Tour de force is mad and magic by turns

Proust Among the Stars

February 11, 2000

   In the forest of Proustian criticism, it takes a very special book to achieve the unquestionable visibility of Malcolm Bowie's. The challenge is particularly arduous when a study proposes to address the whole of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu . Those studies devoted to partial aspects are bound to be of some value; but overarching accounts have a way of helplessly turning into dispiriting guidebooks or "how to" books, assuming that we need patented equipment to acquire the coveted status of Proustian reader. Authors of such commentaries are so persuaded by Proust's defence of his plot, bolstered by the overall title and the contrasting title of the last volume, that they reduce his immense pilgrimage to a skeletal diagram of the self's adventures in time culminating in salvation through art, and jettison the risk-laden experience of reading for the sake of conceptual reassurance. Despite Roland Barthes's spirited defence of the Right to Skip, as well as the to-ing and fro-ing that has won theoretical acceptance through video-recorder study of iconic narratives, they tend to focus on the cumulatively cognitive rather than on the pleasures of tangential approaches to Proust.

Proust among the Stars avoids these pitfalls with effortless elegance. Adding to an analysis of topics begun in the last decade, it inserts them into an autobiographical setting that lends harmonics to Proust's inquiry into the inextricable claims of work and life. It does not follow the panoptic route, but it has a narrative, starting with the self and ending in death, via themes such as time, art, sex, or, more unexpected, politics and especially morality, tackled here in a particularly fruitful way that renovates our view of the whole structure. Moreover, the very project of the book ensures that the values it singles out are those it puts across through its own writing practice: it often makes its points through extended quotes, chosen for their illuminating power but also allowing an unmediated contact with the work in real time. This confirms Bowie's intuition about Proust's achievement, that of the role of the writerly, of "the fantastication" of Proust's writing, "the power, pace and percipience of it", which will always matter more than the compulsive literary tourism taking the critic to Cabourg's dull Grand Hotel in search of Proust's magical Balbec. For despite a parallel economy supported by "the combined forces of gossip, travelogue and voyeuristic biographical speculation", the effort required by Proust's text, its intricate sentences and involved semantic structures, is not superseded by a few fetishised images and episodes: "if Proust's life had been in some respects mad, his novel was madder"; and Bowie's work sets out to demonstrate this not only through analysis but through the force of his own language, a veritable character that could be called, in his own description of the narrator in A la Recherche , "the helmsman of a project which has to be kept on course".

This project is that of rendering the "majestic respiratory rhythm" of a work that celebrates and stages both the "ecstasy of difference" and the "satisfaction of a unifying web". The fondness, in the novel, for metaphors inspired by celestial phenomena embodies this dual attraction and Proust among the Stars evokes the paradox between the dispersal and coherence we find in constellations. The contrast between the overall structure of Proust's summa and what Forster called its "internal stitching" is another aspect of this dyad, as is the gift for realism, satire, comedy and farce coexisting with intimations conveyed by sentences that seem "to offer a working model for speculative thought". The beautiful jacket, which shows a vertical and solar picture of Proust dominated by another nocturnal one, larger, horizontal, shadowy and overlaid with stars evokes yet another opposition: the attraction for the innumerable worlds created by different eyes and brains which in great artists allow us "to go from star to star" and the realisation, as the book progresses, of the inexorable weight of fixations that shape the mind's development and underlie human variety.

Bowie's developmental view implies that we take the narrator at face value as a real character, not a vampiric device leaving no trace in the mirrors which duly represent the others, even if this "monster" fluctuates between a mimic's role and that of "a singularity, a legislator standing above the social flux". It implies that we accept the book's ingenuously exploitative class alienation and its author's inability even to conceive of something like Freudian transference as a lever to escape a problematic self-image with a compensatory narcissism and the fractal-like repetitiveness in the "laws" of human behaviour he purports to establish. Bowie shows that for Proust, Eros is a force for complication, much as Sade defended his panoramic depictions as grounded in what he called a " principe de délicatesse " ultimately showing a humanistic dimension, and the last eventually must dominate our view of Proust's book, as a great poet surrenders to all-encompassing pity, which is an "excessive" feeling.

And here, as in the characterisation of Proust's writing, we see Bowie's values: an admiration for energy and trenchancy. Words such as excess, extravagance, supererogation, risk, sublime extremity, exorbitant, exuberance and reckless explain why we come out of Proust's tidal flow energised. As the book, however, is meant to show not only the "large tidal movements" in Proust's work but also its "cross-currents", we encounter many passages where explication has to merge with advocacy when the novel affronts contemporary pieties. If Proust is, as Bowie says, the great negotiator, the Talleyrand of tight corners, so is Bowie himself, who at times seems to have mastered the negotiator's ultimate skill, that of conceding distinctions that have been created solely for that purpose; and his exonerating interpretations massively resort to this unstemmable quality in Proust's vision and style.

Proust may have had his demons, but Bowie's irrepressible eudemonism makes him find solace in this great novel when threatened not only by the dullness of the modern world but by its horrors too. To resist his own "word magic" would deprive us of the chance to benefit from what is not only an inquiry of penetrating originality but a homage penned with the sophisticated artistic ethics that Proust's archetypal writer admired in Vermeer's Petit Pan de Mur Jaune .

Annette Lavers is emeritus professor of French, University College London.


Proust Among the Stars

Author - Malcolm Bowie
ISBN - 0 00 255622 7
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 348

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