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Looking for mistakes in Proust

Marcel Proust, Scheherazade by Konchalovsky

When we launched the special lockdown blog back in March 2020 I undertook to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust in the C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin English translation. Nine months later and I am pleased to report that I have now completed the first of the three volumes, representing just over 1,000 pages. As well as reading the novel, I have also been catching up on some of the secondary literature about the author. The most recent addition to this is Proustian Uncertainties, a short book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Israeli-American academic Saul Friedländer. The book is an elegant and thought-provoking disquisition into the nature of the novel and the identity of the author. And yet, for me, Friedländer ultimately gets distracted by some of Proust’s supposed ‘mistakes’, and stops short of recognising the extraordinary originality and modernity of the novel…

Friedländer’s fascinating and accessible book takes as its starting point the similarities and the differences between the author (Marcel Proust) and the unnamed narrator (the Narrator). He challenges the easy insistence of the author that he is not the Narrator, a statement that has been taken at face value by most literary critics. It proves easy enough to find other statements by Proust to the effect that everything in his novel is based on his own life, and even to identify elements in the novel that clearly reflect the author’s life rather than the fictional life of the Narrator. Friedländer challenges the New Criticism orthodoxy that maintains that a ‘Work’ should be read as being something entirely distinct from the autobiography of its author. In the case of Proust, especially, it seems completely disingenuous to argue that the Narrator’s perspective is not informed by the personal life and experiences of the author, whose life is mirrored to a quite extraordinary degree. It is a view with which I am normally rather sympathetic.

Dance to the Music of Time by Poussin

It makes me think of that most Proustian of British novelists, Anthony Powell, whose Dance to the Music of Time series of novels also mirror almost exactly his actual lived experience. As in Proust one quickly learns that plot and storyline are of much less interest to the author than the creation and exploration of character and situation. And like Proust there are areas of the narrator (Nick’s) life that are quite obviously occluded, the discretion of the auto biographer refusing to be drawn into personal or intimate areas of experience.  In the case of Proust such seminal things as the appearances of the Narrator’s father and mother, and the occasions of their deaths, go unmentioned. In the case of Anthony Powell it is the narrator’s relationship with his wife. If we are reading a fiction, why the need for these ‘no go’ areas, especially by authors who are quite content to be explicit in their descriptions when they want to be? I think that Friedländer is basically correct in his assessment that the Narrator in Proust is essentially just a literary device, allowing him to create sufficient distance, and permitting him to write with much greater honesty about the raw materials of his own life. However, I think that it is a big mistake to go one step further and regard the novel as a disguised form of autobiography.

What most interests Friedländer are the points at which the fictional Narrator swerves away from the biography of the author, differences which he says are ‘manifestly intentional’, and which may tell us a lot about the real Proust and his purposes in the novel. In particular, the author was Jewish and the Narrator is not, even engaging from time to time in apparent anti-Semitic outbursts. Also, the author was transparently Gay, whereas the Narrator is not, and similarly indulges in at least one passage of virulent anti-Gay sentiment. Clearly here Friedländer is exploring two areas of Proust’s life and identity which are of special interest to early 21st century readers, preoccupied with issues of identity, race and gender.

Alfred Dreyfus

Friedländer offers a particularly appealing personal perspective on Proust’s Jewishness, and presents a well-argued and nuanced case that the author probably shared the social anti-Semitism of his upper-class French contemporaries whilst abhorring the racial anti-Semitism of the Anti-Dreyfusards. Thus, in the character of Albert Bloch he creates an embarrassingly pushy and parvenu Jewish character, whom he describes (on more than one occasion) in overtly anti-Semitic terms as being like ‘a hyena’. It is impossible to ignore the use by the author of this kind of anti-Semitic trope, and Friedländer notes its unacceptability. However, there is perhaps a danger in attributing the Narrator’s views to the author in any direct or simplistic way. There is at least a possibility that, in creating the character of Bloch as an upwardly mobile French Jew, Proust was in fact caricaturing himself, and describing himself as some bigoted members of French society would undoubtedly have seen him. Can we take his anti-Semitic ‘lapses’ at face value? Surely he is also reflecting on French attitudes as he has experienced them? There can be no doubt that the novel frequently presents its Jewish characters (including Swann), and Judaism more generally, in a favourable light, and that the author’s sympathies (like those of the Prince and Princess of Guermantes) secretly lie with the Dreyfusards.

The same level of complication arises in Friedländer’s exploration of homophobia in the novel. First he points to the author’s brave and bold portrayals of homosexuality, notably in the sexually charged encounter of Baron de Charlus with the tailor Jupien, apparently watched unseen by the Narrator but described in terms that appear to reflect the author’s own sexual preference for other men. Friedländer contrasts this with the passage later in the work where an aged Baron de Charlus is described by the Narrator in aggressively homophobic terms. He sees this as a case of the author making a concession to his prejudiced readers, and perhaps as a belated attempt to cover his own tracks as a Gay writer. Once again, I find this analysis slightly implausible. It does not allow Proust any of the multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives that we know him to be capable of. As a biographer we might require him to be consistent. As a novelist, we do not. It makes me think of a another famously LGBTQ author, Patricia Highsmith. Her series of Ripley novels occasionally feature overtly homophobic statements, put into the mouth of Ripley or other characters. At the same time, however, the novels convey an unmistakable interest in ‘inverts’ and ‘sexual deviance’. Indeed, the whole decision to create a character like Ripley who sits outside of a normative moral universe, and who not only survives but prospers from his crimes, implies a metaphorical interpretation and an empathy for sexual identities that were still effectively proscribed during Highsmith’s lifetime. Query whether Proust also was deploying occasional homophobic tropes merely in order to write about non-normative sexual identities? It must surely be conceded that his novel is ground-breaking in its sympathetic treatment of Gay and Lesbian identities?

Patricia Highsmith

In what I feel may be a category error, Friedländer suggests that Proust’s novel is not really a modern novel at all, but is the last great flowering of a 19th century form, the Bildungsroman, a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education. The novel may be framed by a chronological narration, commencing in childhood and progressing through adolescence to maturity and then old age, but surely this is merely a device? In practice the author uses this familiar format only as the starting point for a series of purposeful digressions, and for a much more complicated programme. Why else would we jump so quickly in Swann’s Way from an account of the Narrator’s childhood (in which Swann has merely a walk-on part) to an intense account of Swann’s affair with Odette de Courcy? This account is supposedly relayed to the Narrator by Swann himself many years later, and with an implausible level of self-exposure. This is merely the first of many leaps in time and place, and of many digressions into characters and subjects which have little or no bearing on the forward progression of the Narrator’s life story. If Proust’s novel is the story of the Narrator’s (or the author’s) formative years, it would have to be judged a significant failure…

French seaside scene by Monet

But this is not the author’s intention at all. His canvas is much broader and more experimental, and involves a series of meditations, experiments and devices which combine technical virtuosity with extraordinary innovation. Amongst many successful experiments I would rank the author’s great success at rendering the Narrator as an unreliable witness in many of the situations he describes. For instance, whilst at Balbec, the young Narrator seeks out the company of the artist Elstir, telling us that he only did so to facilitate an introduction to ‘the little band’ of Albertine and her female friends. However, it is abundantly clear to the reader that the ideas and practice of the artist are having a profound effect on the impressionable Narrator, and that they will affect his life in important ways. In another example of literary innovation Proust, in describing the little band, initially treats them as an undifferentiated group, whose individual members are hard to distinguish. The group appear on the seafront almost as a single creature, an image that flirts with magic realism in using images and ideas to better capture the complex nature of experienced reality. One could go on. The whole novel feels less like a 19th century novel than an early experiment in Modernism. Its extraordinary effect on a writer such as Virginia Woolf would tend to bear out this hypothesis.

My misgivings about Friedländer’s approach to Proust are perhaps crystallised when he draws attention to some of the obvious ‘mistakes’ in the novel. These include the attribution of social snobbery to the Narrator’s mother that contradicts descriptions of her elsewhere as being free of any such social pretentions. The suggestion is that (perhaps in a fit of absentmindedness?) the author described his own mother’s attitudes here rather than the fictional attitudes of the Narrator’s mother. There are also some obvious ‘factual’ errors, such as the fact than Madame Verdurin is still hosting her regular weekly salon when the Narrator is advancing in age, even though it is clear elsewhere that the salon was a feature of Swann’s life even before the Narrator’s birth. As was suggested by Tadie, the celebrated biographer of Proust, Madame Verdurin would need to be over 100 years old to have hosted her salon over such an extended period of time. Then there is the tendency the author has of allowing his Narrator to be privy to conversations and details which (in a real person) would require not only omnipresence but also a phenomenal memory.

I am quite happy to concede that Proust made some mistakes in the course of writing a work which is over 3,000 pages long, and which was written over a period of many years. That is only to be expected. The spotting of such ‘errors’ is both interesting and amusing, in exactly the same way as it is diverting to spot a wristwatch being worn in a sword and sandals Hollywood film, or a Starbucks coffee cup in an episode of Game of Thrones. Much ink has been spilt over the change in colour of Emma Bovary’s eyes (from brown to black, and then blue, I believe) over the course of Madame Bovary, suggesting that even an author as obsessive about detail as Gustave Flaubert was capable of the occasional oversight. However, I would like to question whether Proust would really care about such matters. His purpose in writing about the Verdurin salon was surely not verisimilitude, but the creation of a familiar stage on which the incidents and the conversations in which he is in fact interested can take place. Deciding that Proust’s novel is just a stylised version of a Bildungsroman perhaps sets Friedländer off on the wrong course? If Proust were indeed attempting primarily to tell a fictionalised story of his own life and times then these occasional missteps might be more relevant. But this does not strike me as his main intention. To the contrary, he is circling constantly around a few key themes and ideas (time, memory, friendship, place). You could call it a phenomenological enquiry if you like. I would maintain that the people, situations and places the author chooses to write about are entirely subordinated to this wider purpose.

Scheherazade by Richter

Strangely, by the end of Proustian Uncertainties, I was coming around to a position rather closer to that of post war New Criticism. I am happy to acknowledge the many and varied ways in which Proust drew on his own life in writing his novel. However, there is surely a danger in allowing autobiography to distract us from the author’s artistic purposes? For me, Proust’s lack of concern with certain storylines (such as the death of the Narrator’s mother, which must be assumed) is because his eyes are firmly fixed on some of the things that he does want to achieve in the novel, often a detailed and experimental investigation into the nature of time and memory. For me, the novel functions not as a life story but as a more or a less discontinuous series of experiments designed to recapture lost time. It is surely on the success or otherwise of this Proustian experiment that the novel and the author need to be judged?

I would nevertheless strongly recommend Saul Friedländer’s book, which is replete with interest for any reader of Proust. My abiding image from it will be the way that Proust self-identified with Scheherazade, the narrator of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights), telling stories to delay and outsmart death.

Proustian Uncertainties by Saul Friedländer is published by Penguin Random House.


Graham Henderson

Posted on:Monday 4th January, 2021