The Legacy of Proust

Henri Peyre, in his Critical Essay “The Legacy of Proust”, writes that following the initial acclaim of ISOLT there followed a sharp drop in his stock.  Witness the denunciations by writers of the time.

W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, venturing to appraise the literary stock market in their Letters from Iceland, prophesied–wrongly–‘some further weakening in Proust.” Philip Guedalla had, much earlier, coined one of his bons mots in accounting that the vogue for Proust would hardly outlast a ‘Marcel wave.’ ‘Water jelly,’ exclaimed D. H. Lawrence to characterize that strange cold-blooded animal who scientifically and patiently dissociated ideas, emotions, and sensations. ‘Ploughing a field with knitting needles’ was George Moore’s description of Proust. Aldous Huxley, one of the very few living writers who had the honor of a flattering mention in Proust’s novel, placed some ungrateful lines in the mouth of one of his characters in Eyeless in Gaza.

‘How I hate old Proust!…that asthmatic seeker of lost time squatting, horribly white and flabby, with breasts almost female but fledged with long black hairs, for ever squatting in the tepid bath of his remembered past…There he sat, a pale repellent invalid, taking up spongefuls his own thick soup and squeezing it over his face…(28-29)

Revulsion at his depiction of “abnormal love” and the tendency of the next generation to dismiss the prior one are perhaps expected. As is Proust’s failure to depict “class struggle” and the lives of ordinary working people, although he did pretty well with the servant class. Peyre concedes these points but considers them ephemeral. Proust’s greatness lies, of course, in qualities as a novelist, the foremost being the creation of the most vividly drawn characters in literature.

While Charlus is the incomparable hero of Proustian fiction, perhaps of twentieth-century fiction altogether, Swann, though less dominant in the saga, lays bare more clearly Proust’s process of character presentation and delineation. Like all the others, he is a blend of several persons observed by the author in reality. He first appears to the narrator when the latter, a sensitive child, surrounds him with mystery and accumulates baffling contradictions on the wealthy neighbor of Combray. Proust depicts his physique in rapid touches, renders his language, gradually suggests him among his family, his sets of friends. Like most Proustian characters, Swann leads a double life and is himself ambivalent. He is one of the very few exceptions who, perhaps because he dies before the middle of the work, is never carried away in the infernal homosexual round. But he cherishes dolorous and languid women, Botticelli-like, in art, yet, in real life, concretely embraces Rubens-like cooks, servants, and unrefined country girls. He is addicted to dreaming and sharpens his acute nervous sensitiveness to the point of welcoming pain, but he is not capable of the effort needed to mature in solitude and to create a work of art. He thus fills an essential function in the novel. He opens up the world of art to Marcel but fails to show him how to penetrate deeply into it, as Elstir will teach him. He points to the peril of living a purely mundane life and of being engulfed by it to the point of losing the ability to concentrate and to create. and he prefigures for Marcel all the tortures of sickly love, anguish, lack of will, and jealousy that will punctuate with their monotonous burden every subsequent passionate pilgrimage within the long novel. (36-37)

Peyre, too, finds the association of Proust with schools of philosophy and psychology of little interest. But he does place Proust in the school of the romantics, who placed imagination at the center.

More aptly than the much abused adjective ‘Bergsonian,’ the broader word ‘romantic’ would designate the best in the Proustian vision. The romantics restored ‘the pleasures of imagination’ to the forefront. Romantic heroes, and, even more, romantic heroines, enjoyed the expectation of all joys, and particularly the sinful ones, far more than the fulfillment of such expectations; for reality regularly disappointed them. Like Emma Bovary after she had decided to seek the realization of her bookish dreams with pitifully selfish lovers, they confessed to ‘experiencing nothing extraordinary’ even in forbidden pleasures. But, and on another plane, imagination was the goddess worshipped by Coleridge, Poe, Baudelaire, and Proust. It alone constituted the whole of love according to Proust; it lay at its source in any case, and it provoked all other pleasures, transfiguring to secondary characters fleetingly colored by the narrator’s magic lantern persons from M. de Charlus, Mme de Guermantes, la Berma, and Bergotte to Mlle de Stermaria or the dairy girl of whom he caught a glimpse from the train taking him to Balbec. Proust’s claim to greatness lies in part in that irradiation of imagination, enriched by a retentive and transfiguring memory, which turns a weight of matter into gold, and transmutes vices, jealousies, and suspicions into beauty. (39-40)


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