When I started Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time and, indeed, when I had finished Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, the only awareness that I had of French literature was limited to Gustave Flaubert’s one volume novel Madame Bovary, which I tapped out of reading at around page seventy, firstly because my idealistic commitment to reading it in French was proving very difficult and I was too pig-headed to change over to the English translation. The three or four page rant the guy gives in the pub about agriculture and rational philosophy seemed to be overly explicit thematising on Flaubert’s part, too holistic, too nineteenth-century and too boring. I went on to something else, Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1970, I think. Apart from this, I had no knowledge of French literature, with the possible exception of Samuel Beckett if he counts and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which is magical of course, but not terribly applicable to Proust.
As such, I was on the lookout for comparisons that could be made between Flaubert’s novel and Proust’s. The most obvious point of comparison could perhaps be found in the ballroom scene in the early stages of Madame Bovary, when the newlyweds Emma and Charles attend a fairly swish party in the castle of La Vaubyessard, hosted by the Marquis and Marquesse d’Aubervilliers. What follows is a rather famous description of the wealth and luxury of the party, both of which are augmented through Emma’s inflected perspective on reality and her desire to enter into her abstract notion of what that society is:
“Their clothes, of better cut, seemed to be of softer material, and their hair, gathered in curls at their temples, had the sheen of finest pomade. Their complexion was that of wealth, the shade of white that enhances the pallor of porcelain, the watered shimmer of satin, the shine of beautiful furniture, maintained in the peak of health by a simple and exquisite diet. Their necks moved effortlessly in low cravats; their long sideburns rested on turned-down collars; they dabbed their lips with handkerchiefs embroidered with large initials and from which rose sweet smells. The older ones looked youthful, while there was something middle-aged about the young men’s faces.”
This is a really vivid sequence and stands out among the almost a third of the novel that I’ve bothered to read. The description is subtly grounded in Emma’s point of view (how else would the words ‘better’ and ‘softer’ have a point of reference?), the strikingly luxurious diction is accentuated by the languorous undulation of the sentences but most of all, the people it supposedly describes are encumbered; they become mere referents for the materiality of their appearance, which is precisely the point. This is a mechanism deployed to emphasise Emma’s naiveté.
The closing sections of the final volume of In Search of Lost Time contains an equally striking description of a soirée, although it is so for very different reasons. Marcel, the narrator, is at this point in the novel, an old man and has recently returned to high society after a long period of seclusion. He has recently realised that his lifelong literary ambitions, if they are to be fulfilled, will be realised by bringing to life in prose the world that he now occupies, that of the Parisian upper and middle classes. This world then begins to manifest itself in a rather macabre and abject manner:
“it is more as a jigging puppet, with a beard made of white wool, that I saw him twitched about and walked up and down in the drawing-room, as if he were in a scientific and philosophical puppet show, in which he served, as in a funeral address or a lecture at the Sorbonne, both as a reminder of the vanity of all things and as a specimen of natural history…puppets which were an expression of Time, Time which is normally not visible, which seeks out bodies in order to become so and wherever it finds them seizes upon them for its magic lantern show.”
Marcel has arrived at a party and finds all of his friends so aged and changed, that he is unable to recognise any of them, and casts them as old marionettes, manoeuvred by the invisible hand of time, jostled along by threads (a word he later uses in relation to the links that bring us to other people that we meet in our lives) that only he, the author can perceive. In some ways, he makes himself the puppet master, at a safe distance from the decline visible in his extended group of friends.
That irrevocable agent of time may be responsible, but its him that gawps over it for a hundred or so pages, describes each one of his supposed friends past their prime in detail. Exactly why Emma perceives this age-reversal dynamic in the crowds of the upper crust remains for me to puzzle over, but if I was to reach for a fun, if unlikely explanation, I could sit it next to the final paragraph in the Proust quotation, which seems to evoke some sort of composite of the mythological beings of the changeling and the succubus, of immortal hermit crab people, capable of ‘entering’ these marionette bodies as they wish to. Probably not, never mind.