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le hors-sujet

2 may 2008

Le hors-sujet, the title of Pierre Bayard's 1996 book on Proust, might be translated "The Beside-the-Point." Much of la recherche du temps perdu seems beside the point, but once you've made that observation you have to ask: what is the point? And what can it mean, in a richly-textured, resonant, encyclopedic literary work, to be "beside" that point?

Bayard starts from the premise that Proust is too long. Since I just spent 22 years reading the Recherche, I am inclined to agree. But how would you go about abridging Proust? You could squeeze the 3,650-page narrative into its essentials. Monty Python showed the pitfalls of such an approach, but Gérard Genette famously got the basics into three words: "Marcel devient écrivain" [Marcel becomes a writer] (13).

The other method of shortening Proust is by abridgement. Genette tried that too, in a version unquoted by Bayard: "Longtemps, je me suis couché — dans le Temps" [For a long time I have gone to bed — in Time], which removes everything except the novel's first five words and its last three, and really does a pretty good job of conveying Proust's obsessions.

But to embark on either boiling-down or chopping-up begs the question: what can I leave out? What's dispensable? la recherche du temps perdu becomes a very good locus for study of this issue, because its most famous section, Un amour de Swann, has frankly nothing to do with the rest of the story in any conventional narrative sense. The Recherche is the story of its narrator's life, but Un amour de Swann takes place before the narrator is born. The Recherche is told in the first person, Un amour in the third. The narrator wanders into Un amour de Swann with no real preamble, and then closes the section with Swann getting over Odette de Crcy – leaving it forever murky how Swann actually marries Odette later on. Un amour de Swann, we could do without.

Or conversely, we could do without the rest of Proust. Many readers do; Un amour de Swann is frequently published as a separate novel; it has been filmed as a separate story. It's one of those little modules that sometimes break free from great novels and take on a life of their own as great novellas, like the "Grand Inquisitor" section of The Brothers Karamazov or the "Custom-House" quasi-preface to The Scarlet Letter. Is the rest of la recherche du temps perdu just a long digression from the story of Swann and Odette?

Or is it perhaps no digression at all? Though their story doesn't impinge much on the main "Marcel devient écrivain" plot, Swann and Odette work their way into the tissue of the Recherche in thousands of intricate and subtle ways. Some theorists (Michel Charles) would say that digression never occurs in any text, because one can always find internal evidence to link any passage of a text to any other. Others (Randa Sabry) would say that though other writers may digress, Proust never does, the Recherche being so intricately woven that no part of it is truly beside the point of any other part.

For Bayard, digression is quite a real phenomenon, both generally and in Proust. But he claims that it cannot be defined by objective standards of evidence. Digressions exist in the consciousness of the readers who perceive them. No sooner does a text change direction than a reader starts to find ways to re-integrate the off-topic material into the main topic. Digressions, Bayard says, are characterized by "autodestruction" (124) – the more elaborate they become, the less digressive they are. And they are not the same for everybody. Bayard's concept of an individual's internal library (89; cf. also his How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read) entails that the perception of digression is an idiosyncratic thing. You may find it weirdly beside the point when Proust goes off on one of his frequent riffs about the Dreyfus Affair, but someone else may wonder why it took him so long to bring it up. Hence, too, digressions are not long or short in terms of the number of pages they occupy, but in how long it takes a reader to process them into the main matter of the text.

I found Le hors-sujet the more interesting because I took it on an airplane recently alongside Percival Everett's recent novel The Water Cure, a book that I found so digressive that I had to put it aside and take up Bayard instead. The Water Cure starts with a searingly gripping story of the kidnapping and murder of the narrator's young daughter – and then proceeds to go anywhere but the direct narrative line, venturing into political satire, semantic speculation, metafictional musing, and what-all-other-than-the-kitchen-sink else. But even there, I suppose, such digression is functional, to the point of eventual autodestruction. On the aesthetic level, it marks the difference between a literary text like Everett's and a thriller like one of Harlan Coben's. On the level of mimesis, it represents a narrator who cannot stay on topic because the topic is too painful for him (something that happens a lot in Proust as well).

In fact, Proust is so prone to stray from painful topics that even the vast Recherche is notable for digressing by omission. As Bayard argues, the narrator doesn't show Swann's wedding, or Swann's death or his own father's death, or his own military service, or his own stretches in sanatoriums, or the First World War (outside of a single night during a bombardment of Paris, that the narrator mostly spends hidden in a closet at an S&M brothel). The text leaves so much out that we might as well say it's too short.

And if we do think Proust too short, it's because we have developed a curiosity about things that interest us and that the author, or his narrator, has refused to show us. Others might consider such absent scenes, were they present, to be digressions. But, argues Bayard,

Les véritables digressions d'un texte littéraire ne sont pas dans l'alternance de passages prétendument dans le sujet et d'autres qui se situeraient dans un hypothétique dehors, mais entre les passages sur lesquels se porte l'intérêt du lecteur et les autres, c'est-à-dire essentiellement entre les moments d'intérêt disjoints d'une temporalité fragmentée.

[The real digressions in a literary text do not occur in the contrast between passages ostensibly on topic and those that are placed in some hypothetical off, but between the passages that the reader is interested in and others, that is to say basically between disconnected moments of interest within a broken-up temporal experience.] (172)

I myself, in this review, have elided much of the psychoanalytic content of Le hors-sujet, not because it is digressive within Bayard's book, but because Freud is less interesting to me than Proust is. If something doesn't meet a reader's needs, s/he will carve it away.

Take, for example, one of my own favorite digressions in American literature, the Flitcraft scene in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. As you may remember, Sam Spade is talking to a client that he knows as Miss Wonderly. For no apparent reason, Spade starts telling her about a man he'd once been hired to trace, a certain Flitcraft. Flitcraft had disappeared, but as happened, nothing sinister in the criminal sense had obtained. He'd simply moved cities and built the same workaday world for himself that he'd left behind with the family he'd abandoned. The model for the Flitcraft story is Hawthorne's tale "Wakefield," given a few modernizing touches.

Or perhaps you don't remember Flitcraft, because the story does not appear in John Huston's 1941 film. Though Huston famously mocked up a shooting script for his Maltese Falcon by taking a paperback copy of Hammett's novel and writing in camera directions, he excised the Flitcraft story. And rightly so, because unlike nearly every other page of the novel, it's all talk. It doesn't forward the plot an inch; and as Huston proves in the filming, you can leave it out and never notice.

But here, as in Proust, perhaps the digression is the whole thing. There are times when I read The Maltese Falcon, one of my very favorite books, and am sure that both the black-bird and the when-a-man's-partner-is-killed plot lines were merely excuses to get the Flitcraft story told. Hammett's great novel is about alienation, things that aren't what they seem to be, the elision of human identity and bonds in favor of mere roles and duties. The Sam Spade story explores these themes at length, but they are crystallized perfectly in Flitcraft.

But to return to Pierre Bayard, as Proust's narrator might say. I found Le hors-sujet fascinating, and hope it finds an English translation soon and reaches a wider audience in this country. Bayard's interpretation of Proust is effortlessly masterful, and contains one of the best descriptions of the experience of reading À la recherche du temps perdu:

Quiconque pratique la Recherche sait que les phrases de Proust sont si longues qu'on y perd rapidement le sujet grammatical, et qu'il est alors nécessaire (sauf à décider de faire une ellipse) de remonter, parfois à plusieurs reprises, jusq'au début de la phrase à la recherche du sujet perdu.

[Anyone who reads the Recherche knows that Proust's sentences are so long that you swiftly lose track of the grammatical subject, and then you need (unless you decide to skip ahead) to go back, sometimes again and again, to the start, in search of the lost subject. (181)
Yet I do find it a little disappointing that Le hors-sujet doesn't really deal with a great amount of relevant reader-response theory, including that of Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser, both of whom anticipate a number of Bayard's insights about the mobility of texts, the reader's supplementation of the text, and the multiplicity of texts in the presence of multiple readers. Bayard's range of reference is Proust himself (astonishing), Proust scholarship (succinct and à propos), and Freud (quite competent to the task at hand). But he goes not very far into literary theory.

And Bayard also sidesteps the issue of just how integral the received text of la recherche du temps perdu might be. If it seems digressive or doesn't hang together, if it contains ellipses and doubles back on itself, might that not at least in part be that it's technically unfinished, because Proust did not live to see it through the press? It's a minor point, because Proust certainly lived long enough to set the book's massively digressive tone; Un amour de Swann and its mutually repellent narrative environs were published early on. But as American scholar Hershel Parker argues, perhaps the glitches in a text that readers work so hard to smooth into shape are just that: glitches.

Or perhaps, Bayard just thought that an excursus in the direction of Hershel Parker would be too much of a digression.

Bayard, Pierre. Le hors-sujet: Proust et la digression. Paris: Minuit, 1996.

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