The Love Affair as a Work of Art
Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, that is to say the selection of his unpublished writings brought out under that title in 1954, was a revelation in half-a-dozen different ways. As Bernard de Fallois made clear in his introduction, it was from a long-cherished plan of Proust’s to write an attack on Sainte-Beuve that his novel A la recherche du temps perdu arose.
The year was 1908 or thereabouts. He was ill, thought that his mental powers, or at any rate his sensibility, were declining, and felt with a pang that the things he wanted to say—and such as they were, no one else had said them—might never get uttered. It was at this moment that he committed himself, definitively, to work and art, and to a concept of art as “something outside life, not participating in its vanity and nothingness.” It thus became important for him to say why Sainte-Beuve’s outlook on literature, and his famous “method” as a critic, was so wrong. Sainte-Beuve held that in studying a work of literature one was, essentially, studying an author, and accordingly one needed to know everything one possibly could about that author: What (assuming the author to be a man) did he think about religion, how did he respond to external Nature, how did he behave toward women, money, etc.? (If one personally knew the author, or could consult those, living or dead, who had known him, this would be an inestimable advantage.) Then, having studied a variety of authors in this manner, one might hope to put literature on a scientific basis, establishing a “botanical” classification of the genera and species of authors.
To this Proust’s objection is final. Sainte-Beuve’s “method” has no hope of succeeding, for the reason that a book is the product of another “I” than the one we manifest “in our habits, in society, and in our vices.” If we want to try to understand this “I,” we shall have to do so not by consulting witnesses, but by introspection: by searching in our own depths, and recreating it, or trying to recreate it, within ourselves.
However, this being Proust, that is by no means his only thought about Sainte-Beuve. He finds it significant that Sainte-Beuve, who had fancied a life as a leisured dilettante, became a vastly more brilliant writer when forced to squeeze out an essay (one of his famous Lundis) every Monday, desperately raiding for this purpose the precious thoughts he had been reserving for a novel or a poem. Proust actually speaks very generously of Sainte-Beuve’s writing; and the idea of his “feverish and charming” week, leading to his glorious awakening on Monday when, the dawn sky still pale and gloomy behind the curtains, he would open his Constitutionnel and reread his dazzling words, knowing that his admirers in the beau monde would be doing the same, enchanted Proust as a vision of absurd but real happiness. It set his mind running on …