A Window on Marcel Proust
On the Occasion of the Hundredth Anniversary of the Writer’s Birthday (July 10, 1871)
That he is mandatory reading is something everybody knows. But many people postpone reading him indefinitely; reading him is an intellectual activity that requires no small amount of effort. But assuming some reader or other, having avoided Proust up until now, has at last resolved to step into the world of this work, a few pointers on how to read Proust might just be of some use to him at a pinch. Everyone must establish a rapport with this author in his own way. Accordingly, the suggestions tendered here are by no means intended to be universally binding; rather, they are aimed at those Proust debutantes who are of approximately the same literary temperament as the author of this essay; these readers will discover themselves to be his kindred spirits. It is equally certain that others will realize that my advice is not worth a fig to them and will seek their bliss on their own power.
Suggestions for the Beginning Proust Reader
I would like to begin this discussion by recommending to everybody who can do so to read Proust in the original. This is not to say that the German translation is an unsuccessful one. To the contrary: the version of the Recherche published by Suhrkamp is probably optimal. To be sure, here one cannot help wondering whether even the best translation can ever be good enough. Let us just take for example the title of the second volume, which is called A l’ombre des juenes filles en fleurs in the original. Once upon a time Walter Benjamin and Franz Hessel rendered this as Im Schatten der jungen Mädchen [In the Shadow of Young Girls]. They left out “en fleurs” because its inclusion would have resulted in a decidedly preposterous German title. But was the abbreviation Im Schatten der jungen Mädchen preferable? I am none too sure that it was; I can still very clearly recall the time when I was trying to approach the work via the then-available German version, and that title really put me off. After all, in German isn’t it better to say just plain “Mädchen” in place of the “jeune fille” that one has to say in French? And isn’t the Suhrkmap edition’s rendering of the same title as Im Schatten jungen Mädchenblüte even more problematic?
But these are details. My essential point is that the question of translatability—of prose, that is; for paraphrases of poetry are invariably the most neck-breaking of all literary undertakings—becomes quite especially sharply defined in Proust’s case. This is because, regardless of what anyone may say to the contrary, Marcel Proust is a social novelist; in his work we encounter scarcely a single page in which the words are bereft of their quite specific socially oriented meanings. Aller dans le monde, for example, is incredibly difficult to translate, because the social function of elegant sallying-forth in Paris at the turn of the century was a different one—emphatically so even in cultural and literary terms—than in Vienna, Berlin, or London during the same period. The narrator’s relationship with the aristocracy becomes truly comprehensible only once one has acquired a solid working knowledge of the French haute bourgeoisie and of an aristocracy that while rooted in the Ancien Régime was still a towering presence in the age of the Third Republic and was living its life as though the great revolution had never taken place. But if one wishes to exhaust all the possibilities of profiting as a reader of Proust, one must not limit one’s acquaintance with his nexus of relationships to the social and historical facts: these are themselves inextricably bound up with the language in which they are realized, so that for example in Time Regained, Morel, a quondam lowlife who had been kept by no less than three homosexual patrons, begins to figure as an homme considérable whom one would never be able to take the full measure of if one tried to represent him in German as an “angesehenen [respectable or distinguished] Mann.”
There would be little point in my trying to involve myself here in the boundless problem of linguistic transmissibility in the light of further examples. The old French saying that translations are like women—if they’re beautiful, they aren’t faithful, and if they’re faithful they aren’t beautiful—is especially valid in our case. Let it be stated that anyone who feels reasonably comfortable with French should read Proust—whose sentences are certainly long and complicated, but whose vocabulary is comparatively simple—in the original. Anyone who is incapable of doing this should reach for the German version anyway, because a life without Proust is a life of privation; even the risk of misunderstanding something here, of failing to understand anything at all there, on account of the translation, is of no consequence when weighed against complete ignorance of this work, the epic peak of our century.
A number of preliminaries must be recommended. The first is long practice at being patient and sacrificing time, a great deal of time, because the Recherche, which takes time itself as its central theme, will brook no haste. Anyone who thinks he will be able to breeze through Proust might as well not read him at all. We must approach his characters with dogged tenaciousness; we must get to know them intimately, in the way we get to know friends and enemies. His landscapes must be seen and foreseen, researched, precisely because all of them have something peculiarly spectral and optically elusive about them. Our hearing must become keener. How does the Baron de Charlus talk, and how does the Duchesse de Guermantes? What comically imagery-oozing, classical allusion-ridden turns of phrase are employed by the narrator’s comrade, the ambitious young Bloch? When he swears by the gods of ancient Greece, do we not hear resonances of his father’s Jewish singsong? Only if we don’t suppose that we could have him, Bloch, or Saint-Loup or Swann or Mme. Verdurin, speak to us today and perhaps some character from a modern novel speak to us tomorrow, will we perceive the overtones on which everything depends. In other words: Proust peremptorily demands that we surrender and sacrifice all our reading-time to him. The ideal reader of Proust is a man who has retired for weeks into a none too well-lighted room, who never goes outside, who receives no visitors, talks to nobody on the telephone. This kind of thing is difficult to pull off, I know: that’s why I called the reader who can do it an ideal one. But the prohibition against interleaving one’s reading of Proust with other books is absolute: there is no primrose path leading from this cosmos into any other, and anyone who abandons Proust to concentrate on reading other things, be it only for a few days, will find his way back to him none too easily.
Is it advisable to read about Proust before one has approached him directly oneself? Not necessarily, for hardly any other author has ever exposed himself—with all the well-contrived encodings that are nevertheless constantly in evidence on the surface—so unabashedly as this one. The colossal secondary literature—and above all George D. Painter’s monumental biography of Proust-cum-interpretation of his work—is principally the preserve of seasoned “Proustians” and takes far too much for granted to be of much use before one has read the work. But here and there there is a book that may afford enough of a window on Proust to make him slightly more accessible—in French André Maurois’s A la recherche de Marcel Proust and in the German bookstores Claude Mauriac’s Rowohlt paperback monograph. Materially speaking these sorts of books are of no assistance. What one needs in order to acclimatize oneself to Marcel Proust’s world is not a scholarly background in literary history but rather mental composure, calmness, determination, and courage in the face of those difficult passages that may initially seem “tedious.” One needs more than a bit of what Sartre recently called “empathy” in connection with Flaubert—and as I said before, one also needs time, time, time.
The Man behind the Legend
It is remarkable that the literary swotters in France, and increasingly in Germany as well, invariably know a fair amount about the personal life of this novelist before they have read so much as a single line of his work. Proust the homosexual, the egocentric, the snob, the hypochondriac; Proust, the sufferer of asthma and the Oedipus complex, the spendthrift, the elegant man of the world who eventually turned into a hermit—we have all read about this person in countless arts-section articles. This pseudo-lore about Proust the man—let’s not talk about Proust the author at all for now—is so extensive that there is a distinct danger that the multitudinous fragments of the Proust legend will overgrow the reality of Proust. Let us make some very brief observations on what seem to us the elements of this writer’s personal life that need to be known, that are worth knowing, in relation to his exemplarily autobiographical work. My selective method is not unimpeachable; I shall carry on here in blithe disregard of objections from the partisans of Romanticism, equipped with a crystal-clear conscience and a body of knowledge that, if certainly not crystal-clear, is at any rate not insubstantial.
So according to my lights, such as they are, it was of decisive significance for Marcel Proust’s experience of life and life-trajectory that he was born and raised as a christened Jew, a Christian-Jewish mongrel. His father, Adrien Proust, a doctor, university professor, and distinguished personality in French scientific and public life, hailed from a provincial bourgeois family. He was a solid citizen, a man content to live peacefully with himself in his native country, among his own people, and as part of the haute-bourgeois class he had grown into. From him his son Marcel inherited—what? Alas, neither his endomorphic physique nor his earnest lifestyle! But perhaps he did owe to his father his down-homeness and down-to-earthness, both of which can be summarized in the concept of Combray (Illiers in the Département of Eure-et-Loire): a strong attachment to one’s native landscape, a respect for the rank and class-governed society of the Third Republic—an attitude that Proust never shed even after becoming a social critic; a secure intuitive understanding and appreciation of the proprieties, of good manners, of discretion; but also a feeling of sympathy with the little people and a deferential regard for the verifiably high economic productivity of the bourgeoisie, a regard that was ultimately one of the things that enabled the former young rascal and worshiper of aristocrats to bid defiance to some very severe health problems and bring to completion a work that may conventionally be called “titanic” but would perhaps more justly be termed simply difficult and great.
And did he also inherit this from his mommy? Why, by no means: Madame Adrien Proust, far from being of a cheerful disposition, was a serious, even tragic woman. She, who bestowed a substantial dowry on her husband so that her son could lead what we would describe today as a playboy’s existence for several years, was thrifty, apprehensive about the future of her favorite son Marcel to the very end, and yet so strict in mollycoddling her child that he refused to grow up properly as long as she was still alive. Mme. Proust was a highly educated and somewhat phlegmatic Jewess brimming over with pride and sorrow, and she bequeathed to her son a few of the stereotype-contradicting and yet characteristic traits of the Jewish race: intellectuality in peculiar association with social ambitiousness, excellences that can in fact cohabit quite comfortably with selfishness, but above all, her nervousness (admittedly in her case it was kept under control through strict discipline), which nobody was willing to nip in the bud. As a young girl she was beautiful; as a woman rather too bulky, and as the years passed her tribal affiliation became ever-more strongly evident in her face and figure.
Marcel Proust’s Jewish mother was quite thoroughly assimilated to French culture. But she never ceased to be conscious of her Jewishness; without actually wanting to she instilled this consciousness in her son, so that the boy who regularly attended Catholic church services in Illiers, the youth who curried favor with the Faubourg St. Honoré, the aristocratic quarter of Paris, the writer who described the Gothic cathedrals of northern France with tender affection, nevertheless strikes us as being a Jewish individual in the most emphatic sense. By this I do not only mean that during the Dreyfus Affair Marcel Proust was a committed “Dreyfusard” in contrast to his aristocratic friends, not only that in including in the Recherche the character of Bloch he has furnished us with one of the most hilarious and realistic Jewish personages in world literature, not even that in a letter to his mother he quite surprisingly writes, “il y a beaucoup de ‘unsere Leute’ [‘our people’] ici.’” I mean something rather difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to define; perhaps the off-putting mixture of arrogance and diffidence, of elegant security in one’s living circumstances and deep-seated anxiety about one’s life as a whole, perhaps merely the downright grotesquely overweening desire to assimilate to of all classes the ruling class of yesteryear, to the nobility—but in the end probably something quite different: namely, nothing more and nothing less than what Thomas Mann in his Joseph tetralogy calls “divine worry” [“Gottessorge”], and which in this child of the bourgeois nineteenth century is manifested as a simultaneously metaphysical and physical restlessness.
Moreover, in studying Proust’s biography and pursuing its mother-son-relationship, I can never shake the feeling that the connection between the genteel and culturally refined Mme. Jeanne Proust and her handsome melancholy son was fundamentally that of a Jewish “mamme” and her clever and gifted, slightly sickly and slightly lazy “jungl.” Admittedly the problematic nature of this connection extends far beyond that between a spoiled brat and his doting mother. Here—and everyone who thinks even vaguely in terms of psychoanalytic categories will agree with me—we are dealing with a classic example of an ungratified Oedipus complex. The writer’s odyssey, from the appallingly egocentric and ruthless letters of little Marcel to the homoerotic torments of the great Proust, is an Oedipal drama in the grandest and most tragic vein. His mother—who in the Recherche is split between the characters of the mother and grandmother— was up until her death (she died when Proust was 35 and had not yet published anything apart from a couple of inconsequential trifles and could have been regarded by any standard as a raté, a failure)—his mother was literally the most important human reference point of his existence. To say in the hackneyed idiom that he “loved her to the point of idolatry” would be downright grotesque. For was this still love, this deeply annoying preoccupation with the deficiency of his own physiology in his correspondence with her, these often irritatingly importunate demands for money from a person who had absolutely no clue about how to handle it, the cold, restrained reproaches occasioned by the inadequate provision of conveniences for his day-to-day comfort, his perpetual well-nigh peremptory commands to express-deliver a letter to such-and-such a place, to establish social ties with such-and-such people, to host a dinner for some of his friends, to fetch him some medicine? Madame Proust was of course the mother without whose good-night kiss the little boy at the beginning of the Recherche could not get to sleep, but she was also the grandmother whose death agonies the narrator hardly noticed owing to his preoccupation with own his amorous woes and social obligations.
This mother also ultimately also figures, albeit metamorphosed, at the center of one of the most horrifying and excruciating scenes in the entire work: Mlle. Vinteuil, the daughter of Vinteuil the composer, is pleasuring and being pleasured by her lesbian lover. On her bedside table stands a picture of her father, whom she loves tenderly and selflessly. She orders the girlfriend in whose arms she is now lying to heap profanities on this portrait of her father. The girlfriend does just that. The narrator, if we are to believe him, is appalled. But the reader is more deeply appalled, because he by no means believes in the reality of the narrator’s indignation at this scandalous incident. With the benefit of hindsight afforded by our knowledge of the nature of Proust’s attachment to his mother, this episode becomes much more than Oedipal, and also much more than a humdrum case of ambivalence. Here something profoundly uncanny is exposed: an abyss far more perilous in prospect than that of Monsieur de Charlus’s sadomasochistic orgies in the volume entitled Sodom and Gomorrah. Even today, when every single last detail of the writer’s life and work has been sleuthed out by the secondary literature, the topic of “Proust and his mother” is unexhausted and inexhaustible.
What else of a biographical nature might serve us as a starting point leading to a window on Proust? Whenever I browse the secondary literature amassed around me, I am overwhelmed by apprehension and ultimately by despondency. After all, what hasn’t already been written about, either more or less intelligently, more or less searchingly? Marcel Proust and asthma, Marcel Proust and music, Proust and time, Proust’s moral philosophy, Bergson and Proust, Proust and painting, Proust’s roman à clef, Proust’s idealism, Proust’s landscape. I give up on it; I am now inclined, rather, and however unpromising such an undertaking may appear at first blush, to continue pursuing my own arduous way to the end. If I am not mistaken, in addition to the above-adumbrated circumstances—his half-Jewish lineage, his pathological attachment to his mother, his erotic inversion—the absolutely decisive factor in Proust’s existence as a human being and as a writer was his troubled relationship with money and property, a relationship that in his case is in turn traceable to a foundational problem of the bourgeois-capitalist world order of his time.
I have already said that when Proust’s mother finally closed her eyes after having endured great distress with veritably Roman stoicism, he must have struck her as a failure, as a proper good-for-nothing. It was only after his mother’s death, when he was a grown man of 35, that this creator of what I am convinced is the greatest novel of our century started working in earnest on a serious project, one that he admittedly could not have so much as dreamed would ever pay his bills. He spent his adolescence—for in point of fact he was an “adolescent” until the age of 35—as a social parasite bumming around the fringes of the aristocracy. He squandered money that he never earned himself—for his brief stint of employment at the Bibliothèque Mazarine remunerated him as meagerly as the brief and genuinely insignificant texts whose publication he secured only thanks to the most intricate social intrigues imaginable; ultimately, indeed, as meagerly as his composition of the posthumously published unfinished novel Jean Santeuil; as I was saying: he squandered money that he was never forced to earn and that he never worked for, not even during the composition if his magnum opus, in a fantastically extravagant fashion. In his work money is discussed as rarely as any sort of professional activity, for his protagonists are persons of independent means, and it is their elegant prerogative to subsist as idlers, aesthetes, eroticists of the world, which is theirs in two senses, because they both live in it and possess it. And yet his own life, the life of a wealthy man, was constantly beset by financial problems. As a boy, a youth, and a young gentleman, he was obliged to inveigle both small and fairly large sums from his parents’ pockets. As a grown man he incessantly felt threatened by ruin, complained about it unrestrainedly, and never had an inkling about the extent of his considerable financial means.
Because it is also bourgeois, his uneasy aristocratic and bohemian relationship with money and property is only partially interpretable as an expression of his general neurotic constitution; or to put it another way, his illness is the social illness of a bourgeoisie that was already on the verge of assuming the social position of the nobility but had not yet acquired the aristocracy’s clueless and ruthless tendency to regard doing nothing as the most obvious thing to do. They were wealthy, but not by the grace of God; they felt entitled to enjoy their wealth only when they were taking care of the business of exploiting the working classes, who in turn were working in the sweat of the money-grubbing bourgeois countenance. Marcel Proust, the well-to-do doctor’s son, had no prospect of doing anything but what he probably would have regarded with a guilty idler’s conscience as menial labor, just like other young men of the haute bourgeoisie. As for his efforts to fraternize with the nobility—with all those Bibescos, Montesquieus, de Greffulhes, Fénelons—I am inclined to believe that they were the efforts of a typical forward and upward-flying bourgeois, but also to believe that as such a bourgeois—meaning one half burdened with the guilty idler’s conscience and half in thrall to the ideology of the work ethic-orientated tributary of the bourgeoisie—he suffered from his languid refinement more than he cultivated it.
Amid incessant tearful asseverations of his (genuine) physical misery, the young snob took up rebellious arms against his bourgeois parental home and sidled in spirit (and ultimately quite successfully, and effectively in body) from the unpretentious family house in Illiers-Combray to the Chateau Réveillon-Tansonville. Once his parents were dead, his boyish defiance ceased to meet with any resistance, and his bourgeois work ethic got started composing the Recherche. Thus did individual psychological conditions and objective social conditions interpenetrate one another: Proust’s elitist consciousness, one of whose numerous aspects was egoism, could discover no substratum and was obliged to abandon all hope in itself, because as a ruling class the bourgeoisie never constituted themselves along ideological lines; rather, in representing their particular essence as a universal one, they regarded themselves as “the world” and the bourgeois individual as “everyman.” Proust’s reflexively bourgeois understanding of the world, in stumbling against both its twofold experience and the vulgarity of bourgeois life as well as its oppressive function, also stumbled against the society to which it was obligated, so that his refusal, his great refusal, or, if you like, his neurosis together with the sexual peculiarity associated with it, was the only exit that remained open to him.
Whence, after having tided ourselves over with a couple of adumbratory hints about Marcel Proust the man, we have finally arrived at the decisive question: wherein lies the completely singular, as-yet-unmatched and possibly even unmatchable essence of his novelistic opus In Search of Lost Time? Even within this interpretative purview I shall hardly manage to come up with more than a clue here and there, for I can hardly engage in the sort of pseudoscientific enterprise that smugly spouts quotations from the innumerable available investigations; for in this setting I have as low a regard for stylistic analyses, either of the classical or of the modern structuralist stripe, as for the orthodox decryptive methodologies that Proust’s principal biographer George D. Painter takes such a keen interest in.
The explanations tendered in the old days by readers weaned on solidly plotted novels, including those professional lecturers inclined to give the cold shoulder to Proust’s work from the outset, were as good as useless—exercises in futility. A little boy can’t get to sleep because his mother won’t come to his bed to give him his goodnight kiss. A little boy falls in love with a little girl and waits in vain for a letter from her. A youth strolls the streets of Paris with the aim of crossing paths with a duchess whose attention he wishes to attract, perhaps because he desires her as a woman, and undoubtedly just because she is a duchess. A man sequesters his sweetheart to keep tabs on her, and after her death he suffers every imaginable torment of jealousy because he learns that she was cheating on him with a lesbian girlfriend. Another man—Swann—spends night after night standing in front of the darkened window of his mistress’s house, behind whose façade she is being unfaithful to him. He doesn’t barge in; things never come to a boil; he will never know the truth because he doesn’t want to know it. An old woman in the provinces performs for her family the meticulously scripted and rehearsed comedy of her illness, which nevertheless happens to be a real one, and which eventually kills her off. Someone fails to receive an invitation to someplace and feels miserable as a result. Someplace someone refuses to send an invitation to somebody in order to make him feel miserable. A masochistic, homosexual nobleman has himself whipped by some poor devil of a male hustler. A duke with one foot in the grave persecutes his aging sweetheart, whose fading feminine charms have ceased to interest any rivals, with the perfervid jealousy of a youth. A diplomat delivers interminable subtle and inane speeches. In an art gallery a famous writer dies of uremia.
“What good can all this stuff and these games do us?” we ask, echoing Hofmannsthal. Well, what is the point of it? It is as much and as little as life itself, which only occasionally stitches the episodes of its plot seamlessly together, which hardly ever supplies us with “personalities” (in Mynheer Peeperkorn’s sense of “personalities”), which is vanishing before our eyes, disintegrating in an inarticulate babble, in a welter of cinematic dissolve-cuts, life itself in its dazzling glory and in its wretchedness, its terrifying disorder, against which the counterpoising of a “higher order” is nothing other than a game, with its coming, going, passing away; so that at the end, in the concluding volume, Time Regained, contrary to the author’s own intention and hope, the past as an actuality, which memory believes it is managing to get hold of, might as well never have been at all.
The greatness of the Recherche does not consist in a typically literary compression of reality, but rather in a dissolution thereof. The dreamlike character of existence—which is a dream in virtue of its fugacity and not of being either some condensed Kafkaesque nightmare, or the structured visionary dream of a Joyce—is Marcel Proust’s discovery. But let there be no misunderstandings between us: if I have spoken of a dream here, this does not mean that in this colossal work the novelist has ever lost sight, even for an instant, of that daylight reality that is our intersubjectively mediate certainty of everything. No deliberate transformations of reality within language occur. The dream is not a linguistic dream in any sense. Nor is the dream composed of dreamy characters, for its personages crawl and fly like insects; they are little people and the littlest of little people; even if they bear the noblest of noble titles, they are mean, petty figures who outstrip their physical wretchedness as negligibly as they do their irritating peccadilloes and chicly calculating intentions. But the dream is not Proust’s dream; rather, it is the reflection of our self-dreaming reality in all its misery.
I will try not to stray into the wilds of imprecision; as I am writing this I sense that I am already in danger of such straying; I am pulling back, throwing in the towel on the whole dream hypothesis; I shall focus on particularity and avoid propping myself up on general concepts; I will attempt to describe what was termed “dreamlike” in this attempt at an approach. Instead of speaking about the dream, I would have done better to speak about the unreality of reality, if this weren’t itself just another throwaway expression, or about an impossibility exemplified by Proust, the impossibility of saying anything binding about reality in a novel. Let us take a look at Proust’s characters so that we can get to know them from the inside.
In Proust’s work people are not described. Here and there we get a hint at a gaze, a turn of phrase, a dress, a person’s way of carrying himself, his way of walking, but an extensive delineation of characters such as we are familiar with from classic novels is never supplied. As a first-rate epicist, Proust recognized that it was impermissible to treat his point of view (and a specific corner of space and a certain moment in time within that point of view) as the quintessential point of view. What could possibly have been the point of sketching a portrait of the elegant Swann, given that in the course of the narrative it becomes quite clear that not only is this Swann person regarded in various mutually distinct ways by various fellow-characters, but above and beyond this, with the passage of time these same people come to perceive their friend Swann from perspectives that likewise diverge from one another? One of them says, “Well, I admit he isn’t exactly pretty, but he’s got that shock of hair, and that monocle…” And another says, “I admit he isn’t positively hideous, but he’s ridiculous—just take a look at that shock of hair, and that monocle…” After this, it is unnecessary, nay, impermissible, for the narrator to depict and aesthetically appraise the shock of hair and the monocle, for the narrator is nothing but himself and not “the eyes of the world,” which don’t exist, for the world is composed of all too many, and all too diverse, pairs of observing eyes.
What holds true with respect to optical perception and judgment is binding to a much greater degree with respect to the social categorization of the characters. For simplicity’s sake we will continue to use Swann as an example. He is a fashionably cultivated member of the Jockey Club who breakfasts with the Prince of Wales and whose company is sought after by duchesses and royal highnesses, but he is also a complete oddball who at certain regularly appointed times of day betakes himself to a patisserie because a certain girl he fancies works there as a waitress. Amid the fluctuation of perspectives, the uncanny and completely unfathomable fact of time plays its destructive role as an agent of becoming and expiring. Swann—for we must firmly stand by him—visited the Duchesse de Guermantes almost daily during his glory days as a social presence. Only a few years after his death Swann’s daughter Gilberte, who was not accepted during his lifetime, because her mother was not socially respectable, is introduced to the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes under her new surname of de Forcheville. The young girl mentions Swann, her father, and reminds the ducal couple that they knew him. Knew him? Of course. But time has passed. And the duke and duchess now detachedly call their erstwhile intimate friend an “excellent man,” as if they were recommending him “for employment as a gardener.”
I said that the greatness of the Recherche consists not in its compression but in its utter dissolution of reality. One can also ring changes on this formulation. This author’s achievement consists in the visualization of unrecognizability. Nobody before him and hardly anybody after him expended as much effort not to suggest but to discern reality by literary means. And in no other writer’s work were the ultimate failures of the intended undertaking transformed into a comparable artistic triumph. Proust believed that in memory he could successfully constitute and stabilize a reality that as a presence had invariably eluded him. But in the concluding volume, Time Regained, memory itself—and in particular immediately, spontaneously experienced memory, le souvenir—turns out to be an intellectual error and aberration. Had the people the narrator knew ever been reality? The reader sleuthing his general impression of the work after finishing the last page of its last volume has his doubts. Who was Odette? The lady in pink, a small-time cocotte with a grand future? Swann’s spouse, a woman conquering her place in the bourgeois world? The Countess de Forcheville, the by-now totally senile and pathologically jealous Duc de Guermantes’s mistress, whose marriage has made her a naturalized member of the upper aristocracy? Each of them. All of them together. None of them. There was no such person as Odette, as Bloch, as Mme. Verdurin. Time, le Temps, which Proust occasionally writes in capital letters in order to give the word weight and magnificence, has toyed with them, it has transformed them, concealed them, exposed them and veiled them afresh; so that neither memory nor habit—l’Habitude, which likewise happens to be capitalized every now and then—is any match for it, for this Time.
What has been termed the Proustian space-time continuum—reality in the recollection of what has been—is in truth a temporo-spatial discontinuum, a hopeless chaos that cannot be organized into a cosmos without doing violence to it through defamiliarization. Proust’s greatness becomes discernable in his vanquishment by the work he undertook to produce. He himself, an I that was nothing more than the Machian “bundle of sensations,” had progressed too far into the cognizance of the uncognizable to be able to find his way back to the naivety of the “here and now,” of the “This is how it was”; he had penetrated too deeply into reality to retain the ability to sculpt reality.
Let us just for a moment take a look out from Proust’s presence into the epoch that was his distant future and is our present; then we shall realize that he was the one who called into question the omnipotence and omniscience of the narrator, that he was the first merely to form tentative conjectures about his characters, that with him began the uncertainty of narration that is the technical stock-in-trade of today’s novelists. To be sure, though, in Proust’s case what would later be the effect of construction and experimentation was pure and unmodified experience. He told his story and in telling it made the discovery of just how difficult this is. Nevertheless, he never made the difficulty of telling the truth into a methodological aesthetic: this distinguishes him from his descendants, meaning all those writers who systematically first only form conjectures about what is to be recounted, and then call into question the raw material of the narrative, language itself, as a medium for im-parting information, and finally—because for them language is just language and nothing else—they deploy it as an autonomous power, and in losing themselves in the structures of describing, renounce all interest in what is described.
Thus Proust’s helplessness in the face of reality was not a method but rather a lived mode of existence. This helplessness had certain purely individual psychological roots, for this storyteller who was so zealously preoccupied with reality confronted the world skinlessly, so to speak; a superlatively vulnerable mental apparatus of unprecedented sensitivity, an apparatus incapable of taking shelter in a compact, perfectly self-assured ego, was defenselessly addicted to all the stimuli with which the world attacked it. The clinical allergic asthmatic that he actually was, if the professional medical testimonials are to be credited, was at the same time psychically allergic to reality: the mere existence of the external world caused him intellectual breathlessness just as the scent of a flower, the dust in his room, caused him physical asthma attacks. He was not merely “at the mercy of the elements in the mountains of the heart,” as Rilke had put it once upon a time, but at the mercy of a highly sensitive nervous system. This was—and here again individual psychological dispositions are intertwined with the objective social one—the nervous constitution of the bourgeois who transcends his condition, who forfeits the traditional, achievement and financial accumulation-based norms of bourgeois existence. This loss of norms was simultaneously a loss of ego—whence the narrator’s hypersensitivity, which is perfectly captured in the French metaphor avoir les nerfs á fleur de peau, to have one’s nerves on the flower, on the surface, of one’s skin.
Comparisons with characters in German literature spring to mind, and I am particularly keenly reminded of Hanno Buddenbrook and Tonio Kröger. But the man who says I in the Recherche does not hail from the Free Hanseatic City of Lübeck, from the well-tempered little capital of German commercial assiduity, but rather from the metropolis of Paris, where endeavors and their attendant perils attain the utmost degree of intensity; furthermore, although Hanno Buddenbrook and Tonio Kröger were decidedly homeless in the bourgeois world, they undertook the comparatively modest endeavor of attempting to trade in a traditional bourgeois life for the life of an artist, whereas Proust’s narrator hybridically propelled himself up into the world of the nobility, where things can always take a painfully lethal turn, from the brusquely insulting tirades in which a M. de Charlus rails against his social inferiors, to the duels that one has no choice but to go through with in certain emergencies. Hanno’s and Tonio’s frailty was therefore (and irrespective of individual conditions) gently elegiac in character, whereas the frailty of Proust’s narrator strikes us being capricious, petulant, incurable by any remedy, not even excepting a flight into discipline and “comportment.” Something that must also ultimately be remembered here is an objective social moment, one that separates the diverse qualities of the abovementioned contemporaneous French and German decadents from each other. Hanno and Tonio were Nordo-Latin half-breeds who found themselves in a bourgeois social position that, although not always comfortable, was on the whole fairly bearable. On the other hand, Proust, whose features we recognize in his narrator, was half-Jewish during the epoch of the Dreyfus Affair, and beyond this, unlike Tonio or the hero of Death in Venice, he was not merely beset by sublimated homosexual tendencies but a practicing homosexual in the most unambiguous sense of the term.
To be sure, Proust’s vulnerability and defenselessness have contributed to the notion that he—to carry the comparison even further but also finish it off—in contrast to the creator of Hanno and Tonio, was a social novelist—albeit perhaps a more significant one than those who—like Martin du Gard, for instance—are officially subsumed under this heading by literary historians. Not that his work could have served as vehicle of social pathos, social protest: to the contrary, the author very much comes across as a man who lives on perfectly good terms with the social structure; when his discourses skirt the edges of class problems as the need arises, they are edifying rather than muckraking, just as he holds forth in camouflage on the homosexual question in a worthily moralizing vein. His work is social—not in its intentions but rather in its existence. Proust is no social critic; he speaks from the platform of a fundamentally critical mindset. He is nothing but the faithful recorder of what is playing out in society, but this fidelity to facts ends up being more accusatory than plangent protests ever could be.
One thinks in this connection of Françoise the housekeeper’s identification with her authority, which is a good example of the alienation of the servant class, and from this example it is perhaps an astonishingly short albeit airy transition to the crimes that Genet’s “Bonnes” commit against their employers. Or one recalls the rent boys in Jupien’s house—was the depersonalization of the proletariat ever more horrifyingly exhibited anywhere else? Proust limns the psychological vulgarity of the bourgeoisie—represented by Dr. Cottard and his wife inter alia—with the same, almost natural-scientific objectivity that he brings to bear on the naïve arrogance of the aristocracy or the loneliness of a waiter taking refuge in polite coldness. Even though it is nowhere explicitly described as such, in the narrator’s possessive jealousy one can readily discern an essential feature of the possessive bourgeois mentality. Moreover—if we may turn our attention away from the work and towards the biography for a moment—was Proust’s habit of giving downright laughably enormous tips to hotel porters and footboys, a habit that was mostly seen as a mere personal peculiarity, not an expression of the guilty feelings of a bourgeois who admittedly unconsciously called into question the modi vivendi of his class but adopted them as nothing more than self-evident choices?
In his life as in his work Proust was the most impressive example of how social and individual-phenomenological problems, not directly to mention personal-metaphysical ones, interpenetrate one another. To be sure, he confined his conscious shaping to the personal level, which he may have regarded as an “eternal constant” and that may actually possess some supratemporal worth. The relationship of the human individual to time, which transforms him inwardly and leads him to death, a relationship that is polyphonically summarized in the last volume of the Recherche, is possibly quite literally trans-social: the description of, for example, the aged faces of former friends whom the narrator recognizes and yet no longer recognizes at the Princesse de Guermantes’s reception, strikes me as a depiction of lived experience that transcends all social contingencies, that apprehends the fundamental condition of human existence. I see something comparable in his futile efforts to visualize the church tower of Martinville (Caen) behind his closed eyelids, to describe and shed light on the feeling of happiness that an optical experience prepared for him, an essential problem in the adaptation of reality that leads us straight to the boundless complexity of a metaphysics of the senses. His peculiar lack of confidence in the world, a lack that inheres in these kinds of experiences, can legitimately be interpreted both in terms of this poetic soul’s neurotic constitution and in terms of the social condition of a cultural haute bourgeoisie stretched to the psychological breaking point by its internal contradictions. But when considering such scenes (scenes such as the experience of recollection triggered by the taste of the madeleine biscuit, the access of emotion over the beauty of the church tower, the estrangement and defamiliarization of people through the mere passage of time) it is possible—and this may ultimately be the true essence of Proust’s greatness—to set aside the social as well as individual psychological facts and find oneself faced with a number of questions whose answers are to be found only in the field of speculative metaphysics because they are metaphysical questions posed to us.
Or am I deluding myself? Am I, too, succumbing to the temptation to take the bourgeois particular for a universal and to speak of those “eternal human problems” that do not exist as far as any thinker of a strictly social-philosophical orientation is concerned? I do not believe I am, but I have long since lost the courage—ultimately no thanks to Proust’s teachings—to pass off what I believe or do not believe as a science. And of course in this age of ours, whose accelerativeness has exorcised all our illusions about the everlasting significance of artistic and intellectual values, there is ultimately no need for us to shiver in recognition of the “Eternally Human Truths” in Proust’s magnum opus. The only thing we can be sure of is this: as long as we are stuck here in and with this epoch, which is every bit as much a late-bourgeois epoch as in Proust’s day, we cannot get by without him. He is of concern to us, and we have a right to acknowledge that we are of concern to him, even if we aren’t dukes, princesses, or members of the upper bourgeoisie.
Proust worked on his masterpiece for about seventeen years, from 1905 until just before his death in 1922. An invalid, he withdrew from the world—which he had conquered on a social level by dint of the utmost exertion of his powers—into a hermetically sealed room in which he superficially went to seed in the midst of manuscript pages; surrounded by medicinal drugs (sleeping aids that he gourmandized; stimulant-pills that jerked him out of his semi-slumber); engulfed in the fumes of cups of boiling-hot coffee gulped down almost uninterruptedly in huge quantities; repined at no longer by his mother, but merely by his housekeeper Céleste; already estranged from his friends: he no longer sought them out as living presences but merely as memory-traces that seemed to him to possess a higher degree of reality.
Yes, he spent many years searching for lost time, stalking expired years. He wrote Time Regained. But can one regain something that one has never possessed? Time Not Graspable and Therefore Not Regained—this may very well have been the most appropriate title for the monumental epic he left behind. He finished a work that defined a century, and it left him dying but empty-handed. Our hands are likewise empty once we have turned over the last pages of the Recherche, for by then we have learned nothing less than that the world always eludes us, both as a presence and as a memory. But in this emptiness we possess something precious. Anybody who is unacquainted with it knows nothing of a world that is Will and Representation, a world that pieces together our ego, which we can no more lay claim to than Proust’s narrator can lay claim to the Martinville church tower or Vinteuil’s little melody.
 Postwar France even saw the publication of a book (Briand: Le secret de Marcel Proust) propounding the thesis that the description of this relationship as “bordering on incestuous” was inadequate because the incest had actually been consummated. The assertion was poorly supported and untenable, and so the study quickly went out of print. I mention it here only to give you an idea of the sort of quagmire of stale and fresh errors, confusions, and torments we get bogged down in whenever we set out to sort out the nature of Proust’s relationship with his mother.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2017 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Jean Améry, Zugang zu Marcel Proust. Zum 100. Geburtstag des Dichters (10. Juli 1871) (Werke, ed. Heidelberger-Leonhardt , 1st edn, 9 vols (Stuttgart: Klett Cotta, 2002-2008), v, p. 86-115). Améry’s essay was originally published in No. 279 of the magazine Merkur in July 1971.