Marcel Proust by Michael Wood

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Review by Rob Spence

It’s not often that one gets the chance to begin a review with a boast, so I’ll get it over with now: I have read À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. All of it. Not, admittedly, in the original French, but nevertheless, the whole glorious thing. It’s one of the great twentieth century works of art, so it’s no surprise that it continues to attract the attention of literary scholars. And there can be few literary scholars more qualified to write on Proust than Michael Wood, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, who has written extensively on Proust in his distinguished career. This volume is not, however, a standard literary-critical account. It appears in the Oxford “My Reading” series, whose aim is to present a more personal response to a text than would be expected in an academic volume. The series introduction declares that the authors of the books need to answer questions such as “What is it like to love this book? What is it like to have a thought or idea or doubt or memory, not cold and in abstract, but live in the very act of reading?” These questions guide the response of the author, so that, in the case of this volume at least, what we read is more like a dynamic engagement with the novel rather than a critical analysis. It’s written in a more relaxed style, too, than the usual jargon-filled lexis that mars much work in the field.

Freed from the requirement to offer a comprehensive guide to Proust’s masterpiece, Wood offers instead a reflection on various aspects of the book, organised around the notion of “events”, by which he means more than just a happening. The first, and most important event is the point in 1908 when Proust, having dabbled in the literary world without much success, begins to write what will eventually become the Recherche. He will incorporate material from his abandoned novel Jean Santeuil, and sketches later discovered and published as The 75 Folios. Wood shows the complex relationship between this early work and the finished – if it can ever be considered to be finished – multi-volume Recherche. Another major event that resonates through Proust’s work is the Dreyfus Affair. That long-lasting scandal forms a useful lens through which to view many of his principalcharacters, as it spotlights their attitudes and prejudices. Proust skilfully uses it, tragic though it was, for comic effect, as Wood explains:

The Duc de Guermantes becomes the object of a very good piece of comic sociology. He is senior vice-president of the Jockey Club and fully expects to become president when the current incumbent dies. We are told of his ‘caring little for the presidency’, but this is true only as long as he thinks he is about to get it. Confident of his chances, he doesn’t campaign, but others do. Against him. They say his wife was a Dreyfus supporter, that the duke himself was ‘half a German’. Losing the election, the duke claims that his ‘long-standing friendship with Swann’ was the problem, that is, his relationship with someone who was both Jewish and a Dreyfusard. The Dreyfus Affair, the duke says, with spectacular insincerity, had ‘caused so much unhappiness.’ The narrator reminds us that ‘in reality’ the duke ‘was conscious of only one instance of unhappiness, his own failure to win the presidency of the Jockey Club.’

I have quoted at length here, because I think this gives a good illustration of Wood’s approach, which is scholarly, but very accessible. Here, he teases out the layers of irony and humour in the treatment of this minor event in the narrative, and shows how painstaking Proust is in his presentation of his characters.

Another major chapter covers the relationship between the narrator and Albertine, the young girl he virtually imprisons. Wood, typically, approaches this from an oblique angle, exploring the use Proust makes of the word ‘angoisse’, which can mean, depending on the context, ‘anguish’, ‘angst’ or just ‘fear.’ The subtle nuances that Proust brings to this word, and the way it is applied in the treatment of the Albertine story, throws fascinating light on his narrative method. As with several other passages in this book, it made me want to go back to Proust, to read key sections again.

And that is, of course, the chief purpose of a book such as this: it encourages the reader to reflect on the work under consideration, and it enriches our understanding. Wood’s range of reference is immense, and in this short volume, he mentions a wide selection of literary, political and philosophical figures. So be prepared to encounter Kafka, Joyce, Hardy, Donne, Mann, Kennedy, Clemenceau, Descartes and Wittgenstein among many others in these pages. Since this is not a straightforward introduction, I think it would be more useful to have read Proust before reading Wood, as it presupposes quite a bit of prior knowledge. But that is a pleasure in itself. Read Proust, and then enjoy this expert distillation of its essence.

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Michael Wood, Marcel Proust (Oxford University Press, 2023). 978-019284582-5, 130pp., hardback.

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  1. This may be the gentle shove I need to get me to read Proust after several false starts in the past. I’m curious to know which translation you read, Rob. I have the classic Scott Moncrieff one in the three-volume Penguin edition (the first quarter of the first volume being fairly well-thumbed and the other two volumes remaining intimidatingly untouched).

  2. Charles – it’s definitely worth the effort. I used Scott Moncrieff mainly, but occasionally looked at the Penguin. I believe a new translation is in the works from Oxford. Scott Moncrieff is, I think, a bit fast and loose with his translation, but he does convey an appropriate Edwardian flavour.

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