Proust and America

Proust and America

Proust and America

Proust and America

Synopsis

"It is strange," Proust wrote in 1909, "that, in the most widely different departments... there should be no other literature which exercises over me so powerful an influence as English and American." In the spirit of Proust's admission, this engaging and critical volume offers the first comparative reading of the French novelist in the context of American art, literature, and culture. In addition to examining Proust's key American influences- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and James McNeill Whistler- Proust and America investigates the previously overlooked influence of the American neurologist George Beard, whose writings on neurasthenia and "American nervousness" contributed to the essential modernity of the author's work.

Excerpt

In a little hotel where we stayed some time they
spoke of us as English, no we said no we are
Americans, at last one of them a little annoyed at
our persistence said but it is all the same.

—Gertrude Stein, Paris France

It may appear willful not to say eccentric to regard Proust's writing as having been in any way influenced by America. Proust never visited the United States nor showed any known inclination to do so. Even had he been offered passage to New York, as is Odette de Crécy by one of her young lovers, we can imagine him doing precisely as she does: handing the ticket to someone waiting at the dock side and returning straight to the comforts of Paris. Does this mean Proust was uninterested in the States? We might usefully approach the question from the perspective of his relationship with Britain. Despite plans to cross La Manche, Proust was never to set foot in England. His grasp of the language was by his own admission shaky. ““J”e lis l'anglais très difficilement” “I read English with great difficulty”, he wrote Violet Schiff in 1919 (Corr. XVIII:475; my translation). His inability to speak English fluently he put down to his learning it while suffering with asthma: “et ne pouvais parler, que je l'ai appris des yeux et ne sais ni prononcer les mots, ni les reconnaître quand on les prononce” “and I couldn't talk, I learned with my eyes and am unable to pronounce the words or to recognize them when pronounced by others” (Corr. III:221; SLI:290).

Proust grew up at the height of Anglophilia in Paris, and his interest in British art and culture is a reflection of the times. What knowledge he had . . .

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