Posted on:Monday 6th April, 2020
In his recent blog Graham Henderson wrote about the current lockdown and the unexpected acres of time it has freed up. He cited Proust and the opportunity given to have another go at reading this colossal masterpiece. Good call. Proust is relevant here.
Proust’s melancholy description in his novel’s final volume, Temps Retrouvé, of returning to an empty Paris after the First World War and finding all the places he loved closed down is eerily resonant to anyone who has stepped out into the streets of London since our current crisis broke. How did Proust, or rather his narrator, respond? He did much the same as Graham did, what lots of us are doing just now: taking time to think about things and to re-evaluate what is important. In Temps Retrouvé, Proust’s narrator (Proust himself really) once freed from the endless round of salons and extravagant dinner parties, finally discovers what will actually make his vast novel make sense: make it more than just trips down memory lane or social commentary. It is a passionate opening up to the power of involuntary memory which delivers, undiminished, the vivid sensual apparatus of these moments of recall. These, he realises will be the structural high points that will sustain his novel.
There then follows a remarkable passage in which he writes about only now being able to start to write the novel, five large volumes of which the reader has already finished. This is real time turned on its head.
It is at this point that Francoise, his beloved housekeeper who has been with him throughout the novel, really comes into her own. Before, he joked about her provincial accent and her malapropisms, but now with an extraordinary mixture of instinct and acuity she helps Marcel with his manuscripts, suggests reordering stuff … glues cut pages together. Remarkably, literary scholars have found that Proust’s actual manuscripts closely resemble the chaotic pages shuffled around by Marcel and Francoise as described in the novel. The character of Francoise is based on Proust’s servant Celeste Albaret, who lived to a great age and gave valuable testimony about the writer after his death.
The love and respect demonstrated for Celeste / Francoise is significant here. She is one of the few characters in the novel who give us some insights into “the lower orders” of Proust’s high society ¬ a society that is in many ways incredibly self-indulgent, epicurean and carnal in equal measure. The gap between those in the upper echelons and the people who served them, like Francoise, must have been eye wateringly wide. Proust celebrated a decadent culture of dandies, painters, spendthrifts, high class courtesans and aristocratic homosexuals that flourished in Paris at the end of the C19th. - it was transgressive, radical, creative and although immensely privileged its values were real and could not be captured on a balance sheet
By elevating Francoise in the way he does, Proust tacitly acknowledges social injustice but implies that social injustice is not the whole story. That was perhaps another insight he drew from the First World War shutdown he experienced. It did not put him on the road to socialism, far from it, but it might have put him on the road to showing a greater humanity. His was an extravagant individualism for sure, but one that found room for empathy.
With the elegant front door of Black’s closed until further notice and events at the Rimbaud Verlaine Foundation now placed under induced coma, it is worth reflecting that the shutdown we find ourselves under could spark a massive transformation in the way we run our lives and that may be no bad thing.