My Shirt-Front Starched

Adam Phillips

  • Proust: The Search by Benjamin Taylor
    Yale, 199 pp, £16.99, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 16416 9

Translating Proust’s novel back into his life, and then the life back into the novel, has been an abiding temptation both for those who know it well and for those who don’t. In part this is an effect of the novel, which is itself obsessed by what people want to know about one another, and why. As ‘the world of people we associate with bears so little resemblance to the way we imagine it,’ Proust writes, it would seem sensible to try to bridge the gap. But this is where the trouble starts. We can’t bridge the gap, and, Proust insists, we don’t want to.

In a passage towards the end of The Guermantes Way, Marcel interrupts his accounts of banal dialogue and fatuous anecdotes to remark, not for the first time, that he can’t think why he spends so much time in aristocratic circles – is he really so fascinated by them? – or why he spends so much time telling us about them. Marcel is always eager to please – to please himself by pleasing others, including his readers – but he knows that this sort of eagerness quickly becomes boring. Giving people what they seem to want doesn’t get him what he thinks he wants. And what he thinks he wants, after so much longing and hoping and imagining, invariably dismays him. He is continually struck by the ‘silliness’ of these people and their ‘stale malicious gossip’ but he really wants to get to know them. ‘Desire makes all things flourish,’ Proust wrote at the age of 18, ‘possession withers them.’ It was an insight from which he never recovered. As Benjamin Taylor puts it in his new biography, Proust’s ‘vitality’ was ‘checkmated by the excess of self-seeing’; knowing these people – knowing anyone – ended in catastrophic disappointment. Only a new lyricism of self-doubt could do justice to his bafflement at himself and what he wanted; his long sentences defer the possibility of coming to conclusions, or reaching an unequivocal truth. Virtually everything Marcel asserts or expects in the novel is confounded or contradicted, sometimes immediately, sometimes over long stretches of time. The sociability he craved, like most of what he craved, wearied him, when it didn’t escape him.

‘I scarcely listened to those anecdotes,’ he writes, anecdotes that he has been recounting for at least 150 pages:

They afforded no food for my preferred patterns of thought; and besides, even had they possessed the elements they lacked, they would have needed to be of a highly exciting nature for my inner life to be aroused during those hours spent in society when I lived on the surface, my hair well-groomed, my shirt-front starched, that is to say hours in which I could feel nothing of what I personally regarded as pleasure.

Marcel has spent most of his young life first sacralising, then aspiring to join these people only to discover that to satisfy a wish, especially a childhood wish, can only ever end in disillusion, because the real pleasure is in the desiring, in the imagining; so much so, Marcel often intimates with his preachy irony, that we should actually work as hard as we can not to get what we think we want. We do this automatically, it seems, but we need to put our minds to it, because the one belief we appear to be unable to give up on is the belief in the importance of satisfaction. We can’t think what else to do with our wishes other than try to satisfy them. And this, in Marcel’s view, is our fundamental flaw, our original sin.

Marcel is fascinated by snobs, people who know what people should want, who have no doubt what the good things are. And so what is often most affecting about the novel is the case it makes, wittingly and unwittingly, for naivety. Proust’s much vaunted faith in involuntary memory is really a faith in naivety, in never knowing beforehand what is going to matter to you, or why. When In Search of Lost Time is not a book about and inspired by disillusionment, it is a great book about the wonders of curiosity. Proust was interested in the aristocracy partly because he was curious about the people who seemed to be the least curious about those other than themselves.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in