Marcel Proust’s Pleasures And Regrets

Proust is one of the many famous writers more invoked than read (a glance at the 4,200-odd pages of In Search of Lost Time goes a long way to explaining why), and yet somehow he cannot be approached fresh. Noviciates bring to a first reading of him certain expectations about theme and plot built on the reputation of his opus. So it was that I arrived at Pleasures and Regrets, Proust’s first published work, a collection of short stories, sketches and scenes completed when he was just 25 years old. A brief swim in Proust’s waters affirmed many of my expectations and upended others.

True to his reputation, Proust draws his cast of characters exclusively from the affluent and aristocratic. The opening sentences of the first story (not to mention its title), “The Death of Baldassare Silvande Viscount of Sylvania,” are representative: “Master Alexis, don’t cry like that. Perhaps your uncle, the Viscount, will give you a horse.” Another story, “A Dinner in Society,” offers us this snippet of dialogue, after a table-talk discussion “on anarchists”:

But Madame Fremer, as though bowing resignedly to the fatality of a natural law, said slowly: “What good would it do? Rich and poor we have always with us.” And all these people, the poorest among them having an income of at least a hundred thousand pounds, impressed by the truth of her remark and relived of their scruples, emptied with beaming cheerfulness their last glass of champagne.

Proust the chronicler of high society was well known to me, but Proust the scourge of high society was not, and many of these pieces reminded me of another great gay writer, a contemporary of Proust’s, Oscar Wilde, in both their ribaldry and their acrimony. “A libertine’s need of virginity is another form of the eternal homage love pays to innocence” – does that not sound like Wilde, or La Rochefoucauld? “A fashionable milieu,” Proust tells us, “is one in which everybody’s opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others. Has everybody a different opinion? Then it is a literary milieu.” Perhaps, as their homosexuality made them perpetual outsiders, both Wilde and Proust were predisposed to dislike “society,” though both also seemed eager for its approval. Proust witnessed the rigid hierarchy of fin-de-siècle France, with all its attendant jealousies and back-talk, its harsh divisions of people into desirable and undesirable company, and found respite (and revenge) in his writing:

Leaving the A’s you go to see the B’s and the stupidity, the maliciousness, the wretched situation of the A’s are laid bare. Filled with admiration for the insight of the B’s, you blush to think that you had before felt a certain consideration for the A’s. But when you go to see the latter again, they tear the B’s to shreds, and in just about the same way. To go from one to the other is like visiting enemy camps. Only, as they never hear each other’s fire, each side thinks it alone is armed. When one sees that the arms are pretty equally divided and that the forces, or rather their weaknesses, are about the same, one ceases to admire the one doing the shooting and to despite the one aimed at. That is the beginning of wisdom. Real wisdom would consist in breaking with both of them.

Having recently come across George Painter’s famous biography of Proust, I wonder how much he did break with French society, and whether or not he paid a social cost for the publishing of Pleasures and Regrets, and its unflattering portrayal of high society.

In another respect, I was entirely unsurprised, and that is in this book’s preoccupation with memory. Regret, of course, is one of memory’s children – inevitably so, because we cannot regret what we have forgotten, and cannot forget what we regret. One character, reflecting on an unrequited love, delivers this impossibly beautiful soliloquy: “Alas! like you, charming and fragile creatures, she may have been an insensible and unconscious witness of her own grace. Her most genuine beauty was perhaps in my desire. She lived her life, but I alone perhaps have dreamed it.” Denied the physical connection, the ratification of his feeling, Proust’s character nonetheless makes a case for the potency of the imagination. And after all, no woman is ever more beautiful than in the eyes of the man who loves her. Lost love, it seems, provokes Proust’s lyricism to new heights:

While that great tide of love has ebbed forever, yet, strolling through ourselves we can still gather strange and charming sea-shells and lifting them to our ear can hear, with a melancholy pleasure and without suffering, the same mighty roar as in the past. Then we begin to think tenderly of the woman who, to our misfortune, was more loved than loving.

Unwise, perhaps, to read Proust while nursing a broken heart.

D.J. Enright, one of Proust’s English translators, and the author of this volume’s introduction, treats this book rather disparagingly. He accuses it, not unfairly, of sentimentalism and excessive lyricism. André Maurois described it, memorably, as “perfunctory, over-ornamented, inexpert, and charming.” Looking at the book in its entirety, I share their criticisms, but making allowance for its scattershot construction, it seems to me to contain not only memorable portraits and humorous scenes but a deeply sympathetic imagination, which, even in embryonic form, places Proust in rare company among literature’s loveliest writers.