Le Temps Manquant: The Posthumous VolumesOliver Briscoe
Pathetic from the first line, Proust becomes tiresomely so between La Prisonnière and Albertine Disparue. The narrator's meek jealousy is ugly, his whimsical worry contemptibly dull and his lying an annoyingly petulant way to love. Where there is rarely a superfluous paragraph, a wasted sentence–though a few more breaks would be a generous admission of a reader–for the first time the story is overdrawn, repeated; these last volumes suffering as posthumous publications, the drafts edited dutifully by Proust’s brother. We lose the reminiscent clarity carried by a long and languid prose. We lose the delicious complexity, the slow savoured passages. Now, with quickened impulse and lovelorn dependence, life is felt rather than remembered, we are no longer in a daydream.
The insights trail too tightly without the leading ecstasy of having seen and written such beauty, and for the reader having it revealed; word after word, swelling into enthusiasm, reaching an apogee which only achieves itself because it is read and understood. The aesthete’s illusion–the luxury of scene and words which elated one, a brilliance and beauty which forgave a sometimes tedious and wayward passage–is no longer so. As Proust is more easily read, the illusion is revealed and all flighted returns to Parnassus are tasted with a spoilt tongue. The reader is no longer enthused by the literary divine, no longer kneeling at the altar, he no longer feels the euphoria of this Faith. As Proust writes himself, which sounds so trite in English as much of him does, truths found without effort are of little value compared to those reflected upon; without the impression into which one can search oneself and feel its essence true; without the sublime Proust is weakened.
Yet having followed him so far, in this test of faith one still finds «L’amour c’est l’espace et le temps rendu sensible au cœur.» or «Mais ce qu’on appelle experience n’est que la révélation à nos propres yeux d’un trait de notre charactère qui naturellement aparaît» and «Il y a des moments dans la vie où une sorte de beauté naît de la multiplicité des ennuis.» If reading Proust is a faithful devotion, it is because, seemingly a social wastrel who idled his youth, what at first strikes as a long, indulgent book for literary snobs, is not lost time. One could read nothing but Proust and take more from it than from most cultures or religions. Every turn of phrase is a divine revelation of the Self, in the perfection of literary beauty. Every second paragraph one is astounded by a bon mot, each as unexpected and profound as the last. Each proving a genius and setting; a literary reality which covers more than present existence, richer without fantasy, taking an impression from a corresponding experience, heightening its reality.
Carried so into Le Temps Retrouvé, the last two-hundred pages become a symphony of Proust and the narrator. Proust is not the narrator and the narrator is not Proust; distinct, they become indistinguishable, existing in all three states of Time; past, present and future. The story disrobes but the reader hardly notices, taken by the pure admission which satisfies all ongoing interpretations. Then, like all prophets, Proust transcends himself, revealing himself only when his work is done. We are brought back. Proust once again sublime leads masterfully to a close and to a beginning.
To the writer he is more; a revelation of the literary Self. It is no exaggeration to say all writers will be in some part ignorant until they have read his work. That is why young men in books loaf about Paris making show of a volume, why Leigh Fermor makes such mention of it; young littéraires with no employ are his prime followers; their works later adding to the chorus which sings the praises of the Proustian Odyssey.
In one passage Proust tells us the writer always has the novel in him; that a novelist does not write, he translates himself. How many know of pure, honest love, having only had sexual relations ? Who can truly speak of grief having not known their own? Impressions remembered make each character and scene a composition from a sketchbook of life and people. Unlike the painter though, so Proust observes, the writer cannot have a sketchbook, it all has to come from impression, from personal honesty. It cannot be copied from other writers as the art student can sketch the master.
Thus Proust shows us he appreciated his own nature; beauty, truth, Self–all as one–and the work, its length and time, needed to befit that understanding. The book is his search for that lost time, given singular purpose to recognise that truth. Le Temps Retrouvé reaches the pinnacle and gives view of all the work beneath; the embodiment of Proust’s monumental ambition, the standard to which he held himself is finally met. True to his word, honest in expressing it, once set not sparing a thought in his endeavour; that unrelenting effort to express the truth he finds as it impressed him, as he saw and remembers, defining the purity of his literary genius.
In the end, he becomes himself, except he died. We cannot complain more than that, he too had to live by the human limits he so beautifully recognised, and leaves us the whole imperfect.
Beyond him, it is what every author, artist, person should seek to appreciate, live; it is the truth of Art and life; a singular perception from a developed Self, expressed honestly as personal. Proust’s self-publishing his first volume was not reasoned by popular acclaim but in the dedication of what he knew to be true.
This honesty is found in all great artists, the handful of such people in each style, period, movement and medium; the Greats. Hemingway famously would spend an afternoon forcing himself one true line, the truest he had ever written, sometimes perhaps he might have a short paragraph. As Dostoyevsky’s adolescent writes ‘I’m trying to write the whole truth and it’s terribly hard!’ Style and setting, the fiction worked from it, are variations on that one theme, without vanities or affectations. A Great touches the soul and to do so shares their own. We feel understood.
Asked what I was reading, answering Proust, someone who had not read him, made a point by asking if I had read Joyce instead–what a parochially English answer to having not read of Proust–but to admit reading him is awkward in pleasant chatter; others struggle try to find something to say and one struggles to explain; it is always easier to say little about a lot. So I let it go and just said I had not. Nor have I Ford’s Parade’s End but to have read them is of no matter, like all Greats Proust stands on its own, singular, personal. Although I would readily concede it may be poorer in English, so I hear. One of the few thanks owed to a French education.
For the English reader otherwise, A Dance to the Music of Time is often compared. Where Powell’s social eye is faultless, even striking upon Proustian remembrance, he does not keep up the intense endurance of Proust’s prose. He is more superficial and loses purpose as a social chronicle. His work straddles as a masterpiece of description and a personal revelation but committing more to the former, without enough effort for the latter, falling short of Proust, in the end it lets go of its length. To pick on Powell like this is a bit harsh, he does a far sight better than most of the English-speaking world, his effort is in itself great.
For the English also have Boyd’s Any Human Heart, entertaining and easily read, touching only if one has not read the other two; it is a rough draft of Proust and lacks much of what makes Powell worthy.
What usually lacks in similar works is Proust’s present belief that life was made true by literature because of the reflection it allows. Without this reflection our life is benighted. A revelation the presently conscious man only glimpses, absorbed in existence. To live unthinkingly is to deny oneself the freedom that we find in choosing life. An unthinking life is constrained by our own passivity. It takes effort to truly live. Proust writing urges us so.
Thus the more one knows oneself, the more truthful Proust will read. Ruefully; those whose lives would be most changed by him are the least likely to approach him; the lost man cannot find bliss when he needs it most. If Proust is the height of cultural expression, then he also marks the culture needed to reach the base of its final ascent. Most people cannot live appreciating the heady sublime.
Through this Proust can be seen as an impressionist draw from Camus’ absurd. Camus even makes example of him. The difference between them not their truth but their focus. Where Camus looks at the present, Proust looks back. In both, only in appreciation is the sense in living revealed.
It is also amusingly idle to think that Proust, simply as an author, is Sisyphus; in his last years of ill-health working through the night to finish his story, knowing the ephemeral place of his work.
One can forgive the Man who, with practical and material concerns, is drawn away from Proust. It is he who rejects the work outright that is a lesser man. Those who start and cannot feel his genius can only be philistines or dishonest.
Perhaps to write such lengthy, snob things comes from reading too much Proust, like the scorn of the sanctimonious, but his work is not one of half-thought or little effort and so there can be no tempered criticism. All Art and all Art to come can be said Proustian. His work is a cultural faith, it cannot be explained; it has to be felt and so it has to be read, and when one comes to feel that revelation, one cannot but be humbled, taken in the throes of cultural ecstasy.