Old Snail Shell


One of the sources of ISOLT was an essay, Contre Saint-Beueve, which argued against connecting a work of literature too closely with its author. Who, he might be thinking defensively, expects a great work from a social butterfly? The dangers of relying on these connections is evident in the scene where Marcel finally gets to meet his idol, Bergotte.

The name Bergotte made me start, like the sound of a revolver fired at me point blank, but instinctively, to keep my countenance, I bowed: there, in front of me, like one of those conjurers whom we see standing whole and unharmed, in their frock-coats,  in the smoke of a pistol shot out of which a pigeon had just fluttered, my greeting was returned by a youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man, with a red nose curled like a a snail-shell and a goatee beard. I was cruelly disappointed, for what had just vanished in the dust of the explosion was not only the languorous old man, of whom no vestige now remained, but also the beauty of an immense work which I had contrived to enshrine in the frail and hallowed organism that I had constructed , like a temple, expressly for it, but for which no room was to be found in the squat figure, packed tight with blood vessels, bones, glands, sinews, of the little man with the snub nose and black beard who stood before me. (II,164)

…he smiled as he bore his mind back to the idea of his books; which at once began to fall in my estimation (bringing down with them the whole value of Beauty, of the world, of life itself), until they seemed to have been merely the casual recreation of a man with a goatee beard….An then I asked my self whether originality did indeed prove that great writers are gods, ruling each over a kingdom that is his alone, or whether there is not an element of sham in it all, whether the differences between one man’s books and another’s were not the result of their respective labours rather than the expression of a radical and essential difference between diverse personalities. (II,167)

 Marcel, as we will see, gets over this shock but not without damage to his estimation of Bergotte. The point as I take it is not so much the disparity between the idealization of the author and the physical reality, but that we should ignore the writer as a person when we read his book. Otherwise, I know that I would not have picked up Proust after reading about some the nastier erotic amusements he engaged in in brothels.

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