Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve
Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve; drawing by David Levine

Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, that is to say the selection of his unpublished writings brought out under that title in 1954, was a revelation in half-a-dozen different ways.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

But let us be stuffy and ungrateful and try to think Hofstadter’s subject through for him, purely as a subject. Perhaps in the age of Oscar Wilde the phrase “the love affair as a work of art” might have passed as an aesthete’s paradox, calculated to infuriate the philistines; but something in Hofstadter’s tone suggests that it, or he, has gone over to the philistines. At all events, and risking sounding the most dismal pedant, one has to say there is no way of giving the phrase any serious sense. Evidently, a lover cannot regard a love affair as a work of art, or he or she would not be a lover but a poseur; and from what standpoint an outside observer, aesthete or otherwise, could actually see it as such, as distinct from teasingly pretending to, is hard to imagine—certainly Hofstadter has got nowhere toward finding it. Anything the phrase, as handled here, may be understood as saying about “art” can only be to art’s detriment, and equally to the detriment of love.

The truth is, it would not be legitimate, even if it were possible, to study and classify love affairs: to believe so is a bad case of the anthologizing mania. Say that one was, as a biographer, deeply involved in some living or dead person’s life, one would naturally want to explore his or her love affairs, since these might (though of course, again, they might not) tell one precious truths about the whole person. Read in this spirit, their love letters could tell one important things: and more to the point, it would be an acceptable human spirit in which to read them. But to look over the shoulder of a lover, to whom one has no other particular commitment, while he or she is writing a love letter—well, one shouldn’t do it, one certainly wouldn’t do it in real life, and if one did, it might easily make one want to titter.

This is not, I think, an unfair way of describing what sometimes goes on in Hofstadter’s book. “Like a mother distracting a toddler from some perilous interest, she tries to nudge their epistolary chats toward Anatole’s literary projects”: so he remarks about one of Léontine de Caillavet’s letters, and the rib-tickling tone is jarring and uncalled for. George Sand is said to be trying out “some of the modern girl’s dreamier ideas” (but do we talk about “girls” nowadays?), and to be insisting constantly to Musset on “the sincerity, spirituality, and sheer artiness” (my disgruntled italics) of their affair.

Let us consider one of Hofstadter’s most extended narratives, about the affair between Léontine de Caillavet and Anatole France, for it is a good example both of his strengths and his weaknesses. It begins with a very competent and nicely done character sketch of Mme de Caillavet and an instructive account of the setting-up of her literary salon, only mildly marred by the assertion that an ex-lover of hers, Victor Brochard, “figures, radically altered, as the pedant Brichot in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.” (If he is radically altered, can he be said to “figure”?) There follows an introductory, and thoroughly down-putting, description of Anatole France, in which it is often not clear if it is the man or the writer that is being described. He had, we hear, “very nearly wilted in the climate of late-nineteenth-century positivism,” and was the sort of writer “who finds inspiration less in his own intuitions than in other people’s books.” There is much about his “unfortunate” mustache, which “advertised its wearer’s claim to manliness” but made him look like a provincial stationmaster. Until the year 1881, when he published Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard, he had, we are told, been “a pugnacious bantamweight, awkward, ill spoken, and generally frustrated” and nursed the “late-blooming writer’s secret spleen” against superior writers like Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Zola. But how, we ask ourselves, does a biographer come to be pronouncing all these crushing judgments on France before we have had a chance to form an opinion about him ourselves? Also, can a mustache be interpreted so infallibly?

Caillavet steals France from another salon hostess, teaches him to speak without stammering, and organizes her own salon around him; and before long she has fallen passionately in love with him and he with her. When she is at her country château, or taking the waters at a spa in Haute-Savoie, they exchange letters practically every day—though, because of the postal arrangements, usually answering not the latest letter but the one before. Partly as a result, the correspondence is all heights and depths and misunderstandings, paeans of idolatry and hatred, and groans under “the iron fingernails of jealousy.” Hofstadter, however, treats it in an odd, and I think unsatisfactory, way. He tends to present what must evidently be nearly literal paraphrase from these extravagant and histrionic letters as if it was part of an objective narrative. He describes how Mme Caillavet drinks chilled medicinal water as a cure for her kidney problems and “uterine catarrh,” remarking, “Yet even as Léontine purified her bowels she was poisoning her spirit.” Now, “poisoning” reads one way, if you imagine it as what her lover might have written, and quite another as a serious statement by her biographer. Similarly, or conversely, he writes, “Yet outside, in the slopes all about her, the vine harvest went forward under a cool, clear, azure vault: every morning the sun rapidly drank up the last night’s dew and picked out brilliant hues on the vine shoots”; and if you imagine this to be something that he, as opposed to Mme Caillavet, is saying, it is almost comically trite. What have the brilliant hues on the vine shoots to do with us?

At a certain point Hofstadter uses the phrase “the great love affairs of the last century,” and the word “great” raises one’s hackles. A book can be great and a person can be great, but I don’t think a love affair can be great, any more than one can have a “great” illness or a “great” suicide. As an epithet it is pure Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, worse than “great lovers”—and that is bad enough. What it implies is simply journalistic market value, computed by the degree to which the lovers involved were well known.

But the terms “art” and “work of art” matter more. There is a kind of law that if one forages in the margins or suburbs of art, in the no man’s land between fictional art and biographical fact, art itself is going to suffer. The law can be seen at work all too clearly here. What message do these stories of literary love affairs, well-told in a way as they are, above all leave us with? It is that Adolphe is not really a very good novel (“overrhetorical and didactic,” “all tell and no show”), that George Sand’s novels are unreadable (“des histoires à dormir debout,” stories to make you fall asleep standing”), that Paul Bourget’s novels are “coarse and superficial,” that Alfred de Musset’s Confession “shoots itself in the foot,” and that Anatole France was out of his depth in The Red Lily.

Moreover, it is not merely these writers’ works (which are what give them their claim on our interest in the first place) but their very love affairs that come in for contempt. There is a queer judder, or disequilibrium, running through Hofstadter’s book, as often in books of this genre, so that its values are all in chaos and keep shifting. We are asked to regard these as “great” love affairs and, for instance, to believe the Sand-Musset letters to be “among the most interesting love letters ever written.” Later, however, we hear that the “Sand-Musset liaison presaged a twentieth-century narrative format—the soap opera.” We are also told, jeeringly, how “Alfred heard the dirt being dished about George’s carefully concealed double cross during his bout with typhoid fever,” and how “the beans spilled by one party inexorably call forth some equivalent spillage from the other.”

Then, eventually, we come to a passage in which all these histories, “the story of the Don Juan who’s interested only in changing his prey’s no into a yes and then gets stuck with an Amazon for fifteen years” (Constant, or perhaps Adolphe?), “the story of the man who counterfeits both his life and his great love and is therefore elected the spokesman of his age” (Chateaubriand), “the story of the mature author who finds a younger man on whom to lavish all her sensibility, only to discover that he’s totally ungrateful” (George Sand), are dismissed contemptuously as platitudinous and “fashioned around a tiny, ludicrous plot.” Again, in another passage, the Romantic love letter, of which there are many examples in this book, is blamed for its “muzzily stale eroticism” and said to be “headed for the scrap heap of history.” To try to have things both ways like this, veering from reverential respect to toughtalking cynicism, is not a sign of poise but merely of self-indulgence or getting into a muddle.

It is according to the same pattern of self-contradiction that Hofstadter denounces the foolish business of discussing who is who in novels (what real-life person is disguised as which fictional one), declaring roundly that “any attempt to compare a real person with a fictional character is inherently hamfisted,” but then cheerfully proceeds to indulge in it right and left. Jeanne Pouquet is said to be the model for Proust’s Gilberte, who nevertheless “shades into” another friend of his, Marie de Bénardaky. Anatole France is confidently identified with Proust’s Bergotte, and Marcel’s first and disillusioning encounter with Bergotte is interpreted as a put-down to Sainte-Beuve—for imagining that authors will resemble their own prose style. How Sainte-Beuve overshadows this book!

For the muddle in this book grows even more pronounced and intricate when it comes to Sainte-Beuve. Hofstadter tell us of Sainte-Beuve that the “plump little man” was a “rabid gossip” and remarks, unblushingly, that he “belonged to that large branch of the scribbling tribe who feel that gossip is the essence of literary art.” He has high praise, very fairly, for certain of Sainte-Beuve’s talents: “His most delicate perceptions can suddenly enlarge our sense of a text’s personality, and never more than when he has to review one of the many important books of his day…in which life and art are subtly intermixed.” He rebukes Proust for attacking him, because after all they have so much in common. “In his discussion of Sainte-Beuve’s failure to appreciate Baudelaire’s genius, we realize that Proust has unwittingly become Sainte-Beuve…. Out of just the sort of dirt that Sainte-Beuve liked to dish, he ends up making his own mud pies.”

But then he comes to Sainte-Beuve’s affair with Victor Hugo’s wife, whereupon his tone changes to extreme virulence. It is only the modesty of the French language, he says, that hides the awful truth of such a phenomenon as Sainte-Beuve, whose conduct, when one comes face to face with it, “can seem glaringly, almost surreally, vulgar.” The fault, it would appear, lies partly with the poor man’s appearance. The true Sainte-Beuve of history, “the tiny, fat, bald, blubberlipped, hand-rubbing, sexually promiscuous Sainte-Beuve of the back alleys and brothels” was, Hofstadter tells us, “an apparition to wake the dead”; also he suffered from a congenital malformation of the penis. His appearance seems to be counted against him almost as a crime and to entail our seeing his cuckolding of Victor Hugo as unforgivably trite.

Its basic ingredients are a famous, supervirile artist, his neglected wife, and a cringing little critic; throw in an illicit affair with lots of secret meetings in churches, add some chatter about “allowing Madame to decide for herself,” season with an unctuously dishonest correspondence, and there you have it, ready to serve—the plat de résistance of all French literary scandal.

We are told of a critique by Sainte-Beuve of Benjamin Constant’s letters to Mme Récamier, in which he suggested that in releasing the letters she was tacitly saying, “Benjamin Constant loved me, therefore he was a man of sensibility,” and added, “But from the fact that a man has been in love with a woman, desired her ardently, and written her a thousand lively, witty, and seemingly passionate things, in order to appeal to her tenderness and possess her—from all this what can one reasonably deduce about the sensibility of the fellow? It is not what one writes before [a seduction] that matters.” It seems a very harmless and even rather agreeable observation, but Hofstadter speaks of it as a prime example of Sainte-Beuve’s “poison.”

But then, a few pages before, we have been reading the following horrible words:

No writer with a red-blooded hatred of reviewers should deny himself the solace of picturing Sainte-Beuve seated at his worktable during the spring of 1856, his mouth drooling slightly in its uncontrollable way, as he pores over Madame Bovary and tries to contain his amazement that somebody has written a novel that doesn’t seem autobiographical, a story in which the author can’t be found.

This, truly, deserves to be called “glaringly, almost surreally, vulgar.” Together with “cringing little critic,” it suggests that something very odd is going on and some emotion is out of control. The red-blooded versus the unmanly, the creator versus the critic: these are ugly hate-fantasies to be stirring up, even as a weird kind of fun.

I think there may be a clue in this book to the current fascination with Sainte-Beuve. It seems as if he were being chosen for the role of ritual victim: as a scapegoat for the sin of literary gossiping and indulgence in the “biographical fallacy.” For if it is a sin, then it might seem that Sainte-Beuve, who erected it into an intellectual principle, deserves to be sacrificed for it more than most. But the fact is, this is to misunderstand him; for he was unique, not representative, and a most strange and formidable figure. There was in him, unlike most literary gossips, no confusion of motives. According to his system, one took personal liberties with the great dead because that was what literary criticism required, and it was in the same spirit that he took liberties with the living great. He took literature immensely seriously and in a scientific spirit. If his notion of it was utterly false, as Proust rightly maintains, one can nonetheless read his work with respect as a sustained feat of the imagination.

This Issue

May 9, 1996