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The Threat to Proust

A la recherche du temps perdu, 1987-1989: Vol. 1

by Marcel Proust, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,547 pp., FF360

A la recherche du temps perdu, 1987-1989: Vol. 2

by Marcel Proust, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,991 pp., FF380

A la recherche du temps perdu, 1987-1989: Vol. 3

by Marcel Proust, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,934 pp., FF395

A la recherche du temps perdu, 1987-1989: Vol. 4

by Marcel Proust, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,707 pp., FF390


As in all branches of science, from subatomic physics to astronomy, order of magnitude can have great importance in literature. A consideration of size and scale in literature, moreover, soon provokes opposing claims. One might claim that all literature tends to the miniaturized condition of haiku and the maxim. And one might claim that all literature tends to the condition of the roman fleuve, the overflowing epic of everything. Even Aristotle was concerned about size and warned us in the Poetics that the dimensions of a work should not exceed our capacity to grasp its beginning, middle, and end. Many writers have produced unified works that may strike us as inordinately long: Lady Murasaki, the authors of the Roman de la rose, Tolstoy, Musil. But it is primarily in respect to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time that we work out our problems and our impulses concerning order of magnitude.

Until his late thirties, the Paris dilettante and apparent snob published mostly social gossip, short stories, and translations. Then, during a period of seemingly helpless hesitation between writing a novel and writing philosophical criticism, he grasped that he could do both by having the narrative lead up to the philosophy. In 1912, he sent out the first of two projected volumes. By the time the full novel appeared in 1927, five years after his death, it had grown to thirteen volumes. To read Proust in that paperbound, unannotated form requiring a papercutter, as was necessary for three decades, carried the challenge of exploring an unmapped continent without a reliable compass. In 1954 the French Pléiade collection brought out the full novel in three compact volumes with indexes and résumés and notes. Random House consolidated Scott Moncrieff’s translation into two large readable volumes in 1934. In these editions one can, with attentive reading, perceive the underlying shape of the novel sustaining its great length. In subsequent years, scholars produced a series of substantial biographies, from George Painter’s in two volumes to the most reliable and discerning of all, the 950-page opus of Jean-Yves Tadié. It is due out soon in English. Meanwhile Proust’s correspondence has appeared in twenty-one volumes.

When Proust’s novel fell into the public domain in 1987, three Paris publishing houses were ready with new editions that had been in preparation for several years. They all carry the same basic 3,000-page text with few variations. The differences lie in packaging and presentation. Laffont-Bouquins chose to publish three fat volumes prefaced by elaborate historical and biographical materials. Garnier-Flammarion produced ten pocket-sized volumes competently edited by Jean Milly. The new Pléiade edition, published by the original copyright holder, Gallimard, made the boldest, most ambitious, and most expensive bid to claim the market. In a combination of editorial, literary, and commercial decisions, Gallimard proposed to influence the way we read Proust and, to some degree, the way we approach all great literary works.

The difference is immediately visible and palpable. The Pléiade edition of A la recherche du temps perdu grew from three compact leather-bound volumes totaling 3,500 pages to four bulging volumes totaling over 7,000 pages. The added pages include expanded apparatus and, most prominently, newly introduced sketches, drafts, and variants in tiny print. These esquisses add up to some 1,250 pages, equal to almost half the length of the novel itself. Eight inches on the shelf instead of three. Is there someone somewhere who believes that this elephantiasis is appropriate to Proust’s novel? Three thousand pages are daunting enough. What past mistakes or what new discoveries explain this more than doubling of the product we are to pay for and hold in our hands? Other shorter, far less expensive, and fully satisfactory editions in French and English await one in the bookstores. Nevertheless, Proust scholars working with the original French have generally elected the new 7,000-plus-page Pléiade as the authoritative version to be cited.

The prime mover and defender of the faith in this context is Jean-Yves Tadié, author of the superb Marcel Proust: Biographie (1996) and of two earlier studies of Proust’s novel. His scrupulous scholarship and immense knowledge of Proust’s life and writings qualify Tadié to be the current dean of Proust studies throughout the world. When he began on the new Pléiade edition, he was powerfully drawn toward what is known as genetic criticism—the study of the evolution of a work out of earlier outlines and drafts and sketches into its (presumably) final state. In Europe and the United States today, genetic criticism has expanded rapidly and opened up lush new fields for scholars, particularly studies of major modern authors with well-furnished archives. Most of Proust’s working papers and drafts became available at the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale in the Seventies. They provided a scholarly bonanza. As head editor of the Pléiade volumes, Tadié persuaded himself, along with a crew of young scholars he had recruited and the responsible committees at Gallimard, that the new edition should contain extensive selections from Proust’s working drafts as well as enhanced editorial apparatus.

And thus it is Tadié who, at the end of his 100-page general introduction, provides the justification for this remarkable expansion. Traditionally, the highly respected and widely sold Pléiade collection (a complete library of several hundred titles representing world authors, classic to modern, and including its own encyclopedia and other reference works) has presented an author’s work or works in a readers’ edition along with a brief introduction and basic notes. A few titles (the second edition of Baudelaire and the Sartre volumes) have somewhat enlarged the apparatus. But Tadié’s Proust shifts the undertaking to a new order of magnitude, in which the actual text of the work occupies less space than the apparatus surrounding it. Many a miniature painting hangs in a frame much larger than the tiny picture it contains. We accede to this summons of our attention to something so concentrated. But Proust’s In Search of Lost Time cannot pass for a miniature. Like Monet’s waterlily series, it needs only a modest frame. Yet between the 1954 and the 1989 Pléiades, the editor has enlarged the frame from 500 to almost 5,000 pages. How are we to deal with this example of physical and intellectual gigantism?

Proust is an exceptional author. The intelligent general reader will need some guidance. Other new French editions, and increasingly those in English, provide that guidance without intrusiveness. Therefore, we must carefully examine the sheer dimensions and specific content of the Pléiade phenomenon for the implications it contains concerning the status of a literary work and the future of literary studies.

The sweeping argument Tadié builds in the last six pages of his general introduction turns in part on an ambiguity of the French word oeuvre as used in the context of literature and art. It can mean a single, clearly defined, unified work—sonnet, tragedy, novel, painting—by a single author or artist. It can also mean the entire corpus of a writer’s work, a lifetime’s accomplishment. (In the latter sense, it is often given the masculine gender.) Tadié observes that in certain mechanical and superficial ways the last three volumes of Proust’s novel (composed of seven with different titles) were left unfinished at his death. Then he adds emphatically: “But if In Search of Lost Time is unfinished in some details, it is in no fashion an incomplete work [une oeuvre incomplète].” Four pages later in closing, he states that in this new edition the reader will be able to reconstruct Proust’s entire “oeuvre,” meaning everything he wrote. This subtle shift from one meaning of oeuvre to another cannot be ignored. Tadié beckons us away from the universally recognized 3,000-page novel to consider a very different entity: Proust’s entire output. Do we wish to follow him?

Tadié begins this closing section by recalling Proust’s discussion in The Captive of the “retroactive unity” projected back over their earlier works by certain nineteenth-century writers such as Balzac. Even though Tadié claims that this discussion “defines Proust’s poetics,” he goes on to demonstrate the opposite. Proust did not find his “circular structure” after the fact. “Deciding from the start to link his first and last chapters,” Tadié writes, “Proust avoids the incompleteness of the great nineteenth-century books.” Tadié argues that the special effectiveness of Proust’s structure lies not in the fact that he imposed it retrospectively but that he waited until the end to reveal it.

Suddenly, in the middle of a paragraph, Tadié insists that what Proust tells us about the order and structure of his novel has led to “the principles that direct the present edition.” Tadié cites without transition an earlier abandoned novel to introduce Proust’s taste for unpublished writings and concludes: “For the amateur, nothing that has fallen from Proust’s pen, above all if it has to do with the novel, is indifferent.” In one sentence, Tadié has vaulted from the unifying structure of the novel to the mass of materials omitted from it in order to create that unity. A bit later, Tadié tells us how much affection Proust felt for the word esquisse, meaning sketch or draft.

Proust’s three fictional artists are now summoned to testify in favor of successive, stacked-up, unfinished inédits of the kind Tadié wants to include in his edition. The inédits, Tadié tells us, resemble the built-up layers of glaze seen by the writer Bergotte in Vermeer’s patch of yellow wall in the View of Delft. (But glazes are integral to the final painting, not preliminary trial runs separate from the work.) The editor of the composer Vinteuil’s posthumous septet, Tadié argues, makes sense of his “indecipherable notations…by presenting the successive layers which, once unfolded, permit us to understand the composition of the work, the depth of its material.” (But in Proust’s novel, Vinteuil’s editor, rather than laying out all the prospective versions, winnowed them down to the firm line of the septet’s unity.) And the painter Elstir sometimes preferred an early sketch to the final product. Now Tadié feels confident enough to make his final declaration of principle about his editorial method, about the true status of literature, and about the final meaning of the word oeuvre.

The oeuvre, daughter of time, does not assume its full relief unless one superposes its different stages, does not reveal its full depth unless, from the “ground plan,” one descends to the crypt of the cathedral. It is a great privilege to be present at the birth of a work. The drafts must therefore not be considered frozen and lifeless, but read as Swann listened to the motifs of Vinteuil’s sonata: “Swann listened to all the scattered themes which would contribute to the composition of the phrase, like the premises of a necessary conclusion, and he witnessed its birth.” Thus casting on the full set of Proust’s published works and on the even more considerable mass of his unpublished writings a “retrospective” gaze, similar to the gaze the novelist himself cast on Pleasures and Days, the prefaces to Ruskin’s works, Jean Santeuil, Against Sainte-Beuve, on his articles, rough drafts, and letters in order to compose In Search of Lost Time, thus the reader reconstructs the work [oeuvre]—in time.1

  1. 1

    Deliberately and elegantly, the concluding sentence echoes the concluding sentence of Proust’s novel.

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