Proust: A Prophet Remembered: B. July 10, 1871

How imperious the Old Masters look, staring down from their camera portraits. Joyce, disdainfully myopic, with the jaw of a Jesuit despot. Mann, wearing that invisible monocle and sitting on his garden chair like a throne before which invisible dusky captives plead for mercy. No chance. And Proust: little Proust, resembling a late Roman emperor with his baby’s mouth—a tiny O of decadence—and those enormous smudged eyes full of the invalid’s passive gift for command.

JoyceMannProust: they seem as remote as absolute monarchy. Kingpriests, if not semi-divinities. We say: Joyce’s Dublin, Mann’s Venice, Proust’s Paris, and we think of these not just as governed worlds but as the raw stuff of creation. What ambition! What sublime arrogance for themselves and for art (with a capital A)! And yet for this very reason they make us uncomfortable. More and more in recent years we’ve stared in the opposite direction, hoping they’d go away, as other institutions (God, Father) obligingly have done.

Of the three, Proust seems perhaps the most absolute, certainly the most remote. One hundred years after his birth, July 10, 1871, he appears every bit that far away. We don’t see him as a slightly younger contemporary of Picasso, an acquaintance of Stravinsky. The nonreaders of 1971 look at Proust as he looked at his characters. He has become a series of superimposed images and rather legendary double takes. At the end of all those years, at the end of all those pages (2265 in the Random House edition of Remembrance of Things Past, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff), Proust still seems to sit in that violet dressing gown, in that bed, in that cork-lined room, delicately balancing a cup of double-strength coffee on those black plush notebooks—waiting like a spider for readers to come into his parlor, or rather, into the labyrinth that only promises to lead to him.

Alas, we are in the presence of that phenomenon that the latetwentieth-century mind least enjoys contemplating: a classic. Even to reach Proust’s maze we must penetrate the critic’s maze that surrounds it. “More has been written about Proust in many languages than about any other author of the twentieth century,” the Proustian scholar Roger Shattuck has flatly stated, counting over 3000 items in bibliography. Worse, there has been a stubborn tradition of Proust-reading—a mystique that has insisted upon the complexity, the exotic specialness of Proust. Einsteinian aesthetes have droned on about the space-time dimensions of an event and the memory of the event. Critics have fallen in love with their optical metaphors: the magic lantern, the telescope pointed at the past, and so on. To read Proust, to read about Proust, has become, like marathon-running, one of life’s highly optional forms of exhaustion.

Fortunately, the preferred interpretations of the Master have grown infinitely more dated than the Master himself. Ever since Last Year at Marienbad (at the latest), the two-way dissolve—the flashback that melds past and present—has been a cinematic cliché. To a Consciousness III generation, whose nurseries come equipped with strobe lights, no laborious lectures need be delivered on the Fragmented Vision or Illusion and Reality. In 1971 a reader can no more thrill to Remembrance of Things Past as a technical breakthrough than he can marvel every time he picks up the telephone and it just happens to work. “All those Chinese puzzles of form, all these deliquescent mandarin subtleties”—to turn Proust’s words against himself—custom has neutralized and later fashions in obscurity have replaced.

A centenary declares a kind of amnesty on all reputations—bad and good. It is time to rescue Proust from his cull. We have earned the rights of posterity—to misinterpret him in our own ways. At least we can stop being obsessed with him as an innovator— now almost fifty years dead! What a relief it is to ask, in all rudeness, the questions we ask of ordinary novelists: How entertaining are his characters? What does he know about life? And never mind the standard short history of Symbolism.

The rewards for demythologizing Proust are immediate. Once we stop being so resentfully reverent, we notice an obvious but little publicized fact: Proust is a superb comedian. The seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past are crammed to the margins with minor characters comparable to Dickens’ eccentrics or, more accurately, to the grotesques of Gogol. What writer has created a more perfect hypochondriac than Aunt Léonie?—surely a self-portrait in part. Day and night she sits in her bed, in her version of a cork-lined room, playing card games against herself, her false hair pushed away not only to expose her baldness but to lay bare her oddity. Aunt Léonie imagines a miracle that will break her spell—free her from her bed. Her favorite dream: a fire will kill all her relatives but bring her to life as a mourner standing at their graveside. In the meantime, unhappily presuming they live and will shortly visit her, she repeats her instructions to herself: “I must not forget that I never slept a wink.”

Or there is Legrandin, the perfect snob—again with elements of selfportraiture. (Before he turned into an Aunt Léonie, Proust was infamous as a social climber.) Legrandin gives little vanity-of-vanities sermons on society, even as he sedulously campaigns for the choice invitations. Proust impales him on a phrase: the “Saint Sebastian of snobbery.”His eyes full of pain— “the eyes of a good-looking martyr whose body bristles with arrows”— Legrandin asks the question he hates, the question he is doomed to ask: “Do you know the ladies of Guermantes?”

What is Proust’s own attitude toward “the ladies of Guermantes,” toward society? It is a question crucial to Remembrance of Things Past, and for once, Proust is as complex as advertised. He manages to be both the tartest of comedians and the most vulnerable of romantics. In an essay “An Anatomy of Snobbery,” Arthur Koestler confesses to having disengaged himself from a dull, middle-aged lady at a cocktail party when he found out she was running a dressmaker’s shop. “How did you like the Princess de G?” he was asked. “I turned and had another look at the dull woman,” he writes, “—and, lo! how fascinating she had become.” This, at heart, is Proust’s snobbery too.

Of the Due de Guermantes he writes in hushed tones: “This ducal personality was enormously distended, immaterialised.” He becomes a sort of pantheistic deity, immanent in the very walks and trees of his estate. Even the “endless series of hot summer afternoons” come to seem ducal.

Proust can make the most incriminating observations about society in practice. If the Due visits a sickbed, he is overcome by the honor he is bestowing on a dying plebeian. When the Dreyfus case is discussed at the very best parties, it gets trivialized to the common level of gossip. Was Dreyfus sleeping with the War Minister’s wife or the Prime Minister’s wife? This was the important issue.

Society, Proust understands, is, above all, antisocial, a monstrous disease of collective ego. Society is Mme. Verdurin forcing her salondominating laugh until, quite literally, she dislocates her jaw. Society is the Due’s hand, floating, almost detached. across a drawing room, idly flapping like a shark’s fin.

Proust smiles, Proust mourns. But he can never quite bring himself to despise society. He forgives it even when unforgivable. It is a magic kingdom beyond the ordinary laws of man. He writes of the Duchesse de Guermantes: “No exhausting necessity to think, no moral anxiety or nervous trouble has deformed” her.

Society is slowly dying, page by page, in Remembrance of Things Past, and it deserves to die. But Proust presides over that death with exquisite and finally touching reluctance: he has nothing to put in its place.

Proust’s other beau ideal is love: Swann’s way. Where love is concerned, Proust tends to be a masochist. The power of love he measures by its power to cause suffering. Love is deprivation rather than consummation. Love, in particular, is jealousy.

Proust’s man in love is a dupe: the victim of a treacherous chemistry that deserves the name illness as more than a metaphor. Almost invariably he loves the wrong woman, Charles Swann’s summary of Odette is the classic cry: “To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style.”

Love in Proust is the sort of dismal cold sweat most people identify as a withdrawal symptom. Even at the moment of fervor, Proust’s lovers are disillusioned: they see through everything but are just as helpless as if they didn’t. In this captive melancholy, Proust comes close to Jung’s theory of the anima: the troubling She is the manifestation of the demon in a man’s soul, his soulsickness. “When we are in love with a woman,” he writes, “we simply project into her a state of our own soul.”

No wonder the loved ones— Odette, the Duchesse de Guermantes, Albertine—remain vague to the end. Odette first appears without even a name, as the Lady in Pink. The flowers always pinned to her or arranged about her in vases—Parma violets, enormous chrysanthemums— seem more vivid than she herself. The Duchesse floats into the book practically as an apparition—“in the colours of a tapestry or a painted window ... a being of another substance than the rest of the human race.”

Proust generalizes that all lovers have trouble remembering the face of their beloved: “Our mental photographs are always blurred.” This is certainly a problem for him. He can recall every last bit of jewelry—sapphire charms, enameled four-leaf clovers, gold medallions, turquoise amulets, ruby chains—but not the face itself. By a kind of memory trick he associates his women with paintings by Botticelli (Odette) or Giotto (Albertine).

It is as if Proust peered at all his elegant ladies at twilight, under parasols, wide-brimmed bats, and the most shapeless of cloaks. He will not, or cannot, very often tell you the color of the lady’s hair or eyes, her height, her weight, her flatness, her roundness, the shape of her nose. If you are lucky, you will get an angle of the head to the body; and a perfume. Always a perfume. In the end, Proust’s femmes fatales line the shelves like distilled essences.

The breakdown of love and the breakdown of society, the twin themes of Remembrance of Things Past, come together in Proust’s consummate portrait of the Baron de Charlus. How can one begin to describe this extraordinary, this ill-designed man? His very vitality seems a fever, an indisposition. There is a clownish element to all Proust men, as if life were about to play a practical joke on them. Charlus is the most heartbreakingly funny.

When the Narrator first sees him—“pigeon’s-wings” sideburns, black straw hat, moss-rose in his buttonhole—he suspects him of being a hotel crook. Eyes are the all-important center of life to Proust; in this respect one cannot overemphasize optics. Charlus’ eyes are “dilated with observation”—the eyes, the Narrator speculates, of a madman or a spy. Charlus looks at his fellowmen as if at “a manuscript difficult to decipher.” When he walks down the street, glaring fixedly about him, cabdrivers stop under the impression they are being hailed. Proust sums him up as “a powerful man in danger”—a man “on the point of explosion.”

With Charlus the 1971 reader is in familiar company: the presence of self-destruction. But in Remembrance of Things Past even self-destruction takes time. Vices manifest themselves like overripe flowers opening to slow-motion photography. Four volumes pass before Charlus’ homosexuality blooms for the reader—less a particular vice than a standin for all vice, a working example of original sin.

Proust was a self-recriminating homosexual, to Gide’s disgust. But homosexuality was merely the vice that most scandalized, and perhaps thrilled, the Hebrew prophet that Edmund Wilson saw residing in Proust. Proust’s hopes, his summa bona of life—love and society—are humanistic. But when these hopes fail, his sense of damnation is strictly Old Testament. The title of the volume centering on Charlus, Cities of the Plain, is not to be taken lightly. In the end, Proust compares Charlus’ Paris not only with Sodom and Gomorrah but with Pompeii.

The twentieth century invades Proust’s world with Faustian instruments of the devil: the telephone, the automobile, finally the airplane. It is a German bomber of World War I that rains down fire and brimstone as Charlus emerges from a homosexual brothel where he has been purchasing flagellation. Charlus has betrayed both love and society. He “allowed a Queen to die,” Proust writes, “rather than miss an appointment with the hairdresser who was to singe his hair for the benefit of an omnibus conductor.”

For this he must be punished, but not by a German bomber. Time is damnation in Proust. It sucks youth and shrivels the soul, not as an act of nature but as an act of retribution. Time fells Charlus by a stroke, leaving him almost speechless, propped up on a park bench like a rag doll, but still importuning the boys. Time turns Odette senile: “They leave her in her corner. Besides, she’s a bit dotty.” So much for Botticelli.

Hell for Proust is a ticking clock, leading him. second by second, toward a horror-comedy he did not bargain for. “He had been satisfying a sensual curiosity.” he writes of Swann. “What were the pleasures of those people who lived for love alone?” Swann had wanted to know. “He had supposed he could stop there, that he would not be obliged to learn their sorrows also.” This curious naïveté, this innocent romanticism, Proust may well have shared as he began tracking down the taste of those famous madeleine cakes dipped in tea. For Proust did not start out disillusioned; he got that way. Just as his characters slowly discover their special vices, he seemed to discover the vice of despair in himself, volume by volume.

There is a petulance to Proust—a fussy-invalid quality. One could even say a little glibly that Remembrance of Things Past, this whole immense mosaic, is the Byzantine revenge on life of a small boy whose mother once, just once, failed to kiss him good-night.

Proust is a world-eater. If reality displeases him, he simply ingests it and converts it into something else he likes better. He confesses: “I did not at that time know, and indeed have never since learned how to reduce to its objective elements my strong impressions.” This is Proust’s genius— and limitation. He can put promise and betrayal into the flavor of almond. He can identify sorrow and exile by a smell of varnish on the stairs. He has mastered the trade of Narcissus: he uses the whole world as his mirror.

The reader of Remembrance of Things Past seems to be sitting in a garden under filtered moonlight. Fragrances are so pungent as to become tastes. One hears from far off for near, but pianissimo) the sound of a harpsichord. The notes fall tangible on the ear. All the senses interact to produce in concert one impression, and that impression is Proust.

When love and society failed for him, Proust switched his bet to art. The artist will be the last aristocrat, the last lover: “With men like these we do really fly from star to star.” Salvation-through-art—this gamble seems more desperate than the other two.

We are in the presence of a fanatic. Here is a man who will make no concessions to our lives. Can we spare the time to read his 2265 pages? Is he writing about something that interests us? The questions never cross his mind. He expects every reader to give him the total attention of his “Granny,” wearing her cambric gown like “her servant’s livery, her nurse’s uniform”: No matter how “great the misery there was in me, it would be received by her with a pity still more vast.” If the reader lets him down, if he is a little less obsessed with Proust’s life than Proust himself, he will earn the cold rebuke Proust once inserted into an essay on Stendhal: “We have lost the ability to read.”

“How insane had been his ambition.” Proust writes of Swann as Swann staked out the absolutes of love. How insane is Proust as he stakes out the absolutes of art. Yet, even as unbelievers, we are awed and moved. For we know Proust’s little secret, hinted at in irony after irony. He is an unbeliever too. We are in the presence of a special kind of fanatic—the agnostic who still manages to build a cathedral.

What strength! What perversity! To operate as if the old unities were true, even as one painstakingly describes their dissolution. This is the achievement Proust’s first admirers recognized—and turned into a monument. The 1971 reader discovers an even more remarkable fact: Proust lives. He can amuse us, exasperate us, and just plain hold us with a power no contemporary novelist can match. Because he happens to be a genius as well as an egoist, his exorbitant demands that we pay more attention to him end by forcing us, against all our usual inclinations, to pay more attention to the world and finally to ourselves. The compliment we owe Proust is the compliment we owe every great writer: he makes us become great readers or know the loss.