Character


Nemerov opens his discussion of the Proustian character, who is often an outlandish exaggeration, with these words of Paul Valéry on Proust:

1. “The group which calls itself society is composed only of symbolic figures. Each of its members represents some abstraction.”
2. “Just as a banknote is only a slip of paper, so the member of Society is a sort of fiduciary money made of living flesh.”
3. Great art “is the art of simplified figures and the most pure types; of essences which permit the symmetrical and almost musical development of the consequences arising from a carefully isolated situation.”

And from J.V. Cunningham’s “Ideal Fiction”:

In ideal fiction the characters are flat. But it is a fiction of our fiction that people are really round. The truth is we are not usually real life characters in real life. We are flat, and so are those we know. We are only round occasionally to others in a sympathetic moment, to ourselves in introspection, and now and again as a demand on others in the grim game of interpersonal relations: “I want to be treated as a person.” We usually see others as truck drivers or neighbors, bore or blonde. And we are flat to ourselves when working efficiently, when we are most ourselves. When I write a poem I am a poet; I am narrowed to relevance. (78-79)

But how does Proust turn essence into character? One answer is that he has found a powerful, dual point of view, one that can powerfully engages the reader.

But ever so many people in Proust don’t, in the conventional novelist’s sense, do anything. They appear for a moment only, under the form of an anecdote, and vanish: like Swann’s father, or like the wonderful lady who whenever she goes out in society and is bidden by her hostess to a chair sees a man already sitting it it, and has all her life to decide which is the hallucination, the hostess’ gesture or the man in the chair. Such people are anecdotes. And it is very often by the means of anecdote that Proust makes his foreground characters emerge as well; by anecdote, and by a degree of comic exaggeration along a scale running from plain extravagance–as with the hotel manager at Balbec, characterized by malapropisms that he commits at the rate of at least one per sentence over a couple of pages–to a subtlety that will fill us with doubts as to our own view of what is real, for in the novelistic equation you have not simply the character observed and depicted as he is; no, you have always, and of greatest import, the eye that observes and the mind that depicts, its metaphors and divagations. About this I observe once again that the mind in Proust is double, it contains at the same time and not always distinguishably the experience of the young Marcel and the knowledge of the old narrator; under cover of the latter, too, it slips in as knowledge a good many things belonging necessarily to imaginative inference, such as for example the analyses of the state of mind of persons who never say anything about their state of mind. (80-81)

To illustrate, take the young Marcel’s first encounter with Charlus, where the reader is put on edge by the dissonance between the narrator’s and Marcel’s understanding of what is unfolding.

I suppose his reputation has spread sufficiently beyond the confines of the novel that it comes as no surprise to you, even if you are on your first reading, that he is a homosexual. But it does come as a surprise to Marcel the young man, who is in some respects perhaps exceedingly naive, and does not even think of this explanation  of the presented facts until about halfway through the novel, when he sees it with the seeing of the eye; whereupon much that had puzzled him about the Baron becomes clear. So that the introduction of the Baron to Marcel and to the world of the novel is as it were an exercise in Proustian vision, comparable in some ways with the  problem of vision in Elstir’s paintings, where what the eye sees does not a first harmonize with what the mind thinks it know, so that the mind helplessly and more or less vainly formulates hypotheses to explain the facts as they appear. (81)

His eyes were “dilated with observation”; “every now and then those eyes were shot through by a look of intense activity such as the sight of a person whom they do not know excites only in men to whom…it suggests thought that would not occur to anyone else–madmen, for instance, or spies.” The look he flashes at Marcel suggests a last shot fired at an enemy before one turns to flee. He seems to be on stage, making a couple of gestures that people make when they mean to show their annoyance at being kept waiting, “although they never make it when they are really waiting,” and breathing hard as people do “who are not feeling too hot but would like to be thought they were.” Marcel suspects him of being a hotel crook planning to rob his grandmother and himself, and hesitates between thinking of him as a thief and as a lunatic. He glances at Marcel again, and the glance suggests “the steeped look that we see on the faces of certain hypocrites, the smug look on those of certain fools.” A few moments later after he is compared to a detective on special duty, and some pages later we have this: “his eyes, which were never fixed on the person to whom he was speaking, strayed perpetually in all directions, like those of certain animals when they are frightened, or those of street hawkers who, while they are bawling out their patter and displaying their illicit merchandise, keep a sharp look-out” for the police. (83)

If you will consider again the introduction of M. de Charlus in the light of this claim, I think you will see that it is not fidelity to appearance that counts, that is the value of artistic composition, but, far rather, the intensity and serenity of vision that can compass so much and work in several ways at once. This is another of Proust’s ways of showing the oak in the acorn. For although young Marcel has not hit on the one explanation that would fit together and resolve in a single motion the traits displayed by the Baron, neither is he wrong in the comparisons he resorts to, which musically prophesy a large part of the action of the novel: as inversion is the secret center that relates the aristocracy to the proletariat and the underworld, so M. de Charlus and the world he increasingly comes to inhabit are characterized by what Marcel sees in his eyes at their first meeting: madness, criminality, violence, spying, detectives, thieves. All these ideas, which enter thus as hypotheses, do presently become realities in the action. (86)

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