One of Proust’s friends is supposed to have said of him that beauty did not really interest him: it had too little to do with desire. A remark which is not entirely lacking insight. It might be said that the relation of the two fascinated Proust as they had fascinated no writer before him, and he perceived that the kinds of pleasure involved in the two concepts were indivisible. He was the brilliant analyst of sensations and experiences which the Victorians tasted and created without critical examination, and not the analyst only but the chemist who broke down this matter into its component parts, which have subsequently remained separate. A felix culpa in some ways, no doubt, but with disastrous results also, for the wholly unselfconscious energy which fused the pair in, say, the best poetry of Tennyson and Browning now becomes so well aware of what it is up to. Had he come across it, Proust would have been enchanted by Browning’s ‘Meeting at Night’, with its astonishing report of the concentration of desire:
the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep
As I gain the cove with pushing prow
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
Proust’s predecessor Baudelaire would have been enchanted too, but also incredulous – did the poet really not know what he was talking about? Baudelaire has his own kind of innocence, as has even Proust, but the latter merges into a whole perspective of nostalgia and desire such erotic tableaux as the steeples of Martinville, or the spectacle of Mlle de Vinteuil and her friend pursuing each other round the table with the absorption and the awkwardness of large birds, or the moment before the hotel at Balbec when the narrator is accused by Charlus of the solecism of having anchors embroidered on his bathing dress. The significance of all these things is clear, and Proust’s consciousness explores what that clarity might mean for a complete understanding of our erotic and aesthetic life, an understanding only immanent and never fully realised in the English novels Proust most admired – Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes and The Well Beloved. Did he ever read, one wonders, the sword display of Sergeant Troy to Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd?
Part of the secret of his art is how it manages to convey that though the apple had been eaten, innocence has been retained. Like all snobs, Proust understood everything about the objects of his snobbery except their own simple view of themselves. His ultimate naivety was his failure to perceive theirs. Jacques Porel remarked that Proust knew everything, ‘but his viewpoint had not been deformed by erudition. He was simple, like an innocent boy, or pretended to be.’ Pretended to be? There is a great deal of pretence involved, but the reader, too, is not deceived by it, accepting it in the spirit of its own art. Proust compelled his erotic life, which was also his social life, to identify itself with an aesthetic, and it was this, perhaps, which aroused the envy and wonder of Virginia Woolf, who found herself unable to work the artistic miracle the other way round, to move from the aesthetic and the social into the world of desire which unites and animates the two.
In a sense, the most blatant of Proust’s pretences is the whole form, pretension and ‘secret’ of his work, the idea of Time Regained. Once again the genuine element is an erotic one, the intense pleasure, comparable to a solitary orgasm of quite special felicitousness, when consciousness slots into alignment with the feel of uneven stone under the foot, or the taste of a special flavour on the tongue. Imbued with the whole theatre of the French metaphysical tradition, Proust must have seen at once that this idea could not only be worked up into an impressive intellectual and imaginative thesis, but that it could also appear to be the key to an artistic unity, and a completed human drama. This Racinian drama was the inner life of the narrator-author, and the way it resolved itself in an act of sublime renunciation that was also one of ultimate discovery. Every reader is fascinated by the simultaneous image of the author completing his work and the narrator discovering his vocation, and renouncing the world in order to fulfil it. The two coincide and change places while retaining the dramatic span of separation.
Like most funny writers, Proust started out as a highly accomplished parodist, but all this big stuff, not unlike the Ulyssean framework of Joyce’s epic, had the effect not only of ensuring the profound respect of the cultured French audience but of convincing them that something much more important was going on than a voluminously chatty novel – a roman à clef – about high society. A rejoinder that the young Proust once made to Anatole France, the old master on whom Bergotte was chiefly modelled, is revealing in this context. The famous writer who admired him, and who in 1896 had written a preface for the young Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours, began a conversation admiringly with ‘You, Marcel, who so much love the things of the intelligence’ – only to be interrupted by Proust saying that he did not love the things of the intelligence at all: ‘I only love life and movement.’ Kidding on one level, and yet true in the same sense that he preferred, as his friend observed, desire to beauty and that his real obsession, like that of his contemporary Musil, was uniting the two by the same aesthetic. How he must have responded to Ruskin’s comment, in The Stones of Venice, that it was just as exciting to study the little green crabs in the weed on the mooring stage as it was to disembark and enjoy the Titians in the Venetian palazzo. The crabs in Proust’s case were the denizens of Sodome et Gomorrhe, as well as of the Faubourg St-Germain.
The critics are still not quite allowed to say that we value A la Recherche for its life (the extremely hostile literary mandarin Paul Souday admitted that if one can bring oneself to plunge in ‘one does not let go’ because its ‘prolixity ... always conveys the feeling of life’) and for its humour, its marvellous and endlessly discriminatory sense of the ridiculous. But because it is so close to poetry, humour is the first thing that fails to surface even in the best translation. A la Recherche can be funny in Scott Moncrieff’s Bloomsbury accents, funnier still in the admirable version of Terence Kilmartin, and yet Proust’s own peculiar feeling for human comedy cannot in the end be divorced from language. Charlus’s mixture of preciousness and pomposity emerges in one word when he is offered a glass of orangeade at the Verdurin salon and expresses a preference for sa voisine, the raspberry cordial. Reading Proust in English, I had frequently gone straight over a scene between Swann and Dr Cottard until I happened to open it at that page in the French. Cottard is offering Swann a free ticket to a dentistry exhibition, but warns him that no dogs are allowed in the building, adding in his benevolent way that he thought he’d better mention it because several of his own dog-owning friends had been turned away disappointed.
Although wholly idiosyncratic and personal, Anthony Powell’s humour shares with Proust’s the same irresistibly comic feeling for human differentiation, and the immovable misunderstanding which results from it. If there is any summing-up to A Dance to the Music of Time, it is in the narrator’s observation that whatever happens to people comes in time to seem appropriate; and this is not only a logical consequence of our differentiation and misunderstanding but completely harmonious with André Gide’s words on A la Recherche: ‘If I try to find the quality I most admire in this work, it is its gratuitousness. I don’t know of a more useless work, nor one less anxious to prove something.’ Probably it was natural that the apostle of the acte gratuit should find what so much absorbed him in Proust, but Gide’s observation reminds us that it is pointless to get so worked up – as Edmund Wilson did – about Proust’s dogmas on love, jealousy or sex. These are indeed not intended to prove anything. We come to accept them, surely, as bees in the bonnet of an old friend, for it is one of the last secrets of Proust’s art (and, in consequence, to some extent Powell’s too) that the narrator-author is one of his own characters, whose foibles are as much their justification as their intelligence and esemplastic powers. If they want to bore us, or to impress us with their grasp of unmanipulated form and secret harmonies, let them: they have earned the right, and it is all part of the fun.
‘My poor friend, our little Albertine is no more. Forgive me for breaking this terrible news to you who were so fond of her. She was thrown by her horse against a tree while she was out riding beside the Vivonne.’ Albertine is probably the most intensely conceived and rendered object of love to be found in any fiction. Her sex is not important, although her feminine charm is all the more absolute for being so strangely equivocated. Nor does it matter that both Marcel and his creator can be tiresome, pretentious and boring. Proust may well have been conscious that he had gone on too long about Albertine, because in the new version which has come to light, deftly introduced and translated by Kilmartin, he compresses the whole episode, giving it what for him is an almost brutal concision. It is much more powerful like this; it is also in a sense less Proustian; and though he might well have gone on to enrich and ornament it with his usual mass of afterthought and interpolation, there seems no doubt that it was intended as the final and definitive rewriting.
‘The world is not created once and for all for each of us individually. There are added to it in the course of our lives things of which we have never had any suspicion.’ The telegram from Mme Bontemps arouses in the narrator a final agony of futile jealousy, because it was near the Vivonne that Mlle Vinteuil was living, and the telegram inadvertently confirms the narrator’s worst fears about Albertine’s secret lesbian life. (Never mind if this was really Proust’s chauffeur Agostinelli’s private heterosexual life.) After this what was the point, Proust may well have felt, of a further 140-odd pages of musing and meditation? The final twist of the knife are the two posthumous letters the narrator receives the next day: the first promising that Albertine will try and persuade her friend Andrée to come and live with him; the second – written within a few minutes of the first – begging to come back herself. No matter that this is a soap opera situation, almost a travesty of the romantic convention that you don’t want the girl till she is absent, and then you want her very much indeed. Proust’s final version moves by its air of restraint, and seems without effort to resolve and summate all the pathos of social being and all the contingent secrecies of private life. Proust usually reaches feeling by the road of affectedness, but Agostinelli’s death in an aviation accident, and a posthumous letter from him so like Albertine’s, show a reliance, in this extremity, on what life rather than art can do.
In its loving detail and its quiet humour Painter’s today quite undated biography matches and complements Proust’s own method, and his own dedication. He is especially good at bringing out the ways in which real life could not be used by Proust, supreme as were his digestive powers where the metamorphosis into art was concerned. Hence we see a Proust who does not appear in or dominate his novel, and this is always engaging, often revealing. The same applies to the other characters who had to be transformed before they could be used, like Monsieur Arman with a wart on his nose, the original of Monsieur Verdurin but a quite different and more formidable personality, unamenable to Proust’s alchemy. He contributed a yachting column to the Figaro, the journal that Proust and most of his friends read and wrote for, under the nom de plume of ‘Jip Topsail’, and mercilessly teased Anatole France because the maître had once attempted to enrich his column with some purple patches about blue skies and white sails which the editor had carefully cut out. Like most of the great ladies who ran a salon, Madame Arman may have been an intellectual snob but was certainly not a social one: she was proud of owning Anatole France but was not in the least gratified when Count Robert de Montesquiou, one of the originals of Charlus and a devastating snob himself, made up to her. All such matters had to be modified until they could become part of Proust’s world; and Painter shows how the complication and contingency of real lives were never simplified or sacrificed in the process.
Rather touchingly, Proust when a young man had a passionate wish to join the Army and do his military service, not so much out of patriotism, although that motive cannot be discounted, but from the thought of living at close quarters with all those young fellows. Madame Arman’s own son Gaston was doing his service with the Artillery, and although Proust had not yet met this high-spirited young man, who was to be one of the models for St Loup, he very much desired to emulate him, and listened wistfully to the news of his glories and sufferings, the jokes in barracks and the horseplay on route-marches. The influence of his famous father, one of the best-known doctors in France, could have excused Proust on health grounds, and exemptions were in any case granted to those taking a university course: however, if he served in the ranks for a year as a volunteer it would definitively release him from the longer period which new regulations were about to bring in. As things turned out, he loved it, though indulgent superiors probably let him down lightly, and Orléans/Doncières became for him a town of romance and nostalgia. He even begged to be allowed to stay on in the Army a few months longer, but that, alas, could not be arranged, possibly because when he had been given clerical work ‘the Chief of Staff, not without reason, was exasperated by my hand writing, and threw me out.’
Proust had also wanted to emulate his younger brother Robert, a tough young heterosexual who followed his father by becoming a brilliant and successful doctor. Although Marcel as mother’s boy had been extremely jealous, they became very fond of each other as adults, and Proust adored his little niece Suzy and once offered to buy her anything she fancied. She asked for a flamingo, and her uncle would have got her one somehow, if her mother had not intervened. Painter suggests that Proust as a young man was genuinely bisexual; and that his affairs with young girls – though not with his admired Jeanne Pouquet, who married Gaston Arman and was one of the models for Albertine – were at least up to a point physical love affairs. But Philippe Michel-Theriet, who compiled the invaluable Book of Proust, now very well edited and translated, is confident that Proust was exclusively homosexual even as a young man, however much he may have been attracted by the spectacle of jeunes filles en fleur, and even considered, as a kind of aesthetic scenario, the possibility of marriage with one of them, or with Anatole France’s daughter Suzanne. Admirably organised, The Book of Proust contains all possible information about provenance, period and life-style, down to such details as who owned the freehold of the Prousts’ vast apartment at 45 rue de Courcelles (the Phénix company), the history and fortunes of the Ritz Hotel, and which sentence in the works is the longest. Of special interest is the material on the parents. Mother a Weil, a rich Jewish family, originally German-speaking: father descended from solid village stock at Illiers in the Beauce near Chartres – Jehan and Gilles Proust in the 16th century finally made it to the ranks of the rustic bourgeoisie. It would be difficult to find a more promising genetic background.
His letters, surely, are not his strong point, however much they reveal about him, and Kilmartin’s introduction and selection reveal a great deal. Proust could be bête, unexpectedly so, in his letters to friends, showing them too clearly, one would have thought, what he expected from them, and his own self-absorption. Marie Nordlinger, a serious and scholarly girl who had given him a lot of help with Ruskin, is treated with a patronising gallantry which must have upset her. ‘I am all on fire for Sesame – and for you’ is not quite the right phrasing for what Marie construed as an amorous advance; and it can’t have helped that, when she let her feelings show, he professes to detect ‘a vague allusion to some sadness which you don’t express’. Deprecating her health and vigour, he accuses her of offering ‘a moral blood transfusion’ and finally observes that he is the last person who could dispel her melancholy, advising her to accept a job in America.
The other young woman, the actress Louisa de Mornand, is quite different, and Proust is much more at home with her. She was the mistress of his friend Albufera, and fond enough of Proust to give him a delicious blue enamel repeater watch. He thanks her for it in an ecstatic letter in which he tells her that he feels as if he were pressing other enchanting ‘buttons’ about her own person. Painter opined on these grounds that she must have granted him physical favours, but Kilmartin more plausibly assumes that he was flirting at second hand with her lover Albufera, to whom, incidentally, she was notoriously unfaithful. For a man as devious as Proust, it was easy to seem daring with such a girl, each understanding the other. So did Proust and Count Robert de Montesquiou, whose exchanges, printed together, are perhaps more predictable than entertaining: though it is significant that the Count (invariably addressed as ‘sir’) sees through his ‘dear Marcel’ and has the measure of him in a way that Proust the author would never have allowed Charlus. The most moving thing – it must surely have moved even the Count – is the letter Proust wrote him after his mother’s death. ‘My life has lost its only purpose, its only sweetness, its only love, its only consolation.’ Among all the manoeuvring and the subtle malice of the flowery compliments this stands out, like Proust’s anguish after the death of Albertine-Agostinelli, as no more nor less than the truth. Art was to be the only surrogate consolation. The letters carry us back into a vanished world, in which one can hardly believe that people had the leisure, the space, the social resources to to live as they did. By contrast, the world of Proust’s novel is as much alive as if it were all still going on.