Little Green Crabs

John Bayley

  • Albertine gone by Marcel Proust, translated by Terence Kilmartin
    Chatto, 99 pp, £11.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3359 7
  • Marcel Proust: A Biography by George Painter
    Chatto, 446 pp, £20.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3421 6
  • The Book of Proust by Philippe Michel-Thiriet, translated by Jan Dalley
    Chatto, 406 pp, £25.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3360 0
  • Marcel Proust. Selected Letters: Vol II, 1904-1909 essays by Philip Kolb, translated by Terence Kilmartin
    Collins, 482 pp, £25.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 217078 7

One of Proust’s friends is supposed to have said of him that beauty did not really interest him: it had too little to do with desire. A remark which is not entirely lacking insight. It might be said that the relation of the two fascinated Proust as they had fascinated no writer before him, and he perceived that the kinds of pleasure involved in the two concepts were indivisible. He was the brilliant analyst of sensations and experiences which the Victorians tasted and created without critical examination, and not the analyst only but the chemist who broke down this matter into its component parts, which have subsequently remained separate. A felix culpa in some ways, no doubt, but with disastrous results also, for the wholly unselfconscious energy which fused the pair in, say, the best poetry of Tennyson and Browning now becomes so well aware of what it is up to. Had he come across it, Proust would have been enchanted by Browning’s ‘Meeting at Night’, with its astonishing report of the concentration of desire:

the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep
As I gain the cove with pushing prow
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.

Proust’s predecessor Baudelaire would have been enchanted too, but also incredulous – did the poet really not know what he was talking about? Baudelaire has his own kind of innocence, as has even Proust, but the latter merges into a whole perspective of nostalgia and desire such erotic tableaux as the steeples of Martinville, or the spectacle of Mlle de Vinteuil and her friend pursuing each other round the table with the absorption and the awkwardness of large birds, or the moment before the hotel at Balbec when the narrator is accused by Charlus of the solecism of having anchors embroidered on his bathing dress. The significance of all these things is clear, and Proust’s consciousness explores what that clarity might mean for a complete understanding of our erotic and aesthetic life, an understanding only immanent and never fully realised in the English novels Proust most admired – Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes and The Well Beloved. Did he ever read, one wonders, the sword display of Sergeant Troy to Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd?

Part of the secret of his art is how it manages to convey that though the apple had been eaten, innocence has been retained. Like all snobs, Proust understood everything about the objects of his snobbery except their own simple view of themselves. His ultimate naivety was his failure to perceive theirs. Jacques Porel remarked that Proust knew everything, ‘but his viewpoint had not been deformed by erudition. He was simple, like an innocent boy, or pretended to be.’ Pretended to be? There is a great deal of pretence involved, but the reader, too, is not deceived by it, accepting it in the spirit of its own art. Proust compelled his erotic life, which was also his social life, to identify itself with an aesthetic, and it was this, perhaps, which aroused the envy and wonder of Virginia Woolf, who found herself unable to work the artistic miracle the other way round, to move from the aesthetic and the social into the world of desire which unites and animates the two.

In a sense, the most blatant of Proust’s pretences is the whole form, pretension and ‘secret’ of his work, the idea of Time Regained. Once again the genuine element is an erotic one, the intense pleasure, comparable to a solitary orgasm of quite special felicitousness, when consciousness slots into alignment with the feel of uneven stone under the foot, or the taste of a special flavour on the tongue. Imbued with the whole theatre of the French metaphysical tradition, Proust must have seen at once that this idea could not only be worked up into an impressive intellectual and imaginative thesis, but that it could also appear to be the key to an artistic unity, and a completed human drama. This Racinian drama was the inner life of the narrator-author, and the way it resolved itself in an act of sublime renunciation that was also one of ultimate discovery. Every reader is fascinated by the simultaneous image of the author completing his work and the narrator discovering his vocation, and renouncing the world in order to fulfil it. The two coincide and change places while retaining the dramatic span of separation.

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