Rites of Admiration

WOODCOCK, GEORGE

Rites of Admiration A READING OF PROUST By Wallace Fowlie Doubleday Anchor Books 307 pp. $1.45. Reviewed by GEORGE WOODCOCK Author, "The Paradox of Oscar Wilde," "The Writer and Politics,"...

...The ugly, gray little French provincial town of Illiers is not and cannot be the iridescent memory town of Combray, as everyone who has understood Proust will know...
...But Fowlie is too deeply immersed in his subject to leave A Reading of Proust as a mere literary guide...
...In my experience, for every one person who has read and admired Proust at least three have read and admired Camus, but the point is surely irrelevant, since even more people have read and admired Simenon...
...He has wider claims to make...
...Out of this system emerges a mythological pattern with Swann, by virtue of his name, appearing as Jupiter and hence a god whose sacrifice is announced by Oriane de Guermantes' wearing a red dress on the day Swann tells her he is about to die from an incurable disease...
...Proust would have been amused to hear such didactic triumphs accorded to him, but again the statement is irrelevant to the discussion of Proust as a literary artist or to the kind of judgment we should make of him...
...Popularity, even after a generation, is no criterion of excellence...
...Proust," he tells us, "is unquestionably the most widely read and admired French writer of the 20th [century...
...The literary guide for the uninitiate has become a genre characteristic of the '60s...
...Reviewed by GEORGE WOODCOCK Author, "The Paradox of Oscar Wilde," "The Writer and Politics," etc...
...What Fowlie has failed to understand is that Proust's metaphors are not intended as units in a systematic structure such as certain modern critics love to discover...
...But an hour struggling to explain the ordered complexity of A la recherche du temps perdu to an audience of sophomores is likely to make even a Proustian realize the usefulness of some kind of chart to direct unaccustomed readers along Proust's devious and multitudinous paths...
...Wallace Fowlie has already provided two such guides, to contemporary French literature and to the contemporary French theater...
...The same applies to the pictures stored in the imagination from the act of reading...
...For the real understanding of any work of art involves a communication between observer and artist which is direct and in every case unique...
...In providing such a chart Professor Fowlie follows the obvious and probably the best expository plan by first placing Proust in the context of French literary history, next recording basic biographical facts with the caution that, as Proust himself contended, a successful work of art stands in the end as a distillation but not a mirror of its creator's life, and finally by dealing consecutively with the six volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu...
...This would lead us to the thought that the creatures of a novelist have been given life by him because of some connection with them, because of some degree of love he feels for them, even for the monsters of his creation...
...At least twice, for example, he refers with satisfaction to the fact that the house of Aunt Léonie has been turned into a tourist site and says that "today Illiers, for the pilgrims who go there, is Combray...
...A paraphrase of any work of literature is a poor substitute for the real thing, particularly when the real thing is as rich and intricate and as dependent on the reader's response to metaphor and allusion and verbal texture as Proust's great novel...
...now, in A Reading of Proust, he performs the same service for one of the most important modern French writers...
...There are points in A Reading of Proust where one begins to suspect that Fowlie does not even understand some of the most obvious statements of his hero, so blinded has he become by his own enthusiasm...
...He sees Proust as the semblable of the great Baudelaire, "the most universal French writer of the 19th century," and seeks to establish parallels by illogical comparisons of this kind: "Baudelaire transformed his experience of evil (mal) into flowers (fleurs), and Proust resurrected his past life (temps perdu) and reconstructed it in a novel (temps retrouv...
...On just as shaky foundations, he also presents Proust as the heir of Balzac...
...Nor does Fowlie stop at finding close affinities between Proust and the other French writers he admires most...
...when they are not merely decorative or descriptive, their virtue lies, in true Symbolist manner, in their essential ambiguity, in the multiplicity of their suggestiveness...
...But Fowlie is full of the anxiety of the true believer, and urgently grabs our sleeves as he assures us that "today Proust even more than Gide seems to be the great liberator from convention by his faithful and relentless depiction of it...
...Yet it is a cardinal belief in Proust that we visit remembered or imagined places only at the peril of disillusionment...
...All that Fowlie actually tells us in this confused statement is that Baudelaire and Proust, like all artists, transmuted actuality as they saw it into forms of art, but he deludes himself into imagining that he has indicated a special correspondence between the two writers which in some way enhances Proust's stature...
...He ends with a summarizing chapter discussing "the Esoteric in Proust...
...As the most willfully wicked man maintains some vestige of his relationship with God, so the most deliberately fictional character maintains something of his creator and hence of his divine origin...
...Here Fowlie reveals himself as the ardent admirer, anxious at all costs to present his subject in the most flattering light...
...Theology," Fowlie solemnly opines, "teaches that the world was created by an act of love...
...the incidental judgments he makes regarding Proust both widen the scope of his survey and diminish its objectivity...
...Yet for those to whom A la recherche is merely a student's task A Reading of Proust will be useful and informative, and for others Fowlie's exposition may provide a bridge to that point where the novel itself will take life in their imaginations in a way that even the best guidebook could not have led them to expect...
...And so the usefulness of A Reading of Proust as an introduction for the completely uninitiated is negated for the serious reader by the astonishing ineptitude of its critical insertions...
...This is theological nonsense and critical absurdity, but it is paralleled in the final chapter when Fowlie's search for the esoteric leads him to build up an elaborate figurative system...
...he warns us specifically not "to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses...
...To addicted readers of Proust everything in his vast novel seems so clear within its convolutions, so irradiated with inner light, every connection seems so appropriate and every clue so necessary, that the idea of anyone needing a guide to this world of the shaping imagination seems extraordinary...
...Having seen Fowlie go so far in substituting the rites of admiration for the realities of understanding, it is not surprising to find him admitting that Proust reveals hardly a trace of religious impulse, and yet at the same time searching for elaborate quasi-religious correspondencesóbetween the creation of a work of art which is the subject of Proust's work and the divine Creation of the world, between certain mythical allusions in A la recherche and a developed system of esoteric mythology...
...Most obvious is his attempt to place Proust in the hierarchy of modern French writers...
...Easy introductions to Eliot, Faulkner, Joyce, and Yeats proliferate, and they are understandably popular among publishers, since there is a ready-made market among the thousands of undergraduates who are seeking quick and simple ways of understanding at least the obvious points about the authors they are expected to study...

Vol. 47 • September 1964 • No. 19


 
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