Henry James described reading Proust as “inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine.” A bizarre judgment, but it would not perhaps have been wholly uncongenial to the great novelist. Boredom and ecstasy for Proust were not far apart, and certainly in James’s sentence they could easily be switched round, transposed in the manner of a Wilde epigram (and we should not forget Proust’s interest in Wilde). In fact almost any comment made about Proust can be shown to be apposite in one way or another; he is a target impossible to miss; and his obsession with what Roger Shattuck neatly calls the “conflictingly overdetermined quality” of most impressions and events means, among other things, that it is perfectly proper to assert that he writes well, that he writes badly; that he kills his book with a system, that he is a dilettante who is not systematic enough; that he is the gloomiest and most pessimistic writer in the world, that his comic tale is one long peal of happy laughter. Proust is innocent on no count that can be brought against him. Yet as Roger Shattuck points out, the verdict on each and all would have to be “Guilty—but not as charged.”
Shattuck has written what is quite probably the best short book on Proust; certainly one of the most sane, most genial, most illuminating. But of course this too is to say something all but meaningless, for the idea of a concise and businesslike book on Proust, in that admirable series Modern Masters, and hence among such no-nonsense NCOs of literature as Camus and Orwell, is itself acceleratingly funny, with that peculiar propensity of Proustian humor for leaping over the bounds of one joke (humor being usually and rightly self-contained) and so on to the next and the next, until humor itself begins to seem an activity as self-absorbed and laborious as hypochondria.
It is even possible, and perfectly respectable, to think of A la recherche as a novel that tells us much about the nature of mystical experience. So it may, but this does not mean that Proust had such experiences himself. He had no such thing; he cooked them all up, as the true artist does, or rather as Proust insists throughout his labyrinthine essay Contre Sainte-Beuve that he does, for “a book is the product of a very different self from the one we display in our habits, in society, in our vices.” It is for this reason that even Painter’s biography, however fascinating as a collection of fact, story, and gossip, cannot give us much real critical illumination. Proust—Joyce too—is the very opposite of such writers as Chateaubriand, or Norman Mailer, for whom the work is, quite simply, the man. That Proust in his later years used to attend a rather special maison de passe, because he was sexually excited by the sight of rats in a cellar being caught and chopped …