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Supernatural Proust: Myth and Metaphor in 'A la recherche du temps perdu'.

Supernatural Proust: Myth and Metaphor in 'A la recherche du temps perdu'. By MARGARET TOPPING. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 2007. 223 pp. 60 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-7083-1866-9.

In Supernatural Proust, Margaret Topping gives a thorough account of the role played by 'Ghosts, fairies, legendary quests' (p. 1) in A la recherche du temps perdu. If the presence of subtexts such as Perrault's fairy-tale romances, the Mille et une units, the Fables of La Fontaine, Wagner's Parsifal and Tristan and Isolde, is well known in Proust criticism, Topping's analysis of their deep resonances in the creative process, whether it be the artistic development of the narrator/protagonist's self, or the portraits of artists and failed creators, proves invaluable for a deeper understanding of the novel. Topping convincingly argues that the 'supernatural' in all its forms plays an active if somewhat neglected role in the way the narrator evolves on an aesthetic and personal level: if on one level the narrator/protagonist plunges into a 'mythical quest through the legend of performance, music and texts' on another, the narrator/writer uses these legends' for stylistic and generic experimentation' (p. 3). In the first chapter the supernatural is approached as a prism through which the rather passive narrator learns about the world. This leads to a dual analysis of the fairy-tale genre and La Recherche, particularly revealing in the case of Albertine as Sleeping Beauty. The interconnections between La Recherche and the Mille et une units are also enlightening: not only are the Mille et une units used as a thematic and structural model, but they are also metaphorically rewritten, thus creating tensions between old and new contexts. The creative juxtaposition of the Eastern tales with the Proustian universe offers new ways of interpreting the main characters, but equally leads to insights into the use of metaphorical transposition as an instrument of distancing and, ultimately, of revelation. In the second chapter the supernatural is seen as an integral metaphorical part of the text, linked to the aesthetic quest of the more active narrator/writer, who experiments with the genres linked to the supernatural, doing away with traditional binaries such as East and West, good and evil, high and low. In a subtle parallel analysis of Wagnerian legends, Debussy's Pellas et Melisande, and puppetry, Topping offers us a fresh reading of the narrator's evolution from reader to writer, from naive spectator to lucid analyst of social manipulation in La Recherche. Proust's appropriation of high and low registers of the supernatural is seen as a carnivalesque strategy aimed at rethinking the rigid hierarchies which rule society. Topping brilliantly examines the evolution of the role played by opera, which is shown to reflect the narrator's quest for aesthetic fusion and unity, thus hinting at new possibilities within old, previously neglected genres and subgenres of the supernatural. The last chapter enters the realm of mythical thinking in order to explore Proustian references to 'spiritualism, superstition, magic, divination and astrology' (p. 119). This fruitful reinterpretation of the role played by these marginal yet crucial practices of the everyday helps us revisit 'Proust's construction of superstitious belief through his characters' (p. 120) and the narrator's 'progressive distancing from it' (p. 120). In a way not dissimilar to Nerval, Proust is shown to tap into the supernatural and the mythical, in a vast effort to uncover and, at the same time, to redeem ways of thinking which are being erased by modernity. This redemptive enterprise is ironically dramatized in the narrator's personal quest, leading to his gradual discovery of the almost magical power of metaphor creation itself. Via the detour of the supernatural, Topping successfully shows the performative power of metaphor, which constitutes both a critique and a unifying thread between past and present, between mythical and rational worlds.


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Author:Azerad, Hugo
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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