I have been thinking about literary celebrity. Not the modest sort attached to living writers who get to have unflattering nostril shots on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine but the extravagant sort attached to a select group of dead writers. Generally speaking, death is a big boost to literary celebrity (think Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), despite a brief period in the 1980s when DWEMS (dead white European males) took a thrashing as emblems of exploitative patriarchy. But DWEMS have rebounded from their slump and are now being feted, along with a few DWEFs, on every possible occasion.
At the zenith of literary celebrity are Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Both are, as one editor I know put it, “best-selling brands.” The subjects of numerous adaptations and spin-offs, “Shakespeare” and “Austen” have replaced Shakespeare and Austen. They exist as memes in western culture — and in Eastern culture too, where film versions of their work, if not the work itself, are well known and adapted to the native idiom in turn. Bride and Prejudice — Jane Austen goes Bollywood — comes to mind.
Fast-approaching Shakespeare and Austen in literary celebrity is James Joyce. Joyceans gather in Dublin on Bloomsday to follow the path of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses and engage in endless exegesis of the most minute facets of the work (i.e., was Leopold Bloom circumcised?), while fortifying themselves with plentiful doses of Irish whisky. I recently learned that in China Joyce’s Ulysses is a popular text. Perhaps because Joyce is difficult, it has become a badge of intellectual chic to carry the book around Beijing, like a Prada handbag or a Burberry raincoat. Mistranslations abound — some of them approaching gibberish, thereby transforming Ulysses into Finnegans Wake.
Then, there’s Henry James, whose acolytes like to gather in London, Paris, or Venice and parse the Master over a good dinner (at least one Michelin star) and an excellent malbec. (A recent attempt by the International Henry James Society to mix things up by holding their annual meeting in Warsaw did not garner a good turn-out, I’m told).
But to stay hot, even these brand-name dead authors have to be hyped on occasion — hence the birthday/anniversary angle. About ten years or so ago promoters of dead writers hit on the idea of working the birthday/anniversary. Any suggestion of a lull in said writer’s profile and its fans find a date that coincides with the present by some round number and send out an email blast. 2012: 90th anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses — let the 8-hour BBC radio production begin!
Earlier this year, I got a call from a reporter
Given this kind of repetitive hoopla for the big guns, is there any wonder that the less blockbuster-ish literary celebrities are capitalizing on the anniversary angle as well? Not literally “they,” of course, given that they are dead, but those who are ardently devoted to them and determined to flack for them on NPR, the BBC, Poets and Writers, as well as on all those esoteric internet sites where niche writers live on.
And so we come to Proust and the 100th anniversary of the publication of Du Cote de Chez Swann (Swann’s Way), the first volume in the seven-volume masterwork, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, popularly known (if such a phrase can be affixed to Proust) as Remembrance of Things Past, but more correctly translated as In Search of Lost Time.
Proust is a hard sell. He doesn’t have the democratic expansiveness of Shakespeare, the romantic charm of Jane Austen, or the muscular incomprehensibility of James Joyce. He’s esoteric without being exactly difficult — at least if your French is good enough or you choose a good translation, of which the original by C.K. Scott Montcrieff with emendations by others remains the best.
Proust’s sentences are long, to be sure, and you can sometimes get lost in the syntax, but it’s not that Proust is hard to understand that is the primary difficulty; it’s that he’s hard to appreciate without a particular kind of sensibility. You don’t just take Proust to the beach and dive in. You don’t even expect to like him if you aren’t in a certain mood — contemplative, relaxed, but also intellectually alert. Proust is, to use a much-used metaphor, like a rich dessert that you savor, having had your palate properly prepared by an excellent sorbet (say, Virginia Woolf) or a more complex first course of rognons (J.K. Huysmans or Walter Pater).
Proust is very French, and thus connected to a certain kind of taste — and I don’t mean for croissants or crepes suzettes, which are easy to like, but cervelle or tripe, which are less so, especially when you know what you’re eating. You have to be able to tie a scarf in five different ways and sit for maybe three hours in a café doing nothing except smoking Gitanes sans filter — refined, yes, effete, a bit, sensual, possibly, but not messily so — un gout particulier, to use the French phrase.
And yet there are enough of such people around — or of those that aspire to being such — to have produced a modest array of events in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Swann’s Way. A few examples: an exhibit earlier this year at the Morgan Library, a new edition from Yale University Press, a semester of commemorative events at Harvard, a month-long reading and film festival in Florida, an auction of Proustiana at Sotheby’s, a round-table discussion at the 92nd street Y, a program on the music in Proust at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a Monty Python sketch summarizing Swann’s Way on Youtube.
I recently happened to attend one such commemorative event — a conference entitled “Rereading Proust” at La Maison Francaise, a lovely stone building behind Lowe Library on the Columbia University campus. It seemed fitting that the building was very pretty, but un-air conditioned on a warm day — a metaphor of sorts for the allure of Proust and the reality of trying to read him.
The title — “Rereading Proust” — was itself very Proustian. No one present was permitted to say that he or she had not read Proust at least twice, which immediately excluded a larger number of very educated people who have only read him once or not at all. I had only read him once — and barely, having skipped around a bit — but pretended otherwise, having also read another book: Comment parler des livres sue l’on n’a pas lus (How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read) by French professor and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard.
One thing I noted about the Proust enthusiasts, both from having visited the Morgan exhibition and attending the Columbia conference, was that everyone was extremely well-dressed. I saw a few Louboutin scarlet soles and well-tailored pencil skirts, some tasteful but indubitably expensive gold jewelry, a lot of well-tied scarves, and cashmere sweater vests on the men, not to mention jackets thrown over shoulders with incomparable insouciance. Nothing ostentatious, mind you, but there was money and time lavished on the clothes and accessories. It was a sumptuous display — a sort of visual counterpart to reading Proust.
Indeed, Proust himself was rather a dandy. Look at the famous photograph of him, with his starched white shirt and cravat, his dark mustache and marcelled locks (devised by another Marcel of the same period, a hairdresser named Marcel Grateau). Proust was also a rabid social climber, not above wheedling his way into exclusive gatherings and, if he failed to do so, interrogating the butler about what went on. You could say that it was all for art. At a certain point, he stopped going out entirely, holed himself up in his cork-lined room, and wrote his chef d’oeuvre while propped up in bed. By then, he had accumulated enough material to fuel his 7-volume dissection of the dynamics of an aristocratic and arriviste segment of French fin de (19th) siècle society.
Proust strikes me as someone who we wouldn’t much care for if we met him in the flesh. He rubbed a number of his contemporaries the wrong way. Even his friend Jean Cocteau found him annoying — though, as some of the conference speakers noted, Cocteau might just have been jealous. Proust was snobby and sycophantish, but he was a genius — and could take what in lesser hands might have been society gossip and create a masterpiece.
One of the interesting points raised at the conference had to do with the way in which aspects of Proust’s great novel, once taboo, are now a central part of its legacy. Elisabeth Ladenson, a Professor of French at Columbia and one of the conference organizers, noted that Swann is Jewish and many other characters are homosexual. And while Proust was both, his alter-ego, Marcel, in the novel, is neither.
Also discussed was whether the French proclivity for universalism explains why French critics have steered away from religion and sexual identity in their reading of Proust, while Americans have made this a focus of interest. Ladenson noted that whenever an issue like homosexuality is discussed with regard to a literary text, the French are likely to observe: après tout, il n’y a pas que ca, which roughly translates, if you factor in intonation: “There’s more than that in the text, you PC philistine.” This sort of dismissiveness, which suggests that “that” is not only partial but trivial and vulgar, has kept France out of some messy sectarian battles while rendering them grossly insensitive to their minority population.
But back to Proust. A philosopher presenter wanted to talk more about time and memory in the work but that wasn’t of great interest to the gathering. Perhaps it’s a horse that’s been beaten to death. A presentation that garnered more interest criticized an effort to popularize Proust, taking issue with the self-help implications of culture critic Alan de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I suspect that the speaker wasn’t quite “getting” Botton, whose title is meant to be clever rather than earnest.
It also struck me as odd to hear so much concern about the possibility that people might read Proust for the wrong reasons. No one in my circle — and my circle is fairly well-educated — is reading Proust for reasons right or wrong. Wasn’t that why we were celebrating the anniversary of Swann’s Way — to get the word out to the hoi polloi? But then, maybe I’m running in the wrong circles. It was announced at the conference that 80 individuals are currently reading Proust at the Center for Fiction in New York City: a veritable avalanche of Proust-engagement that I knew nothing about.
I personally like Proust in small doses — the way he is generally taught. I first read “Combray,” the first and most famous segment of Swann’s Way, in my French AP class in high school, then again in college, and I later taught it to undergraduates myself. This portion of the novel contains the scene of “la petite madeleine” — where the narrator’s dunking of the little cake into a cup of tea summons forth a vast and intricate series of memories that the book goes on to recount. It’s the episode that people tend to know — if not from reading the sequence at least by having a Starbucks barista with an ABD in English explain it to them when they buy one of those madeleine cakes that Starbucks sells.
For me, however, it is the last words of Swann in Love in which Charles Swann, the friend of young Marcel’s family, contemplates his tempestuous love for the courtesan Odette de Crecy who eventually becomes his wife: “To think,” muses Swann, “that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!” What a wealth of Gallic irony is contained in that sentence. And it’s the sort of line that, after weathering a particularly bad relationship, sticks with you.
Having read Proust once (more or less), I now feel inclined to read him again — in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the publication of the second volume, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower — or as Moncrieff more felicitously translated it: Within a Budding Grove). • 3 December 2013