“The mere dimensions” of À la recherche du temps perdu, the critic Ernest Boyd wrote in The Nation in 1924, “are sufficient to inspire respect, and to arouse curiosity in that section of the public which likes to talk about books rather than read them…. The result is that there has been much more enthusiasm displayed over Marcel Proust than knowledge of his work.”
Almost ninety years on, that has never been truer than it is now, as some of the writing occasioned by last month’s centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s magnum opus, showed. It is nearly impossible to find an article on the anniversary not containing the word “madeleine.”
From our first notice of Proust to our most recent—the first-ever publication in English, in 1971, of excerpts from Proust’s prefaces to the writings of art critic John Ruskin—The Nation has always displayed both enthusiasm for his work and knowledge of it, consistently marveling over “Proust’s conviction that we recapture the past, with its emotions, not by any effort of the intelligence but through the accidental stimulus of an odor, a musical phrase, an involuntary movement, a flavor upon the tongue” (Dorothy Brewster in 1926), or “his power to communicate an egotistical absorption in the poignancy of a cherished pain” (Joseph Wood Krutch in 1930).
Even our first review of his work, in the December 7, 1921, issue, recognized the permanent impact the Recherche would have upon world literature.
“Of all that has been written of Marcel Proust,” Ellen FitzGerald wrote, “little has been said of what he is contributing to the novel in this growing landmark.”
Some critics dismiss it as a novel of manners; others appreciate it as a product of style. No one has pointed out that this “Recherche du temps perdu” is a reviving and even recreating of old matter and old method into new effects, is what every novel should be—a discovery of something new both in life and art.
This novel has no hero, no dominant character whose destiny is the reader’s concern. Yet unless the reader of these volumes sees that the anonymous, negative, impersonal character of the child, boy, and youth who successively has the place of hero is a triumph of creative skill, all the more powerful because his unobtrusiveness is the very vantage point from which he observes, analyses, projects, paints whole groups, he misses the first marvel of M. Proust’s skill…The prologue, an exquisite bit of reverie, establishes the poetical mood of the hero, how he is to see his world. Memory has perhaps never been so demonstrated to be what Plato called it—the mother of the Muses. The pain, the sensitiveness, the inexplicable suffering of a child have never been distilled into more wistful poetry. Child psychology has something precious in these pages, just as it has in James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist.” M. Proust’s method is of the two the more rational…