Contre Saint-Beuve Sketches


In the years prior to writing ISOLT, Proust wrote continuously, including an 800 page novel, Jean Santeuil. A journal he kept at the time, called now Contre Saint-Beuve (and collected in  Marcel Proust on Art and Literature), contains a number of sketches that Proust will later unfold like a Japanese paper flower and include in his better known novel.

I dipped the toast  in the cup of tea and as soon as I put it in my mouth, and felt its softened texture, all flavoured with tea, against my palate, something came over me–the smell of geraniums and orange-blossoms, a sensation of extraordinary radiance and happiness; I sat quite still, afraid that the slightest movement might cut short this incomprehensible process which was taking place in me, and concentrated on the bit of sopped toast which seemed responsible for all these marvels; then suddenly the shaken partitions in my memory gave way, and into my conscious mind there rushed the summers I had spent in the aforesaid house in the country, with their early mornings, and succession, the ceaseless onset, of happy hours in their train. (19-20)

As I was walking through a pantry the other day, a piece of green canvas plugging a broken window-pane made me stop dead and listen inwardly. A gleam of summer crossed my mind. Why? I tried to remember. I saw wasps in a shaft of sunlight, a smell of cherries came from the table–I could not remember. For a moment I was like those sleepers who wake up in the dark and do not  know where they are, who ask their bodies to give them a bearing as to their whereabouts, not know what bed, what house, what part of the world, which year of their life they are in. (22)

But as soon as I tasted the rusk, a whole garden, up till then vague and dim, mirrored itself, with its forgotten walks and all their urns with all their flowers, in the little cup of tea, like those Japanese flowers which do not re-open as flowers until one drops them into water. In the same way, my days in Venice, which intellect had not been able to give back, were dead for me until last year, when crossing a courtyard I came to a standstill among the glittering uneven paving stones….I still did not know what it was, but in the depth of my being I felt the flutter of a past that I did not recognise…(20-21)

A railway time-table with its names of stations where he loves to fancy himself getting out of the train on an autumn evening when the trees are already stripped of their leaves and the bracing air is full of their rough scent, or a book that means nothing to people of discrimination but is full of names he has not hear since he was a child, can bw worth incommensurably more to him than admirable philosophical treatises…(24-25)

This is the hour when some sick man, lodged for the night in a strange hotel and roused by a savage assault of pain, sees with rejoicing a streak of daylight under his door. Heaven be praised, it is already morning!–in a minute or two the hotel will be astir, he will be able to ring his bell, some one will come and look after him…At that moment, the streak of light under his door goes out. It is midnight, they have turned off the gas whose light he mistook for the light of morning, and all the long night through he will have to lie anguishing and unaided. (28)

When the art that claims to be realistic suppresses that inestimable truth, the witness of their imagination, it suppresses the only thing of value; and on the other hand, if it records it, it enriches the meanest material; it could give a value to snobbery if instead of describing it in its relation to fashionable life–where, like real love, real travel, it counts for nothing–it tried to recover it in the light that never was–the only true one–that plays from the longing eyes of a young snob on the violet-eyed Countess as she set out in her carriage on a summer Sunday. (54)

Unlike those passages, Proust contracts (censors?) the following in the novel.

It was an unusually spacious room for a water-closet….Then, in search of a pleasure that I did not know, I began to explore myself, and if I had been engaged in performing a surgical operation on my brain and marrow I could not have been more agitated, more terrified. I believed at every moment that I should die….At last a shimmering jet arched forth, spurt after spurt, as when the fountain at Saint-Cloud begins to play….In that moment I felt a sort of caress surrounding me. It was the scent of lilac-blossom, which in my excitement I had grown unaware of. But a bitter smell, like the smell of sap, was mixed with it, as though I had snapped the branch. I had left a trail on the leaf, silvery and natural as a thread of gossamer or a snail-track, that was all. (30-31)

 

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