100th anniversary of the death of Marcel Proust

100th anniversary of the death of the French writer Marcel Proust
Prof. Dr. Matei Chihaia / Romance Studies
Photo: Sebastian Jarych

The timeless flicker of the human soul

Prof. Dr. Matei Chihaia on the 100th Anniversary of the Death of the French Writer Marcel Proust

The seven-volume novel "In Search of Lost Time" is considered his major work. On November 18, 1922, the French writer Marcel Proust died in Paris. Who was this man?

Chihaia: Marcel Proust devoted a large part of his life to writing. He wrote this novel, which was not written in one sweep, but was revised again and again. He sent countless letters and messages, thought of elegant dedications and witty compliments. We have the impression of knowing a lot about the way he thought, how he must have seen the world, because he articulated all that. Unfortunately, he also made it clear that the inside of a man, the deep bottom of his soul, is inaccessible: so, in the end, he himself remains a mystery. On the one hand, there is the surface of this incredibly charming being that pours itself into texts, an almost inexhaustible surface, like a sea that stretches out before us. And on the other hand, we don't really know anything about the person Marcel Proust. Writing, of course, was not his whole life. He loved lattes and beer, he liked to go to the opera, he came from a family of doctors, he fought a duel for his honor, and at least once he held a tennis racket in his hand - although in the corresponding photo it looks as if he mistook it for a guitar.

After the death of his mother in 1905, Proust plunged into a deep crisis. After that he devoted himself exclusively to his novel "In Search of Lost Time" and even saw in it the content of his existence. What is the novel about?

Chihaia: That's what's really exciting about his life, that at a certain point he "drops out," as we would say today. But he doesn't go to Tuscany or, say, Goa, but retreats to a Paris apartment to write. In the middle of the big city, just a few streets away from the city palaces where he had previously been a welcome guest, he works on a very unusual novel. The theme of the novel is the life of a man, narrated by the man himself. But Proust is not concerned with the events of this life. Strictly speaking, nothing much happens: in the first hundred pages, the child hero has to go to bed without a goodnight kiss - there is not much more drama in his life. At some point he will fall in love with a woman, suffer from jealousy, lose her, mourn her. All of these events, and even those that happen to his acquaintances - such as the strange love story of Charles Swann - are merely occasions for endlessly fine observations and descriptions. Indeed, the real theme of the novel is the way we perceive reality, what a word or a particular sound can trigger in us. The narrator - and here one could calmly say "Proust" - wants to know how much of this transient human experience can be transformed into literature and thus saved from death. That is the goal of "The Quest."

This novel has significantly determined the literature of the 20th century. By what?

Chihaia: Like James Joyce's Ulysses , it departed from the tradition of realistic storytelling, in which the story told is paramount. For Proust, the novel is an opportunity to explore human thought, the human soul - by lining up image after image, comparison after comparison. That's why there are so many philosophers and psychologists fascinated by The Search for Lost Time . And the longtime president of the Marcel Proust Society is, not coincidentally, a medical doctor. But the abundance of rhetorical devices should also remind us that this is not a novel with objective scientific pretensions, but always refers back to the impressions of a self, and its limitations. One enjoys more than one learns. Did this novel significantly determine the literature of the 20th century? It is difficult for me to say so. Proust certainly influenced several generations, and he is part of the canon of this century. But the novel as storytelling ultimately prevailed, and not only on the book market.

In the seventh volume, the hero of the novel, who always wanted to be a writer, learns that the art of writing lies primarily in surrendering to his memories. What is meant by this?

Chihaia: So in a classic autobiography, remembering is not a problem. The author tells his or her life story starting from what he or she remembers. The story is centered on what someone did or experienced. Not so with Proust. The narrator of In Search of Lost Time is initially far from writing an autobiography. Part of the problem is that his life is relatively inconsequential: there's no big story there. Another part is forgetting. When he struggles to remember the past, only unpleasant and fragmentary experiences come up. But even in the first volume, there are hints that things can be different. In the proverbial madeleine experience, a piece of cake and a sip of lime blossom tea become the trigger of an involuntary but complete memory experience: a past situation in which he was able to enjoy a similar treat unfolds before his inner perception. At first, he does not know what to do with this experience. Only gradually does he understand that he should write it down, that these experiences form the core of a future novel. In Search of Lost Time is a book about a memory that only gradually succeeds.

The narrator is also called Marcel at one point and is often reminiscent of Proust himself. Is the novel autobiographical?

Chihaia: Beautiful, difficult question. My predecessor, Ursula Link-Heer, wrote a whole book about that. Some things are reminiscent of autobiography, for example the beginning with the childhood and the chronological sequence of the chapters. But it is fiction, and for an autobiography, the first-person narrator is simply too little in the center. He observes what others do and analyzes what he perceives. He also observes himself, but not with the aim of recording the story of his life, but to portray thinking, sensations, and everything that goes on inside one.

In one scene, the gay Baron de Charlus talks to the Sorbonne professor Brichot in great detail about his inclination, so that the latter remarks: "If ever a chair of homosexuality were to be established, I would propose you in the very first place." Proust, who was homosexual himself but never came out, wrote very openly about it, thus taking the secrecy out of the subject more than 100 years ago. How was his work reviewed when it first appeared?

Chihaia: In the first volume, which appeared in 1913, homosexuality is still dealt with relatively discreetly; only Sodome et Gomorrhe makes it the central theme. But as the title suggests, it entwines myths and mysteries around same-sex love. In the novel, it seems either tragic or grotesque, and again and again there is talk of "perversion," of unnaturalness. Although almost all the characters in the novel are suspected of homosexuality, the narrator takes an entirely heterosexual standpoint. Contemporaries like André Gide were disappointed by this portrayal, which can foster prejudice. Others, on the contrary, were scandalized by the frankness and detail with which, for example, a male brothel is depicted. For what it's worth, it's certainly not the book I would recommend to someone who wants to learn more about homosexuality - their own or that of others. What you can take away from reading Proust, on the other hand, is the intoxication of the right words: this novel is many thousands of pages of verbal flirtation with the reader - or the reader.

"In Proust, every thought lives in the literary guise of a sensual sensation," says author Tilmann Spengler. What does that mean?

Chihaia: When you read Proust, you feel with your full senses what is described. There are some pages he wrote as a young man, long before he became the author of The Search for Lost Time, that describe various walks: through the Tuileries, Versailles, a farm where he is sent to fetch eggs from the henhouse and suddenly encounters a peacock.... I think of this passage every time I go for a walk, as if it were a situation I had experienced. #

The photo of the dead poet, which you could also buy as a postcard, was taken by the famous photographer Man Ray and heralded his immortality. How relevant is Proust today?

Chihaia: In this photo he is unshaven, his closed eyelids look dark... I see it in front of me when we talk about it. It always reminds me of the death mask of Blaise Pascal, who died not one century ago, but almost four centuries ago. Two deceased authors whose likenesses live on. Why? Both seem to be still relevant, because they did not go with their time. Pascal, too, withdrew into a cloistered life, as Proust did into his cork-paneled room. Our author is a contemporary of all avant-garde movements, and he was friends with such a modern figure as Jean Cocteau, he knew the surrealist Man Ray, met Pablo Picasso.... Nevertheless, he did not belong to any current. And the First World War, the great event of his time, does appear in his novel, but without the historical accent one might expect. In his book, the 17th century, the time of Madame de Sévigné and Jean Racine, is just as present as the 20th century - not only because he fluttered around the silk robes of noble ladies like a mustachioed moth, but also because he was interested in the timeless flicker of the human soul. And that is something he also has in common with Pascal.

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Matei Chihaia studied Comparative Literature, Romance Studies and Philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and at the University of Oxford. He has been teaching French and Spanish Literature at Bergische Universität since 2010.

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