By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

4. Marcel Proust: A Life, by Edmund White, pp. 89-119

VII. His parents' deaths; financial independence; the cork-lined room; the beginnings of the Search. VIII. Against Sainte-Beuve; sense of urgency in writing; models for "the gang of girls"; Marcel Plantevignes; original conception of the Search; "Swann in Love"; Charles Dickens and Henry James; Richard Wagner; Albert Nahmias; searching for a publisher.
In February 1903, his brother Robert married, and in November of that year their father died, one day after the birth of Robert's daughter. Two years later, in September 1905, their mother died at age fifty-six. Marcel would mourn her death for the rest of his life, saying, "In dying, Maman took with her her little Marcel," which White interprets as a turning point from "the intellectual dandified Marcel" to "the determined, wise, ascetic Proust." He also observes that the narrator's mother in the Search has Proust's mother's "disappointment with her son's lack of self-discipline," while the narrator's grandmother is given "his real mother's tenderness, her unconditional love for him in spite of all his failings."

He was thirty-four when his mother died, and had published only a book of stories and a translation of Ruskin, but his ambition was "to write a book that would rival Balzac's panorama of Parisian society." He had both the knowledge of the world and the sensibility to accomplish the task, and he had been left a fortune by his parents: "the equivalent of about $6 million of our money today, including a monthly revenue of some $15,000." He would squander a lot of it on gifts, even ordering an airplane for Alfred Agostinelli -- though he canceled the order after Agostinelli's death -- which becomes the yacht the narrator offers to buy Albertine in The Prisoner. He would also make bad investments on a whim. But he spent little on himself: "He was a playboy-monk."

In December 1906 he moved to 102 boulevard Haussmann, where he insulated his bedroom from noise and dust, lining the walls with cork and covering the windows "with layers of heavy curtains that were never opened." Here he began his project, beginning it "as a sort of Platonic dialogue with his mother on the subject of Sainte-Beuve, the nineteenth-century literary critic," the centenary of whose birth had been widely celebrated in December 1904. Proust dissented radically from Sainte-Beuve's belief that the reader should study a writer's biography in order to fully understand his work. Proust believed that this led Sainte-Beuve to radically undervalue such writers as Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Nerval. "A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, our social life and our vices," Proust asserted. But the dialogue about Sainte-Beuve was not the only thing he was planning to write:
In a letter of this period he said he was planning: a study of the nobility; a Parisian novel; an essay on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert; an essay on women; and an essay on pederasty. Other topics mentioned were gravestones, stained-glass church windows -- and an essay on the novel. What is crucial to underline is that at its very inception Proust thought of his book as several books, mostly essays. 

By June 1908 he was working on the fictional conversation with his mother on Sainte-Beuve, writing constantly, but also worrying about publishing what he was writing, which he called "obscene." The work, which had a "provisional title," Against Sainte-Beuve, Memories of a Morning, was a novel, and one of the characters was gay. It would end, he wrote to Georges de Lauris, "with a long conversation on Sainte-Beuve and aesthetics." White observes that In Search of Lost Time ends with a meditation and not a conversation on aesthetics. And that Sainte-Beuve's autobiographical theory has been countered in the novel by Vinteuil, who "is a mighty creator as a composer and a totally self-effacing wimp as a man -- the perfect counterargument to Sainte-Beuve's theory of the harmonious congruity between an individual's life and work." And that from the very beginning Proust had planned to write about homosexuality in his novel.

He was afraid he wouldn't live to complete the work: "He was so ill that he was spending about twenty thousand dollars a year for medicines." But he hadn't completely withdrawn from the world. At Cabourg, "he studied the actress Lucy Gérard and the two daughters of Viscount d'Alton" as models for the "gang of girls" in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. But he also studied "with feverish fascination" a group of boys he met on the beach, including 19-year-old Marcel Plantevignes, who visited Proust in his room until a woman warned Plantevignes about Proust's homosexuality. Proust flew into a rage when the woman told him that Plantevignes had agreed with her about the accusation, "and even challenged Plantevignes's father to a duel." Proust's own seconds thought the challenge absurd and like "a duel from an operetta by Offenbach." The duel was called off and the friendship resumed when Plantevignes and his parents assured Proust that they didn't believe he was gay. Plantevignes also claimed that he suggested the title, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur.

In mid-August 1909 Proust talked to an editor about the novel he said he had nearly finished: a novel of about 300 pages, followed by an essay, a conversation about Sainte-Beuve, of 150 pages. The editor turned it down and another decided not to publish it as a newspaper serial. Proust decided to continue work and did so for the next three years. He conceived of the novel as a story about the narrator's childhood in Combray followed by the adolescent experiences of the narrator and Gilberte Swann in the gardens of the Champs-Élysées -- the "Swann in Love" section, which is four-fifths of Swann's Way, was not part of the original conception. The section is integral to the complete Search because Swann's unreciprocated love for Odette is echoed later in the narrator's relationship with Albertine, and Swann's failure to become a writer is reflected in the experience of the narrator, who finally overcomes what is blocking his writing.
And it suggests that one reason for Swann's failure is his addiction to friendship and frivolity and especially to "idolatry," by which Proust meant the collector's love of fine furnishings, beautiful mistresses, and great paintings: the perishable Things of this world rather than the immortal ideas that lie behind them, which can be recaptured only through involuntary memory -- and which only then can be codified in great works of literary art. 
Proust had learned how to shape a novel, how to introduce a theme, drop it, and return to it later, and how to work with a narrator whose impressions of other characters changes as the story progresses: The narrator of the Search first hears of Charlus as a womanizer and assumes that he is Odette's lover, but gradually learns otherwise. The creation of the character of Charlus, White observes, "falls midway between that of Dickens and that of Henry James." Like Dickens's characters, Charlus is made up of "memorable traits" and presented in "Dickensian bold relief." But "by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at."
Dickens could draw with a firm bounding line but used so little shading he gave no sense of perspective. James was all shading and depth but (especially in his late novels) nothing vigorous distinguished the profile of one character from another. Proust succeeded in rendering characters with the same startling simplicity as Dickens but generated a lifelike subtlety and motion by giving us successive "takes" over hundreds of pages.
Proust rewrote and expanded the first volume of the Search from 1909 through 1911. He dictated to his stenographers, had the manuscript set in type, then filled the margins with changes and additions, even pasting in new pages. "In fact, if any writer would have benefited from a word processor it would have been Proust." He paid for the typesetting, which was expensive, himself. In 1910 he worked on what would become Swann's Way and The Guermantes Way, then divided the manuscript in two volume, one called Time Lost and the other Time Regained. He rarely went out, although he was present at the famously controversial opening night of the Stravinsky/Diaghilev/Nijinsky Rite of Spring. In 1911, he subscribed to Théâtrophone, which broadcast concerts over the telephone. He heard Act III of Die Meistersinger and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande this way. He preferred Wagner, and some critics have compared the Search to Parsifal: Parsifal's quest for the Grail being parallel to the narrator's search for "the secret of literature" and the "young girls in flower" to the Flower Maidens. And the name Guermantes may be an echo of the name Gurnemanz, the leader of the Grail Knights.

By 1912, Proust's manuscript had reached 1,200 pages and he began to look for a publisher. He was working with a typist named Albert Nahmias, on whom he had a crush, and who eventually lent his name to Albertine. The novel was sent in October to the publisher Fasquelle, which had published Flaubert, Zola, and the Goncourt brothers. They returned it in December with a reader's note expressing complete bewilderment. He then sent it to Gallimard, which was a new publishing house started by André Gide, Jacques Copeau and Jean Schlumberger. But the readers, led by Gide, seem not to have read the manuscript, dismissing Proust as "a socialite and a snob." In any case, "the book was much too long for a fledgling house." Gide would later express regret at the missed opportunity. Then it went to Ollendorff, where a reader protested about Proust's using "thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep."

Finally, Proust resorted to self-publication through Bernard Grasset:
Grasset, whom Proust compared to an ebony paper-cutter, so hard and sharp and efficient was he, virtually invented modern publishing in France; he was the first to resort to massive press offensives, advertising, bribing well-known personalities to launch a good word-of-mouth campaign, and so on. 

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