Thursday, December 31, 2015

'In Search of Lost Time' is a Catalog of Paintings (no. 10)

 by Larry Witham

proust holds the record for number of paintings in a novel

MARCEL PROUST’S SEVEN-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, is not for the fainthearted. Anyone short of the Proust scholars has probably gone only as far as one volume, or reading samplings of the style that has made Proust “the greatest modern novelist.”
            The novel holds the all-time record for artistic references. This is not only because of its length, although that is obviously the case. (Proust published the first volume in 1913; the last came out in 1927, after his death). In addition, though, Proust was filled with ideas on paintings, art history, and the art critics of his era. He could easily engaged in massive “name dropping” about artworks—either as integral to the novel’s narrative, or as a kind of showing off (depending on your point of view).
            The novel’s story is told by an unnamed narrator, whose recollections of his life around Paris introduce him to a famous writer, a composer, and a painter, all of whom allow the narrator to discuss art. Painting, however, takes an especially prominent place. For all three arts, the oft-quoted notion of the narrator is a fair summary: “Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists.”
            The novel itself bears this out. It does not have a traditional plot. Instead it is a kind of massive stream of consciousness mixed with observations. It includes the internal thoughts of many characters, although the narrator is the chief one—the thread that holds the story together.
            The narrator begins in childhood. He grows up amid family and friends, moving through French society, social visits, restaurants, salons, brothels, and resorts (and finally Venice). He falls in love with a young woman, aspiring all the while to become a writer (which materializes only at the end of the novel). His love is for the dark-haired teenager Albertine. As the years pass, and after an erratic cohabitation, Albertine leaves him. Then she dies of a riding accident. The narrator’s youthful experience of idealism, ambition, love, and jealousy are now augmented by sadness, regret, and loss.
            In all, the narrator has passed from youth to maturity. He gets his first article published in Le Figaro. Then comes the First World War. As he ages and faces death, he returns to his old haunts, where particular objects—as in the entire novel—evoke his memories. In mood, the story follows the narrator’s own musing that, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
            Across the vast melodrama, the narrator (and sometimes others) mention more than one hundred painters. They may just cite an artist's name, describe an artwork, or give the exact title of a historic or modern painting.
            The occasion for discussing art often comes when the narrator visits the studio of the painter Elstir. (The painter had in fact first introduced the narrator to Albertine and her group at the fictional seaside resort of Balbec.) During these studio episodes, the narrator waxes eloquently on the art of painting and how artists derive remarkable impressions from ordinary objects. Critics have said Proust invented Elstir based on his direct knowledge of the Paris painters Moreau, Degas, Turner, Monet, and Renoir.
            The novel’s references to paintings arise most frequently as descriptions of human characters or moods. The narrator makes these comparisons, but so do other characters, especially Mr. Swann, the second most prominent voice in the novel after the narrator.
            Swann knows his paintings. Once he says, “Oh, yes, that boy I saw here once, who looks so like the Bellini portrait of Mahomet II.” Later, the beautiful former courtesan Odette makes Swann think that she has a “face worthy to figure in Botticelli’s ‘Life of Moses.” When Odette is sad, she reminds Swann “of the faces of some of the women created by the painter of the ‘Primavera.’” (Again, Botticelli).
            The young narrator often does the same. He notes that Swann resembles a figure “with the arched nose and fair hair in Luini’s fresco,” Adoration of the Magi. The narrator passes a working woman who looks like “portrait of Jeffreys by Hogarth, with her face as red as if her favorite beverage were gin rather than tea.”
            The paintings serve as stimulants to all the emotional intrigues and loves being worked out between the novels many characters. The narrator goes to Venice, for example, and the painted churches and palaces egg on new feelings. The paintings, for example, “almost succeeded one day in reviving my love for Albertine.” Late in the novel, a famous writer, now old, looks at a yellow wall highlighted in Vermeer’s View of Deflt painting. The writer concludes that his own works are nothing compared to that patch of yellow; he stumbles back, and dies, at this disconcerting realization.
            Also at the end of the novel, old age is envisioned in the “terrible ravaged faces” of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. The narrator closes with memories of artists who inspired him. He thinks of both Elistir (fictional) and Chardin (real), painters who let go of past tradition to paint in new ways—in other words, he says, “you can make a new version of what you love only by first renouncing it.”
            By the number of references alone, Proust could be said to favor the artists Mantegna, Rembrandt, Botticelli, and Titian. He cites specific painting of the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler, who was all the rage in London and Paris at the time. The novel’s first reference to an artist is to the French landscape painter Corot. The last reference (as noted) is to the French genre painter Chardin.
            In real life, Proust encountered paintings in the Louvre, art books, and journals. He later traveled to Italy and Holland. He began as a great admirer of both Whistler and the English art critic John Ruskin. When Ruskin and Whistler had their famous clash over the morality of art—Ruskin saying art must be moral—Proust tended to side with Whistler. In other words, art is independent of morals.
            And it could be said that when Ruskin died in 1900, and when Monet was displaying his gigantic lily pond Impressionist paintings, Proust swung further in that direction. “One finds in In Search of Lost Time a good deal of clinical objectivity, but no narrative omniscience,” says Eric Karpeles, whose scholarly work, Paintings in Proust, is the authoritative—and well-illustrated—source on this topic. Translated: Proust’s novel was like a giant lily pond, filled with movement and colorful impression, but lacking the structural quality of architecture.
            Paintings served well for this kind of impressionistic description of objects that evoked memories and likenesses. Despite the highly visual nature of Proust’s writing, the apartment he lived in during his last days was barren of artworks or decoration. He seemed to be saying that art was a visual stimulus that led to sensual temptations, and therefore, to do one’s art—as a writer in Proust’s case—there needs to be no distractions, especially if one is escaping the disappointments of life by turning to art completely.

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