The Aesthetic of Marcel Proust

   Foreign writers have taken the lead in declaring the exceptional quality of M. Marcel Proust's works. Long before the Prix Goncourt several articles were published in Sweden, under illustrious names, about Du côté de chez Swann. Switzerland, Belgium and Great Britain have themselves preceded Sweden. Lectures have been held on M. Marcel Proust. The great novelist Henry James spent the final months of his life annotating Swann. France is beginning to follow. And, despite the resistance which in any case is abating, M. François Mauriac conveyed the opinion, expressed or unexpressed, of many people when he wrote recently in the Revue Hebdomadaire "We are sure that out of all contemporary works it is those of M. Marcel Proust that have the greatest chance of enduring." We would like to limit ourselves here to clarifying the aesthetic of M. Proust. Which is not an easy thing to do if, as has been recently been claimed by various reviews, he is the "Reinventor" of the Novel. To talk about reinvention is also to say that it is not something that is easy to discern at the first attempt, so impregnated are we in the old formulae. And the difficulty is so much greater because it consists of an enormous "design" for which almost half of the models have still to be brought out and seen by the public. But we believe that this half that we have seen is sufficient, if we know how to understand it, and with the help here and there of M. Proust's own opinions, some of which we repeat here, to give us a clear idea of the whole.
   Because there is a whole. M. Proust's misfortune (in as much as a misunderstanding between him and his readers can be described as a misfortune, a misunderstanding that he has taken an exaggerated pride, in our opinion, not to want to dispel) results from very trivial reasons.  His book was created from start to finish (it ends, we believe we can say without being indiscreet, on the word Time), the last sentence was already written when he decided he ought to call the narrator "I" throughout. Immediately those people who did not take the trouble to read those long volumes initially concluded that it was a subjective work, then a book of reminiscences, of memories, when in reality it was a vast construction composed with six porches. The comparison that we are making here does not seem to us to be inaccurate. The solidarity of the different parts of the edifice is such that the following incident was brought to our attention. A great writer and fervent admirer of Du côté de chez Swann, which at the time was the only volume that had been published, was so shocked by a scene between Mlle Vinteuil and her girl friend, that he begged M. Marcel Proust to cut it. This scene was short, M. Proust did not like it very much, Swann would "stand up" without it. He wanted to suppress it to please his Master. But then he realized that this scene, which was not at all indispensable in the first volume, completely underpinned the sixth and seventh, which would have collapsed were it not for this supporting pillar. The scene, insignificant in itself, was most important for the sentimental, morbid and tragic consequences that its sudden remembrance would one day unleash. The scene remained. The volumes that it underpinned have not yet appeared. Only then will they make its architectural necessity apparent.
   But let us turn our attention back to the reader, or rather the critic because many readers were "hooked" when some critics were still resistant. If the work (which on the contrary is totally objective) is considered as subjective (still the misunderstanding about "I") its length might give one the impression that the author is concerned with the infinite analysis of minutiae, when on the contrary he is seeking to bring out important laws. To a very distinguished critic who congratulated him on the keenness of his microscope M. Proust replied: "On the contrary, I am using a telescope". We do not wish to contradict him. To return to what is our role as critic of art, the laws of this architecture only begin to be discernible because the work is composed inflexibly but with a wide span of its compass. Yet it might be said that if the work was abstract then the end would be the beginning and vice versa. But in M. Proust's writing, as in life, people only reveal who they are bit by bit. The author - and this is a great novelty - does not state from the very beginning who Morel, Mme de Villeparisis, Mme de Guermantes, Albertine, M. de Charlus etc. really are, along with the author himself whose artistic vocation is not discovered until the end. At the end when a considerable amount of time has passed the author will have performed a revolution around others at the same time as around himself. We have just one reservation about this work, and that concerns its style, and also the apparent subjectivity of some of its features. In our opinion the cause of these two faults is the same.  But then again by calling them faults we are expressing an opinion that is not shared by all. The greatest writer of our times said that M. Proust appeared to present a model of a form without equal, and which he could only put on a par with Tacitus. Our opinion in this regard is much less favourable. There is no question that M. Proust was born with the gift of style. Whilst at college he wrote a volume of prose pieces, collected together later under the title of Les Plaisirs et les Jours (for which M. Anatole France wrote a delightful preface) and which the greatest writers of the time likened to La Bruyère's Charactères. But idle, disdainful of glory, too inclined towards pleasure, M. Proust did not write a single line after the age of seventeen. It was only when illness forced him to renounce a brilliant life and to stay indoors, that like Montluc or Montaigne, to whom he has often been compared, he chose to return to writing. But the very illness that prompted him to write also made it difficult to do so. And then after an over long period of inaction, all virtuosity was lost to him. He was like Fromentin (his bête noir) who did not write well, being first and foremost a painter, and yet still wrote too much to be able to paint well. We might compare the brilliant scenes in La Fin de la jalousie from Les Plaisirs et les Jours, with the colourless prose with which he depicts, certainly in a more profound way, an analogous jealousy in "Un Amour de Swann" (Du côté de chez Swann). It was like Frans Hals starting to paint in black and white for his Hospital for the infirm, he who had once made shimmer more harmoniously than anybody else life's brilliant colours. It is for the same reason, through a combination of physical exhaustion, suffering and idleness, as we understand it at least, that M. Proust ascribes to the character who says "I" for instance, his own particularities, in the moments when, however, this "I" is not so much him, through laziness of invention, through distaste, without worrying about the errors that these inaccurate exactitudes will later cause for literary criticism. Let us confess it, this character who says "I" is rather insipid, he is really just shadows and light. But with vivid paintings, we must see them hanging on the walls. For this character who says "I" seems to be feebly sketched next to those of Norpois, de Charlus, the Guermantes, even the Verdurins, that are drawn in such a bold and firm fashion. A gentleman with much good taste, Jules Lemaître, said after reading Swann: "Even in the moments where he writes badly, this Proust is still as good as Dickens. And in the moments where he writes well he is much better."

In 1921 Albert Thiébault-Sisson wrote to Proust requesting an interview. Proust refused saying he was too ill and dying but proposed to send the young man a text he had written called  "L’Esthétique de Marcel Proust". But he wanted Thiébault-Sisson to publish it under the name of Thiébault-Sisson. A few months later, Thiébault-Sisson died and a friend of his tried to find a publisher. He sent the text to Jacques Rivière at the NRF and Rivière refused the piece - without knowing its author was Proust himself! The article was first published in L'Auteur, l'autre. Proust et son double. Michel Schneider, Gallimard, 2014.


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Created 14.07.19