Academic journal article French Forum

Approaching the Unapproachable: A Proustian Preface

Academic journal article French Forum

Approaching the Unapproachable: A Proustian Preface

Article excerpt

My first semester in graduate school, at Columbia in Fall 1985, Michael Riffaterre offered a Proust seminar. The course description has stayed with me: it was so horrifying and titillating, as well as so terse, that I involuntarily memorized it upon first reading, and have often thought of it since. "A close textual reading of A la recherche du temps perdu and related texts"--full stop--was what was proposed to the intrepid student. I was so intimidated by this prospect that I decided not to take the course, as I had read only Du cote de chez Swann (although I had done so twice; the leap into A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs seemed beyond me, and despite my fervent interest in Proust I was convinced that my lot was to reread the first volume over and over until someday unforeseen circumstances might propel me into the unknown territory of the frightening number of volumes that followed). Nonetheless I could not resist attending the first meeting of the seminar which I had no intention of taking, with the immediate, retrospectively predictable result that I ended up taking the course, and the eventual, perhaps less obvious result that my entire graduate school career, master's and doctoral theses alike, arose out of my research for this particular seminar: not unlike, I am tempted to add, the narrator's past out of his cup of tea. In this case it was my future that lay in wait in the form of the course description packet with its perversely economical promise of "A close textual reading of A la recherche du temps perdu and related texts."

Against all odds, the seminar--I still haven't figured out how--managed to live up to its advertised goals. We did in the end achieve something very much like what the description threatened. No one in the class, as far as I know, actually read the entire Recherche, and the "related texts" were for the most part confined to some excerpts from Proust's essays, but by the end of the semester we had engaged in close textual analysis of a great variety of passages, largely representative of the thematic and stylistic obsessions of the Proustian text, so that, notably thanks to our (the students') frenzied consultation in the library of the helpful volume resumes and index in the Pleiade edition, as well as the exhaustive and exhausting Concordance, we were all as thoroughly familiar with the whole of Proust's universe as anyone not having read the whole of the Recherche (and all related texts) could possibly hope to be.

Several years later I did finish reading the Recherche, but this was not until some time after the seminar in question, long after I had successfully defended my master's thesis on the subject, and well into doctoral research. In terms of pedagogy, one lesson I eventually learned from this experience is: n'est pas Riffaterre qui veut. That is, once I had finished my dissertation (on Proust and Madame de Sevigne) and gotten a job, I was in my turn delegated to teach, among other things of course, Proust at a variety of levels: from the clochers de Martinville passage in a course designed to introduce budding French majors to French literature, to "Un Amour de Swann" in an upper-level 20th-century French literature course in French, to Swann's Way in English in comparative literature seminars, to doctoral seminars on Proust. All this with varying degrees of success. I have never figured out how he did it. He did, though, which means that it is possible, but--and this is the main point I wish to make, obvious though it may seem--it is not easy.

Proust is notoriously difficult in any number of ways. His work is difficult for the casual reader wishing to acquaint herself with one of the monuments of literary modernism, as no real reading of the Recherche, or even part thereof, can reasonably be termed casual. It is just as difficult for the budding or even seasoned critic who tackles the job of Proust commentary, not only because the literature on the subject is already so vast as seemingly to defy expansion, but also because the ideal reader of Proust criticism is one who already has encyclopedic knowledge of the encyclopedic work, and thus necessarily differs from the implicit target reader, with his general working knowledge of the big picture. …

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