Proust, the Later Years
Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and Art
Through the spring and summer of 1965, the exhibit rooms of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris displayed the literary and personal remains of Marcel Proust. The family collection provided the bulk of the photographs, copy books, letters, furniture, and gew-gaws, and above all manuscripts, folded and rolled and glued and spliced together in massive volumes, now opened to one exasperating page of patchwork. All this evidence created the impression not only of a dark and intermittently bearded little man with burning eyes, but even more forcefully of a veritable literary industry. Proust worked more than we ever knew.
Now, forty years after Proust’s death, a biography has appeared that is equal to its subject. George D. Painter’s first volume, The Early Years, came out in 1959. In its Preface he points confidently to Proust’s life as the chief source of light for the writings and carries the story up to 1903. In this concluding volume he has scarcely had to change his course; he sails easily into port across sixty pages of bibliography, sources, minor corrections for volume one, and indices. Let there be no doubt about the importance of this book; it is a major biography in English, distinguished by thorough scholarship, honesty in acknowledging the frailty of genius, and a cogent style.
Proust opened his three-thousand-page novel in a twilight zone between waking and sleep, between present and past, between the room in which the “I” lies in bed and every other bedroom in which he has ever fallen asleep and come awake again. This initial situation of the marches of consciousness now colors almost all commentary on Proust, so that most of what one reads exists in a twilight zone between Proust, the flesh and blood writer, and Marcel, his fictional counterpart—between biographical commentary and literary criticism. It is interesting to note the complementary attitude to this dilemma taken by Painter’s biography and by Leo Bersani’s compact critical study. Painter’s Preface in volume one affirms that A la recherche du temps perdu is a “creative autobiography.” Bersani also begins by rejecting the sprawling word “novel” and proposes we look at Proust’s work as an “essay in selfanalysis.” The two terms, though similar, face in opposite directions. For Painter, Proust and Marcel are the same until proved different; for Bersani, they are different until provided the same.
From here, paths lead off in every direction; I shall use numbers to help me.In an early draft novel, while criticizing Sainte-Beuve’s biographical bias in literary study, Proust wrote: “A book is the product of a different self from the one we reveal in our habits, in society, in our vices. If we want to understand that former self, it is only in our inmost depths, by trying to recreate it there, that the quest can be achieved.” Both Painter and Bersani quote and inspect this statement of Proust’s, Painter to tell…
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