PROUST: THE SUMMING-UP.

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.

Comments

  1. I liked reading your summary better than reading the book…which I didn’t finish. What a project! Thanks for this, and if you feel like writing more about it, I’d be happy to read it. Someday I expect to go back to Proust and make another stab at the entire thing. But not in French, thank you.

  2. Yeah, I feel bad about not reading it all in French, but it took me years to finish the first book when I was being virtuous, and my wife doesn’t know French, and I wanted to share it with her, so English it was. But I kept the French by the bedside and reread occasional bits in it. (My brother has been reading it in French for even more years and has only gotten to the third book, I believe.)

  3. A good attempt there, but unfortunately you chose a general appraisal of the work, before getting on to the story. A good try, though, and very nice posture.
    Now, Language Hat, what made you first want to try and start summarizing Proust?

  4. I’m with you, LH. I simply don’t like “the narrator,” he gives me the creeps and reminds me too much of me on a bad day. It is extraordinarily beautiful prose, but handsome is as handsome does, as we say out here in the sticks.

  5. John Emerson says:

    OFF-topic, but Proust’s parents were very interesting people.

  6. John Emerson says:

    OFF-topic, but Proust’s parents were very interesting people.

  7. Now you’ll have to rent the brilliant film.

  8. Oh, we own the brilliant film and have watched it at least twice (and are planning to watch it again this weekend now that we finally know what it’s all about)—it was probably the main stimulus to our deciding to read the novel.

  9. mollymooly says:

    You have some way to go to match the best Proust summarisers.

  10. Strictly Commercial says:

    Interesting comments. Sounds like you might be ready for Musil …

  11. Pseudonym says:
  12. OK, I like Monty Python too, but can we leave it at three “summarizing Proust” commments? Thanks!

  13. I’m reading it for the first time. I’m working on the second volume, and I tend to agree with you. On the other hand, my husband is reading it for the second time (!) and he still loves every word.

  14. On a not-entirely-different subject, I’ve been reading the recently published translation of the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon. There’s a fair amount of turn-of-the-century (18th century, needless to say) history that gets mixed in, so there’s both literary and historical pleasures there. And it’s long, but in a good way.

  15. A flautist girlfriend of mine in college started reading Remembrance to me out loud and with an Oregon accent, though she did speak beautiful French when it came to pronouncing the French names and such in the English translation she was reading to me–and I would fall full-flat snoring asleep after trying to stay with Marcel and this woman as best I could for as long as I could. Such wonderful sleeping I got from that reading–I slept with her and Marcel every night for almost a whole fall semester–I later dated a woman who was an intellectual drunk and she read me from The Great Books of the World while sotted to the saturation point–I remember her drunkenly reading me E.A. Poe’s Marginalia–a staggering feat.
    Didn’t Marcel write Remembrance while embedded in his bed in his bedroom in which he’d covered the windows with thick black curtains or were they blue?–I tend to see Marcel in a blue room–reminiscent of the strange ending to Montgomery Clift the actor whose last performance on earth was a Marcel Proust impersonation in his final resting place, his bed, with thick black drapes covering all his windows.
    Speaking of energy-sucking overlong books, have you ever read Wolfe’s (the original Tom Wolfe not the fop from Richmond) The Web and the Rock? Wolfe, drunk and bedraggled (he’d written parts of it while attending a Munich beer festival), brought the manuscript to Perkins in a huge wooden cargo crate–I love this rambler better than Look Homeward–Perkins went insane trying to render it into a book form, which finally came out posthumously–
    By the way, I live in Borges Library of Babel and eat bookworms for nourishment!
    Isn’t it all babble eventually?
    Ur fiend
    thegrowlingwolf

  16. Yes, but what I want to know is: have you ever eaten any “petites madeleines”?

  17. About Nabokov’s use of “fairy tale.” I’m not so sure it’s a smirking pun. Nabokov uses the word quite often, and always, as far as I can tell, positively. To call a novel a fairy tale was the highest compliment he could pay a work of literature. He calls Anna Karenina a fairy tale as well. Yes, he did think the Albertine sections unconvincing because Albertine was really Albert, and yes, he did view homosexuality as an aberration (Kinbote, for example, is homosexual), but I’m not sure he’s being nasty in the quotation you give.

  18. Ah, OK, I’m happy to hear that. Thanks for the information.

  19. Never read Proust (maybe I opened the book briefly when I was 20). I’ve been obsessing over this line from Pamuk’s The Black Book for several days: “like all Turks who come to love Western authors that no one else reads, he went from loving Proust’s words to believing that he himself had written them.” (Also there is some very delightful writing about Proust scattered among the essays in Pamuk’s Other Colors.)

  20. Excuse me — a trick of my memory — the writing I was thinking of in Other Colors is about (among many other things) Flaubert, not Proust. Another French author whom I have never read.

  21. I have some reactions to your summation of Proust that I’d like to share with you. I don’t agree with some of your critical observations, and I think that if I could make you see some aspects of the book differently, I might be able to help you appreciate it more and possibly enhance your experience of having read it.
    “the central character is repellent”
    It’s true that the central character comes across as a creepy, self-centered, solipsistic jerk, but that’s because he’s brutally honest about himself, often in an ironically detached way. He’s really no worse than any of us would seem if all of our innermost thoughts and impulses were laid bare for everyone to see.
    I think that the experience of reading the book can give you greater self-knowledge. At least it made me more aware of what a creepy, self-centered solipsistic jerk I am.
    And the narrative is permeated by a deep sense of guilt, which is seldom expressed but lies just below the surface, for the central character’s mistreatment of others, especially his grandmother and Albertine.
    “there are almost no actual characters. We spend a thousand pages with Albertine, but hardly get a sense of her”
    “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,”
    I think that’s a key theme of the book — what we think of as an individual’s character or personality is really a mirage.
    In fact, there are sharply drawn characters throughout the book, not just Charlus, but also Odette, Mme Verdurin, Francoise, St. Loup, Swann, Vinteuil and many, many others. Who can forget these people? But their personalities are as inconsistent and shifting as real people.
    You’re right, we never get a grip on who Albertine is. That’s exactly Proust’s point — that we can’t really ever know another individual and that our perception of their character is just a projection of our our own imagination.
    Our sense of another person’s character is a little like impressionist or pointillist painting, where an apparently coherent image, when looked at intensely at close quarters, turns out to be nothing more than a collection of brush stokes or dots.
    “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.)”
    The book actually correlates quite closely with the evolution of the Third Republic, from the beginnings through the Dreyfus Affair, the Great War and the post-war era (and even in part with the Second Empire, which is the setting of Swann’s affair with Odette in the first book). But the correlations are for the most part unstated. And you’re right that Proust goes out of his way to obscure the precise dating of events. In the early parts, you’re never quite sure whether the narrator is a very precocious pre-teen (in both good and bad ways) or a very childish teenager. But that is true to life — an individual’s development doesn’t progress at a steady rate, despite our mental preconception that it should.
    Proust’s narrator “never makes an attempt to see himself or his behavior from outside.”
    I don’t think this is a correct reading. The whole work is drenched in irony. The narrator never engages in explicit criticism of himself, but in presenting himself so completely with all his faults on display, he makes us see him both from the inside and from the outside. The very fact that you found him so repulsive, I think, shows that he is quite aware of his defects. We usually don’t represent ourselves to others as repulsive.
    “the book is too damn long”
    Yes, that’s true, and there are many places where you have to force yourself to keep on reading, or else set it aside for a while, but in the end, it’s one of the greatest reading experiences.
    Part of the problem is that Proust was racing against time to finish the book as his physical capacities were dwindling. He never had a chance to go back and edit or shape the last part of the work. He would get galley-proofs of the later volumes from the printer and use up all of the available margin space scribbling in new material and then paste pages and pages of additional material onto the pages of the proofs. Editions were assembled from these materials after his death, but none of the editions is truly authoritative in the sense that it bears his final imprimatur. But the chaos of the work is like the chaos of life and an important part of the experience of reading it.
    “Gogol is a lot funnier”
    Much of Proust’s book is screamingly funny, not just the social satire, but also and especially the deadpan narration of the central character’s blind, compulsive, obsessive, outrageous behavior. I think it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.
    I would suggest that you ruminate on it for about ten years and then tackle it again. In the meantime, read or re-read Stendhal, Balzac and The Sentimental Education. I don’t know your age, but it also helps to be over 50.
    I read the Proust book for the first time in my 30s. It took five or six years with starts and stops. It was very slow going the first time because the ideas and the way they were presented was so different from anything else I’d ever read before. (And I have to admit that there are longueurs . . . )
    The second time I was in my 50s. I read straight through to The Prisoner but got to the point where I just couldn’t stand the narrator any more and set it aside, and then came back to it a year or two later and finished it. I hope to read it once more sometime if I live long enough.

  22. Bill: First off, thanks very much; your desire “to help you appreciate it more and possibly enhance your experience of having read it” is a noble one, and as I said upfront, I welcome all corrections and better perspectives.
    That said, I’m afraid I’m (so far) not convinced. This I take to be your central point:
    It’s true that the central character comes across as a creepy, self-centered, solipsistic jerk, but that’s because he’s brutally honest about himself, often in an ironically detached way. He’s really no worse than any of us would seem if all of our innermost thoughts and impulses were laid bare for everyone to see.
    The first of these sentences I agree with, but it doesn’t help me; I’m well aware of what Proust is doing (I have never doubted that he’s a great writer), but the character is still unpleasant to be around. If you’ll permit me an analogy from recent popular culture, I’m aware that Andy Kaufman’s persona was a carefully constructed one and that he was making points about the nature of comedy and trying to force his audience out of its comfort zone. He was very good at what he did. Nevertheless, I did not enjoy it except when he was playing the character Latke on Taxi, where he was forced to play by other people’s rules.
    The second sentence I emphatically disagree with. It is, of course, Proust’s point of view (hence all those infernal we‘s), but although I could accuse me of plenty of sins and nasty thoughts, I have never even come close to the solipsism and indifference to others that Marcel-the-narrator displays, and neither has any of my friends. Of course there are people like that, but I (like most sensible people) try to avoid them. Basically, I like people and try to treat them well, even if I often give in to laziness and selfishness, and I think this is far more common than Marcel (and his fellow sociopaths, if I may paint with an unfair brush) self-justifyingly believe. Marcel (and, if I am not mistaken, his creator) thought his Great Work far more important than the mere transitory humans he happened to know (and who foolishly considered him a friend, lover, etc.); this is, to some extent, a necessary state of mind for any creative artist (if you admit all the demands of friendship, love, and family, you will never get anything done), but the crucial phrase is “to some extent.” I think with astonishment of William Carlos Williams spending his days tending to the sick (often with little or no payment) and going home at night to write poems when he could have been sleeping; he could certainly have written more if he had spent his days isolated in a cork-lined room, but I’m not convinced he would have written better, and I certainly would admire him less.
    So yes, “he is quite aware of his defects” and “we usually don’t represent ourselves to others as repulsive,” and that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t help me enjoy his company and I don’t think it tells me anything about myself. I may, of course, be fooling myself, and we may all be such monsters of egocentrism, but what can I say? To date, I am not convinced.
    Much of Proust’s book is screamingly funny
    My wife and I felt this very strongly in the first couple of books; it was one of our biggest surprises. We felt it less and less as the novel wore on.
    I too am in my fifties, but I will give him another try, perhaps in my sixties, and see if my reaction is tempered by further experience of life. But I’m afraid my happy marriage may be an obstacle to my realization of the hideous qualities of humanity and the illusory nature of love.

  23. jamessal says:

    But I’m afraid my happy marriage may be an obstacle to my realization of the hideous qualities of humanity and the illusory nature of love.
    You sly dog! I hope you don’t mind if I steal this.

  24. “the hideous qualities of humanity”
    I don’t think Proust is telling us that humanity is hideous. I didn’t come away from the book thinking it savage, bitter or nasty. In the end, I think it’s a deeply humane book that shows humanity as it is — inconsistent, sometimes good, sometimes base, often comical and sometimes tragic. And I think that if you take it to heart, it will open your eyes. Again, I urge you to ponder it for a long time and maybe come back to it later in life.

Speak Your Mind

*