monet on steroids, rather than a Picasso with a new vision. If he were a dinosaur he would be one of those lumbering hundred plus foot sauropods of the Jurassic Period, not a sleek Velociraptor of the Cretaceous. There is a child-like preciousness to Proust’s writing, at its worst, that most Modernists reviled, and while it may look, from the outside, to be Modernist in design, its soul is purely Romantic, and technique Impressionist.
Ultimately, the overall work fails to sustain itself. Its entertainment and readability simply cannot weather the repeated barren stretches of hundreds of pages between a half dozen or so pages of brilliance, and the Romanticism of the whole work negates the very notion of it being an act of memory. It is far more an act of imagination, and its English title would have been more accurate, if less Shakespearean, as Imagination Of Things Past, or Re-Imagination Of Things Past. Yet, as much as is written, and as little as actually happens, nothing really much of depth occurs, and the solipsism of the work damages it even more than the Romanticism, for Marcel- the creation of Proust, is simply not that interesting a character. In a sense, he is an Ishmael, of Moby-Dick, on with the pedal to the metal. And his life is just as empty. Marcel is not only an unreliable narrator, but likely an actively dishonest one, and this has to be said again: Proust is in no way, shape, nor form as able and witty a social commentator nor satirist as Oscar Wilde was. He lacks the ear for convincing dialogue, and even more so the concision and wit. As Wilde knew, and the old apothegm says, brevity is the soul of wit, and brevity is a virtue Proust was not acquainted with. Perhaps the best comparison of Proust would be with someone like E.M. Forster, who similarly dissected his times across the English Channel. Proust is more thorough in his examinations than Forster, but also far more self-indulgent in his prose’s length and devices.
Even taking my earlier advice and trying to squeeze as much enjoyment as possible out of reading the work as if it has happened cannot save it from its own arterially clogging heft. Nor can any relatively minor argument over whether it’s a memoir or a novel. It is a bildungsroman, to be sure, and is akin to James Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, in that both his Marcel and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus become writers. Yet, as a Romantic, Proust’s immaturity and naïve-te in regard to things non-Marcel, puts him at a distinct disadvantage when compared to writers like Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky- or even Herman Melville or Mark Twain. Despite his hundreds of pages describing dilettantish forays, there is not the least hint of the cosmopolitan in Proust. He is, in many ways, the eternal naïf. Many of his pontifications, while well wrought, show an absolute lack of deeper understanding of the world and the human- even if we step outside the artifice of Marcel as distinct from Proust. He often makes grandiose leaps of illogic from the particular to the general, but it is not the intuitive Negative Capability John Keats so valued, but the young fool prancing his ignorance and idiocy for all to see. That this idiocy was written my a man in his forties belies the idea that it is merely the fictionalized Marcel that utters these pallid sentiments, for most often these leaps are even Marcel speaking from a future retrospect on his own youthful follies.
While it takes a certain amount of ballsiness to do so, to repeatedly do so, a few dozen times over the course of hundreds of pages, only manifests the need for Proust’s work to have been rigorously edited, first by himself, then by an objective and qualified editorial eye that could have uncovered many other gems fatally larded under the sclerosis of verbosity that weighs the whole work down. The biggest pile of lard that plows through the work’s veins is his obsession with capital T Time. Proust, nor his Marcel, never asks any of the other big questions of life, on ethics, ontology, provenance, teleology, etc. This renders the whole work into a melodrama, rather than a real drama. Don’t get me wrong, the work is the largest and greatest melodrama ever penned, far greater than the romances of Shakespeare- maybe even all of Shakespeare’s combined, but, at the end, it’s still just a melodrama. Woody Allen once described drama, vis-à-vis comedy, as ‘sitting at the grown ups’ table.’ His implication was that, in contrast to many critics and artists who claim comedy is a more difficult thing to write than drama, it is only through drama at its highest, that the human experience is fully realized and ennobled. While I agree with Allen’s posit about drama’s place as the highest form of narrative, I would not assign the role of sitting with the children to comedy- which I’d put at the middle of the grown ups’ table, not the head; but to melodrama, which is drama ‘lite’, drama free of the striving for deeper meaning both within and without the material at hand. Melodrama is pure entertainment- soap opera, professional wrestling, film serials, natural mythos, whereas drama is that plus enlightenment, and it’s that factor which separates the two, assigning chopped up veggies to the former, and a well done sirloin to the latter. Proust is, ultimately- if not unfortunately, simply not all that deep, no matter how entertaining at times, and like Chinese food, when you’re done with Proust, you want to keep reading, preferably something a little meatier, for most of Remembrance Of Things Past is merely empty (if sometimes delicious) calories.
And this is true from the very start of the work. Here is how Swann’s Way opens:
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed.
How many works of literature open with sleep or dream, and the promise of something more? Perhaps the greatest example of this is Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, wherein the whole of the book could be termed a dream. While Proust starts some ‘books’ well, and ends others well, all seven have, to say the least, very flabby middles, for his characters never do a blessed thing. They quibble and gossip, bitch and moan, but by the end of Time Regained, the survivors are lumbering dinosaurs, both literally and literarily, wholly reliant on the fictive Marcel’s, and the real Proust’s, desire and ability to resurrect and reinvent them, which he ultimately fails to do, though this is his stated goal at the work’s end:
But at least, if strength were granted me for long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the results were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men first and foremost as occupying a place, a very considerable place compared with the restricted one which is allotted to them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure- for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days- in the dimension of Time.
Yet, even this hope for reinvention reads rather sedentarily, however well phrased. The whole work passes by the reader as if a soporific interlude, and of how little consequence are most slumbers? This is because Proust’s life, both in reality, and redacted in this memoir, seems to have been staggeringly dull- like his work, filled with dozens of great observations, but few great moments.
As a poet who understands the fundaments of great writing, and the absolute need for concision far more often than not, I have a distinct advantage over many other critics, for I can see and diagnose Proust’s failures for what they are, and make no excuses for them, such as: his conversations are far too detailed to be real memories, but in being so detailed they drag fatally with their Victorian dilettantism and render an irreality to the work that works against the idea that it is the ‘ultimate in realism’. In a sense, Proust is no prose Whitman, whose poetry was both excessive yet concisely excessive, in that Proust’s excesses are not what really define his best writing. Despite the length of many of his best passages, when he is at his very best Proust is detailed and concise. This is why it takes several hundred pages before the work starts to really drone on a reader- itself quite the achievement. If you doubt Proust’s ability to be concise, just reread some of the best selections from the work that I quote above, and the lack of flab is manifest. This fact, however, makes the rest of the flabby work so much more obviously in need of editing, and why the work as a whole sinks in a reader’s estimation as time passes away from reading it. The flabby parts of Marcel’s (or Proust’s) memory close in on the reader’s memory and drown out the concise, well-written parts.
If only Proust used his best techniques on the deepest and most unique moments in the book, and let the rest fall away, Remembrance Of Things Past would have been immeasurably improved. As it is it is merely almost immeasurable.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Retort website.]
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