Proust and the French Novel


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)

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