‘Tiens! Une madeleine?’

Michael Wood

  • À la recherche du temps perdu: Combray by Marcel Proust, edited by Stéphane Heuet
    Delcourt, 72 pp, €10.95, October 1998, ISBN 2 84055 218 3
  • Proust among the Stars by Malcolm Bowie
    HarperCollins, 348 pp, £19.99, August 1998, ISBN 0 00 255622 7

There are all kinds of things to do with books apart from reading them, and one of the most pleasurable is to dream of reading them. Many of us keep scribbled or notional lists of such dreams, and happily speak of rereading works we haven’t read even once. In If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Calvino steers his reader and chief character through a bookstore, past heaps of dangerous objects identified as, among other things, Books You Haven’t Read, Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages, Books You Want to Own so They’ll Be Handy just in Case, Books You Mean to Read but There Are Others You Must Read First, and Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them. Even great readers can fall into this mode, and even books we have read can be dreamed. At one point in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Roland Barthes casually said: ‘The other day, I reread ‘The Magic Mountain.’ I’m sure Barthes had read The Magic Mountain, probably many times, but I’m equally sure he didn’t reread it ‘the other day’. That day he just remembered reading it, or perhaps skimmed a few pages. He joined the club of dreamers.

On the basis of no statistical evidence at all, I suspect that Proust is at the head of the list, at least in Europe and the Americas, of authors people dream of reading, easily outclassing those former champions Tolstoy and Joyce. I also suspect that chiefly novelists enter this kind of dream, that those who think of reading Homer or Dante are more likely actually to read them. This may be because novels themselves involve quite a lot of day-dreaming, a lot of associative world-making, whereas poems, even long poems, usually get us to concentrate firmly on the language and the matter in hand. Proust himself was an expert on this subject, and wrote some wonderful pages about it, both in his fiction and in his critical essays.

Books about Proust are also coloured by this climate. Julia Kristeva, for instance, starts out by remarking on the madeleine, ‘which gives a taste of Proust even to those who have never read him’. Monty Python’s Summarise-Proust Contest is a contribution to this state of affairs, and not just a mockery of it, as is the proleptic and unacknowledged winning entry in that contest, Harold Pinter’s Proust Screenplay, written in 1972 for Joseph Losey, but never filmed: a brilliant, synoptic, allusive evocation of the whole of A la recherche du temps perdu. Völker Schlöndorf’s film Swann in Love (1983), by comparison, adapted just the second section of Proust’s first volume (about two hundred pages out of more than three thousand in the current Penguin translation), and produced only a rather plodding melodrama, with Jeremy Irons as a pained Swann and Ornella Muti as a rounded Odette – a movie redeemed in part by the elegant performance of Alain Delon as Charlus.

Even in this climate, however, we may not be entirely prepared for the comic-strip version of A la recherche (the first few frames from which are reproduced on page 10). Certainly the French weren’t, as Alan Riding’s recent report in the New York Times suggests. Or some of the French weren’t. The critic in the Figaro thought Stéphane Heuet’s graphic version of ‘Combray’, the first section of Proust’s first volume (200 pages, called ‘Overture’ and ‘Combray’ in the Penguin translation), was ‘cruel’, ‘horrible’, catastrophic’, ‘blasphemous’ and ‘prodigiously inane’. Even the critic in Libération could only manage to speak of ‘disarming innocence’. Meanwhile, though, the first printing sold out in three weeks. Heuet hopes to do a ‘dozen or so’ more volumes, taking us all the way through the novel, and says that for him, ‘any attempt to democratise Proust is valid.’

That does sound inane, but the volume isn’t. The graphic style is closer to Tintin than to Astérix, and there are moments of genuine lyricism in the drawing of rivers and landscapes, and in the ingenious visual articulation of acts of memory. The water is green and blue, the autumn countryside a burnt orange, and remembering is pictured by large hooded eyes superimposed on a path, on a bedroom, on flowers in blossom, and at one point on a whole host of instances not named in this volume but only much later in A la recherche: Venice, a French seaside hotel, a barracks, World War One searchlights picking up a zeppelin in the sky. Accompanying one of those great elegiac sentences at which Proust excels (‘the paths have vanished and those who trod them, and even the memory of those who trod them, are dead’) is a montage of ghostly faces in off-turquoise, a jostling crowd of images representing the narrator’s father and grandfather, his grandmother’s two sisters, his aunt Léonie, Françoise the cook, Swann the family friend, Vinteuil the composer who lives nearby, and larger than all of them, eyes closed and saintly-looking, a remarkably idealised mother. The story is told pretty well too, at least in the first fifth or so of the volume. The narrator remembers Combray, place of the child’s goodnight kiss, and the brilliant social comedy of Swann’s visits; and his sense that Combray, recalled in this anxious, single-minded way, consists only of a fraction of a house, ‘two floors joined by a slender staircase, and as though there had been no time there but seven o’clock at night’, is literally pictured as a downstairs that turns into an upstairs without transition, like a vertical, sombrely coloured version of an Escher drawing.

After this, the book gets a bit desultory, out of sheer loyalty to the sequence of Proust’s text, but it does cover an astonishing amount of narrative ground: visits to the church at Combray; the two family walks, towards Méséglise and towards Guermantes; Aunt Léonie’s hypochondria and the visitors she receives in bed; Françoise’s cooking; a flashback to Paris and the narrator’s visit to his Uncle Adolphe, entertaining a woman we don’t yet know is Odette de Crécy, later to be Madame Swann; the boy’s reading of the famous writer Bergotte; the mannerisms of the boy’s friend Bloch; the poses and snobbery of Legrandin, a local friend; the trials of Vinteuil with his lesbian daughter, and the narrator’s reflections on sadism; a glimpse of the Duchesse de Guermantes; the narrator’s first attempts at writing. The text accompanying the pictures and offered in balloons of dialogue is largely Proust’s own, selectively gathered from the novel, but usually gathered verbatim, edited by skipping rather than rewriting. It’s courageous of Heuet to quote such large chunks of text, and to allow in, for example, whole passages of elaborate (and self-deceiving) moral analysis:

Sadists of Mlle Vinteuil’s sort are creatures so purely sentimental, so naturally virtuous, that even sensual pleasure appears to them as something bad, the prerogative of the wicked. And when they allow themselves for a moment to enjoy it they endeavour to impersonate, to identify with, the wicked, and to make their partners do likewise, in order to gain the momentary illusion of having escaped beyond the control of their own gentle and scrupulous natures into the inhuman world of pleasure.

Heuet’s diligent textual fidelity does produce inadvertent comic effects. When Proust waxes lyrical about asparagus (‘I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form’), he leaves the most gifted still-life painters behind, but here the awkward close-up on what looks like a bundle of mutilated fingers makes you wonder about the whole visual enterprise. The same goes for the representations of Françoise, and of Gilberte, Swann’s daughter: no charm or energy in the drawing, only a submission to the blandest of conventions, and the accompanying text takes over completely. Gilberte as drawn is a particular disappointment, one of Olive Oyl’s less attractive relatives.

As for the famous madeleine scene, there is no point in protesting against Heuet’s amalgamation of the historical author and his fictional delegate, giving them both Proust’s parents’ Paris address, since this move is so lamentably frequent in writing about Proust, but it is worth noting that no one, as far as we know, ever said: ‘Tiens! une madeleine?’ No doubt that is what the narrator would say in the version of the novel remembered by those who haven’t read it, indeed what he would have to say in such a version, but in Proust’s novel we get only this:

One day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites Madeleine’.

But all this talk of not reading Proust, of reading what he didn’t write, or reading only slivers of what he did write, harmless enough if it merely describes a state of social play, is really bad news if we take it as a standard or an expectation, an implication that actually reading Proust is just too daunting, or not a pleasure at all. It is a pleasure, and we shouldn’t pass it up; or if we do, we should know what we are missing. Malcolm Bowie’s remarkable book is about reading in several senses: it rests on a habit of reading Proust, has the easy familiarity with a voluminous text that only many readings could give; it offers brilliant close readings of many passages of Proust, acts of sheer literary critical magic; it has a particular, slanted and surprising reading of A la recherche as a whole, of its complicated manners and its moral and metaphysical project; it places Proust among other authors, from Dante to Emily Dickinson, and from Erasmus to Kierkegaard and Cole Porter, and it situates reading among a set of other activities, like listening to jazz or Mahler or looking at Rothko. How many other high-powered critical works, I wonder, have Buñuel next to Sir Thomas Browne in the index, or Stan Getz, next to Giotto?

Bowie is also something of a barometer for the Proust climate. In an inaugural lecture given in London in 1978, he urged his hearers to read Proust. In an inaugural lecture given in Oxford 15 years later, he said he couldn’t imagine why he had thought this urging was necessary in 1978, and was sure that now, in 1993, it would be absurd. But here, in his new book, he worries about losing Proust to something other than neglect or avoidance – or to adaptation, or the dream of deferred reading. The danger here is tourism, a world in which, so to speak, ‘Tiens! une madeleine?’ is all Proust’s narrator could ever say. Bowie’s preface opens by describing his miscellaneous literary travels (‘Prague beckoned me because it was Kafka’s city, and Dublin because it was Joyce’s ... Lisbon was Pessoa, Mexico City was Octavio Paz’), but then recounts that while having breakfast one day at the Grand Hôtel in Cabourg, the notorious model for Proust’s Grand Hôtel in the fictional Balbec, he recognised the possibility of ‘perdition indeed’.

Here was a world of would-be Proustian experience that seemed not to require that the novel be read, a universe parallel to that of Proust’s text and maintained in being by the combined forces of gossip, travelogue and voyeuristic biographical speculation ... I began to know in Cabourg a fear that I had not known at any other of my literary destinations. This was the fear that I might lose a supreme work of literature and never get it back; that I would resign myself to a non-reading knowledge of the novel, a Proust of tea-parties and table-talk, of selected short quotations and haunting images that had long ago drifted free of their original textual moorings.

I can’t believe this fear was in any way justified, that the risk was real. But I certainly believe the fear itself was real, along with the eloquent lesson it suggested: ‘Obvious truths suddenly needed restating: if Proust’s life had been in some respects mad, his novel was madder; if Proust the man had been both a snob and an egalitarian, his novel pressed this contradiction to a point of sublimity.’

A la recherche is not a thinly disguised autobiography, as the ‘convincing and accessible near-novels by biographers like André Maurois and George Painter’ suggest, and it reaches out to a universe far more varied than ‘the thin thread of Proust’s biography’. These are fighting words in our biographical days, but the reminder is more than timely. What we miss if we collapse Balbec into Cabourg, one Grand Hôtel into another, is not just the notion of literature, which would be bad enough, but the very idea of the writer’s labour, what Bowie at first calls ‘the alchemical transformation’ Proust performed on his life, and later calls ‘labour’, ‘hard work upon resistant stuff’, and ‘sheer long-haul laboriousness’. You don’t turn Cabourg into Balbec (or Illiers into Combray) just by changing the names.

It is characteristic of Bowie’s book, and part of its considerable allure, that the ideas of more madness and more contradiction are offered as a tribute. His arguments have a recurring shape, like a musical theme. Against what he calls the ‘featureless horizons’ of the large topics of self, time, art, politics, morality, sex and death (each of these conceptual grandees gets a chapter), he plays out a debate in which the ‘official story’, often Proust’s narrator’s own in one of his many moods, is defended and displayed but then beautifully dismantled, generality shown to fall apart into fabulous particulars. Bowie’s watchword is ‘resistance’: resistance to the ‘harmonising and integrating role’ of the final volume of A la recherche; to ‘the supposedly overriding ontological programme of the novel’; to ‘the last fortified version of selfhood’ the narrator claims to regain; even to the novel’s ‘all-pervading awareness of death’. What’s wrong with these resolutions and continuities? What do we lose if we fall for them? ‘We lose ... a whole range of paradoxes, dissonances and unusual consonances, and with them a vein of disturbing moral speculation.’ We lose Proust’s ‘extravagance’, his ‘fierce local intensities’, his expert representation of ‘the disorganising demons that run through human discourse’. ‘Proust is too venturesome and too perverse to allow us merely to read upwards towards a promised apex.’ The redemptive view of time ‘answers too many questions, and levitates too obligingly above the restless detail of Proust’s prose’. There is a ‘strangeness’ in Proust’s theory and practice of art; an ‘extreme instability’ in his political vision. The novel has ‘monumental internal disproportions’. Even death is not consistent in Proust: ‘it has too many tones and moods, breeds too many paradoxes, and is devoted to trickery.’ Bowie’s vigilance on this sort of ground, his defence of shift and manifold instance, is really extreme. ‘Even “past” and “future” sound too conceptual, too thought-about, for the rough-and-tumble of lived time.’ Even ‘detail’, we might say, is too general a word.

There is a risk of anti-intellectualism here. Our biggest problem, in Proust or anywhere else, is not usually that things are too thought about. Bowie’s suggestion for further reading – that we should first read A la recherche again, then James, Musil, Joyce, Woolf, Borges, Beckett, Nabokov and Calvino, then the rest of Proust, and only after that the biographers and the critics – is appealing in all kinds of ways, but perhaps underestimates the value and pleasures of the genre Bowie is himself pursuing so skilfully: criticism as conversation, the art of collaboration with invisible readers, who cannot thrive on pure masterpieces, who need the scramble of demotic critical talk.

The risk only hovers, however, and Bowie doesn’t succumb. He can hear ‘the larger music of human wishes’ as well as the racket of what foils them, and even his stories of failure are stories of displaced success. ‘All love affairs fail’ in Proust, ‘and fail in the same way’. ‘People have sex, but that is all they have.’ ‘Proust knows all about the sullenness ... of desire’ – what a wonderful phrase – but then the darkest, most inadmissible desire, in Proust, can people the world with comedy, with what Bowie calls ‘intellectual revelry and rage’. Proust’s ‘nightmare vision of desiring mankind’ is also an epic farce, a kind of dizzying, extended slapstick. It’s true that there is no redemption from time in art, as Proust often wanted to believe there was. The very work which defeats immediate time, and which may outlive us, is itself perishable, subject to time in its longer reaches. But then within the work time is profusely alive, all ‘commotion’, as Bowie says, and failure itself has its marvellous music. Proust is ‘literature’s Liszt’, Bowie suggests, but he is probably several other composers as well, quite different from the Franck and Saint-Saëns he was so fond of.

All of Bowie’s epigraphs (Lichtenberg to the Kalevala) have something to do with the cosmos or the stars, and his text discusses a number of Proustian passages about the heavens. There is, of course, a pathos in Bowie’s title. Proust is himself a star, but stars also die.

Proust is at home among the stars, and accustomed to their disconcerting habits. At one moment, the stars are a pure scattering of luminous points, and turn the narrator into a scatterbrain. At the next moment, they are constellations, gigantic intimations of structure.

Stars are also inside and outside of our heads, part of our perception and part of something else, and one of the best of Bowie’s many fine reminders is that Proust, famous master of proliferating subjectivity, is also the great artist of what escapes the mind.

At the end of Heuet’s comic-strip version of ‘Combray’ a curious elision takes place, and the discreet pictures of different rooms hint at a story the quoted text hides. When the novel opens the narrator is awake, and not sure which room he is in, and creates various candidates in the darkness around him. Some two hundred pages later, after two flashbacks into childhood, the narrator, still awake, knows where he is: ‘It is true that, when morning drew near, I would long have settled the brief uncertainty of my waking dream; I would know in what room I was actually lying.’ This is quoted in the comic book, followed by: ‘the dwelling-place which I had built up for myself in the darkness would have gone to join all those other dwellings glimpsed in the whirlpool of awakening, put to flight by that pale sign traced above the window-curtains by the uplifted finger of dawn.’ The implication is that the wrong place simply gives way to the right place. But this is going too fast. When the narrator says that his ‘brief uncertainty’ is over, he describes in extraordinary detail the room he thinks he is in. But then the daylight reveals him to be mistaken, and the furniture itself starts to rush around as if in Dickens or in Disney:

But scarcely had daylight itself – and no longer the gleam from a last, dying ember on a brass curtain-rod which I had mistaken for daylight – traced across the darkness ... its first correcting ray, than the window, with its curtains, would leave the frame of the doorway in which I had erroneously placed it, while, to make room for it, the writing-table, which my memory had clumsily installed where the window ought to be, would hurry off at full speed, thrusting before it the fireplace and sweeping aside the wall of the passage.

‘At full speed’ is wonderful. If time could be conquered at all, it would be by the obliging haste of the disappearing writing-table, comically fixed in the mind as it makes way for reality, itself enthroned only for a longer or a shorter day.