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Marcel Proust

 


PROUST

Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was physically frail, an asthmatic, who as a young man moved freely m Parisian high society. There he acquired the material for his single great masterpiece, A la recherche dii temps perdu (published in seven sections between 1913 and 1927), translated as Remembrance of Things Past. The work became practically his only interest during his latter years when he lived as a recluse, seldom venturing outside in daytime, an existence only partly prescribed by deteriorating health. The subject of this seminal novel, which ran to about 3,000 pages, is Time and Memory. The authentic past can only be recaptured through involuntary memory, triggered by an apparently insignificant incident or object. Through such 'privileged moments', the past is recaptured. All traditional ideas of narrative are abandoned, and events and feelings are fed through a narrator figure, Marcel (not, in spite of similarities, an alter ego). Proust's precision in describing human consciousness echoes Henry James and Joyce; his idea of insignificant past incidents assuming later importance is found in Virginia Woolf, and his notion of human relationships forming a pattern like a piece of music was adopted by Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75).


 
Marcel Proust





From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922) was a French novelist, essayist and critic, best known as the author of À la recherche du temps perdu (in English, In Search of Lost Time; earlier translated as Remembrance of Things Past), a monumental work of twentieth-century fiction published in seven parts from 1913 to 1927.
Proust was born in Auteuil (the southern sector of Paris's then-rustic 16th arrondissement) at the home of his great-uncle, two months after the Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the Franco-Prussian War. His birth took place during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponds with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of In Search of Lost Time concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic and the fin de siècle. Proust's father, Achille Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist, responsible for studying and attempting to remedy the causes and movements of cholera through Europe and Asia; he was the author of many articles and books on medicine and hygiene. Proust's mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil, was the daughter of a well-off and cultured Jewish family. She was a literate and well-read woman. Her letters demonstrate a well-developed sense of humour, and her command of English was sufficient for her to provide the necessary impetus to her son's later attempts to translate John Ruskin.By the age of nine, Proust had had his first serious asthma attack, and thereafter he was considered by himself, his family and his friends as a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with aspects of the time he spent at his great-uncle's house in Auteuil became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations). Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889–90) as an enlisted man in the French army, stationed at Coligny Caserne in Orléans, an experience that provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes' Way, part three of his novel. As a young man, Proust was a dilettante and a social climber, whose aspirations as a writer were hampered by his lack of application. His reputation from this period, as a snob and an amateur, contributed to his later troubles with getting Swann's Way, the first part of his large-scale novel, published in 1913. Proust had a close relationship with his mother. In order to appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at the Bibliothèque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he obtained a sick leave which was to extend for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at his job, and he did not move from his parents' apartment until after both were dead (Tadié).
Proust, who was homosexual, was one of the first European novelists to treat homosexuality openly and at length. His life and family circle changed considerably between 1900 and 1905. In February 1903, Proust's brother Robert married and left the family home. His father died in September of the same year. Finally, and most crushingly, Proust's beloved mother died in September 1905, leaving him a considerable inheritance. (In today's terms, a principal of about $6 million, with a monthly income of about $15,000.) His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate. Proust spent the last three years of his life largely confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died in 1922 and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Proust was involved in writing and publishing from an early age. In addition to the literary magazines with which he was associated, and in which he published, while at school, La Revue verte and La Revue lilas, from 1890–91 Proust published a regular society column in the journal Le Mensuel (Tadie). In 1892 he was involved in founding a literary review called Le Banquet (also the French title of Plato's Symposium), and throughout the next several years Proust published small pieces regularly in this journal and in the prestigious La Revue Blanche. In 1896 Les Plaisirs et les Jours, a compendium of many of these early pieces, was published. The book included a foreword by Anatole France, drawings by Mme. Lemaire, and was so sumptuously produced that it cost twice the normal price of a book its size. That year Proust also began working on a novel which was eventually published in 1954 and titled Jean Santeuil by his posthumous editors. Many of the themes later developed in In Search of Lost Time find their first articulation in this unfinished work, including the enigma of memory and the necessity of reflection; several sections of In Search of Lost Time can be read in first draft in Jean Santeuil. The portrait of the parents in Jean Santeuil is quite harsh, in marked contrast to the adoration with which the parents are painted in Proust's masterpiece. Following the poor reception of Les Plaisirs et les Jours, and internal troubles with resolving the plot, Proust gradually abandoned Jean Santeuil in 1897 and stopped work on it entirely by 1899.
Beginning in 1895 Proust spent several years reading Carlyle, Emerson and John Ruskin. Through this reading Proust began to refine his own theories of art and the role of the artist in society. Also, in Time Regained Proust's universal protagonist recalls having translated Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies. The artist's responsibility is to confront the appearance of nature, deduce its essence and retell or explain that essence in the work of art. Ruskin's view of artistic production was central to this conception, and Ruskin's work was so important to Proust that he claimed to know "by heart" several of Ruskin's books, including The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Bible of Amiens, and Praeterita (Tadié 350). Proust set out to translate two of Ruskin's works into French, but was hampered by an imperfect command of English. In order to compensate for this he made his translations a group affair: sketched out by his mother, the drafts were first revised by Proust, then by Marie Nordlinger, the English cousin of his friend and sometime lover Reynaldo Hahn, then by Proust again finally polished. Confronted about his method by an editor, Proust responded, "I don't claim to know English; I claim to know Ruskin" (Tadié). The Bible of Amiens, with Proust's extended introduction, was published in French in 1904. Both the translation and the introduction were very well reviewed; Henri Bergson called Proust's introduction "an important contribution to the psychology of Ruskin" and had similar praise for the translation (Tadié 433). At the time of this publication, Proust was already at work on translating Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, which he completed in June 1905, just prior to his mother's death, and published in 1906. Literary historians and critics have ascertained that, apart from Ruskin, Proust's chief literary influences included Saint Simon, Montaigne, Stendhal, Flaubert, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. 1908 was an important year for Proust's development as a writer. During the first part of the year he published in various journals pastiches of other writers. These exercises in imitation may have allowed Proust to solidify his own style. In addition, in the spring and summer of the year Proust began work on several different fragments of writing that would later coalesce under the working title of Contre Saint-Beuve. Proust described what he was working on in a letter to a friend: "I have in progress: a study on the nobility, a Parisian novel, an essay on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert, an essay on women, an essay on pederasty (not easy to publish), a study on stained-glass windows, a study on tombstones, a study on the novel" (Tadié 513). From these disparate fragments Proust began to shape a novel on which he worked continually during this period. The rough outline of the work centered on a first-person narrator, unable to sleep, who during the night remembers waiting as a child for his mother to come to him in the morning. The novel was to have ended with a critical examination of Sainte-Beuve and a refutation of his theory that biography was the most important tool for understanding an artist's work. Present in the unfinished manuscript notebooks are many elements that correspond to parts of the Recherche, in particular, to the "Combray" and "Swann in Love" sections of Volume 1, and to the final section of Volume 7. Trouble with finding a publisher, as well as a gradually changing conception of his novel, led Proust to shift work to a substantially different project that still contained many of the same themes and elements. By 1910 he was at work on À la recherche du temps perdu.
Begun in 1909, À la recherche du temps perdu consists of seven volumes spanning some 3,200 pages and teeming with more than 2,000 literary characters. Graham Greene called Proust the "greatest novelist of the 20th century", and W. Somerset Maugham called the novel the "greatest fiction to date." Proust died before he was able to complete his revision of the drafts and proofs of the final volumes, the last three of which were published posthumously and edited by his brother, Robert. The book was translated into English by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, appearing as Remembrance of Things Past between 1922 and 1931. In 1995, Penguin undertook a fresh translation of the book by editor Christopher Prendergast and seven translators in three countries, based on the latest and most authoritative French text. Subsequently, the title of the novel was more accurately translated as In Search of Lost Time and is now often referred to as such. Its six volumes were published in Britain under the Allen Lane imprint in 2002. The first four (those which under American copyright law are in the public domain) have since been published in the U.S. under the Viking imprint and in paperback under the Penguin Classics imprint.

 

 

Remembrance of Things Past

Marcel Proust
1871-1922

It has often been said that the importance of Marcel Proust's monumental novel lies in its pervasive influence on twentieth-century literature, whether because writers have sought to emulate it, or attempted to parody and discredit some of its traits. However, it is equally important that readers have enjoyed the extent to which the novel itself unfolds as a dialogue with its literary predecessors.
Remembrance of Things Past, for In Search of Lost Time) is the daunting and fashionable three-thousand-page "story of a literary vocation," on which Proust worked for fourteen years. In it, he explores the themes of time, space, and memory, but the novel is above all a condensation of innumerable literary, structural, stylistic, and thematic possibilities. The most striking one is the structural device whereby the fluctuating fortunes of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy from the mid-1870s to the mid-1920s are narrated through the failing memories of an aspiring writer, Marcel, who succumbs to many distractions. This defect of memory entails misperceptions of all sorts, partly corrected, bringing rare moments of joy by the faculty of "involuntary" memory. These moments of connection with the past are brought about by contingent encounters in the present, which re-awaken long-lost sensations, perceptions, and recollections. It is these moments that give the novel its unique structure, which, no doubt more than any other novel, calls for careful reading. Appropriately, the publication of this epic novel in French is still evolving, as scholars continue to work on notes and sketches. The novel has also recently attracted new translators into English, long after the first translation into English between 1922 and 1930. Proust's "mass of writing," as it has sometimes been described,continues to expand.

 


REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

 

Type of work: Novel
Author: Marcel Proust (1871-1922)
Type of plot: Psychological realism
Time of plot: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
Locale: France
First published: A la recherche du temps perdu, 1913-1927 (English translation, 1922-1931, 1981): Du cote de chez Swann, 1913 {Swarm's Way, 1922); A Vombre des jeunes filles enfleurs, 1919 (Within a Budding Grove, 1924); Le Cote de Guermantes, 1920-1921 (The Guermantes Way, 1925); Sodome et Gomorrhe, 1922 (Cities of the Plain, 1927); La Prisonniere, 1925 (The Captive, 1929); Albertine disparue, 1925 (The Sweet Cheat Gone, 1930); Le Temps retrouve, 1927 (Time Regained, 1931).

 

The title of this seven-novel work reveals Proust's twofold concern of time lost and time recalled. The writing is distilled from memory, the structure determined entirely by moods and sensations evoked by time passing or seeming to pass, recurring or seeming to recur. For Proust the true realities of human experience are not contained in a reconstruction of remembered scenes and events, but in the capture of physical sensations and moods re-created in memory. Symphonic in design, the work unfolds without plot or crisis as the writer reveals the motifs of his experience from childhood to middle age, holds them for thematic effect, and drops them, only to return to them once more in the processes of recurrence and change.

 

Principal Characters

Marcel (mar-seT), the narrator who tells the story of his life from unsettled childhood to disillusioned middle age. Dealing with time lost and time recalled, Marcel says, as he looks back to a crucial childhood experience when his mother spent the night in his room instead of scolding him for his insomnia, that memory eliminates precisely that great dimension of Time which governs the fullest realization of our lives. Through the years, from his memory of that childhood experience to his formulation of this concept of time, Marcel sees the principals of two social sets spurn each other, then intermingle with the change of fortunes. He experiences love in various forms: an innocent affair with a friend's daughter, an adolescent passion for the friend's coquettish wife, an intermittent love affair with a lesbian. He develops friendships and animosities among individuals in the different social levels on which he moves. Reminded, by seeing the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, that he is old, he realizes the futility of his life and senses the ravages of time on everyone he has known.
Monsieur Swann (swan'), a wealthy broker and aesthete, and a friend of Marcel's parents. Swann, having known the Comte de Paris and the Prince of Wales, moves from level to level in the social milieu. Having married beneath his station, he knows that wealth sustains his social position and keeps his fickle wife dependent on him. Jealous and unhappy in courtship and marriage, he manipulates social situations by cultivating officers and politicians who will receive his wife. He dies, his life having been an meaningless as Marcel sees his own to be; in fact, Marcel sees in his own life a close parallel to that of his sensitive friend.
Madame Swann, formerly Odette de Crecy, a courtesan. A woman whose beauty is suggestive of Botticelli's paintings, she is attractive to both men and women. Stupid and uncomprehending, Odette continues affairs with other men after her comfortable marriage. She introduces Swann to the social set below his own. Despite her beginnings, she moves to higher levels and becomes a celebrated, fashionable hostess when she remarries after Swann's death.
Gilberte Swann (zheTbert swan'), the Swann's daughter and Marcel's playmate in Paris. Their relationship develops into an innocent love affair, and they remain constant good friends after Gilberte's marriage to Marcel's close friend, Robert de Saint-Loup. The sight of Gilberte's daughter, grown up, reminds Marcel that he himself is aging.
Madame de Villeparisis (da ve---'), a society matron and the friend of Marcel's grandmother. It is said that her father ruined himself for her, a renowned beauty when she was young. She has become a dreadful, blowsy, hunched-up old woman; her physical deterioration is comparable to the decline of her friends' spiritual selves.
Robert de Saint-Loup (-ܸ san'-loo'), her nephew, whom she introduces to Marcel. Their meeting is the beginning of a friendship that lasts until Robert's death in World War I. In his courtship and marriage, Robert suffers from the same insecurity, resulting in jealousy, that plagues Swann and Marcel in their relations with women. He marries Gilberte Swann.
Monsieur de Charlus (-syoe' da sharliis'), another of Mme. de Villeparisis' nephews, a baron. The baron, as he is usually referred to, is a sexual invert who has affairs with men of many different stations in life. In his aberration the baron is both fascinating and repulsive to Marcel, who makes homosexuality a chief discussion in the volume titled Cities of the Plain. The baron's depravity leads to senile old age.
Madame Verdurin (ver-dti-rah'), a vulgar person of the bourgeoisie who, with her husband, pretends to despise the society to which they have no entree. Odette introduces Swann to the Verdurins. Mme. Verdurin crosses social lines as she comes into money and marries into the old aristocracy after her first husband dies. The middle-class Verdurins seem to surround themselves with talented individuals, and many of their guests become outstanding in their professions and arts.
The Prince and Princess de Guermantes (dg ger-maftt'), members of the old aristocracy and the family used by Proust in the volume titled The Guermantes Way, to delineate the social classes, the Guermantes representing aristocratic group as opposed to the moneyed society described in Swann s Way. After the princess dies, the prince, ruined by the war, marries widowed Mme. Verdurin. Their union is further evidence of social mobility.
The Duke and Duchess de Guermantes, members of the same family. After Odette's rise on the social scale, the duchess is received in Odette's salon. In earlier years the duchess left parties to avoid meeting the vulgar social climber.
Albertine (al-ber-ten'), a lesbian attracted by and to Marcel. Over an extended period of time their affair takes many turns. Marcel seeks comfort from her when his grandmother dies; he is unhappy with her and wretched without her; his immaturity drives her from him and back to her home in Balbec. A posthumous letter to Marcel, after Albertine is killed in a fall from a horse, tells of her intention to return to him.
Marcel's Grandmother, a woman known and revered in both the aristocratic and the merely fashionable social sets. Marcel loves and respects her, and her death brings into focus for him the emptiness in the lives of his smart, wealthy friends.
Monsieur Vinteuil (van-te-), an old composer in Combray. He dies in shame because of his daughter's association with a woman of questionable character. Unhappy in his own life, Vinteuil's music brings pleasure to many. Among those affected is Swann, moved to marry Odette, his mistress, because he associates the charm of Vinteuil's exquisite sonatas with the beauty of the cocotte. Marcel, also captured by the spirit of Vinteuil's music, senses its effect on various listeners.
Rachel (ra-sheT), a young Jewish actress who becomes famous. Although she is Robert de Saint-Loup's mistress, she despises him because of his simplicity, breeding, and good taste. Rachel likes the aesthetic charlatans she considers superior to her devoted lover.
Dr. Cottard (kot-tar'), a social boor because of his tiresome punning and other ineptitudes, a guest at the Verdurins' parties. He becomes a noted surgeon, professionally admired.
Elstir (el-ster'), a young man Marcel meets at Verdurins'. He becomes a painter whose genius is admired.
Madame de Saint-Euverte ( santcevert'), a hostess whose parties attract both the old and new friends of Swann, to his displeasure at times.
The Princess des launes (da Ion'), a long-time friend of Swann and guest in Mme. de Saint-Euverte's salon. She is distressed at her friend's unhappiness, caused by lowering himself to Odette's level.
Morel (), the musician who, at the Verdurins' party, plays Vinteiul's compositions. Morel is a protege of the perverted Baron de Charlus.
Jupien (zhu-pyaft'), a tailor. After becoming the object of de Charlus' affection he establishes a house for affairs among men.
Monsieur de Norpoie (dg nor-pwa'), an ambassador who, as Marcel finally realizes, has been Mme. de Villeparisis' lover for many years.
Aunt Leonie (la-6-' Marcel's aunt. At the end he likens himself to her as he recalls her from his childhood, when she had become an old hypochondriac.

 

The Story

All of his life Marcel found it difficult to go to sleep at night. After he had blown out the light, he would lie quietly in the darkness and think of the book he had been reading, of an event in history, of some memory from the past. Sometimes he would think of all the places in which he had sleptas a child in his great-aunt's house in the provincial town of Combray, in Balbec on a holiday with his grandmother, in the military town where his friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, had been stationed, in Paris, in Venice during a visit there with his mother.
He remembered always a night at Combray when he was a child. Monsieur Swann, a family friend, had come to dinner. Marcel had been sent to bed early, where he lay for hours nervous and unhappy until at last he heard Monsieur Swann leave. Then his mother had come upstairs to comfort him.
For a long time, the memory of that night was his chief recollection of Combray, where his family took him to spend a part of every summer with his grandparents and aunts. Years later, while drinking tea with his mother, the taste of a small sweet cake suddenly brought back all the impressions of his old days at Combray.
He remembered the two roads. One was Swann's way, a path that ran beside Monsieur Swann's park where the lilacs and hawthorns bloomed. The other was the Guer-mantes way, along the river and past the chateau of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes, the great family of Combray. He remembered the people he saw on his walks. There were familiar figures like the doctor and the priest. There was Monsieur Vinteuil, an old composer who died brokenhearted and shamed because of his daughter's friendship with a woman of bad reputation. There were the neighbors and friends of his grandparents. Best of all, he remembered Monsieur Swann, whose story he pieced together slowly from family conversations and village gossip.
Monsieur Swann was a wealthy Jew accepted in rich and fashionable society. His wife, Odette de Crecy, was not received, however, for she was his former mistress and a prostitute with the fair, haunting beauty of a Botticelli painting. It was Odette who had first introduced Swann to the Verdurins, a vulgar family that pretended to despise the polite world of the Guermantes. At an evening party given by Madame Verdurin, Swann heard played a movement of Vinteuil's sonata and identified his hopeless passion for Odette with that lovely music. Swann's love was an unhappy affair. Tortured by jealousy, aware of the vulgarity and pettiness of the Verdurins, determined to forget his unfaithful mistress, he went to Madame de Saint-Euverte's reception. There he heard Vinteuil's music again. Under its influence he decided, at whatever price, to marry Odette.
After their marriage Swann drifted more and more into the bourgeois circle of the Verdurins. When he went to see his old friends in Combray and in the fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain, he went alone. Many people thought him both ridiculous and tragic.
On his walks Marcel sometimes saw Madame Swann and her daughter, Gilberte, in the park at Combray. Later, in Paris, he met the little girl and became her playmate. That friendship, as they grew older, became an innocent love affair. Filled also with a schoolboyish passion for Madame Swann, Marcel went to Swann's house as much to be in her company as in Gilberte's, but after a time, his pampered habits and brooding, neurasthenic nature began to bore Gilberte. His pride hurt, he refused to see her for many years.
Marcel's family began to treat him as an invalid. With his grandmother, he went to Balbec, a seaside resort. There he met Albertine, a girl to whom he was immediately attracted. He also met Madame de Villeparisis, an old friend of his grandmother's and a connection of the Guermantes family. Madame de Villeparisis introduced him to her two nephews, Robert de Saint-Loup and Baron de Charlus. Saint-Loup and Marcel became close friends. While visiting Saint-Loup in a nearby garrison town, Marcel met his friend's mistress, a young Jewish actress named Rachel. Marcel was both fascinated and repelled by Baron de Charlus; he was not to understand until later the baron's corrupt and depraved nature.
Through his friendship with Madame de Villeparisis and Saint-Loup, Marcel was introduced into the smart world of the Guermantes when he returned to Paris.
One day, while he was walking with his grandmother, she suffered a stroke. The illness and death of that good and unselfish old woman made him realize for the first time the empty worldliness of his smart and wealthy friends. For comfort he turned to Albertine, who came to stay with him in Paris while his family was away. Nevertheless, his desire to be humored and indulged in all of his whims, his suspicions of Albertine, and his petty jealousy finally forced her to leave him and go back to Balbec. With her, he had been unhappy; without her, he was wretched. Then he learned that she had been accidentally killed in a fall from her horse. Later he received a letter, written before her death, in which she promised to return to him.
More miserable than ever, Marcel tried to find diversion among his old friends. They were changing with the times. Swann was ill and soon to die. Gilberte had married Robert de Saint-Loup. Madame Verdurin, who had inherited a fortune, now entertained the old nobility. At one of her parties Marcel heard a Vinteuil composition played by a musician named Morel, the nephew of a former servant and now a protege of the notorious Baron de Charlus.
His health breaking down at last, Marcel spent the war years in a sanatorium. When he returned to Paris, he found still greater changes. Robert de Saint-Loup had been killed in the war. Rachel, Saint-Loup's mistress, had become a famous actress. Swann was also dead, and his widow had remarried and was now a fashionable hostess who received the Duchess de Guermantes. Prince de Guermantes, his fortune lost and his first wife dead, had married Madame Verdurin for her money. Baron de Charlus had grown senile.
Marcel went to one last reception at the Princess de Guermantes' lavish house. There he met the daughter of Gilberte de Saint-Loup; he realized how time had passed, how old he had grown. In the Guermantes' library, he happened to take down the novel by George Sand which his mother had read to him that remembered night in Combray, years before. Suddenly, in memory, he heard again the ringing of the bell that announced Monsieur Swann's departure and knew that it would echo in his mind forever. He saw then that everything in his own futile, wasted life dated from that far night in his childhood, and in that moment of self-revelation he saw also the ravages of time among all the people he had ever known.

 

Critical Evaluation

Remembrance of Things Past is not a novel of traditional form. Symphonic in design, it unfolds without plot or crisis as the writer reveals in retrospect the motifs of his experience, holds them for thematic effect, and drops them, only to return to them once more in the processes of recurrence and change. This varied pattern of experience brings together a series of involved relationships through the imagination and observation of a narrator engaged in tracing with painstaking detail his perceptions of people and places as he himself grows from childhood to disillusioned middle age. From the waking reverie in which he recalls the themes and characters of his novel to that closing paragraph with its slow, repeated echoes of the word time, Marcel Proust's novel is great art distilled from memory itself, the structure determined entirely by moods and sensations evoked by the illusion of time passing, or seeming to pass, recurring, or seeming to recur.
In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust, together with Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, 1865-1869), Fyodor Dostoevski (The Brothers Karamazov, 1879 -1880), Thomas (Joseph and His Brothers, 1933-1943), andJames Joyce (Ulysses, 1922), transformed the novel from a linear account of events into a multidimensional art. The breakthrough was not into Freudian psychology, or existentialism, or scientific determinism but into a realization that all things are, or may be, interwoven, bound by time, yet freed from time, open to every associational context.
What is reality? Certainly there is the reality of the sensory experience; yet any moment of sensory experience may have numerous successive or even simultaneous realities as it is relived in memory in different contexts, and perhaps the most significant realityor realitiesof a given act or moment may come long after the moment when the event first took place in time. Percy Shelley, in A Defence of Poetry (1840), said, "All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient." And things which may have seemed inconsequential at the moment of their occurrence may take on richly multifaceted meanings in relation to other events, other memories, other moments. The initial act is not as significant, not as real, as the perceptions of it which may come in new contexts. Reality is a context, made up of moods, of recollections joined by chance or design, sets of associations that have grown over the years. This concept of the notion of reality, one that had been taking shape with increased momentum since the Romantic movement, opened the way to "those mysteries . . . the presentiment of which is the quality in life and art which moves us most deeply."
The elusive yet pervasively important nature of reality applies not only to events, such as the taste of the made-leine (or small cake), but also to the absence of events, for the failure of Marcel's mother to give him his accustomed good-night kiss proved to be an occasion which memory would recall again and again in a variety of relationships. Thus reality can and inevitably for all people does sometimes include, if not indeed center on, the nonbeing of an event. That nonexistence can be placed in time and in successive times as surely as events that did happen; moreover "it"that nothing where something might or should have beenmay become a significant part of the contexts which, both in time and freed from time, constitute reality.
Such thematic variations and turns of thought have led some to identify Proust as a "dilettante." Perhaps, in its literal sense, the term is justified, for his mind might have delighted in what, to the reader, may be unexpected turns of thought. In this he is most closely to be associated with Thomas Mann, whose consideration of time in the first volume of Joseph and His Brothers leads the reader into labyrinthine but essential paths; or whose speculations about the God-man relationship in volume 2, in the section headed "Abraham Discovers God," lead the reader down a dizzying path of whimsical yet serious thought. The fact remains, however, that Mann and Proust have opened doors of contemplation that modern man cannot afford to ignore if he would increase his understanding of himself, the world in which he lives, and the tenuous nature of reality and of time.
What Proust does with time and reality he also does with character. Although he was a contemporary of Freud, and although Freudian interpretation could be applied to some of his characters in part, his concept of character is much too complex for reduction to ego. id, and the subconscious. Character, like reality, is a changing total context, not static and not a thing in itself to be held off and examined at arm's length. Baron de Charlus is at once a study of character in disintegration and a caricature, reduced in the end to a pitiable specimen, scarcely human. It is Marcel, however, who is seen most fully. His character is seen in direct statements, in his comments about others and about situations, in what others say to him or the way they say it, even in descriptive passages which would at first glance not seem to relate to character at all. "Only the exhaustive can be truly interesting," Mann said in the preface to The Magic Mountain (1924). Proust surely agreed. His detail is not of the catalogue variety, however; it works cumulatively, developmentally, with the thematic progression of symphonic music.
Finally the totality of the work is "the past recaptured." To understand this masterpiece in its full richness, one must become and remain conscious of the author, isolated in his study, drawing upon his recollections, associating and reassociating moments, events, personalities (his own always central), both to recapture the past as it happened and to discover in it the transcendent reality which supersedes the time-bound moment of the initial occurrence. The total work is a story, a succession of stories, and a study of the life process, which, as one comes to understand it, must greatly enrich one's own sense of self and of the life one lives.

 

 

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