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Proust and America

From Brick 85

Brick 85

To have read Proust is considered to be a significant and increasingly necessary accomplishment. The almost disarming frequency of his appearance as a literary cultural icon suggests that one hundred years after he began to write À la recherche du temps perdu, the work is just beginning to lose some of the aura of inaccessibility once associated with it. As a symbol of aesthetic culture, Proust, with his rarefied sensibility, seems almost ubiquitous, inescapable.

Regardless of how many long months or years it takes, those who scale their way up one side of Mount Proust and down the other tend to find themselves identifying with the paradox experienced by the novel’s narrator: at the end of an epic journey one discovers one has merely arrived at the beginning. Upon returning the multiple volumes to their allotted (and considerable) shelf space, the reader finds that the books refuse to stay there. Invariably, the impulse to reread is keenly felt. Immersion in the text provides all that is needed for many, but to those hungering for fellowship, a search begins for other readers of Proust. These days, as an aid to the digestion of so much humanity and philosophy, people seem to gravitate toward discussion groups, chat rooms, and blogs devoted to the reading of Proust.

Such enthusiasm on the part of non-francophone readers tends to confound the French. In broad terms, the generally perceived wisdom is that Proust’s extraordinary artistic achievement reflects gloriously back upon the French, who primarily choose to marginalize him, having had enough of his perverse fin de siècle effusiveness. But while the French either do not read Proust, or read it in university because they must, they nevertheless do honour his position as a giant and a master, and applaud the range and depth of his distinctly French influences—Montaigne, Racine, Michelet, Mme de Sévigné.

And yet Proust is large; he contains multitudes. He came of age during the efflorescence of anglophilia in Paris, and his fascination with English art and culture reflects those times. In a letter to his friend Robert de Billy, written in 1910, the year À la recherche began to emerge from all his previous writing, Proust stated:


It’s odd how, from among all the different genres, from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there is no literature that has a power over me comparable to English and American literature.


Michael Murphy’s Proust and America is a superb examination of this self-professed oddity of Proust’s, focusing on where it originated and how deeply it penetrated. Murphy’s critical intelligence shines specifically on the American half of the “English and American literature” equation, the English half having been previously mined for treasure. To illustrate the prevailing French response to the distinction made between English and American spheres of influence, Murphy affectionately quotes Gertrude Stein (from her book Paris France):


In a little hotel where we stayed some time they spoke of us as English, no we said no we are Americans, at last one of them a little annoyed at our persistence said but it is all the same.


Vive la différence is Murphy’s credo. In a slim volume packed with revelations, Murphy has accomplished the rare feat of presenting a fresh take on a subject long scrutinized and encoded; he has opened a window in a far corner of the room and let in a new source of light. His book is narrow in scope but expansive in spirit. Murphy cites a vast array of scholars and thinkers; his bibliography is a testament to careful and thorough reading, appealing to anyone interested in Proust’s singular mind and its resonance within the world of letters. Above all, the subtlety of Murphy’s reading of Proust’s text is exemplary. He reads prose with the eyes and mind of a poet, which is what Murphy was, in addition to being an insightful critic. Murphy died in 2009 of a brain tumour at the age of forty-three, leaving behind an impressive body of work, which included three collections of poetry, a study on Joyce, one on poets in exile, and the volume presently under discussion. It is worth noting that for Murphy himself the distinctions made among cultural types in Proust and America was of personal significance: he was the son of an Irish mother and an American father, raised in England by adoptive parents.

The book begins with an introduction to the ways in which À la recherche is a response to the ongoing changes in French society—in social convention, class, and language—a process interrupted then resumed at an accelerated rate as a result of the First World War. During these years the United States emerged as an increasingly powerful presence on the world stage, especially upon its entrance into the European conflagration, when the New World assisted in the salvation of the Old. Proust had grown up in Paris within walking distance of the Parc Monceau where he often went to play. In 1881, when he was ten, he would have been able to see, above the trees at the north end of the park, the monumental head and raised arm of the Statue of Liberty rising from above the studio of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. Murphy makes use of this vivid symbol of amity to expand upon the theme of Franco-American relations, including often virulent anti-Americanism, to set the stage for his study of Proust’s novel.

As we know from James and Wharton, many distinguished French aristocratic families were saved from the brink of financial dissolution by an infusion of American wealth in the form of endowed matrimony. Nobility of birth was one thing, millions of dollars were another, and marriage between the two led to necessary adjustments. The presence of a few fabulously wealthy brides opened up the possibility of a new aristocracy, based on new criteria, consequently dismantling an entrenched and inflexible hierarchy of fixed relations. The persistence with which American reality looms in the lives of the characters of À la recherche is indicative of the French world in a transitional state, the world Proust came to chronicle.

Apart from wealth, America primarily represented speed for the French, and what one might call change for change’s sake. The insistent modernity was hard for Parisians, who saw themselves as occupying the cutting edge, to accept. Despite an enthusiastic embrace of le golf, le lunch, les cocktails, and le jazz hot, French society was evidently disturbed and conflicted (then as now) by its attraction to American enticements. American rubber boots and revolving doors appear as manifestations of a foreign culture in Proust’s books, seeming to incite a kind of xenophobic anxiety in Marcel, just as Albertine’s playing on the American-made pianola induces a different kind of anxiety. The narrator experiences a retrospective guilt upon learning of his grandmother’s having suffered the indignity of sitting for a photographic portrait in order to ensure that he would have a picture of her when she was gone. His friend Robert de Saint-Loup takes this treasured image using his new Kodak camera. These symbols of America appear not only as palpable objects in the story, they also function metaphorically.

The heart of Murphy’s book is composed of three chapters, each devoted to an American spirit whose work profoundly impressed and stimulated Proust. Like the triumvirate of artists Proust was to create for his novelthe novelist Bergotte, the composer Vinteuil, and the painter Elstir—Murphy also presents us with three creative geniuses, three men who were shining lights for Proust, three men who were American. These were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.



The current prevailing assessment of the impact of Emerson’s work on Proust suggests that this was indeed significant but limited to his early years. Murphy makes a plea for a deeper, ongoing, necessary connection. Proust was twenty-three when he first read Emerson in translation. The American presented an unusual aspect of the literary world, with an ethos of pragmatic philosophy and its reverence for the natural sciences that Proust’s father, Dr. Adrien Proust, might even have approved for his neurotic son. Proust discovered in Emerson’s essays on self-reliance and nature a template for addressing the conflict between his hunger for companionship and his need for isolation. He was to be pulled between the twin poles of sociability and retreat for his whole life, and as Proust withdrew to write his novel, Emerson’s calm assurance must have comforted him, reinforcing his determination to work undisturbed:


To the culture of the world, an Archimedes, a Newton is indispensable; so she guards them by a certain aridity. If these had been good fellows, fond of dancing, Port, and clubs, we should have had no “Theory of the Sphere” and no “Principia.”


As he was to find in his reading of Ruskin, Proust was drawn to the blending of philosophy and aesthetics in Emerson. His reading of the essays helped lay the foundation stones for his own developing sensibility. Emerson’s writings on friendship and self-reliance have formidable reverberations as they come to be understood in the broader light of the interaction between society and the individual. This struggle between man and society was the pulse of Proust’s life, and he fought to achieve the necessary balance; the struggle filtered its way into the book he wrote, illuminated by the example of Emerson.

Emerson’s fascination with natural history deepened his own awareness of the world about him. Having left Boston in a state of personal upheaval, he made a series of important associations on a visit to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris that were to have profound repercussions upon his life back in America. He declares in his journal that he “will be a naturalist,” so compelling is his unfolding awareness of “an inevitable dualism bisecting nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as spirit, matter; man, woman.” When writing what was tantamount to a natural history of inversion in Sodome et Gomorrhe, Proust drew on Emerson’s predilection for taxonomy to dispassionately infuse his subject with observations of other bizarre dualities battling in man. Emerson brooded continually on the relationship between nature and art:


The production of a work of art throws light upon the mystery of humanity. A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world . . . Thus in Art, is nature passed through the alembic of man. Thus in art, does nature work through the will of a man . . .


 As Proust developed his critical awareness of the power of mémoire involontaire and of the unconscious, he wrote the early iconic episode in which a morsel of tea cookie is dipped into a cup of tea. The narrator’s experience, in which a whole new world of possibilities opens, can be seen as exemplary of Emerson’s expression “the alembic of man.” According to Murphy, the development of this primal sequence (invariably the one episode a non-Proustian might possibly know of all of Proust’s work) is strongly linked in its creation to Emerson. At twenty-nine, Emerson resigned from his position as minister of the Unitarian Second Church in Boston, in part due to his unwillingness to offer communion. We know Proust encountered this fact from Marie Dugard’s book Ralph Waldo Emerson: sa vie et son oeuvre, published in 1907, because he wrote about her study at length in his 1908 notebook. Emerson had come to reject the ritual church offering, and in a poem he imagines communion of another earlier sort, harkening back before Christ to invoke Bacchus:


Pour, Bacchus! the remembering wine;

Retrieve the loss of me and mine!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Let . . . A dazzling memory revive . . .


So, too, in the room where a mother attempts to pacify her son’s malaise, a secular communion occurs, with the tisane and madeleine replacing the wine and wafer. The retrieval powers of Emerson’s “remembering wine,and their ability to revive “dazzling memory” inhabits Marcel’s Parisian parlour with an ineffable potency.



By the middle of 1913, Proust’s conception of a Miltonian two-volume novel envisioned as Le temps perdu and Le temps retrouvé had already undergone myriad alterations. In November, the first volume of his novel, Du côté de chez Swann, was published, then announced as the first of a projected three-volume work. According to the notice printed on the table of contents for the 537-page book, Du côté de chez Swann was to be followed in 1914 by Le Côté de Guermantes (the book we know today as À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs), then by Le temps retrouvé. As 1914 slid inexorably toward the Great War, not even Proust’s dilatory tactics could be held accountable for the eventual non-appearance of these titles. Possible reconstructions of Proust’s fractured and incomplete text were so indeterminate at this point that by the time a second volume finally did appear, in 1919, the six-year, war-enforced hiatus appeared to have occasioned the transformation of an unformed novel into a masterpiece. The new incarnation more than doubled the size of an already bulky book, its additional heft primarily consisting of what is now thought of as a novel within a novel, the fifth and sixth volumes, La Prisonnière and Albertine disparue, the unfolding story of the narrator’s obsessive entanglement with Albertine Simonet.

These two volumes, thought of as Le roman d’Albertine, can be read as a tribute to Gothic literature as exemplified and perfected by Edgar Allan Poe. In his marvellous critical biography of Proust, Jean-Yves Tadié makes but two fleeting references to the American poet and story writer, while American critic William Carter makes none at all in his similarly impressive biography. And yet, just a little more than a year before he died, Proust was to write to a novelist friend that Poe’s books remain “in the desolation of my life, one of the blessings of memory.” When Proust explicitly evoked memory, he was writing about his sense of what had made him who he was.

The presiding intermediary who connected Proust and Poe was Baudelaire, whose inspired translations Proust knew well. Baudelaire championed Poe, fanning the flames of adulation that turned the struggling poet into a major literary presence in Europe at a time when the words American and writer were hardly ever associated in the minds of the reading public. Murphy provides parallels linking the work of Poe and Proust, building up a remarkably convincing argument in favour of the former’s influence upon the latter. The surfeit of paranoid anxiety in Poe’s stories resounds in Le roman d’Albertine, with its obsessiveness, irrationality, morbidity, and hypochondria. Pervasive guilt and longing that choke an already claustrophobic environment are common to both writers. Murphy can be tremendously persuasive, citing passages from each in order to make us hear unsuspected resonances. In one instance he even calls attention to a single word, one significant, exotic word, drawn from the text of each writer as an indicator of influence, as if to say “Aha!”—a defining moment known to detectives and critics alike. That word is orangutan, immediately known to readers of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and used by Proust in his description of the violinist Morel in an enraged state.

Poe’s preoccupation with the intersection of science and superstition fascinated Proust. The narrator’s uneasy sensation of being inhabited by a spirit, by the soul of his Aunt Léonie,


steeped in piety and with whom I would have sworn I did not have a single thing in common, I who was so mad for pleasures . . . it was a soul transmigrated into me . . . Once we pass a certain age, the soul of the child we used to be and the souls of the dead from whom we spring come and scatter over us handfuls of their riches and their misfortunes, asking to bear a part in the new feelings we are experiencing: feelings which allow us, rubbing out their old effigies, to recast them in an original creation.


Intense oppositions so prevalent in Gothic fiction (purity and corruption, reality and fantasy, the living and the dead) certainly colours Proust’s writing here—riches and misfortunes, old woman and young child, the sacred and the profane. “To recast them in an original creation”—shades of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. The narrator embodies a Gothic predisposition for anxiety and terror, manifested in his recurrent inability to fall asleep while travelling, stemming from his fear of waking in an unknown room and not being able to know not only where, but who, he is. And, as Murphy notes, “images of entombment abound in Proust.” The question aside of who is the real “captive,” one recognizes in the narrator and Albertine’s sequestered relations the constraints and conditions perfectly suitable for suffocation, for being buried alive.

Poe’s short novel The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket (first published in 1838, translated by Baudelaire into French in 1858) was the source of Proust’s declaration about “the blessings of memory.” An echo of the story’s divided authorial voice can be heard in the alternating perspectives of Marcel the character and Marcel the narrator that fuel the engine of À la recherche. In Pym as well as in other tales, Proust found much to admire in Poe’s use of the double, the alter ego, the dopplegänger. Proust not only peppered his novel with paired souls, he moved across gender lines in unorthodox, unexpected ways that further called into contrast dualities both psychological and psychosexual in nature. From this vantage point, Murphy introduces the notion of homosexuality and the way in which Proust borrowed from Gothic literature its murky atmosphere to reveal and conceal its presence; literally, writing the scene in which the narrator and Robert de Saint-Loup go off for dinner in the fog, and figuratively, with the miasma of mysteriousness in which he cloaks sexual longing and behaviour. Issues of ownership and theft, hiding places such as nooks and crannies, so prevalent in Poe, resurface in Proust as issues of sexuality. As the true nature of the relationship between two waiters begins to dawn on him, he realizes


. . . they had remained as invisible for me as those objects that elude the most painstaking search, yet are simply lying in full view, unnoticed by anyone, on a mantlepiece.


This is clearly a tribute to Poe and his short story “The Purloined Letter,” in which Detective Dupin discovers the hiding place of a stolen letter through his ability to put himself in the mind of the thief. Marcel the investigator begins to see that homosexuality is right there in front of him, like the letter in Poe’s story, plainly visible to those who know where to find it.

And if we care to look at Le roman d’Albertine as a detective story, redolent as it is in vague criminality, attempts at surveillance, shady characters, and questionable alibis, we must acknowledge that it was Poe who created the very genre. The narrator, pondering his role as keeper of Albertine, muses to himself:


. . . one needs to find within oneself a prefect of police . . . a head of criminal investigations who, instead of letting his mind wander . . . reasons logically . . .



I have to confess to an initial resistance to Murphy’s conception of this trio of American influences. I could not shake a nagging sense that Whistler, who lived most of his painting life in London and Paris, could hardly be considered American, thereby potentially invalidating the thrust of Murphy’s argument. Hadn’t Théodore Duret, Whistler’s first biographer and subject of his Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black, referred to him as an “en-frenchified American”? Some research taught me otherwise. Whistler lived many of his formative years in the eastern United States and attended West Point military academy, where his father had once taught drawing. He was nicknamed “Curly.” That set me straight. Three years at West Point? You’re American.

That Tadié et al. may underestimate the degree of influence Emerson and Poe had on Proust might be explained in part by the sheer volume of material before them, in comparison with the paucity of reference to these two American writers within Proust’s voluminous oeuvre. Emerson’s name has but a single mention in the entirety of the huge novel, and Poe as well appears by name only once, in a discussion between the narrator and his grandmother, who is concerned about his “unwholesome tendency toward melancholy and solitude.” Even less impressively, in both instances the names of the writers are grouped with others (Emerson with Ibsen and Tolstoy, Poe with Rimbaud and Verlaine), further undermining their individual claims on his sensibility.

This is not true of Whistler, who pops up repeatedly in À la recherche, his singularity as a painter and the elegance of his person held high as a shining example for all to observe. Along with Rembrandt and Titian, Whistler claims the most references to any painter in the novel, but perhaps more significantly, in his name can be found the root of the anagram of one of Proust’s few revered characters, the painter Elstir.

As with his exposure to Emerson and Poe, Proust was a young man when he first came to know about Whistler. The painter’s name appears in a number of articles Proust wrote about pictures that were currently on view in the galleries in Paris, for a little magazine called Le Mensuel. In a parlour game played with friends, the group would amuse themselves “by attributing portrait painters to our acquaintances and friends . . . but we never quite succeeded for Marcel—Carrière, early Courbet, perhaps Pisanello, or Whistler?” And unlike Emerson, who had died when Proust was eleven, and Poe, who was long dead, Whistler was still a man about town, vibrant, vital, and painting. The two men met on one occasion, at a party, and Proust managed to lay claim to the pair of grey gloves Whistler left behind.

Whistler is critical to our understanding not only of Elstir, but also to the development of Proust’s own aesthetic. Whistler’s belief that art required no narrative or historical context, coupled with an emphatic refusal to countenance morality within the realm of beauty, provided Proust with just the strength of purpose needed to break out from under his apprenticeship to John Ruskin. Whistler’s paintings enthralled the novelist, who came to understand that when French painting emerged into its “modern” age, one American artist held a place of honour. Drinking deeply from the influx of the art of Japan (occasioned by America’s forced opening of that previously isolated island state), Whistler’s work moved from the world of gritty, urban landscapes toward a subject matter more concerned with abstract impressions of nature and broader depictions of sexuality. This is essentially the movement Proust made as a writer, following Whistler’s example.

The Baron de Charlus, as much as Elstir, is a character formed in the glow of Whistler’s suppressed demarcations. The extent to which Charlus is representative of one aspect of human sexuality is tied up in this very association. At a soiree given by the Princesse de Guermantes, the narrator is desperate to find someone who will introduce him to the prince. He spots Charlus and is impressed by the baron’s fastidiousness in dress, his attention to detail, and the simple elegance of his evening wear, likening his appearance to a “‘Harmony’ in black and white by Whistler.” Earlier in the novel, he had noted the severity of Charlus’s choice of palette in dress:


. . . the suit he wore now was even darker than the other one . . . at close range, one sensed that the almost complete absence of colour from his clothes came not from any indifference to colour, but because, for some reason, he deprived himself of it. The sobriety apparent in his clothing gave the impression of deriving from a self-imposed diet, rather than from any lack of appetite.


So much is revealed about us in our choice of clothes. Artists must take in what we present with our habitual costumes and see through them to who we really are underneath. Murphy writes:


Charlus’s clothes make visible his efforts to keep his sexuality under wraps. He is, as it were, in mourning for a sex life he can only express in secret, for certain sensual refinements that lead him to be beaten black and blue in male brothels . . . .This is what Proust took from Whistler: that his characters should be portraits that reveal the complex and shifting conundrums of our inner lives.


For Baudelaire, painters were beacons, a notion Proust enthusiastically embraced and extended into his generation. He held few painters in as high esteem as Whistler.

Michael Murphy helps us understand more clearly how “Proust” and “America” are hardly anachronistic entities in tandem, but rather two harmonious terms that speak of change and modernity. Emerging from a populous sea of artistic influence, the spirits of Emerson, Poe, and Whistler hold their places in the development both of the writer and his massive creation. The incomparable power of these Americans, the cumulative effect of which Proust recounted in his letter to Robert de Billy, places them at the heart of European modernism, in the lifeblood of its towering literary achievement, whose statue continues to deepen as it expands.

Eric Karpeles works as a painter and also as a writer on the intersection of visual imagery and language. He is the author of Paintings in Proust and translator, from the Italian original, of Proust’s Overcoat.

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