A Short View of Proust (continued)

by Edmund Wilson

This episode with Albertine, upon which Proust put so much labor and which he intended for the climax of his book, has undoubtedly hitherto been the section least popular with his readers. I believe, however, that future readers will do Proust the justice of recognizing it as one of the most important love affairs in fiction. It is presented on so vast a scale that it makes considerable demands on the attention; and the interruption of its publication at the time of Proust's death made it particularly difficult to follow. Albertine is seen in so many varying moods, made the subject of so many ideas, dissociated into so many different images, that we sometimes become submerged and lose sight of the basic situation, of Proust's unwavering and masterly grasp of the characters of both the lovers, which make the catastrophe inevitable. Furthermore, the episode of Albertine does not supply us with any of the the things which we ordinarily expect from love affairs in novels. But that is precisely its strength: it is one of the most original studies of love in fiction and, in spite of the rather highly special conditions under which it is made to take place, it has a profound universal truth. And it ends by moving us in a curious way, precisely when Proust seems casually to have neglected all the customary machinery by which emotion is produced. The tragedy of Albertine is the tragedy of the little we know and the little we are able to care about those persons whom we know best and for whom we care most; and those pages which tell how Albertine's lover forgot her after she was dead, by reason of their very departure from any other treatment of death which we remember in literature, give us that impression of a bolder honesty, of a closer approach to reality, which we get only from the highest and most original genius.

We must now, however, attack Proust's central ideas, of which this episode is the chief illustration. We have already been shown the failure of Swann to realize in Odette his vague esthetic longings. So the narrator's friend, Saint-Loup, has made himself miserable over a wretched little actress whom the hero has formerly known in a brothel, but who wears the aspect for Saint-Loup of all the charms and all the talents. So now the narrator himself has proved the fatal impossibility of ever finding our happiness in another individual. A woman will not, and cannot, live in the world in which we would have her—that is, the world in which we live, which we ourselves imagine; and what we love in her is merely the product of our own imagination: we have supplied her with it ourself. This tragic subjectivity of love is even more striking in the case of the sexual inverts (for Proust supplements the normal love affairs of Swann and of the narrator, with, as it were, homosexual annexes, consisting, on the one hand, of Charlus and his friends, and, on the other, of Albertine and her Lesbian companions); for here, to the eyes of a normal person, there is nothing romantic to be seen at all. In the case of a wholly noble and disinterested love, such as the grandmother's for the boy, the discrepancy is perhaps even more hopeless: for the boy simply takes all her attentions for granted, is too self-centered to be aware of her sufferings and scarcely thinks about her at all until after she is dead. And by one of his happiest strokes, Proust further shows us that the odious Mme. Verdurin is a victim of the same malady as the rest: her fierce despotism over her "little clan," her frenzied efforts to keep them together, her nagging them to come to her house and her persecuting them when they fail to, are all merely another form of the same passion which has tormented the narrator, Charlus and Swann: jealousy—in this case, transferred from an individual to a group. Nor are the lovers the only persons who fail through seeking to share their lives with other human beings, to extend their own private reality to the external world. Legrandin lives to abandon his snobbery; when he is finally invited everywhere, he no longer cares to go out. And, in a terrible culminating episode, Proust shows us the whole futile comedy enacted in unexpected form: Charlus, who has been steadily degenerating, has finally arrived at a phase where all his more human impulses have perished and he has become perverse for the sake of perversity: vice itself has become the ideal. But his efforts to degrade himself are as ill-fated as the grandmother's efforts to consecrate her life to others: for the persons he pays to collaborate with him care nothing about being vicious; their heart is hopelessly not in their work. Even in pursuing evil, where satisfaction depends on others, man is doomed to disappointment. And even here Proust does not fail to show us in Charlus's senile and abject soul the last vibrations of that hope and love which life has nearly destroyed.

Nor does Proust's pursuit of this theme stop here. The conviction that it is impossible to know, impossible to master, the external world, permeates his whole book. It is reiterated on almost every page, in a thousand different connections: Albertine's lies; the gossip about the heir-apparent of Luxemburg; the contradictory diagnoses of the doctors on the grandmother's illness: the ticking of the watch in Saint-Loup's room, which the visitor is unable to locate; the names in the railway timetable of the towns in the neighborhood of Balbec, which first rouse romantic images in the mind of the boy and whose etymologies are explained by the cure of Combray, then become for the young man simply the stations of the Balbec railway and are later explained differently and authoritatively by Brichot, so that they take on an entirely new suggestiveness. This subjective world, in Proust, presents itself, like the universe of certain modern philosophers, as a continual flux: just as the alleys of the Bois de Boulogne, as he once saw them in his youth, under the influence of Odette, have now changed to something else; so love changes and fails us, and so society, which at first seems so stable, in a few years has recombined its groups and merged and transformed its classes. And, as in the universe of those philosophers who employ the concepts of modern physics, the world is a structure of events, interdependent, each event involving the whole, an organism; so Proust's application on an unprecedented scale of the metaphysics implicit in literary symbolism has the effect of enmeshing his whole book in a dense network of relations, of complicated cross-references between different groups of characters and of a multiplication of metaphors and similes connecting the phenomena of infinitely varied fields—biological, zoological, physical, esthetic, social, political and financial.

And as James Joyce, in Ulysses, varies the texture of his narrative to representthe varying times of day and the varying states of mind of his characters, so does Proust, on his scale of a life-time, where the varying color and tone of the narrative correspond to the varying periods of the hero's career. To the iridescent reveries of boyhood succeed the talk, the sociability and the vivacity of young manhood; and to these, with that wonderful sunrise which brings to the hero, not the splendor of the morning, but the dawning of the knowledge of human corruption and cruelty, succeeds a nightmare of the passions, which at its climax, in the almost demoniacal scene where the Verdurins set Morel against Charlus, seems blasted with the dry breath of Hell. It is characteristic of Proust that, for all the fascination which the vices with which lie is here preoccupied undoubtedly had for him and for all the comedy which he extracts from them, he should give to this part of his book the Scriptural title, "Sodom and Gomorrah". We feel indeed that all the characters are damned. Swann and the grandmother are dead. Bergotte dies; and at his death it is intimated, as it has already been intimated in connection with the composer Vinteuil, that only in artistic creation may we hope to find our compensation for the horror, the sterility and the despair of the world.

continued in part 6

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