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Marcel Proust

Author(s): J. Murray
Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Jan., 1926), pp. 34-43
Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association
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A NOVELIST who for years had the utmost difficulty in

publisher and a public to take him seriously, and who now,
death, is being 'explained' in terms of Schopenhauer, Leibni
Bergson and Einstein, certainly occupies a unique position in
literature. Such is Marcel Proust.
In 1896, at the age of twenty-five, Proust wrote a book called Les
Plaisirs et les Jours, but would only publish it on condition that a pre-
face was added by Anatole France, illustrations by Madeleine Lemaire
and four musical compositions by Reynaldo Hahn. Even in spite of
those advantages, the book aroused very little comment. No one
predicted great things for its author. Of the few critics who took
any notice of it, one, Jean Lorrain, wrote a few lines of such severe
criticism that Proust fought a duel with him. Eight years later, Proust
wrote in a letter that he was always astonished that anyone should
have read his book, adding that his publisher had assured him no one
ever asked for it.
Anatole France, in his preface, says of Proust's book:
Son livre est comme un jeune visage plein de charme rare et de grace fine....
Sans doute il est jeune de la jeunesse de l'auteur. Mais il est vieux de la vieillesse
du monde. C'est le printemps des feuilles sur les rameaux antiques dans la for8t
seculaire. On dirait que les pousses nouvelles sont attrist6es du passe profond des
bois et portent le deuil de tant de printemps morts.
Les Plaisirs et les Jours is a collection of tales, sketches and poems,
all of which have that touch of disillusionment commented on by France
in his preface. But besides this keynote of sadness, there is in this book
much subtle observation of nature and humanity. There are also the
beginnings of the author's power as a psychologist, and here and there
we are struck by passages which, if they lacked interest in 1896, are
certainly full of it if one reads them after seeing what they have de-
veloped into in the later work of Proust. His descriptions of 'les vanites
d'une ame snob' are a foretaste of the way in which he will later on lay
bare the illusions on which society life, and in fact all life, is based. His
sensitiveness to physical impression, and his consciousness of the effect
of sensation on him, are both evident, though he does not yet proceed
to the psychological 'excavations' which will later engross him.
A few years after the publication of Les Plaisirs et les Jours, Proust
wrote several short articles on Ruskin. In 1904, he published an

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annotated translation of Ruskin's Bible of Amiens, prece

troductory essay on Ruskin. This essay was reprinted in
of essays and tales by Proust, published under the title
et Melanges. This collection contains another essay en
Ruskin,' in which the author criticises Ruskin's aestheti
The last essay of the book is called 'Journees de Lect
reprint from the Mercure of a study written to accompany a
of Sesame and Lilies.

Ruskin found in Proust a great admirer, but also a merciless critic.

In his introduction to the Bible of Amiens, Proust says the greatest
homage one can pay to Ruskin is not to visit his grave but to go on a
'pelerinage ruskinien' to see the things he admired. Accordingly he
made pilgrimages not only to Amiens, but to all the great churches in
Normandy and elsewhere which had been studied by Ruskin. He
used Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture as a guide to Avranches,
Bayeux, Beauvais, Bourges, Caen, etc.', and he seems to have derived
great pleasure from thus studying French art through English eyes.
This tribute to the aesthetic appreciation of the English refers, not only
to Ruskin, but to other English artists and art critics.
Quelle interessante collection on ferait avec les paysages de France vus par des
yeux anglais: les rivieres de France de Turner; le Versailles de Bonnington;
l'Auxerre ou le Valenciennes, le Vezelay ou l'Amiens de Walter Pater; le Fontaine-
bleau de Stevenson et tant d'autres2.

Proust regarded Ruskin as one of the greatest writers who ever

lived. It was Ruskin who taught him to see things, and from the time
of this initiation, it was a new heaven and a new earth which delighted
the eyes of Proust.
L'Univers reprit tout d'un coup a mes yeux un prix infini. Et mon admiration
pour Ruskin donnait une telle importance aux choses qu'il m'avait fait aimer,
qu'elles me semblaient chargees d'une valeur plus grande mrme que celle de la vie.
Ce fut i la lettre et dans une circonstance ou je croyais mes jours comptes; je
partis pour Venise afin d'avoir pu avant de mourir, approcher, toucher, voir in-
carnees, en des palais defaillants mais encore debout et roses, les idees de Ruskin
sur l'architecture domestique du Moyen Age.

In spite of this very enthusiastic admiration, Proust is not blind to

the faults of Ruskin, and condemns Ruskin's doctrines as being moral
doctrines and not aesthetic doctrines. Hence an underlying insincerity
which made Ruskin, when he chose something for its beauty, persuade
himself he was choosing it for its embodiment of truth. This com-
promise, says Proust, is more dangerous to the mind than immoral
See E. de Clermont-Tonnerre, Robert de Montesquiou et Marcel Proust, p. 96.
2 Preface to Proust's Bible d'Amiens, p. 68, footnote.

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36 Marcel Proust

doctrines sincerely professed, and a page of Ruskin is for each of his

readers and for Ruskin himself a kind of 'trompe-l'eil.' The principal
religion of Ruskin, says Proust, was not the Religion of Beauty, as has
so often been said, but simply Religion. Whenever Ruskin became
acquainted with a new school of architecture, it was as great an event
in his moral life as a divine revelation would be in the life of a Christian,
because he regarded beauty not merely as an object of joy, but as a
reality more important than life itself. This reality being one, he sees
no difference between the various ways of representing it, i.e. between
pictures, statues, poetry, laws, etc., whereas Proust says painting can
rival literature only on condition that it is not in itself literary. For
Proust, reality is not one but manifold, and he abhors the kind of half-
sincerity which is content with a one-sided view of the truth. As to
those numerous arguments in which Ruskin shows a liberal use of
imagination curiously allied to scientific facts, Proust scorns their
filtility. When Ruskin says God used bright colours in creating pure
and precious things and dull colours for harmful things, Proust is
reminded of Bernardin de Saint Pierre who said God divided melons
into slices so that men could eat them more easily.
By the time Proust was translating Sesame and Lilies, his admiration
of Ruskin had undergone a change. Sesame and Lilies is in his opinion
the worst thing Ruskin ever wrote, and this work never roused any
enthusiasm in Proust at all. He does not say that Ruskin has ceased
to interest him, only that his early love for him was more spontaneous.
'Mon amour pour Ruskin dure. Seulement quelquefois rien ne le re-
froidit comme de lire Ruskinl.'
Ruskin's doctrines had no effect whatever on Proust, but Proust
admits his indebtedness to the spiritual discipline he imposed upon
himself under the guidance of Ruskin. To the critic who says: 'What
can it matter to you what Ruskin feels; feel for yourself,' he answers
that this discipline increased his power of understanding and his critical
faculty. He says it is a psychological error and a sophist's argument to
suppose that the man who strives to make his mind a void, in order
to owe nothing to outside influence, is really more personal in his
expression than the man who goes through the discipline of re-creating
in his own mind the thought of another. In fact Proust says (and in
his case it is obviously true) that it is this process of re-creation, of
'living through' the experience of another, that brings to light one's
own thought. In his preface to the Bible of Amiens, Proust's style is
1 Letter to M. Leon Belugou (1906) quoted by E. de Clermont-Tonnerre, op. cit., p. 148.

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not unlike Ruskin's, but there the comparison ends.

writings there is nothing to remind us of Ruskin, al
struck, not only by the number of passages where Pr
very great appreciation of architectural beauty, but also
tendency on his part to use metaphors reminiscent of the
of architecture. Angles and surfaces, circles, radii and oth
terms are commonly used by Proust when he is analysing
describing society. It looks as if certain relationships, as,
between one trait of character and another, between on
another, between a cause and its effect, etc., were first
him as geometrical diagrams and then expressed in la
sometimes betrays the technical origin of the mental ima
The one thing Ruskin and Proust had in common was
tiveness to physical sensation. Ruskin's biographer says of
No man was more sensitive than he to physical impressions f
nature; for indeed physical and spiritual light was to him the s
was there a man who lived more largely in the contemplation of
of lake and flowers and hills1.

Proust also was influenced to an extraordinary extent by physical

impressions. He sometimes felt as if he were directly influenced by
the presence of inanimate objects, as, for instance, when he talks of the
hostility of certain purple curtains, or the mental restlessness caused
by the peculiar shape of a room 2, or the overwhelming physical sensation
produced by certain pieces of music3. He was even reluctant at times
to expose himself to new impressions, to become acquainted with a
new set of sensations, owing to the torment he suffered when, in new
surroundings, he felt overwhelmed by 'l'ame des choses' over which he
says we must superpose 'l'ame qui nous est familiere' before we can
regain our tranquillity of mind4.
This sensitiveness to physical impression is the common starting
point of both Ruskin and Proust, but their mode of procedure is very
different, for Ruskin, on experiencing, for example, a sensation which
gives him aesthetic pleasure, goes on to muse over it with the purpose
of a moralist and the fancy of a poet, whereas Proust, whenever he
records a new sensation, puts it under the microscope, so to speak, and

1 Library edition of Ruskin's works, vol. xxxIII, Introduction, p. 37.

2 ' Ma pensee s'efforcait pendant des heures de se disloquer, de s'etirer en hauteur pour
prendre exactement la forme de la chambre ' (Du Cote de chez Swann, I, p. 13).
3 'Une profonde, si vague, si interne, presque si organique et visc6rale
qu'on ne savait pas a chacune de ses reprises si c'etait celle d'un theme ou d'une nevralgie'
(La Prisonniere, ii, p. 78).
4 Sodome et Gomorrhe, I, p. 188.

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38 Marcel Proust

makes a physiological and psychological study of it in which moral

values have no place.
In 1913, Proust published the first volume of his great work, A
la Recherche du Temps Perdu. He had great difficulty in finding a
publisher. The reader of one publishing firm, after going through Du
C6te de chez Swann, as the first volume is called, said:
Je ne sais pas si je suis bouche e l'dmeri, mais je ne comprends pas l'interft
qu'il peut y avoir a lire trente pages sur la fa?on dont un monsieur se retourne
dans son lit avant de s'endormir.

Another publisher offered to print part of it, but Proust refused.

Finally, when the book appeared, most people thought it scarcely
readable. Edmond Rostand, however, said of Proust: 'C'est un des
plus puissants cerveaux de la litterature fran9aise.' Another writer,
Francis de Miomandre, in a Belgian review, L'Art Moderne (1914,
April), wrote a favourable criticism'. But it was not till 1919, when
Proust published the next two volumes entitled A l'Ombre des Jeunes
Filles en Fleurs, that his success was really assured and that he began
to count as a writer. Through the influence of Leon Daudet and in
spite of much hostility, Proust obtained the Prix Goncourt for his novel
and, from this time on, was much in favour in French society.
It would be very difficult indeed to give a summary of the eleven
volumes which constitute A la Recherche du Temps Perdu2. From the
first volume to the last, there is as much action as Balzac might relate
in twenty pages, and yet, on the other hand, there is often a greater
revelation of truth in a page of Proust than in a whole volume of
Balzac. What Proust aims at is a mental reconstruction of his past.
He tries to recapture all the forgotten sensations that constitute his
past life. In this 'novel of memory,' as his work has been called, the
greatest innovation is Proust's conception of memory itself. He main-
tains that, in reconstituting the past, it is not conscious memory but
involuntary memory that is the most important factor. It is not the
things we have always remembered of the past that keep the past
alive in us, it is the things which, having been completely forgotten,
are recalled in all their original vividness by some trivial sensation,
and not by an act of the intelligence at all. Hence, paradoxical as it
may seem, oblivion is a necessary factor, if the past is to be brought
back to us with its original clearness. A memory which we have
1 See E. de Clermont-Tonnerre, op. cit., pp. 169 f.
2 The whole series has not yet appeared. At least one volume of A la Recherche du
Terps Perdu remains to be printed, besides the final section, in one volume or more,
entitled Le Temps Retrouve.

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always had with us grows paler and paler as time go

memory which, having been buried, is 'dug up,' affects u
as the original episode', so that by a flash of involuntary
turn the 'temps perdu' into 'temps retrouve.' Moreover
to the true essence of life through memory rather than
ception. Memory resuscitates our past, but our past free
passions and deceptions that blinded us. Hence the truth
the distorted image we have of the content of the prese
but only in our mind, where our stored-up past may from
be revealed by a flash of involuntary memory. So th
retrouve' is not merely the past brought back to mind,
seen in its true significance and not as our perception o
represented it to us.
In the first volume of his work, Proust sets himself to
a certain phase of his childhood. This part of his past w
recalled by conscious memory, but came back to him sudd
years after, when he happened to taste the peculiar and l
flavour of a 'madeleine' dipped in tea. The whole of the
is the outcome of this one sensation, the resurrection of
with it a whole mass of other sensations, the sum of whi
the history of that period of the past to which they be
other occasion, the peculiar sensation of waking up afte
sleep prolonged by fatigue brought back to Proust th
during his stay in the little country town of Combray, he us
long walks with his parents, returning home very tired an
He had no need to make a pilgrimage to see the garden h
or the road his parents always chose for their walk. A c
of fatigue brought back the same sensations as he had in
or after that walk, long after his conscious memory rec

1 'Ce qui nous rappelle le mieux un etre, c'est justement ce que no

(parce que c'etait insignifiant et que nous lui avions ainsi laiss6 tout
pourquoi la meilleure part de notre memoire est hors de nous, dans un souf
l'odeur de renferme d'une chambre ou dans l'odeur d'une premiere fla
nous retrouvons de nous-meme ce que notre intelligence, n'en ayant p
dedaigne, la derniere reserve du passe, la meilleure, celle qui quand t
semblent taries, sait nous faire pleurer encore. Hors de nous? En nous,
mais derobee a nos propres regards, dans un oubli plus ou moins prolo
cet oubli seul que nous pouvons de temps a autre, retrouver l'etre que n
placer vis-a-vis des choses comme cet etre l'Ntait, souffrir a nouveau p
sommes plus nous, mais lui, et qu'il aimait ce qui nous est maintenant
grand jour de la memoire habituelle, les images du passe palissent peu
il ne reste plus rien d'elles, nous ne les retrouverons plus. Ou plut6t no
verions plus, si quelques mots...... n'avaient ete soigneusement enferme
meme qu'on depose a la Bibliotheque nationale un exemplaire d'un li
risquerait de devenir introuvable' (A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs, i

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40 Marcel Proust

of the period in question. It is as if he remembered, first with his

muscles and then afterwards with his conscious memoryl.
If we can only recapture the past by recapturing the actual sensa-
tions belonging to it, Proust concludes that our past joys and griefs are
not always in our possession. But if by any chance we are brought into
contact with the whole framework of sensations in which our past joys
and sorrows are stored away, then these past sensations can again
exercise a great power over us, because for the time being they instal
within us, as it were, the being we were at the time when they first
affected us. Thus we renew our acquaintance for a moment-not only
with the vivid reality of the past, but with a forgotten phase of our own
personality. It is only through this knowledge of ourselves revealed in
those occasional flashes of involuntary memory that we realise the con-
stant change that is going on in us. Usually we do not take this into
account. We suffer pangs of regret when we think of the future, because
we place in it our present selves with our present desires and our present
susceptibilities. One of Proust's heroes, Swann, violently in love with a
young woman, Odette, was occasionally tormented by the idea of how
insufferable life would be if, at some future date, this love, which then
filled all his thoughts, should ever become anything less than the most
powerful factor in his life. As a matter of fact, by the time this passion
had ceased to dominate him, the desire to remain in love had also gone,
so that a state of things which Swann could only picture with agony
(and which would have caused him agony had it happened at that time)
came about without disturbing him in the slightest, because the Swann
who dreaded certain events was not the same person as the Swann who
later on peacefully lived through those same events. As our memory is
so defective, it is only on rare occasions that we get a glimpse of any
of the countless past variations of our personality, but, if we could
realise this unceasing change that goes on in us, we should be relieved
of many fears, but at the same time we should be robbed of many
illusions. Romance could not exist if, at the time of his infatuation,
a lover could become for an instant his future self and look on the
object of his idealisation with the eyes he will have when he is
longer in love2. Proust reduces love at most to a mere series of 'inte
mittences' of the heart. He regards it as something relative, an
denies its existence as an absolute reality. It is only because we
1 One of the titles Proust had thought of for this first volume was ' Jardins dans un
tasse de the.' This was finally discarded in favour of ' Du c6te de chez Swann.' See let
to M. Louis de Robert quoted by E. de Clermont-Tonnerre, op. cit., p. 163.
2 Sodome et Gomorrhe, i, p. 152.

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forgetful or ignorant of the extent to which we are creature

that the illusion of love is possible.
Personality is therefore not a fixed reality but is as u
shifting sands. It is difficult to get in touch with what we o
but it is just as difficult to know our present selves. Our id
own personality and of our own conduct is obscured in so ma
our imagination, our vanity, our own preconceived idea, oth
idea of us, etc.1 In fact, the part played by illusion is enor
together with the constant changing that goes on and the ext
difficulty in knowing ourselves, Proust sometimes asks wh
sonality really exists at all, or whether it does not reduce it
to the ebb and flow of sensations. The being we are at this m
doomed to a speedy destruction and will be replaced by
totally different beings. There is a constant succession of b
deaths going on within the personality of each of us, in fact
to Proust, there seems to be no stable element in our perso
solid foundation, only a baffling 'relativity.'
Owing to this instability, it is impossible to interpre
character by studying merely his principal actions. So man
actions prove only the 'puissance anesth6siante de l'habi
proceed from motives long since dead, owing to that inabilit
us to 'scrap,' along with an outworn motive, the kind of actio
it used to give rise. Hence Proust ignores 'action' as it is un
by most novelists. He never concentrates on the great ep
events of a person's life, but gives us an insight into ch
showing people at the most ordinary moments of their lives,
are obviously off the stage, so to speak. In a crisis we surpas
and what we do in such a moment is not characteristic of us. In fact
Proust is always on his guard against accepting any action or attitude
as being in any way characteristic. Instead of leading up to, and dwell-
ing on an important action, he gives us for example a minute analysis
and interpretation of an insignificant gesture or statement made by one

1 Ce que nous nous rappelons de notre conduite, reste ignore de notre plus proche
voisin. Ce que nous en avons oubli6 avoir dit, ou meme ce que nous n'avons jamais dit, va
provoquer l'hilarite jusque dans une autre plankte et l'image que les autres se font de nos
faits et gestes ne ressemble pas plus A celle que nous nous en faisons nous-meme, qu a un
dessin quelque ddcalque rat6, ou tant6t au trait noir correspondrait un espace vide et A un
blanc un contour inexplicable. I1 peut du reste arriver que ce qui n'a pas te transcrit soit
quelque trait irr6el que nous ne voyons que par complaisance et que ce qui nous semble
ajoute, nous appartienne au contraire, mais si essentiellement que cela nous echappe. De
sorte que cette dtrange epreuve qui nous semble si peu ressemblante, a quelquefois le genre
de vdritd, peu flatteur, certes, mais profond et utile d'une photographie par les rayons X'
(Le Cotg de Guermantes, i, p. 244).

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42 Marcel Proust

of his characters, and the study of this one detail, with all the psycho-
logical tunnelling to which it leads, brings to light greater discoveries
about the person concerned, than the study of any so-called character-
istic action. Take, for instance, the passage in La Prisonniere where
the hero Marcel is trying to get tile truth from the vague contradictory
remlarks of Albertine:

Parfois l'ecriture oil je d6chiffrais les mensonges d'Albertine sans 6tre ideographi-
que avait simplement besoin d'6tre lue h rebours. C'est ainsi que ce soir elle m'avait
lance d'un air negligent ce message destine h passer presque inaper9u. ' I serait
possible que j'aille demain chez les Verdurin, je ne sais pas du tout si j'irai, je n'en
ai gubre envie.' Anagramme enfantin de cet aveu. ' J'irai demain chez les Verdurin,
c'est absolument certain, car j'y attache une extrAme importance.' Cette hesitation
apparente signifiait une volont6 arrte6e et avait pour but de diminuer l'importance
de la visite tout en me l'annongant. Albertine employait toujours le ton dubitatif
pour les resolutions irrevocables1.

Proust finds a source of knowledge in such trivial details as an irrelevant

answer, or a seemingly unimportant amendment casually added to a
chance remark. In fact, the study of 'un acte manque,' of the touching
up of a statement after it has been first made, frequently provides Proust,
as well as modern psychologists, with valuable data on which to work.
Proust, though he never read Freud, shows a parallel with him in
certain details of method, but Proust is content to investigate facts
without fitting them into explanatory theories. He explores the dark
alleys of our subconscious mental life and sometimes derives valuable
information from a useful, if sordid, examination of 'the dustbin of the
subconscious mind.' But he goes no further than to trace the relation-
ship of cause and effect and to lay bare the illusions and deceptions in
which our conscious life is immersed, owing to the intensity of our
subconscious mental life and chiefly to the very imperfect and vague
realisation we have of it. Proust is not a theorist. He deals only with
facts and not with general notions or generalised interpretations, and so
is a stranger to the Freudian theories.
When Proust has laid bare the illusions on which life is based,
when he reduces one by one all our values in life to a mere deception
of the senses, there would seem to be nothing left. A man who can
assert that sometimes 'l'amour nait comme certaines maladies nerveuses
de l'explication inexacte d'un malaise p6nible2, who can sum up his
views on the subject by calling love a 'sentiment qui (quelle qu'en soit
la cause) est toujours erron6,' who can reduce personality to a very
vague, shadowy thing dependent on sensations and the caprice of
1 La Prisonniere, p. 118.
2 Sodoile et Gomorrhe, n, p. 12.

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memory, is obviously prepared

emotions, our impulses, our
valuation, to face the emptin
seems to touch something w
which, unlike love and everyt
a lasting value. This permanen
than grasps, in the world of
him this sense of being in th
everything else he had expe
which he loved to hear, he s
cornme la promesse et la preuve q
doute, que le neant que j'avais trouv
que si ma vie me semblait vaine, du


1 La Prisonniere, p. 82.

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