Mirages and Mad Beliefs: Proust the Skeptic, by Christopher Prendergast

Mary Bryden on a deliciously rich interrogation of the French novelist’s oeuvre

August 22, 2013

Can we expect to see supermarket tastings of madeleines and lime-blossom tea this year, the publishing centenary of Marcel Proust’s first volume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu? Not if Christopher Prendergast has anything to do with it. Not only does he risk the wrath of bakery purists by calling these delectable shell-shaped sponges “pastry”; he even queries whether Proust’s famous memory-prodders could prompt anyone to “recall and narrate so much on the basis of a single afternoon’s refreshments”.

As someone who professed an aspiration to be a baker, Proust certainly knew his flaky from his shortcrust. In an early draft, the unleashing of involuntary memory is triggered not by madeleines but by biscottes, hardly more glamorous than toast. So, as Prendergast reasonably asserts, to claim that madeleines are sacrosanct is tantamount to “fetishizing the catalyst as the thing-in-itself”.

Just as he prises the madeleine away from its supposedly world-forming properties, Prendergast patiently hacks away at the entirety of what he calls the “Proust cult”, devoted swooningly to the novel’s “delicate epiphanies”, and its quest for redemption and resurrection through literature. Repeating a resonant phrase used in his general editor’s preface to the most recent English translation of the novel, Prendergast summarises this Proust as “a purveyor of high-grade cultural narcotics”.

Prendergast patiently hacks away at the entirety of what he calls the ‘Proust cult’ and its quest for redemption and resurrection through literature

Once the incense is blown away, though, which Proust does Prendergast usher in? Through the deployment of critical enquiry in preference to faith, a polyvalent author emerges. This Proust larks about, playing at being both narrator and author, arranging “random” events that are sometimes ludicrously contrived, valorising forgetting as well as remembering, and often gesturing in two or more directions at once. These include the two alternative pathways around Combray recalled by the narrator, one passing the home of the family friend Swann and evoking his artistic world, and the other leading to the environs of the aristocratic de Guermantes family. Only later in his life does the narrator discover that the two walks that had accrued so many distinct associations are in fact interlinked, both leading back to the village.

These two paths are for Prendergast “the novel’s privileged metaphor”, indicative of the connected yet non-linear movements that pervade À la Recherche. Of course, not looking where you are going can be risky, and Prendergast is excellent on the perils of locomotion and the Proustian metaphor of stilt walking, which can offer not only elevated vision but also comic pratfalls. For critic Northrop Frye, Proust’s “stupid giants” shared common cause with Beckett’s clowns.

Scepticism, too, involves a balancing act, between a potential judgement and its suspension. Prendergast locates Proust’s literary scepticism within a double vision, a “differential point of view”, while his philosophical scepticism – “mitigated” rather than radical – accommodates a rational corner from which to organise one’s doubts about the world. Prendergast acknowledges the awkwardness of pinning Proust (even intermittently) to a rationality that his work so often spurns in preference to intuition. Yet both modes are available to a contrapuntal Proust, whose two voices include both “the celebratory and the skeptical”.

Does insisting on the presence of doubt in À la Recherche undermine it? Far from it. Prendergast has baked a millefeuille of a book here, crisp, rich and multilayered. Read it for its exposition of jokes, of magic, enchantment and spectrality, of the Proustian body (a place “where we live but not where we are at home”), as well as for its awkward questions. Refusing to treat Proust as a celebrant, this book interrogates his gloriously mad project, while also amply fulfilling its intention to “stay alert, with one of the most alert minds of modern literature”.

Mirages and Mad Beliefs: Proust the Skeptic

By Christopher Prendergast
Princeton University Press, 248pp, £30.95
ISBN 9780691155203 and 9781400846313 (e-book)
Published 18 June 2013

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