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Proust's Way: A Guide to "In Search of Lost Time"

By Roger Shattuck
Norton. 290 pp. $26.95

Reviewed by Michael Dirda, whose e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His Live Online discussion of books takes place on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

Sunday, August 27, 2000

Reading the 3,000 pages of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) is always a highly personal adventure. Even now, the memory of that autumn more than 30 years ago, during which I first lost and found myself in Proust, can still overwhelm me with an unassuaged yearning. For what? For an impossible love, for happiness and success, for something out of life that has already passed, unseen. Back then, I discovered in this most seductive of great novels an image of my own interior self. Had I not, like Swann, been shredded with jealousy over an elusive, tantalizing young woman, one whose beauty, like Odette's, was so striking that strangers compared her to the strawberry blondes in Botticelli paintings? Did I not daydream, like the Narrator, of awakening some morning a real writer? Was I not burdened, even at 20, with an inescapable feeling of disillusionment, never quite satisfied with the present, always nostalgic for a rosy past or eager for an even rosier future?

During that gray and rainy fall of my junior year in college, I read Proust steadily for five, six, eight hours a day. To those who respond to his sinuous prose--and many people don't--there is no more powerful hypnotic drug in all literature. In Search of Lost Time is no mere novel; it is a world, a universe that alternately expands into every layer of society and then contracts back into the Narrator's consciousness. Its author once compared his masterpiece to The Arabian Nights. But the book might also be likened to a modern Metamorphoses, for it depicts both public and personal life as restless, uncertain and disheartening, a domain of constant transformation, of unceasing flux and shocking revelation. The disdained drawing master, M. Biche, who frequents the boorish Madame Verdurin's dinner parties, turns out to be the youthful Elstir, later the greatest painter of his day. One afternoon the narrator suddenly recognizes the imperious mistress of his friend, the dashing Saint-Loup, as the popular Jewish whore at a brothel he visited when young. In a particularly shocking scene, an unnamed lesbian friend urges Mlle. Vinteuil to desecrate her dead father's photograph; yet that same girlfriend later spends years reconstructing Vinteuil's most beautiful work, his Septet (with its haunting "little phrase"). Most surprisingly, the awful Madame Verdurin unexpectedly reappears in the closing pages of Time Regained as none other than the new Princesse de Guermantes, having attained the apogee of Parisian social success by marrying the widowed Prince.

Some people complain about the length of In Search of Lost Time. This is a little like saying that one's life is too long. Proust needs all his pages not only because he's presenting a panorama of society--from the glittering Duchesse de Guermantes to the earthy cook Francoise, from the predatory homosexual Baron Charlus (arguably his greatest creation) to the nosy provincial gossip Aunt Leonie--but also because only the steady accumulation of events and the recurrence of familiar patterns will allow him to convey the crushing passage of time. In plot, the novel traces a young dilettante's search for a vocation, and ends with the Narrator's realization that he can finally write the book we have just finished. But for the sensitive reader, who lives through all these pages, all these years, the Recherche grows into an analogue of his or her own memory. When the narrator meets Mlle. de Saint Loup near the novel's end, he, like the reader, sees not just a pretty little girl but the daughter of Robert de Saint-Loup and his first childhood love, Gilberte Swann, the granddaughter of the cocotte Odette de Crecy and the connoisseur Charles Swann, the coming together of myriad paths and bloodlines. So well have we come to know all these people that our own lives may actually seem slightly less real than theirs.

The last couple of years have been good ones for Proustians. Malcolm Bowie's Proust Among the Stars (Columbia Univ.) offered a superb analysis of the novel's major themes (self, time, sex, etc.). Of the novel's "desolate pattern of recurrence," Bowie sorrowfully notes, in full Proustian voice: "All love affairs fail, and fail in the same way. All journeys end in disappointment. All satisfactions are too little and too late." This past spring William Carter brought out a fine narrative biography (Yale Univ.), reviewed earlier this year in Book World. In a year or two Penguin will be publishing a wholly fresh translation of the Recherche, by divers hands. There's even a new movie, based on the novel's last section, Time Regained.

For me, though, the most welcome recent publication isn't a book at all. Over the past month I've listened to Neville Jason reading his own abridgment of Remembrance of Things Past (most scholars now use the more exact title, In Search of Lost Time, adopted by D.J. Enright when he revised the Kilmartin/Scott-Moncrieff translation). I've reached the halfway point, Sodom and Gomorrah, and may slow down soon: Jason has yet to record the last two volumes. In general I prefer unabridged readings, but Jason's intelligent cutting, amazing command of accents and tones (listen for his bumbling Bloch, his cockney Francoise, his unctuous Charlus) and his choice of musical interludes make these CDs irresistible. Jason can transform the mere enunciation of a syllable into a moment bienheureux, a madeleine-like feeling of bliss. For anybody who's been daunted at the prospect of starting Proust, these recordings (there are 27 CDs so far) provide an ingratiating alternative.

Proust's Way, by Roger Shattuck, a leading scholar of 20th-century French literature, supplies a comparable critical overview of the novel's ways and means. This is a good if slightly ramshackle book--good in that it reprints sections of Shattuck's National Book Award winner, Marcel Proust (e.g., "How to Read a Roman Fleuve") and several pages on the metaphorical use of optics from his even earlier study, Proust's Binoculars. Other chapters draw on lectures and reviews, in particular a critique of the recent translations and French editions of Proust's masterpiece. Certainly, all of this is worthwhile, even if it feels a bit of a hodgepodge. At the heart of Shattuck's view of the novel lies what he calls "Soul error" or "Proust's complaint"--"the incapacity to give full value or status to one's own life and experience." Any goal actually achieved thus ends in disappointment and the taste of ashes. As Proust himself writes, "The only true voyage, the only Fountain of Youth, would be found not in traveling to strange lands but in having different eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another person, of a hundred others, and seeing the hundred universes each of them sees, which each of them is." Of course, Proust's novel allows its readers an experience of just such plenitude.

Plenitude also characterizes Jean-Yves Tadie's massive life of the novelist. As the editor of the recent Pleiade recension of the Recherche (in four volumes), Tadie possesses an unrivaled knowledge of Proustian manuscripts and source material. He structures his own biography almost as a kind of "Encyclopedia Proustiana," offering potted lives of seemingly everyone the novelist knew and cared about, along with brief essays on Proust's themes and influences. I spent 10 days poring over this tightly written, relentless book and have no doubt that it is a monumental piece of scholarship. Tadie tells or reminds you that Proust never uses the word "legally"; that he wrote about music halls under the pen name Bob; that he might wear three overcoats at once; that his uncle and his father probably shared the favors of the courtesan Laure Hayward (a partial model for Odette); that Proust, though exceptionally erudite, never kept many books and (like Joyce) considered himself to lack imagination; that he read Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment and Jude the Obscure; that he loved to gamble and play the stock market; that Wyndham Lewis almost painted his portrait and that surrealist Andre Breton proofread Le Cote de Guermantes--very badly. There's even occasional humor, as when Pierre Loti, asked if there were any sailors in his family, answers: "Yes, I had an uncle who was eaten aboard the raft of the Medusa." I noticed only a couple of typos--Montesquiou on an occasion when Montesquieu is meant, drama critic James Agate referred to as John Agate--but this is otherwise a work of the most meticulous scholarship.

Still, most casual readers are likely to feel overwhelmed by Tadie's detail and slack narrative drive. Ronald Hayman's popular life or Carter's more scholarly one might be better choices for anybody who just wants a solid biography of Proust. Of course, it's worth consulting any of these lives to be reminded of the dinner party given by Sydney Schiff on May 18, 1922, at which the guests included Proust, Joyce, Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso. Now that's an A-list.

In Contre Sainte-Beuve Proust emphasized that a writer's social, personal character could be dramatically different from his deeper creative self. For many readers, Proust's letters are a demonstration of just that: They are primarily bread-and-butter notes, acts of verbal flattery or sycophancy, business memos, all of them lacking the mournful wisdom displayed in the Recherche. Still, this fourth and final volume of Selected Letters--gleaned from Philip Kolb's much-admired 21-volume French edition--makes a good adjunct to Tadie's biography. Proust can be witty here too: Answering a critic who complains about one of the novel's long and meandering sentences, he writes, "But I think you are over-generous when you suggest that it becomes clear on a third reading; speaking for myself, I find it incomprehensible." Besides these well-annotated letters, this volume includes a touching memoir of its (American!) editor, who spent 60 years of his life working on Proust's correspondence.

In August of 1909 a young man about town wrote to Madame Emile Straus, "I have just begun--and finished--a whole long book." By this scholars have concluded that Proust composed his opening pages and his closing pages together, and then over the next 13 years filled in the middle, allowing his book to grow, a bit like Topsy (though always sure of its inner architecture). Beyond any doubt, then, In Search of Lost Time is, for all its length and occasional longueurs (chiefly in some of the pages about the narrator's obsession with Albertine) a carefully structured work of art. Its concluding pages, when the Narrator realizes that he can redeem the wasted years of his life, must rank among the most stirring in all literature. Yet In Search of Lost Time is more than just a work of semi-autobiographical fiction: To its admirers, it remains one of those rare encyclopedic summas, like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the essays of Montaigne or Dante, that offer insight into our unruly passions and solace for life's miseries. That it is also a great comic masterpiece goes without saying.



 
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