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Title: Marcel Proust - An English Tribute
Author: - To be updated
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Marcel Proust - An English Tribute" ***




  _Collected by_



  _Printed in Great Britain
  All Rights



  I. Introduction: _by_ C.K.S.M.                             page 1

  II. A Portrait: _by_ STEPHEN HUDSON                             5

  III. The Prophet of Despair: _by_ FRANCIS BIRRELL              12

  IV. A Sensitive Petronius: _by_ RALPH WRIGHT                   31

  V. The “Little Proust”: _by_ L. PEARSALL SMITH                 52

  VI. A Reader’s Gratitude: _by_ COMPTON MACKENZIE               59

  VII. Gilberte: _by_ ALEC WAUGH                                 63

  VIII. Proust’s Women: _by_ CATHERINE CARSWELL                  66

  IX. The Best Record: _by_ REGINALD TURNER                      78

  X. A Foot-note: _by_ CLIVE BELL                                83

  XI. The Spell of Proust: _by_ ETHEL C. MAYNE                   90

  XII. A New Psychometry: _by_ A.B. WALKLEY                      96

  XIII. Proust and the Modern Consciousness:
    _by_ J. MIDDLETON MURRY                                     102

  XIV. Proust’s Way: _by_ VIOLET HUNT                           111

  XV. M. Vinteuil’s Sonata: _by_ DYNELEY HUSSEY                 117

  XVI. A Note on the Little Phrase: _by_ W.J. TURNER            124

  XVII. Proust as Creator: _by_ JOSEPH CONRAD                   126

  XVIII. A Moment to Spare: _by_ G. SAINTSBURY                  129

  XIX. A Real World in Fiction: _by_ G.S. STREET                131

  XX. The Birth of a Classic: _by_ EDGELL RICKWORD              134

  XXI. A Casuist in Souls: _by_ ARTHUR SYMONS                   138

  XXII. The Last Word: _by_ ARNOLD BENNETT                      144




The death of Marcel Proust in Paris on November 18, 1922, and the
manner in which the news of his death was, by no means numerously,
reported in London, brought into question the extent of his rumoured
rather than defined influence over readers in this country. This
question it was natural that I should ask myself, for I had recently
published an English version of the first part of his great novel,
_Du Côté de chez Swann_, and was then about half way through
the translation of its sequel, _A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en
Fleurs_. The writer of a savage, though evidently sincere attack
on Proust which a London newspaper published within forty-eight hours
of his death seemed to assume that he had already a considerable (if
misguided) following here, and it occurred to me that I might obtain,
from writers who were my friends, and from others who had expressed
their admiration of Proust in English periodicals, a body of critical
opinion similar to that which, I learned, was being collected in Paris
by the editor of the _Nouvelle Revue Française_. To test the
worth of my idea, I began with the seniors. Mr. Saintsbury—who (in
this respect only) might have served as the model for the Marquis de
Norpois, whose promptness in answering a letter “was so astonishing
that whenever my father, just after posting one to him, saw his
handwriting upon an envelope, his first thought was always one of
annoyance that their letters must, unfortunately, have crossed in the
post; which, one was led to suppose, bestowed upon him the special and
luxurious privilege of extraordinary deliveries and collections at
all hours of the day and night”—replied at once, and Mr. Conrad soon
followed, with letters of which each correspondent authorised me to
make whatever use I chose.

So, I must add, did Mr. George Moore, but in a letter expressive only
of his own inability to stomach Proust, the inclusion here of which,
even although it might make this volume a prize to collectors of
first editions, would compel the excision of the word “tribute” from
title-page and cover. Mr. Walkley, the doyen of English Proustians as
he is of dramatic critics, and Mr. Middleton Murry put me at liberty
to use articles which they were publishing in _The Times_ and
its _Literary Supplement_; Mr. Stephen Hudson, the most intimate
English friend of Proust’s later years, consented to write a character
sketch; and on this base my cenotaph was soon erected.

That it is not loftier must be laid to my account. I have doubtless
refrained from approaching many willing contributors, from a natural
and, I trust, not blameworthy reluctance to interrupt busy persons with
whom I am not acquainted. At the same time, I found among those whom I
did approach a widespread modesty which prevented a number of them from
contributing opinions which would have been of the greatest critical
importance. “We do not,” was the general answer, “know enough of Proust
to venture to tackle such a theme.” This and the pressure of other
work have kept silent, to my great regret, Mrs. Virginia Woolf, Miss
Rebecca West, Mr. J.C. Squire, Mr. Desmond MacCarthy, Mr. Lascelles
Abercrombie, Mr. Aldous Huxley, and that most reluctant writer Mr. E.M.

Their reticence should be my model. Although I cannot pretend not to
have made a certain study of the text of Proust (probably the most
corrupt text of any modern author that is to be found), the close
scrutiny required of a translator has inevitably obstructed my view of
the work as a whole. The reader of the following pages may, however, be
assured that this is my private loss and will in no way be made his.

I have to thank all the contributors for the spontaneous generosity
with which they have collaborated and have placed their work at my
disposal. I have also to thank the proprietors and editors of the
following newspapers and reviews for permission to reprint articles
which have appeared in their pages: _The Times_ for Mr. Walkley’s;
_The Times Literary Supplement_ for Mr. Middleton Murry’s; _The
Saturday Review_ for Mr. Hussey’s; _The New Statesman_ for Mr.
Pearsall Smith’s; _The Saturday Westminster Gazette_ for that of
Mr. Arthur Symons; and _The Nineteenth Century and After_ for Mr.
Ralph Wright’s.




In trying to represent the personality of a friend to those who do
not know him, one has in mind, though one may not deliberately use, a
standard of reference with which he can be compared or contrasted.

In the case of Proust no such standard is available, and I find myself
driven back to the frequently used but unilluminating word unique
for want of a better expression. This uniqueness consisted less, I
think, in his obvious possession to an outstanding degree of gifts
and charms than in his use of them. Others probably have been and
are as wise, witty, cultured, sympathetic, have possessed or possess
his conversational powers, his charm of manner, his graciousness.
But no one I have ever known combined in his own person so many
attractive qualities and could bring them into play so spontaneously.
Yet, while his use of these powers resulted in his eliciting the
utmost fruitfulness from social intercourse, there was an impalpable
objectivity about him, an aloofness felt rather than observed. It was
as though the personality revealed at the particular moment was but one
of many, while the dominant consciousness lay behind them, preserving
its complete inviolability. It was, I believe, in the depth and
capacity of this ultimate consciousness that his uniqueness lay, as it
is there that the source of his creative power and sensibility is to be

It seems to me that the essential element of this ultimate ego in
Proust was goodness. This goodness had nothing ethical in it, must not
be confounded with righteousness; and yet, seeking another word to
define its nature, purity is the only one that occurs to me. There was
in him the fundamental simplicity which was typified by Dostoevsky in
Myshkin, and out of it grew the intellectual integrity which governed
and informed his philosophy.

He possessed that rarest gift of touching everyday people, things, and
concerns with gold, imparting to them a vital and abiding interest.
Anything and everything served as a starting-point, nothing was too
minute to kindle idea and provoke suggestive utterance. He could do
this because he was himself the most interesting of men, and because
Life was one long exciting adventure to him wherein nothing was trivial
or negligible. It was not that loving beauty he desired nothing else,
and was seeking an aesthetic disguise for the ugly, the sordid, or the
base. On the contrary, he recognised that these also are of the stuff
of which humanity is made, and that truth and beauty are as often as
not masked by their opposites. In him extremes were not only reconciled
but united. Supremely conscious and utterly unegotistical, one may look
in vain in his work for a trace of vanity, of self-glorification,
or even self-justification. He is intensely concerned with his own
consciousness, he is never concerned with himself. I can think of no
conversation in any of his books in which he takes other than a minor
part, and of very few in which he takes any part at all. He is wholly
taken up with the thing in itself, whatever it may be, regarding his
consciousness as an instrument of revelation apart from himself. And as
he shows himself in his books, so he was in life.

In reply to a letter in which, expressing my disappointment at not
seeing him on a certain occasion, I went on to say that, much as I
loved his books, I would rather see him and hear him talk than read
them, he wrote me:

     Entre ce qu’une personne dit et ce qu’elle extrait par la
     méditation des profondeurs où l’esprit nu gît, couvert de
     voiles, il y a un monde. Il est vrai qu’il y a des gens
     supérieurs à leurs livres mais c’est que leurs livres ne
     sont pas des _Livres_. Il me semble que Ruskin, qui
     disait de temps en temps des choses sensées, a assez bien
     exprimé une partie au moins de cela.... Si vous ne lisez
     pas mon livre ce n’est pas ma faute; c’est la faute de mon
     livre, car s’il était vraiment un beau livre il ferait
     aussitôt l’unité dans les esprits épars et rendrait le
     calme aux cœurs troubles.

His immersion in the subject of conversation or inquiry was complete;
nothing else existed until he had got to the bottom of it. But his
world was echoless; the voice never repeated itself, and banality could
not enter in, because neither formula nor classification existed for
him. Just as in his eyes one particular water-lily in the Vivonne was
different from any other water-lily, so each fresh experience was an
isolated unit complete in itself and unlike all other units in the
world of his consciousness. His mind, so far from being overlaid by
obliterating layers of experience, was as a virgin soil which by some
magic renews itself after each fresh crop has been harvested. This
power of mental renewal pervades and gives a peculiar freshness to all
that he has written. It is in essence a youthful quality which was very
marked in his personality. He was penetrated with boyish eagerness and
curiosity, asked endless questions, wanted always to know more. What
had you heard, what did you think, what did they say or do, whatever
_it_ was and whoever _they_ were. And there was no denying
him this or anything he wanted; he must always have his way—he always
did have it, till the end of his life. And the great comfort to those
who loved him is that till the last he was a glorious spoilt child. As
Céleste says in _Sodome_:

     On devrait bien tirer son portrait en ce moment. Il a tout
     des enfants. Vous ne vieillirez jamais. Vous avez de la
     chance, vous n’aurez jamais à lever la main sur personne,
     car vous avez des yeux qui savent imposer leur volonté....

This was the same Céleste who devoted her life to his service
for many years and was with him to the last. After his death she
wrote of him: “Monsieur ne ressemblait à personne. C’était un être
incomparable—composé de deux choses, intelligence et cœur—et quel cœur!”

Knowing the intensity of his interest in and sympathy with humble
lives, the suggestion of snobbishness in connexion with such a man is
ridiculous. Proust, like all great artists, needed access to all human
types. It is one of the drawbacks of our modern civilisation that the
opportunities for varied social intercourse are limited and beset with
conventional prejudices. No man went further than he did to surmount
these. He knew people of the “monde” as he knew others. As he writes in

     Je n’avais jamais fait de différence entre les ouvriers,
     les bourgeois et les grands seigneurs, et j’aurais pris
     indifféremment les uns et les autres pour amis avec une
     certaine préférence pour les ouvriers, et après cela pour
     les grands seigneurs, non par goût, mais sachant qu’on
     peut exiger d’eux plus de politesse envers les ouvriers
     qu’on ne l’obtient de la part des bourgeois, soit que les
     grands seigneurs ne dédaignent pas les ouvriers comme font
     les bourgeois, ou bien parce qu’ils sont volontiers polis
     envers n’importe qui, comme les jolies femmes heureuses de
     donner un sourire qu’elles savent accueilli avec tant de

His friends were in fact of all classes, but his friendship was
accorded only on his own terms, and a condition of it was the capacity
to bear hearing the truth. His friends knew themselves the better for
knowing him, for he was impatient of the slightest insincerity or
disingenuousness and could not tolerate pretence. Lies tired him. In a
letter he alluded thus to one whom we both knew well:

     Ce que je lui reproche, c’est d’être un menteur. Il
     a fait ma connaissance à la faveur d’un mensonge et
     depuis n’a guère cessé. Il trouve toujours le moyen de
     gâter ses qualités par ces petits mensonges qu’il croit
     l’avantager—tout petits et quelquefois énormes.

Proust’s insistence on truthfulness and sincerity caused him more than
once to renounce lifelong associations. His sensibility was so delicate
that a gesture or a note in the voice revealed to him a motive, perhaps
slight and passing, of evasion or pretence. He was exacting about
sincerity only. In other respects his tolerance was so wide that a hard
truth from his lips, so far from wounding, stimulated. To his friends
he was frankness itself, and spoke his mind without reserve. I once
asked him to tell me if there were not some one, some friend of his, to
whom I could talk about him. There was so much I wanted to know, and on
the all too rare occasions when he was well enough to see me there was
never time. In answer to this he wrote me:

     Si vous désirez poser quelque interrogation à une personne
     qui me comprenne, c’est bien simple, adressez-vous à moi.
     D’ami qui me connaisse entièrement je n’en ai pas.... Je
     sais tout sur moi et vous dirai volontiers tout; il est
     donc inutile de vous désigner quelque ami mal informé et
     qui dans la faible mesure de sa compétence cesserait de
     mériter le nom d’ami s’il vous répondait.

Thus in his words we reach the final conclusion that, even if Proust’s
friends had the power of expressing all that they feel about him, they
would still be “mal informés,” and would have to return to him for
that deeper knowledge which only he could impart. As to this, there
is his further assurance that his work is the best part of himself.
Providentially, he was spared until that work was done and “Fin” on the
last page was written by his own hand.




It is the privilege of those known as the world’s greatest artists to
create the illusion of dragging the reader through the whole mechanism
of life. Such was pre-eminently the gift of Shakespeare, whose
tragedies appear to be microcosms of the universe. Such a gift was that
of Balzac, for all his vulgarities and absurdities, if we may treat
the whole _Comédie Humaine_ as a single novel. Such, in his rare
moments of prodigal creation, was the power of Tolstoy, whom Proust
in some ways so much resembles. Such is the gift of Proust in his
astonishing pseudo-autobiography, _A la Recherche du Temps Perdu_.
For it is the sense of imaginative wealth and creative facility that
is the hallmark of the first-rate genius, who must never appear to be
reaching the end of his tether, but must always, on the contrary, leave
the impression of there being better fish in his sea than have ever
come out of it.

The outpouring of the romantic school of authors, their neglect of
form, their absence of critical faculty, their devastating facility,
have made this truth disagreeable and even doubtful to many minds,
who feel more in sympathy with the costive author of _Adolphe_
than with the continual flux of Victor Hugo. Yet if Victor Hugo be a
great author at all, as he evidently is, it is because of this very
fertility that we so much dislike; and if Benjamin Constant be not a
great artist, as he evidently is not, the reason must be sought in
the absence of fertility, though we may find its absence sympathetic;
while this same fertility, which is the whole essence of Balzac, is
rendering him formidable and unattractive to a generation of readers.
Now, Proust was eminently fertile, and, within the limits imposed by
his own delicate health, he could go on indefinitely, so profound and
so all-embracing was his interest in human beings and human emotions.
But he was fertile in a new way. Not for him was the uncritical spate
of nineteenth-century verbiage. His intellectual integrity, of which
M.C. Dubos has written so well in his _Approximations_, always
compelled him to check and ponder every move upon the chessboard of
life, every comment on human feelings. For Proust is the latest great
prophet of sensibility, and it is bearing this in mind that we can
trace the intellectual stock of which he comes.

One of the great landmarks in French literature is pegged out for us
by the Abbé Prévost’s translation of _Clarissa Harlowe_, which
burst on the new sentimental generation, starved on the superficial
brilliance of the Regnards and their successors, with all the energy
of a gospel. The adoration with which this great novel was received
by the most brilliant intellects of eighteenth-century France seems
to-day somewhat excessive, however deep be our sympathy with the mind
and art of Richardson. Remember how Diderot speaks of him: Diderot the
most complete embodiment of the eighteenth century with its sentimental
idealism and fiery common sense—the man in whom reason and spirit were
perfectly blended, the enthusiastic preacher of atheism and humanity:

     O Richardson, Richardson! homme unique à mes yeux. Tu
     seras ma lecture dans tous les temps. Forcé par les
     besoins pressants si mon ami tombe dans l’indigence, si la
     médiocrité de ma fortune ne suffit pas pour donner à mes
     enfants les soins nécessaires à leur éducation je vendrai
     mes livres, mais tu me resteras; tu me resteras sur le même
     rayon avec Virgile, Homère, Euripide, et Sophocle. Je vous
     lirai tour à tour. Plus on a l’âme belle, plus on aime la
     vérité, plus on a le goût exquis et pur, plus on connaît la
     nature, plus on estime les ouvrages de Richardson.

The new sentimental movement, developed to such a pitch of perfection
by the author of _Clarissa Harlowe_, was one of enormous value to
life and art. But inevitably it was pushed much too far, and the novels
of the _école larmoyante_ are now well-nigh intolerable, even
when written by men of genius like Rousseau, whose characters seem to
spend their lives in one continual jet of tears in a country where the
floodgates of ill-controlled emotion are never for an instant shut.

Rousseau had one great pupil, a great name in the history of the French
novel, Stendhal. But he wore his Rousseau with a difference. For
Rousseau represented, in his novels, but one side of the eighteenth
century, the sentimental; but there was another, the scientific—and
the life work of Stendhal consisted in an untiring effort to combine
the two. For what was the avowed ambition of the self-conscious
sentimentalist that was Stendhal? Soaked in the writings of Lavater,
de Tracy, and the Scotch metaphysicians, crossed with a romantic
passion for Rousseau and the Elizabethan drama, he wished to be as
_sec_ as possible, and boasted that he read a portion of the
_Code Civil_ every day—a document Rémy de Gourmont may be right
in calling diffuse, but which is certainly not romantic. Nourished
on Shakespeare, Rousseau, and de Tracy, Stendhal became one of the
first completely modern men, who study the working of their minds
with the imaginative enthusiasm, but also with the cold objectivity,
of a scientist dissecting a tadpole. Like the young scientist in
Hans Andersen, his first instinct was to catch the toad and put it
in spirits; but in this case the toad was his own soul. Stendhal was
too much of a revolutionary in writing ever to have been completely
successful; but the immensity of his achievement may be gauged by the
fact that parts of _L’Amour_, and still more of _Le Rouge et le
Noir_, are really of practical value to lovers, who might profit
considerably in the conduct of their affairs by a careful study of
Stendhal’s advice, if only they were ever in a position to listen
to reason. Now, this is something quite new in fiction, and would
have astonished his grandfather Richardson. Proust is in turn the
intellectual child of Stendhal, and has bespattered _A la Recherche
du Temps Perdu_ with expressions of admiration for his master.
In truth, he has taken over not only the methods but the philosophy
of his teacher. It will be remembered that Stendhal insists in his
analysis of _L’Amour-Passion_ that crystallisation can only be
effected after doubt has been experienced. So, for Proust, love, the
_mal sacré_ as he calls it, can only be called into being by
jealousy, _le plus affreux des supplices_. We can want nothing
till we have been cheated out of getting it; whence it follows that we
can get nothing till we have ceased to want it, and in any case, once
obtained, it would _ipso facto_ cease to be desirable. Hence Man,
“how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how
express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension
how like a god,” is doomed by the nature of his being to unsatisfied
desire and restless misery, till Proust becomes, as I have called him
above, the prophet of despair. He is a master of the agonising moments
spent hanging in vain round the telephone, the weeks passed waiting
for letters that never come, and the terrible reactions after one’s
own fatal letter has been irrevocably posted and not all the jewels
of Golconda can extract it from the pillar-box. For how does the hero
of his novels finally pass under the sway of Albertine? Through agony
caused by the cutting of an appointment.

     Comme chaque fois que la porte cochère s’ouvrait, la
     concierge appuyait sur un bouton électrique qui éclairait
     l’escalier, et comme il n’y avait pas de locataires qui
     ne fussent rentrés, je quittai immédiatement la cuisine
     et revins m’asseoir dans l’antichambre, épiant, là où
     la tenture un peu trop étroite qui ne couvrait pas
     complètement la porte vitrée de notre appartement, laissait
     passer la sombre raie verticale faite par la demi-obscurité
     de l’escalier. Si tout d’un coup, cette raie devenait d’un
     blond doré, c’est qu’Albertine viendrait d’entrer en bas
     et serait dans deux minutes près de moi; personne d’autre
     ne pouvait plus venir à cette heure-là. Et je restais, ne
     pouvant détacher mes yeux de la raie qui s’obstinait à
     demeurer sombre; je me penchais tout entier pour être sûr
     de bien voir; mais j’avais beau regarder, le noir trait
     vertical, malgré mon désir passionné, ne me donnait pas
     l’enivrante allégresse que j’aurais eue, si je l’avais vu,
     changé par un enchantement soudain et significatif, en un
     lumineux barreau d’or. _C’était bien de l’inquiétude,
     pour cette Albertine à laquelle je n’avais pensé trois
     minutes pendant la soirée Guermantes!_ Mais, réveillant
     les sentiments d’attente jadis éprouvés à propos d’autres
     jeunes filles, surtout de Gilberte, quand elle tardait
     à venir, _la privation possible d’un simple plaisir
     physique me causait une cruelle souffrance morale_.

Indeed, happiness in love is by nature impossible, as it demands an
impossible spiritual relationship.

     If we thought that the eyes of a girl like that were merely
     two glittering sequins of mica, we should not be athirst
     to know her and to unite her life to ours. But we feel
     that what shines in those reflecting discs is not due
     solely to their material composition; that it is, unknown
     to us, the dark shadows of the ideas that the creature is
     conceiving, relative to the people and places that she
     knows—the turf of racecourses, the sand of cycling tracks
     over which, pedalling on past fields and woods, she would
     have drawn me after her, that little peri, more seductive
     to me than she of the Persian paradise—the shadows, too,
     of the home to which she will presently return, of the
     plans that she is forming or that others have formed for
     her; and above all that it is she, with her desires, her
     sympathies, her revulsions, her obscure and incessant will.
     I knew that I should never possess this young cyclist if
     I did not possess also what was in her eyes. And it was
     consequently her whole life that filled me with desire; a
     sorrowful desire _because I felt that it was not to be
     realised_, but exhilarating, because what had hitherto
     been my life, having ceased suddenly to be my whole
     life, being no more now than a little part of the space
     stretching out before me, which I was burning to cover and
     which was composed of the lives of these girls, offered me
     that prolongation, that possible multiplication of oneself,
     which is happiness. And no doubt the fact that we had,
     these girls and I, not one habit, as we had not one idea,
     in common, was to make it more difficult for me to make
     friends with them and to please them. But perhaps, also,
     it was thanks to those differences, to my consciousness
     that there did not enter into the composition of the nature
     and actions of these girls a single element that I knew
     or possessed, that there came in place of my satiety a
     thirst—like that with which a dry land burns—for a life
     which my soul, because it had never until now received one
     drop of it, would absorb all the more greedily in long
     draughts, with a more perfect imbibition.[1]

[Footnote 1: Mr. Birrell, whose essay, though first printed in _The
Dial_, was written for inclusion in this volume, has kindly
consented to my substituting for the original text my own versions of
this and the following quotations from _A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles
en Fleurs_ and _Du Côté de chez Swann_ respectively.—C.K.S.M.]

Proust, having thus reduced all human society to misery, builds upon
the ruins his philosophy of salvation: Only by much suffering shall
we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven—that is to say, shall we be
enabled to see ourselves solely and simply as members of the human
race, to perceive what is essential and fundamental in everybody
beneath the trappings of manners, birth, or fortune, learn to be
really intelligent. Love and jealousy alone can open to us the
portals of intelligence. Thus, in the opening pages of _Du Côté de
chez Swann_, the poor little boy, who, because M. Swann is dining
with his parents, cannot receive in bed his mother’s kiss, starts on
the long spiritual journey which is to run parallel to that of the
brilliant, unhappy _mondain_ guest. Miserable at being left alone,
he desperately sends down to his mother an agonised note by his nurse,
and in his agitation he hates Swann, whom he regards as the cause of
his misery, and continues to reflect:

     As for the agony through which I had just passed, I
     imagined that Swann would have laughed heartily at it if he
     had read my letter and had guessed its purpose; whereas, on
     the contrary, as I was to learn in due course, a similar
     anguish had been the bane of his life for many years, and
     no one perhaps could have understood my feelings at that
     moment so well as himself; to him, that anguish which lies
     in knowing that the creature one adores is in some place
     of enjoyment where oneself is not and cannot follow—to him
     that anguish came through Love, to which it is in a sense
     predestined, by which it must be equipped and adapted;
     but when, as had befallen me, such an anguish possesses
     one’s soul before Love has yet entered into one’s life,
     then it must drift, awaiting Love’s coming, vague and
     free without precise attachment, at the disposal of one
     sentiment to-day, of another to-morrow, of filial piety or
     affection for a comrade. And the joy with which I first
     bound myself apprentice, when Françoise returned to tell me
     that my letter would be delivered, Swann, too, had known
     well that false joy which a friend can give us, or some
     relative of the woman we love, when on his arrival at the
     house or theatre where she is to be found, for some ball or
     party or first night at which he is to meet her, he sees us
     wandering outside, desperately awaiting some opportunity of
     communicating with her.

“We brought nothing into the world,” remarked the first Christian
Stoic, “and it is certain we shall take nothing out of it.” He might
have made an exception for our personality, that enormous anonymity,
unmalleable as granite and unchanging as the ocean, which we brought
along with us from a thousand ancestors and shall carry unaltered to
the grave. Swann and little Proust, both endowed with sensibility,
could shake hands with each other across the generations: all the
experiences of one, all the innocence of the other, were as nothing
beside that similarity of temperament which calls to us irrevocably, as
Christ called to Matthew at the receipt of custom, and bids us share
with our friend the miseries of the past and the terrors of the future.

Proust’s youth was spent in Paris during that period when France was
spiritually and politically severed by the _Affaire Dreyfus_, and
for him the _Affaire_ becomes the touchstone of sensibility and
intelligence. To be a Dreyfusard means to pass beyond the sheltered
harbour of one’s own clique and interest into the uncharted sea
of human solidarity. Hard indeed is the way of the rich man, the
aristocrat, the snob, or the gentleman, who wishes to find salvation
during the _Affaire_. He must leave behind him taste, beauty,
comfort, and education, consort, in spirit at least, with intolerable
Jews, fifth-rate politicians, and insufferable _arrivistes_,
before worthily taking up the burden of human misery and routing the
forces of superstition and stupidity. And there is only one school for
this lesson, the school of romantic love—that is to say, of carking
jealousy, in the throes of which all men are equal. Little Proust
himself, his bold and beautiful friend the Marquis de Saint-Loup, the
eccentric and arrogant M. de Charlus, even the stupid high-minded
Prince de Guermantes, who all know the meaning of romantic love,
as opposed to the facile pleasure of successive mistresses, will
eventually, be it only for a short moment, triumphantly stand the test.
But Saint-Loup’s saintly mother, Mme. de Marsantes, the rakish Duc de
Guermantes and his brilliant, charming, but limited wife, will never
put out to sea on the ship of misery, bound for the ever-receding
shores of romantic love and universal comprehension. They will
never risk their lives for one great moment, for the satisfaction
of unbounded passion. Swann tortured and fascinated by his flashy
_cocotte_, little Proust lacerated by the suspected infidelities
of the niece of a Civil Servant, Saint-Loup in the clutches of an
obscure and ill-conditioned actress of budding genius, M. de Charlus
broken by the sheer brutality of his young musician: such are the
people who have their souls and such are the painful schools in which
Salvation is learned—the Salvation that comes from forgetting social
prejudice and from not mistaking the “plumage for the dying bird,” from
judging people by their intrinsic merit, from making no distinction
between servants and masters, between prince and peasant. For, as the
author insists with almost maddening iteration, good brains and good
breeding never go together: all ultimate talent and perception is
with the cads. The price to pay is heavy and incessant. A little easy
happiness, a little recovery from hopeless love, a passing indifference
to ill-requited affection, can undo all the good acquired by endless
misery in the long course of years.

Such I take to be the fundamental thought underlying _A la Recherche
du Temps Perdu_ in its present unfinished state, though we cannot
tell what surprises the succeeding volumes (happily completed) may
have in store for us. I have insisted, at perhaps excessive length, on
the general mental background to this vast epic of jealousy, because
it is not very easy to determine. The enormous wealth of the author’s
gifts tends to bury the structure under the superb splendour of the
ornament. For Proust combines, to a degree never before realised in
literature, the qualities of the aesthete and the scientist. It is the
quality which first strikes the reader who does not notice, in the
aesthetic rapture communicated by perfect style, that all pleasures are
made pegs for disillusion. Human beauty, the beauty of buildings, of
the sea, of the sky, the beauty of transmitted qualities in families
and in the country-side, the beauty of history, of good breeding, of
self-assurance—few people have felt these things as Proust. For him
the soft place-names of France are implicit with memories too deep for
tears. Let us take one passage among many where the aesthete Proust is
feeling intensely a thousand faint suggestions:

     Quand je rentrai, le concierge de l’hôtel me remit une
     lettre de deuil où faisaient part le marquis et la marquise
     de Gonneville, le vicomte et la vicomtesse d’Amfreville,
     le comte et la comtesse de Berneville, le marquis et la
     marquise de Graincourt, le comte d’Amenoncourt, la comtesse
     de Maineville, le comte et la comtesse de Franquetot, la
     comtesse de Chaverny née d’Aigleville, et de laquelle
     je compris enfin pourquoi elle m’était envoyée quand je
     reconnus les noms de la marquise de Cambremer née du Mesnil
     la Guichard, du marquis et de la marquise de Cambremer,
     et que je vis que la morte, une cousine des Cambremer,
     s’appelait Éléonore-Euphrasie-Humbertine de Cambremer,
     comtesse de Criquetot. Dans toute l’étendue de cette
     famille provinciale dont le dénombrement remplissait des
     lignes fines et serrées, pas un bourgeois, et d’ailleurs
     pas un titre connu, mais tout le ban et l’arrière-ban des
     nobles de la région qui faisaient chanter leurs noms—ceux
     de tous les lieux intéressants du pays—aux joyeux finales
     en _ville_, en _court_, parfois plus sourdes
     (en _tot_). Habillés des tuiles de leur château ou
     du crépi de leur église, la tête branlante dépassant à
     peine la voûte ou le corps-de-logis et seulement pour se
     coiffer du lanternon normand ou des colombages du toit en
     poivrière, ils avaient l’air d’avoir sonné le rassemblement
     de tous les jolis villages échelonnés ou dispersés à
     cinquante lieues à la ronde et de les avoir disposés en
     formation serrée, sans une lacune, sans un intrus, dans le
     damier compact et rectangulaire de l’aristocratique lettre
     bordée de noir.

Such a passage contains in little the whole history of a nation
reflected in the magic mirror of a nation’s country-side, equally
desirable for its human suggestiveness and for its pure aesthetic worth.

And here we may pause for a moment to consider one of the most
important aspects of Proust’s aesthetic impulse, which is expressed
in the title _A la Recherche du Temps Perdu_, the Remembrance of
Things Past. This is more than the expression of a desire to write an
autobiography, to recapitulate one’s own vanishing experience. It is an
endeavour to reconstruct the whole of the past, on which the present is
merely a not particularly valuable comment. Royalties are interesting
because they have retired from business, aristocrats because they
have nothing left but their manners; the _bourgeoisie_ still
carry with them the relics of their old servility, the people have
not yet realised their power; and a social flux results therefrom,
the study of which can never grow boring to the onlooker as long as
superficially the old order continues, though it represent nothing
but an historic emotion. The hero as he winds along the path of his
emotional experience from childhood to adolescence is pictured as
avid for all these historic sensibilities which find their expression
in his early passion for the Guermantes group, the most aristocratic
combination of families in France. From his earliest childhood he has
dreamed about them, picturing them as their ancestors, whom he has
seen in the stained-glass windows of his village church at Combray;
till he has woven round them all the warm romance of the Middle Ages,
the austere splendours of _Le Grand Siècle_, the brilliant decay
of eighteenth-century France. But when he meets them, the courage has
gone, the intelligence has gone, and only the breeding remains. It was
the greatest historical disillusion in the boy’s life. Yet there still
hangs about them the perfume of a vanished social order, and Proust
makes splendid use of his hero’s spiritual adventure. As he wanders
through the _salons_, fast degenerating into drawing-rooms,
he becomes the Saint-Simon of the _décadence_. For Proust can
describe, with a mastery only second to that of Saint-Simon himself,
the sense of social life, the reaction of an individual to a number of
persons, and the interplay of a number of members of the same group
upon each other. His capacity for describing the manifold pleasures of
a party would have stirred the envy of the great author of _Rome,
Naples et Florence_. Many people can only see snobbery in this
heroic effort to project the past upon the screen of the present.
Yet the author is too intelligent and honest not in the end to throw
away his romantic spectacles. The _Côté de Guermantes_ cannot be
permanently satisfying. Again bursts in the philosophy of disillusion.
When he has obtained with immense labour the key to the forbidden
chamber, he finds nothing but stage properties inside.

But this poet of political, economic, and social institutions is also
the pure poet of Nature in another mood:

     Là, où je n’avais vu avec ma grand’mère au mois d’août que
     les feuilles et comme l’emplacement des pommiers, à perte
     de vue ils étaient en pleine floraison, d’un luxe inouï,
     les pieds dans la boue et en toilette de bal, ne prenant
     pas de précautions pour ne pas gâter le plus merveilleux
     satin rose qu’on eût jamais vu, et que faisait briller
     le soleil: l’horizon lointain de la mer fournissait aux
     pommiers comme un arrière-plan d’estampe japonaise; si je
     levais la tête pour regarder le ciel, entre les fleurs qui
     faisaient paraître son bleu rasséréné, presque violent,
     elles semblaient s’écarter pour montrer la profondeur de
     ce paradis. Sous cet azur, une brise légère, mais froide,
     faisait trembler légèrement les bouquets rougissants. Des
     mésanges bleues venaient se poser sur les branches et
     sautaient entre les fleurs indulgentes, comme si c’eût
     été un amateur d’exotisme et de couleurs, qui avait
     artificiellement créé cette beauté vivante. Mais elle
     touchait jusqu’aux larmes, parce que, si loin qu’on allât
     dans ses effets d’art raffiné, on sentait qu’elle était
     naturelle, que ces pommiers étaient là en pleine campagne
     comme les paysans, sur une grande route de France. Puis aux
     rayons du soleil succédèrent subitement ceux de la pluie;
     ils zébrèrent tout l’horizon, enserrèrent la file des
     pommiers dans leur réseau gris. Mais ceux-ci continuaient à
     dresser leur beauté, fleurie et rose, dans le vent devenu
     glacial sous l’averse qui tombait: c’était une journée de

But so wide-minded is this lyric poet who can speak with the voice
of Claudel and of Fustel de Coulanges, that he is also perhaps the
coldest analyst who has ever devoted his attention to fiction. His
knife cuts down into the very souls of his patients, as he calls
into play all the resources of his wit, animosities, sympathy, and
intelligence. He is a master of all the smaller nuances of social
relations, of all the half-whispered subterranean emotions that bind
Society together while Society barely dreams of their existence.

It is also worth remark that Proust is the first author to treat sexual
inversion as a current and ordinary phenomenon, which he describes
neither in the vein of tedious panegyric adopted by certain decadent
writers, nor yet with the air of a showman displaying to an agitated
tourist abysses of unfathomable horror. Treating this important
social phenomenon as neither more nor less important than it is, he
has derived from it new material for his study of social relations,
and has greatly enriched and complicated the texture of his plot. His
extreme honesty meets nowhere with more triumphant rewards. It is by
the splendid use of so much unusual knowledge that Proust gains his
greatest victories as a pure novelist. Royalty, actresses, bourgeois,
servants, peasants, men, women, and children—they all have the genuine
third dimension and seem to the reader more real than his own friends.
The story is told of an English naval officer that he once knocked
down a Frenchman for casting doubt on the chastity of Ophelia. It is
to the credit of Shakespeare’s supreme genius that our sympathies are
with the naval officer, for Shakespeare’s characters, too, are as real
to us as our parents and friends and more real than our relations and
our acquaintances. But to how few artists can this praise be given,
save to Shakespeare and to Tolstoy! Yet to Proust it can be given in
full measure. To read _A la Recherche du Temps Perdu_ is to live
in the world, at any rate in Proust’s world—a world more sensitive,
variegated, and interesting than our own.

It is difficult to analyse the ultimate quality of an artist’s triumph;
yet such is the function of criticism, the sole justification of
writing books about books. Proust, it seems to me, had the extremely
rare faculty of seeing his characters objectively and subjectively at
the same moment. He can project himself so far into the mind of the
persons he is describing that he seems to know more about them than
they can ever know themselves, and the reader feels, in the process,
that he never even dimly knew himself before. At the same time he never
takes sides. The warm, palpitating flesh he is creating is also and
always a decorative figure on the huge design of his tapestry, just
as in _Petroushka_ the puppets are human beings and the human
beings puppets. For Proust, though the most objective, is also the
most personal of writers. As we get accustomed to the long, tortuous
sentences, the huge elaboration of conscientious metaphor, the
continual refining on what cannot be further refined, we insensibly
become listeners to a long and brilliant conversation by the wisest
and wittiest of men. For Proust, as much as any man, has grafted the
mellowness and also the exacerbation of experience on to the untiring
inquisitiveness of youth. In a page of amazing prophecy, written as
long ago as 1896, M. Anatole France summed up the achievement of Proust
at a moment when his life work had barely begun:

     Sans doute il est jeune. Il est jeune de la jeunesse de
     l’auteur. Mais il est vieux de la vieillesse du monde.
     C’est le printemps des feuilles sur les rameaux antiques,
     dans la forêt séculaire. On dirait que les pousses
     nouvelles sont attristés du passé profond des bois et
     portent le deuil de tant de printemps morts....

     Il y a en lui du Bernardin de Saint-Pierre dépravé et du
     Pétrone ingénu.

This is not the moment to pretend to estimate impartially his exact
place and achievement in letters. For the present we can only feel his
death, almost personally, so much has he woven himself into the hearts
of his readers, and apply to him in all sincerity the words Diderot
used of his predecessor in time:

     Plus on a l’âme belle, plus on a le goût exquis et pur,
     plus on connaît la nature, plus on aime la vérité, plus on
     estime les ouvrages de Proust.




Marcel Proust died in Paris on the 18th day of November last. To
many Englishmen his name is still unknown; to others his death came
as a shock so great that it was as if one of their most intimate
acquaintances had suddenly passed from them; and even among those
who have read his works there is, in this country at least, quite
pointed disagreement. On one side there are many who will confess
in private, though not so willingly in public, that they have never
been able to “get through” his great work; that “the man is a bore,”
is “undiscussable in mixed society,” is “a snob,” and that, if you
ask their opinion, “there is too much fuss made about the fellow
altogether.” On the other are men, not given to overpraising the age in
which they live, who unashamedly compare him with Montaigne, Stendhal,
Tolstoy, and other “masters of the human heart”; and not that only, but
will discuss by the hour together Swann, the Duchesse de Guermantes,
Madame de Villeparisis, Bloch, M. de Charlus, Albertine, Gilberte,
Odette, the impossible and indefatigable Verdurins, and a hundred of
his other characters, as if they were personal friends, and as if it
were of real importance to them to discover what exactly were the
motives of So-and-so on such and such an occasion, and how So-and-so
else would view their actions if he knew.

The reason for these disagreements is not, perhaps, hard to find.
Proust, let us own to it at once, is not every one’s novelist. He is
difficult to read in the sense that he does demand complete attention
and considerable efforts of memory. He has an outlook on life which is
bound to be unsympathetic to a good many Englishmen—and a good many
Frenchmen too, for that matter. He is very “long”; and it is necessary
to have read _A la Recherche du Temps Perdu_ more than once to be
able to see the general plan for the hosts of characters and scenes
that, as one reads it book by book, so vividly hold the stage. But
before we attempt to discuss the book it is important to see what its
author had in mind when he first sat down, a good many years ago, to
start writing it.

Some one has said that the difference between a play and a novel is
that while watching a play you have the privileges of a most intimate
friend, but while reading a novel the privileges of God. However true
this may be of the novel as it exists to-day (and, to read some modern
novels, one might hardly suspect one’s divine position), it is by
no means true of the novel throughout its history. It is clear, if
we go back far enough, for example, that with Longus, or Plutarch,
or Petronius, the reader’s position is very nearly as much that of
a spectator as when he is watching a play by Shakespeare. And the
same thing remains roughly true of all novels up to the middle of the
eighteenth century. It is not, indeed, until we come to Richardson
and Rousseau that we find anything like the modern insistence on the
personal and intimate life of a man or a woman as a thing valuable
in itself. No one except Montaigne and Burton, neither of whom was a
novelist, appears to have been introspective before that date. What
mattered before was conduct; what was to matter afterwards was feeling.

But if the world had long to wait for this revolution, none has
certainly taken so instantaneous an effect. Every one knows how the
reading of _Clarissa Harlowe_ influenced such an independent and
sturdy mind as Diderot’s, and what Diderot felt that day the whole of
literary France was feeling on the morrow. The days of the _petits
maîtres_ and the epigrammatists were past, and all eyes were turned
towards the rising sun of sentiment; _Le Sopha_ had given place to
the _Vie de Marianne_. But this advance was attended very closely
by its compensating drawback.

It was perhaps necessary, if anything is ever necessary, that this
newly awakened interest in the individual mind should be accompanied
by a new idealism to falsify it from the outset. However this may
be, there can be small doubt that the result of this revolution was
a new crop of conventionalities considerably less truthful and, as
it seems to us to-day, more harmful than the old. Sentimentality had
come to birth in a night. The newly discovered world was apparently
too painful a spectacle to be faced, and to cover its nakedness new
doctrines like “the perfectibility of man,” new angles of vision like
those of Romanticism, had somehow to be invented. Fifty years were to
pass before another honest work of the imagination, with one exception,
could come to light in France; and the author of that exception,
Laclos, is as interesting a commentary on the generation succeeding
Rousseau as one can find. _Les Liaisons dangereuses_ is for its
own or any other time an extraordinarily truthful book; the characters,
as they express themselves in their letters, are not inhuman, but human
monsters; not spotless, but only foolish innocents. The tragedy is
moving in the modern way; you identify your feelings with those of the
characters themselves. But Laclos was not satisfied with the book as
it stands. He was a fervent disciple of Rousseau’s, and there appears
to be little doubt that the book which exists was only intended to be
a picture of the “false” society in which they, and we, live, and was
to be followed by another showing what men and women would immediately
be like if only they could live and act “naturally.” “_Le grand
défaut de tous ces livres à paradoxes_,” said Voltaire of Rousseau,
“_n’est-il pas de supposer toujours la nature autrement qu’elle

_La nature telle qu’elle est_—such is to be the aim of the French
nineteenth-century novelists if only they can see their opportunity.
It must be confessed that several of them failed. An interest in
psychology had been awakened, yet one compares _Les Misérables_
with _La Princesse de Clèves_ and may be excused for forgetting
it. Throughout the first part of the century, at any rate, it seems
as if the last thing a novelist ever asked himself was, “Would I or
any reasonable creature act or feel like that?” Common-sense had gone
by the board again, and “the fine,” “the noble,” “the proud,” “the
pathetic,” and “the touching” held the stage.

Yet great advances were made. Balzac, for all his lack of balance and
for all his hasty carelessness, was giant enough to make a hundred on
his own account. The “naturalists,” without making any great advances
in psychology, at least were in earnest in clearing out the old stage
properties, in insisting that a love scene could take place as well in
a railway carriage or a hansom cab at eleven o’clock in the morning
as on a lake by moonlight or on a balcony at dawn. And Stendhal—but
Stendhal was the first of the moderns, the master of the whole
generation which is passing, and he had to wait till the ’eighties
before his influence became important. Whatever is valuable in the
advances that the novel has made during its latest period is valuable
just in so far as it is the result of an insistence, with Rousseau,
on being interested in the intricacies of human feeling, and an equal
insistence, with Voltaire, in refusing to sentimentalise them. That
these are the only lines on which the novelist can advance no one would
dream of asserting. But it is more particularly because Marcel Proust
seems here to stand head and shoulders above his generation, and not
on account of his many other merits as an artist, that he has such a
passionate, if still comparatively small, following to-day.

He is, perhaps, if we return to that definition of the difference
between a novel and a play, more of the essential novelist than any man
has ever been. His aim is by a hundred different methods to make you
know his chief characters, not as if you were meeting them every day,
but as if you yourself had for the moment actually been living in their
skins and inhabiting their minds. Everything possible must be done to
help you to this end. You must feel the repulsions and attractions
they feel; you must even share their ancestors, their upbringing,
and the class in which they live, and share them so intimately that
with you, as with them, they have become second nature. Nor is even
this enough. The man who knows himself is not common, and to know
Proust’s characters as you know yourself may only be a small advance in
knowledge. So every motive of importance, every reaction to whatever
stimulus they receive, is analysed and explained until your feeling
will probably be, not only how well you know this being, who is in
so many respects unlike you, but how far more clearly you have seen
into the obscure motives of your own most distressing and ridiculous
actions, how far more understandable is an attitude to life or to your
neighbours that you yourself have almost unconsciously, and perhaps in
mere self-protection, adopted.

But a short example of this is needed, and a short example of anything
in Proust is not easy to find. A character just sketched in one
volume will be developed in another, and to grasp the significance of
the first sketch one has to wait for the fuller illumination of the
development. And even then the short sketch is as often as not several
pages of the most closely written analysis, quite impossible to quote
from, or in full. There is, however, a very small character in the
first book, _Du Côté de chez Swann_, who may serve. M. Vinteuil is
an obscure musician of genius, living in the country. He holds his head
high among his neighbours, and, on account of his daughter, refuses to
meet the only other really cultured man in the district, Swann, who has
made what M. Vinteuil considers a disreputable marriage. Suddenly M.
Vinteuil’s daughter forms a disgraceful friendship. There is scandal in
the eyes of every man or woman he meets, scandal which he, poor man,
knows quite well to be founded on the most deplorable facts.

     And yet, however much M. Vinteuil may have known of his
     daughter’s conduct, it did not follow that his adoration
     of her grew any less. The facts of life do not penetrate
     to the sphere in which our beliefs are cherished; as it
     was not they that engendered those beliefs, so they are
     powerless to destroy them; they can aim at them continual
     blows of contradiction and disproof without weakening
     them; an avalanche of miseries and maladies coming, one
     after another, without interruption, into the bosom of a
     family will not make it lose faith either in the clemency
     of its God or in the capacity of its physician. But when
     M. Vinteuil regarded his daughter and himself from the
     point of view of the world, and of their reputation, when
     he attempted to place himself by her side in the rank
     which they occupied in the general estimation of their
     neighbours, then he was bound to give judgment, to utter
     his own and her social condemnation in precisely the terms
     which the inhabitants of Combray most hostile to him and
     his daughter would have employed; he saw himself and her
     in “low,” the very “lowest water,” inextricably stranded;
     and his manners had of late been tinged with that humility,
     that respect for persons who ranked above him and to whom
     he must now look up (however far beneath him they might
     hitherto have been), that tendency to search for some
     means of rising again to their level, which is an almost
     mechanical result of any human misfortune.

The quotation is chosen on account of its shortness, and there are
perhaps many hundred other examples which, could they be quoted in
full, would show more fully this essential difference between the
novel as Proust understands it and the older novel or the play.
Here, at least, we have his method compressed. We have M. Vinteuil’s
unshakable faith in his daughter, as a jumping-off ground, founded
on the past and unaltered by the facts of the present. We have also
the pitying attitude of the world to himself and its hostile attitude
to his daughter. And from this comes M. Vinteuil’s other feeling, no
less strong than his faith in his daughter, that they two have somehow
sunk, become degraded, not only in the eyes of the world, but also,
and because of it, in their own eyes as well. Lastly, as a reaction
from this, we have the effect of these feelings on M. Vinteuil’s
manner—his attitude of humility before the world for sins that he has
not committed, for the conduct of a person in whom he still completely
believes, which, however ridiculous to the logician, can only be
recognised by the rest of us as most disquietingly true to our own
experience. It is this complexity in our emotions, this capability of
feeling many different things at the same time about any one particular
incident or person, that the novel alone can give; and it is on these
lines that Marcel Proust has adventured farther than any other man.

And here, of course, he has great advantages. Proust, unlike so many
of the great creative artists, started late in life the work by which
he will be judged. He is mature as few great men have been mature,
cultured as still fewer have been cultured. Wide reading is far
from common among great artists. The driving force necessary to the
accomplishment of any work of art is seldom found in alliance with wide
culture; that, more often than not, is to be found among the world’s
half-failures. Neither Shakespeare, nor Molière, nor Fielding, nor
Richardson, nor Balzac, nor Dickens, nor Dostoevsky, nor Ibsen was a
widely cultured man. In Shakespeare, the loss is more than compensated
by surety of intuition. In Balzac, there is a lack of the critical
faculty that makes it possible for him, even towards the end of his
life, to give in the same year one thing as beautiful as _Eugénie
Grandet_ and another as puerile as _Ferragus_, that allows
him to compare the novels of “Monk” Lewis with _La Chartreuse
de Parme_ and to call Maturin “_un des plus grands génies de

But Proust, like Montaigne and like Racine, besides having an extreme
sensitiveness to all forms of beauty and ugliness, happiness and
misery, that he has met in his social existence, has also read widely
in the works of other sensitive men, has compared their impressions
with each other and with his own, has learnt from their successes
and failures; he is armed with more than his natural equipment, has
more eyes to see through than his own. Actually his books are filled
from end to end with criticisms of music, of painting, of literature,
not in the way that is unfortunately familiar in this country, as
unassimilated chunks in the main stream of the narrative, but as
expressions of the opinions of different characters.

This is not the only, nor indeed the chief, advantage that a wide
experience in other arts, and other men’s art, has given him. What
is of more importance is the attitude that springs from it of seeing
historically the age and society in which he lives. Nothing for him
stands still, not even to-day; and, because he realises that to-day
itself will to-morrow be only part of the stream of the past, he can
view it with the same calmly passionate interest as that which we bring
to the discoveries at Luxor. As few men are to-day, he appears to be
“_au-dessus de la mêlée_,” not, like the ancient gods, “careless
of mankind,” but curious, acutely sympathetic, and able at any moment
to bring his own experience and the experience of a thousand other men
in tens of other centuries to the understanding of one small case at
the tiny point of time which is momentarily under his observation.

To give any idea of the plot of _A la Recherche du Temps
Perdu_—and it has a plot, and a very closely knit one, too (how
closely one only begins to realise after several re-readings)—is,
of course, out of the question. Its form is that of an imaginary
autobiography, and it is obvious that much genuine autobiography is
inextricably woven with work of imagination. The first book (_Du
Côté de chez Swann_) is occupied in part by memories of childhood,
and in part, as it seems at first, by another story altogether, the
account of a love affair of M. Swann’s. Of course this story is not a
mere excrescence, but it is only slowly, as the later books are read,
that we begin to see Proust’s immense cunning in introducing us early
in the novel to Swann’s affairs. For they have a purpose beyond the
fact that Swann becomes in time a friend of the young man, who is then
in his childhood, and beyond the fact that he is very intimately mixed
up with many others of the most important characters in the book. And
this purpose is that of a prelude to the later and fuller story. It is,
as it were, a standing example at the outset of the truism that no one
ever learns by the mistakes of others—that what has been will be again
in the next generation, with only the mere outward changes which time
and place impose. In the second book (_A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles
en Fleurs_) we accompany the hero (it is one of the significant
curiosities of Proust, akin to his refusal to divide his book into
chapters, that never once is this hero named in the whole course of
the work) to the seaside, and feel with him the emotions of an acutely
sensitive boy just growing into manhood. And the remaining books are
all occupied more or less with his efforts to assimilate the new social
worlds in Paris and at Balbec Plage which are opening out before his
curious and very sharply observant eyes.

There are those who, after enjoying the first two books, have
complained rather bitterly of the succeeding ones. One charge against
Proust seems to be that he deals more than is necessary with what
are called “unpleasant” subjects and people; another is clearly,
though not usually put into so few words, that he is a snob. As
regards the first charge, it is true that Proust, like most French
writers, is apt to claim with Terence, _Humani nihil a me alienum
puto_; to urge that he is ever coarse, that he is ever anything,
in fact, but extremely discriminating in his touch, is, as a matter
of fact, absurd. But the other charge is more valuable because, while
mistaken, it does emphasise a side of Proust’s interests in life
which is of some considerable significance. It is true that Proust is
extremely interested not only in individuals but in those extensions
of personality which are classes, cliques, bodies of men and women,
which, however formed, by coming together succeed in developing a sort
of communal outlook upon life. It is true also that a good deal of the
book is occupied with two of these classes in particular, both of them
rich, the aristocracy and the pushing _bourgeoisie_ that likes to
employ the artist and the intellectual as “stepping-stones from their
dead selves to higher things.” But to call this interest snobbery is,
surely, a sign of rather careless reading. It is to assume that the
_naïveté_ of the young man’s first adoration of the old families
of France, long before he had learnt to know them, is, in fact, the
attitude of Proust himself. Even in the case of the young man snobbery
seems a hard term for his actual state of mind.

     Nor could we ever reach that goal to which I longed so
     much to attain, Guermantes itself. I knew that it was
     the residence of its proprietors, the Duc and Duchesse
     de Guermantes, I knew that they were real personages who
     did actually exist, but whenever I thought about them
     I pictured them to myself either in tapestry, as was
     the “Coronation of Esther” which hung in our church, or
     else in changing rainbow colours, as was Gilbert the Bad
     in his window, where he passed from cabbage green when
     I was dipping my fingers in the holy-water stoup, to
     plum-blue when I had reached our row of chairs; or again
     altogether impalpable, like the image of Geneviève de
     Brabant, ancestress of the Guermantes family, which the
     magic lantern sent wandering over the curtains of my room
     or flung aloft upon the ceiling—in short, always wrapped
     in the mystery of the Merovingian age, and bathed, as
     in a sunset, in the orange light which glowed from the
     resounding syllable _antes_. And if in spite of
     that they were for me, in their capacity as a duke and
     duchess, real people, though of an unfamiliar kind, this
     ducal personality was in its turn enormously distended,
     immaterialised, so as to encircle and contain that
     Guermantes of which they were duke and duchess, all that
     sunlit “Guermantes way” of our walks, the course of the
     Vivonne, its water-lilies and its overshadowing trees, and
     an endless series of hot summer afternoons.

Is there any wonder that this young poet—and he was very young—when
first he meets the Duchess in real life, and is welcomed into the
select circle of her friends, should feel tremendously excited? But
snob is not the right word.

As a fact, of course, what these complainants have missed is the use
to which this aristocratic circle has been put in the life-history of
the hero. For Proust, like any writer that can be read over and over
again, has stamped his work through and through with his own peculiarly
coloured personal psychology. And if there is one theme that is
being insistently played throughout the whole work (like Swann’s and
Odette’s phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata), in incident after incident,
in the adventures of one character after another, it is that theme of
sadness that no ideal state is attainable in this world, not so much
because we cannot climb, nor even because the ideal becomes illusion on
attainment, but because the object to which we attach our ideal is, of
necessity, not seen as it really is, but always as we long for it to
be. This, with its complement that the mere fact of not being able to
possess may lead to desire even when the object in itself does not seem
very desirable, is at the very heart of Proust’s philosophy.

This worship of his hero’s for aristocracy is only an incident in this
continual theme. It is in essence exactly the same as all his other
deceptions. When Gilberte was the beautifully dressed child of his
idol, Swann, surrounded by a halo of romance owing to her friendship
with the writer Bergotte, and when she appeared to look down on his
advances, there was nothing on earth he would not give, nothing he
would not do, to obtain her friendship. Yet when once that friendship
is attained the interest in her fades away imperceptibly till she plays
no more part in his life than a memory of what was once so bitterly
wanted. So it is with the _petite bande_ of young girls at Balbec
while it presented a united and exclusive front to the world. So it is
with the chief of that band, Albertine herself. Desirable while she has
held aloof, she becomes through knowledge, through the loss of that
mystery which had existed, as it always does, not in her, but only in
him who longed for her, almost boring. He is on the point of leaving
her, of finishing with the _liaison_ once and for all. Suddenly
all is changed. He has reason to doubt her complete faithfulness to
him. With the pain of this doubt love is once more awakened, and at
the end of the last published volume we leave him on the point of
rushing off to Paris to marry her. This, again, is the whole meaning of
Swann’s marriage with the vulgar and impossible Odette de Crécy. It is
the continual theme of all the pitiable deceptions of M. de Charlus.
“Besides,” he says in one place,

     the mistresses with whom I have been most in love have
     never coincided with my love for them. True love it must
     have been, since I subordinated everything else in the
     world to the chance of seeing them, of keeping them to
     myself, and would burst into tears if, one evening, I had
     heard them speak. But they themselves must be regarded
     rather as endowed with the property of arousing that
     love, of raising it to its paroxysm, than as being its
     embodiments.... You would have said that a virtue which had
     nothing to do with them had been arbitrarily attached to
     them by Nature, and that this virtue, this quasi-galvanic
     power, had the effect on me of exciting my love—that is
     to say, of controlling all my actions and causing all my
     sorrows. But from this the looks or the brains or the
     favours shown me by these women were entirely distinct.

It is in this setting, then, that one must think of the young man’s
fascination by what was after all far the most socially charming
circle that he could have entered. The desire for a real aristocracy,
not merely of brains, but surrounded by all the wealth of history
and legend, is understandable enough. The only doubt is whether its
representatives exist. But in Proust himself the charm undoubtedly is
a subtler thing than that. It has something of the appeal of a dead
religion for him. While it was still a power in the world one would
have found him in opposition, as the Prince de Guermantes found himself
in opposition to the army authorities when at last, and at such pain
to himself, he began to suspect their conduct of the Dreyfus case. But
aristocracy as a power in France is dead; it is only the ritual, the
historic associations, the complete existence of a little world within
a world, that remain.

Nor, as a fact, is this interest in cliques by any means confined
to the aristocracy. Of at least equal importance are the Verdurins,
who, in spite of their riches, are at the very opposite pole of
civilisation. And yet with all their vulgarity, with all their
intellectual snobbery, with all their lack of taste and breeding, with
all their affectation of being a _petit clan_, is it not clear
that, up to a certain point at any rate, intelligence is on their side
of the ledger? Again, there is that glance at life in barracks, through
the mediation of Saint-Loup, which, while small, is as good a summary
of the military world as one knows. There are some unforgettable pages
on the Jews. There is even that little world of the hotel servants
that has plainly interested Proust almost as much as any of the larger
worlds he has spent so much care in describing. And, especially in
the early books, there are those descriptions of the world of the
young man’s parents and grandparents, so typical of the _honnête
bourgeoisie_, so profoundly drawn in their uprightness and their
rather limited social ideas, so secure and anxious for security, so
loving to their boy and yet so anxious not to “spoil” him. Never, with
the exceptions of Saint-Simon and Tolstoy, has any author succeeded so
well in giving the atmosphere of a particular house or a particular
party; never has any one analysed so closely the behaviour of people
in small homogeneous masses.

In 1896, when Proust was still a young man, he produced a book which,
while not of great interest in itself, is naturally of value to
students of his work, both for what it contains in the germ, and for
what it omits, of the Proust who was to become a master. And to this
book Anatole France wrote a charming preface, in which he said various
things which must have appeared more friendly than critical to readers
of that day. Among other things he wrote the following words:

     Il n’est pas du tout innocent. Mais il est sincère et si
     vrai qu’il en devient naïf et plaît ainsi. II y a en lui du
     Bernardin de Saint-Pierre dépravé et du Pétrone ingénu.

The words are a singularly good description of the Proust that we
know to-day. He is not innocent, and he remains _naïf_. There is
a story of how in his last illness he insisted on being muffled up
in a carriage and driven out into the country to see the hawthorn,
which was then in bloom. The freshness of joy in all beautiful things
remained with him, so far as we can see, to the end of his life. It
is as obvious in the moving account of the Prince de Guermantes’
confession to Swann at the beginning of the last book as it is in the
early Combray chapters of the first. He was supremely sensitive and
continually surprised by beauty. But, unlike most sensitive people, he
neither railed at mankind, nor shut himself up, nor built for himself a
palace of escape from reality in his own theorising about the meaning
of it all. He set himself to observe and to note his observations.

In many ways Anatole France’s description of him as the ingenuous
Petronius of our times is extremely intelligent. And our times are in
many ways extremely like the days in which Petronius wrote. There is
an aristocracy that has lost its _raison d’être_, and a continual
flow of new plutocrats without traditions, without taste, without
any object in life beyond spending to the best of their power of
self-advertisement. The faith in the old social order has gone, and
nothing new has arisen to take its place. Where we differ entirely from
that age is in self-consciousness. And that, too, is where a modern
Petronius must differ from the old one. For better in some ways and
for worse in others, we are far more complex than we have ever been;
our motives are at once more mixed and more clearly scrutinised. And a
writer who can satisfactorily cram this age within the pages of a book
must not only be extremely intelligent and extremely observant, but
must also have forged for himself a style capable of expressing the
finest shades of feeling; he must refuse the easy simplifications both
of the moralist and the maker of plots; he must be infinitely sensitive
and infinitely truthful. That Marcel Proust personifies this ideal no
one would completely claim. But he does, at least to some people, seem
to have approached it more nearly than any other writer of our time.




To those of us who have read or who are now reading Proust’s enormous
novel, it is a curious experience to turn back to his earliest
publication, to the book written by the precocious boy whose social
successes are described at such length in _A la Recherche du Temps
Perdu_. This book, _Les Plaisirs et les Jours_, appeared in
1896, seventeen years before the publication of _Du Côté de chez
Swann_. _Les Plaisirs_ is a large, shiny volume, a pretentious
“tome” for the drawing-room, printed in the most expensive manner, and
made hideously elegant by Madeleine Lemaire’s illustrations of the
_higlif_ of the ’nineties—an amazing _élite_ of melancholy
great ladies, exquisitely fashionable in costumes which time, with its
ironic touch, has made inconceivably out of fashion and dowdy. A few
copies of this large book appeared recently in the London bookshops,
when its rarity and value seem not to have been known; and one of
these copies has come, in the happiest manner, into my possession.
It contains the literary exercises and first attempts of the “little
Proust” of the great novel, some verses of no especial merit, a few
stories and set pieces of description, and a number of short poems in
prose. These pieces were all written, the author tells us, between his
twentieth and his twenty-third year; the style is somewhat sententious,
immature and precious: it is the writing of a boy—but, one sees at
once, of a boy of genius. For here, not only in their bud, but in
their first exquisite flowering, we find all the great qualities of
Proust’s later work: the beautiful sensibility, the observation, as
of an insect with an insect’s thousand eyes, the subtle and elaborate
study of passion, with its dawn, its torments of jealousy, and—what is
so original in the great novel—the analysis, not only of falling in
love, but of falling out of it—the slow, inevitable fading away of the
most fiery passion into the coldest indifference. Indeed, most of the
themes, and often the very situations, of the later work are not only
adumbrated but happily rendered in this boyish volume—the romantic lure
of the world and its heartless vulgarity, the beauty of landscapes, of
blossoming trees and hedges and the sea, the evocative power of names,
the intermittences of memory, the longing of the child for its mother’s
good-night kiss, the great dinner-party, with all the ambitions and
pretences of hosts and guests cynically analysed and laid bare. And
here, too, we find something which, to my mind, is of even greater
interest, and about which, as Proust’s other critics have hardly
mentioned it, a few words may not be out of place.

When the little Proust plunged into the full stream of his Parisian
experiences, he was, we are told by one of his friends, already, from
his early studies, steeped in the philosophy of Plato; and although his
feverish days were filled with love affairs and worldly successes, and
he drained to its dregs, as we say, the enchanting cup of life, all
that he felt and saw seems but to have confirmed in that precocious boy
the lesson which Plato had already taught him—the lesson, namely, that
the true meaning of life is never to be found in immediate experience;
that there is another reality which can only be envisaged by the mind,
and, as it were, created by the intellect—a deeper and more ultimate
reality, in the presence of which life no longer seems contingent,
mediocre, mortal, and its vicissitudes are felt to be irrelevant, its
briefness an illusion. Certainly, in that great battle between the
Giants and the Gods, which Plato describes in the _Sophist_, the
battle in which the Giants affirm that only those things are real which
can be touched and handled, while the Gods defend themselves from
above out of an unseen world, “mightily contending” that true essence
consists in intelligible ideas—in this eternal warfare Proust is found
fighting as conspicuously as Shelley on the side of the Gods. Hope for
him, as for Shelley,

    From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;

and it is this attitude towards life, this creative contemplation
of experience, which to my mind gives its deeper significance to
Proust’s work, and lends an importance and depth of meaning to the
youthful and rather shabby love-affairs, the fashionable wickednesses
and worldlinesses, which form so large a part of his subject-matter.
What was Proust’s ultimate “intention” in writing his great novel,
the intention which, when fulfilled, will give, we must hope, a final
and satisfying form to this immense creation, must remain a matter of
conjecture until the complete work is before us. There is, however,
much to indicate that when he retired from the world to sift and
analyse his boyish experience, it was with the purpose to disengage
from that flux of life and time the meanings implicit in it—to recover,
to develop in the dark room of consciousness, and re-create the
ultimate realities and ideals which experience reveals, though it never
really attains them. The title of the whole work, _A la Recherche du
Temps Perdu_, and that of its ultimate and yet unpublished volume,
_Le Temps retrouvé_, seem indeed to suggest some such purpose.

That there is something irremediably wrong in the present moment;
that the true reality is the creation of desire and memory, and is
most present in hope, in recollection and absence, but never in
immediate experience; that we kill our souls by living, and that it
is in solitude, in illness, or at the approach of death that we most
truly possess them—it is on these themes, which are repeated with
deeper harmonies and richer modulations throughout his later work,
that the young Proust harps in this divinely fresh overture to the
masterpiece which was to follow. Surely, one thinks, a book of such
exquisite promise and youthful achievement, heralded as it was to the
world by Anatole France’s preface, and talked of, no doubt, in all the
Paris salons, must have produced a remarkable impression on people
so cultivated as the Parisians, so alert to discover and appreciate
literary merit. However, as we know, it produced no such impression;
in spite of Anatole France’s praise, no one seems to have had any real
notion of its importance, or to have guessed that a new genius had
appeared, a new star had arisen. And when, after publishing this large,
shiny, unappreciated volume, its author disappeared from the world into
a solitary sick-room, he seems to have been thought of (as far as he
was thought of at all) as a pretentious, affected boy who had been made
a pet of for a while in worldly salons—a little dilettante with his
head turned, who had gone up like a rocket in the skies of fashion, but
would be heard of no more in the world of letters, where anyhow this
pretty coruscation had attracted almost no attention. This seems to
have been the impression of even those among Proust’s personal friends
who were themselves writers, and who, on re-reading _Les Plaisirs et
les Jours_, are now amazed, as M. Gide confesses, that they should
have been so blind to its beauty when they first read it—that in the
first eagle-flights of this young genius they had seen little more than
the insignificant flutterings of a gay butterfly of fashion.

When we read the lives of the great artists of the past, we are apt
to be amazed at the indifference of their contemporaries to their
early achievements; and we cannot believe that we too, in the same
circumstances, would have been equally undiscerning. But here,
happening in our own days, is an obvious instance of this contemporary
blindness; and I, at least, as I read the little Proust’s first volume,
and see spread so clearly before me, as in the light of a beautiful
dawn, the world of his creation, try to make myself believe that if
the noontide of his genius had never illuminated that world and made
it familiar to me, that if Proust had never lived to write Swann and
the Guermantes, I too should be as blind as were his friends to its
beauty and merits. I tell myself this, and yet, with the book before
me, I cannot believe it. But then I remind myself of what I already
know very well, that new dawns in art are apt to appear on just the
horizons towards which we are not looking, and to illuminate landscapes
of which we have as yet not the slightest knowledge; and that it is
only afterwards, when the master’s whole _œuvre_ is familiar to
us, that we can see the real merits of his early attempts, and read
back into them the meaning and value of his complete and acknowledged
achievement. The moral of all this (and it is pleasant to end, if
possible, one’s reflections with a moral)—the moral is that we do not
know, we cannot know, what those disquieting persons, our younger
contemporaries, are really up to; that we must “look to the end,” as
the old saying has it; and that in the first attempts of other youths
who, like Proust, were endowed with genius, but whose gifts, unlike
his, came to no fruition, we possess no doubt early masterpieces of
which we can have no conception, worlds of the imagination which
actually exist and shine in the light of an exquisite dawn before our
eyes, although our eyes cannot see them.




A French uncle of mine once took me as a boy to visit a distinguished
mathematician who lived with his melons and his roses on the outskirts
of a small town in the Lyonnais. On the way thither I was admonished
not to interrupt with foolish questions what I was given to suppose
would be an important inquiry by two learned men into the origin of the
universe: Monsieur X—— would never have me inside his house again if I
could not behave myself better than most of the children of the present
day. We waited for our host in a large musty room of subdued sunlight,
where not even a fly buzzed and where the only hint of life was the
shadow of a passing bird across the yellow blind or the quivering
filigree of a reflected bough. Presently Monsieur X—— came in to greet
us; but without showing any inclination to discuss philosophy with my
uncle he led us to some chairs and a table set out upon the sparse turf
under what I think must have been a big catalpa tree. Here he heaped my
plate with cakes and fruit and sweets, insisted that I was old enough
to drink two glasses of a cordial, and, when he did begin to talk,
talked most entertainingly about his neighbours.

Gratitude may be childhood’s greatest embarrassment; not merely the
verbal expression of thanks, but the emotion itself, which the more
deeply it is felt, the more miserably it is involved in shame. As we
grow older, we learn what is called politeness; and although we are
still capable of being confused by and of actually suffering from
excess of gratitude, we have learnt to cover that speechless confusion
and pain with a glib phrase like ‘I do not know how to thank you.’ But
the child’s silence does convey the depth of his gratitude; and even
as I hung my head in silent embarrassment when I was invited to thank
Monsieur X—— for his kindness, so now when I ought to be thanking
Marcel Proust, against interrupting whose discourse I have been as it
were warned by the respect accorded to him by our uncles the critics,
but who when I met him as a reader filled my plate with one delicious
fruit and sweet and cake after another (steeped those cakes in tisane
of limeflowers or tea), I feel incapable of expressing gratitude; and
I fear to indulge in criticism, lest I should be just one more uncle
standing between Proust and that innocent, appreciative, timorous,
awkward child, the public.

If I say that I regard Proust as the only completely satisfying
poetical record, the most important literary phenomenon of our time,
I feel that I am involved in an argument with people who think that
the relentless effusion of modern verse has more significance than,
let us say, a bath tap which has been left running. And I simply do
not want to argue about what I enjoy. If I say that Proust represents
the apex hitherto reached by the feminine or realistic art of this
age, just as Stendhal represents the culmination of the masculine or
ideological art of the eighteenth century, or that Proust arrives
at the general through an incredibly sensitive exploration of the
particular, whereas Stendhal achieves the particular by his exquisite
consciousness of the general, I am involved in a lecture. And I simply
do not want to lecture about what I enjoy. The trouble is that, in
order to demonstrate Proust to people who have not read him, one ought
to have as subtle a power of evocation, as rich a manner of suggestion
as Proust himself, who could, I believe, make even a dream interesting,
so that we should live in that dream and extract from it the essential
flavour of its peculiarity as authentically as the dreamer. That is why
Proust writes of childhood with such magic. He manages to recognize,
in the complication of events that merely occur and are forgotten, the
ideal duration in which they were imbedded and which gave them their
material weight and spiritual portentousness. It is only in childhood,
or at any rate only in isolated fragments of time later, that we
possess at all intimately this sense of duration when objects appeal
to us as their essential selves, as pure energies. At other periods
we value them according as they forward our lives, according as they
are useful to us, and thus we lose our sense of their independent
existence. I have just read once more the Combray chapter (marvellously
enshrined in a translation that, like the translation of a saint’s
bones, destroys not a bit of their efficacy), and I have laid it aside,
thinking of Leopardi’s _Ricordanze_ and listening to where, under
the scintillations of the Great Bear,

                   _sotto al patrio tetto
    sonavan voci alterne, e le tranquille
    opre de’ servi._




Their eyes meet across a hedge when she is still a little girl. In
his eyes the look is one of appeal unconsciously, in hers of ironic
indifference and contempt. He hears her name called: “Gilberte”; and
she obeys instantly without turning to look back in his direction,
leaving him with a disturbing enervating memory, the sense suddenly
appreciated of things distant and intangible, of a world withheld from
him. And that brief encounter sets the tone of their relations. She is
always very largely a creature of his imagination, a window through
which he can see but cannot reach immortal pastures. Never in the sense
that Odette is, does she become a personality to him. Consequently to
the reader she appears only in intermittent flashes of reality: when
she gives him the marble that has the same colour as her eyes; when
they wrestle for the letter—their feelings one shy articulation—and she
says, “You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little”;
when in spite of her grandfather’s anniversary and her father’s
disapproval she insists on going to a concert: in her impatience at
being kept from a dancing lesson by her lover’s unexpected visit.

And when we recall the endless pains expended, through Swann’s love for
her, on Odette, on the making indeed a mirror of that love for the
woman by whom it was inspired and from whom it drew its strength and
weakness, we realise that purposely the author has left of Gilberte
“a loveliness perceived in twilight, a beauty not clearly visioned”;
that he considered the emotions felt for her not to be a response
to any emanation from herself; but that she was rather a focus, a
rallying-point, for the aspirations and intimations of boyhood;
that she was in herself uninteresting, filling rather than creating
a position in the life of the “moi” of _A la Recherche du Temps
Perdu_. Throughout the episode the reader’s attention is fixed
always on the “moi,” on the detailed analysis of his love: its ebb and
flow; its dawn of timidity and reverence and hopeless longing; its
discontent; its substitution for love of friendship; its oblique and
unrepeated essay, in the wrestle, towards a physical expression; the
resignation for its sake of a diplomatic career which would carry him
from Gilberte; the disagreement over a trifle; the gradual recognition
of its failing power, and the final realisation that those emotions of
his, which he had considered in the light of a gift to Gilberte, as
her permanent possession, had returned to him, to be showered in time,
but in a different form, before another woman. This particular series
of emotions, so familiar and yet, belonging as it does to Jurgen’s
enchanted garden between dawn and sunrise, so distant; this love that
must, in John Galsworthy’s phrase, “become in time a fragrant memory—a
searing passion—a humdrum mateship—or once in many times vintage full
and sweet with sunset colour on the grapes,” Marcel Proust has in
the last pages of _Du Côté de chez Swann_ and the first part of
_A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs_ presented in unfaltering

It is a series of emotions that has been treated many times and has
inspired more than one masterpiece of the world’s literature. For,
whatever else in life comes twice, that does not come. Love may
advance down the years often enough and gaily enough, “overthrowing
all ancient memories with laughter”: the passions of maturity may be
deeper, stronger, less impermanent. But the particular charm of that
first flowering is irrecapturable. Whence its unique fascination for
the novelist. To compare Proust’s treatment of it with that of other
writers—with, for example, Turgenev’s beautiful _First Love_—would
be a forlorn and foolish business. To praise the one at the expense
of the other would be to blame a big writer for failing to achieve a
thing at which he never aimed. Those who find themselves in sympathy
with Proust’s methods, who recognise in the technique of his work a new
formula, in its style a new prose rhythm, and in the spirit of it an
alert and original intelligence, will always look on Gilberte as one of
his most fortunate successes.




The literature of imagination has always been rich in autobiography,
confessed and unconfessed. It is in its essence, perhaps one should
say in its impulse, largely an affair of passionate reminiscence.
Taken, therefore, as merely a recent writer of distinction who has
chosen to deal avowedly with _Things Remembered_, Proust must
challenge comparison with dozens of eminent men, his forerunners and
contemporaries. Tolstoy has given us his own life-history, not only
diffusively throughout his novels and pamphlets, but in that wonderful
piece of reconstruction, _Childhood and Youth_. Among living
men, James Joyce, with an epic gift and an heroic feat of memory, has
recorded for us an impression of his past, physical, mental, spiritual,
and has shown it interwoven with countless other lives. And these are
two taken at random. _A la Recherche du Temps Perdu_—Proust was
not the first, nor will he be the last, to choose it as a theme.

Where Proust stands as yet alone is in his manner of approaching his
theme. Or, with more exactitude it may be said, his manner, vigilantly
passive, eagerly quiescent, of letting his theme encroach upon and
claim him. All attempted recapture of the past is for him “futile,”
a “labour in vain.” Not reconstruction, but understanding of things
remembered, is his aim. And to this end with deliberation he permits
himself what the realist rejects but the plain man all unknowingly
cherishes—the glamour in which for every one of us our own past is
bathed. Divest the past, Proust seems to say, of the present’s gift
to it—the light that never was on sea or land—and you take away its
essence; treat the present as independent of the past and you destroy
its integrity. That this is true we, as human beings—acting, thinking,
receiving impressions from moment to moment—must recognise when it is
pointed out. Our actual existence is not so much a narrative as a web
in which the shuttle of events flies back and forth between the warp
and woof of past and present, from neither of which it can escape any
more than can we ourselves. The trouble is that it is pointed out so
seldom, and least of all perhaps by novelists, who in this matter still
lag far behind our common human experience. The grasp with which Proust
has laid hold upon the philosophic and aesthetic values of memory—as,
for example, in the passage where he describes the eating, after an
interval of many years, of a _petite madeleine_ soaked in tea—is
a new thing in literature. Here is pre-eminently the novelist with a
past. None before him has taken _Things Remembered_ not merely for
theme but for medium as well.

To forget this, or even for one moment to minimise it, in speaking of
Proust, is utterly to lose one’s bearings. But, accustomed as we are
in our own hearts to his treatment of the past, we are so unaccustomed
to it in literature that it is really not easy to avoid the artificial
standpoint, the more that Proust proclaims his naturalism neither
explicitly nor by freakishness of style. So quiet, so classical is his
bearing that it hardly strikes one to investigate his premises.

And so, concerning his long book of memory, one hears questions put
by intelligent and even admiring readers. There are his “shadowy”
women—“Did women at any time mean anything to Proust?”: there is his
disconcerting chronology—“How old is his hero supposed to be during
such or such an incident?”: there is his social pose—“Was Proust not
himself as bad a snob as any he describes?” But such questions can be
asked only in forgetfulness, answered only in constant remembrance of
the author’s unique attitude toward his main subject, the past.

It is because of this that, though setting out to make a few
observations upon Proust’s women, I feel it no digression if I draw
attention here to a particular passage which occurs early in the novel,
towards the end of the _Combray_ section in Volume I.—a passage
in which he not merely gives the circumstances of his hero’s first
literary composition, but puts before us the composed fragment itself.
A few pages back and the boy has been bemoaning that, his choice of
a literary career notwithstanding, his mind is blank of subjects,
his intellect, at the mere idea of writing, a void. Now, suddenly,
while out driving, he is so deeply enthralled by the charm of three
steeples which withdraw and advance, disappear and reappear, always in
different relations to each other, according as the setting sun catches
their angles and the carriage winds along the country road, that words
leap to frame themselves in his head and, for all the jolting and
inconvenience of the moment, he must immediately write them down to
“appease his conscience and to satisfy his enthusiasm.”

The actual piece of prose so written is reproduced, says the narrator,
“with only a slight revision here and there.” We may allow ourselves,
I think, the presumption that it is substantially a true record.[2]
Certainly it furnishes us with the key to the whole work. Passages
from Proust more exquisite, even more characteristic, might easily be
found; none so significant. Those ever-veering steeples, sometimes
before, sometimes behind, lightening, darkening, changing, looking
now like three golden pivots, now like three birds perched on the
plain—they reveal, more fully and subtly than could any philosophic
exposition, both the method and the philosophic preoccupation of the
author. They declare that for him there was never an actual but always
a psychological perspective, and that _peculiar to himself_. This
is why there is no intellectual or logical means of checking Proust’s
observations. Either we accept them as he gives them, emotionally,
or we reject them as meaningless. He has, he repeatedly tells us,
no faith in intellectual observation, neither will he presume upon
logical deduction in questions of human feeling. He quietly discards
that assumption of god-like knowledge for which we have come to look
so confidently in our writers of fiction. He will have none of the
sympathetic imagination that “puts itself in another’s place.” He
refuses as an act of disingenuousness either to project himself into
or to interpret the character of another. “We alone,” he says, “by our
belief that they have an existence of their own, can give to certain of
the things that we see a soul which they afterwards keep, which they
develop in our minds.” Essentially, that is to say, he believes he can
know nothing outside of his own sensations, and for him every sensation
is inextricably interwoven with memory. Whether he writes of a woman
or a musical theme, of a love affair or of trees in the park, he never
forgets that in the very act of observing there are several elements to
be reckoned with. The thing observed may seem to casual eyes fixed like
the three steeples. But Proust knows better. He knows that he himself
is moving, that within him his past is in a different kind of motion,
dictating, suggesting, comparing, reminding, side-tracking, and that
therefore the steeples themselves are never in reality still. Nothing
in life is stable. Within the flux of our past and our present, figures
outside ourselves seem to rise, to move, to act. But such movements
have reality only in so far as they are reflected in the unique mirror
of a soul. And for Proust this mirror is combined of the individual and
his memory.

[Footnote 2: See, however, my foot-note on page 106 and _Pastiches et
Mélanges_, pp. 91-99.—C.K.S.M.]

No wonder if such a novelist is sometimes called difficult. He is too
like life to be easy. Other novels, beside his, seem accommodatingly
static, other characters finished, understood in each spring of each
action—precisely as those we know in life are never finished or

But to come to the women.

A man of particular sincerity once said to me that after twenty years
of married life he understood his wife no better than on the day he
married her. He had of course become familiar with her modes of thought
and action which served as knowledge for practical daily purposes. But
familiarity had never bred understanding. Her underlying motives, the
ultimate significance of her looks and words, remained hidden.

This, I think, is Proust’s position, more especially when the woman
happens to affect him powerfully. In every case we can _see_ his
women, and thus far they are the reverse of shadowy. Grandmother,
mother, aunts, and servant—the women that surround his childhood;
Mlle. Vinteuil and the Duchesse de Guermantes—female figures that
shock or thrill his boyish imagination; Odette—the mature cocotte
that stands throughout his youth for feminine mystery and glamour;
Odette’s daughter Gilberte, and later Albertine—the young girls, minxes
both, with whom he falls in love; Madame Verdurin and her circle—the
social climbers who call forth his most delicate adult irony as well
as his most rancid contempt;—these, simply as pictures, leap out at
us complete. Nothing could be more objective than their presentation
to the eye and ear of the reader. We feel with each one as if we
had met her in the flesh—as one has met a casual acquaintance. The
mother’s submissive wifeliness; the almost masculine incorruptibility
of the grandmother; the raciness of the servant; the neurosis of Aunt
Léonie; the half-hearted viciousness of the music-master’s daughter;
the slightly comic social splendour of the Duchesse; the unmeaning
melancholy of Odette’s eyes; the unredeemed vulgarity of Madame
Verdurin; the domineering girlishness of Gilberte, by turns frank and
secretive, appealing and repellent; the smile with which Albertine,
at once innocent and wanton, receives the youth in her bedroom—in
depicting these Proust never trespasses beyond natural as compared with
literary experience. We all know with what liveliness in conversation
any man with the gifts of observation and wit can create an image for
us of some female “character” met with in his childhood or his travels.
But let that same man come to speak out of his emotions of some woman
who has moved him deeply, then his heart will cloud his brain, his
tongue will falter or run away with him, and he will no longer be
capable of outlining a portrait. As listeners our impressions of his
subject will be gained, not from what he says, but independently from
what we perceive that he feels, which may well be in direct conflict
with his words. In life, that is to say, the more important a character
is to us the more we are thrown back for our ultimate knowledge on
the emotions aroused by that character in ourselves. In fiction it
is usually the other way about. It is his central figures whom the
novelist pretends to know best. Proust, however, has recognised this
discrepancy with scientific clearness. He devotes himself, therefore,
where his important women are concerned—aside from the very minimum of
detached, objective observations—to a presentment of the effect they
have upon the men that love them.

So his women set us wondering and supposing and coming to our own
conclusions exactly as we do in life, either when an individual of our
own sex is described for us by one of the other sex, or when we are
emotionally affected by some one of the other sex.

For this is important. When it comes to his male characters, Proust
takes a different tone. Here he finds himself able, quite consistently
with his philosophy, for far more positive assertion. In various ways
he can allow them to reveal and expound themselves, and even each
other, as when Bergotte speaks of the married Swann as a man who
“has to swallow a hundred serpents every day.” The point of view,
the intellectual outfit which all males have in common—these give
the male novelist a certain tract of solid ground when dealing with
characters of his own sex. A man’s fellow-feeling for other men is very
strong. It has but a faint and imperfect parallel as between woman and
woman. Proust, accordingly, without any sacrifice of conscience, can,
“by his belief,” endow Swann with a soul. But—marvellous and highly
characteristic creation as he is—Swann may be put in the same category
with other male characters by other male novelists. Odette, Gilberte,
Albertine, are in a category by themselves. Outside of Proust’s book
they are only to be met with in life.

It is in this differential treatment of his women that we perceive
how rigorously Proust applies his artistic method. He never seeks to
transcend his own personality. In him, the observer, the whole of
creation lives and moves and has its being. Men are creatures made in
his own image. He can faithfully follow his own emotions, and “by his
belief” can conscientiously endow his men with souls. But women are
in a different case. He has no inner guide to assure him that they
are anything more than the phantoms they seem. Strictly speaking, this
should imply no more than a negative attitude. In fact, however, Proust
goes further. Because he has no grounds for belief he passes into
unbelief. In his philosophy _esse est percipi_, therefore, the
souls of women for him have no existence. Herein it is likely that he
has borne out the unavowed experience of most men. Whether or no, he
certainly has expressed the truth of his own experience with a purity
that few, even among great writers, can rival.

One thing more. There is Proust’s mother.

No doubt the avenging eagerness with which I reintroduce her here
for my conclusion is due in part to my being myself of the soulless
sex. But quite apart from any such feelings, to speak of this
novelist’s women without reckoning especially with his mother would
be inexcusable. That he adored her in childhood he makes manifest.
Further, that throughout his life this adoration effectively debarred
him from profound emotion where other women were concerned becomes
clear enough to the reader. It hardly appears, however, that Proust
was himself wholly conscious of this. True, there is a passage in the
_Combray_ section in which he speaks of “that untroubled peace
which no mistress, in later years, has ever been able to give me,
since one has doubts of them at the moment when one believes in them,
and never can possess their hearts as I used to receive, in her kiss,
the heart of my mother, complete, without scruple or reservation,
unburdened by any liability save to myself.” But this is the only
place where he seems to allow that the love he bore his mother was
even comparable in kind with the love aroused by other women later
in his life. Indeed, though he repeatedly speaks of the anguish with
which in his childhood he longed for his mother’s good-night kiss, the
ecstasy with which he received it, as if it were the Host in an act of
communion, conveying to him “her real presence and with it the power
to sleep”; though he tells how, for that “frail and precious kiss,” he
prepared himself in advance so as to “consecrate” the whole minute of
contact; though he dreaded to prolong or repeat the kiss lest a look
of displeasure should cross those beautiful features with the slight,
beloved blemish under one of the eyes; yet he describes himself at
this time as one “into whose life Love had not yet entered,” as one
whose emotion, failing love and as yet awaiting it, happened to be at
the disposal of “filial piety.” No wonder if, when temporary “loves”
came, he compared with them as unconsciously as unfavourably this good
and gracious mother—so admiringly timid as a wife, so gentle towards
strangers, so perfect socially, so full of stern solicitude as a parent
(“she never allowed herself to go to any length of tenderness with
me”)—and found them merely exciting to the senses. He had already, so
far as woman was concerned, given his heart away.

Yet, after all, perhaps he knew it well enough and merely takes his
own way of saying it. He tells us little enough of his mother, though
probably he tells as much as he knows. What her own real thoughts and
feelings were we are left to guess. But “never again,” he says, after
describing one very special visit of hers to the boy’s bedroom—“never
again will such hours be possible for me. But of late I have been
increasingly able to catch, if I listen attentively, the sound of the
sobs ... which broke out only when I found myself alone with Mamma.
Actually their echo has never ceased.”




One of my feelings whenever I read Marcel Proust is regret that Henry
James is not alive to enjoy him, as he would have done immensely and
amazedly, though, judging from the letters of that great master of
the art of writing fiction, no doubt he would not have given him his
unqualified approval. But he would have recognised him as working at
his own level, while not in his own groove. Yet, for all that Proust
is the author of practically only one book, big though that book is,
in that one book he has spread his nets wider, and sunk them deeper,
than did Henry James in the sum of all his novels. One wonders if
such mastery has ever been obtained so suddenly and so completely;
indeed, the sureness of touch seems a little less certain in the last
published volumes than in the earlier ones. We had revealed to us from
the beginning a new way of writing fiction, or rather of describing
life. It had never so been done before. Let us pray that he will have
no disciples—one can foresee the horror of them; but influence he must

My own interest begins with the second volume of _Swann_,
though my admiration begins with the first sentence of the first;
and my advice to new readers would be to take up any volume after
_Swann_—to start in the middle—when I am sure they will insist on
knowing everything the author has to say about his characters from the
beginning. You become soaked in the lives of these people as a sponge
becomes soaked with water. In the process you live your own life over
again, and, if you have lived in Paris and in Normandy, you tread the
same ground.

Proust has no “story” to tell. He sets down life as it was lived by
certain people at a certain period: Parisian society from the middle of
the Dreyfus case to the present day. From the amazing brilliance of the
whole opening two details presently detach themselves—the love of Swann
for Odette, and the boy and girl idyll in the Champs-Élysées: they are
beyond words to praise, for they are not Art, but life recorded with
matchless insight or remembrance. We need not compare, but how pale is
_Jean Christophe_ beside these pages! So when we get to Normandy,
the _Plage_, the hotel, and the countryside with its little
railway, and childhood has melted into adolescence, we live again those
days, and tread those paths, which we thought beyond recapture, save by
indistinct memory. It is an exquisite pleasure which I, at any rate,
never expected to experience.

Emerging from the shadows of the joyous band of _jeunes filles en
fleurs_, with its hint of perversity—we shall have to rewrite our
hymns: “There’s a _Freud_ for little children!”—we come to the
marvellous Guermantes, with whom Proust has pictured that high-born
snobbery—and life without snobbery is like meat without salt—which
observers, as they get on in years, come to know is inherent in the
upper classes no less, perhaps more, than in the middle classes: a
right snobbery, bereft of any meanness or noxious prejudices. These
people see France through their family history, and their family
history was France. They are Ladies and Gentlemen, with all that that
connotes: and in considering them we are conscious of all the rest
who are not. Proust, in exploring one path, illuminates the others.
We spend a few hours in their company, in the course of a dinner and
an evening reception (taking up a couple of hundred or so of pages),
and at the end we know all about them; we understand the world which
made them, and what they are going to make of the world. As contrasts
to these great ones we have those other snobs, the Verdurins, of the
“cultured” middle class. Surely never before, in memoir, essay, or
fiction, has it all been set down so brilliantly.

One wonders what sort of man Proust really was. We know he was a great
friend of Léon Daudet—two men, one would have thought, as the poles
asunder. We know that he slept by day, and lived and worked by night:
we know that he was ill and neurasthenic. We know also that nothing was
hidden from him, and that he had an infinite power of expression. He
was a very human being with the brain and the pen of a recording angel.

Occasionally, lest his cleverness should seem to be superhuman, one
comes on a jest or an anecdote which is a “chestnut”; or he becomes a
little too intricate, or his neurasthenia shows its cloven hoof: once
or twice I am inclined to throw the book down as too tiresome, but
I cling to him and grapple with him, and soon feel again that I am
enjoying one of the greatest pleasures of my life.

One meets with all kinds of people in his work, some of them very odd
people; though how very odd is the ordinary normal person! Proust’s
odd people may be thought to be modern: yet both in art and in life
they are indeed very ancient. They are those for whom—to modernise an
old phrase—Life is a _mauvais quart d’heure_ made up of exquisite
complexes. Side by side with these “moderns” are the old-fashioned
people, notably the Grandmother and Françoise—not Micawber is more
definite than this last.

The more we study the great writers of all ages, and the more we
observe for ourselves, the more we realise that the world never
alters; we can only ring the changes on the same material. Harmony and
discord, beauty and ugliness! It is like a gramophone disc. The records
vary, the melodies, the arrangements, make their individual effect,
but the substance is the same. The Masters make their records on an
unchanging surface. Marcel Proust’s is a magnificent record; perhaps
the most brilliant ever achieved. It requires only that we bring to it
a sympathetic and sharp-pointed needle.

Did his death leave his record incomplete?

One would like to know what more he had in his mind to record of these
people. Especially is one curious as to the future of M. de Charlus.
What did he do in the Great War? Did he open one of his houses as
a hospital for not too badly wounded soldiers? Or was he content
with lending his name to charity bazaars? Or was he—likeliest of
all—galvanised by his high breeding and undoubted courage into a vigour
beyond his years, to make a hero’s end? Perhaps we shall never know.
Does it much matter? We can finish off these people to our own liking,
or—if indeed his book was unfinished—leave them as he left them. There
they are for us, all alive—and likely to remain so.




Though in England almost every one, who has read and understood,
admires the works of Marcel Proust, it is not so in France. There,
not to go beyond my own experience, I have met plenty of writers,
and good ones too, who cannot away with them. Even that essay on the
style of Flaubert, which I had supposed would be universally reckoned
a masterpiece, I have heard described by a friend of mine, a charming
poet and admired dramatist, as childish. Now, when I hear such a one,
and others whom I respect, disparaging Proust, I do not fly into a
passion; I seek the cause, instead. And I find it—though the discovery,
should they ever come to hear of it, would a good deal shock some of my
French friends and surprise perhaps a few of my English—in Politics.

The French themselves seem hardly to realise how sharp and deep their
political divisions are become. Yet when we remember that during the
last forty years politics have been able to make of that gentle latin
scepticism, which gave us Montaigne, Bayle, and Voltaire, and still
gives us M. Anatole France, something as narrow and bitter almost
as Calvinism; when we hear of such pretty place-names as (say) St.
Symphorien being changed into (say) Émile Combesville; we ought not
to be surprised if literature even gets splashed a little in the dirty
dog-fight. Because Marcel Proust is supposed to have chosen as the
subject of his epic the _faubourg St. Germain_, it is assumed
that he admired and believed in it. Was not _L’Action française_
amongst the first to hail his rising genius? Is he not half a Jew and
therefore wholly a renegade? He is a black reactionary and an enemy of
light. He is not a good man, so how can he be a good writer? We are
back again in a very familiar world of criticism; only the English
critics can prove that he was good, after all.

As a matter of fact, which I know counts for little in politics or
criticism, Proust seems to me often unduly hard on the _faubourg_.
I shall not easily forget, nor perhaps will it, the devastating
effect of that small phrase, when, after treating us to a ravishing
description of a theatre full to the brim of _beau monde_, after
explaining how these are the people fitted by training, tradition,
and circumstance to taste the things of the mind, he adds, by way of
afterthought as it were, “si seulement ils avaient eu de l’esprit.”
For my part, sitting next her at that gorgeous dinner-party, I was
completely bowled over by the matchless Oriane, Duchesse de Guermantes
(late Princesse des Laumes), bowled over not only by her beauty and
seduction, and a little perhaps by her great name, but by her _bel
esprit_ and intelligence. To me her observations on Victor Hugo in
particular and the art of writing in general seemed to possess that
airy profundity which above all things one relishes in a literary
conversation, until M. Proust, after pooh-poohing her circle, undid
the duchess herself with this painfully just appreciation: “Pour
toutes ces raisons les causeries avec la duchesse ressemblaient à
ces connaissances qu’on puise dans une bibliothèque de château,
surannée, incomplète, incapable de former une intelligence, dépourvue
de presque tout ce que nous aimons, mais nous offrant parfois quelque
renseignement curieux, voire la citation d’une belle page que nous ne
connaissions pas, et dont nous sommes heureux dans la suite de nous
rappeler que nous en devons la connaissance à une magnifique demeure
seigneuriale. Nous sommes alors, pour avoir trouvé la préface de Balzac
à _la Chartreuse_ ou des lettres inédites de Joubert, tentés de
nous exagérer le prix de la vie que nous y avons menée et dont nous
oublions, pour cette aubaine d’un soir, la frivolité stérile.”

By naming Madame de Guermantes I have given myself occasion to remark
one of M. Proust’s most extraordinary gifts—his power of realising a
character. Without being presented one would know the incomparable
duchess should one ever have the happiness of meeting her at a party;
and I should recognise one of her good things (“Oriane’s latest”) were
it repeated in the train. When some one quotes a saying by Dr. Johnson
or the Duke of Wellington we need not verify by the book; their
characters are so vivid to us, and they speak so much in character,
that their phrases have the ring of familiar voices. It is the same
with Madame de Guermantes. How many authors have achieved this miracle?
Shakespeare, of course, who achieved all miracles, can distinguish even
his minor characters. In a tipsy dialogue between Mrs. Quickly and Doll
Tearsheet you can tell by the mere phrasing, by the particular way in
which a bawdy joke is turned, which of the ladies is speaking. And who
else can do it? Not Balzac, I am sure. Dickens, some one will say. Yes,
but only by giving us for characters blatant caricatures. We all know
the devil by his tail.

So far I have not contested the common opinion that Proust is the poet
of the _beau monde_; I have sought only to show that, if he were,
it would not follow that he was either a snob or a reactionary: it
would not follow that he was taken in. In fact, the subject of Proust’s
epic is the whole of French life as it was from forty to twenty years
ago—a subject of which the _faubourg_ is but a part. He gives
us a full-length picture of family life in the provinces and of a
quasi-intellectual circle in Paris, of the “seaside girls” who run
about with Albertine, and a _croquis_ of “county society”; best
of all, perhaps, he gives us exquisite landscapes and still-lifes.
And surely at this time of day it ought not to be necessary to remind
people, especially French people, that any subject, provided the
artist is thoroughly possessed by it, is as good as any other; that the
forms and colours, and their relations, of a pot of flowers or fruit on
a table, passionately apprehended, are capable of inspiring as sublime
a work of art as the Madonna or the Crucifixion. If the _faubourg_
above all things fascinated Proust, that I suspect was because in it
Proust saw a subject proper only to the touch of a master psychologist.
“Society,” he saw, is a hierarchy without official grades or badges:
unlike the army, with its colonels, majors, and captains; unlike the
navy, with its admirals, captains, and commanders; it resembles rather
a public school or small college. It is a microcosm in which people are
moved up and down, in and out, by mysterious and insensible powers; in
which they are promoted and degraded by a breath of fashion blowing
they know not whence; in which they obey slavishly unwritten laws, as
absolute as those of the Medes and Persians: powers these, none of
which they themselves can apprehend, but of which some can be surprised
by sensibilities in their way as delicate and subtle as those which
know when a lady changes her _sachets_ and can distinguish the
_bouquet_ of Léoville from Larose. Herein perhaps, rather than in
its social prestige, lay the charm of the _faubourg_ for Marcel

One word more: a translation may do very well, but we can have no
English Proust. No Englishman, I mean, writing in English, would be
allowed to publish in England so complete a picture of life. Wherefore
as a novel- and play-writing nation we have lost pride of place,
and cannot hope to regain it till we have set our laws in order. An
artist must be possessed by his subject; but the English novelist
who is inspired by his sense of contemporary life is not allowed
to express that by which he is possessed. Fielding, Jane Austen,
Thackeray, Dickens, Meredith, James, and Hardy, English novelists who
took contemporary life for their province, all had something to say
which may have shocked or hurt but which the age did not prohibit.
They were, therefore, as free to express the best that was in them as
Balzac, Zola, or Proust. But to-day our subtlest and most active minds,
affected maybe, consciously or unconsciously, by modern psychological
discoveries, are concerned, so far as they are concerned with life
at all, with certain aspects of it, with certain relations, of which
they may not treat freely. Their situation is as painful and absurd
as would have been that of men of science who, towards the close of
last century, should have been allowed to make no use of Darwin’s
contribution to biology. The gap between first- and third-rate minds
has been growing alarmingly wide of late. Proust moves in a world
unknown almost to the intellectual slums, or to those intellectual
lower middle classes from which are drawn too many of our magistrates,
judges, and legislators. These lag behind, and impose their veto
on the sincere treatment of English manners by a first-rate English
artist. And perhaps the best tribute which English admirers of Proust
could pay his memory would be to agitate for the repeal of those
absurd and barbarous laws which make an English _Recherche du Temps
Perdu_ impossible.




The magic ring which Marcel Proust drew, almost literally, round his
readers—since it is in the circle of “_le temps perdu_” which is
to become “_le temps retrouvé_” that he sets us and himself—seemed
early in the incantation to betray a break whereby we might escape,
did we so wish, from his compulsion. For, enthralled as we had been
by _Swann_, there was a sensible relaxing of the spell with the
_Jeunes Filles_. Not in the opening pages, where the atmosphere
that we had rapturously learned to breathe was potent still with its
intoxicating magic; but when we came to Balbec, and the group of
seaside girls began to show as rulers of the scene, there was scarce
one of us who did not own to disappointment. _La petite bande_,
more actual and, on the surface, more alluring than _la petite
phrase_ in the sonata of Vinteuil, yet wholly failed to charm the
sense or the imagination as the enigmatic little group of notes had
charmed. We heard, and we responded to, the cry: “Those flappers
are so tedious!”—and as Albertine grew more and more significant,
_we_ grew more sceptical, and told ourselves that we could step
outside the ring at any moment we might choose. But somehow, that
emancipative moment never came. Despite the blinding print of the
edition in a single volume—print that must have permanently injured
our collective sight—there always was a reason why we could not break
away. And finally, we realised that we were wrong, and that the spell
had but become more absolute, in both the shades of meaning in that
word. For now that some of the more normal baits for interest were laid
aside, we could perceive that here was sorcery in its pure state—the
thing itself, stripped of all seeming. Now we could not so easily, or
easily at all, “say why” when the profane inquired of us what the magic
was—why, reading Proust, we were so interested. We were _not_
so interested; we could scarcely say, or even think, that we were
“interested” any more.

The miracle had happened. We were spellbound, for good and all, within
the magic ring. We had forgotten what we used to mean when, in the
world outside, we had said “dull”; for here was much that was not
merely dull but positively soporific, yet our eyes were glued upon
the baleful page, and any interruption seemed a challenge to the
occult power that held us. Something was risked, immeasurably worth
our while, did we fall short of the required submission.... This was
because we now could feel more deeply the extent of what the wizard
meant to do with us. We were not passively to stand within the circle.
We were, with him, to pace it mystically round, while time ran back
to fetch the Age of Gold. _Le temps passé_ would be transmuted,
imperceptibly, into _le temps retrouvé_; and our aid was necessary
to the necromancer’s full success. With this flattering divination
there began a new excitement, different in action from the old; for
soon, instead of rushing at the latest Marcel Proust directly we had
bought it, we indeed did buy it, but re-read the earlier volumes first.
Here was the very magic ring itself, drawn round our fireside chair!
The latest Proust lay ready to our hand, slim or substantial token of
the power still unspent; but lest we should have missed a single letter
in the charm, we spelt it through devoutly once again; and, in the
spelling, found how many an indication subtly skilled at once to warn
and to escape us till the moment of reflection or re-reading! And as
a consequence, we now perceived so intricate and exquisite a “pattern
in the carpet” as could make the newest volume into something more
exciting for anticipation even than we had dreamed.

This is the proof, to me, of Marcel Proust’s (as one might think,
indisputable; yet by a few disputed) genius. The _Swann_ book
contains the largest share of interest, no doubt—that merer, franker
kind of interest which other books can give us in a hardly less degree.
But in the later volumes, as they “grow on” us, there is far more (if
also there is less) than this; and it is through the more that we come
finally to clear perception of Proust’s purpose and his mastery. For
in these less immediately attractive volumes we are conscious of an
ever-growing sense of the significance so deeply interfused through
the whole work. He had by then become absorbed to such degree in his
interpretation of the microcosm which he saw as a sufficing symbol of
the irony, absurdity, and the incessant alternation, “intermittency,”
and travail of the consciousness of man, that we are sensible, as he
proceeds, of powers more transcendent than the highest of the writer’s
mere accomplishment—stupendous as that is in Proust, who could “write”
anything he chose, and chose to write so many things, from satire that
is blighting in its smiling subtlety (so muted as to mock the hasty
ear!), to lyric flower-pieces like the paradisal hawthorn-hedge in
_Swann_, and the unrivalled comments upon buildings, pictures,
fashions in dress and manners (who will forget the monocles at the big
evening-party at Mme. de Saint-Euverte’s?), books, the drama, even
photographs! In the great elegiac glories of the death of Bergotte (not
yet published in book-form), and of that _grand’mère_ who is the
_motif_, as it were, in the symphonic composition of the unnamed
central figure’s personality, Proust sounded chords which lay till then
beyond the compass of his readers’ hearing, but were then revealed to
sense that shall not lose them while it yet survives.

But over all this virtuosity there rules a mightier gift—the
master-gift of insight. Proust, one could say, “knows everything,” in
the restricted meaning of the words. No bent, no twist, of modern
thought escapes him; yet, as one reader writes to me, “there is no
dead psychology”—no case stretched on a Procrustean bed, with all that
does not fit lopped comfortably, and discomfortingly, off. He, unlike
Nature, is most careful of the single life. If ever we had questioned
that—and we had very little questioned it—the Charlus portrait answered
us: that masterpiece of the undaunted, following eye and mind. Proust
leads us with him on this journey of the visual and mental powers; we
are no more involuntarily drawn on than he has been into the state of
an astounded fondness and appreciation for the maudlin, overbearing,
ludicrous, yet constantly pathetic or superb old “invert.” We are
offended personally by the insolences of his favourites; the tears in
his unholy eyes can well-nigh wet our own ... and this though, with
the master’s hand upon our shoulders, we have gone through every phase
of the degrading intimacies, seen and heard the tragi-comic outbursts
of the princely victim, every now and then remembering his “rank” and
seeking to restore the true relation between him and those whom in his
view he honours by his merest word, yet who are his disdainful masters
through his helpless depravation.

If there were nothing else than Charlus in the books, Proust must be
given pride of place among the masters. But with the plenitude there
is—what must we give? More than a master, one would say, a writer
cannot be. Yet in the image here suggested of the magic circle, there
is possibly the one thing more that causes Proustians to divide their
reading lives into the time before and after they have read these
books. No spell had yet been worked on us of potency like this; for
though we are pent within the ring, we move within it too—the world
revolves, for us, as in a crystal held beneath our gaze by one who,
moving with us, will reveal the secret hidden not there only but in our
own dim sense, when at the last _le temps perdu_ shall have become
_le temps retrouvé_.




[Footnote 3: Reprinted from _The Times_ of Wednesday, November 29,
1922. _The Times_ had been almost alone among English newspapers
in giving “publicity” to the death of Marcel Proust in its issue of
Monday, November 20.—C.K.S.M.]

To judge from the newspapers, there have been tremendous “crises” in
public affairs during the last few days: the triumph of Fascismo in
Italy, the Lausanne Conference, the English elections. But to many of
us the great events are merely spectacular; they pass rapidly across
the screen, while the band plays irrelevant scraps of syncopated music,
and seem no more real than any other of the adventures, avowedly
fictitious, that are “filmed” for our idle hours. They don’t, save on
reflection and much diligent pondering of leading articles, come home
to our business and bosoms. But one announcement in _The Times_ of
last Monday week shocked many of us with a sudden, absurdly indignant
bewilderment, like a foul blow: I mean the death of Marcel Proust.
It is not only absurd but impious to be indignant with the decrees
of Fate. The wise throughout the ages have prescribed for us our
proper behaviour in the face of such an event; and most of us find the
prescription quite useless. But, on the death of an author, there is
this peculiar consolation that never fails: his work lives absolutely
unaffected by his death.

... We can light the lamp, make a clear fire, and sit down to the
book with the old thrill. There is only the thought that we must
be content with what we have, that we are to get no more from that
hand. With Marcel Proust, however, it seems that we are spared even
that mortification. He has left behind him the completion of _A la
Recherche du Temps Perdu_. This is great news. The announcements
from the press of _La Nouvelle Revue Française_ will be eagerly
awaited. Even a new Anatole France is not so important an event.

It has been said that Proust will go down to posterity as the author of
one book. This is only true in a literal sense. For the many volumes
of _A la Recherche_ that already crowd the shelves are several
“books” in one. It is not a “story,” but a panorama of many stories.
Indeed, who reads Proust for the “story”? His book is really a picture
of the modern world and the modern spirit, and that is its peculiar
fascination for us. There are “morbid” elements in it, to be sure—you
cannot read a page without seeing that it must have been written by
some one who was anything but a normal, healthy human being, and
it is not for nothing that _The Times_[4] has compared him to
Petronius Arbiter. But one of the advantages of this hyperaesthesia is
a heightened sensibility for _everything_, the perception and
accurate notation of innumerable details in thought and feeling that
escape a normal observer.

[Footnote 4: _The Times_, Monday, November 20, 1922: “Marcel
Proust: An Appreciation.” (From a Correspondent.)—C.K.S.M.]

Take, for instance, the account of the famous author “Bergotte.”
Proust, little more than a child, but already his ardent reader, meets
him at luncheon. And, first, the boy’s imagined author, a “langoureux
vieillard,” has to give place to the reality, much younger, a little
man with a chin-tuft and a nose like a snail-shell. Then comes an
elaborate description of his spoken diction, pronunciation, etc., and
an attempt to reconcile these with the peculiarities of his written
style. Special “notes”:

     Doubtless, again, so as to distinguish himself from
     the previous generation, too fond as it had been of
     abstractions, of weighty commonplaces, when Bergotte
     wished to speak favourably of a book, what he would bring
     into prominence, what he would quote with approval, would
     always be some scene that furnished the reader with an
     image, some picture that had no rational significance.
     “Ah, yes!” he would exclaim, “it is quite admirable! There
     is a little girl in an orange shawl. It is excellent!” Or
     again, “Oh, yes, there is a passage in which there is a
     regiment marching along the street; yes, it is excellent!”
     As for style, he was not altogether of his time (though
     he remained quite exclusively of his race, abominating
     Tolstoy, George Eliot, Ibsen, and Dostoevsky), for the
     word that always came to his lips when he wished to praise
     the style of any writer was “mild.” “Yes, you know, I like
     Chateaubriand better in _Atala_ than in _René_;
     he seems to me to be milder.” He said the word like a
     doctor who, when his patient assures him that milk will
     give him indigestion, answers: “But, you know, it’s very
     mild.” And it is true that there was in Bergotte’s style
     a kind of harmony similar to that for which the ancients
     used to praise certain of their orators in terms which we
     now find it hard to understand, accustomed as we are to our
     own modern tongues, in which effects of that kind are not

[Footnote 5: [Transcriber’s Note: See next footnote.]]

It is, further, explained how this man of genius came to pay court to
his intellectual inferiors with an eye on the Academy, and how, while
his own private morals were bad, the moral tone of his books was of the

     Perhaps it is only in really vicious lives that the moral
     problem can arise in all its disquieting strength. And of
     this problem the artist finds a solution in the terms not
     of his own personal life but of what is for him the true
     life, a general, a literary solution. As the great Doctors
     of the Church began often, without losing their virtue, by
     acquainting themselves with the sins of all mankind, out of
     which they extracted their own personal sanctity, so great
     artists often, while being thoroughly wicked, make use of
     their vices in order to arrive at a conception of the moral
     law that is binding upon us all.[6]

[Footnote 6: I am glad that the acknowledgement here of Mr. Walkley’s
courtesy in allowing me to substitute my version for his of these two
passages from _A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs_ gives me an
opportunity to acknowledge also my borrowing and to congratulate him
upon the discovery of the word “mild”—“une véritable trouvaille,” as
Norpois would undoubtedly have called it.—C.K.S.M.]

Nor is the portrait finished yet. Bergotte was at bottom a man who
really loved only certain images and to compose and paint them in
words. Had he had to defend himself before a tribunal, in spite of
himself he would have chosen his words, not for their effect on the
judge, but in view of images which the judge would certainly never have

It is this extraordinarily minute “psychometry” that is the peculiar
mark of Proust’s work. The sensations Swann derives from a sonata of
Vinteuil’s, the special quality of Elstir’s pictures of the sea-shore,
the effect of afternoon light in the church at Combray, glimpses of
military life at Doncières, with its contrast of the First Empire
aristocracy and the _ancien régime_,—it is the first time that
such things as these have been put into words and brought intimately
home to you. Then there are the studies of _le grand monde_—the
“gilded saloons,” as Disraeli would have called them, of the Guermantes
and the rest. Here you have a picture of the Faubourg Saint-Germain
that is as true, you are assured, as Balzac’s was false.[7]

[Footnote 7: In his article, published in _The Times_ three weeks
later, on December 20, 1922, Mr. Walkley replied to a criticism of
this statement:—“The old complaint of ‘misrepresenting’ modern France
is now beginning to be heard about the great novelist just dead,
Marcel Proust. An eminent English novelist tackles me about this. He
says Proust is not entitled to the highest rank in literature because
his representation of French society is partial only, and therefore
unfair; that he writes only of the Faubourg Saint-Germain set, which
stands for the ‘dead’ France, and not of the ‘live’ people, soldiers
and statesmen and others, who have made and are making France to-day.
And he contrasts him with Balzac, who aimed at giving a panorama of the
whole social scheme. Well, it strikes me as an unfortunate comparison.
Balzac’s _Comédie Humaine_ was like Zola’s _Rougon-Macquart
Family_, a mere afterthought, a specious formula designed to
suggest continuity and completeness in what was merely casual and
temperamental. As a ‘representation of France’ it is not to be taken
seriously; what it represents—like any other work of art—is its
author’s genius. His men of action, his statesmen, his men of affairs,
are, frankly, preposterous. Proust never set out to ‘represent’ France;
he represented the side of its social life that happened to interest
him. What he did magnificently represent was the hitherto unexplored in
human nature and the human mind. As M. Jacques Rivière says of him in
the current _Nouvelle Revue Française_, ‘The discoveries he has
made in the human mind and heart will one day be considered as capital,
and of the same rank as those of Kepler in astronomy, Claude Bernard in
physiology, or Auguste Comte in the interpretation of the sciences.’
That strikes me as better work than producing a portrait-group of
‘Modern France,’ with General Lyautey arm-in-arm with Marshal Foch, and
M. Clemenceau putting on his celebrated pearl-grey gloves.”—C.K.S.M.]

I confess “ma mère” and “ma grand’mère” bore me. And there is just a
little too much of “le petit clan.” But in this vast banquet of modern
life and thought and sensation there is plenty of room to pick and
choose. Since Henry Bernstein first mentioned Proust’s name to me in
the year before the war I have returned again and again for a tit-bit
to that feast. Proust is dead; but we can still go on enjoying his
work. In that sense the cry of the child in Maeterlinck’s _Oiseau
Bleu_ is true enough: “There is no death.”




[Footnote 8: Reprinted from _The Times Literary Supplement_ of
Thursday, January 4, 1923, where this article followed an English
version of a formal tribute to Marcel Proust, signed by nineteen
English men and women, which appeared (in French) in the special number
of _La Nouvelle Revue Française_ for January 1923. Mr. Middleton
Murry had already written, at greater length (too great, indeed, for
reproduction in this volume), on Marcel Proust in _The Quarterly
Review_ for July 1922.—C.K.S.M.]

For Englishmen Marcel Proust has already become one of the great
figures of modern literature. The feeling is common to many of his
readers that in some way his work marks an epoch. What kind of epoch it
is harder to say. Is he an end, or a beginning? And, again, yet another
question insinuates itself continually as we pass slowly through his
long volumes. What precisely—if answers to such questions can be made
precise—was his own intention as a writer? Not that it necessarily
makes the least difference to his own importance whether he succeeded
or failed, whether he was consistent or spasmodic in following out his
own plan. But we, at least, should be the happier for some indication
of the thread to follow. For there comes a time in the reading of a
long novel—and _A la Recherche du Temps Perdu_ is surely one of
the longest—when we feel the need to stand aside, to contemplate it as
a whole, to grasp the pattern, to comprehend the general vision of
life on which its essential individuality depends. Only thus, it seems,
can we really make it our own.

In this respect Marcel Proust’s book may be fairly said to bristle
with difficulties. Its obvious theme, its surface intention, as we
perceive it in the brilliant opening pages of _Du côté de chez
Swann_, is the presentation by an adult man of his memories of
childhood. We feel, though with peculiar qualifications to which we
must return, that we are on the threshold of a spiritual autobiography;
we are to be the enchanted witnesses of the unfolding and growth of
a strangely sensitive consciousness. But no sooner are we attuned to
the subtleties of this investigation and have accustomed ourselves
to Proust’s breathless, tiptoe following of the faint and evanescent
threads of association: no sooner have we begun to take a deep and
steady breath of the rich fragrance of Aunt Léonie’s house at Combray,
and to imbibe the luxurious atmosphere of the old town, whose shifting
colours are as opulent as the lights of the windows in the church
round which it clings: no sooner have we prepared ourselves to watch
with absorbed interest the process of growth of a mind nurtured in
this almost intoxicating soil,—than the thread is abruptly snapped. We
do not complain at the moment, for the episode _Amour de Swann_
is the highest sustained achievement of Proust as a prose-writer.
Perhaps the devouring passion of love—“Venus toute entière à sa proie
attachée”—the smouldering, torturing flame of unsatisfied passion which
by the law of its own nature can never be satisfied, has never been
so subtly and so steadily anatomised before. Perhaps it has been more
wonderfully presented, but never more wonderfully analysed.

It is not surprising that in the fascination of this intolerable
and unwonted history, in which every psychological subtlety of the
author is properly and beautifully dominated by the tragic theme, we
forget that this is not at all the thing we went out to see. The boy
whose history we have been following could not have known of Swann’s
discomfiture before he was a man. It has happened, indeed, before
the narrative of _Du Côté de chez Swann_ opens, before the bell
of the garden-gate tinkles and Swann takes his place with the family
on the verandah; but it can have no place in the story of the boy’s
development until he is old enough to understand it. In other words,
the angle of presentation has abruptly changed. Into a narrative
concerned, as we imagine, solely with what a boy knew and felt, and how
he knew and felt it, is suddenly thrust an episode of which he could
have known nothing at all.

These two sections of the book—composing the yellow-backed _Du
Côté de chez Swann_ with which Proust’s admirers had so long to
remain content—were at once baffling and fascinating. Moreover,
they do actually contain Proust’s very finest work: he was never
again to sustain himself on this level for so long. But, considered
in themselves (and there were three or four years in which we had no
choice but to consider them so), they could be made to yield a pattern.
On the one side was the vague and heroic figure of Swann as he loomed
on the extreme horizon of the boy’s world, the mysterious visitant
whose appearances in the household made an agony of his solitary going
to bed; on the other was the Swann of reality, the reserved, silent,
ineffably refined darling of the _beau monde_, who held his teeth
clenched, like the Spartan, while the fox gnawed at his vitals. The
contrast, the building up of the character of Swann, as it were, from
two sides at once, was the quite sufficient motive of the book. But, so
understood, it was Swann’s book, not the boy’s.

But the next volumes brought us back to the boy’s history. As we read
of his love affair with Albertine, his adoration of the Duchesse de
Guermantes, his adventures in the rarefied atmosphere of the Faubourg
Saint-Germain, it became more and more evident that _Amour de
Swann_ was, in spite of its beauty and power, only an irrelevant
interlude, after all. And in the narrative of the boy’s stay in the
hotel at Balbec came frequent hints that the key to the story as a
whole might be found in the earlier emphasis upon the manner in which
the author went in search of the past. At the beginning of _Du
Côté de chez Swann_ he had been at pains to give us not merely
his results but his method also. He was a grown man, suddenly waking
from sleep, trying to locate himself once more in his room, and his
room in the world; and something familiar in this strange sensation
had reminded him of his sensations in his bedroom as a child. But
“reminded” is altogether too coarse and summary a word for the
delicate process on which his researches depended; rather it is that a
familiarity in the strange sensation whispers to him that it holds a
secret for him if he will only explore it. It conceals something that
he must know. Again, it is the vague familiarity of the faint flavour
of a _madeleine_ dipped in tea, which the grown man is eating in
his mother’s company, which ultimately yields up the magnificently
vivid picture of Combray and Aunt Léonie. These sensations, or
presentiments of the past, come to the boy also. There is, for example,
the beautiful account of his mysterious excitement at a sight of the
spire and towers of Martinville church when he is driving home in Dr.
Percepied’s carriage. Again he has the sense of memories he cannot
grasp, of a secret and mystical message that he cannot make his own; it
is the occasion of his first attempt at writing.[9] These premonitions
become more frequent during his stay with his grandmother at the
Balbec hotel. Then the sudden sight of a tiny clump of trees seen while
he is driving with the Marquise de Villeparisis makes him feel that
they are stretching out imploring arms towards him in a mute appeal.
If he can divine what they have to tell him (they seem to say) he will
touch the secret of “la vraie vie,” of life indeed. And then the writer
warns us that the story of his search to make this secret his own is
to come, and that this premonition of a task to be accomplished was to
haunt him throughout his life.

[Footnote 9: In another and rather complicated sense this is a
presentiment of the future. The spires appear to have been those of
Caen, the carriage a motor car, the year evidently much later. The
original article will be found in _Pastiches et Mélanges_, on pp.
91 to 99.—C.K.S.M.]

At this moment Marcel Proust came nearest, we may believe, to revealing
to the reader the hidden soul of his own book. There is room for
different interpretations, of course, and it is admitted that in any
case he was frequently distracted from whatever plan he had by his
delight in a pure description of the human comedy from the angle most
familiar to him. Nevertheless, we are persuaded that Proust brought to
the exact and intimate analysis of his own sensations something more
than the self-consciousness of talent—some element, let us say, of an
almost religious fervour. This modern of the moderns, this _raffiné_
of _raffinés_, had a mystical strain in his composition. These hidden
messages of a moment, these glimpses and intuitions of “la vraie vie”
behind a veil, were of the utmost importance to him; he had some kind
of immediate certainty of their validity. He confessed as much, and we
are entitled to take a man so reticent at his word.

We may take him at his word also when he acknowledges that the effort
to penetrate behind the veil of these momentary perceptions was the
chief interest of his life. The first of these illuminations—the vision
of Martinville spire—had taken shape in a piece of writing which he
gives us. We suspect that the last did also, and that its visible
expression is the whole series of volumes which, after all, do bear
a significant title—_A la Recherche du Temps Perdu_; we suspect
that the last page of the last volume would have brought us to the
first page of the first, and that the long and winding narrative would
finally have revealed itself as the history of its own conception.
Then, we may imagine, all the long accounts of the Guermantes’ parties
and the extraordinary figure of M. de Charlus would have fallen into
their places in the scheme, as part of the surrounding circumstances
whose pressure drove the youth and the man into the necessity of
discovering a reality within himself. What he was to discover, when
the demand that he should surrender himself to his moments of vision
became urgent and finally irresistible, was the history of what he was.
Proust—and amid the most labyrinthine of his complacent divagations
into the _beau monde_ a vague sense of this attends us—was much
more than a sentimental autobiographer of genius; he was a man trying
to maintain his soul alive. And thus, it may be, we have an explanation
of the rather surprising fact that he began his work so late. The
two volumes which went before _Du Côté de chez Swann_[10] were
not indeed negligible, but they were the work of a dilettante. The
explanation, we believe, is that in spite of his great gifts Proust
was a writer _malgré lui_; he composed against the grain. We mean
that had it been only for the sake of the satisfaction of literary
creation, he probably would not have written at all. It was only when
writing presented itself to him as the only available means for getting
down to the bedrock of his own personality, as the only instrument
by which his _fin-de-siècle_ soul—the epithet is, in his case,
a true definition—could probe to something solid to live by, that he
seriously took up the pen. It was the lance with which he rode after
the Grail—“la vraie vie.”

[Footnote 10: _I.e._, _Les Plaisirs et les Jours_, published
in 1896, and _Pastiches et Mélanges_, which, strictly speaking,
did not come as a volume until after _A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en
Fleurs_, in the spring of 1919. But of the _Pastiches_ some at
least had appeared in the _Figaro_ in 1908 and 1909, while the
_Mélanges_ date even further, and include the introductions to
Proust’s translations of Ruskin, _La Bible d’Amiens_ (1904) and
_Sésame et les Lys_ (1906).—C.K.S.M.]

Proust at the first glance looks wholly different from a man who rides
off on a desperate adventure. There seems to be no room for desperate
adventures in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. It is hardly congruous to
some senses to ride through the waste land in a sixty horse-power
limousine. Nevertheless, it can be done. The outward and visible sign
is, not for the first time, different from the inward and spiritual

So by a devious path we return to our first question. Proust marks
an epoch. What kind of epoch? Is it an end or a beginning? And the
answer we have reached is the answer we might have expected in the
case of a figure so obviously considerable. Proust is both an end and
a beginning. More an end than a beginning, perhaps, if we have regard
to the technique and texture of his work. In the art of literature
itself he opens up no new way. And, in the deeper sense, he indicates
a need more than he satisfies it. The modern mind, looking into the
astonishing mirror which Proust holds up to it, will not see in it
the gleam of something to live by; but it will see, if it knows how
to look, an acknowledgement of that necessity and a burning desire to
satisfy it. By so much Marcel Proust marks a beginning also. It is the
flame of this desire which smoulders always through his book, and at
times breaks out; it is this which makes it his own, and this which
gives it, in the true sense, style.




I went Proust’s way for the first time one rainy winter evening five
years ago, waiting in her warm boudoir for a foolish Society woman
to come in and give me tea and an introduction to the new popular
novelist. But she had not come in, and on a table near me, by the
powder-puff and the cigarettes, I found an author who had not yet swept
the board as he has since done.

A re-bound copy of _Du Côté de chez Swann_, from that accredited
emporium which Thomas Carlyle founded for the reading of the
Intelligentzia, the London Library, lay, dull and forbidding, among the
brocade and tinsel of the bibelots. Surprised, I opened it, intending,
as one idly may during these interludes, to take good-humoured
cognisance of the nature of another’s chosen study. At once I became
involved in an _enchevêtrement_, a leash of moods, a congeries of
complexes, of crankinesses, all that goes to make up a man—Swann. There
was no breathlessness, no sense of hurry, yet it was “good going.”
There were hairbreadth but quite actual escapes from bathos, ugly
grazings averted, artistic difficulties compounded: this author backed
his sentences in and out of garages like a first-class motorist....

And, suddenly, the rumble of an earthly car sounded and my hostess and
the popular author came in and tea was a weariness, for Tante Léonie—we
all have our Tantes Léonie—had entered into my knowledge, and the Lady
of the Cattleyas was just beginning to cause Swann, whom I already
loved, to suffer after the way of all men who want anything very badly.
We never mentioned the shabby, black book I had put down, but began
to discuss, in this Kensington drawing-room, Freud, much as people
discussed music in the drawing-room of Mme. Verdurin in Paris, and in
very much the same style as if Madame Odette de Crécy had taken a hand,
and Swann, blinded by love, had listened to her.

But I—I had become acquainted with Proust and had gained a world—one of
the worlds in which, through a book, we can go to live awhile whenever
we choose.

Proust! What is Proust? This is the cry of the Carping Uninitiated
among us. To such persons, constitutionally unwilling to be instructed,
one replies that Proust is a fashion—a disease—and that a Proustian,
so-called, is an Opium-Eater. But, to those who know him and love him,
he is a wise and cunning Prospero whose wand is style, and Combray an
enchanted island—Ferdinand, not much Miranda, but Caliban, drunken
sailors and all.

The Opium Trance, indeed, offers some parallel. Dr. Hochst tells us
that the wily subconsciousness, at odds with its earthly environment,
is able to invoke and maintain an attitude of benign stupor towards
the universe, holding it, as it were, at arm’s length, able to subsist
in tranquil abstraction from chill and hateful circumstance. And one
can easily imagine some triply disillusioned soul, rebuffed of love
and ambition and the fount of life itself, entering on a course of
the Master, content to live, lullabyed by the slight movement as of
flickering woodland leaves, warmed by the soft light that falls on
grey cathedral walls and white, dusty roads, quietly appreciative of
the Master’s passionless, infallible display of the complications and
unconscious betrayals of their ego by Françoise and Tante Léonie,
Odette and the Duchess; intrigued by his fine sense of social values
shown by the apt posing of the social Inferiorities of the Verdurin
_ménage_ in Paris against the ineffable Aristocracies ensconced in
their old château, Guermantes Way—and so on, through terms of months or
even years, till the stupor, benign in character, ends at last in the
ordinary manner, the patient dying, still _en plein Proust_, with,
perhaps, a volume or two unread, to the good, for there are, or are to
be, a good many.

The normal, healthy person, still active, still complying with life,
finds it more than soothing to commit himself to this peaceable,
effluent mind-flow, a current of thought that has, like life, its
eddies, its _transes_, but persists, as must we all who agree with
our destinies, in its appointed borders and so gains something of the
peace of resignation that Renan speaks of: “_Il n’y a rien de suave
comme le renoncement de la joie, rien de doux comme l’enchantement du
désenchantement._” For there is, indeed, no joy in all these myriad
pages: how could there be, since joy is clear-cut and impermanent and
all Proustian values fade and are merged in each other without such a
thing as an edge anywhere! The sharp, dramatic point popular novelists
excel in would break the spell.

We surrender ourselves to these entrancing _longueurs_; to
indescribable sensations that endure. Reading in Proust is, to me, like
the long drink of a child whom, by and by, a solicitous elder bids put
the cup down ... a gesture that this Master will never make. It is a
suave, sensuous pleasure, like stroking the long, rippling beard of
Ogier the Dane as he sits, stone-like, in his enchanted castle. It is
a patient, monkish task like that of tending with loving, religious
husbandry the Holy Rose at Hildesheim, that has gone on growing for
four hundred years. It suggests a sense of going on, a promise of a
future that may not be so very different, such as we got when our
German nurse told us that Grimm’s tale of the man who fell in and was
drowned, but, presently, found himself under the still waters of the
mere, walking, _langweilig_, in meadows prankt with daisies and
buttercups and fat flocks grazing....

Proust translated Ruskin’s _Bible of Amiens_—just the unexpected
sort of thing he would do—and one might theorise and hint that his
learned appreciation of the beauties that lie within due submission
to architectural rules, and acceptance of the limitations and
possibilities of shaped stones, have helped to form the backbone of
his style. It has the precision and poise of the arch, supported
by the virility and integrity of the pillar, with the permitted
_fioriture_ of the pinnacle sparingly used, as one sees it in
the Norman churches dotted all round about Combray and Balbec. And I
am sure his style is the magician’s wand without whose composed and
certain wielding we should never have allowed him to lead us, like
willing children, through the mazes, winding, twisting, but always
planned and in order, of his mind—or Swann’s. And if Swann—remote,
withdrawn, half-unsympathetic character that he is—had not been so
essentially lovable and had not, while telling us all, succeeded in
being at the same time suggestive, we should not have yielded ourselves
so utterly to _his_ mind-flow.

Proust made Swann a financier, a Jew, and gave him a German name,
because, I think, he wished to indicate to our subconscious judgments
a cause of Swann’s curious racial patience, his waiting on and
deference to the caprice of others. He allows life “to ride” him,
Mme. Verdurin to patronise him, Odette to make him love her: just as
the trees let the winds lash their boughs and break them, as rivers,
flattened and contradicted by raindrops, flow on all the same under a
grey sky. Swann, beautifully groomed as he is, apt for drawing-rooms,
and acquainted with dukes and ashamed to say so, is a piece of
Nature—Nature whom I always see as an old man working in a field, with
a sack over his shoulders, bowed to the elements. For Swann doesn’t
act; things happen to him. Even his deep and pertinacious affection is
discounted by the inferior object of it. He is the golden mean in man,
no more a crank than we would all be if we were rich, with weaknesses
that we could, if we would, translate into heroisms. Most cultivated
women infallibly must have loved Swann—he is probably, therefore, of
the kind that finds only the Odettes of the world to its liking.




It has never been published, never, so far as I can ascertain, been
performed in any of our concert-halls. Indeed, its largest audience
must have been the fashionable one which gathered for the _soirée
musicale_ given by the Marquise de Saint-Euverte, when Mme. de
Cambremer’s head wagged to its rhythm like a metronome, and the
Princesse des Laumes, to show that she was listening, beat time now
and again with her fan; but, so as not to forfeit her independence,
beat a different time from the musicians’. But most frequently it was
to be heard in a piano arrangement played at Mme. Verdurin’s for the
benefit of her “little clan,” which then included Odette de Crécy and,
for a time, Charles Swann, by a pianist whom Madame had taken under her
patronage, declaring that he left Planté and Rubinstein “sitting”; and,
later, when she had become Mme. Swann, by Odette herself, when it first
came to the notice of that most acute of critics, the narrator in _A
la Recherche du Temps Perdu_.

But, of course, the boy, as he was then, must have heard a good deal
more about the Sonata from Swann, who himself was no mean judge of
music, as of painting; though, in his appreciation of the latter art,
he does seem to have derived more pleasure from the discovery in
an “old master” of a likeness to one of his friends than from the
aesthetic merits it might possess. But Swann’s opinion of the Sonata
cannot perhaps, for other reasons, be trusted altogether; it was too
closely linked up in his mind with certain occurrences in his private
life. Yet we can accept the favourable impression it made upon him
at a time when he had not met Mme. de Crécy. On that occasion he had
appreciated at first “only the material quality of the sounds which
the instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure
when, below the narrow ribbon of the violin-part, delicate, unyielding,
substantial, and governing the whole, he had suddenly perceived, where
it was trying to surge upwards in a flowing tide of sound, the mass of
the piano-part, multiform, coherent, level, and breaking everywhere
in melody like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed
into a minor key by the moonlight. But at a given moment, without being
able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was
pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to collect, to treasure
in his memory, the phrase or harmony—he knew not which—that had just
been played and had opened and expanded his soul, just as the fragrance
of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power
to dilate our nostrils.... Hardly had the delicious sensation which
Swann had experienced died away, before his memory furnished him with
an immediate transcript, summary, it is true, and provisional, but one
on which he had kept his eyes fixed while the playing continued, so
effectively that, when the same impression suddenly returned, it was no
longer uncapturable. He was able to picture to himself its extent, its
symmetrical arrangement, its notation, the strength of its expression;
he had before him that definite object which was no longer pure music,
but rather design, architecture, thought, and which allowed the actual
music to be recalled. This time he had distinguished, quite clearly, a
phrase which emerged for a few moments from the waves of sound. It had
at once held out to him an invitation to partake of intimate pleasures,
of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which
he felt that nothing but this phrase could initiate him; and he had
been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.”

And, though he seems to have failed to make head or tail of the Sonata
at that first hearing, that little phrase stuck in his memory. It so
haunted him that, when a year later he was sitting beside Odette on
Mme. Verdurin’s Beauvais sofa (which his hostess vowed wasn’t to be
matched _anywhere_), and heard a high note held on through two
whole bars, he foresaw the approach of his beloved phrase and promptly
associated it with the woman at his side. In this way it became the
symbol of his passion, developed into a Wagnerian _leit-motif_ of
his liaison with Odette, until, when they had inevitably quarrelled,
it became for him an exquisite anguish to hear. An anguish which the
unhappy man had to dissemble from the ironical scrutiny of all those
monocles at Mme. de Saint-Euverte’s party, when “the violin had risen
to a series of high notes, on which it rested as though expecting
something, an expectancy which it prolonged without ceasing to hold on
to the notes, in the exaltation with which it already saw the expected
object approaching, and with a desperate effort ... to keep the way
open a moment longer, so that the stranger might enter in, as one
holds a door open that would otherwise automatically close. And before
Swann had had time to understand what was happening, to think, ‘It
is the little phrase from Vinteuil’s Sonata. I mustn’t listen!’ all
his memories of the days when Odette had been in love with him, which
he had succeeded, up till that evening, in keeping invisible ... had
risen to sing maddeningly in his ears, without pity for his present
desolation, the forgotten strains of happiness.”

But we may find ample corroboration of Swann’s testimony to the
excellence of this work in the comments of that acute critic already
mentioned. Although he has preferred to remain anonymous himself,
it will be convenient for purposes of reference to find him a name,
and the name which for some odd reason or other flows from my pen
is “Marcel Proust.” Well, this young “Proust,” when he heard Mme.
Swann play the Sonata, was much impressed, though he also had some
difficulty in grasping the music at first. He goes into the question
much more deeply than the dilettante Swann, and begins by asking
whether it is not wrong to talk about “hearing a thing for the first
time,” when nothing has been understood. The second and third times
are from this point of view just as much “first times.” Then he makes
the vital discovery that probably what fails us the first time is not
our intelligence but our memory. “For our memory,” he says, “compared
to the complexity of the impressions which it has to face while we
are listening, is infinitesimal, as brief as the memory of a man who
in his sleep dreams of a thousand things and at once forgets them....
Of these multiple impressions our memory is not capable of furnishing
us with an immediate picture. But that picture gradually takes shape,
and, with regard to works which we have heard two or three times, we
are like the schoolboy who has read several times over before going to
sleep a lesson which he supposed himself not to know, and can repeat it
by heart next morning.... So, where Swann and his wife could make out a
distinct phrase, that was as far beyond the range of my perception as
a name which one tries in vain to recall.... And not only does one not
seize at once and retain an impression of works that are really great,
but even in the content of any such work (as befell me in the case of
Vinteuil’s Sonata) it is the least valuable parts that one at first

[Footnote 11: [Transcriber’s Note: See next footnote.]]

But “Proust” also carried away from his first hearing the recollection
of a phrase; and, since it seems to have been the fate of M. Vinteuil’s
work to become implicated in the love affairs of its admirers, we find
him at Balbec contemplating his new friend Albertine thus: “I seized
the opportunity, while she stood still, to look again and discover
once and for all where exactly the little mole was. Then, just as a
phrase of Vinteuil which had delighted me in the Sonata, and which
my recollection had allowed to wander from the _Andante_ to the
_Finale_, until the day when, having the score in my hands, I was
able to find it, and to fix it in my memory in its proper place, in the
_Scherzo_, so this mole, which I had visualised now on her cheek,
now on her chin, came to rest for ever on her upper lip, just below her

[Footnote 12: Mr. Hussey, whose essay by his kindness and Mr. Filson
Young’s I have been enabled to repeat from the _Saturday Review_,
has, like Mr. Birrell, authorised the substitution of my version for
the original text of these two quotations from _A l’Ombre des Jeunes
Filles en Fleurs_.—C.K.S.M.]

And if again it be thought that this association of the music with
the critic’s sentiment may have vitiated his judgment, I can only
point to the exquisite sensibility of these passages, where music
is brought to the touchstone of life, and human experience, in its
turn, is elucidated in terms of music. Indeed, this “Proust” shows
himself preternaturally sensitive both to musical sounds and to
unorganised noises, so that he instinctively registers the pitch of
a voice; so that the wall, when rapped by his grandmother, at once
assumes for him the resonance of a drum, and her triple knock takes
its place automatically in a symphonic scheme; so that the vision of
M. de Charlus making somewhat embarrassed conversation with a new
acquaintance immediately brings to his mind “those questioning phrases
of Beethoven, indefinitely repeated at equal intervals, and destined,
after a superabundant wealth of preparation, to introduce a new
_motif_, a change of key, or a recapitulation”; and so that the
old reprobate’s sudden descent from high dudgeon to docility suggests
the performance of “a symphony played through without a break, when a
graceful _Scherzo_ of idyllic loveliness follows upon the thunders
of the first movement.”

We cannot but regret, then, that this Sonata, which, after reading what
“Proust” has to say of it, we seem to know as well as we know César
Franck’s or the “Kreutzer,” and which has made a profound impression
on persons so different in temperament as Charles Swann and Mme.
Verdurin (who could not hear it without crying till she got neuralgia
all down her face), should have suffered such neglect at the hands of
concert-artists, whose only excuse is, presumably, to throw the blame
upon the equal neglect of the publishers.




My only excuse for contributing anything to this collection is that
it provides an opportunity to give some information. Readers may want
to know whether the Sonata to which Proust refers in _Du Côté de
chez Swann_ as being played at Mme. de Saint-Euverte’s party was
wholly an invention of Proust’s, or whether his refined and tortuous
dithyrambs on the subject were inspired by an actual Sonata which the
dullest may purchase at a Paris shop.

Well, the answer to this hypothetical question, like all real answers
to all genuine questions, is “Yes” and “No.” For the Ayes there is the
statement by Proust in a letter to a friend printed in the memorial
number of the _Nouvelle Revue Française_:[13] “La petite phrase de
cette Sonate ... est ... la phrase charmante mais enfin médiocre d’une
sonate pour piano et violon de Saint-Saëns....”

[Footnote 13: _Nouvelle Revue Française_, No. 112 (N.S.), January
1923, pp. 201-2. The friend is M. Jacques de Lacretelle.—C.K.S.M.]

Explosion! Thus are our idols shattered! Even Proust’s deprecating
“mais enfin médiocre” does not prepare for this shock the sturdy
English connoisseur who likes only the best. Proust tells his friend
that he can point out the precise passage, which is several times
repeated; and adds—cunningly—that its execution was a triumph for
Jacques Thibaud.

He continues that, during the same evening, when the piano and
violin are described as murmuring like two birds in a dialogue,
he was thinking of a sonata by Franck (especially as played by
Enesco). The tremolos over the little Saint-Saëns phrase when
played at the Verdurins’ were, he says, suggested by the Prelude to
_Lohengrin_—he does not tell us, this time, in whose rendering,
but that actually they were recalled that evening by a trifle
from Schubert. The same evening, he tells us, as a final scrap of
information, there was played “un ravissant morceau” for the piano by

What are we to make of all this? Well, I am struck by the composite
character of Proust’s material. It shows that his art consists in
his power of making an exquisite synthesis of his sensibility by
reprecipitating his sensations in a more generalised, more abstract
form than that in which they came to him.




[Footnote 14: This is, in fact, an extract from Mr. Conrad’s letter in
reply to a request that he would justify the project of this volume by
contributing to it.—C.K.S.M.]

. . . . . .

As to Marcel Proust, _créateur_, I don’t think he has been
written about much in English, and what I have seen of it was rather
superficial. I have seen him praised for his “wonderful” pictures
of Paris life and provincial life. But that has been done admirably
before, for us, either in love, or in hatred, or in mere irony. One
critic goes so far as to say that Proust’s great art reaches the
universal, and that in depicting his own past he reproduces for us the
general experience of mankind. But I doubt it. I admire him rather for
disclosing a past like nobody else’s, for enlarging, as it were, the
general experience of mankind by bringing to it something that has not
been recorded before. However, all that is not of much importance.
The important thing is that whereas before we had analysis allied to
creative art, great in poetic conception, in observation, or in style,
his is a creative art absolutely based on analysis. It is really more
than that. He is a writer who has pushed analysis to the point when
it becomes creative. All that crowd of personages in their infinite
variety through all the gradations of the social scale are rendered
visible to us by the force of analysis alone. I don’t say Proust has no
gift of description or characterisation; but, to take an example from
each end of the scale: Françoise, the devoted servant, and the Baron de
Charlus, a consummate portrait—how many descriptive lines have they got
to themselves in the whole body of that immense work? Perhaps, counting
the lines, half a page each. And yet no intelligent person can doubt
for a moment their plastic and coloured existence. One would think
that this method (and Proust has no other, because his method is the
expression of his temperament) may be carried too far, but as a matter
of fact it is never wearisome. There may be here and there amongst
those thousands of pages a paragraph that one might think over-subtle,
a bit of analysis pushed so far as to vanish into nothingness. But
those are very few, and all minor instances. The intellectual pleasure
never flags, because one has the feeling that the last word is being
said upon a subject much studied, much written about, and of human
interest—the last word of its time. Those that have found beauty in
Proust’s work are perfectly right. It is there. What amazes one is
its inexplicable character. In that prose so full of life there is no
reverie, no emotion, no marked irony, no warmth of conviction, not even
a marked rhythm to charm our ear. It appeals to our sense of wonder
and gains our homage by its veiled greatness. I don’t think there
ever has been in the whole of literature such an example of the power
of analysis, and I feel pretty safe in saying that there will never be

. . . . . .




I have at last found time, or rather, for it expresses our relations
better, Time has been gracious enough at last to find _me_—in
regard to _Swann_. It was a new and satisfactory experience. His
reality is extraordinary—at least in the main part of the book: I hope
for the sake of French upper middle-class society of his day that it is
not ordinary in such things as the big dinner scene in vol. ii.[15]

[Footnote 15: _I.e._, of _Du Côté de chez Swann_; the dinner
at the Verdurins’ at which Forcheville is present for the first time
with the Cottards, Brichot the painter, Swann, and Odette. It is
only fair, to both critic and reader, to explain that Mr. Saintsbury
had read nothing of Proust save _Swann_, and that only in an
inadequate translation. On the other hand, it was as impossible for
the editor to contemplate a book of this sort without a promise of
collaboration from his old friend and master as it was, at the moment,
for the doyen of English (if not of European, which is to say the
world’s) critics to qualify himself for saying more than is printed on
this leaf.—C.K.S.M.]

Has anybody said that he partakes _both_ of De Quincey and of
Stendhal? He does to me, and I’m shot if I ever expected to see such
a blend! You see, there is in him on the one hand a double measure of
the analytical and introspective power that Beyle’s admirers make so
much of; with what they also admire, a total absence of prettification
for prettification’s sake. Yet he can be pretty in the very best sense,
while Beyle never can, in the best or any other. Then, too, I at least
find in him much less of the type-character which, though certainly
relieved by individuality in the _Chartreuse de Parme_ and other
books (especially _Lamiel_), is still always more or less there.
But the oddest and to me the most attractive thing is the way in which
he entirely relieves the sense of aridity—of museum-preparations—which
I find in Stendhal. And here it is that the De Quincey suggestion comes
so unexpectedly in. For Proust effects this miracle by a constant
relapse upon—and sometimes a long self-restriction to—a sort of dream
element. It is not, of course, the vaguer and more mystical kind that
one finds in De Quincey, not that of _Our Ladies of Sorrow_ or
_Savannah-la-Mar_, but that of the best parts of _The English
Mail Coach_. In fact, it is sometimes Landorian rather than De
Quinceyish in its dreaminess. But, however this may be, the dream
quality is there, to me, as it is in few other Frenchmen—themselves
almost always poets. Now, the worst of the usual realist is that, being
blinder than any other heathen in his blindness, he tries to exorcise
dream, though sometimes not nightmare, from life. Such a mixture as
Proust’s I remember nowhere else.




My presence among those who are offering a tribute to Marcel Proust
would be an impertinence if the request for it had not been continued
after I had confessed the poverty of my knowledge. As it is, I may
be justified in taking the great pleasure it is to me to testify a
sincere admiration, founded on howsoever little experience. I have to
read a good deal for my bread, and the reading I can do for pleasure
is limited by debility of eyesight; M. Proust’s books are long and
in a language I read less easily than my own. So it has happened
that so far I have read only the two volumes of a beautifully lucid
translation, wonderfully lucid when the delicacy and subtlety of the
thoughts translated are considered. I will not say that you can taste
a wine without drinking a bottle—the analogy, like most analogies,
would be false; I do not doubt that wider study would produce more
valuable opinions. Yet my slight study has produced opinions which, I
am convinced, further study will only confirm, and it is a pleasure to
record them....

We all have our views as to what, for us, distinguishes great fiction
from that which is less than great. Mine has always been that it causes
me to live in a real world of visible, audible, and intelligible
people—a world in which, however novel it may be to start with, I am
at home and able, with sureness, to exercise my powers of understanding
to the full; this last point matters, for of course the superficial
may be superficially alive. No doubt the test is objectively unfair,
because the reaction of a writer’s imagination on a reader’s is
affected, though not conditioned, as the sympathy between the two is
greater or less; but for my own use this test is the most profitable.
Tolstoy has done this for me, so has Sterne, so has Miss Austen, so has
Thackeray, so have not very many others, and so have not some almost
universally acclaimed. Well, M. Proust has done this most considerable
service for me, in those two volumes I have read in translation, and
I am grateful. I know his hero’s grandfather and grandmother and
mother and invalid aunt, and know them well, and my understanding
has played with zest and to the limit of its power on the wealth of
character revealed to me. M. Swann is of my intimates, and I think I
have a perfect comprehension of his Odette. That is the first thing
for which I am grateful. The second is the sheer intellectual joy
with which, time and again, I came upon an achievement of divination
in the subtleties of human emotion which caught one’s breath by its
compelling truth. Jealousy of a man for a woman may have been more
grandly expressed, but have all the subtleties of its tortuous and
agonising course ever been so completely exposed as in the case of M.
Swann? Or the feelings of a sensitive and imaginative boy in his first
affections?... For these two things I have a sincere gratitude which I
propose to increase. But the wretchedness of my present qualifications
must terminate my expression of it now.




The pictures we make, for our own satisfaction, of our actions are
generally as remote as the _clichés_ of polite conversation from
the psychological processes they pretend to reflect. It is convenient
and very often necessary to limit consciousness of an action so that
it receives a distinct and recognisable contour. With a certain
resemblance to the achievement of the Impressionists, who revealed the
fabric of a world worked-over with conceptual images, Proust breaks
up the moulds into which our feelings are generally poured. He is
curious to note the sensual deceits which agitate the mind no less
profoundly than the reality would have done, and to separate the social
stratagem (whether that of the Guermantes or of the servants in his
own home) from the intention of which it was the paraphrase. He is
dissociative only to that extent—a necessary one, since dissimulation
is the mind’s first nature. But he is not at all destructive; for an
action never really is a separate entity, cut off by crystalline walls
from the mother-liquor of our lives. In the style which he created that
glittering illusion is re-dissolved into the saturated mental life of
which it is an inextricable component.

I know nothing, he says, that can, “autant que le baiser, faire surgir
de ce que nous croyons une chose à aspect défini, les cent autres
choses qu’elle est tout aussi bien, puisque chacune est relative à
une perspective non moins légitime.... Dans ce court trajet de mes
lèvres vers sa joue, c’est dix Albertines que je vis.” Not only the
coarsening of the grain of the skin seen in this unaccustomed proximity
(that would be comparatively insignificant), but the psychological
perspective opened by this change in their relations; though Albertine
refused his kiss at Balbec, she cannot now prevent him from gathering
in one embrace the rose of the past and of the present. For Albertine
is not only Albertine “simple image dans le décor de la vie” when
later she calls on him in Paris; her image trails the multitudinous
sensations of _A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs_; and though
he no longer loves her, the appearances she had for him at Balbec,
silhouetted against the sea or sitting with her back to the cliff,
bring back with them the influence of that love. We are far from what
we believed a thing with a definite appearance, a girl, and perhaps the
example may indicate faintly the complexity of Proust’s art. Wishing
to convey the shifting aspect of things, or perhaps the composite
pile of aspects which represents, at any moment, our realisation
of a thing—and as objective description reintroduces the pictorial
_cliché_ so far avoided,—he utilises the vast fabric of memory,
shot, like iridescent silk, with many indefinable moods. To specify
his method more exactly would not at present be easy, nor is there
any enjoyment equal to the mere following of this marvellous web into
the still obscure future, where half is, to our chagrin partly and to
our delight, yet hidden. To the latter, because we have to be patient
against our will; to the former, because there is still so much certain
pleasure in store, and the excitement of seeing the completed design,
whose symmetry so far is only felt, like that of a statue in its shroud
before its resurrection, coincide with or contradict our anticipations.
There is a delicious state (owing not a little of its charm to our
knowledge of its transience) in which a book, having shaken off the
first fever of novelty, is in a condition to be most artfully savoured,
and at length. The classic features will never be dearer to us than
while they are still flushed with contemporaneity. The classics are
at least readable in so far as they are modern, but the modern, once
firmly on his pedestal, is not at all approachable. So it is a great
and marvellous privilege to be awake to this exquisite dawn, at the
moment this many-leaved bloom is suspended in all its freshness which

    To-morrow will find fallen or not at all:

fallen, if the worst comes to the worst (as we have heard it always
does), to a greatness in its decay and neglect more moving than the
spick-and-span of a smart little subaltern of immortality. It is
impossible to imagine how this titanic fragment can be trundled from
age to age; nor is the future likely to have much time to spare from
the production of domestic utensils which are so badly made that they
must be continually replaced. _A la Recherche du Temps Perdu_
is not one of those things which are replaced, like the novel of the
moment, but exactly what part of it is most likely to be saved the
present cannot decide. There will always be some to follow the whole
sweep of the Master’s gesture, which evokes the hours of adolescence
flowering in the shade of girlhood and rebuilds the tormented cities
of the plain; now stooping to dissect a snob or soaring to stroke a
horizon, but never theatrical and never grandiose. Perhaps in the
ray of this most intimate limelight we draw the greater part of our
pleasure from the recognition of our own movements; the heirs of our
sensibility will find there the original of many impulses which they
accept as part of human nature.




Pater, who desired to find everywhere forces producing pleasurable
sensations, “each of a more or less peculiar and unique kind,” says:
“Few artists, not Goethe nor Byron even, work quite clearly, casting
off all _débris_, and leaving us only what the heat of their
imagination has wholly fused and transformed.” Has the heat of Proust’s
imagination fused and transformed his material as Balzac and Rodin
transformed and fused theirs? Are his characters creations? Has he
the strange magical sense of that life in natural things, which is
incommunicable? I think not; there is too much _débris_ in his
prose which he has not cast off.

Proust’s books are the autobiography of a sensitive soul, for whom
the visible world exists; only, he could never say with Gautier,
“I am a man for whom the visible world exists”; for in this famous
phrase he expresses his outlook on life, and his view of his own work:
Gautier, who literally discovered descriptive prose, a painter’s
prose by preference; who, in prose and in verse alike, is the poet
of physical beauty, of the beauty of the exterior of things. Proust,
with his adoration of beauty, gives one an equal sense of the beauty
of exterior things and of physical beauty; with infinite carefulness,
with infinite precautions, he gives one glimpses of occult secrets
unknown to us, of our inevitable instincts, and, at times, of those icy
ecstasies which Laforgue reveals in _Moralités légendaires_. Only,
not having read books of mediaeval magic, he cannot assure us that the
devil’s embraces are of a coldness so intense that it may be called, by
an allowable figure of speech, fiery.

In his feverish attempt to explain himself to himself, his imaginary
hero reminds me of Rousseau, who, having met Grimm and vexed Voltaire,
was destined by his febrile and vehement character to learn in
suffering what he certainly did not teach in song; who, being avid of
misunderstandings, was forced by the rankling thorns of his jealousy
to write his _Confessions_, in which he unburdens himself of
the exasperation of all those eyes fixed upon him, driven, in spite
of himself, to set about explaining himself to other people—a coward
before his own conscience. There is no cowardice in the conscience of
Proust’s hero; his utter shameless sincerity to the naked truth of
things allows him “avec une liberté d’esprit” to compete, near the
end of the last volume, in his unveiling of M. de Charlus, with the
outspokenness of Restif de la Bretonne in _Monsieur Nicolas_.

Some of the pages of _Sodome_ might have been inspired by
Petronius. The actual fever and languor in the blood: that counts
for so much in Petronius’s prose, and lies at the root of some of
his fascinations. He is passionately interested in people, but only
in those who are not of the same nature as he is: his avid curiosity
being impersonal. Some of Proust’s curiosity is not so much vivid as
impersonal. Petronius—like the writer I refer to—is so specifically
Latin that he has no reticence in speaking of what he feels, none of
that unconscious reticence in feeling which races drawn farther from
civilisation have invented in their relations with nature. This is one
of the things which people mean when they say that Petronius’s prose is
immoral. So is that of Proust. Yet, in the prose of these writers, both
touched with the spirit of perversity, the rarest beauty comes from a
heightening of nature into something not quite natural, a perversity of
beauty, which is poisonous as well as curious.

Proust has some of the corrupt mysticism of Huysmans, but not so
perilous as his; nor has he that psychology which can be carried so far
into the soul’s darkness that the flaming walls of the world themselves
fade to a glimmer; he does not chronicle the adventures of this world’s
Vanity Fair: he is concerned with the revelation of the subconscious
self; his hero’s confessions are not the exaltation of the soul. He
is concerned, not so much with adventures as with an almost cloistral
subtlety in regard to the obscure passions which work themselves out,
never with any actual logic. With all his curiosity, this curiosity
never drives him in the direction of the soul’s apprehension of
spiritual things. He does, at times, like Mallarmé, deform ingeniously
the language he writes in; and, as in most of these modern decadents,
perversity of form and perversity of manner bewilder us in his most
bewildering pages.

I find to my surprise that a French critic, Carcassonne, compares
Proust with Balzac. As an observer of society, yes; as a creator, no.
“Never,” he writes, “since Stendhal and Balzac has any novelist put
so much reality into a novel. Stendhal, Balzac: I write those great
names without hesitation beside that of Marcel Proust. It is the finest
homage I can render to the power and originality of his talent.” During
Balzac’s lifetime there was Benjamin Constant, whose _Adolphe_ has
its place after _Manon Lescaut_, a purely objective study of an
incomparable simplicity, which comes into the midst of those analysts
of difficult souls—Laclos, who wrote an unsurpassable study of naked
human flesh in _Les Liaisons dangereuses_; Voltaire, Diderot;
Rousseau, in whose _Nouvelle Héloïse_ the novel of passion comes
into existence. After these Flaubert, the Goncourts, Huysmans, Zola,
Maupassant. I should place Proust with those rare spirits whose
_métier_ is the analysis of difficult souls. Browning wrote in
regard to his _Sordello_: “My stress lay on the incidents in the
development of a soul: little else is worth study; I, at least, always
thought so.” This certainly applies to Proust; and, as he seems to me
to derive some of his talent from Stendhal and from no other novelist,
I can imagine his casuistical and cruel creation of the obscure soul of
M. de Charlus in much the same fashion as Stendhal’s when he undresses
Julien Sorel’s soul with a deliberate and fascinating effrontery.

Consider the question of Balzac’s style: you will find that it has
life, that it has idea, that it has variety; that there are moments
when it attains a rare and perfectly individual beauty. To Baudelaire
he was a passionate visionary. “In a word, every one in Balzac, down
to the very scullions, has genius.” I have often wondered whether, in
the novel, perfect form is a good or even a possible thing if the novel
is to be what Balzac made it, history added to poetry. A novelist with
style will not look at life with an entirely naked vision.

There is no naked vision in Proust; his vision is like a clouded
mirror, in whose depths strange shapes flash and vanish. The only
faultless style in French is Flaubert’s; that style, which has every
merit and hardly a fault, becomes what it is by a process very
different from that of most writers careful of form. I cannot deny that
Stendhal has a sense of rhythm: it is in his brain rather than in his
dry imagination; in a sterile kind of brain, set at a great distance
from the heart, whose rhythm is too faint to disturb it. Still, in
Proust’s style there is something paradoxical, singular, caustic; it is
coloured and perfumed and exotic, a style in which sensation becomes
complex, cultivated, the flower of an elaborate life; it can become
deadly, as passion becomes poisonous. “The world of the novelist,” I
have written, “what we call the real world, is a solid theft out of
space; colour and music may float into it and wander through it, but
it has not been made with colour and music, and it is not a part of
the consciousness of its inhabitants.” This world was never lived in
by d’Annunzio; this world was never entered by Proust. All the same,
there is in him something cruel, something abnormal, something subtle.
He is a creator of gorgeous fabrics, Babylons, Sodoms. Only, he never
startles you, as Balzac startles you.




Two of the contributors to the stout Proust memorial number of _La
Nouvelle Revue Française_ remind me that I met Marcel Proust many
years ago at a Christmas Eve party given by Madame Edwards (now Madame
José Sert) in her remarkable flat on the Quai Voltaire, Paris. (Not
that I needed reminding.) With some eagerness I turned up the year,
1910, in my journal. What I read there was this: “Doran came on Sunday
night for dinner. We went on to Misia Edwards’ ‘Réveillon,’ and got
home at 4 A.M.” Not a word more! And I cannot now remember a single
thing that Proust said.

I have, however, a fairly clear recollection of his appearance and
style: a dark, pale man, of somewhat less than forty, with black hair
and moustache; peculiar; urbane; one would have said, an aesthete; an
ideal figure, physically, for Bunthorne; he continually twisted his
body, arms, and legs into strange curves, in the style of Lord Balfour
as I have observed Lord Balfour in the restaurants of foreign hotels.
I would not describe him as self-conscious; I would say rather that
he was well aware of himself. Although he had then published only
one book, _Les Plaisirs et les Jours_—and that fourteen years
before—and although the book had had no popular success, Proust was
undoubtedly in 1910 a considerable lion. He sat at the hostess’s own
table and dominated it, and everybody at the party showed interest in
him. Even I was somehow familiar with his name. As for _Les Plaisirs
et les Jours_, I have not read it to this day.

A few weeks before his death, while searching for something else in
an overcrowded bookcase, I came across my first edition of _Du Côté
de chez Swann_, and decided to read the book again. I cared for it
less, and I also cared for it more, than in 1913. The _longueurs_
of it seemed to me to be insupportable, the clumsy centipedalian
crawling of the interminable sentences inexcusable; the lack of form
or construction may disclose artlessness, but it signifies effrontery
too. Why should not Proust have given himself the trouble of learning
to “write,” in the large sense? Further, the monotony of subject and
treatment becomes wearisome. (I admit that it is never so distressing
in _Swann_ as in the later volumes of _Guermantes_ and of
_Sodome et Gomorrhe_.) On the other hand, at the second reading I
was absolutely enchanted by some of the detail.

About two-thirds of Proust’s work must be devoted to the minutiæ
of social manners, the rendering ridiculous of a million varieties
of snob. At this game Proust is a master. (Happily he does not
conceal that, with the rest of mankind, he loves ancient blood and
distinguished connections.) He will write you a hundred pages about a
fashionable dinner at which nothing is exhibited except the littleness
and the _naïveté_ of human nature. His interest in human nature,
if intense and clairvoyant, is exceedingly limited. Foreign critics
generally agree that the English novelist has an advantage over the
French in that he walks all round his characters and displays them
to you from every side. I have heard this over and over again in
conversation in Paris, and I think it is fairly true, though certainly
Balzac was the greatest exponent of complete display. Proust never
“presents” a character; he never presents a situation: he fastens on
one or two aspects of a character or a situation, and strictly ignores
all the others. And he is scarcely ever heroical, as Balzac was always;
he rarely exalts, and he nearly always depreciates—in a tolerant way.

Again, he cannot control his movements: he sees a winding path off the
main avenue, and scampers away further and further and still further,
merely because at the moment it amuses him to do so. You ask yourself:
He is lost—will he ever come back? The answer is that often he never
comes back, and when he does come back he employs a magic but illicit
carpet, to the outrage of principles of composition which cannot be
outraged in a work of the first order. This animadversion applies
not only to any particular work, but to his work as a whole. The
later books are orgies of self-indulgence; the work has ruined the
_moral_ of the author: phenomenon common enough.

Two achievements in Proust’s output I should rank as great. The first
is the section of _Swann_ entitled _Un amour de Swann_. He
had a large theme here—love and jealousy. The love is physical and the
object of it contemptible; the jealousy is fantastic. But the affair
is handled with tremendous, grave, bitter, impressive power. The one
fault of it is that he lets Swann go to a _soirée musicale_ and
cannot, despite several efforts, get him away from it in time to save
the interest of the situation entire. Yet in the _soirée musicale_
divagation there are marvellous, inimitable things.

The second achievement, at the opening of _Sodome et Gomorrhe_,
is the psychological picture of the type-pederast. An unpromising
subject, according to British notions! Proust evolves from it beauty,
and a heartrending pathos. Nobody with any perception of tragedy can
read these wonderful pages and afterwards regard the pervert as he
had regarded the pervert before reading them. I reckon them as the
high-water of Proust.

Speaking generally, Proust’s work declined steadily from _Swann_.
_A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs_ was a fearful fall, and as
volume followed volume the pearls were strung more and more sparsely on
the serpentine string. That Proust was a genius is not to be doubted;
and I agree that he made some original discoveries in the by-ways
of psychological fiction. But that he was a supreme genius, as many
critics both French and English would have us believe, I cannot admit.



_Printed in Great Britain by_ R. & R. CLARK, LIMITED,

[Transcriber’s Notes:

In two quotations from Proust’s _À la recherche du temps perdu_, words
are missing, rendering the quotations unintelligible. The missing
words, in brackets below, were supplied based on the authoritative
French edition (Gallimard, Bibliothêque de la Pléiade, 1988, vol. III).

  Je n’avais [jamais] fait de différence entre les ouvriers

  si loin qu’on allât dans [ses] effets d’art raffiné

Other obvious printer errors have been corrected without note.]

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Marcel Proust - An English Tribute" ***

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