Time of the Assassin

Michael Wood

  • Proust and the Sense of Time by Julia Kristeva, translated by Stephen Bann
    Faber, 103 pp, £20.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 571 16880 9
  • Le Temps sensible: Proust et l’expérience littéraire by Julia Kristeva
    Gallimard, 451 pp, January 1995, ISBN 2 07 073116 2
  • The Old Man and the Wolves by Julia Kristeva, translated by Barbara Bray
    Columbia, 183 pp, £15.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 231 08020 4

‘And so,’ Bréhal said, ‘love would be time become available to the senses.’

Julia Kristeva, Les Samouraïs

The genuine charm and considerable strength of Julia Kristeva’s writing are inseparable from a certain solemnity and excess of diligence, a heavy shadow that dogs her like an obligation. In her novel Les Samouraïs (1990), her young alter ego is called ‘a bull-dozer’. We don’t have to go as far as that, even if it is said to be ‘the best of compliments’. Kristeva arrives at elegance, even brio, but only after cautious preparations, as if a plane were to need the length of several runways to get off the ground. In the English version of her Proust book, demonstrating an obvious point in a particularly lumpy way, she remarks: ‘You may be right in seeing my determination ... as the fantasy of a mischievous or well-informed reader.’ Well, no, that wasn’t quite how we saw it. But then the French text, seeming to say much the same thing, strikes a different note: ‘On a le droit de prendre pour une fantaisie de lectrice espiègle et savante cette obstination.’ The argument ain’t espiègle either way, but obstination suggests an awareness of the problem of tone, and savante allows us to think of Molière’s Femmnes savantes if we want to. Kristeva is confessing to pedantry, and engagingly persisting in it.

The self-consciousness, indeed the bravery of this move becomes clear if we persist with her book. One section is called ‘Losing Impatience’ – the way one loses one’s patience. She mounts a brilliant defence of the pedantic and pretentious Bloch, a schoolfriend of the narrator’s in A la recherche du temps perdu. Of course he’s a pain, entirely unbearable; but he’s a serious and courageous Dreyfusard when others are frivolous or timid, and Kristeva thinks, I’m sure rightly, that Proust’s narrator has more sympathy than he shows for this grotesque figure. ‘Perhaps he deserves to be treated badly,’ she writes of Bloch, ‘but if he is treated badly, I immediately find he doesn’t deserve it.’ Thinking of Roland Barthes’s defence of jargon (between jargon and platitude, always choose jargon), she sees Bloch’s pompous and allusive language as the weapon of the outsider against the condescension of the clan, and thinks that if he had lived a little later he would have been a structural anthropologist or a psychoanalyst (or a student of linguistics, or stylistics, or rhetoric). Kristeva is not defending herself in defending Bloch, but she is saying that she knows how he feels, and she is gratefully apologising for her moments of gracelessness. ‘I know from experience and from observation that one has to be rather limited and stubborn to be a militant.’ Wittily commenting on what she can’t after all forgive in Bloch (his mispronunciations of English: ‘laift’ for lift and ‘Venaice’ for Venice), she says, on the model of noblesse oblige, ‘pédanterie linguistique oblige.’ She doesn’t like the way Bloch treats his sisters either, and there she says: ‘féminité [sic] oblige.’

The English text is that of the Eliot Lectures, which Kristeva gave in Canterbury in 1992. She explores what she calls ‘embodied time’ in the drafts of Proust’s novel and in his affective life; tries to reawaken our interest in the too often cited madeleine; looks at Proust’s implied theory of metaphor; at his debt to contemporary French philosophers and what he did with that debt. It’s a disappointing book because it seems so skimpy, often obvious, even crude. I thought the easy equation of Proust’s fictional Albertine with his real-life chauffeur Albert Agostinelli had gone for good, but here it is again, trotted out as if it had never raised a question. Of course Agostinelli had something to do with the way Albertine was, but the fact that she was a woman, however fictional, was important too. In her French text Kristeva takes 16 pages to work this out (‘Albertine n’est pas Albert’), and says some very interesting things about Albertine’s complex and shifting sexuality on the way. Elsewhere in the same book a simple bracket points entirely in the opposite direction – ‘Albertine (ou Albert)’ – and in English this simplicity is all we get. Do these different degrees of sophistication represent different stages of the work?

In both texts Kristeva zigzags between Proust’s fiction and Proust’s life as if they were essentially the same thing (‘Does this mean the return of the biographical subject?’ Stephen Bann disingenuously asks in his Introduction), as if writing were just a feeble disguise for lived experience. Proust evokes the death of a grandmother, but we all know he means his mother. The objection to this kind of stuff is not that we want to deny the biographical subject or celebrate the perfect autonomy of the literary text, but that we want to respect the writer’s work, the long labour that goes into making a world. It’s the realised, fictional world that relates to ours, invites comparisons with history; not a jumble of people and places the writer has casually borrowed from reality, to be returned to their original shelf whenever readers crack the code. Kristeva knows this, of course, and insists on the importance of the fictional world (‘the aim of fiction is to make a world’), but she also forgets about it again and again.

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