Living and Dying with Marcel Proust by Christopher Prendergast - review by Stephen Romer

Stephen Romer

Time Well Spent

Living and Dying with Marcel Proust


Europa Editions 256pp £16.99

To the multitudinous descriptions of the experience of reading Proust, and the difficulties thereof, one might add ‘enchanted intoxication’. He so loads every rift with ore that he makes it impossible to move on, impelling one to return and return to the passage – or paragraph, or even sentence – in question. Reading Proust straight through becomes almost inconceivable. He manages to inject ‘delicious colours’ into the ‘hard stone of our days’. 

The kind of swooning I have just indulged in takes a gentle beating in the first chapter of Christopher Prendergast’s marvellous Living and Dying with Marcel Proust, in which he critiques reverential ‘Proust worship’, along with many other Proust myths and fetishes. A few years ago, a New Yorker book of etiquette listed Proust as an appropriate category for small talk; he has also been the subject of several lightweight, pseudo-philosophical works that more or less relegate him to a place, as Prendergast notes, ‘on the self-help shelves of your local bookstore’. Proust worshippers of the nostalgia-fest kind, beware: this is a clever, funny and tough-minded book. Prendergast explains in his preface that it originated in a ‘heap of unused jottings and scribbles’ made over many years for another book he was writing. So one reason for working on it was the simple desire to use his hard-won notes and insights. But another factor, just below the surface but frequently perceptible, was his exasperation with a perceived misuse of Proust and with the kind of ‘lazy thinking’ that has accrued around the monument that is A la recherche du temps perdu.

Presented as a book for non-specialists, and therefore with scholarly apparatus kept to a minimum, Living and Dying with Marcel Proust is still the work of a rigorous scholar. Prendergast has a puzzle-solving cast of mind. He worries away at paradoxes and ironies; he notes contradictions and anachronisms in the master. He reviews briskly, and mostly dismisses, myths about the work, and sets about correcting them in a no-nonsense way – ‘plain silly’ is a phrase that lingers. In fact, his approach here is consistent with his editorship of the 2002 Penguin translation of A la recherche: he wishes to release the writer from the carapace of Edwardian fustian that, for all their many qualities, frequently encloses the rhythms and word choices of Proust’s pioneering translator, C K Scott Moncrieff. In addition, Prendergast strips away fond misapprehensions, as, for example, about the sacred madeleine: the magical pastry was only selected at the last moment, after biscotte and dried toast had been tried out in earlier drafts. Despite all this debunking, Proust still stands, as Eliot once said of Dante, a mile high. Indeed the version of Proust which Prendergast draws out is richer, more complex, more uncompromising and more urgent than any of the more comfortable or more comforting ones on offer.

As an exemplary close reader of what Proust actually wrote, Prendergast takes down various misunderstandings – one might call them posh misprisions – about the text: for example, that the whole novel is musically organised, a claim made by Michel Butor. That is not true, though Proust at moments evokes how musical forms, such as certain intervals, can hold extraordinary sway over the human mind. Another fashionable notion at one time, that the novel is ‘Cubist’ (Jacques Rivière’s argument), is trenchantly laid to rest: ‘Whatever Proust does with time, twisting and bending it, it remains punctuated time, just as his sentences, however far they wander and digress, move inexorably to an end marked by a full stop.’ In a key passage, Prendergast explores the Proustian experience of being ‘outside time’, the product of involuntary memory bringing together two moments distant in time. Yet this still takes place ‘in’ time, for that is where ‘everything in the recherche belongs’. This should always be remembered when, as he notes, ‘one has had enough of witterings on Proust’s way with “Time”’.

Along with the corrective rigour, there is a good deal of mischievous fun in the book. There is the quest for Proust’s favourite colour (Prendergast opts for pink, though blue and yellow must be strong candidates). As he runs through the numerous instances and shades of pink, the light-hearted exercise reveals his astonishing knowledge of the text and his ability to cross-reference almost at will. In passing, Prendergast makes the point that for Proust ‘the value of colour lies not in what it depicts, stands for or represents, but because of what it intrinsically and self-sufficiently is – a fact of and a force in the world’. Then there is Proust’s passion for pastries: I learn here that when asked what he might have been if he weren’t a writer, Proust shot straight back, ‘a baker’. Proust’s housekeeper Céleste recalled an occasion on which he demanded a brioche, ‘but only from Bourbonneux’s’ – and then merely nibbled at it.

Among the other myths clinging to Proust is the notion that he only ever wrote long sentences. He did indeed write long sentences: we are delightfully informed that the longest of them ‘comes in at a cool 958 words’. (Prendergast invents a parlour game ‘for the claret-drinking classes’: calculate how many times the longest sentence ‘can be made to snake around the base of a wine bottle’. The answer is seventeen.) But he also wrote short sentences, which, when they occur, have an especially acute effect, since Proust uses them at the most dramatic moments of his narrative. There is the famous opening: ‘Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.’ We might also choose ‘Ma grand-mère était morte.’ And then there is the opening of the passage in which the reality of his grandmother’s death hits the narrator a year after the event while he is revisiting Balbec: ‘Bouleversement de toute ma personne.’ Perhaps the most seismic of all might be: ‘Elle ne revint jamais.’ These four words, inserted into the middle of a paragraph, have the effect of a grenade going off, registering as they do an apparently unsurvivable fact, the death of Albertine.

It is axiomatic for Prendergast that the notion that Proust can console or help one ‘suffer successfully’ – Prendergast calls it ‘the sparkless jewel in the interpretive crown’ – is false. I would respectfully demur, at least as far as the closing pages of Temps retrouvé are concerned. By multiplying the self and viewing it through the prism of time as a succession of selves, Proust gets a distance on suffering; in the great sweep of his prose, he manages to substitute ideas, which can console, for sorrows. As for the idle idea of using Proust as a kind of ‘couples therapy’, Prendergast is absolutely right: choosing Charles Swann or the narrator as mentors in this domain would be folly. Both men manage only to exacerbate and prolong suffering, in large part due to their pathological jealousies.

Chief among the many virtues of Prendergast’s book is its laying out of the workings of analogy and metaphor, which are at the heart of A la recherche, with synaesthesia frequently the magical ingredient. Here, the description of the restaurant in the Grand Hotel in Balbec has to take the biscotte. In the closing pages of the novel, Proust can still find it in himself to conjure up two startling images. There is the sonnette, the garden bell at Combray, which transports the narrator back to the start, and then there is the now-aged Duc de Guermantes, caparisoned with all his eighty-three years, which gives rise to a vision of men perching ‘on living stilts, growing ever upwards, sometimes higher than belfries, which ends by making walking difficult and dangerous, a height from which they all of a sudden fall’. To describe the layering of the years on all his characters is the mammoth task that Proust sets himself at the end. And in a dizzying paradox, the would-be author worries about the book to be done, asking himself, ‘Is there still time?’ and ‘Am I in a fit state?’ He has already written it.

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