My wife and I unexpectedly finished Proust last night (I’d thought it would last another day) and sat up talking about it for a while, and now I’m going to try to organize my thoughts about the year-and-a-half-long experience and inflict them on you. My lengthy ramblings will be below the cut; up front I want to say that they will, as you might expect, contain spoilers, so if you’re planning to get around to reading the book someday and don’t want to know in advance who dies and who comes to sudden realizations about Life and Time, don’t click on the “Continue reading.” And since I will be mainly engaged in complaining, I should state for the record that Proust is a great writer, A la Recherche is a great book even if it could stand to lose a few pounds, and I don’t regret a moment of the time I’ve devoted to it. Furthermore, I accept in advance all charges of philistinism and ignorance; I am but a humble ruminant grazing the vast fields of literature, and what I don’t know about great writing would fill Borges’s Library of Babel. But I have my opinions nonetheless, and you’re welcome to join me in my ruminations if you accept the above Terms of Service.
First off, the book is too damn long. Proust originally intended it to fill three volumes, and I can’t help but think he should have stuck to that intention. Obviously there are those who revel in every new restatement of whatever point he’s trying to drive home at the moment (you can’t love anyone who loves you, gays are weird, etc.), but my wife and I kept saying “Yes, yes, we get it, move along please.” I complained about this in my post on the endless etymologies, and the problem only got worse. My apologies to devoted Proustians, but the man needed a Maxwell Perkins (“After a tremendous struggle, Perkins induced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel… His next, Of Time and the River…, was the result of a two-year battle during which Wolfe kept writing more and more pages in the face of an ultimately victorious effort by Perkins to hold the line on size”).
Another problem that became more and more evident as the book progressed is that the central character is repellent—probably the most unlikable protagonist of any major novel I’ve read (other than Humbert Humbert, of course, with whom he shares remarkable similarities). He starts out being nasty to the grandmother who loves him, moves on to ditching friends in order to stalk whatever “little girl” he’s obsessed with, keeps poor Albertine in his thrall for months (though he doesn’t love her, wishes she weren’t there so he could go to Venice, and goes out in search of urchin girls to debauch) before driving her out to her death (whereupon, after a decent period of crazed obsession, he forgets all about her), and ends up by deciding that, having decided to dedicate himself to his Great Novel, he can no longer afford to waste time on friends (“our powers of exaltation are being given a false direction when we expend them in friendship, because they are then diverted from those truths towards which they might have guided us to aim at a particular friendship which can lead to nothing”) but thinks “a little amorous dalliance with young girls in bloom would be the choice nutriment with which, if with anything, I might indulge my imagination.” Mind you, he’s not interested in the particular girls he’s already been “in love” with, since “the action of the years” has transformed them “into women too sadly different from what I remembered.” So in response to his former love Gilberte’s offer of “little intimate gatherings… with just a few intelligent and sympathetic people,” after noting to himself that he doesn’t particularly want to see her again he says “that I should always enjoy being invited to meet young girls, poor girls if possible, to whom I could give pleasure by quite small gifts, without expecting anything of them in return save that they should serve to renew within me the dreams and the sadness of my youth and perhaps, one improbable day, a single chaste kiss.” Uh-huh. And after many pages of other matters, he returns to the conversation with Gilberte in this appalling passage:
For Gilberte, who had no doubt inherited certain family characteristics from her mother (and I had perhaps unconsciously anticipated some such laxness of principle in her when I had asked her to introduce me to young girls), had now had time to reflect upon my request and, anxious no doubt that the profit should stay in the family, had reached a decision bolder than any that I would have thought possible. “Let me fetch my daughter for you,” she said. “I should so like to introduce her to you. She is over there, talking to young Mortemart and other babes in arms who can be of no possible interest. I am sure that she will be a charming little friend to you.”
The combination of smug contempt for a woman he claimed to have loved and drooling anticipation of becoming closely acquainted with her young daughter (and this is now a middle-aged man speaking, who presents himself as infirm, decrepit, and on the brink of the grave)… well, it’s hard to take, as is his constant use of the first person plural to implicate the reader in his nasty worldview (“we may say that, at the heart of our friendly or purely social relations, there lurks a hostility…”).
You will say, as Gilbert Wesley Purdy said in an excellent comment in the etymology thread I linked to above, that Proust “is teaching the reader what obsession feels like from the inside: alternately fascinating, tedious and oppressive,” and that we are not meant to like or identify with the narrator. All well and good, but spending thousands of pages in his company does become quite oppressive; furthermore, I am not at all convinced that the narrator is as clearly separable from the author as one would like to believe. The justification for all the narrator’s bad behavior, after all, is that his duty is to his masterwork, and what is that but (some form or equivalent of) the novel we are reading? The whole arc of the novel leads to the revelation of how childhood memories can be recovered and how they can be used to recreate life within the pages of a book. We are meant to say (and many readers do say) “Ah! What a glorious denouement! All is justified, the dross of everyday life is turned into an immortal work of art!” And yet I resist.
I mentioned Humbert above, and the comparison with Nabokov is instructive. Nabokov said in a 1965 television interview: “My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are, in this order: Joyce’s Ulysses; Kafka’s Transformation; Biely’s Petersburg; and the first half of Proust’s fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.” (I note with approval the “first half” and with disapproval the smirking pun of “fairy tale,” and speaking of television interviews, a post on MetaFilter brought to my attention a nice joint one with Nabokov and Lionel Trilling from circa 1958: 1, 2.) He obviously learned a great deal from Proust, and as the anonymous praxisblog says (in the course of an enthusiastic recommendation of Petersburg, which I heartily endorse) “Where, for that matter, is ‘Lolita’ without ‘The Captive’ and ‘The Fugitive’?” Clearly Lolita is the lineal descendant of Marcel’s “little girls,” and (as I said above) Humbert is every bit as nasty a piece of work as the narrator. But my reaction is very different. Why? Well, for one thing, Humbert is placed at several removes: his story is presented as the manuscript of a man who has died while awaiting trial for murder, and it is told in a gleeful prose that mocks its ostensible creator. And Humbert’s sins are at least those of a lover; his love (as “he” “himself” acknowledges) is wrong and its object completely inappropriate, but it is so authentic that in the end, when he sees his escaped prisoner “with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits,” the wife of another man by whom she is pregnant, his response is to say “I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” As Cynthia M. Daffron writes, “He is now attached to a person, not an age group… Finally, he sees that he has erred, that he has taken something away from Lolita, and in so doing, taken something away from himself.” Proust’s narrator remains attached to an age group, caring nothing for persons, and never makes an attempt to see himself or his behavior from outside. He is the ultimate solipsist.
Which brings me to my next objection. Proust and Joyce are the twin pillars of the modernist novel, and both wrote long, difficult books that try the patience of their readers; one big difference is that Joyce (like most of my favorite writers) is endlessly interested in the outside world, inserting real people in real pubs, and he famously boasted that if Dublin were destroyed it could be recreated from the pages of Ulysses. Proust (or his narrator) does not appear to be interested in anything outside his own skull; other people exist only as objects of obsession or as irritating distractions, and the greater world is of so little interest that vast chunks of the novel are impossible to date with any confidence. (The great exception, of course, is the Dreyfus Affair, which serves as a convenient chisel with which to reveal the cracks in his aristocratic set.) In Proust’s world, places exist either as objects of obsession (Balbec, Venice) or as signifiers of aristocracy (Guermantes, Parma). Even Paris, that inexhaustible world of urban chaos and wonderment, is reduced to the Bois, the Champs-Elysées, and the Faubourg St-Germain, and those are merely places for his aristos and wannabes to pass each other, bowing or failing to bow. Again, there’s nothing “wrong” with writing about the inside of a narrator’s skull, and Gogol’s Russia is just as phantasmagoric and impossible to pin down as Proust’s France, but Gogol is a lot funnier, and (again) Proust is very, very long.
A distressing effect of the narrator’s solipsism is that there are almost no actual characters. We spend a thousand pages with Albertine, but hardly get a sense of her; she is merely the little girl the narrator is temporarily obsessed with. We hear a great deal about his worries that she may be having sex with other women (another creepy obsession that makes the book hard to take as seriously as it wants to be taken), but almost nothing that would enable us to recognize her if we ran into her on the street. There are a few exceptions—the grandmother, Françoise—and most especially Baron Charlus, who comes close to redeeming the entire book with his crazed haughtiness and self-regard. You couldn’t miss him if you ran into him, and every time he appears the narrative takes on an intensity and momentum the reader had practically forgotten existed. The scene in which he is so senile he forgetfully bows to a woman he used to despise is far more affecting (to me) than all the narrator’s overwrought meditations on Time and Death.
Well, I guess I’ll wrap it up here. I emphasize once more that I’m very glad to have read it, that there are images and scenes I’ll never forget, that it’s beautifully written and its architecture is brilliant. But it sure could use editing.