Archive for January, 2011

Noxious Memory

January 30, 2011

Proust associates unforced memory with a visceral feeling of joy or enchantment, which may precede the conscious awareness of the actual memory. But the association is not always so pleasant. In two passages unforced memories evoke the deepest, sharpest feelings of pain found anywhere in the novel. As is often the case, the first such event is a rehearsal by Swann for that of Marcel: the discovery that their lovers are (horror alert!) female homosexuals. In Swann’s case, he suddenly realizes what he had unconsciously known all along, that Odette had been (another horror alert) Mme Verdurin’s lover.

One day, during the longest period of calm through which he had yet been able to exist without being overtaken by an access of jealousy, he had accepted an invitation to spend the evening at the theatre with the Princesse des Laumes. Having opened his newspaper to find out what was being played, the sight of the title–Les Filles de Marbre, by Théodore Barrière–struck him so cruel a blow that he recoiled instinctively and turned his head away. Lit up as though by a row of footlights, in the new surroundings in which it now appeared, the  word “marble,” which he had lost the power to  distinguish, so accustomed was he to see it passing in print beneath his eyes, had suddenly become visible again, and had at once brought back to his mind the story which Odette had told him long ago of a visit which she had paid to the Salon at the Palais de l’Industrie with Mme Verdurin, who had said to her, “Take care, now! I know how to melt you, all right. You’re not made of marble.”  Odette had assured him that it was only a joke, and he had attached no importance to it at the time. But he had had more confidence in her then than he had now. And the anonymous letter referred explicitly to relations of that sort.

…But now, by one of those inspirations of jealousy analogous to the inspiration  which reveals to a poet or a philosopher, who has nothing, so far, to go on but an odd pair of rhymes or a detached observation, the idea or the natural law which will give him the power he needs, Swann recalled for the first time an observation which Odette had made to him at least two years before: “Oh, Mme Verdurin, she won’t hear of anyone just now but me. I’m a ‘love,’ if you please, and she kisses me, and wants me to go with her everywhere, and call her tu.” So far from seeing at the time in this observation any connexion with the absurd remarks intended to simulate vice which Odette had reported to him, he had welcomed them as a proof of Mme Verdurin’s warm-hearted and generous friendship. But now this memory of her affection for Odette had coalesced suddenly with the memory of her unseemly conversation. He could no longer separate them in his mind, and he saw them assimilated in reality, the  affection imparting a certain seriousness and importance to the pleasantries which, in return robbed the affection of its innocence. He went to see Odette. He sat down at a distance from her. He did not dare to embrace her, not knowing whether it would be affection or anger that a kiss would provoke, either in her or in himself. He sat there silent, watching their love expire. (I,512-514)

As with Swann, a seemingly innocent remark sets off a nearly identical reaction in Marcel.

“…Well, this friend (oh! not at all the type of woman you might suppose!), isn’t this extraordinary, is the best friend of your Vinteuil’s daughter, and I know Vinteuil’s daughter almost as well as I know her. I always call them my two big sisters. I’m not sorry to show you that your little Albertine, can be of use to you in this question of music, about which you say, and quite rightly, that I know nothing at all.”

At the sound of these words, uttered as we were entering the station of Parville, so far from Combray and Montjouvain, so long after the death of Vinteuil, an image stirred in my heart, an image which I had kept in reserve for so many years that even if I had been able to guess, when I stored it up long ago, that it had a noxious power, I should have supposed that in the course of time it had entirely lost it; preserved alive in the depths of my being–like Orestes whose death the gods had prevented in order that, on the appointed day, he might return to his native land to avenge the murder of Agamemnon–as a punishment, as a retribution (who knows?) for my having allowed my grandmother to die; perhaps rising up suddenly from the dark depths in which it seemed for ever buried, and striking like an Avenger, in order to inaugurate for me a new and terrible and only too well-merited existence, perhaps also to make dazzlingly clear to my eyes the fatal consequences which evil actions eternally engender, not only for those who have committed them but for those who have done no more, or thought that they were doing no more, than look on at a curious and entertaining spectacle, as I, alas, had done on that afternoon long ago at Monjouvain, concealed behind a bush where (as I had complacently listened to the account of Swann’s love affairs) I had perilously allowed to open up within me the fatal and inevitably painful road of Knowledge. And at the same time, from my bitterest grief I derived a feeling almost of pride, almost of joy, that of a man whom the shock he has just received has carried at a bound to a point to which no voluntary effort could have brought him….It was a terrible terra incognita on which I had just landed, a new phase of undreamed of sufferings that was opening before me. (IV,702-703)

Memory as a Human Form of Time

January 24, 2011

Howard Moss, longtime poetry editor of The New Yorker, knows how memory can induce ecstasy.

Of the three kinds of memory, conscious, unconscious, and involuntary, only the last is of supreme interest to Proust. In conscious memory, the mind searches for the relevant fact by an act of will. Unconscious memory is a repression of connections, usually painful, which the conscious mind cannot dredge up as relevant fact.

Involuntary memory is ike unconscious memory with two differences: 1) What stimulates it is immured in objects that decant the orignal sensation by chance, and only if, luckily, we come across those objects again in later life. 2) It is not, like unconscious memory, an unearthing of the past, but a reliving of the past as the present.

We may relive constantly and unwillingly an unconscious memory in our actions and psychological attitudes. In involuntary memory, we actually grasp the past as the present, as if time had literally stopped. No effort of will can achieve this since we have no control over the chance reappearance of things. Unconscious memory predisposes us to repeat what we have experienced. Involuntary memory induces perception and is not a repetition but a revelation.

It is difficult to separate unconscious memory from involuntary memory, but sleep, a paradox, helps to suggest the distinction: it is both the slave of habit and the liberator of memory. It leads us to time regained itself, for dreams are still under some form of conscious control–they are symbolic rather than real enactments. They allow us to remember what habit would have us forget, but we are permitted to do so only under the conditions of disguise. In involuntary memory, disguise is done away with; then becomes now in reality, not symbolically.

But when we say “reality,” we must qualify again. Though the process of involuntary memory makes time past time present, and is not disguised like a dream, reality itself is merely the outer shell of a suprareality that is hidden from us. Albertine’s body, the steeples, and the trees are apprehended by Marcel’s senses. But they are all outer envelopes enclosing vital cryptograms to which he does not have the code.

Involuntary memory, unlike unconscious memory, is miraculous. It is here that Proust parts with Freud and moves out of the world of psychology into the realm of metaphysics.

We truly remember only what we have forgotten. Memory is a human form of time. It is all we know of it, and when memory ceases, in the insane, in the dead, we may assume that time ceases for those particular organisms. Memory is, even more than habit, supremely paradoxical. Being a form of time, it, too, is about a “cause” and a “cure”; eliminating every link between the scenes it portrays to us, it spares us the nonentities of our selves by allowing us to recollect the selves we were; but since we are able only to recollect the past, it hurries us on to our dissolution.

The true power of involuntary memory lies not in what we remember but in the process of memory itself. It restores to us not only experiences of the past but the selves that experienced them.

Hearing Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” Swann rediscovers a happiness he thought lost to him forever. To Swann, the “little phrase” has emotional content. Losses are partly regained in romantic nostalgia. Marcel, describing Vinteuil’s septet, discovers something quite different. Relinquishing content, music is heard as pure form, the aesthetic equivalent of the temporal process. Eschewing every association, Vinteuil’s music becomes not an inducer of memory but memory itself. We have, in Proust, the orignal concept of memory as a metaphor of time, not content; because of this, music is memory’s most pertinent analogy. Form is apprehended as sensation; what is being formed is time. Marcel’s involuntary memories satisfy a necessary condition: the common quality of being felt simultaneously at the actual moment and at a distance in time. This quality is the exact condition music demands of the listener; time connections make sound intelligible without any reference to the objective world.

We contain within ourselves every  lost moment of our lives. It is necessary to be made aware that they are lost before we can regain them. Music informs us of this loss without specifying the nature of what we have relinquished. Like time, it tells us everything and nothing.

Involuntary memories are forms of ecstasy, “mnemonic resurrections” that do not contain earlier experiences so much as new truths. Sensations of the past are not duplications but sensation itself. Destroying the material world temporarily, they put in its place a world of revelation akin to the spiritual experiences of mystics… (94-97)

Natural Metaphor III

January 20, 2011

Moss finds metaphor to be the natural way to make wholes of Proust’s characters.

…Realism in fiction never corresponds to reality in life, because it presupposes an impossible point of view–that one which lacks a viewer. A reality is always real to somebody. As soon as it is, the viewer must be included with the view. Proust argues against realism effectively and provides the ultimate demonstration. Proust is the most honest of novelists because he shows us not only how little we know about other people but how impossible it is to know them. It is a suspicion we have always had but hate to see confirmed. The confirmation does not warm us; nevertheless, we cannot deny it. Proust, like the genius psychologist he is, makes the inconsistencies take on a consistency of their own, just as Chekhov, in the theatre, shows us how the seemingly irrelevant lies at the heart of relevance. The patching together of what appear to be opposing traits performs a function similar to that of a metaphor, for only those actions that are dissimilar but capable of connection can create a whole character out of superficially irreconcilable kinds of behavior. The power of metaphor is not merely descriptive but psychological; the link between two things we were not aware of is revealed to us. Far-fetched it may be, even bizarre; we know instantly, though, whether it rings true. When it is successful, it has two virtues: it increases our sense of credibility by refusing to win us over easily, and it sharpens our sense of revelation. Mme. Verdurin’s anti-Semitism and her Dreyfusism would seem incompatible. Once we understand that she is a professional cause-monger who needs only a cause célèbre and can switch from Dreyfus to Debussy without a qualm, the inconsistency vanishes. It has helped, nevertheless, to make Mme. Verdurin real. (38-39)

Goddess of Time

January 19, 2011

Howard Moss, in his  The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, provides these vignettes of Marcel’s three lovers.

These three loves, though they are all failures, differ from each other in important ways. Marcel gives Gilberte up as if the suffering his love for her entails is too much to bear. He protects that love by refusing to allow it to be nurtured toward a conclusion; he draws back to avoid further pain. Haunted by doubt, doubt becomes obsessive. It is only late in life that he realizes that Gilberte was attainable. She confesses she was attracted to him, at the very end of the novel. At the time their relationship takes place, he withdraws in order to sanctify the image of his love rather than risk its failure. In this retreat, we have a narcissistic, almost masturbatory version of love. The picture, or image of the beloved, is more precious than its actual presence–just as the lantern slides of Geneviève de Brabant are always to be the ideal against which the Duchesse de Guermantes is to be measured. So the idealization of women–like places–is always fatally inconsistent with knowing them. Like the two ways, where geography becomes mental, so, here, physicality and personality become internalized. The true Gilberte exists inside Marcel, not outside him. Marcel destroys and preserves his relationship to her at the same time. Oblivion accompanies separation. But by not coming to any issue, the relationship forms an unconscious pattern for those of the future, as it reinforces the emotional patterns of his behaviour toward women that began with his mother. If love can be deliberately demanded, it also can be deliberately killed.

Mme. de Guermantes inspires love by awe; her name is evocative, magical. She is not a person who turns into an illusion like Gilberte, or an illusion that turns into a person like Albertine. She is inhuman to begin with. Proust says that the love for a person is always the love of something else as well, and, in the Duchesse, Marcel becomes obsessed with the power of the feudal overlord who is still a member of the contemporary world–a world so select, so special, that, to Marcelo, it might as well be the Middle Ages. If, with Gilberte, he falls in love with the legend of Swann, with the Duchesse, he falls in love with the history of France. It is not her wit, her style, her position, or her beauty that ultimately matter; it is that in her name she embodies a history; in her face and person a race; in her speech a landscape and an epoch; and in her manners a civilization. Though her intelligence, her modishness, her ton impress everyone as they do herself, to Marcel, after he has sifted the real jewels from the fake, it is another quality that counts: her conservativeness, in the real sense, for here, in person, is the prototype of something worthy of conservation. The Duchesse, the greatest lady of her day, and Françoise, the servant, share qualities in common. Their speech and their manners are feudal; the serf and the lord possess virtues enhanced by the existence of each other. The farmer and the landowner, still bearing the fragrance of the soil, enrich each other’s powers. In Remembrance of Things Past, Françoise and the Duchesse have no reason to meet. Yet they have more in common than either could possibly imagine. They are two terms that have become separated in one of Proust’s metaphors. (34-36)

Who is Albertine? She is the unknowable animal who calls forth the finest resources of Marcel’s intellect. The greatest analytical mind in the world is helpless confronted with a dog. It is Marcel’s fate to want to see what cannot be seen: the sex life of a plant, the emotional histories of the deep-sea creatures, the motivations of the dark. Marcel and Albertine are two liars hopelessly tangled together. She charms him by being out of the range of what analysis can reach. To keep her in focus for a further try, lured by what he cannot know, he falls in love with her.

Albertine is Marcel’s sensibility turned inside out and objectified. The greater pretense in their relationship comes from Marcel. Her reserve in the face of his jealousy, her lies, her restlessness, all prod him on to another attack. If he knows, he keeps saying, he would be happy. But it is precisely because he doesn’t know that he loves her. A scientist in a dressing gown, he watches over a laboratory of falsehoods, the greatest one being that he is objective in regard to the truth. Marcel uses Albertine to keep from himself a truth about himself: he is not in love with Albertine, he is in love with what Albertine loves.

As such, he credits her with a power and a reality she doesn’t have. Albertine is addicted to games–particularly “diabolo”–clothes, cars, ice cream, planes. She is far simpler than he and far more deceptive. His lies are lies of the mind, hers of being. In Albertine, Marcel is matched against himself in a battle that cannot be finished. She holds within herself the two sexes in one and is, therefore, a constant reenactment in her very existence of the ideal torture of the voyeur. Albertine is the window scene of Montjouvain, the courtyard scene of Charlus and Jupien played over for ever and ever.

It is no wonder that her commonest attributes, her polo cap, her macintosh, the way she plays the pianola, her stride along the front–every physical manifestion of herself–takes on an Olympian sheen. Marcel grasps at every vestige of her reality because he has made her up the way the Greeks made up their gods: he needs constantly to be reassured that she is there. Albertine is both a deity in Proust’s “Garden of Woman” and the demon at the center of his vision, for he describes her as “a mighty Goddess of Time” under whose pressure he is compelled to discover the past. Starting out with the mystery of the animal, she ends up with the mysteries of eternity. (39-41)

Hallucinated World

January 16, 2011

Proust’s answer to the bleakness of life resulting from time’s corrosion of everything humanly valuable is an aesthetic one. Time can be defeated by a proper appreciation of the power of memory to reveal the essences of life and by an artistry that can record these essences. But he knows the dangers of aestheticism and he personifies them in the character of Swann. This man, though immensely learned and intelligent, lives on the surface of art, emotionally cut off from it, symbolized by his inability to finish his Vermeer manuscript. But Germaine Brée, in Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time, sees that he has one last chance to emerge from this barrenness.

At the same time, love reveals to Swann that he has within him a capacity for feeling, a wealth of emotional life of which he is usually unaware because he normally lives on the surface, carefully insulated against this emotional zone.  The Swann who struggles against the proof of his failure in love asserts by that very failure his belief that love was to bring him something besides Odette, was to fill another need, in a kind of parenthesis, between the two musicales where the little Vinteuil phrase is played. The first time, the phrase touches Swann’s heart and awakens in him a renewed taste for love. The second time it re-animates, in all its reality, the suffering through which he has unconsciously lived, makes him realize its extent and brings back to him from oblivion the full memory of his essay at love. But at the same time the musical phrase again poses the riddle of its own existence, a riddle which is now compounded with that of Swann’s love. For an instant Swann is at the threshold of a spiritual discovery for which his love has prepared the way because it has liberated his emotional power. But because of his lack of intellectual persistence he can never understand the real nature of his experience, nor the nature of the faculty which had temporarily substituted for his everyday world an hallucinated world in which he recognized neither others nor himself. His love is twice “lost” to him, and with that love he loses also what Vinteuil’s phrase has suggested to him. “It is one of those powers of jealousy,” the narrator says much later, “to show us that feelings and the reality of facts are unknown and open to countless suppositions. We think we  know exactly how things stand, what people think about them, for the simple reason that we don’t care. But as soon as we wish to know something, as a jealous person does, things become a dizzying kaleidoscope in which we see nothing.”

Proust’s object  when he tells the story of Swann’s love for Odette is not merely to relate a love story but to show how, because of love, Swann sets forth into an unknown world in which “he no longer distinguishes anything” and which causes the narrow and reassuring setting of his daily life to collapse. Swann proceeds no further in the knowledge of the “terra incognita” into which his love has led him; but his adventure is a prelude to the narrator’s, and each acquires it full meaning only in relation to the other. (151-2)

Natural Metaphor II

January 12, 2011

This is Fowlie writing on metaphor and symbol in Proust:

When Marcel eats the madeleine cake in Du Côté de chez Swann, when he wipes his mouth with the napkin in the library of the prince de Guermantes in Le Temps retrouvé, time is abolished, because two widely separated moments of his life are juxtaposed. This operation of a sensory experience is comparable to the function of a metaphor which brings together two objects that have no relationship in ordinary life; the waiters, for example, in the restaurant of Rivebelle, compared, in their agility and flight, to angels. Much of the aesthetics of Proust is founded on these two laws: the power of a sensory experience to bring back the past, and the function of a metaphor to explain the unknown by the known. Art is not, therefore, a distraction or a diversion. It is for Proust, as for Baudelaire, responsible for the clarification and application of the theory, an instrument of research, a way by which discoveries are made concerning the meaning of the world, of life, of the exterior life of man, and the inner reality of his subconscious. (272)

Metaphor, expanded, becomes symbolism.

The use of metaphor is prevalent throughout the novel, but Proust is seldom satisfied with the creation of a mere metaphor, a familiar image juxtaposed with an unfamiliar in order to explain it. In this use of images, he tries to move beyond the first immediate and simple explanation (the comparison of Charlus to a bee, for example, in the prelude scene of Sodome et Gomorrhe), to a far-reaching philosophical or anthropological explanation (Charlus’ inversion, explained by inherited ancestral traits). This is the practice of symbolism when metaphor is used to designate a significant experience. According to a major tenet of symbolism, not only nineteenth-century French symbolisme, but symbolism of all cultures and epochs, art is able to suggest the essence behind the object.

Proust uses literary symbolism to capture in words the purity of a soul which has become clouded and darkened by the daily contacts with matter and deceit and passion. When Marcel, in the Guermantes library, at the end of the novel, wipes his mouth with a napkin, the vision he has of Balbec is so sumptuous and magical that he thinks of the Arabian Nights. That moment of vision is Marcel’s escape from the mundanity of the present, and the force behind the power of art, based on metaphor and symbolism, by which the present is transformed and explained. (273-274)

In Dark Woods

January 9, 2011

Swann’s Way both opens and closes with voice of the mature narrator, speaking years after the events. (Although the final passage he claims to be writing “this year” (I,598), which creates an ambiguity of its place in time with regard to the epiphanies of the final volume.) In both passages the narrator struggles to discover his essential nature. In the first it is sleep that has rendered the wakening man adrift because his memories have not yet restored him to his place and time. In the closing passage, he is again lost, this time in a November wood, lost because his memory has failed to adequately recreate the past, leaving him only with a present deprived of its past beauty. Fowlie hears the despair of this unresolved quest.

The narrator’s consolation is the past, and he goes back farther than his own past, farther than the Bois de Boulogne, to the groves celebrated by Virgil, to the Elysian garden of beautiful women, to the Druidic crown of the oak trees. He finds himself, on this sunlit November morning of his adulthood, in an empty unused forest. Where has the past, the past which he once lived on this very spot, gone? The last lines have the solemnity of a partial revelation. He knows that his past is not here in the Bois de Boulogne. The reality he had once known is over. La réalité que j’avais connue n’existait plus. The places we have known in the past do not belong solely to the world of space. Les lieux que nous avons connus n’appartiennent pas qu’au monde de l’espace. The desolation of the November scene and the sadness of the narrator form an experience in his life as a man. The reader does not fully realize at this point that the work he is reading is the only possible remedy to the desolation and the sadness. The narrator observes that houses and roads are as fleeting as the years. Les maisons, les routes, les avenue, sont fugives, hélas! comme les années. Without using the word time in the final sentences, Proust focuses our attention on the passing of time, the intangibility of the past, and its elusiveness. (82)

Another forerunner of these passages is, of course, Dante:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring; death is hardly more bitter…

(Robert Pinsky translation)

Alas! in the acacia-avenue–the myrtle-alley, I did see some of them again, grown old, no more now than grim spectres of what they had once been, wandering, desperately searching for  heaven knew what, through the Virgilian groves. They had long since fled, and still I stood vainly questioning the deserted paths. The sun had gone. Nature was resuming it reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that is was the Elysian Garden of Woman; above the gimcrack windmill the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries perched, one after another, on the great oaks which, beneath their Druidical crown, and with Dodonian majesty, seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest, and helped me to understand how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years. (I,605-606)

Opening Theme

January 4, 2011

After situating Proust in French literature, Fowlie begins a close reading of the novel. Here he summarizes its chief theme, man’s struggle against time.

 A preoccupation with time and its irrevocability is a familiar human experience. With Marcel Proust it becomes a veritable obsession. The changes brought about in nature, in human beings, in society, by the passing of time are sung by him almost as a lament. Time is the relentless force that attacks the beauty of the human body, the stability of human personality, the freshness and the completeness of works of art–a painting, for example, or a cathedral. Proust grew to look upon life itself as a constant struggle against time. Much of the so-called pessimism of his book comes from the hopelessness of this struggle, from the inevitable failure of life to preserve itself intact from the encroachments of time.

He analyzes one after the other those major experiences of life that are the most hallowed efforts of man to reach some absolute within time, some stable value that will oppose the flow of time: the loyalty of friendship, for example, the passions of love, the steadfastness of convictions, either theological or philosophical or political. Proust the novelist discovers that even such experiences, which, when they are real, seem absolute, are, in time, subjected to change and even oblivion. The human self, immersed in time, is never exactly the same two days in succession. All the elements of personality are constantly being affected by time: they are either being weakened or strengthened. They are receding or in the ascendant. Even the self which is in love, deeply, jealously and passionately, will change, according to Proust, and become  disillusioned.

The self is never one but a succession of selves. If this is true–and the substance of the book as well as the method of writing are based upon this Bergsonian assumption–what happens to the selves we once were? Do these selves, which were once real, sink into oblivion? Proust answers this question with a vigorous no! They are not lost. They do not disappear. They are in us, in that part of us that is often called the subconscious. They lie in our dreams and indeed at times in our states of consciousness. The opening theme of Proust’s novel is the protagonist’s literal awakening. This is a familiar experience for everyone every morning when we leave the state of sleep for the state of consciousness. Proust looks upon this emergence as an effort to recover our identity, to find out who we are, where we are, and what particular self we are inhabiting. (52-53)

A very good introduction to the opening pages of Swann’s Way.

Proust and the French Novel

January 2, 2011

Wallace Fowlie, in his A Reading of Proust, draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of French literature to situate Proust in that tradition. First, there is the timeless aspect of Proust, shared by many great writers

Whether Cervantes or Balzac, the novelist seeks to place man faithfully in the context of life, at the same time that he attempts to show him moving beyond the illusions of life. Within this double human reality, the particularized universe of the hero and the transformed picture of his universe, the novelist constructs his work. The customary daily object–a goblet in the story of Tristan, a bride’s bouquet in Madame Bovary, a madeleine cake in Du Côté de chez Swann,–is so transcribed and utilized as to become miraculous.

Two worlds, then are fused in the art of the novelist: a real world always to some degree familiar to us and recognizable–Dickens’ London, Kafka’s Prague, Proust’s Paris–and an unreal or possible world, strange to us, but which attracts us and which, in the case of Proust, grows so forcibly that it ends by dominating our own world. A great novel is the realm of grace in which there is no unimportant detail, where chance is abolished because it is always turned into something meaningful, where the characters understand all the parts of their world and where the novelist succeeds in establishing man’s consent to the things of his world, whether they prolong his happiness or his misery. Most of the seemingly insignificant events of our real life remain insignificant and disappear from our memory. The novelist, if he is Proust, resurrects the insignificant, conjures them up with their full setting, and discovers for them their real meaning. (4)

And there is Proust placed in the specifically French tradition:

The intelligence with which a French artist considers his universe or his subject matter is part of his creativeness and his inspiration. It lends both a sense of economy and a sense of monotony to his work. It forces him back again and again to his own subject, as to his one obsession: the cult of energy in Stendhal, the necessary and heroic asceticism of the artist in Proust. This constancy of theme in a French novel reflects the constancy of the writer’s soul, his dedicated will. It explains to some extent the permanent shibboleth of all of French art–its classicism, whether it be the classicism of Racine, or the classicism of the Romantics, or that of André Gide. The term “classicism,” implies a sacrifice of human time and pleasure, as well as of all the extraneous elements in the work of art. It also implies the worship and practice of intelligence, and the belief that art is at the basis of civilization and of a given code of human behavior. The concept of classicism does not exclude a degree of stubbornness in the French artist, a will to return doggedly to the same problem, the same situation, the same work. A highly developed belief in the efficacy of human creativity lies behind a Gothic cathedral and the Comédie Humanine of Honoré de Balzac.

What is looked upon today as a specifically contemporary problem or crisis in the novel has in some form or other always existed in France, a land not so much of novelists as of theorists and critics, orators, and moralists. It is something of a miracle that the French genius, basically anti-poetic and anti-fictional, has, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, expressed itself in creative realms and taken an eminent, if not primary place, with its trinity of poets: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, and its trinity of novelists: Balzac, Stendhal, and Proust. These six poets and novelists never relinquished their right, during their literary careers, to criticize their own art and to expound its theory. Often they married theory to art. (5-6)

And Proust in his uniqueness:

The paradox of all creation is dramatically clear in the case of the novel. There is the reality the novelist proposes: a provincial town called Combray (Du  Côté de chez Swann), a “pension de famille” in Paris (Le Pere Goriot), a seminary in Paris (Manon Lescaut). But there is also the novelist who, no matter how rigorous his intentions may be, as soon as he puts pen to paper, will intervene in his own plan. A novel can never be a simple reproduction of reality. It is always, to some degree, an interpretation of some instance of reality.  Emma Bovary may be modeled after one woman, or she may be a synthesis of two or three women who really existed, but she is also, according to the novelist’s famous confession, Flaubert himself. Likewise, Julien Sorel is both the criminal Berthet and the writer Henri Beyle. Critics have tried to explain Charles Swann by his possible models, Charles Haas and Charles Ephrussi, but they have had to conclude that he is also Marcel Proust. (7)

Theology teaches that the world was created by an act of love. This would lead us to the thought that the creatures of a novelist have been given life by him because of some connection with them, because of some degree of love he feels for them, even the monsters of creation. Those writers who have created the largest number of characters: Dante, Shakespeare, Molière, Balzac, and Proust, have castigated and even damned some of their characters: Dante’s Farinata, Shakespeare’s Iago, Proust’s Charlus, are reproved for their evil, but there is little or no trace of scorn or mockery on the part of their creators. As the most willfully wicked man maintains some vestige of his relationship with God, so the most deliberately fictional character maintains something of his creator, and hence of is divine origin. (8)

The novel is not only an art form: in such exemplary cases as that of Proust, it becomes a spiritual exercise, a form which may be read on more than one level, as esoteric art reserved for initiates or specialists, and in this sense, the novelist Marcel Proust is also the uncoverer of secrets. In terms of society, love, politics, morality, he is disillusioned, almost totally pessimistic, but he is, nevertheless, a joyous celebrant in his invention of a literary means of depicting the mortality of man’s actions and hopes, a style which triumphs over this mortality. (16-17)