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[Given that it was written before the final volumes of Lost Time had even been rendered into English, this essay by the American literary and social critic Edmund Wilson strikes me as not only perceptive but timeless.]

A Short View of Proust

by Edmund Wilson
from The New Republic, March 21, 1928

The final volumes of Marcel Proust's novel have at last been published (Le Temps Retrouvé. Paris: Librairie Gallimard) and it has now for the first time become possible to judge the work as a whole. À La Recherche du Temps Perdu has been peculiarly unfortunate in the conditions under which it has had to appear. The whole book was written by Proust between 1906 and 1912 [well, not quite!]. The first section was published in the November of 1913, on the eve of the War. The publication of the second section, of which the proofs had already been printed when war was declared, was postponed until after the Armistice. At this time, Proust expressed a desire to have the whole book (which, in the meantime, he was rewriting so as to include the War) published at once in four volumes; but the publishers would only consent to bring out A l'Ombre des jeunes Filles en Fleur by itself. The other volumes, however, followed at intervals of a year, until Proust's death in 1922. This created another obstacle: we can well believe that the difficulties of the editors in deciphering Proust's manuscript and correcting the text were extreme. In any case, Albertine Disparue did not appear until 1925; and Le Temps Retrouvé has only just brought the story to its conclusion, fourteen years after the appearance of the beginning and five years after Proust's death.

It has thus been peculiarly difficult, not merely to estimate Proust's success as an artist, but even to read him properly. The situation seems to have got on his nerves: he is always worrying in his letters for fear the early part of his novel, read without the rest, may seem incoherent and meaningless, or protesting against critics who have accused him of following a random association of ideas: "Where I was looking for fundamental laws, I was described as preoccupied with detail." What astonishes us today, with the whole enormous book before us, is the steadiness and the logic with which he has carried out so vast a design, his complete mastery of his complex subject; and it is worth while to review the whole work, making such reflections as would have been impossible with anything less than the whole before us.

Proust's novel is, then, a symphonic structure rather than, in the ordinary sense, a narrative. Like so many other important modern writers, Proust had been reared in the school of symbolism and had all the symbolist's preoccupation with musical effects. Like many of his generation, he was probably as deeply influenced by Wagner as by any writer of books, and it is characteristic of his conception of his art that he was in the habit of speaking of the "themes" of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. The book begins with what is really an overture, of which it is important, as we shall see later, to note the first chord: "Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure," followed by a second sentence inwhich the word "temps" twice recurs. It is the vague world of sleep: the narrator, in his darkened room, has lost all sense of external reality, all perception even of the room itself. He fancies himself in other places where, in the course of his life, he has slept: a child at his grandfather's house; a visitor in a country house; at a summer hotel; in winter in a military town; in Paris; at Venice. "Ah, at last I've fallen asleep, even though mother never came to say good-night!" This is the first theme to be developed: we find ourselves in the grandfather's house. M. Swann is coming to dinner, and the boy's father sends him to bed without his mother's good-night kiss. The child is sensitive and nervous: he cannot sleep till his mother has kissed him. He sends her a note by the maid, but she refuses to come. The child is in anguish. He lies for hours awake, till he hears the door-bell ring and knows that M. Swann has left. Then he goes out into the hallway and throws himself upon his mother, as she is coming up to bed. She is angry at first: she and his grandmother, who are already aware of his tendency toward morbid sensibility, have adopted with him a policy of firmness. But the father takes pity on him and induces the mother to go in and comfort him. She reads him to sleep and spends the night in his room.

Thereafter we are introduced to a variety of personages associated with Combray, the small provincial town where the boy's grandfather lives: a hypochondriac aunt who refuses to stir from her bed; a provincial snob who longs to know the great people of the countryside, the Guermantes; an unhappy old music teacher, whom everybody pities because his daughter has disgraced him. M. Swann has married beneath him and comes to stay, with his wife and daughter, at his estate outside the town. The memories of boyhood are suddenly dropped and Proust tells us at length about Swann's marriage: though rich and in smart society, he falls in love, rather late in life, with a stupid cocotte, who drives him mad with jealousy. When Du côté de chez Swann first appeared, even those who recognized its genius were troubled by its apparent lack of direction. Today, we can admire the ingenuity with which Proust, in these first pages of his book, has succeeded in introducing nearly every important character. And not merely every strand of his plot, but also every philosophic theme. We are able here to observe already one feature which all of his characters appear to exhibit in common. All seem to be suffering from some form of unsatisfied longing or disappointed hope: all are sick with some form of the ideal. Legrandin wants to know the Guermantes; Vinteuil is wounded in his love for his daughter; Swann, associating,the beauty of Odette with that of the women of Botticelli, identifies his passion for her, ridiculously and tragically, with all the neglected artistic ambitions which he has always desired to pursue. At the end of the history of Swann, we are back in the narrator's boyhood: he has himself conceived a romantic admiration for the beautiful Mme. Swann and he makes a practice of waiting for her in the Bois de Boulogne merely to see her pass. This very November, he concludes, he has happened to walk in the Bois: the trees were brilliant with autumn; he describes the cold beauty of the day; but it is entirely a different beauty from the beauty which once intoxicated him. "The reality which I had known existed no longer. Because Mme. Swann did not arrive at the same time as when I was young and looking as I used to see her, the Avenue seemed quite different. The places which we have known do not belong only to the world of space, where we locate them for convenience. They have been only a narrow slice among other adjacent impressions which made up our life of that time; the memory of a certain image is only the regret of a certain instant; and the houses, the roads and the avenues are fugitive, alas! like the years."

Proust had at one time had the idea of dividing his novel into three parts and calling them respectively: "The Age of Names," "The Age of Words," and "The Age of Things." We are now in the age of names: we see everything—love, art and the great—through the imagination of boyhood. A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur is, as it were, one long revery. It contains only one conspicuous episode. The boy falls in love with the daughter of Swann, with whom he plays in the Champs-Elysées. But the hysterical over-eagerness, the undisciplined need to lean excessively on other people, of the spoiled child he has become, now that his parents have already begun to treat him like an invalid who must be humored and indulged, end by exasperating the little girl and rendering her indifferent. She snubs him one day, and he is still able to muster enough strength of will to satisfy his wounded pride by breaking off with her: he betrays his weakness, however, by carrying his policy to the extreme of refusing ever to see her again.

continued in part 2