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Love à la Mode

The Love Affair as a Work of Art

by Dan Hofstadter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 314 pp., $24.00

Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, that is to say the selection of his unpublished writings brought out under that title in 1954, was a revelation in half-a-dozen different ways.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.”1 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.2

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”3 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 the awakening of a young would-be writer, who has waited in vain for weeks to see his article in print, but whose mother, this morning, leaves a copy of the journal by his bedside in an over-casual manner and hurries away….

This train of thought, beginning with the falsity of Sainte-Beuve’s critical method, and leading on to Sainte-Beuve’s blissful enjoyment of work and of social approval and to an imaginative fictional scene precisely fitted for the as-yet-unwritten A la recherche du temps perdu, is wonderfully suggestive and reminds us, once again, of Proust’s large-mindedness.

Sainte-Beuve still seems to be on people’s minds. He was an important presence in Roberto Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch and is so again in Dan Hofstadter’s The Love Affair as a Work of Art. I notice a tendency in them and others to say that Proust had more in common with Sainte-Beuve than he liked to pretend. “Where Proust wanted to offer a devastating description of Sainte-Beuve’s ‘method,”’ writes Calasso, “he revealed its secret, which was in fact very close to his own.”4 Equally, according to Dan Hofstadter, “Sainte-Beuve is a dominant figure in Proust’s world, an obnoxious grandpa who moves into the younger man’s mental house spouting infuriating opinions and demanding attention and life support.” One cannot help feeling, says Hofstadter, that Proust is more ambivalent about this “overbearing ancestor” than he is willing to admit: “After all, the two writers have some points in common: What is Sainte-Beuve’s exaltation of the salon but a sort of historical premonition of Proust’s own salonomania, his own compulsive running around in the Faubourg Saint-Germain?” There is a half-truth or quarter-truth here, but I hardly think it very helpful. What the pages of Contre Sainte-Beuve show us, at any rate, is that there is nothing in Proust’s relationship with Sainte-Beuve which he hadn’t, with the thoroughness of genius, thought through for himself.

That what readers or critics should concern themselves with is not authors but works, or at least that they should resist all temptation to confuse the two, was the view urged by T.S. Eliot, as a part of the doctrine of Impersonality, and was propounded in a more rigid form by the New Critics. What Proust says is not that exactly, but it is a powerful complement to it, since the authorial “I” he invites us to recreate within ourselves is to be found nowhere save in the author’s works. The rule, moreover, is a golden one, but people do not seem to like it, and they keep on struggling to get around it. Dan Hofstadter’s book is a case in point.

He repeats for us the story of a number of nineteenth-century love affairs involving famous writers, one group dating from the early years of the century and another from the 1890s. For the first we have Benjamin Constant’s liaison with Belle de Zuylen, his passion for Juliette Récamier, and his famous fifteen-year “enslavement” to Madame de Staël; the grand passion of Alfred de Musset and George Sand, which inspired Musset’s poem Nuit de Mai and his Confession of a Child of the Century and gave George Sand copy for more than one novel; and the long and stately amitié amoureuse between Juliette Récamier and Chateaubriand.

The book divides at this point, providing some reflections on changing fashions and recurrent patterns in love affairs. As one reads about the “great love affairs” of the last century, says Hofstadter, one feels a need to classify styles of romance, but the temptation had better be resisted, for the French have simply too vast a store of worldly knowledge about love, and fashions in love are too swift-changing.

The mind, trying to grasp this or that style of courtship, is like a spotlight playing over a fashion runway, where every design is in continuous movement and disappears at once into the wings.

Poring over the relics of ancient passions, the yellowing diary pages, beribboned love letters and outmoded romans à clef, one may be tempted to see in love the permanence of a myth, but this is an illusion. By Flaubert’s day the “lachrymose, suicide-threatening lover of the Romantic age was already over the hill.”

What then is the characteristic accent of the literary liaison in the later period (the end of the nineteenth century), which Hofstadter now turns to? It is, he says, what Benjamin Constant called “hostile sensibility.” It is a process more like carving than modeling. “In learning what one didn’t like in people’s behavior, one discovered one’s own appetites and manners, one’s own individuality.” This leads Hofstadter on, by a transition I fail to understand, to discussing the way writers define themselves through their dislike of other writers—for instance Balzac in his vengeful rewriting of Sainte-Beuve’s novel Volupté and Constant’s novel Adolphe—and this leads in turn to a diatribe against Sainte-Beuve by Hoftstadter himself. I shall come back to this.

The book then resumes with a lengthy account of the love-hate relationship of Anatole France and his patroness Léontine de Caillavet, a well-known hostess, and with the baffling saga of Proust’s feelings for Jeanne Pouquet, who married his adored friend Gaston, son of Madame de Caillavet and famous author of boulevard comedies.

Hofstadter declares, disarmingly, that he makes no claim to have produced a work of original scholarship or to have “intended to add anything to the sum of human knowledge,” but that he was stimulated to write his book by some recent revelations about old events: in particular Georges Lubin’s disclosure that George Sand doctored her letters before their posthumous publication, to put herself in a better light, and the publication, for the first time, of the Caillavet-France correspondence, together with memoirs of Léontine Caillavet and her salon by Jeanne Pouquet and Michelle Maurois.5

Hofstadter’s book is cunningly organized, these love affairs having even in real life been interwoven, and the train of argument in the book continually returning to two leading themes: Constant’s novel Adolphe and the personality of Sainte-Beuve. Adolphe relates the story of an idle young man’s attachment to an older woman, begun in a spirit of vanity and caprice and ending in a fatal entrapment and paralysis of the will (on both sides) only terminable by the woman’s death. As may be imagined, the conflicting ways in which Hofstadter’s protagonists interpret Adolphe tell us as much about them as about the novel itself, if not more. As for Sainte-Beuve, he figures as adviser and conscientious pander to George Sand in her affair with Musset, a devious witness in the affair between Chateaubriand and Juliette Récamier, and a mixture of role model and fearful warning for Hofstadter himself.

He has written a very readable and in a way an enticing book. For one thing, he has a good, brisk historical novelist’s style. “All the misery began one afternoon early in the autumn of 1794, when Madame de Staël, who was traveling on the lakeside road from Geneva to Lausanne, grew aware that she was being furiously pursued by a lone horseman.” So begins the story of de Staël and Benjamin Constant, “a lanky fellow who wore his carroty hair in a pigtail and had a way of smiling with half his face.” Another beginning (to the story of Juliette Récamier and Chateaubriand) runs: “The man who would one day solve the riddle of Juliette was nine years her senior, a short, swarthy Breton with brooding eyes and telegraphic eyebrows.” It is a little garish, but one can attune to it. Then, he has an eye for a telling biographical detail. One is gripped to read of the climax to Anatole France’s bickering with his wife, Valérie:

… the writer, who was in the midst of working, rose from his desk, slammed his paper and inkstand on a tray, and, still in dressing gown, slippers, and skullcap, marched out of the room, downstairs, and into the street, where without breaking the movement of his writing hand, and with the cord of his gown trailing after him on the pavement, he continued to scribble briskly until he reached the Hôtel Carnot.

  1. 1

    La Prisonniére, Volume 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1923), p. 270; my translation.

  2. 2

    Bernard de Fallois, editor, Contre Sainte-Beuve (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), p. 157; my translation.

  3. 3

    De Fallois, editor, Contre Sainte-Beuve, p. 168.

  4. 4

    Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch (Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 97.

  5. 5

    J. Suffel, editor, Anatole France and Mme de Caillavet, Lettres intimes, 1888–1889 (Paris: Nizet, 1984); Jeanne Pouquet, Le Salon de Madame Arman de Caillavet (Paris: Hachette, 1926); Michelle Maurois, L’Encre dans le sang (Paris: Flammarion, 1982).

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