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Marcel Proust

by A. V. Lunacharsky (1934)

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of the "French novel" became extraordinarily well defined. The French novel might, of course, treat of various subjects and might vary in quality, but, nevertheless, it had become a most precisely defined commodity. Whatever its quality, it retained a constant value on the literary market. The smallest editions ran to one thousand copies, thc largest - into millions. All this was written by a whole series of talents, sometimes highly original, and published and sold by a whole series of merchants, sometimes quite remarkably unsuccessful. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the net result was the same little strawcoloured volume of about three hundred well-printed pages costing 31/2 pre-war francs - the so-called Charpentier type.

Publishers considered thinner or thicker volumes with evident repulsion. Two volumes they looked on as a personal insult. Selected and complete works were, naturally, broken up into volume-units of this same size.


When the young Romain Rolland, a revolutionary in every sense of the word, began, on the one hand, to publish his novels in the form of cahiers  and, on the other, to drag out his Jean Christophe  over a dozen or more volumes this was considered a freakish trick, evidence of the author's weakness in matters of composition and a sure sign that his work would not be a success.

It cannot be said that this revival of the long novel (A la recherche du temps perdu)  was an immediate success. Nevertheless, there can be no denying that this novel, so incredibly serious in content, so very long ("Not French at all," the critics exclaimed; "surely it can't be seriously regarded as literature?"), enjoyed sufficient popularity to demonstrate quite unmistakably to all and sundry that it established a dangerous literary precedent.

The well-known critic Paul Souday remarking on a long series of novels from the pen of a hitherto unknown writer Marcel Proust, pointed out that, in this, Proust was following in the footsteps of Rolland. Let us hope Monsieur Souday will not be offended but, on the first appearance of Romain Rolland's work, he quite failed to grasp all its gigantic literary and cultural significance. On the other hand, it must be admitted that, even after reading only the first volume, he did have some kind of premonition of the significance of Proust's vast project.

French literary criticism had not yet anything like grasped the importance of Proust's colossal reminiscences, had not yet understood that their very "prolixity" was their essential characteristic and a condition of their appeal. However, through Monsieur Souday, it had already put the question: Might not this be a new kind of literature? And is not this terrible fault, this "prolixity", in this particular case, something in the nature of a virtue? And might not Proust be a new kind of writer in the style of Rolland? And do not these two write for some new type of reader? The very fact that this kind of question was put at all is to Souday's credit, even if it was still all rather vague.


It is impossible to understand Proust's socio-literary character without going into certain aspects of his personality.

Proust was a member - let us say a passive member - of an extremely wealthy Jewish bourgeois family, closely connected with the Rothschilds.

Having become a chronic invalid at an early age he was constrained to lead a strange, almost entirely nocturnal existence. All his life he kept up with his social and literary acquaintances but, of course, in his own eccentric way. Literary and cultural pursuits occupied a great place in the sick man's life, but to no greater extent than the snobbish pursuits of the polite world.

Although Proust always remained a man of incredible, morbid sensitivity and more or less paralysed activity, the first part of his life is nevertheless by far the most fresh - above all because of his astonishingly strong reaction to "all the impressions of his earliest days", and to every note in the scales of feeling and of thought. As he approached forty, Proust felt that new impressions became less and less vivid. The present paled before his memories. These memories were distinguished by an extraordinary vitality: it was as though, after the abundant incoming wave of life which once, long ago, had come foaming inshore from the boundless sea of opportunity, there had followed another wave, this time an imaginary one, an exact repetition of the first wave of impressions, but, this time, already familiar to the senses, analysed through and through down to the last nuance, totally and exhaustively relived. This astonishing wave of memories which, of course, plays a great part in all creative writing is, in Proust's books, both overwhelming and tragic. Not only does he love his temps perdus,  he knows that for him they are not "perdus"  at all, that he can roll them out at will again and again like great carpets, like shawls, that again and again he can finger over these torments and delights, these flights and falls.

Like the Covetous Knight he sits among the treasurechests of his memories, and a pleasure very similar in type to that experienced by Pushkin's hero takes possession of his whole being. The treasure-house of his memories is in fact his oeuvre.  Here, he is all-powerful. This is a world which he can bring to a stop, shuffle, dissect, so as to get to the bottom of its every detail, grossly magnify, put under a microscope, refashion as it seems good to him. Here he is a god, limited only by the very richness of this enchanted stream of memory.

This monstrous reworking of the first half of his life becomes the second half. Proust the writer is no longer living, he is writing. The music and light of the true wave of life have no importance for Proust in his later years. The important thing is this astonishing chewing the cud of the past which is going on in all his 77 stomachs and which constantly renews this past and seems to deepen its implications.

How could such an epopee be anything but rambling? It is as though Proust had suddenly said to his contemporaries: "I shall lie back - artistically, comfortably, freely, in a vast brocade dressing-gown on a vast velvet sofa - and remember my life in the gently rotating convolutions of a mild sedative, I shall not drink off my life as a man tosses off a glass of water, I shall savour it with the concentrated attention one accords the complex bouquet of a uniquely rich wine."

Such was the character of Proust the author from the point of view of form. Such was the basic determinant of his famous lyrical epic.


Gradually, the incomparable refinement of Proust's gift became evident. A respectful and, as it were, ecstatically compassionate veneration replaced the original bewilderment of the critics.

Let us then take a closer look at Proust's literary, philosophical, social and moral message; at what he teaches and whither he is going.

Convinced Proustians will, of course, shrug their shoulders over such questions: "He teaches nothing, leads nowhere and nothing like that is of the least interest to him. Really, these Marxists!"

To which we reply: "He both leads, and teaches, to some extent even deliberately. Really, these foxy formalists!''


What we have just been trying to put into words - what constitutes the charm, the power, the essence and the principle of the Proustian school - is the culture of memory. More than once the most gifted representatives of various literatures have asserted the immensely close relationship between art and memory (particularly interesting in this respect are Hoffmann and Kleist), and have found support among the theoreticians. Here, it is possible to distinguish two features. The first is the artist's urge to conquer time, to command the moment: "Abide, you are so fair!" Or, more broadly speaking: "You are meaningful, you are worthy of a life outside Heraclitus's river where nothing remains equal to itself for so much as one moment, you are worthy to be fished out of this river by the divine hand of art and to be set apart in another world - the world of immutable aesthetic values." The second feature is the desire to refashion reality with the aid of art, or, as the saying goes, to create a new world.

To be gifted with excellent taste, to select those events from the general stream which are worthy of immortality and to have the ability to transform the particular and temporal into the general and eternal - such is the essence of art (a definition close to that offered by Hegel). Art is not only the perpetuation of the object found in reality and afterwards, perhaps, stylised; it is also an act of creation. This is not the place to go into the complicated interrelationship of artistic realism and artistic imagination. We will simply say that, in our opinion, artistic imagination is a derivative of the artist's experience of reality, and is indeed the key factor to that refashioning to which reality must be subjected if it is to achieve immortality in the eyes of the author.

Naturally, there is more than one type of artist. ln the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller it became clear how important is the division between those who go from the reality to the generalisation, and those who begin with generalisations and seek to breathe real life into them.

Of course, in Proust's work, imagination, stylisation and, occasionally, pure invention do play a large part. Nevertheless he is, on the whole, a realist.

As we have already said, the charm and the very essence of his creative act is memory.

Like every other element of man's psychological makeup, memory is a live and slippery business. Even in the sphere of scholarship, particularly in history, this brings us face to face with a great number of most interesting problems. Leaving these aside for the moment, let us take something more or less objective as our point of departure: the evidence of an eyewitness, a life history compiled from memory for a court deposition.

Everybody knows that the evidence of an eyewitness, a life history, or any other kind of document are misleading and inclined to be subjective. For any work of history with pretensions to the "establishment of definitive truth", dependable reminiscences are an essential foundation; for instance, certain historical memoirs are only of value from this point of view if they are written by an unbiassed witness while the events are still fresh in his memory. In this field, .scholarship demands that a comparison should be made with other eyewitness accounts and, from time to time we are afflicted by the diabolically sceptical assumption that, even by comparing evidence and even on the basis of documentary material, it is still not possible to reconstruct what really happened, but only to give an approximate portrayal of it.

Literary reminiscences are something quite different. They can afford to brush aside the scholarly sediment of the memorial genre and to associate themselves with that wide stratum of writing which Goethe so felicitously defined as Dichtung und Wahrheit. 

The title of this, the greatest book of organised reminiscences which, thanks to Goethe, humanity possesses, has been the subject of some argument. It has been maintained that the word Dichtung  in the title meant all that part of the book in which the author was writing about his work, whereas Wahrheit  covered that devoted to a straightforward account of events. But this is not altogether so. Goethe does not deny that in his memoirs his creative life has been given a specific interpretation or that he is not always accurate in his handling of facts because, very often, the inner logic and the meaning behind his reminiscences were more important to him than the effort to reconstruct the exact truth through the misty patches of memory. That was how that great work which might also have borne the title A la recherche du temps perdu  came into being.

It is hardly necessary to say that the lengthy literary reminiscences of Marcel Proust which really were published under that title cannot compare with Goethe's classic edifice either in content or in method and technique.

Proust is an impressionist, Proust loves his "living ego" which is not particularly whole and well constructed in itself but, on the contrary, shifting, capricious and occasionally morbid. This is why, for Proust, the whole, finished structure only has meaning in so far as it brings order to a series of isolated moments, or, occasionally, to whole systems of moments, but it has no aim in itself.

Proust is dead. His reminiscences were finished but have not all been printed. We are still not in a position to survey the whole structure of which we have been speaking. However, it is already possible to forecast with the utmost confidence that Proust's memoirs will astonish by the palpitating richness of their content rather than by any general conclusion to which they may lead.

This is not to say that Proust's memoirs are formless, are nothing but a great, gleaming heap of exceptionally beautiful things. No! In the first place, this remarkable artist sought to give the whole thing a certain unity of style, to make us feel that the whole enormous work is nevertheless a portrayal of "live personalities". In the second, he introduced a certain system of subdividing the whole into large parts - true, not altogether successfully from the artistic point of view. This point, however, is the last calculated to retain our attention here.


For Proust, in his life as in his philosophy, the most important thing is the human personality and, above all, his own personality.

Life is, first and foremost, my  life.

In just the same way, objective social life, any objective life, the life of the whole world - is a kind of interweaving of "my lives". As a disciple of Bergson, an allegiance which he has never finally thought out in his own mind (Proust, although possessed of a formidable philosophic talent, is not a philosopher), the author sees life as a splendid tapestry woven from subjective lives combining to form an eternal and, taken by and large, harmonious whole. For him, existence has a somewhat Leibnitzian flavour. Of course, Proust's connection with Leibnitz is by way of Descartes and Pascal, but this makes little or no difference. What we have here is the exquisite, highly rationalist and extremely sensual, realistic subjectivism of the seventeenth century, a refined version of which we find in Frenchmen of a later age - particularly in Henri Bergson. From the very outset, Marcel Proust approaches his quest for lost times not in order to recreate an epoch (that is a secondary aim for him) but in order to relive his life once again on a particularly profound and savourous level and, at the same time, so to speak, to take the reader along with him; therefore, if we are to grasp the whole meaning of this work, the question of the basic bearer of the whole process, of the personality and, in particular, of "my personality", becomes one of the first importance.

Let it be noted here and now that Proust, although, as an intellectualist, he was far from foreign to problem, of cognition, did not make such problems the object of his work and, on the whole, they remain in the background The foreground is given over to the pleasure  afforded by the creative act of art, that is, to the pleasure of this new, artistically reworked, second experience of life, and to the pleasure of the work itself which, in its turn, is undertaken so as to resurrect the past in all its freshness and fulness so as to make sense of it aesthetically - a process of tasting and trying by the mind and the senses.

This is why Proust's favourite aspect of his own wonderful books is a kind of cinematograph of his own memories. Here, Proust is without equal. Lying in bed, pen in hand he really does surrender himself to a kind of creative cinematographic process which appeals equally powerfully to the eye, the ear, the intellect and the emotions. He plays the part of himself and this film, My Life,  is produced with unheard-of lavishness, profundity and love. Such reproaches as are levelled at him even by benevolently disposed critics - the leisurely tempo, the wealth of detail, the sometimes un-Gallic length of sentence, extended so as to include everything he needs to tell us, etc. - all these flow naturally from this cinematographic aspect of his work.

Proust really did spoil the French language a little. His followers set less store by laconism, brilliance, logic. But his object as a writer was different and so, therefore, was his style. Proust's style - with its cloudy, colloidal, honeyed consistency and extraordinarily aromatic sweetness - is the only medium fitted to induce tens of thousands of readers to join you enthusiastically in reliving your not particularly significant life, recognising therein some peculiar significance and surrendering themselves to this long drawn out pleasure with undisguised delight.

Note: Anatoly Lunacharsky (1873-1933). This text is taken from the book "On Literature and Art" (Progress, Moscow, 1973).

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