The Greater America

A Short View of Proust

Edmund Wilson, The New Republic, 21 March 1928

[Given that it was written before the final volumes of Proust's novel had been rendered into English, this essay by the American literary and social critic Edmund Wilson strikes me as not only perceptive but timeless. -- SF]

The final volumes of Marcel Proust's novel have at last been published ... and it has now for the first time become possible to judge the work as a whole. À La Recherche du Temps Perdu has been peculiarly unfortunate in the conditions under which it has had to appear. The whole book was written by Proust between 1906 and 1912 [sic]. The first section was published in the November of 1913, on the eve of the War. The publication of the second section, of which the proofs had already been printed when war was declared, was postponed until after the Armistice. At this time, Proust expressed a desire to have the whole book (which, in the meantime, he was rewriting so as to include the War) published at once in four volumes; but the publishers would only consent to bring out A l'Ombre des jeunes Filles en Fleur by itself. The other volumes, however, followed at intervals of a year, until Proust's death in 1922. This created another obstacle: we can well believe that the difficulties of the editors in deciphering Proust's manuscript and correcting the text were extreme. In any case, Albertine Disparue did not appear until 1925; and Le Temps Retrouvé has only just brought the story to its conclusion, fourteen years after the appearance of the beginning and five years after Proust's death.

It has thus been peculiarly difficult, not merely to estimate Proust's success as an artist, but even to read him properly. The situation seems to have got on his nerves: he is always worrying in his letters for fear the early part of his novel, read without the rest, may seem incoherent and meaningless, or protesting against critics who have accused him of following a random association of ideas: "Where I was looking for fundamental laws, I was described as preoccupied with detail." What astonishes us today, with the whole enormous book before us, is the steadiness and the logic with which he has carried out so vast a design, his complete mastery of his complex subject; and it is worth while to review the whole work, making such reflections as would have been impossible with anything less than the whole before us.

Proust's novel is, then, a symphonic structure rather than, in the ordinary sense, a narrative. Like so many other important modern writers, Proust had been reared in the school of symbolism and had all the symbolist's preoccupation with musical effects. Like many of his generation, he was probably as deeply influenced by Wagner as by any writer of books, and it is characteristic of his conception of his art that he was in the habit of speaking of the "themes" of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. The book begins with what is really an overture, of which it is important, as we shall see later, to note the first chord: "Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure," followed by a second sentence inwhich the word "temps" twice recurs. It is the vague world of sleep: the narrator, in his darkened room, has lost all sense of external reality, all perception even of the room itself. He fancies himself in other places where, in the course of his life, he has slept: a child at his grandfather's house; a visitor in a country house; at a summer hotel; in winter in a military town; in Paris; at Venice. "Ah, at last I've fallen asleep, even though mother never came to say good-night!" This is the first theme to be developed: we find ourselves in the grandfather's house. M. Swann is coming to dinner, and the boy's father sends him to bed without his mother's good-night kiss. The child is sensitive and nervous: he cannot sleep till his mother has kissed him. He sends her a note by the maid, but she refuses to come. The child is in anguish. He lies for hours awake, till he hears the door-bell ring and knows that M. Swann has left. Then he goes out into the hallway and throws himself upon his mother, as she is coming up to bed. She is angry at first: she and his grandmother, who are already aware of his tendency toward morbid sensibility, have adopted with him a policy of firmness. But the father takes pity on him and induces the mother to go in and comfort him. She reads him to sleep and spends the night in his room.

The 14-Minute Marcel Proust

Thereafter we are introduced to a variety of personages associated with Combray, the small provincial town where the boy's grandfather lives: a hypochondriac aunt who refuses to stir from her bed; a provincial snob who longs to know the great people of the countryside, the Guermantes; an unhappy old music teacher, whom everybody pities because his daughter has disgraced him. M. Swann has married beneath him and comes to stay, with his wife and daughter, at his estate outside the town. The memories of boyhood are suddenly dropped and Proust tells us at length about Swann's marriage: though rich and in smart society, he falls in love, rather late in life, with a stupid cocotte, who drives him mad with jealousy. When Du côté de chez Swann first appeared, even those who recognized its genius were troubled by its apparent lack of direction. Today, we can admire the ingenuity with which Proust, in these first pages of his book, has succeeded in introducing nearly every important character. And not merely every strand of his plot, but also every philosophic theme. We are able here to observe already one feature which all of his characters appear to exhibit in common. All seem to be suffering from some form of unsatisfied longing or disappointed hope: all are sick with some form of the ideal. Legrandin wants to know the Guermantes; Vinteuil is wounded in his love for his daughter; Swann, associating,the beauty of Odette with that of the women of Botticelli, identifies his passion for her, ridiculously and tragically, with all the neglected artistic ambitions which he has always desired to pursue. At the end of the history of Swann, we are back in the narrator's boyhood: he has himself conceived a romantic admiration for the beautiful Mme. Swann and he makes a practice of waiting for her in the Bois de Boulogne merely to see her pass. This very November, he concludes, he has happened to walk in the Bois: the trees were brilliant with autumn; he describes the cold beauty of the day; but it is entirely a different beauty from the beauty which once intoxicated him. "The reality which I had known existed no longer. Because Mme. Swann did not arrive at the same time as when I was young and looking as I used to see her, the Avenue seemed quite different. The places which we have known do not belong only to the world of space, where we locate them for convenience. They have been only a narrow slice among other adjacent impressions which made up our life of that time; the memory of a certain image is only the regret of a certain instant; and the houses, the roads and the avenues are fugitive, alas! like the years."

Proust had at one time had the idea of dividing his novel into three parts and calling them respectively: "The Age of Names," "The Age of Words," and "The Age of Things." We are now in the age of names: we see everything—love, art and the great—through the imagination of boyhood. A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur is, as it were, one long revery. It contains only one conspicuous episode. The boy falls in love with the daughter of Swann, with whom he plays in the Champs-Elysées. But the hysterical over-eagerness, the undisciplined need to lean excessively on other people, of the spoiled child he has become, now that his parents have already begun to treat him like an invalid who must be humored and indulged, end by exasperating the little girl and rendering her indifferent. She snubs him one day, and he is still able to muster enough strength of will to satisfy his wounded pride by breaking off with her: he betrays his weakness, however, by carrying his policy to the extreme of refusing ever to see her again.

As I have said, we have been submerged through these volumes—and for most tastes, have been submerged far too long—in the reveries of adolescence. But people who have stuck in the "Jeunes Filles en Fleur" and thus know only the subjective Proust inevitably acquire a quite false idea of what his genius is like. We are now to be violently thrown forward into the life of the world outside. The contrast between, on the one hand, the dreams, the broodings and the repinings of the neurasthenic hero, as we get them for such long stretches, and, on the other, the vivid and elaborate social scenes, dramatized and animated by so powerful a vitality, is one of the most curious features of the book. These latter scenes, indeed, contain so much broad humor and so much violent satire, in short, so much extravagance, that, coming in a modern French novel, they amaze us. Proust, however, was much addicted to English literature: "It is strange," he writes in a letter, "that, in the most widely different departments, from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there should be no other literature which exercises over me so powerful an influence as English and American." In the descriptive parts of the early volumes, we have recognized the rhythms of Ruskin; and in the social scenes which now engage us, though Proust has been compared to Henry James, who was deficient in precisely those gifts of vividness and humor which Proust, to such an astonishing degree, possessed, we shall look in vain for anything like them outside the novels of Dickens. We have already been struck, in Du côté de chez Swann, with the singular relief into which the characters were thrown as soon as they began to speak or act.

I feel sure that Proust had read Dickens and that this almost grotesque heightening of character had been partly learned from him. Proust, like Dickens, was a remarkable mimic: as Dickens enchanted his audiences by, dramatic readings from his novels, so, we are told, Proust was celebrated for impersonations of his friends; and both, in their books, carried the gift of caricaturing habits of speech and of inventing things for their personages to say which are almost invariably outrageous without ever ceasing to be characteristic, to a point where it becomes impossible to compare them to anybody but each other. As, furthermore, it has been said of Dickens that his villains are so amusing—in their fashion, so generously alive—that we are reluctant to see the last of them, so we acquire a curious affection for even the most objectionable characters in Proust: Morel, for example, is certainly one of the most odious figures in fiction, yet we never really hate him or wish we did not have to hear about him, and it is with a genuine regret that Mme. Verdurin, with her false teeth and her monocle, finally vanishes from our sight. This generous sympathy and understanding for even the monstrosities which humanity produces, and Proust's capacity for galvanizing them into energetic life, are at the bottom of the extraordinary success of the comic and tragic hero of Proust's Sodom, M. de Charlus. But Charlus surpasses Dickens and, as Edith Wharton has said, is almost comparable to Falstaff. In a letter in which Proust explains that he has borrowed certain traits of Charlus from a real person, he adds that the character in the book is, however, intended to be "far bigger," to "contain much more of humanity"; and it is one of the strange paradoxes of Proust's genius that he should have been able to create in a character so special a figure of heroic proportions and universal significance.

Nor is it only in these respects that Proust reminds us of Dickens. The incidents, as well as the characters, in Proust are sometimes of a violent grotesqueness almost unprecedented in French: Mme. Verdurin dislocating her jaw through laughing at one of Cottard's jokes, the furious smashing by the narrator of Charlus's hat and the latter's calm substitution of another hat in its place, are strokes which no one but Dickens would dare. This heightening in Dickens is theatrical; and we sometimes—though considerably less often—get the same impression in Proust that we are watching a look or a gesture deliberately underlined on the stage—so that Charlus's first encounter with the narrator, when the former looks at his watch and makes "the gesture of annoyance with which one aims to create the impression that one is tired of waiting, but which one never makes when one is actually waiting," and Bloch's farewell to Mme. de Villeparisis, when she attempts to snub him by closing her eyes, seem to take place in the same world as Lady Dedlock's swift second glance at the legal papers in her lover's writing and Mr. Merdle's profound stare into his hat, "as if it were some twenty feet deep," when he has come to borrow the penknife with which he is to kill himself. And I furthermore believe that there is plainly distinguishable in the Verdurin circle an unconscious reminiscence of the Veneerings of Our Mutual Friend: note especially the similarity between theroles played by Twemlow in the latter and in the former by Saniette.

Poland's Daughter

To return, however, the structure of the novel now begins to appear. Proust has made of these social scenes (often several hundred pages long) enormous solid blocks, cemented by, or rather embedded in, a dense medium of introspective revery and commentary mingled with incidents treated on a smaller scale. Proust's handling of these complex social scenes is masterly: it is only in the intermediate sections that we feel he has blurred his effects by allowing the outline of the action to become obscured by the profusion of the hero's reflections on it. We become further aware that these main scenes follow a regular progression. In the early "flashback" to the life of Swann which has been described above, we have already assisted at two social scenes on something less than the full scale. First of all, Swann has gone to dinner at the Verdurins', at whose house he first knows Odette: the Verdurins are outside society altogether and pretend to think smart people "tiresome." They are extremely vulgar bourgeois, who, however, have a furious appetite for entertaining artists and other persons whom they consider clever. Later on, we see Swann at an evening party given by Euverte: a few smart people go to Mme. De Sainte-Euverte's, but they do so with a clear consciousness of being kind to her.

In the part of the book at which we have now arrived, the part which is predominantly social, the narrator first attends an afternoon reception at the house of Mme. de Villeparisis, an aunt of the Guermantes, who, though still on good terms with her family, has at the same time become rather déclassée by reason of a scandalous past, but who is a step above Mme. de Saint-Euverte, as Mme. de Saint-Euverte is a step above Mme. Verdurin; then, a dinner at the house of the Duchesse de Guermantes, who, though one of the smartest hostesses in Paris, occupies not quite the most exalted rank; and finally an evening reception held by the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes, representatives of German royal families and, not merely of the purest blood, but of the most inviolable dignity and correctitude. In the latter part of the book, we shall assist at three more of these scenes: in the first two, we return to the Verdurins, into whose salon the people from the upper strata have now, for one reason or another, begun to filter down; and in the last, which occupies the last chapter, we return to the top again, to the Prince de Guermantes's, at whose matinee we encounter, not only Legrandin and the Saint-Euvertes, but also Odette and a son of the valet of the narrator's uncle; and where the new Princesse de Guermantes turns out to be none other than Mme. Verdurin, whom the Prince, ruined by the defeat of Germany, has married for her money.

In the meantime, however, to return to the section we have been discussing (Le Côté de Guermantes and the first part of Sodome et Gomorrhe), which is principally concerned with the "world" and with worldly people, we here begin also to understand for the first time the author's moral attitude. We are presented with three great social episodes, separated only by briefer incidents and each following the same formula and pointing the same moral. The first of these, the narrator's debut at Mme. de Villeparisis's, is followed immediately by the death of the grandmother, which serves entirely to discredit the values of the snobs with whom the hero has lately been consorting. The grandmother, who has long been ill, goes out for a walk with the boy in the Champs-Elysées. While she has gone to the toilet, the grandson overhears the conversation of the woman who tends the toilet with the keeper of the grounds: "I choose my clients," she explains, "I don't receive everybody in what I call my salons!" The grandmother returns: she also has overheard the conversation: "It sounded exactly like the Guermantes and the Verdurins," she says, as they walk away; and she quotes, as is her habit, from Mme. de Sevigne. But she keeps her head turned away in order to conceal from the boy that she has just had a paralytic stroke. In a flash, by the goodness of the grandmother, for whom any sort of meanness or malice, for whom any sort of snobbery or worldliness, are impossible, Proust has swept down the whole web of social relations which he has just been at such pains to spin.

The next episode, the dinner at the Duchesse de Guermantes's, is followed by the visit of Swann to the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes just as they are leaving for a costume ball. Swann, with one of those lapses of taste which we have been told are characteristic of him, clumsily discloses the fact that he has justbeen warned by the doctors that he is dying. But the Guermiantes are made to behave with far worse taste than Swann, for they are so much preoccupied with getting to the ball, they take their social activities so much more seriously than anything else, that they cannot even attempt to think of anything human to say, in this distressing situation, to a man who is an old friend of both and whom the Duchesse, at least, admires. In the third episode, Swann appears at the reception of the Prince de Guermantes during the bitterest period of the Dreyfus case: Swann is a Jew and has sided with the Dreyfusards; and he is not so wellreceived as formerly. The Prince takes him aside, and the guests murmur that the host has requested him to leave. Instead, we learn at the end of the evening that the Prince, whom Proust, with his masterly skill at what the conjurors call"false direction," has allowed us to suppose not only stiff but stupid, is, with his aristocratic sense of responsibility and his Teutonic seriousness of mind, the only person present who has attempted to form a just opinion of the merits of the case: he has come to the conclusion that Dreyfus is probably innocent and he has simply wished to ask Swann's opinion. (In the latter part of the novel, this formula is twice repeated: first, after the dinner at the Verdurins', in the conversation with the elevator boy, in which the latter explains how his sister, who has risen from the servant class by being kept by a rich man, exhibits her superiority to the other menials; then, in the final social scene of the book, where the daughter and son-in-law of the great tragic actress, "La Berma," who, by returning to the stage, has shortened her own life in order to pay for their social career, desert her in her illness and old age to attend the reception of the Princesse de Guermantes, to which they have not been invited and where the princess herself is Mme. Verdurin.)

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In each of these cases, Proust has destroyed, and destroyed with ferocity, the whole social hierarchy which he has just so learnedly expounded. Its values, he tells us, are an imposture: pretending to distinction, it accepts all that is vulgar and base; its pride is nothing nobler than the instinct which it shares with the woman who keeps the toilet and the elevator boy's sister, to spit upon the person whom we have at a disadvantage. And whatever the social world may say to the contrary, it either ignores or seeks to kill those few impulses toward justice and beauty which make men admirable. It seems almost inconceivable that there should have been critics to describe Proust as "unmoral": it would be far nearer to the truth to say that he sometimes tends to deal in melodrama. Proust was himself (on his mother's side) half-Jewish; and for all his Parisian sophistication, there remains in him much of the moral indignation of the classical Jewish prophet. That tone of lamentation and complaint which pervades his book, which, indeed, never deserts him, save for the amazing humor of the social scenes, themselves in their implications so bitter, is really very un-French and in the vein of Hebrew literature.

The French novelist of the line of Stendhal and Flaubert and France, with whom otherwise Proust has so much in common, differs fundamentally from Proust in this: the sad or cynical view of mankind with which these former begin, which is implicit in their first page, has been arrived at by Proust only at the cost of much pain and protest, and this ordeal is one of the subjects of his book: Proust has never, like these others, been reconciled to disillusionment. This fact is clearly one of the causes of that method which we find so novel and so fascinating of making his characters undergo a succession of transformations: humanity is only gradually revealed to us in its vanity, its selfishness and its inconsistency. AnatoleFrance would probably, for example, have put before us the whole of Odette in a single brief description—a few facts exactly noted and two adjectives which, contradicting each other, would have pricked us with the contradiction of her stupidity and her beauty; Stendhal would have stripped her of romance in the first sentence in which he recorded the simplest of her acts. But with Proust, Odette's past life is one of the last things we learn about her; and her mediocrity is never fully exposed until the very last pages. And even then, Proust cannot forgive her her moral insensibility, but must punish her with humiliation.

In that part of the book which we are discussing, we have fully emerged from the Age of Names and are well advanced with the Age of Things, that is, of realities; and we are becoming able to draw a conclusion as to why Proust finds these realities bitter, by considering the standards to which he brings them. These standards are supplied, on the one hand, by such artists as Bergotte, the novelist, and Vinteuil, the composer; but on the other, by Swann and by the mother and grandmother. I do not doubt that both of these latter were drawn, as Swann admittedly is, from Jewish originals; and it is plain that a certain Jewish family piety, a certain Jewish intensity of idealism and a certain rigorous Jewish morality, which never left his habits of self-indulgence and his worldly morality at peace, were among the fundamental elements of Proust's nature. The world is different from Combray, not merely because Combray is provincial, but because it is the world and occupied with the things of the world. It is really not Combray, but the soul of the grandmother, with its kindness, its spiritual nobility, its rigid moral principles and its utter self-abnegation, from which Proust's hero sets out on his ill-fated journey. And, as he is equipped, like many modern travelers, with moral passion but no religion, he will be compelled, as we shall presently see, to make a religion of art.

In the section which I have just been discussing, we have been shown the life of the worldlings and we have seen that it was vanity. Now we shall be shown the world of lovers and we shall find it an inferno. First, however, we may pause a moment to examine the architecture of the structure of which we now stand in the center; and we observe with astonishment that, despite the appearance of careless profusion and the real prolixity of detail, Proust, in handling his material, has practised a deliberate economy. We have noted the regular progression of the social scenes: we see now that Proust has made all sorts of efforts to secure the closest unity: half the characters are Guermantes; and almost the whole of the other balf are people whom the hero knew at Combray (as the Guermantes, in a sense, also are). The Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, Mme. de Villeparisis and Charlus's tailor all live in the same building in Paris as the family of the hero himself. All the themes have been stated in the first volumes; and all the pieces are now before us. No new elements will be introduced: Proust has provided himself with all that are necessary for his demonstration (the word is his own). We have become aware that the characters all illustrate general principles and that they have been carefully selected by Proust to cover the whole of the world that he knows: Odette is all that is stupid in woman which at the same time arouses men's passions and enchants their dreams; Charlus, the struggle in one soul between the masculine and feminine, and beyond that, the cruel paradox of a fine mind and a sensitive nature at the mercy of instincts which humiliate them; Mme. de Guermantes, the best that a snob can hope to be without becoming a serious person, etc., etc. These colossal figures, without losing individuality—we hear the very sound of their voices take on universal significance. They continue, as Proust would say, to illustrate the same laws throughout their development.

continued in part two

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