On hearing of Proust’s death in 1922, his translator, Scott Moncrieff, solicited short appreciative essays from members of his literary circle. He didn’t hear back from Virginia Wolff, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley or E.M. Forster, but enough did reply to fill a small volume: Marcel Proust, An English Tribute. Presented here are a few passages that are particularly insightful on how Proust developed his characters.
He is, perhaps, if we return to that definition of the difference between a novel and a play, more of the essential novelist than any man has ever been. His aim is by a hundred different methods to make you know his chief characters, not as if you were meeting them every day, but as if you yourself had for the moment actually been living in their skins and inhabiting their minds. Everything possible must be done to help you to this end. You must feel the repulsions and attractions they feel; you must even share their ancestors, their upbringing, and the class in which they live, and share them so intimately that with you, as with them, they have become second nature. Nor is even this enough. The man who knows himself is not common, and to know Proust’s characters as you know yourself may only be a small advance in knowledge. So every motive of importance, every reaction to whatever stimulus they receive, is analysed and explained until your feeling will probably be, not only how well you know this being, who is in so many respects unlike you, but how far more your own most distressing and ridiculous actions, how far more understandable is an attitude to life or to our neighbours that you yourself have almost unconsciously, and perhaps in mere self-protection, adopted. (Ralph Wright, 36-37)
If I say that I regard Proust as the only completely satisfying poetical record, the most important literary phenomenon of our time, I feel that I am involved in an argument with people who think that the relentless effusion of modern verse has [no] more significance than, let us say, a bath tap which has been left running. And I simply do not want to argue about what I enjoy. If I say that Proust represents the apex hitherto reached by the feminine or realistic art of this age, just as Stendhal represents the culmination of the masculine or ideological art of the eighteenth century, or that Proust arrives at the general through an incredibly sensitive exploration of the particular, whereas Stendhal achieves the particular by his exquisite consciousness of the general, I am involved in a lecture. And I simply do not want to lecture about what I enjoy. The trouble is that, in order to demonstrate Proust to people who have not read him, one ought to have as subtle a power of evocation, as rich a manner of suggestion as Proust himself, who could, I believe, make even a dream interesting, so that we should live in that dream and extract from it the essential flavour of its peculiarity as authentically as the dreamer. That is why Proust writes of childhood with such magic. He manages to recognize, in the complication of events that merely occur and are forgotten, the ideal duration in which they were imbedded and which gave them their material weight and spiritual portentousness. It is only in childhood, or at any rate only in isolated fragments of time later, that we possess at all intimately this sense of duration when objects appeal to us as their essential selves, as pure energies. At other periods we value them according as they forward our lives, according as they are useful to us, and thus we lose our sense of their independent existence. (Compton Mackenzie, 61-62)
Two passages on Proust’s understanding of the female character:
And when we recall the endless pains expended, through Swann’s love for her, on Odette, on the making indeed a mirror of that love for the woman by whom it was inspired and from whom it drew its strength and weakness, we realise that purposely the author has left of Gilberte ” a loveliness perceived in twilight, a beauty not clearly visioned”; that he considered the emotions felt for her not to be a response to any emanation from herself; but that she was rather a focus, a rallying point, for the aspirations and intimations of boyhood; that she was in herself uninteresting, filling rather than creating a position in the life of the “moi” of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. (Alec Waugh, 63-64)
We all know with what liveliness in conversation any man with the gifts of observation and wit can create an image for us of some female “character” met with in his childhood or his travels. But let that same man come to speak out of his emotions of some woman who has moved him deeply, then his heart will cloud his brain, his will no longer be capable of outlining a portrait. As listeners our impressions of his subject will be gained, not from what he says, but independently from what we perceive that he feels, which may well be in direct conflict with his words. In life, that is to say, the more important a character is to us the more we are thrown back for our ultimate knowledge on the emotions aroused by that character in ourselves. In fiction it is usually the other way about. It is his central figures whom the novelist pretends to know best. Proust, however, has recognised this discrepancy with scientific clearness. he devotes himself, therefore, where his important women are concerned–aside from the very minimum of detached, objective observations–to a presentment of the effect they have upon the men that love them…
It is in this differential treatment of his women that we perceive how rigourously Proust applies his artistic method He never seeks to transcend his own personality. In him, the observer, the whole of creation lives and moves and has its being. Men are creatures made in his own image. He can faithfully follow his own emotions, and “by his belief” can conscientiously endow his men with souls. But women are in a different case. He has no inner guide to assure him that they are anything more than the phantoms they seem. Strictly speaking, this should imply no more than a negative attitude. In fact, however, Proust goes further. Because he has no grounds for belief he passes into unbelief. In his philosophy esse est percipi, therefore, the souls of women for him have no existence. Herein it is likely that he has borne out the unavowed experience of most men. Whether or no, he certainly has expressed the truth of his own experience with a purity that few, even among great writers, can rival. (Catherine Carswell, 72-75)
Joseph Conrad describes his own goal in writing as “the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel… before all, to make you see.” He is amazed at how Proust arrives at these goals in so different a way from himself.
He is a writer who has pushed analysis to the point when it becomes creative. All that crowd of personages in their infinite variety through all the gradations of the social scale are rendered visible to us by the force of analysis alone. I don’t say Proust has no gift of description or characterisation; but, to take an example from each end of the scale: Francoise, the devoted servant, and the Baron de Charlus, a consummate portrait–how many descriptive lines have they got to themselves in the whole body of that immense work? Perhaps, counting the lines, half a page each. And yet no intelligent person can doubt for a moment their plastic and coloured existence. One would think that this method (and Proust has no other, because his method is the expression of this temperament) may be carried too far, but as a matter of fact it is never wearisome. There may be her and there amongst those thousands of pages a paragraph that none might think over-subtle, a bit of analysis pushed so far as to vanish into nothingness. But those are very few, and all minor instances. The intellectual pleasure never flags, because one has the feeling that the last word is being said upon a subject much studied, much written about, and of human interest–the last word of its time. Those that have found beauty in Proust’s work are perfectly right. It is there. What amazes one is its inexplicable character. In that prose so full of life there is no reverie, no emotion, no marked irony, no warmth of conviction, not even a marked rhythm to charm our ear. It appeals to our sense of wonder and gains our homage by its veiled greatness. I don’t think there ever has been in the whole of literature such an example of the power of analysis, and I feel pretty safe in saying that there will never by another. (Joseph Conrad, 126-128)