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What We Find When We Get Lost in Proust

When one finds the bottom of a barrel being energetically scraped, it is proof, at least, that whatever was once floating on the top must have been very delicious indeed. And so, having reached the very bottom of the barrel marked “Marcel Proust,” the scraping continues, even unto the splintered wood. The usual run of a famous author’s remains is more or less set: first the (disillusioning) biography, then the (surprisingly mundane, money-mad) letters, and finally the (painfully naked) diaries, in which erotic obsessions that seem curious and fresh in literary prose look mechanically obsessive in daily record, as with Kenneth Tynan and John Cheever. What comes after is mostly academic commentary.

But with the biography, the letters, and the journals long in the rearview mirror, the popular secondary works on Proust continue to appear in manic numbers. Anything Proustian, it seems, gets published now. Not long ago, we were given a book made up solely of his desperately polite, querulous letters to his upstairs neighbors in one of his last apartment buildings, on the Boulevard Haussmann, complaining about the noise—and sounding exactly like a classic S. J. Perelman casual. In the past fifteen years or so, certainly since the dawn of the new century, the huge success of Alain de Botton’s “How Proust Can Change Your Life” has been followed by a candid book on Proust’s sex life (by his American biographer, William C. Carter); the memoirs of his Swedish valet (also edited by Carter); a study, by the Auden biographer Richard Davenport-Hines, of Proust’s final days, at the Ritz and the Majestic; Benjamin Taylor’s study of Proust’s life as a distinctly Jewish one; the first fully annotated versions of “Swann’s Way” (both by Carter and by Lydia Davis); Clive James’s long verse commentary “Gate of Lilacs”; and a graphic-novel version of “Swann’s Way,” not to mention an album by the talented Russian-French sisters called the Milstein Duo, “The Vinteuil Sonata,” devoted to the real-life candidates for the musical phrase that entangled Swann’s heart and doomed his life. That’s doubtless not even half the harvest. The books are often illustrated with the intensity of religious tracts. In one, we are given a detailed diagram of the apartment with the cork-lined room where Proust spent his reclusive late years. (The room’s original interior can be found at the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris.) “Lost” works appear. Just last month, Gallimard, in Paris, published “Les Soixante-quinze Feuillets,” an early, more directly autobiographical overture, long thought to have vanished, of themes that he would later develop in depth. And now, in English, arrives a fearsomely slender book, “The Mysterious Correspondent,” nine stories, mostly fragmentary, mostly unpublished, that have only recently been rediscovered, appearing as something between juvenilia and a sketchbook.

All this work attests to the reputation of the most often attempted, most rarely summited, of all mountainous modern books, Proust’s multivolume “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” which, first Englished as “Remembrance of Things Past,” is now routinely more severely Frenchified as “In Search of Lost Time.” (That there are passionate debates about the varying merits of his translators and of these titles is part of the general Proustian effect.) Why some writers get this kind of attention—rooted in encompassing appetite rather than in mere admiration—and some do not is hard to know and interesting to contemplate. Chekhov, born a decade earlier, is a writer of similar stature, and his plays are genuinely popular. But only specialists debate his translators, and there are no books delving into the originals of his characters, or providing recipes for Chekhovian blini, or explaining how Chekhov can change your life, or presenting photographs of his intimates. Proust, by contrast, is a sort of improbable Belle Époque Tolkien, the maker of a world with passports and maps and secret codes, to which many seek entry.

A writer’s ability to induce this kind of fanaticism—less cult status than cathedral status, where we expect long lines, and hope to be improved by our visit—is still mysterious. Proust, even after he published the first volume of his great work, in 1913, would not have seemed a natural for such a role. He is, after all, the writer who put the long in “longueur”—whose subject is not war and peace, or the making and breaking of a dynasty, or, as with Joyce, the history of literature implanted in an urban day. His terrain is, rather, the strangled loves and pains of a small, fashionable circle, with much of the novel spent with the narrator going back and forth to beach resorts and feeling things, and many more pages, particularly in the middle books, where he simply takes trains, feels jealous, then feels less jealous, then more.

The peripheral Proust may persist as part of our search for a skeleton key to all the others—a way inside. There are at least six Marcel Prousts to study, and, though we’d like to say that each feeds the others, the truth is that they exist in separate, sometimes baffling strata. There’s the Period Proust, the Toulouse-Lautrec-like painter of the high life of the Belle Époque, who offers an unmatched picture both of riding in the Bois and of visiting the brothels near the Opéra; and the Philosophical Proust, whose thoughts on the nature of time supposedly derived from the ideas of Henri Bergson and are argued to have paralleled those of Einstein. There’s the Psychological Proust, whose analysis of human motives—above all, of love and jealousy—is the real living core of his book; and the “Perverse” Proust (as the eminent scholar Antoine Compagnon refers to him), who was among the first French authors to write quite openly about homosexuality. Then there is the Political Proust, the Jewish writer who diagrammed the fault line that the Dreyfus Affair first cracked in French society, and that the war pulled apart. Finally, there’s the Poetic Proust, the pathétique Proust who writes the sentences and finds the phrases, and whose twilight intensity and violet-tinted charm make his Big Book one of the few that readers urge on friends rather than merely force on students.

For all the speculative profundity that can be discovered in the vast annotative literature surrounding Proust, ranging from Samuel Beckett’s bleak, inscrutable summary to Roland Barthes’s structural appreciation, Proust is least interesting for his philosophical depth. The profound bits in Proust are the most commonplace, while the commonplace bits—the descriptions, the evocation of place, the characterizations, the jokes, the observations, and, most of all, the love stories—are the most profound. His is the most militant tract of aestheticism ever attempted, and understanding why it has been the most successful at making converts is the key to all the other nested Prousts.

The son of a half-Jewish Parisian grand-bourgeois family, Proust was known, before the 1913 publication of “Swann’s Way,” as a malicious, amusing, slightly absurd society boy, with a vaguely pathetic literary hobby. He had written some standard-issue aesthetic essays and stories, which no one read, and had translated Ruskin’s study of the Amiens cathedral. (He was an inveterate Anglophile: his favorite novelist was George Eliot, and his favorite novel “The Mill on the Floss.”) A charming society hanger-on, he was admired by his close friends for his literary dedication and the extraordinary flow of his letters—which are effortlessly parenthetical, sliding into digression and back to the main point with the skill of a rally driver dipping in and out of traffic at a hundred miles an hour. None of them, however, thought him much more than a dilettante.

The newly published stories collected in “The Mysterious Correspondent” feel wispy and inconsequential, but are fascinating as clues to Proust’s limitations, which, before 1913, seemed far more formidable than his talents. The stories were written in the eighteen-nineties, when he was in his twenties, and then locked away in a drawer while he worked on his unpublished novel, “Jean Santeuil,” and then on his masterwork. The title story, at least, was hidden for an obvious reason: it’s a tale of lesbian love. A timid, wealthy woman discovers that the thrilling love note she has received—which sets off a fantasy of making love to a soldier, complete with sword and spurs—was actually written by her closest woman friend. Proust often used lesbian love as a way into writing about homoerotic desire, partly because the female kind was, if not socially acceptable, at least a standard source of aesthetic frisson, and partly because it gave him an acceptable distance from which to write about his own same-sex desires.

It’s striking how out of focus the stories seem: they have a trancelike rhythm that makes events uneventful, and an absence of narrative push. Reading these lost tales, one recalls that, although none of Proust’s contemporaries doubted his intelligence, they did doubt his ability to turn his literary bent into something solid. In these stories, one sees what worried them: there’s every sign of a natural writer, but no sign at all of an author.

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