Marcel Proust: The Complete Short Stories. (Books: proust before proust).
When, in 1896, Marcel Proust published his first book, he was twenty-five. It was a disparate collection of tales, prose poems, verses, portraits, and satires, some written at least five years earlier, entitled Les Plaisirs et les jours. This is the work (with the addition of a few items of juvenilia) newly translated and now offered to the public as Proust's Complete Short Stories. Given the mixed nature of the contents, this title seems an approximation: the stories are there, but so are other things.
Les Plaisirs et les jours did not make much of an impression when it appeared, though it was not for want of the author's attempts to publicize it. Through the good offices of Mme Arman de Caillavet, the Egeria of Anatole France, then regarded as one of the leading writers of the age, Proust solicited a preface from the great man (a preface said to have been written in part by the lady herself). A well-known salon hostess and painter, Madeleine Lemaire, supplied watercolor illustrations, to which were added four musical pieces by his friend, the composer Reynaldo Hahn. Proust even fought a duel with Jean Lorrain, after that fashionable man of letters and notorious gossip published some disparaging remarks about the book that Proust considered personally insulting. Duels, occasionally fatal, were quite common then among litterateurs.
Moreover, at thirteen francs fifty instead of the usual three, Pleasures and Days was virtually priced out of the market. Some felt that all this over-decorating of a small cake meant that Proust was just a dilettante who had failed to fulfil the promise that his friends had bruited abroad. Leon Blum, not yet the famous political figure that he was to become, but a talented literary critic, reviewed the book in the Revue Blanche with some severity. He recognized the author's gifts of thought and style but he called it "too self-conscious and pretty." As for the Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, who has left a shattering picture of Proust in his last years, immured in his cork-lined room, he admitted that it was not until he read Proust's preface to his translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, a translation published in 1906, that he realized he was in the presence of an astounding innovatory literary figure.
Indeed, it was not until 1932, ten years after Proust's death, that Andre Gide--who differed from Proust on the literary treatment of "uranism" and who had notoriously rejected Un Amour de Swann when it was submitted for publication--recognized the important place of Les Plaisirs et les jours in Proust's oeuvre. The early compilation had been reprinted for the first time in 1921, after Proust won the Goncourt prize for A l'Ombre des jeunes filles en fieur in 1919. It is worth remembering that by 1932 the whole of A la Recherche du temps perdu had appeared in print, the last three sections having been published posthumously. The astonishing architecture of the mighty work, deliberately constructed like some great Gothic cathedral, was now apparent. With the benefit of hindsight, Gide could say that with Les Plaisirs et les jours Proust offers us a foretaste of "everything we will come to admire in A la Recherche du temps perdu." That included the use of the leitmotif. (Wagnerism was flourishing in France in the 1890S when Proust wrote Pleasures and Days, and he was a great admirer of Parsifal.) The early work was like a prophecy, an "annunciation" of the abundance to come, said Gide. In his opinion, there were pages of "A Young Girl's Confession" that were equal to the best of Proust's writings. High praise indeed, when compared with Anatole France's earlier impression of "a hothouse atmosphere" among orchids of a sickly beauty--"sickly" being a word often used about the so-called Decadent literature of the period. But then Anatole France, the sceptical author of The Gods Are Athirst, had not had the benefit of reading A la Recherche du temps perdu when he made his comments.
So the question is: who is now likely to enjoy this new and accomplished translation of Les Plaisirs et les jours by Joachim Neugroschel? The answer must surely be those who have read A la Recherche du temps perdu in part if not in whole (for let us be realists here), and who are interested in anything produced by Proust that might shed light on him and his work, one of the greatest paeans to art in existence. With Les Plaisirs et les jours (together with the three volumes of the novel Jean Santeuil, written in 1896-1904, reconstructed from Proust's notes and published in 1952), the reader has access to some of his most enduring and memorable themes in embryo.
Among these is the vital and deeply resonant episode of the mother's bedtime kiss with its repercussions. Also to be found there is the first version of the little musical phrase that will become "la phrase de Vinteuil" (in "The Melancholy Summer of Mme de Breyves" it is drawn from Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). In that story, too, is the equation of love as suffering, the theme of obsessive self-destructive love for a person one hardly knows--or even likes. The details of paranoid jealousy --suffered by Proust himself--are already present. And so is the yielding to sensual pleasure and lust, but transposed from male to female in "A Young Girl's Confession." The girl's mother has a stroke when she discovers her daughter engaged in some nameless embrace, qualified as "the abominable act." There is the passionate love of flowers, to which the author devotes such concentrated attention, the profound feeling for the sea, the admiration for painters and painting, the whole treated in a fairly classical manner, mostly remote from Proust's often convoluted style in A la Recherche du temps perdu.
In short, the young Proust is engaged in seeking his own voice as a writer. With characteristic wit Cocteau once described Proust's actual voice as being amused, hesitant, marked by a system of river locks, vestibules, courtesies--not so different, then, from his later authorial style. When Pleasures and Days was being written, young Proust, the well-to-do, solidly middle class half-Jew, was at the height of his period as a fin de siecle dandy always with a flower in his buttonhole, a man about town who enjoyed frequenting the upper crust, as captured in the famous portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche.
Yet the incomparable observer with his gift for psychological penetration is already at work. There is his moral critique of snobs and snobbery in "Fragments of Commedia dell'Arte" and of the empty fashionable life of the aristocracy in "Violante or High Society." Proust's fascination with the links between the great aristocratic names and French history and literature is undermined by his remorse at wasting his time in social trivialities that he really despises. The moral influence of his beloved mother and grandmother pervades the book. For Pleasures and Days--with its epigraphs ascribed to the ascetic Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ (for instance, "Have few dealings with young men and persons of the upper classes") as well as to Emerson at his most transcendental--seems far more overtly moral than A la Recherche du temps perdu, where the moral view is magisterially conveyed indirectly through satire. It is by oblique means, at once comic and appalling, that the cruel vanity of the Duc de Guermantes, his selfish indifference, and the hollowness of his pretensions to friendship are famously skewered forever, when he refuses to believe that his cousin is at the point of death because it would prevent him from attending a fancy dress ball with his wife. In the early tales we are given the moral standpoint, whereas in the later writings we have to work it out and savor it for ourselves.
Proust's contemporary readers with their classical education would have been fully aware of the irony in substituting "Pleasures" for "Works" when he adapted the title of Works and Days by Hesiod. With "Days" Proust retains the element of time that is central to his outlook. His delight in sensual pleasure in all its forms is intense, even if it occasionally carries a sense of corruption. Already the worm is in the bud of joy: the awareness of the ravages of time and the presence of death. The extraordinary long dedication to Willie Heath, a handsome young Englishman who resembled one of Van Dyck's romantically elegant cavaliers, broods, as it were, over the whole collection. Proust had first met him in the Bois de Boulogne, but their friendship was short-lived for Heath died in Paris in 1893 aged twenty-two. In the dedication, virtually an essay, Proust alludes to the way he himself suffered from asthma attacks that often confined him to bed from the age of nine. He almost anticipates his later self-claustration when he writes, "Noah could not have seen the world so clearly as from the ark, even though the ark was shut and the earth was shrouded in night" Proust might substitute pleasures for works, and complain (like his mother) about his lack of will power, but he was already working incessantly at least from the age of twenty towards his goal, still far off, in a triumph of the will over illness and suffering. Anyone who has ever glanced at a page of Proust's manuscript, full of corrections and insertions, will know how hard he worked at refining his art. He had already taken to heart Ruskin's injunction to work so long as there is still light. According to the dedication to Willie Heath, Proust had decided to "live in order to be worthy and deserving."
Perhaps with so allusive a text as Pleasures and Days it would have been helpful to the general reader to identify in brief footnotes a quotation from Racine or various luminaries of the age like Paul Desjardins and Maurice
Barres. The book contains Proust's early pastiche of Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet, but among the persons judged by the two foolish, floundering self-improvers there is no such person as Henri de Regnier Proust is alluding to Henri de Regnier (1864-1936), whose verse he quotes in an epigraph, presumably with approval of this now largely forgotten writer. Some critics once thought Henri de Regnier was the greatest poet of the Symbolist school, so it is a sign of the stupidity of Proust's Pecuchet that he dismisses this man of letters as a joker or a madman. In this misprint Proust would surely have relished yet another confirmation of his acute sense of the transience of pleasures and glories.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2001|
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