My Shirt-Front Starched
- 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.
Taylor gives a compelling account of Proust’s compulsive social climbing. There was no reason to believe that this ‘neurotic’ and singularly unemployable bourgeois youth, the son of a Catholic doctor and a Jewish mother, would come to anything (other than a party). ‘I still believe that anything I do outside of literature and philosophy,’ he wrote to his father when he was twenty, ‘will just be so much temps perdu.’ Proust’s ‘refrain’, Taylor writes, was that literature was all he was good for, but there was very little evidence in the meagre quality and quantity of his writing up to this time that he was good even for that. For the young Proust, Taylor suggests, there were ‘two ways in the world, two goals. One was love – in other words homosexual longing. The other was the beau monde – in other words, social climbing.’ Taylor is strict about Proust’s homosexuality: ‘Marcel never in his life wanted women. He only wanted to want them’ (not entirely true given his passion for his mother). He refers to an evening Gide spent with Proust in which Proust apparently made it clear that he could love women only ‘spirituellement’ and had never desired them. ‘We may take it’, Taylor writes, that this diary entry of Gide’s ‘settles the matter of Proust’s sexuality. Androgynous in his work, like all the greatest novelists – yes, by all means. Bisexual never.’
Taylor is uncompromising here, despite the fact that Proust goes to great lengths in the novel to show just how equivocal his characters’ sexuality is. Indeed, he often seems to imply that everyone is straight or gay unless or until they meet someone who makes them feel differently. Charlus was devoted to his wife, and to her memory after her death, then became a womaniser and only after that a promiscuous homosexual; Saint-Loup in the earlier parts of the book is infatuated by the actress Rachel, but by the end of the novel is a married homosexual; Marcel presents himself throughout as rigorously heterosexual but fascinated by the homosexuality of others.
Taylor makes a rich and intriguing case for the fullness of Proust’s promiscuously sociable life and times. He seems to have got more of the life he thought he wanted than Marcel’s life in the novel would lead us to believe. His long and passionate relationship with Reynaldo Hahn, among others, and his many devoted female friends and servants, make it a life rich in affection, and interest, and art, and luxury goods. But his subject, when he eventually came to write, was how little pleasure sociable people could take in one another’s company.
‘My hair well-groomed, my shirt-front starched’, in Mark Treharne’s translation, unavoidably makes us think of Prufrock (such unintended allusions are both a boon and a bane of translation). Sociability puts Marcel in mind of his unease as it did Prufrock; and it makes plain to him his overriding preference for solitude, and solitary pleasures. It is as if he goes to parties in order to get more pleasure from the time he spends on his own. Given that it is the inner life he really values, and that these people supposedly give him no pleasure, he can’t avoid asking himself what he is doing here, or indeed anywhere. And by implication he must also wonder why he goes on writing about these people, and why we would go on reading about them. What is it that he, and his readers, are so drawn to? ‘What am I doing by spending my time doing this?’ Marcel is always asking himself, and, of course, it’s also a question for the reader of his very long and time-consuming book.
One of the reasons he does what he does is that something might happen, that an uneven paving stone or the taste of a madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea will evoke, out of the blue, a striking recollection. His title suggests that we may be able to find time again, and his book is a long meditation on the ways in which this appears to happen. But since the book intimates fairly often that the present matters only as a potential trigger for memories of the past, a possibility of infinite regress lurks in the background: what are the memories within the memories; what past might the past hold? And if, like Proust, you love the unexpected gifts of time, it is not at all clear how you should spend your time. If the real pleasures are unexpected pleasures, and what you want most is to be surprised, then you are likely to be sceptical about making a deliberate attempt to achieve anything. You can’t arrange these experiences, so – like Proust – you idealise habit, and hope for the experiences to come along. Marcel never works and has no confidence in relationships, and by the end of the novel he hasn’t achieved anything except possibly the resolve to get down to writing his book, one of many resolutions, most of which come to nothing.
The book we read, or never quite read, or never quite finish, is about someone failing to write a book; or about someone who intermittently wants to write a book, but who thinks of himself from quite a young age and for no good reason as a writer (we read a few poorly written, ‘poetical’ pages of Marcel’s in the novel). And quite often, it is implied, he wants to write because he seems unable to do anything else (apart from socialise and be ill). But over and above this, In Search of Lost Time, about someone wanting to write a book he doesn’t write, is itself about the ways our objects of desire sustain us by failing to satisfy us. Proust wants us to believe that it is the impossibility of satisfaction that makes wanting work, that makes us keep faith with wanting at all. Marcel’s wanting to write a book keeps Proust’s book going, and he is most aware of not writing when he is wasting his time. The only way for him not to write his book is by wasting his time; while the book he is in considers what it is to waste time, whether time can in any sense be redeemed.
Marcel realises at the beginning of the book, but has to keep on noticing, as though he doesn’t really get it, that wanting is the be all and end all, and that satisfaction is a distraction, a decoy. As Beckett wrote in his book on Proust, ‘the idea that his suffering will cease is more unbearable than that suffering itself.’ If Marcel’s life could be one long maternal kiss, it wouldn’t do the trick. The wished-for solution is more of the problem. The desire to make your dreams come true is a fatal misunderstanding. You have to find something you really want to do and find ways of not doing it. You have to find someone you really want in order to get over wanting them. ‘Really fine works of art,’ Proust writes, ‘if they are given genuine attention, are the ones that disappoint us most’ (a warning to biographers, however artful). Like people we fall in love with, really fine works of art call up our most extravagant expectations; if they are given genuine attention, what is revealed is merely the exorbitance of our desire. It’s not that we are unrealistic, it’s that reality is unbearably disappointing. Only anticipation is satisfying. One of the many great things about In Search of Lost Time is that it leaves us wondering what this might be if it is not a counsel for despair. All the characters in the novel, it’s worth noting, are full of life; even Marcel’s dispiritedness – something few of Proust’s characters feel for long – is amazingly resilient and inventive.
But Proust’s readers never get to read the book Marcel is going to write; we only get to read the book about the book he may write. Marcel’s book, as opposed to Proust’s, is an emblematic object of desire; we are curious about it, but we can never have access to it. Nor can Marcel, unless or until he actually writes it – something we will never have any knowledge of. His abiding preoccupation, of course, is how you get access to the things and the people you want and what wanting that access means. This isn’t unconnected to the desire for biography, something about which Proust has a great deal to say: about what makes people into biographers in the first place, and about what people are doing to themselves and to their subjects in writing a biography.
In both The Fugitive and The Captive, Marcel is quite clear about the origins of the desire for biography. It is sexual jealousy, he thinks (and its unavoidable precursor, the child’s unwilling sharing of the mother), that makes us want to find out about other people’s lives. ‘What an extraordinary value the most insignificant things take on,’ he says in The Captive, ‘as soon as the person that we love hides them from us.’ And yet even if Albertine ‘had told me the truth every time I asked, for example, what she thought of a person, the answer would have been different each time’. This is what turns him into something like a biographer. ‘Her confessions were so few and stopped so short,’ Proust writes, ‘that they left between them, in so far as they concerned the past, great blanks which it was my duty to fill in with the story of her life, which I therefore had to learn.’ Only through knowing the story of her life can he finally possess her. And once he possesses her he will no longer want her. We only want to possess people – one of Marcel’s, and Proust’s, key words – in order to kill our desire for them because it is so painful. Wherever we love we suffer, and wherever we suffer we would prefer not to (unless we can make our suffering our pleasure – often our best bet). Love and desire bring out the worst in us – make us craven, servile, arrogant, domineering, paranoid, obsessional, hysterical, distracted and deranged – and yet, as Marcel insists, there is nothing else we want (except prestige and the admiration of others, which are desires born of our passionate love affair with ourselves).
Biography, then, as one of the forms taken by our desire for others, is not a harmless pleasure; or so Marcel leads us to believe. If we thought, or were lured into thinking, that reading about Marcel brought us closer to Proust – and that getting closer to people was a good thing, which Marcel doesn’t believe in any case – then reading a biography of Proust might bring us even closer. And yet Marcel wants us to bear in mind that we want to know people (even though it’s impossible) in order to rid ourselves of our interest in them. Knowing people is the way we wean ourselves from them.
Proust, in other words, has already ironised the writing of his biography. He has cast troubling suspicions on biographers’ motives. Biographers hate their subjects because they frustrate them by not being available to them; and we read and write biographies because we can’t bear to be left out (and whatever else we are, we are always left out). Every biography is a disguised autobiography; every biography is a failed love affair. However close we get we never get close enough, and we don’t really want to anyway.
The sheer scale of Marcel’s mixed and contrary thoughts and feelings, the ambivalences and qualifications that the novel is riddled with, pre-empt our having any sense of Marcel’s consistency about anything, even though he is, we might say, intermittently consistent about the many things he has views and opinions about, which makes him more interesting, and more like us. Biographers, of course, have to tell a plausibly coherent story about their subjects. In Search of Lost Time, one of the most artful and intellectual novels ever written, warns us about the ‘intellect’ and about ‘art’: we are told that people are multiple, unpredictable and infinitely split, so when it comes to character, inconsistency and contradiction are expected. The book is relentlessly and often startlingly anti-Semitic, for example, but the most impressively generous and, in the best sense, sophisticated people in it are Marcel’s Jewish mother and grandmother, while the anti-Dreyfusards are mostly ridiculed. Involuntary memory is notoriously privileged, with no real case made about its value: we just know that it is amazing, and unpredictable – pleasure never seeming very pleasurable in the novel. Marcel returns repeatedly to the idea that what he wants is solitude, his own company (from which the biographer, like everyone else, is excluded). Could there then be a way of explaining Proust’s life that could justify this extraordinary novel, a fictionalised autobiography of a fictional character, which makes it impossible to imagine what a non-fictional autobiography or biography could possibly be like? And which, to add insult to injury, casts such aspersions on biographers.
In Search of Lost Time ‘is the most encyclopedic of novels’, Taylor writes, and the challenge for the biographer – given that the story of Proust’s life is now well documented – is not to be comparably encyclopedic: neither thorough to the point of tediousness, nor informative to the point of being forgettable. Proust’s previous biographers – Painter, Tadié and Carter, all generously acknowledged by Taylor – have tended towards the encyclopedic, with Edmund White’s shrewd and spry short life a notable exception. Taylor is helped by the fact that his book belongs in a series of brief biographies, the Yale Jewish Lives, which are scholarly without being unduly diligent.
Taylor has taken to heart Marcel’s warning against ‘misconceptions about the way in which artistic impressions are formed in our minds’ (the idea that ‘our eye … is simply a piece of recording apparatus which takes snapshots’ is the most obvious). Writing, at its most minimal, is a process of transformation, and the writer himself, let alone the biographer, often doesn’t know what he has transformed; nor can he know much about the way the transformation works. Because Taylor has been willing to learn from Proust how to write his biography – be enjoyably clever, but not too presumptuous – his book is unusually instructive about how we can read Proust, both how we can learn from him, and what he takes learning to be. Taylor ends by quoting the reaction of Camille Wixler, one of Proust’s friends, to the news of his death: ‘Well, I broke down in front of everybody. How was I going to remember all the things Monsieur Proust had taught me?’ You learn so much from reading Proust, and one of the best things you learn is the pointlessness of trying to remember what you have learned.
The biographer is in search of lost time, most of it lost for ever, but without the luxury of being able, like Proust, to make it up beyond a certain point. As Taylor says, the novel is encyclopedic, but not so much in the information it contains – of which there is a great deal about a particular social milieu and its attributes, about gay life in Fin de Siècle Paris, about the political life of a particular social group, about Paris during the war, among much else – as in its elaborate account of a particular sensibility. It is about what it is to be a particular person, at a particular time, in a particular place; the novel is an encyclopedia of Marcel’s impressions. A life of impressions transformed, and a life that was extremely sociable but devoted to solitude, is inevitably a difficult life to write.
As well as dedicating his book to James Merrill, Taylor chooses as an epigraph some lines from Merrill’s poem ‘The Book of Ephraim’, about the scene at the end of the novel in which, after a period away, Marcel meets a number of people he has known, and perceives them as masked, when in fact they have aged. One might need to age a bit oneself to get it:
I once thought, that foreshortening in Proust –
A world abruptly old, whitehaired, a reader
Looking up in puzzlement to fathom
Whether ten years or forty have gone by.
Young, I mistook it for an unconvincing
Trick of the teller. It was truth instead
Babbling through his own astonishment.
What begins apparently as literary artifice may take time to become true; and the truth may be more akin to babbling. In Search of Lost Time is a book you have to catch up with, and keep going back to, just as you read those elaborated sentences that go back and forth, forgetting where they started and then recovering their sense. ‘The real triumph of manners in Proust,’ Merrill said,
is the extreme courtesy towards the reader, the voice explaining at once formally and intimately. Though it can be heard, of course, as megalomania, there is something wonderful in the reasonableness, the long-windedness of that voice, in its desire to be understood in its treatment of every phenomenon (whether the way someone pronounces a word, or the article of clothing worn, or the colour of a flower) as having ultimate importance.
Something similar can be said about Taylor’s book, which explains both formally and intimately – through straightforward documentary narrative and engaging interpretation – the facts and fictions of Proust’s extraordinarily improbable life. A life in which, as Taylor puts it, ‘a social climber with artistic pretensions, an obvious lightweight … after the appalling waste of time, after numberless errors and follies … wrote a Guide of the Perplexed.’ His novel, Taylor writes, casting Proust in the Jewish prophetic tradition, is ‘a 3300-page epic telling of how a frightened tadpole grows up to be an omnipotent artist’, while at the same time making it plain that the frightened tadpole and the omnipotent artist are inextricable.