The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2022

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MARCH 2022 Issue

Christopher Prendergast’s Living and Dying with Marcel Proust

Christopher Prendergast
Living and Dying with Marcel Proust
(Europa Compass Editions, 2022)

Let’s start with the end, the epilogue of this magnificent and very living book. Here appears the recounting of the quite extraordinary and still proceeding undertaking (no pun on the title intended), in which the reading aloud of the entire Recherché by an immense variety of persons is filmed by Véronique Aubouy, the whole experience bearing the wonderfully succinct title “Proust lu.” This filming began in 1993, and a few years ago, both Christopher Prendergast and I were among the “gaggle of professors” discussing Proust at Bellagio through the kindness of the Rockefeller Foundation and called upon to read the two pages assigned to us. I well remember—and thinking memory, how not, in speaking of or reading or writing about Proust—that we were each allowed to choose the place to read from, and how important that choice seemed. And was. I no longer remember the passage I was asked to read, rather the choosing of a small, white-walled crypt on the basement floor we rarely visited, enclosing two tombs. I can right now feel the chill of the stone wall on my back. Perhaps I was previewing my reading of this book about living and dying: we know from the beginning to its and our end, that everything is all about time and the stir of memories. We never did not know that it was all about time. Certainly, the last words of this astounding novel are “in time,” as everything happens inside the “Proustian time-world.”

As for place, Proustian readers are always attuned to place in that novel, which might entail our own “deep forgetting and spontaneous remembering” of the exact location of our reading, as well as that of the characters in the ongoing and very much ongoing text. Reading, in the text and of it, under such and such a tree, or in a particular garden or library or crypt. Coincidences and contingencies. Constantly shifting tectonic plates, as we are shown.

I would be hard put to it, had I to signal anything major left out, even in this underwhelming number of pages. Certainly not the narrative structure with its complications, crossroads, and its “inner seamstress” as well as Françoise stitching it together in its trame, its weft, warp, and spun yarn, nor the proliferation of binary elements, such as body and mind, taste and smell—Proust being a “committed equivocator.” Nor the recurring and moving repetitions of significant details in nature—take hawthorns, those trees, bearing apples or not, and the succulence of grapes—in culture, like the Vinteuil Sonata and La Berma. Nor yet in style, such as the blur and the definite article, the short and lengthy sentences, the looping returns, and the rhythm which, as Walter Benjamin observed, recreates the asthmatic atmosphere of the author. Maladies and medicine abound.

We recognize, along with Proust’s obsessions we so delight in observing, Prendergast’s own, such as the counterfactual, recurring and recurring, elaborated once as an “absolutely decisive negative counterfactual.” Whoof. A sharp stylist himself, he displays his acute humor in describing the play of countering statement by opposed statement as both impish and astute. We are invited into his text: “Those who might wish to join me” appears in a footnote, a clever setting for such an invitation, and I felt doubly privileged, having already been part of that gaggle of academics invited to Bellagio. Surely, we all get to feel privileged as we continue. A chapter ends with another collective excursion: “We are about to find out what is so special about pink” and we are led to Proust as chromophiliac and into a mass of colors. Literary impressionism indeed.

Large statements amuse us, even more as they are qualified: “The novel as a whole constitutes a museum, slowly converting to mausoleum, that houses an extended cheeks collection.” This is the other side of the serious pointing at the tapestry and threading of the text: Prendergast has the not altogether widespread talent of mingling the comic with the straight. We might stumble on the cobblestones and hear our own laughter, echoed by his. My sustained joy in reading this book about Marcel Proust was increased to a substantial degree in encountering the marvelously believable Abbé Mugnier whom I have loved since meeting him in print the very first time, and I was overjoyed that he should be given the last word: “Marcel Proust, why, no-one is less dead than he.”

Among “the joys that should detain us,” this book is a brief but big one. Proust did say of some works that “they partake of that quality of being…always incomplete.”  Believing him the greatest of wise writers, as I always have, I shall stop right here. 


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2022

All Issues