Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle, writes essays on writers he describes as Symbolists. They include Yeats, Valéry, Eliot, Proust, Joyce and Stern. Here he defines Symbolism:
Every feeling or sensation we have, every moment of consciousness, is different from every other; and it is, in consequence, impossible to render our sensations as we actually experience them through the conventional and universal language of ordinary literature. Each poet has his unique personality; each of his moments has its special tone, its special combination of elements. And it is the poet’s task to find, to invent, the special language which will alone be capable of expressing his personality and feelings. Such a language must make use of symbols: what is so special, so fleeting and so vague cannot be conveyed by direct statement or description, but only by a succession of words, of images, which will serve to suggest it to the reader. The Symbolists themselves, full of the idea of producing with poetry effects like those of music, tended to think of these images as possessing an abstract value like musical notes and chords. But the words of our speech are not musical notation, and what the symbols of Symbolism really were, were metaphors detached from their subjects–for one cannot, beyond a certain point, in poetry, merely enjoy color and sound for their own sake: one has to guess what the images are being applied to. And Symbolism may be defined as an attempt by carefully studied means–a complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors–to communicate unique personal feelings. (21-22)
So how is Proust a Symbolist?
Marcel Proust is the first important novelist to apply the principles of Symbolism to fiction. Proust had assimilated a great variety of writers from Ruskin to Dostoevsky, and he had acquired a remarkable technical virtuosity; but, born in 1871, he had been young in the eighties and nineties, when Symbolism was in the air, and the peculiar methods and form of his great novel certainly owed much to Symbolist theory. I have said that the influence on the Symbolists of Wagner was as considerable as that of any writer of books, and it is significant of Proust’s conception of his art that he should have been in the habit of speaking of his “themes.” His enormous novel, “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” is, in fact, a symphonic structure rather than a narrative in the ordinary sense. The shifting images of the Symbolist poet, with their “multiplied associations,” are here characters, situation, places, vivid moments, obsessive emotions, recurrent patterns of behavior. (132)
Today, we can admire the ingenuity with which Proust, in these first pages of his book, has succeeded in introducing nearly every important character. And not merely every strand of his plot, but also every philosophic theme. We are able here to note already one feature which all his characters have in common. All alike are suffering from some form of unsatisfied longing or disappointed hope: all are sick with some form of the ideal. Legrandin wants to know the Guermantes; Vinteuil is wounded in his love for his daughter; Swann, associating the beauty of Odette with that of the women of Botticelli, ridiculously and tragically identifies his passion for her with the neglected aesthetic interests. (134)
While the novel’s non-narrative, symphonic structure, established Proust as a Symbolist (or what we now call, more inclusively, Modernist), he owes much to the traditional, narrative novel.
The contrast between, on the one hand, the dreams, the broodings and the repinings of the neurasthenic hero, as we get them for such long stretches, and, on the other, the rich and lively social scenes, dramatized by so powerful an imagination, is one of the most curious features of the book. These latter scenes, indeed, contain so much broad humor and so much extravagant satire that, appearing in a modern French novel, they amaze us. Proust, however, was much addicted to English literature: “It is strange,” he writes in a letter, “that, in the most widely different departments, from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there should be no other literature which exercises over me so powerful an influence as English and American.” (136)
As, furthermore, it has been said of Dickens that his villains are so amusing–in their fashion, so enthusiastically alive–that we are reluctant to see the last of them, so we acquire a curious affection for even the most objectionable characters in Proust: Morel, for example, is certainly one of the most odious character in fiction, yet we are never really made to hate him or to wish that we did not have to hear about him, and we feel a genuine regret when Mme. Verdurin, with her false teeth and her monocle, finally vanishes from our sight.This generous sympathy and understanding for even the monstrosities which humanity produces, and Proust’s capacity for galvanizing these monstrosities into energetic life, are at the bottom of the extraordinary success of the tragi-comic hero of Proust’s Sodom, M. de Charlus. But Charlus surpasses Dickens and, as has been said, is almost comparable to Falstaff. In a letter in which Proust explains that he has borrowed certain traits of Charlus from a real person, he adds that the character in the book is, however, intended to be “much bigger,” to “contain much more of humanity”; and it is one of the strange paradoxes of Proust’s genius that he should have been able to create in a character so special a figure of heroic proportions. (137-138)
The heart of the Symbolist/Modernist attempt is to find a bridge from the experience to the expression, from the unknowable to the known. Proust symbolizes this search in his characters.
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 who are consulted about the grandmother’s illness; the attractions of Rivebelle and Balbec, mutually invisible across the water; the ticking of the watch in Saint-Loup’s room, which the visitor is unable to locate;; the names in the railway time-table of the towns in the neighborhood of Balbec, which first rouse romantic images in the mood of the boy and whose etymologies are explained by the curé 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. (156-157)