Sunday, March 27, 2011

At one of the highpoints of culture and civilization

In his monograph on Proust, Edmund White shows himself to be deeply sympathetic to the life of his subject, but as for his work -- apart from his thorough familiarity with it, and such unsubstantiated claims as where he calls Proust 'the greatest novelist of the new century' -- White is inclined to contain the aesthetic implications of what he achieved by hedging it around with the contingencies of time and place:

Perhaps the theory of the primacy of involuntary memory appeals to readers because it assures us that nothing is ever truly forgotten and that art is nothing but the accumulation of memories. This utterly democratic view that we are all novelists who have been handed by destiny one big book, the story of our lives, appeals to anyone who has ever felt the tug towards self-expression but has feared not being skilled enough to get his feelings down. Of course what Proust leaves out of the equation are three essential things: the fact that he happened to live at one of the highpoints of culture and civilization (if not of literary creation); his natural gifts of eloquence, analysis of psychology, and assimilation of information; and finally his willingness to sacrifice his life to his art. (p. 129)

The second and third of these are fair points indeed, but the first I find extraordinary. As White had written earlier -- and which he refers to here, ambiguously, in the parenthesis -- at the time that Proust was writing in Paris, he was hardly surrounded by other great or inspiring literary minds. Proust drew on the writings of earlier times and other language traditions: the writings of Nerval, Balzac, Goethe, George Eliot and, of course, John Ruskin. This over-valuing of the serendipity of place and time -- a form of snobbery that I can imagine Proust would have loved to write about -- seems always to provide the ready excuse for many would-be writers or artists who simply want to explain away their lack of application: if only they were living in fin de siècle Paris, if only they were in New York, if only... Flaubert deliberately kept away from the literary scene in Paris -- in provincial Rouen -- so that he might produce a text as strong and new and strange as Madame Bovary. Proust might have given himself all sorts of excuses for not getting down to write what he wanted to write, but when he felt himself to be dying he forced himself to work as he had never worked before, in his ugly but serviceable rooms on the boulevard Haussmann.

If there were three significant factors in Proust's favour, I would say that, in addition to the last two in Edmund White's list, one of them was that he didn't have to work for his living, and many of us in the world would envy him that.


  1. Great post! Proust may not have been surrounded by literary minds, but he was in Paris, the epicenter of the cultural world. So I think White has a valid point to make, even if he doesn't really substantiate his claim. If you read the first few chapters of "The World Republic of Letters", Pascale Casanova does a fair job of arguing for Paris' cultural supremacy as well as charting how it became the epicenter of all things cultural for a long time.

  2. Thanks, the above fore-mentioned! Always ready to read more about this city. Actually, I'm sure I'd be convinced by any solid argument re its cultural supremacy at the time. I'm just intrigued by how much Proust's achievement is often, strangely, limited by references to this context: a kind of Proust decorated by the salons, galleries and concerts he frequented.

  3. I haven't read much critical work regarding Proust I am sad to say. I have read a collection of his letters and I am up to volume four of the Penguin series of "In search of lost time". But I really should read some of the critical discussions when I get time, it sounds fascinating.

    Casanova's work is very interesting; if you can get hold of it, it certainly offers lots of other avenues to explore.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.