Friday, June 3, 2011

How Marcel becomes Proust

In one of the narrow aisles on the eighth floor of Fisher stack, at Sydney University, I came across Thierry Marchaisse's fascinating book, which deserves to be translated: Comment Marcel devient Proust: Enquête sur l'énigme de la créativité ('How Marcel becomes Proust: an inquiry into the enigma of creativity' would be an approximate translation, although it is likely that the English title would use 'became'). Here Marchaisse argues that in September 1909 Marcel, still only a thirty-eight-year-old dilettante, experienced a significant breakthrough and how it was not just greater self-discipline that got him at last working on À la recherche du temps perdu, which was clearly of a very different order to his previous book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours, or even the then unpublished but superficially similar Jean Santeuil.

Marchaisse refers to Proust's own claims that la Recherche was basically 'une demonstration' and compares it to Andrew Wiles's presentation of Fermat's last theorem in 1994, where one of the main points of the 'demonstration' was that it was performative. This breakthrough, Marchaisse explains, came about when Proust, while working on Contre Sainte-Beuve, read Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe, a serialised, digressive novel in the first person about the narrator becoming a composer. As a piece of writing, Jean-Christophe seems not to have impressed Proust at all, but never-the-less, as Marchaisse argues, it seems also to have suggested to him a formal solution for how he could bring together in one work what hitherto he had been trying unsuccessfully to do in the separate fictional and critical strands of his writing -- a formal solution which hinged on a careful, highly conscious use of the first person that enabled him to develop an infinitely expandable and yet rigorously determined text analogous to the mathematical marvel of a Mobius band.

Unlike Jean-Christophe, which could never, as a novel, enact the music that the eponymous narrator is supposed to be able to produce by the end of the work, la Recherche enfolds the narrator into the substance of the text that the narrator is preparing to write, which is the text itself. Marchaisse points out that one of the 'signes manouches' that Proust has left in his work of this 'mobienne' intention is the peculiar way, ignored by printed editions, that the last full stop on the very last page of his manuscript does not come after the supposed final word of the novel, 'Temps', but after the word 'Fin' or 'the end'.


  1. Cher Jen Craig,
    J'ai été très sensible à votre compte rendu et à votre appel à une traduction anglaise de mon petit essai. Puissiez-vous être entendu par quelque éditeur de langue anglaise!
    Votre lecture est si claire et si précise, que je ne peux m'empêcher de vous faire deux remarques amicales.
    La première est que le verbe au présent de mon titre est aussi très étrange en français. Cette bizarrerie a pour fonction d'introduire la sorte de "présent d'éternité" qui caractérise la Recherche en tant qu'oeuvre performative.
    La deuxième est que le Jean-Christophe de Romain Rolland a bien le même sujet que La recherche (une vocation créatrice), mais il est écrit très classiquement à la troisième personne. Ce qui éloigne encore plus le roman "idéologique" de Rolland du traité autoréférentiel proustien.
    Bien cordialement,
    Thierry Marchaisse

  2. Votre premier remarque était très interessante. Je ne m’étais pas rendu compte que c’était aussi étrange en français. Je me demands quelle serait la meilleure traduction entre le ‘present simple’ et le ‘present continuous’ en anglais, le premier etant plus abstract que l’autre. Votre deuxième remarque sur le rôle du ‘je’ dans la fonction performative de La Recherche était aussi très interessante et je suis contente que vous l’ayez fait remarquer.

  3. Sorry: I should add for readers of English only that Thierry Marchaisse wanted to point out that his use of the present tense in the title of his book was also unusual in French, and that with this he wanted to introduce the 'eternally present' that is enacted during the reading of so much of la Recherche.

    He also wanted to emphasise that, although La Recherche and Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe share the same subject (ie the vocation of the creative artist), the fact that the ideologically driven work of Rolland was written very traditionally in the third person further distances it from Proust's self-reflective treatment.

  4. Odd, I discovered this post because I just began reading "Jean Cristophe" and was so struck by its conceptual similarity to Proust's work that I had to look up its publication date. I then because convinced that Proust had, in some way, been influenced by it -- to write both "Jean Santeuil" (note the similarity in title) and "La Recherce." Your post seems to bear out my suspicion, and adds the fascinating possibility that Proust wrote "La Recherce" to demonstrate how "Jean Cristophe" could have been done.

  5. Interesting that you noticed a conceptual similarity. I'm curious now to read Jean-Christophe.

  6. Why is it that, two years after Thierry Marchaisse's correction of my translation of the title of his piece (almost to the day), I have only now changed it? Why not earlier? Perhaps I thought it more 'honest' to leave my original title as it was, given that this series of comments would have elaborated on what might have been wrong with it. Today, however, I have embraced the formal possibilities -- permissions -- of the weblog. After all, my post is only a sign.