Proust, for Those With a Memory
‘Marcel Proust and “Swann’s Way” ’ at the Morgan Library
Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY
By Edward Rothstein
The York Times
Published: February 14, 2013
A cosmos is compressed into cryptic hieroglyphs in the Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery of the Morgan Library & Museum. Here is an exhibition so condensed, so distilled and in some ways so abstract and well suited to the gallery’s geometric space (which is a perfect cube), that unless you arrive properly prepared, you might leave as bewildered as prospective French publishers were when they rejected Marcel Proust’s “Du Côté de Chez Swann” (“Swann’s Way”), more than a century ago.
Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY
“Perhaps I am as thick as two short planks,” reads one of those evaluations, “but I cannot understand how a man can take 30 pages to describe how he turns round in his bed before he finally falls asleep.”
But anyone who reads that first volume of “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (translated into English as “Remembrance of Things Past”) has no problem understanding how 30 pages might be required to capture the turnings of self-consciousness and their cascades of recollection. Or even, perhaps, how 3,000 more pages might be needed to scrutinize how sexual compulsion, aesthetic refinement and social perversity find expression in a cast of characters who can be as brilliant, creepy, climbing and compelling as their creator.
By now, Proust’s epic seven-volume novel (the last three were published posthumously in the 1920s) has become a touchstone of Western literature. And the new exhibition at the Morgan in honor of the first book’s centennial — “Marcel Proust and ‘Swann’s Way’: 100th Anniversary” — takes its status for granted, presuming familiarity.
French editions of “Remembrance of Things Past,” on display at the Morgan Library,
including one, front left, from 1913 for “Swann’s Way.”
This presumption is a mistake, I think, because the materials on loan here from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France are being shown for the first time outside of Paris. The Proust scholar Antoine Compagnon, the curator for the show, along with Robert Parks of the Morgan, has gathered notebooks and typescripts, doodles and galleys, postcards and photographs, all related to the creation of “Swann’s Way.” And while the label text is informative, first the deciphering of Proust’s handwriting is required, and then, for many, so is a linguistic decoding.
This would be easy enough to remedy with transcriptions and translations. It would also help, when you visit, not only to have once read the book, but also to have it fresh in your mind. Otherwise you might pick up fragments of knowledge and see some remarkable artifacts, but will not grasp what kinds of processes are on display here, how the quick, fluent flow of narrative in these notebooks mixes with the meticulous retractions and reconsiderations of Proust’s revisions. Or how the almost scattered accumulation of drafts and subjects results from an extended turning and re-turning of the material, as if the displays were dramatizing Proust’s dissections of consciousness.
If you keep the book in mind, each of the objects here stirs a series of readerly recollections, like the famous madeleine the novel’s narrator dips in tea (in a 1909 version, it was toast; in a 1910 notebook here, it was described as some “biscottes”). The madeleine serves to open the world of the past, as if, in Proust’s comparison, an entire town and all its inhabitants were springing into being, unfurling like compressed papers tossed into Japanese porcelain bowls filled with water.
We see a photograph of Proust’s mother, Jeanne (née Weil), with her two sons, Marcel and Robert, from 1896, when Marcel was in his 20s. She is preoccupied, looking off to the side, grimly reflective, but her sons radiate comfort and assurance in her presence. Robert is relaxed, almost languidly amused; Marcel, more formal, close by his mother, a young man of leisure.
One source of Marcel’s novel is latent here, since its writing, we are told, “is linked to the crushing grief” he felt after his mother’s death in 1905. Their relationship may have served as a kind of anticipatory madeleine, a foreshadowing of further imaginings: the novel’s narrator remembers so clinging to his mother’s rationed love as a child that he organized his evenings around strategies to obtain her good-night kiss. And Robert, who was the keeper of Marcel’s flame after his early death in 1922, later said: “I sensed in him the survival of our dear departed”; Marcel was “my entire past; my entire youth was enclosed in his person.”
Without the novel in mind, period picture postcards of the Champs-Élysées on display might seem almost mundane, except, we learn, that the park became “a kind of literary salon for the precocious Marcel.” He met a young Russian girl there who became a model for Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, whom the novel’s narrator covets in that very park. Another postcard shows the lush, verdant gardens owned by Marcel’s uncle, grounds that became the model for Swann’s estate.
And postcards of Illiers, “the ancestral home of the Proust family,” show us not just that ancient town near Chartres, but also Proust’s fictional Combray, a town whose past is recreated by the narrator’s reflective archaeologies, restored, as he says, by piercing through its modern edifices.
A school photograph here of the 10th grade of the Lycée Condorcet in Paris reflects a period of the author’s life that, we are told, was “mysteriously unexpressed in his novel.” But in the photo we can see many young luminaries, including Jacques Bizet, the son of the composer Georges Bizet. Jacques became an object of the young Proust’s unrequited love, in Edmund White’s reading, though, interestingly, Proust became close with Jacques’s mother, Geneviève. In 1908 she gave him the four elegant notebooks on display here, in which he began thinking about his enterprise. “Should it be a novel,” he writes in one, “a philosophical essay, am I a novelist?”
The rest of the show traces his effort to answer that question by filling these notebooks with experiments in narrative and speculation, veering between reflection and satire, close analysis and almost painful realism. We can’t follow his quest because only fragments are open to our view. But in these 20 square feet of space, resonances accumulate.
Here is Proust’s letter to the composer Fauré, from perhaps 1897, whose music led to a “dangerous intoxication” in Proust and inspired the sonata that haunts Swann. Here too are photographs of Giotto’s frescoes of “Vices” and “Virtues” from Padua, images that Proust’s narrator contemplates. And Proust, we are told, planned to structure his novel around the “Vices and Virtues of Padua and Combray.”
And however compressed and difficult this exhibition is, it gradually creates an effect. In a pocket notebook here from 1910, Proust calls artistic reality “a relation, a law joining different facts.” An artwork establishes connections between different worlds. That kind of reality, Proust writes, requires style, which is itself a series of connections in the material, an “alliance of words.” Style is not something extraneous to an artwork, but part of its essence: “A work of art only begins to exist from the moment that style appears.”
And while this exhibition could have provided more assistance (and still could if transcriptions are added), there are enough connections and relations established here among these artifacts that they propel us back into the novel in Proustian style.