Contre Saint-Beuve II


Proust speaks of his talent for finding the “song” in an author.

 When I began to read an author I very soon caught the tune of the song beneath the words, which in each author is distinct from that of every other; and while I was reading, and without knowing what I was doing, I hummed it over, hurrying the words, or slowing them down, or suspending them, in order to keep time with the rhythm of the notes, as one does in singing, where in compliance with the shape of the tune one often delays for a long time before coming to the last syllable of a word. (265)

At this time, just before beginning ISOLT, he is still composing the tune for this novel. The sketches in Contre Saint-Beuve are thin and far from their final form. Consider the early portrait of Charlus, in the chapter titled A race accursed.

Early every afternoon there appeared a tall stout gentleman with a strutting gait; his moustache was dyed, and he always wore a flower in his buttonhole: this was the Marquis de Quercy. He walked through the courtyard and went to call on his sister, Mme. de Guermantes…His life was extremely methodical; he saw the Guermantes daily from one till two, spent the next hour with Mme. de Villeparisis whose flat was overhead, then went on to his club where he did various things…(211)

 But even as I said this to myself, I seemed to see a magical reversal taking place in M. de Quercy. He had not moved, but all of a sudden he was illuminated by a light from within, in which everything about him that I had found startling, perplexing, contradictory, had been harmoniously resolved as soon as I said those words to myself: “One would take him for a woman.” I had understood, he was one. He was one of them. He belonged to that race of beings who are in effect, since it is precisely because their temperament is feminine that they worship manliness, at cross-purposes with themselves, who go through life apparently in step with other men, but bearing about with them, on that little disk of the eye’s pupil, through which we look at the world and on which our desire is engraved, the body, not of a nymph but of a youth, who casts his shadow, virile and erect, over all they see and all they do. A race accursed…(218)

 When M. de Quercy was a little boy, when his playmates told him about the pleasures of going with a woman, he pressed up against them, supposing he only partook in a common wish for the same excitements. Later on, he felt that they would not be the same; he felt it, but did not say so, nor say so to himself. On moonless nights he went out of his castle in Poitou and followed the lane into the road that goes to the castle of his cousin, Guy de Gressac. Here, at the crossroads, they met, and on the grass bank they renewed what had been the games of their childhood…(225)

But there were times when, just as the desire for a perverse pleasure may blossom for once in a normal being, he was haunted by a desire that the body he clasped to his own might have had the breasts of a woman, breasts like tea-roses, and other more sequestered characteristics. He fell in love with a girl of high breeding whom he married and for fifteen years all his desires were contained in his desire for her, like a deep river in a blue-tinted bathing-pool. He marvelled at himself, like the  former dyspeptic who for twenty years could take nothing but milk and who lunches and dines every day at the Café Anglais, like the idler turned industrious, like the reformed drunkard. She died; and the knowledge that he had found the cure for his sickness made him less afraid to relapse into it. (229)

The language is conventional, the characterization merely descriptive. But through a magical reversal, Charlus would emerge in his glorious, flaming, queenly self.

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3 Responses to “Contre Saint-Beuve II”

  1. cantueso Says:

    I have no idea what this is. What is it? Is it an essay on literature?

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Contre Saint-Beuve is the seed journal that grew into ISOLT. Proust was opposed to Saint-Beuve’s notion that to understand a work of literature you had to understand the biography of the author. I agree with Proust, but think he may have had some motivation from wishing to separate his social life from his life as an artist. Proust was widely considered a social butterfly, to the extent that Gide refused to even read his manuscript and thereby missing the opportunity to be his publisher.

  2. cantueso Says:

    I only know his main work and have never heard of ISOLT, unless, indeed, is that short for the English title of the Recherche? There, instead of a song, he says there is sobbing that is distant but can be heard the way one hears the bells of a distant church at dusk.

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