A Short View of Proust (continued)
by Edmund Wilson
As I have said, we have been submerged through these volumes—and for most tastes, have been submerged far too long—in the reveries of adolescence. But people who have stuck in the "Jeunes Filles en Fleur" and thus know only the subjective Proust inevitably acquire a quite false idea of what his genius is like. We are now to be violently thrown forward into the life of the world outside. The contrast between, on the one hand, the dreams, the broodings and the repinings of the neurasthenic hero, as we get them for such long stretches, and, on the other, the vivid and elaborate social scenes, dramatized and animated by so powerful a vitality, is one of the most curious features of the book. These latter scenes, indeed, contain so much broad humor and so much violent satire, in short, so much extravagance, that, coming in a modern French novel, they amaze us. Proust, however, was much addicted to English literature: "It is strange," he writes in a letter, "that, in the most widely different departments, from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there should be no other literature which exercises over me so powerful an influence as English and American." In the descriptive parts of the early volumes, we have recognized the rhythms of Ruskin; and in the social scenes which now engage us, though Proust has been compared to Henry James, who was deficient in precisely those gifts of vividness and humor which Proust, to such an astonishing degree, possessed, we shall look in vain for anything like them outside the novels of Dickens. We have already been struck, in Du côté de chez Swann, with the singular relief into which the characters were thrown as soon as they began to speak or act.
I feel sure that Proust had read Dickens and that this almost grotesque heightening of character had been partly learned from him. Proust, like Dickens, was a remarkable mimic: as Dickens enchanted his audiences by, dramatic readings from his novels, so, we are told, Proust was celebrated for impersonations of his friends; and both, in their books, carried the gift of caricaturing habits of speech and of inventing things for their personages to say which are almost invariably outrageous without ever ceasing to be characteristic, to a point where it becomes impossible to compare them to anybody but each other. As, furthermore, it has been said of Dickens that his villains are so amusing—in their fashion, so generously alive—that we are reluctant to see the last of them, so we acquire a curious affection for even the most objectionable characters in Proust: Morel, for example, is certainly one of the most odious figures in fiction, yet we never really hate him or wish we did not have to hear about him, and it is with a genuine regret that Mme. Verdurin, with her false teeth and her monocle, finally vanishes from our sight. This generous sympathy and understanding for even the monstrosities which humanity produces, and Proust's capacity for galvanizing them into energetic life, are at the bottom of the extraordinary success of the comic and tragic hero of Proust's Sodom, M. de Charlus. But Charlus surpasses Dickens and, as Edith Wharton has said, is almost comparable to Falstaff. In a letter in which Proust explains that he has borrowed certain traits of Charlus from a real person, he adds that the character in the book is, however, intended to be "far bigger," to "contain much more of humanity"; and it is one of the strange paradoxes of Proust's genius that he should have been able to create in a character so special a figure of heroic proportions and universal significance.
Nor is it only in these respects that Proust reminds us of Dickens. The incidents, as well as the characters, in Proust are sometimes of a violent grotesqueness almost unprecedented in French: Mme. Verdurin dislocating her jaw through laughing at one of Cottard's jokes, the furious smashing by the narrator of Charlus's hat and the latter's calm substitution of another hat in its place, are strokes which no one but Dickens would dare. This heightening in Dickens is theatrical; and we sometimes—though considerably less often—get the same impression in Proust that we are watching a look or a gesture deliberately underlined on the stage—so that Charlus's first encounter with the narrator, when the former looks at his watch and makes "the gesture of annoyance with which one aims to create the impression that one is tired of waiting, but which one never makes when one is actually waiting," and Bloch's farewell to Mme. de Villeparisis, when she attempts to snub him by closing her eyes, seem to take place in the same world as Lady Dedlock's swift second glance at the legal papers in her lover's writing and Mr. Merdle's profound stare into his hat, "as if it were some twenty feet deep," when he has come to borrow the penknife with which he is to kill himself. And I furthermore believe that there is plainly distinguishable in the Verdurin circle an unconscious reminiscence of the Veneerings of Our Mutual Friend: note especially the similarity between theroles played by Twemlow in the latter and in the former by Saniette.
To return, however, the structure of the novel now begins to appear. Proust has made of these social scenes (often several hundred pages long) enormous solid blocks, cemented by, or rather embedded in, a dense medium of introspective revery and commentary mingled with incidents treated on a smaller scale. Proust's handling of these complex social scenes is masterly: it is only in the intermediate sections that we feel he has blurred his effects by allowing the outline of the action to become obscured by the profusion of the hero's reflections on it. We become further aware that these main scenes follow a regular progression. In the early "flashback" to the life of Swann which has been described above, we have already assisted at two social scenes on something less than the full scale. First of all, Swann has gone to dinner at the Verdurins', at whose house he first knows Odette: the Verdurins are outside society altogether and pretend to think smart people "tiresome." They are extremely vulgar bourgeois, who, however, have a furious appetite for entertaining artists and other persons whom they consider clever. Later on, we see Swann at an evening party given by Euverte: a few smart people go to Mme. De Sainte-Euverte's, but they do so with a clear consciousness of being kind to her.
In the part of the book at which we have now arrived, the part which is predominantly social, the narrator first attends an afternoon reception at the house of Mme. de Villeparisis, an aunt of the Guermantes, who, though still on good terms with her family, has at the same time become rather déclassée by reason of a scandalous past, but who is a step above Mme. de Saint-Euverte, as Mme. de Saint-Euverte is a step above Mme. Verdurin; then, a dinner at the house of the Duchesse de Guermantes, who, though one of the smartest hostesses in Paris, occupies not quite the most exalted rank; and finally an evening reception held by the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes, representatives of German royal families and, not merely of the purest blood, but of the most inviolable dignity and correctitude. In the latter part of the book, we shall assist at three more of these scenes: in the first two, we return to the Verdurins, into whose salon the people from the upper strata have now, for one reason or another, begun to filter down; and in the last, which occupies the last chapter, we return to the top again, to the Prince de Guermantes's, at whose matinee we encounter, not only Legrandin and the Saint-Euvertes, but also Odette and a son of the valet of the narrator's uncle; and where the new Princesse de Guermantes turns out to be none other than Mme. Verdurin, whom the Prince, ruined by the defeat of Germany, has married for her money.
In the meantime, however, to return to the section we have been discussing (Le Côté de Guermantes and the first part of Sodome et Gomorrhe), which is principally concerned with the "world" and with worldly people, we here begin also to understand for the first time the author's moral attitude. We are presented with three great social episodes, separated only by briefer incidents and each following the same formula and pointing the same moral. The first of these, the narrator's debut at Mme. de Villeparisis's, is followed immediately by the death of the grandmother, which serves entirely to discredit the values of the snobs with whom the hero has lately been consorting. The grandmother, who has long been ill, goes out for a walk with the boy in the Champs-Elysées. While she has gone to the toilet, the grandson overhears the conversation of the woman who tends the toilet with the keeper of the grounds: "I choose my clients," she explains, "I don't receive everybody in what I call my salons!" The grandmother returns: she also has overheard the conversation: "It sounded exactly like the Guermantes and the Verdurins," she says, as they walk away; and she quotes, as is her habit, from Mme. de Sevigne. But she keeps her head turned away in order to conceal from the boy that she has just had a paralytic stroke. In a flash, by the goodness of the grandmother, for whom any sort of meanness or malice, for whom any sort of snobbery or worldliness, are impossible, Proust has swept down the whole web of social relations which he has just been at such pains to spin.