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à la recherche du temps perdu page 2

16 april 2008

Literary criticism came to the rescue then, as it would again. On my third foray into Proust, I got an assist from Eve Sedgwick's wonderful essay in Epistemology of the Closet. Sedgwick explores the nature of truth-telling in Proust through the concept of the closet. I surely had always known that Marcel Proust was gay, but since his first-person narrator is not, I chafed at that narrator's sexism. Sedgwick instead sees the prowling, seductive, secretive, jealousy-racked narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu as a deeply honest (if, paradoxically, totally fabricated) rendering of what it was like to be a closeted gay man in Proust's Paris. A closeted, rich, gay high-bourgeois man, mind you: someone whose tastes ran to the same shop clerks and streetcar conductors that the Baron de Charlus craves. The class implications are still nasty, but as Sedgwick points out, seen through the medium of the closet, they become radically honest. It is the honesty of a curtain that covers something known but not shown, a convoluted but deeply affecting untruth that was its author's only honest recourse.

I was re-emboldened by Sedgwick's insights, but because I was determined once again to keep the whole Recherche in my mind at once, they only got me as far as reading the first three novels over again. I kept losing my way in the impossibly tortuous first section of Sodome et Gomorrhe, losing my energy in its page-long sentences and fiendish self-contradictory tensions. I would get only so far, fear I had forgotten everything about the first three novels, and then start over somewhere in the first three novels again, and lose energy once more.

This went on for much of the first decade of the 21st century. I read Proust quite often, but I wasn't making any forward progress. Finally, a second critic came to my rescue. Pierre Bayard, somewhere in How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read, says offhand that Proust is the kind of writer you can open anywhere and start reading for any length of time. Of course, I had been doing that anyway, but while feeling that that was a weak and inappropriate Proust-reading technique. Now, a French Proust scholar empowered me to feel that it was exactly what I should have been doing all along.

And as long as I was opening Proust anywhere, I thought earlier this year, why not open at the start of Sodome et Gomorrhe and go straight through La prisonnière, Albertine disparue, and Le temps retrouvé? If I had forgotten events or characters that proved irrelevant to the last four novels, what harm? If I had forgotten important events or characters, Proust himself would come to my rescue, elaborately explaining his own retrospective self-allusions. I was finally free to read the rest of the way through À la recherche du temps perdu – and since the last four novels are considerably shorter than the first three, I was already over halfway to the finish line.

Part of the reason that it doesn't matter where you open Proust (with the possible exception of the initial sequence of the good-night kiss, followed by the anti-amnesiac madeleine) is that À la recherche du temps perdu is not, shall we say, plot-driven. Much of it consists of soirées and matinées at one aristocratic house or another, with idle chatter that reflects the intricate dynamics of a huge network of society characters. (Mercifully, like Faulkner but unlike Henry James, Proust's characters do not talk like a Proust narrative: they speak like real people, and the chatter is a welcome relief from the 200-word sentences and three-page paragraphs of the non-dialogue sections.)

And when Proust's narrator is not socializing aimlessly, he is ruminating on love, or death, or the Dreyfus Affair, or homosexuality, or the French vernacular. You don't have to open Proust at any particular point to appreciate any of these ruminations more or less. And by characterizing them as ruminations, I do not mean to convey that Proust's normal mode is one of mere noodling. These are ruminations, but they are splendid ones, and they arise out of the texture of the vast fictional social world that he creates.

Death and immortality, for instance, are not abstract for Proust, and not cause for mere introspection. His characters age, die, and implicitly live forever in a variety of ways, all embedded in specific lived existences. Most memorable for me, in the latter half of the Recherche when characters are dropping like flies, is the death of Bergotte.

Bergotte is Proust's ideal author, one of a set of parallel characters that exemplify different arts. (Elstir is the ideal painter, Vinteuil the ideal composer, Berma the ideal actress.) Bergotte dies at some point late in Proust's narrative, though it is never exactly clear when this happens, in the fictional chronology. (In fact, several characters buy farmland in the latter novels, and then appear at the next soirée none the worse for the experience, only to die again later on.) Bergotte dies once, dramatically, but doesn't stay dead for long. And perhaps, in a real sense, he cannot die at all.

Somewhere in the expanse of La prisonnière, a long-ill Bergotte eats some potatoes and goes to an art exhibit where Vermeer's View of Delft is being shown, expressly to see a single little stretch of yellow wall in the picture, said to be a masterpiece. Catching sight of the "petit pan de mur jaune," Bergotte feels so sick that he suspects he has given his life for the joy of beholding it. But maybe not; maybe it was just the undercooked potatoes. Suddenly a wave of sickness comes over him, and he sits down on a sofa and drops dead.

Mort à jamais? Qui peut le dire? . . . Ce qu'on peut dire, c'est que tout se passe dans notre vie comme si nous y entrions avec le faix d'obligations contractées dans une vie antérieure; il n'y a aucune raison dans nos conditions de vie sur cette terre pour que nous croyions obligés à faire le bien, à être délicats, même à être polis, ni pour l'artiste athée à ce qu'il se croie obligé de recommencer vingt fois un morceau dont l'admiration qu'il excitera importera peu à son corps mangé par les vers, comme le pan de mur jaune que peignit avec tant de science et de raffinement un artiste à jamais inconnu, à peine identifié sous le nom de Ver Meer. Toutes ces obligations qui n'ont pas leur sanction dans la vie présente semblent appartenir à un monde différent, fondé sur la bonté, le scrupule, le sacrifice, un monde entièrement différent de celui-ci . . .
[Dead forever? Who can say? . . . What we can say is that everything happens in life as if we came into it with a bunch of obligations contracted in a previous life; there is no reason in the circumstances of our life on earth for us to believe ourselves obliged to do good, to be sensitive, even to be polite, nor for the atheist artist to believe himself obliged to refashion, twenty times, a little bit of his work, the admiration of which will mean little to his worm-eaten body, like that stretch of yellow wall that, with so much skill and refinement, was painted by an artist, unknowable forever, barely identified by the name Vermeer. All those duties which are not enjoined on us by our life on earth seem to belong to a different world, founded on generosity, conscientiousness, self-sacrifice, a world wholly unlike this one . . . (III: 693)

The artist does not achieve immortality through his work (still less, like Woody Allen, by "not dying"). The artist dies, and his work may or may not perish too. But the fact that he felt compelled to work at all means that he isn't an ephemeral being.

Proust worried awfully about whether his work would live on after his death (much of the close of Le temps retrouvé frets over just that eventuality). He worried in that mundane sense. But in another sense, he was not worried about the immortality of the human spirit. Paradoxically, nobody spends over a decade correctly delineating every shade of social nuance in a grand society engagement just to enjoy the worldly advantages of the monde. Only someone who arrived trailing clouds of glory would feel that he must do such a thing. Like Nabokov, Proust belonged to a state "of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm." For 22 years, I have had a window into this world. Finishing Proust can't mean that the window closes. I guess I will have to start reading him all over again.

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Proust, Marcel. À la recherche du temps perdu. 1913-1927. Paris: Gallimard, 1987-1989. 4 vols.