Thursday, December 6, 2012

Proust by Edmund White

What Proust had discovered since writing Jean Santeuil was how to take up themes, let them drop, then come back to them, though each time the theme was exposed in a different light.  No longer did Proust feel that he had to say everything at once or set in stone his opinions on every character and topic. Now the dramatic twists of the plot dictated the insights revealed to the Narrator.  He’d also learned how to introduce a character by hearsay – the (false) rumors, for example, that Charlus is a hypervirile womanizer who despises homosexuals and is Odette’s lover, misinformation that the reader picks up long before being introduced to Charlus himself.

During the course of the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past the Narrator is puzzled by Charlus’s extreme friendliness that alternates with bouts of insufferable – and inexplicable – rudeness. Then, halfway through Remembrance of Things Past, the Narrator observes Charlus cruising a tailor, Jupien, who is entirely receptive to his advances.  This insight into Charlus’s  sexuality also explains his unnatural attachment to a cruel and ungrateful, if talented, violinist, Morel.  Charlus’s  masochism becomes even clearer during the air raids of World War I, when the Narrator seeks shelter in a building that turns out to be a male brothel owned by the same Jupien.  There the Narrator observes Charlus being chained and beaten by hired hustlers.  This sexual humiliation alternates with his moments of over-weening pride and arrogance in society – until, at the end of the whole cycle, a feeble, snowy-haired Charlus, accompanied by an ever faithful Jupien, salutes and bows to every passerby, afraid he might be snubbing someone important whose identity he can no longer recall.

As the trajectory of this single character demonstrates, Proust had learned a method of presentation that falls midway between that of Dickens and that of Henry James. Dickens assigns his characters one or two memorable traits, sometimes highly comic, which they display each time they make an appearance;  James, by contrast, is so quick to add nuances to every portrait that he ends up effacing them with excessive shading.  Proust invented a way of showing a character such as Charlus in Dickensian bold relief at any given moment – Charlus as the enraged queen or, later, Charlus the shattered King Lear. Yet, by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at, though far more memorably.

It’s like the old dispute among painters as to the primacy of line or of shading.  Dickens could draw with a firm bounding line but used so little shading he gave no sense of perspective. James was all shading and depth, but (especially in his late novels) nothing vigorous distinguished the profile of one character from another.  Proust succeeded in rendering characters with the same startling simplicity as Dickens but generated a lifelike subtlety and motion by giving successive “takes" over hundreds of pages.  In that way his style is like the magic lantern the Narrator watches at bedtime when he’s a boy.  The heat of the lamp causes a band of images to turn and project the illusion of motion on the wall.  In the same way Proust’s slide show of portraits of the same character induces the illusion of duration, of development – and of psychological truth.

No matter how strange Proust’s life might have been, it has been subsumed, as he hoped, into the radiant vision of it that he presented in his writing.  Nevertheless, the intensely intimate (if not always personal) quality of Proust’s novel makes him more and more popular in this age of memoirs.  Whereas other modernists (Stein, Joyce, Pound) rejected confession in favor of formal experiment, Proust was a literary cyclops, if that means he was a creature with a single great  “I” at the center of his consciousness (no matter that the first-person Narrator is only occasionally  the literal Marcel Proust).  Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking – not the pell-mell stream of consciousness of a Molly Bloom or a Stephen Dedalus, each dramatic character with a unique vocabulary and an individuating range of preoccupations, but rather the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice: the sovereign intellect.

Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because as his life recedes in time and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths rather than the valedictorian of the Belle Epoque. Under this new dispensation, Proust emerges as the supreme symphonist of the spirit.  We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know.  Instead, we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales.  He is our Scheherazade. .  .

Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera, a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless those fantasies are undeniably beautiful intimations of paradise – the artificial paradise of art.  I doubt whether many readers could ever be content with Proust’s rejection of rustling, wounded life in favor of frozen, immobile art; but his powerful vision of impermanence certainly does speak to us.  The rise and fall of individual loves on a small scale and of entire classes on the grand, the constant revolution of sentiments and status, is a subject Proust rehearsed and we’ve realized.  Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times.


  1. Proust always claimed that he had a bad memory and that, besides, a carefully reconstructed recollection, prompted by photos or shared reminiscences, was invariably colorless. Only an involuntary memory, triggered by a taste or color or some other sensation, could erase the passage of time and restore past experience in its first, full effulgence. Proust was an anti-intellectual and convinced that the domain of art, which is recollected experience, can never be tapped through reasoning and method alone; it must be delivered to us, fresh and vivid, through a process beyond the control of intellect or willpower. Paradoxically, if Proust was an anti-intellectual he was also profoundly philosophical, in that what he sought was not the accidents but the essence of any past event. Involuntary memory , by definition anti-intellectual, nevertheless refines away all the unnecessary details of a forgotten moment and retains only its unadorned core.

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