Once Proust has presented to us his principal characters disfigured by the stigmata the war has imprinted on them, night descends. This is a night in which the narrator unexpectedly wanders into a Parisian brothel. He recognizes its owner as Jupien, his old caretaker, who has become the curator of the baron’s vices. The events of this night constitute the centerpiece of the work’s terminal phase; they take place in the innermost circle of hell and are a grisly spectacle of human misery and human irredeemability in which the scum of the earth—of the common people—and the scum of the ether—of high society—mingle with one another.
The universal lunacy is represented by this particular instance of it. The grand pandemonium is represented by this minor one—and the writer Proust, the aesthete of yesteryear, has arrived at a place where inurement to horror renders horrific visions superfluous. In the course of this night Jupien even says to him:
SPEAKER: “It is not children but poets whose education consists of a course of spankings.”11
AUTHOR: And Proust, still reeling from the impression made on him by the events he has witnessed in the house, rejoins:
SPEAKER: “In the meantime…this house is quite a different thing, more than a madhouse, since the madness of the patients here is acted out, reconstituted, visible; it’s a genuine pandemonium. I had thought, like the caliph in A Thousand and One Nights, that I would arrive just in time to come to the aid of a man who was being beaten, and it was a different tale from A Thousand and One Nights that I saw dramatized in front of me, the one in which a woman who has been transformed into a dog willingly has herself beaten in order to reassume her original shape.”12
AUTHOR: But nobody is reassuming his original shape anymore. This is the hour in which everyone is being turned into a “Pompeian” on whom the volcanic fire could rain down at any moment.
SPEAKER: “The streets had become completely black. Only occasionally a fairly low-flying enemy plane would illuminate the spot on which it was planning to drop a bomb. I was no longer able to find my way; I thought about that day when, en route to Raspelière, I had encountered a plane like a God who had made my horse bridle. I reflected that this encounter would be different and that this time the God of Evil would kill me. I quickened my pace to take flight like a seafarer pursued by a tidal bore; I was running in a circle around the darkened squares from which I could no longer escape…I thought about Jupien’s house, perhaps reduced to ashes at that moment, for a bomb had fallen quite close to me right after I had left it, a house on whose walls Monsieur de Charlus could have prophetically written ‘Sodoma’ as that anonymous inhabitant of Pompeii had done no less presciently or at the beginning of the volcanic eruption and of a catastrophe that had already begun.”13
AUTHOR: After this nocturnal exodus, the end of the war is absorbed into a handful of brief reflections, in utterances, death notices, and deliberations that seem to the younger among us to have been written not after the First World War but after the Second, couched as they are in a mode of thought that allows us to believe that the transparency of facts is superior to prophecy.
The meticulous stocktaking of this positivist who refuses to indulge himself in so much as a glance at anything above or beyond what is immediately given, whose world is unillumined by any light from above and whose ecstasies are merely a means of searching for the truth, has brought to light more of the mystery of the human and inanimate realms than undertakings with higher aspirations. This stocktaking emerged in the course of his mind’s struggle against time, against incapacitation, the struggle to find a fixed point of reference in his evanescent life, to find an idea that might have served as a rule by which that life could have been lived.
SPEAKER: “[…] How many people turn away from writing, how many other tasks one assumes in order to avoid attending to that one! Each event, be it the Dreyfus Affair, be the it the war, had furnished other excuses to writers for not deciphering the aforementioned book; they wished to secure the triumph of justice, reestablish the moral unity of the nation, and had no time left to think about literature. But these were nothing but excuses because they lacked genius or possessed something more than genius—namely, instinct. For instinct dictates duty and intelligence furnishes pretexts for shirking it. But excuses have no place whatsoever in art; intentions count for nothing in its sphere; at each and every moment the artist must obey his instinct, which is what makes art the most essentially real thing in existence, the severest school of hard knocks, and the actual Last Judgment.”14
AUTHOR: And so he becomes the translator, the interpreter, of that reality that has disclosed itself to him through time, and his book had to be tantamount to a betrayal of all the people and things that had moved him, because the truth could not have been given utterance by any other means. After the War he returns to Paris once again in order to take leave of the “world.” He visits the salon of the Princesse de Guermantes once again and is once again taken aback—this because as so many years have passed, he is faced with people on whom the ashes have fallen, people whom he no longer recognizes, old men and old women, and young people whom he has never seen before. What has time wrought? Old friends have fallen out with each other and new friendships have been formed; political passions have cooled, families have fallen asunder; the social classes have undergone another shakeup; things that used to be beautiful and expensive are no longer either; and those who used to be loved are no longer loved. An inexorable current has swept the victors and the vanquished along to their deaths. But other people don’t recognize him either. He must come to terms with the fact that he too has grown old—and he becomes cognizant of an idea of time that calls into question every form of an afterlife, even that of the afterlife of art. But this same idea, in being the only idea, also gives him his creative impetus and his will to bring his work of art to completion. He now begins to fear death and to count the days remaining to him, but not because he fears his own destruction, for he feels as though he has passed through all the circles of hell and died several times already. The I who loved Albertine died when it ceased to love her, and the I who loved the Duchesse de Guermantes died when it ceased to love her. He was no longer the being who had been capable of such passions and suffering, but rather a being who saw himself as having been presented with a task that had to be carried out at all costs. His dread in the face of this task has supplanted his dread of all other things.
SPEAKER: “For my part, I shall aver that the cruelty of art’s fiat consists in the fact that human beings die and that we ourselves may die in devoting every last drop of our suffering to preempting the germination of the grass of oblivion via that of the grass of eternal life, the lush grass of productive artworks, upon which future generations will come to partake merrily of their ‘déjeuner sur l’herbe’ without giving a thought to those who are slumbering in the earth beneath them.”15
AUTHOR: He intends to crouch down on a mountaintop and gaze down into the depths of bygone years, even as he himself is imperiled by his attempt to cling to himself with all his strength to avoid sliding downhill, and he concludes his work with a sentence that prepares the way for the one with which it opens. The end has become a beginning. The last word precedes the first.
SPEAKER: “If at least I was afforded enough time to complete my work, I would not fail to mark it with the seal of this Time, the idea of which was imposing itself on me with so much force today, and in this work I would describe men and women faithfully, even if this meant making them seem like veritable monsters, by representing them as occupying a substantially larger place in Time than the painfully limited one vouchsafed to them in space, a place that is, by contrast, of such immeasurable extent that, like giants completely immersed in years, they brush against the mutually distant epochs through which they have lived—epochs bracketing the accumulated accretion of so many days—in TIME.”16
AUTHOR: But how do we ourselves fare when we look back on this novel, on its holy sites, which are not our own, on the lives and deaths of these monsters that it has kept in suspended animation for us? They are there, I believe, in order to allow us to possess them, so that we can enter into every process of love, jealousy, and mendacity, ambition and disappointment and ultimately truth and extinction. It is of course not a book that centers on a given person but rather a book in which a given set of central characters can be suffused with life—a book of pure relationships, in which every sentence and every passage is an “Open, Sesame” and causes a door within ourselves to open.
SPEAKER: “In reality every reader, as he is reading, is the reader of himself. The writer’s work is nothing but a kind of optical instrument that he presents to the reader with the aim of allowing him to discern what he never would have been able to see within himself without the aid of the book. The fact that the reader recognizes within himself what is said by the book is proof of the book’s truth, and vice versa, at least to a certain extent; the difference between the two often being attributable not to the author but to the reader. Moreover, the book can be too scholarly, too obscure for the naïve reader and thus present him with nothing but a clouded lens through which he will be unable to read. But the treatment of other peculiarities (such as inversion) can require the reader to read in a certain manner in order to read well; the author need not be offended by this, but, to the contrary, accord the reader the greatest degree of liberty by saying to him: ‘Take a look even if you see better through this lens, through that one, or through yet another one.’”17
AUTHOR: This liberty that Proust accords his reader has been made use of here, for there are any number of possible ways of reading him: as a social critic, as a theoretician of art, as a philosopher—and here I have attempted a few of these ways of reading; to be sure, these cannot yield a picture of the work in its entirety, but they are worth attempting in order to show how he himself would like to be seen—as the creator of men and women who henceforth will be consolingly walking among us with their sufferings and errors, and as the creator of places that we shall admittedly never find on a map but because they were inhabited by these people, because they were loved and were witnesses of so much misery like those marvelous places that attracted great myths and were populated by heroes, demigods, and gods, will henceforth be renowned. But as for Proust himself, who in the end admittedly renounced everything in order to liberate the imprisoned images of the world, who, fasting and painfully working within four bare walls in solitude, has markedly increased our share of truth, let him be represented by a message he has forwarded to us in tribute to Ruskin:
SPEAKER: “Though dead, he continues to light our way like a long-extinct star whose light is still finding its way to us…Those eyes that have been closed forever and are resting in the depths of the grave will still be affording a view of nature generations after we ourselves are gone.”18
AUTHOR: For this positivist and mystic for whom the world of art was the only absolute and who never allowed himself to gaze hopefully through the window of his prison cell here nevertheless wrote of one of his characters, the great writer Bergotte:
SPEAKER: “They laid him in the earth, but throughout the night of mourning, his books, displayed in groups of three in illuminated shop fronts, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings, and for this man who was no more they seemed to symbolize his resurrection.”19
1. As Bachmann’s editors point out, this passage is not from Proust’s diaries but rather from his 1921 essay À Propos Baudelaire as quoted in André Maurois’s À la recherche de Marcel Proust, published in German as Auf den Spuren von Marcel Proust and in English (at least in the U.S.) as Proust: Portrait of a Genius. I have translated the passage directly from the essay.
2. Bachmann’s editors do not provide a footnote for this passage; consequently, I have translated it from the German.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse [Beyond Good and Evil], Aphorism No. 278, very liberally modified.
4. From Proust’s Cahiers (unpublished when Bachmann wrote her essay) as quoted in À la recherche de Marcel Proust. As I have no access to the original French texts of either the Cahiers or Maurois’s book, I have quoted with minor modifications the English translation of the latter, as it sounds more Proustian to my ears than the German translation quoted by Bachmann.
5. Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, Vol. V, La Prisonnière, Chapter III, “Disparition d’Albertine.” Bachmann quotes Eva Rechel-Mertens’s German translation with modifications according to the editors. As near as I can tell in the absence of access to this translation, these modifications consist entirely of omissions. I have translated this passage, along with all subsequent quotations of À la recherche du temps perdu, from the original French. I have also indicated the lacunae in the German with square-bracketed ellipses.
6. Ibid., Chapter II, “Les Verdurin se brouillent avec M. de Charlus.” The editors remark that the passage has been “slightly modified,” but I detect nothing beyond the bounds of a more or less faithful translation.
7. À la recherche du temps perdu, Vol. VII, Le Temps Retrouvé, Chapter II, “M. de Charlus pendant la guerre; ses opinions, ses plaisirs.”
11. Ibid. It is not Jupien but the narrator himself who states this.
14. Ibid., Chapter III, “Matinée chez la Princesse de Guermantes,” “slightly modified” according to the editors. The only modification I detect is the indicated omission of the first word of the first sentence, aussi (also).
18. Proust as quoted without attribution in Maurois’s À la recherche de Marcel Proust. Here, in contrast to the passage annotated by n. 4, I have found the English translation less satisfying than the German, which I have consequently translated rather than quoting the English.
19. La Prisonnière, Chapter I, “Vie en commun avec Albertine.”
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Werke, edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, and Clemens Münster (Munich: Piper, 1978), Vol. IV, pp. 156-180. Bachmann’s essay was first broadcast on May 13, 1958 on Bayerischer Rundfunk in Munich. The complete essay can be heard here.