In the Spotlight: The Hero’s Journey of Marcel Proust

The discovery of the self as a resource of art let the writer bring time within, making his inward life a microcosm of the mystery, a personal laboratory where the vast expanses can be recaptured. Space had seemed manageable, mastered in buildings, in pictures, in words. But time, the elusive dimension, challenged modern creators to flex their ingenuity. In the effort they would demonstrate unsuspected resources of the self.

Marcel Proust (1871-1922) chose for his work “that invisible substance called time”. In the eight volumes of his fourteen-year lifework he created a new way of conquering time’s transience and evanescence. He was providentially qualified by both his capacities and his infirmities to show what could be made of the encounter of the inward self with time.

Born in Auteuil, a Paris suburb, he inherited a secure social position from his father’s distinction as physician, professor of hygiene and eminent government servant. Adrien Proust had come of an ancient Catholic family from Illiers, near Chartres. Proust’s mother came from a wealthy Jewish family. Jeanne Weil Proust’s difficult pregnancy with Marcel during the Commune and the siege of Paris began a maternal bonding that shaped Proust’s life and work. For a person who saw art as his liberation into eternity, he remained strangely obsessed by his roots, and by his ties to his mother and his maternal grandmother. His sense of a divided Franco-Jewish inheritance would be intensified, even before he began his great work, by the appalling Dreyfus Affair, which brought out the worst anti-Semitic passions in French society. Proust himself collected petitions to vindicate the unjustly accused Dreyfus and bring him back from Devil’s Island.

His schooling was conventional enough. First to the elite Lycée Condorcet, where he made his lifelong friendships. There he remembered reading The Arabian Nights, modern French classics and translations of Dickens, Hardy, Stevenson and George Eliot. Already known for his personal charm and intellectual precocity, he dazzled classmates by his observations on the miraculous ‘effect of associated ideas’. About the age of twenty, he gave revealing answers to a questionnaire:

Your most marked characteristic? A craving to be loved, or, to be more precise to be caressed and spoiled rather than be admired

The quality you like most in a man? Feminine charm

The quality you most like in a woman? A man’s virtue, and frankness in friendship

What do you most value in your friends? Tenderness – provided they possess a physical charm which makes their tenderness worth having

What is your principal defect? Lack of understanding, weakness of will…

What is your favorite occupation? Loving.

What is your favorite hero of fiction? Hamlet

What are your favorite names? I have only one at a time

What is it that you most dislike? My own worst qualities

What event in military history do you most admire? My own enlistment as a volunteer

After a year of military service he went on to the Ecole des Sciences Politiques, where he secured his license in law and then in literature. There he was exhilarated by the philosophical ideas of Henri Bergson (his cousin by marriage) who was also obsessed by time. And he frequented the salons embellished by titles of various vintages. He published his first stories, essays and reviews in a short-lived little magazine, Le Banquet, subsidized by wealthy parents of his Condorcet classmates. To his fellow editors he seemed “far more anxious to find a way into certain drawing rooms of nobility than to devote himself to literature.” His family’s wealth made it unnecessary for him to have a regular occupation. He used his diploma in law to work briefly for a notary, served as a volunteer librarian at the Bibliotheque Mazarine, and began an autobiographical novel, Jean Santeuil.

Suddenly in 1899 he dropped his autobiography because of his new passion for John Ruskin’s “religion of Beauty”. At first it seemed a charming irrelevance and was short-lived but it became a focus and provided a vocabulary for Proust’s own quest to recapture Time. Ruskin’s passion for architecture captivated Proust, for architecture, exhibiting the power of stone was Ruskin’s arena for his recapture of time. Proust recounted how, on the very day of Ruskin’s death in 1900 he happened to be rereading the passage in The Seven Lamps of Architecture where Ruskin described in the cathedral of Rouen a curious little stone figure “vexed and puzzled in his malice; his hand is pressed hard against his cheek-bone, and the flesh of the cheek is wrinkled under the eye by the pressure.” “I was seized by the desire to see the little man of whom Ruskin speaks, and I went to Rouen as if he had bequeathed to the care of his readers the insignificant creature whom he had, by speaking of him restored to life”. So Proust led his friends to Rouen on what seemed a futile quest among the countless figures adorning the vast cathedral. They searched together until the sculptor’s companion with a practiced eye exlaimed at a six-inch likeness: “There is one that looks just like him!”. And this small rediscovery was the triumph of their day. “I was moved to find him still there, because I realized then that nothing dies that once has lived, neither the sculptor’s thought, nor Ruskin’s. Ruskin challenged the 29 old Proust to recapture his past in words, just as the medieval sculptors had captured theirs in stone.

When Proust and his mother went to Venice on the train coming in his mother was reading to him Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. Naturally they stayed at the fashionable Hotel Danieli, where Ruskin had stayed before them. “I found,” Proust recalled “that my dream had become – incredible but quite simply – my address!” As they sat eating granita at Florian’s café on the Piazza San Marco, Proust’s transforming imagination made him exclaim. “Pigeons are the lilacs of the animal kingdom”. Though Proust knew very little English, he enthusiastically “translated” Ruskin by simply polishing a rough draft provided by others. Exhilarated by Ruskin’s “religion of Beauty,” his adoration of Nature and the Gothic, even through an alien language Proust felt an affinity that helped him discover the world in himself. Proust’s half-dozen years as an acolyte of Ruskin left a permanent imprint. “The universe suddenly regained an infinitite value in my eyes,” he recalled even after his first enthusiasm had passed, “and my admiration for Ruskin gave such importance to the things he had made me love that they seemed charged with something more precious than life itself”. Had it not been for Ruskin, Proust declared he would have lacked “any understanding of the Middle Ages, a sense of history and the feeling of a sort of natural sympathy for all things that have grown dim with age, and an awareness of their continuing presence.”

Proust’s enthusiasm for the living past was also a by-prodct of his infirmaties, his loneliness and his self-exile. A frail infat, at the age of nine he had a first attack of the asthma that threatened and confined him all the rest of his life. An overprotected child coddled and doted on by his mother and grandmother, after their death he doted on and coddled himself. After his years at the university, in his late twenties his health worsened and he withdrew from the salon circuit. His father died in 1903, his mother in 1905 leaving him at 34 feeling bereft and lonely, for he had been living with them. After 15 months he moved into a flat at 102 Boulevard Haussmann owned by the widow of his father’s uncle, for ‘I could not reconcile myself to the idea of moving straight away into a house that Mama had never known”.

Now secure financially, her organized and fortified himself, with the table beside his bed that he called his “pinnace” for the voyage to recapture his past. Piled round were notebooks, papers, fountain pens, and the apparatus for the frequent medical fumigations that filled the room with a yellow mist and purifying odors. When his neighbor, a M. Sauphar, began construction, Proust complained , “Sauphar” is the name of the kind of loud trumpet that used to be sounded in the Synagogue to wake up the dead for judgment. There is not much difference between thse Sauphars of old and the Sauphars of today.” To improve his insulation from the outer world he had all four walls of his bedroom lined with cork. There the occassional visitors saw him thickly enveloped in woolen pullovers.

It was in that bizarre self-exile that Proust began to write his novel. We do not know exactly when or how he decided to write the book of his life. But in the new preface to his revised Contre SainteBeuve still oscillating between fiction and the essay, he hinted his direction. “Every day I attach less and l ess importance to the intellect. Every day I realize more that it is only by other means that a writer can regain something of our impressions, reach that is , a particle of himself, the only material of art. What the intellect restores to us under the name of the past is not the past….”

Proust’s “past” was a world of the involuntary memory, the welling up from the self in a force beyond his understanding. About january 1909 he experienced an epiphany. This sudden manifestation of meaning was his first revelation of the flowing depths of the self that his whole eight volumes would report from a re-created world inaccessible to the conscious intellect. The occassion of his famous epiphany was not a momentous event. In the most familiar passage of Swann’s Way:

… one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon mechanically weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my plate than a shudder run through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasre had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence, or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, moral. … And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and ben, take on colour and distinctinve shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in Mr Swann’s park and the water lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

By now it seems Proust had determined to write a novel as long as The Arabian Nights, which would require a strength and courage he had not yet shown. “I had lived a life of idleness and dissipation, of sickness, invalidism, and eccentricity. I was embarking on my work when already near to death, and I knew nothing of my trade.” He later declared that his early indisposition was good luck, for it prevented him from trying his great work prematurely.

Now reborn in the vision of involuntary memory, he set about reworking his outline. And so began the lonely writing years in his cork-lined bedroom, preserved in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris. For his work of memory Proust dared not to rely on his memory. According to Samuel Beckett, Proust had a bad memory which, Beckett explained, may have been fortunate, for “The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.” Proust seldom went out of his apartment, using letters and messengers to secure the scrupulous details for the passage he was writing at the moment. Every little thing – music, costume, flowers, trees – had to be just right.

When he did go out, it was at odd hours in interludes of writing and for a specific purpose At half past eleven one evening he suddenly dropped in on his old friends the Caillavets. He explained that it had been many years since he had seen their young daughter. “Madame, what I ask of you now is that I should be permitted to see Mlle. Simone tonight?” He needed to confirm his impressions of her so he could describe Mlle de Saint-Loup in the role in which he had cast Simone, as the daughter of the woman whom the narrator had once loved. though she had long since gone to bed, they obliged by bringing her down from her bedroom. Somehow the impressions of “involuntary memory” had to be verified. Anyone who has seen the manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris can attest to his endless revisions to perfect his unconscious.

By September 1912 Proust had completed the first draft of Swann’s Way. He sent samples to the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, where André Gide turned it down. When the prosperous Fasquelle also refused to publish it, Proust was ready to give up the effort and print it at his own expense, for he hoped to reach beyond his literary coterie to “the kind of people who take a book with them on a railway journey”. Still, he ventured one more try, with the successful Ollendorf firm, which promptly replied, “Dear friend: I may be thicker skinned than most, but I just can’t understand why anyone should take thirty pages to describe how he tosses about in bed because he can’t get to sleep. I clutched my head…. ” Yet just this passage would become the classic ‘ouverture’ that, in the authorized translation invited generations to their long voyage through Proust’s memories:

For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep” and half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me, I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light. I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep fo what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no. ….

Self-imprisoned in his bedroom, Proust was not well situated to negotiate with other possible publishers.

Proust finally arranged for publication at his own expense by an enterprising youg publisher, Bernard Grasset. The publisher would take a percentage of the published price and the author would pay for publicity. These were hardly “negotiations” for Proust insisted on giving the publisher better terms than were offered, including a share of the translation rights. They planned a first printing of 1200 copies soon increased to 1750. As Proust worked over the manuscript for publication the book expanded to some eight hundred pages. The publisher objected that it could not all be put in one volume and the public would not buy such a long book. Proust finally divided his work into three volumes and began by publishing only a first volume. Later the plan would be further expanded, and the last three parts of Remembrane of Things Past would be published posthumously without the author’s final revisions. As Proust sent Swann’s Way to the press he had mutilated the galleys with insertions and corrections all around. “I’ve written a whole new book on the proofs,” told his friend, and he was heavily charged for excess corrections. When the book was well received on publication in 1913, now André Gide offered to take over the novel, but Proust remained loyal to Grasset.

The remainder of the manuscript for Swann’s Way that Proust had already prepared might have been published soon, and the whole Remembrance might have been remained inchoate had not the most melodramatic of Proust’s frustrated love affairs intervened. The ill-starred object of his passion was Alfred Agostinelli, an affable young man of 25 who had been his chauffeur. This anguished interlude would have the effect of interrupting and eventually expanding Proust’s Remembrance. A native of Monaco and of Italian extraction, Agostinelli had himself been one of those who had fallen in love with the atomobile in its early days, and he sped Proust breathlessly across the Normandic landscape. “May the steering wheel of my young mechanic,” prayed Proust ‘remain forever the symbol of his talent, rather than the prefiguration of his martyrdom”. In January 1913 Agostinelli, whom he had not seen for five years, walked into his appartement asking to be taken on again as his chauffeur. Proust already had a chauffeur, another holdover from the Cabourg days. In an unlucky moment he took on Agostinelli as his secreatary, to type the second half of his novel. Proust found Agostinelly’s devoted wife, Anna unattractive and she disliked him. But he put them both on a luxurious allowance which they spent recklessly. He went on courting them by gifts and stilllarger allowances. Anna became his rival as he nourished his consuming passion for Agostinelli, which proved less invigorating than paralyzing. With Agostinelli, in that summer of 1913, he drove to Cabourg, the Channel resort, bringing some printer’s proofs to work on. There he seems to have declared his passion to Agostinelli, though he was still torn by love for a young girl in Paris whom he had thought he was going to marry. Unaccountably and impetuously Proust hastened back to paris, where he completed revising the final proofs of Swann’s Way.

In the custom of literary Paris, Proust spent some months maneuvering and wangling favorable notices in Paris publications and pressed his acquaintances for quotable comments. The book was shrewdly dedicated to M. Gaston Calmette, influential editor of Le Figaro, who Proust had courted for years, even to the extent of giving him a cigarette case from Tiffany’s which Calmette had not even acknowledged. An unexpected sensational touch was added in February 1914 when Calmette was murdered in his office by the wife of a pro-German minister of finance who Calmette had tried to blackmail.

In December 1913, Agostinelli, with the sums he had saved from Proust’s munifence, fled to his native Riviera and enrolled in a flying school under the pseudonym of Marcel Swann. On May 30, 1914, on his second solo flight, carrying with him the seven thousand francs left from Proust’s gifts, he plunged into the sea and so ended Proust’s greatest love. On hearing the news Proust was devastated, and fell into one of his worst bouts of asthma. He responded with constant fumigations of his bedroom “which help me breathe, but would prevent anyone else” he explained to Gide to prevent a condolenhy6jm7uce visit. Proust, despite his threats took Anna under his protection.

Proust’s debility and self-exile limited the effects on his personal life of the guns of August. What Proust was writing during these World War years was an autobiographical chronicle of French high society in the whole half century before. It is the story of an author’s growth in consciousness until at the end of it all the author is ready “to begin work”. The final work, one third of which was published only posthumously, came to be about three thousand pages. But Proust’s original versions were at least ten thousand pages and thirty thousand pages were destroyed at his orders.

Of all novels, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is least suited to summary. For it is the story of itself, of how the author came to write the book. In place of a plot there is the flow of unconscious memorey, purposely undirected by the intellect. The book is divided into seven sections, on different themes. The narrator, Marcel, relives his own growth and the trivial travails of French aristocratic society. Proust had given up the idea of a linear narrative around the single character Swann. Instead he clustered the parts around themes, which he thought

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