Now Comes Theodora
PROUST HOME PAGE > WILSON II

Wilson: A Short View of Proust (continued)

Some readers have been deceived by Proust's method into supposing that the characters of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu have actually no continuity; but they have fallen into an error similar to that of those persons who imagine that the clocks of modern physics are actually accelerated and retarded, and that the measuring rods shrink and expand. In the case of the clocks and the measuring rods, it is the conditions under which we observe them which make them appear to behave in this way; and with Proust, in a similar fashion, it is the point of view of the observer which makes the difference. Proust's method of presentation is one of his great technical discoveries. The more important characters in Proust undergo so many transformations that it would be impossible briefly to indicate their course. But we may consider a subordinate character.

When we first meet Mme. de Villeparisis, it is at the seaside summer resort, Balbec: the narrator's grandmother has known her during their schooldays, but, with her characteristic modesty and good taste, taking it for granted that Mme. de Villeparisis belongs to a superior social class, has never since attempted to see her. Mme. de Villeparisis, however, recognizes the grandmother and insists upon entertaining her. To the boy, who goes out driving with Mme. de Villeparisis, she is the perfect type of the great lady; she enchants him with her anecdotes of the distinguished people she has met at her father's house. When the hero next encounters her, however, it is at the reception I have mentioned above: he knows now that her social position is by no means so brilliant as he had supposed: in some way, she has lost caste; many people will not come to her house; she is also a sort of blue stocking: she paints and publishes memoirs, and has thereby ceased to be typical of her class; she is envious, sometimes mean, a little stuffy and a little pathetic. It sometimes occurs to the young man to wonder what dreadful sin Mme. de Villeparisis can have committed to have warranted such ostracism: he cannot imagine anything disgraceful enough, anything which such a woman might have done which such women did not do every day with impunity. Some time afterward, he makes an attempt to find out from her nephew, Charlus, only to discover that, so far as Charlus is concerned, Mme. de Villeparisis is not déclassée at all: she is simply his aunt and a Guermantes, and the opinion of the general world has never penetrated to him. He explains, however, to the young man that the late M. de Villeparisis was a nobody, with no title of his own, and that they had merely invented "de Villeparisis" in order that she might still have one. Years afterward, at Venice, the narrator once again comes upon Mme. de Villeparisis in the dining-room of his hotel. He overhears her conversation at table with the old diplomat, M. de Norpois, who has been her lover for years: it is one of those banal and laconic exchanges on the part of persons who have long been together and who have no longer anything to say to each other: they discuss their shopping, the stock market, the menu. Mme. de Villeparisis is disfigured by some sort of eczema which has broken out on her face: she seems tired and old. When an Italian prince comes over to their table, M. de Norpois watches her relentlessly with a severe blue eye to see that she does not say anything silly.

An ordinary novelist would leave it at this. With Proust, however, the point of the story is still to come—in a final transformation which is retrospective. When the narrator leaves the dining-room and rejoins his mother outside, he finds also a Mme. Sazerat, an old, excellent and rather boring neighbor from Combray. Mme. Sazerat, ever since they have known her, has been living in very reduced circumstances. When the narrator happens to mention that Mme. de Villeparisis is in the dining-room, Mme. Sazerat begs him to point her out: it was Mme. de Villeparisis, Mme. Sazerat explains, that her father had ruined himself: "Now that father is dead," she adds, "my consolation is that he loved the most beautiful woman of his time." The hero takes her into the dining-room, but, "We can't be counting from the same place," she objects. "As I count, the second table is a table where there's only an old gentleman and a dreadful blowzy little hunched-up old woman." We understand with astonishment that what the young man had been unable to imagine was simply that Mme. de Villeparisis had once been beauitiful, unscrupulous and cruel, had wasted lives and broken hearts, like Rachel and Odette. Proust's skill at producing these effects is one of the most amazing features of his art: as each successive revelation is made, we see perfectly that the previous descriptions of the character fit equally well our new conception, yet we have never foreseen the surprise. Behind the varied series of aspects, we divine the personality as a solid and indestructible entity: the series, in Proust's own language, describes its curve.

The Only War We've Got

To return, however, to the story where we left it, we now enter the inferno of the passions, of which we have previously had only glimpses. The hero's love affair with Albertine, which is balanced, near the beginning, by his childhood infatuation with Swann's daughter, is the culminating, and the most enormously elaborated, episode of the book. The narrator falls in love with a girl in almost every way the opposite of himself: she is lively, sensual, piquante. She is an orphan and has no money and is obliged to live with an aunt, who dislikes her and whom she dislikes. The aunt is a dull bourgeoise, but there is about Albertine a good deal of the Parislan gamine. While his mother is away at Combray, the hero brings Albertine to live in the family apartment, where he is, for the time being, alone. There commences between him and Albertine one of those fatal emotional see-saws which seem first to have been described by Stendhal in the love affair between Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole. So long as Proust's hero is sure of Albertine, he finds himself indifferent to her and decides that he will not marry her; but as soon as he suspects her of infidelity, he becomes furiously jealous of her and can think of nothing else.

In the meantime, he has become more self-indulgent, more lazy, more egoistic and more hypochondriac. He lies in bed till noon every day and will not take Albertine out: he keeps her like a prisoner. He leans too hard upon her, just as he leaned too hard upon Gilberte, but with consequences far more serious, because he has by this time lost the self-control which might have enabled him to end the situation, as he did in the former case. He becomes at last so morbid and exigent that, one morning, after a jealous scene, Albertine runs away while he is still in bed. The night before he has heard her, in her room, violently throw open her window—opening the windows at night was supposed to be bad for his asthma—as if to say: "This life is smothering me! Asthma or no asthma, I must have air!" He is filled with an agitation which shakes him more profoundly than anything he has known since the time, in his childhood at Combray, when his mother did not kiss him good-night; and as he had done on that former occasion, he goes out into the hall, hoping in vain to attract Albertine's attention. In the morning, he finds a letter, which says: "I leave you the best of myself." She goes back to her aunt in the country. Only then does it occur to her lover that she is, after all, a jeune fille á marier and that he has taken advantage of her situation to put her in an impossible position. He makes frantic efforts to get her back; then suddenly hears that she has fallen from her horse and been killed.

After the news of her death, he receives a letter she has written him, in which she tells him she is willing to come back. He has suspected her of Lesbian propensities, and this is one of the things that has tortured him; but he is never now to know certainly how much of what he has suspected is the product of his imagination and how much is true.Some evidence, after she is dead, leads him to believe that she is innocent;other reports, that she was far more depraved than he had ever guessed, that she had finally come to believe herself suffering from a form of "criminal insanity" and that she had really allowed herself to be killed out of remorse for a suicide she had caused. In either event, he feels that he is to blame: if she was innocent, he has wronged her; if she was guilty, he has abandoned her tothe perversity which she herself dreaded: "It seemed to me that, by reason of the fact that my love had been altogether selfish, I had allowed Albertine to die, just as I had killed my grandmother." In any case, this harrowing failure undermines his own morale. He completely collapses and takes refuge in a sanitarium, where be remains for years.

This episode with Albertine, upon which Proust put so much labor and which he intended for the climax of his book, has undoubtedly hitherto been the section least popular with his readers. I believe, however, that future readers will do Proust the justice of recognizing it as one of the most important love affairs in fiction. It is presented on so vast a scale that it makes considerable demands on the attention; and the interruption of its publication at the time of Proust's death made it particularly difficult to follow. Albertine is seen in so many varying moods, made the subject of so many ideas, dissociated into so many different images, that we sometimes become submerged and lose sight of the basic situation, of Proust's unwavering and masterly grasp of the characters of both the lovers, which make the catastrophe inevitable. Furthermore, the episode of Albertine does not supply us with any of the the things which we ordinarily expect from love affairs in novels. But that is precisely its strength: it is one of the most original studies of love in fiction and, in spite of the rather highly special conditions under which it is made to take place, it has a profound universal truth. And it ends by moving us in a curious way, precisely when Proust seems casually to have neglected all the customary machinery by which emotion is produced. The tragedy of Albertine is the tragedy of the little we know and the little we are able to care about those persons whom we know best and for whom we care most; and those pages which tell how Albertine's lover forgot her after she was dead, by reason of their very departure from any other treatment of death which we remember in literature, give us that impression of a bolder honesty, of a closer approach to reality, which we get only from the highest and most original genius.

We must now, however, attack Proust's central ideas, of which this episode is the chief illustration. We have already been shown the failure of Swann to realize in Odette his vague esthetic longings. So the narrator's friend, Saint-Loup, has made himself miserable over a wretched little actress whom the hero has formerly known in a brothel, but who wears the aspect for Saint-Loup of all the charms and all the talents. So now the narrator himself has proved the fatal impossibility of ever finding our happiness in another individual. A woman will not, and cannot, live in the world in which we would have her—that is, the world in which we live, which we ourselves imagine; and what we love in her is merely the product of our own imagination: we have supplied her with it ourself. This tragic subjectivity of love is even more striking in the case of the sexual inverts (for Proust supplements the normal love affairs of Swann and of the narrator, with, as it were, homosexual annexes, consisting, on the one hand, of Charlus and his friends, and, on the other, of Albertine and her Lesbian companions); for here, to the eyes of a normal person, there is nothing romantic to be seen at all. In the case of a wholly noble and disinterested love, such as the grandmother's for the boy, the discrepancy is perhaps even more hopeless: for the boy simply takes all her attentions for granted, is too self-centered to be aware of her sufferings and scarcely thinks about her at all until after she is dead. And by one of his happiest strokes, Proust further shows us that the odious Mme. Verdurin is a victim of the same malady as the rest: her fierce despotism over her "little clan," her frenzied efforts to keep them together, her nagging them to come to her house and her persecuting them when they fail to, are all merely another form of the same passion which has tormented the narrator, Charlus and Swann: jealousy—in this case, transferred from an individual to a group. Nor are the lovers the only persons who fail through seeking to share their lives with other human beings, to extend their own private reality to the external world. Legrandin lives to abandon his snobbery; when he is finally invited everywhere, he no longer cares to go out. And, in a terrible culminating episode, Proust shows us the whole futile comedy enacted in unexpected form: Charlus, who has been steadily degenerating, has finally arrived at a phase where all his more human impulses have perished and he has become perverse for the sake of perversity: vice itself has become the ideal. But his efforts to degrade himself are as ill-fated as the grandmother's efforts to consecrate her life to others: for the persons he pays to collaborate with him care nothing about being vicious; their heart is hopelessly not in their work. Even in pursuing evil, where satisfaction depends on others, man is doomed to disappointment. And even here Proust does not fail to show us in Charlus's senile and abject soul the last vibrations of that hope and love which life has nearly destroyed.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

Nor does Proust's pursuit of this theme stop here. The conviction that it is impossible to know, impossible to master, the external world, permeates his whole book. It is reiterated on almost every page, in a thousand different connections: Albertine's lies; the gossip about the heir-apparent of Luxemburg; the contradictory diagnoses of the doctors on the grandmother's illness: the ticking of the watch in Saint-Loup's room, which the visitor is unable to locate; the names in the railway timetable of the towns in the neighborhood of Balbec, which first rouse romantic images in the mind of the boy and whose etymologies are explained by the cure of Combray, then become for the young man simply the stations of the Balbec railway and are later explained differently and authoritatively by Brichot, so that they take on an entirely new suggestiveness. This subjective world, in Proust, presents itself, like the universe of certain modern philosophers, as a continual flux: just as the alleys of the Bois de Boulogne, as he once saw them in his youth, under the influence of Odette, have now changed to something else; so love changes and fails us, and so society, which at first seems so stable, in a few years has recombined its groups and merged and transformed its classes. And, as in the universe of those philosophers who employ the concepts of modern physics, the world is a structure of events, interdependent, each event involving the whole, an organism; so Proust's application on an unprecedented scale of the metaphysics implicit in literary symbolism has the effect of enmeshing his whole book in a dense network of relations, of complicated cross-references between different groups of characters and of a multiplication of metaphors and similes connecting the phenomena of infinitely varied fields—biological, zoological, physical, esthetic, social, political and financial.

And as James Joyce, in Ulysses, varies the texture of his narrative to representthe varying times of day and the varying states of mind of his characters, so does Proust, on his scale of a life-time, where the varying color and tone of the narrative correspond to the varying periods of the hero's career. To the iridescent reveries of boyhood succeed the talk, the sociability and the vivacity of young manhood; and to these, with that wonderful sunrise which brings to the hero, not the splendor of the morning, but the dawning of the knowledge of human corruption and cruelty, succeeds a nightmare of the passions, which at its climax, in the almost demoniacal scene where the Verdurins set Morel against Charlus, seems blasted with the dry breath of Hell. It is characteristic of Proust that, for all the fascination which the vices with which lie is here preoccupied undoubtedly had for him and for all the comedy which he extracts from them, he should give to this part of his book the Scriptural title, "Sodom and Gomorrah". We feel indeed that all the characters are damned. Swann and the grandmother are dead. Bergotte dies; and at his death it is intimated, as it has already been intimated in connection with the composer Vinteuil, that only in artistic creation may we hope to find our compensation for the horror, the sterility and the despair of the world.

There is, however, yet another phase. After the death of Albertine, the fumes begin to clear away. When the narrator finally emerges, after the War, from his sanitarium, the world seems more sober, more level, less colorful, less troubling. He accepts an invitation to a reception at the Princesse de Guermantes's. On his way and while waiting in the library, he is several times visited by certain curious sensations such as he has already had occasion to record in connection with a clump of trees seen while driving, in his boyhood, with Mme. de Villeparisis, and at other moments. Why had he derived from them a mysterious satisfaction? He now determines to get to the bottom of them, and begins to see that they are simply the moments when, for an instant, external reality coincides with the reality within him. It is this internal world which is the true reality; and it is the business of the artist to find out what is beneath its symbols, which obtrude themselves on our minds upon the slightest provocation; to decipher its hieroglyphics. When he finally goes in among the guests and, after his long absence, meets the people he has known, he feels acutely the passage of time, which has profoundly affected them all. Still haunted by the image of Albertine, as he first knew her at the seaside, he expresses to Gilberte Swann (who has since been married) a desire to meet some young girls. Gilberte brings her daughter to him, and when he sees her, he knows fully at last that he himself is old. He has a vision of the time which he has lived and which he is still dragging with him in memory. While waiting in the library, he has happened to take down the same novel of George Sand which his mother had read him that night, in his childhood, when he had lain awake so long because she had not come to kiss him. And now, across all the years, he hears the ringing of the bell which announced M. Swann's departure, and is terrified suddenly to know that it must ring in his mind forever. From that night, when his parents first indulged him, dates the decline of his will. The slope which he had that night commenced to descend has brought him to the debacle with Albertine and has left him, already old, with his wasted life, le temps perdu—a hypochondriac like his aunt Leonie, with whom he had supposed in his youth that he had nothing in common. Now he will turn away from the world: he will no longer look for happiness in others. The reality lies within him and it is only through literature that he can hope to rejoin it, to experience it. He will make of his life a book: only so can he retrieve that past which he now must carry along with him, with no power to change it, to better it. In the long last sentence of the book the word "Time" begins to sound, and it closes the symphony, as it began it.

A Vision So Noble

In some such fashion, without doubt, Proust really composed his book. He began it late in life, when he had published and written little, "knowing," as he makes his narrator say, "nothing of his trade." A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is, therefore, even aside from Proust's genius, a very exceptional production. Proust worked under the unusual disadvantage of never really having written to be read: he had never put himself into communication with any body of readers: he had no public; the whole of his book had been written before he published a word. As a result of this, he often wrote sentences so long and so complicated that we are obliged to read them several times, and he allowed himself to fall into a repetitiousness which, as an artist, is perhaps his worst fault. Furthermore, as, with the exception of an early volume of miscellanies, he had never before written a book, he put into A la Recherche du Temps Perdu everything he knew—so that he often swamps his effects by overloading them with a cargo, a part of which, at any rate, if he had been a literary man in regular practice, he would already have disposed of, and perhaps to better advantage, elsewhere. On the other hand, the fact that Proust had never had to write for a living, and that he was able to command unlimited leisure, brought with it the immense advantage of making it possible for him to plan and carry through a work of the most ambitious kind. Proust was never obliged to go slowly, or to meet the demands of a current market: he was able, in a single work, to show his mind and his imagination in their full scope and depth; and he could allow himself any liberty. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is one of those bold and self-dependent works, produced in absolute indifference to popular standards and commercial expediencies, which make the principal glory of literature.

Proust was a fairly rich man, who had inherited money and who had never had to work: he had always been able to afford to indulge himself. He had perhaps never, except in the army, had to associate with other men under everyday conditions and on absolutely equal terms. And as a result, besides the manias and morbidities of the solitary man, he betrays also some of the suspicions of the millionaire who is always afraid that the servants are lying to him, and is incessantly haunted by a delusion that everyone who shows him kindness is only after his money. And he has also had the opportunity of indulging his imagination in certain subjects, such as homosexuality, in a way which makes us feel, sometimes, that he takes too gruesome a view of them and on other occasions disgusts us with his appetite for the scabrous. And is there not also some self-indulgence in Proust's appetite for suffering? A la Recherche du Temps Perdu for all its humor and its beauty, is one of the gloomiest books ever written: Proust tells us that the idea of death has "kept him company as incessantly as the idea of his own identity"; and the very water-lilies of the little river at Combray, continually straining to follow the current and continually jerked back by their stems, are likened to the futile attempts of the neurasthenic to break the habits which are eating his life. Proust's lovers are always suffering: we never see them when they are not unhappy. His artists are unhappy, too: they have only the consolation of art. During those interminable and not infrequently almost intolerable disquisitions on jealousy and the writhings of unrequited love, we sometimes find ourselves irritated as we do with those dialogues of Leopardi in which he makes us listen while he rings so many ingenious changes on the theme that life is never enjoyable. With Leopardi, we are made uneasy by the spectacle of so vigorous an intellect and so distinguished a style applied persistently to the reiteration of the pitiful complaint of a sick man. If we did not know that Leopardi was sick, we should want to retort that the trouble with life was not that happiness does not exist, but merely that it doesn't last; and so with Proust, we long to suggest to him that there are other forms of creative activity than that made possible by literature—that his diplomat, M. de Norpois, when he created his alliances, must have enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that he had imposed a little of his own private reality on the world outside; that Mme. De Guermantes must have felt it when she created her salon; and Cottard, the doctor, when he supervised his cases. Might not a better man than the hero have even succeeded in recreating Albertine at least partly in his own image? We are willing to agree with Ortega y Gasset that Proust has shown himself guilty of the medieval sin of accidia, that combination of slothfulness and gloom for which Dante submerged his sinners in mud. And we recognize in the atrocious cruelty which seems to dominate Proust's world, in the social scenes no less than in the love affairs, the hysterical complement of the hero's hysterical passivity.

But when we come to these concluding pages of Le Temps Retrouvé, so somber and so moving, perhaps the finest in the whole work, when we hear the door-bell still ringing from Combray like the knock of Fate at the door, we become for the first time fully aware of Proust's bitter judgment of himself. We see how he has systematically created a character which shall represent him only on his weakest side. The man whom he has depicted, whose moral defeat is the theme of his story, could never have had the strength of this strange exaltation of art, so utterly divorced from every other source of human joy, which retrieves the moral defeat and which burns in these last pages; could never, in fact, have written the book. The person whom Proust has omitted was one of the most powerful minds of our time and one of the great writers of the world.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send us an email. -- Stephen Fall

The 14-Minute Marcel Proust

1. Swann's Way | 2. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower | 3. The Guermantes Way | 4. Sodom and Gomorrah | 5. The Prisoner | 6. The Fugitive | 7. Finding Time Again

Front page | Penguins v. Enright v. Yale | translating Proust | Madeleines | growth of a novel | Proust & Joyce | Viking | Wilson | Movies | Biographies | Proustiana | Comix | Private Proust | Albertine | Digital editions | and in French

Other sites: Raintree County | Piper Cub Forum | Warbird's Forum | Daniel Ford's Books | Facebook | Expedition Yacht Seal

Posted October 2019. This copyrighted material is made available here as a public service. Websites © 2006-2019 Fallbook Press; all rights reserved.