Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust; drawing by David Levine

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.

  1. 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 us that the division becomes less important as Proust became older and that a sympathetic and perceptive biographical approach (the opposite of Sainte-Beuve’s superficial studies) is fully justified. “The biographer’s task…is to trace the formation and relationship of the very two selves which Proust distinguishes.” Bersani’s comment comes out this way. “The writer’s work is so deeply his life that it is foolish to expect his life to illuminate it.” Proust reopens the old feud in a special way, for the clearly autobiographical nature of his work, including the history of a writer’s vocation, renders the biographical method very tempting. And in hands as skillful as Painter’s, the method yields magnificent results. Like many other modern critics Painter believes that his documentation of the life will reveal to us the “workings of Proust’s imagination at the very moment of creation.” My own convictions lead me to regard relevant biographical information as illuminating, yet dangerously distracting if used to suggest that a work of art leads us to its creator rather than into ourselves. Proust himself said:

The work of a writer is only a kind of optical instrument he offers the reader in order to permit him to discern in himself something he might never have seen without this book.

  1. In Proust’s life, as sprinkled with false scents and momeatous encounters as his novel, we have never been sure of identifying the truly crucial passages around which the remaining incidents fall into place. It is here that Painter has performed the triumphant feat of gathering and sifting an abundance of materials without relying on strict chronology or on ready-made categories like “love life” or “literary debuts.” It took a truly literary imagination to perceive the ground swells in that choppy sea of incident. In the first volume, the early stages of Proust’s development coincide with those of childhood and adolescence. Yet his deflected course shows up early. Proust was only twenty-two when his double temptation by aristocracy and by homosexuality came into focus around the figure of the Comte de Montesquiou. This celebrated invert and dandified poet was related to nearly every important aristocratic family in France. Proust gained Montesquiou’s affections and admittance into le gratin by sending him his next “protégé.” The Count presented the boy publicly (along with Sarah Bernhardt) at one of his extravagant parties written up by Proust for Le Gaulois. The Guermantes’ Way and the way to the Cities of the Plain lead back to this one dazzling figure.

The perceptiveness Painter displays in bringing into focus this first major crisis of 1894 is matched by his linking of the events that surrounded his mother’s death in 1905. Before her death Proust expressed his antagonism toward her presence by carrying on in the family apartment with the actress, Louisa de Mornand. After Mme. Proust’s death, her son’s six-week stay in Dr. Sollier’s sanatorium cured him of nothing. He began a series of changes of lodging, yielded to his homosexual inclinations, and squandered his literary gifts in letter writing. Only two years later does he succeed in setting things right by writing an intensely personal article about an acquaintance who had killed his mother and then himself in grisly circumstances. The Filial Feelings of a Matricide speaks of the “agonizing vision” of seeing one’s mother thus slain and lays the crime or its equivalent on the conscience of us all. “For the first time he acknowledged his guilt and forgave his mother.” In the light of the work that followed, Painter’s estimate rings true.

Painter’s method is usually to comb through the published documents until he has fleshed out the sequence of events, and then to hold up this biographical story against the novel. At times he proceeds less scrupulously, however, and unfortunately one of these concerns the celebrated madeleine incident. Chapter seven relates how Céline brought her master tea and toast “on or about January 1, 1909” and describes Proust’s tasting of the dunked toast as “the missing key…to the creation of his novel.” Everything seems right until a glance at the references reveals that Painter’s source for these biographical facts is no letter or friend’s recollection but the text of Contre Sainte-Beuve. This may be all we shall ever know of the presumed event, yet there is far more solid evidence on which to trace the origin of A la recherche du temps perdu to the night of July 6th, 1909, when a wave of inspiration kept the light in Proust’s bedroom burning for sixty straight hours of writing. I concur with Painter that “It was the most important single event of his life, both for himself and for posterity.” Should it not have been made clear, then, that the historical madeleine incident remains an extrapolation from an already partly fictionalized account?


After this, no more major crises of direction or resolution. Only work, proofs, publication, fame, and a number of dark incidents that fill out the canon of the Proust myth.

  1. Bersani writes about the “anguish and inspiration of jealousy” as a theme and virtually an epistemological method in Proust. Its spell reduces Marcel to spying and lying and bribery. “These strategies,” concludes Bersani, “do not lead to any certain proof, but they give the impression that for Marcel and for Proust, the only unknowable part of another person’s life is…his or her ‘schedule’.” Painter completes insofar as is now possible Proust’s emploi de temps. We shall never know everything, but does not the only total revelation of a man’s being reside in a knowledge of what he did with his time, all his time? I should answer that there is another means of reaching a person, one suggested by Proust himself and exploited less by Bersani and Painter than by another critic, Georges Poulet, in his recent L’Espace proustien. Despite the title, Poulet is not talking about abstract space but about place. Any experience that has left its mark on us has reached our sensibility in terms of a clear, fully identified, vividly particularized scene. The isolation, recollection, and occasional interpenetration of those places across patches of oubli, form the body of our past and our knowledge. The important things Poulet says about the isolation and juxtaposition of personalized places finds a startling parallel in the theory of images, forgetting, and stereoscopic memory developed by Roger Shattuck in Proust’s Binoculars. Combray alone should serve as evidence of the power of place, of landscape and familiar things, to divulge or recreate the person that inhabits them. I read the Bibliothèque Nationale exhibit as a kind of lame attempt to invoke Proust’s person out of his “things” artfully assembled. We have now moved very close to a form of fetishistic behaviorism, authorized by Proust himself in his obsessive post-mortem spyings on Albertine and in his eternal statements about how the past and the fullness of its feelings reside in places, localities, and bedrooms, in the recognition of forgotten scenes. Painter’s exhaustiveness (he has visited the scenes, filled in the calendar of ordinary days and feasts) springs out of such a deep concern with time and place as particulars.

But what then can you do with the devastating sentence Bersani quotes: “We love only what we do not wholly possess”? He has still not cracked the code a hundred pages later and must repeat it in even blunter form: “What is interesting is what is absent.” Though partly traceable through its schedule and the places that have fleetingly lent it a habitation and a home, the personality remains not only unknowable but essentially perverse. It turns by nature from what it has to what it lacks, unwilling to be caught in any meaningful act.

Must we leave Proust in this compromising posture, which is not even a good healthy flagrante delictu? If he had produced no novel, if he had not all his life dragged behind him (and well off to one side) the log of his unsteady voyage, we would be hard put not to see him as a disingenuous opportunist and false friend. But there is no perverseness about the dedication of his life to the novel—to one novel, his only family, friend, and lover, which he possessed wholly and to which he remained utterly faithful.

  1. Both Painter’s volumes carry a double index: “Persons and Places” followed by “Characters and Places.” The “real” list is cross-referenced where pertinent to the “fictional” list. For instance:

Lemaire, Madeleine (VERDURIN, Mme), 29, 30…etc.

Montesquiou, Comte Robert de (CHARLUS), 3, 5-8…etc.

And contrariwise, in the next list, the fictional invokes the real:

Charlus, Baron Palamède de (DOASAN: LA ROCHEFOUCAULT Comte Aimery de: LORRAIN, Jean; MONTESQUIOU, Robert de; SAGAN, Prince Boson de; WILDE), 5, 10-11…etc.

Guermantes, Prince de (LA ROCHFOUCAULT, Aimery de; RADZIWILL, Prince Constantin; TALLEY-RAND-PERIGORD, Louis de), 96, 135…etc.

(An important contender is omitted from the last item but one: Proust, Marcel.)

There is a kind of repelling fascination in this method of drawing up two facing Who’s Whos to demonstrate the continuousness of Proust’s fiction with reality; the work must have been killing. However I have two criticisms to make. First of all, these indices, and even Painter’s text at its less alert moments, cannot help giving the impression that the alteration, the translation from reality into creative autobiography has operated uniformly on all elements and will likewise, if simply reversed, reveal the originals, even if multiple. Though I judge Painter believes nothing of the sort, he does not dispel this effect. The more the pity, for the truly significant thing about his research is to bring out the unevenness of the transformation Proust worked: his novel is continuous with reality only at certain points, not everywhere. It is as if the book were shaped in a vast curve or circle, from the close intensities of the narrator, through the objectified and autonomous principal characters, and on out to the peripheral figures. Both at the center of the narrator’s reflections and, even more obviously, on the outer edges, the book has been firmly mortised into history, into reality, into (auto) biography. At the innermost point Marcel’s reflections about reality, personality, and art might be classified, not as fiction, but as Proust’s philosophy. At the opposite extreme, the fringes of the novel are peopled with historical figures: the Prince de Sagan walking by in the street, Céleste Albaret talking to Marcel in the Grand Hôtel at Balbec; Swann going to lunch with Jules Grévy, Président de la République; the actress Réjane and the palmist Mme. de Thèbes. Here at its limits, the space of fiction bends back into life. But this special shaping of Proust’s work does not mean that the great creations of Charlus and Albertine and Swann and the Due and Duchess de Guermantes will ever fit into an equation containing character and original(s). To my mind one of the most characteristic experiences of reading Proust is the sense of a vast, vivid, unreal, and utterly absorbing universe bounded on its outer margins and at its vortex by an uncharted zone where one falls back into history. Through these two points of entry or exit a kind of reality does in fact circulate through the book. The Queen of Naples, a “real” person, enters from the wings of history to save the Baron de Charlus from total humiliation at Mme. Verdurin’s concert. But the book as a whole does not run parallel to life but rather in a curved dimension I persist in calling fiction.

My second criticism of Painter’s thesis grows not so much out of reading Proust as out of reading Painter. Increasingly as time went on there was a recirculation of the novel back into reality, a process Painter begins to elucidate though he rarely stresses it. Like Zola and the naturalists with their notebooks, Proust traveled considerable distances to test his recollection of sights and smells, and carried on an extensive correspondence to document himself on particular points of erudition or social protocol. Observation of the world is one thing; carefully staging a sequence of events according to a hypothesis and then observing the results is another. We call it the experimental method, brilliantly described in 1865 by the physiologist Claude Bernard in Introduction to Experimental Medicine. (Bernard’s name belongs in the opening pages of Painter’s biography as one of the eminent doctors Dr. Adrien Proust must have known.) Zola in fact borrowed heavily from Bernard in producing the theoretical work, The Experimental Novel. But it is Proust who was so absorbed not in observing reality but in writing a novel that he turned his surroundings and his life into a testing ground for fiction. The two most famous instances are his summoning the Poulet quartet to his apartment in the middle of the night to play César Franck and Fauré and Beethoven, and the role of backer and client he played during the war in the establishment of Le Cuziat’s male brothel. Painter’s estimate strikes close to dead center. “Twice in the war years Proust had deliberately sought and found the experiences which would give him, at opposite poles of heaven and hell, the missing cornerstones in the edifice of his novel:the Vinteuil Septet, and Jupien’s brothel.” Not fiction imitating reality but reality becoming the laboratory for fiction. With the exception of the sentence quoted, Painter leaves this experimental tendency in Proust’s life untouched. How much, one wonders, of Proust’s eccentricity, chameleon personality, hob-nobbing with the aristocracy, and “vice” should we attribute to this retroactive effect of his art on his life? Which question comes first: How much of Marcel is Proust? or, how much of Proust is Marcel? Out of this riddle we have derived the current vogue of “psycho-portraits” of authors as one of their own characters.


There are a dozen other trains of thought on Proust that these two books set in motion so powerfully that one cannot easily stop them. In the interests of length, let me say a concluding word about each work.

Because he is preoccupied by critical method and the dimensions of the problem, it takes Bersani twenty painful pages to get under way. After that he moves in on the “anxious self” as it fends for itself through fantasy, love, snobbism, and art. Bersani often comes up with a very felicitous turn of phrase. The discontinuous states and moods Marcel lives through in youth “feel so different…that he comes to have a kind of shocked view of time.” “Marcel wants much more than physical possession, but physical possession is the short cut to what he wants.” “The passage suggests the typically Proustian dichotomy between interest and knowledge; whatever engages our feelings thereby becomes unknowable.” I find his psychological interpretation both absorbing and convincing. He contrives to keep both Proust’s and Marcel’s elusive selves in sight. But toward the end he has argued himself into referring to the involuntary memories as “really little more than confused perceptions.” He has missed the point entirely, even though he has remarked elsewhere on the importance of error as the path to truth. The phenomenon of doubling in time and its relation to the very length of the text in which that doubling generates the final dramatic revelation of experience—on these points Bersani falls short. There may be an explanation. In the course of his perceptive and very difficult concluding chapter, Bersani classifies A la recherche as a “novel of transition.” The opinion suggests that Bersani may ultimately be more interested in the genre of the novel than in Proust. It is his privilege. But his most convincing insights and arguments reveal Remembrance of Things Past not as a transitional work but as the extreme case of the uneasy self declaring its existence and finding its voice in the act of writing.

Similarly in Painter’s book the interest seems to veer away from Proust’s qualities in themselves. Very near the end Painter deals with Mme. de Chévigné’s pique over her supposed “treatment” in the personage of the Duchesse de Guermantes. He then extends his remarks on the subject of the nobility of the era.

In the final glory of their sunset, which coincided with the fifty years of his own existence, they had fashioned in miniature the last social culture that our world has seen, a beautiful, fugitive and irreplaceable thing that history produced and history has destroyed. In their drawing-rooms flourished a gay elegance, a fantastic individuality, a chivalrous freedom, a living interplay of minds, morals and emotions. They gave their last young blood in the war, then perished because they had served art instead of power. It is our duty as twentieth-century barbarians to salute the nineteenth-century civilization which we have overwhelmed. So did Proust.

The paragraph supplies an answer to many of our doubts; Painter has revealed his hand. What impresses him most and gives the vibrant force to the writing in much of this narrative is his response to a certain kind of person—the aristocrat trailing history behind him with his pedigree, and the imposing fixtures of cultural life, like Mme. Arman or the actress Réjane or Proust himself. For these persons sustain a double existence, as people and as institutions. Of course the same can be said to some degree of all of us, but these deeply institutionalized figures have a more solid and impressive shell to inhabit. Yet unless they are geniuses to boot, they can lay claim to no more life than our family and friends and associates, the roturiers with whom we spend our days. Painter is a snob, as were Stendhal and Baudelaire, and his snobbishness provides him not only with a biased view of French history but also a remarkable literary insight—a sense of the “sacred monster.” This sympathy for the necessary fraud on which so much of culture appears to rest is an element I feel lacking in the other indispensable and comprehensive biography to which this one has been compared, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce.

Because of the densely woven texture which carries them, several of Painter’s most significant contributions can easily be overlooked. Out of his carefully but not slavishly observed chronology comes the best account of how Proust lumbered awkwardly into literature—the thirty-year story of dabblings, false starts, distractions, discovery, and endless redrafts. You get the feel of a man searching and finding. And this thorough knowledge of successive versions leads Painter to a number of insights about Proust’s composition—for instance how the image of the sleeper in the Preface to Contre Sainte-Beuve explodes into the opening pages of Swann’s Way. “Once again a chance simile in one part of his essay suggested the plan of the next, and was destined to expand still further in A la recherche.” Except for the word “chance,” that sentence carries a good portion of what can be said about the vegetable growth of Proust’s novel. I regret very much that Painter did not come back more lengthily in the second volume to a useful distinction he drew in the first between Time Wasted, Time Lost (I dolatry, in Ruskin’s sense), and Time Regained. And I am very respectful of the reassessment he makes in passing of a handful of partially neglected authors of the era, in particular Robert de Montesquiou, Natalie Barney, and Anna de Noailles. Remarkably few errors of fact and distorted judgments appear in the work. In the first volume I think Painter misses the irony carried in Marcel’s seemingly high esteem of the writer Bergotte, and in the second volume the treatment of Marcel’s “intermittences of heart” never gives them the scope they deserve, reaching far beyond the sentiment of grief only. But the real importance of the book lies in its brilliant defense of an expendable thesis.

This Issue

November 11, 1965