By Jair Villano
The Colombian critic reviews Marcel Proust’s The Mysterious Correspondent, ten – until now – unpublished short stories. He celebrates and explores the legacy of a novelist who has left a lasting footprint on European literature and is now an essential part of the aesthetic conscience of the world
Before starting, all things considered, a digression is in order: the best of Proust are monuments of disquisition and celebrated diversions, of ramifications of which we know their origin but not their endings; “a syntax without borders”, said W. Benjamín. The Mysterious Correspondent, I would say, is a book for true proustians, for his followers, for the snoopers of those aromas emanating from his paragraphs, for those readers who have never ceased to marvel at In Search of Lost Time.
One difference between great writers and just a writer, is that right from the beginning we want to know every detail, even down to their studs. We sense that we can shed some light from their mistakes: a dark illumination explaining that instant when the spell becomes ungraspable. That’s the case with this book: it has outlines charged with insinuation, sketches that foreshadow fully developed ideas, names with the promise of turning into characters. And also −note the paradox since Proust reviled Sainte-Beuve’s style of literary criticism, but his life and work are equally indispensable− his obsessions and preventions: his way to hybridise genres, to wallow in the tragic charms of heartbreak, to describe, to hide in metafiction, to disguise his homosexuality.
One hundred years after the publication of the first book of À la recherche du temps perdu, it seems inconspicuous to talk of a writer overlapping throughout his books, but not with Proust. We knew that Albertine −that beautiful character− is based on one or several men (mainly his driver Alfred Agostinelli); we are aware he had affairs with musicians. He was a sinuously mundane man. But the compliments that inspired In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower are not preceded by an ode to some young golf players on a trip he made to Cabourg. These are, without mentioning, stories where his sexual inclination is -almost- explicit.
The reader who is interested in inquiring about this matter is left with clairvoyant’s details from the proustian context compiled by Luc Fraise. Equally, or even more joyful, are Mauro Armiños’ notes in the luxurious Valdemar Edition of In Search of Lost Time published in Madrid in 2015.
And there is more: the stylistic influences of Balzac, Ruskin, Robert de Montesquiou and Henri de Regni. It is known that the writer mentioned throughout the work, Bergotte, is based on Anatole France. It is equally known that in addition to the salons, the time and the snobbery Proust was a pessimist −in an essay, Emil Cioran acknowledges having read on repeated occasions the last three works that make up the Frenchman’s magnum opus− a conflictive heir of Schopenhauer: the inherent hopelessness of existence and the style the German philosopher used to disown his contemporaries Schelling and Hegel; in short: two writers obsessed with language. All this, as I was saying, is already known. But pay heed, what this book reveals is a new element of creation: that of the sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who with his two treatises, seem to be essential in the study of the social portrait of Proust’s characters.
I would say it again: this is a book for proustians. The reader who has not ruminated on the masterpiece is already on the threshold of abandoning it. Proust is an author you must decide if you are going to wait for him or not. He is one of the most important writers on suffering. In his work, love can be recognised in various forms: without the objectification and consumerism of a culture subjugated by the neoliberal imperative of our 21st century. His reading, moreover, is one of amusement and patience, of thinking and repetitive will; not of spectacle and sensationalism, fatuity that demands immediacy and results. Marcel does not mind suffering out of jealousy, out of love, out of insecurity. He is convinced that pain is rewarding: the work, his work. That is why at the end of his monumental Time Regained, he leaves us a legacy:
“Then, less radiant of course than the one that had made me perceive that the work of art was the only means to recover lost time, a new light dawned on me. I understood that all the material of a literary work was in my past life, I understood that I had acquired it in the midst of frivolous amusements, in idleness, in tenderness and in pain, stored up by me without my divining its destination or even its survival, as the seed has in reserve all the ingredients which will nourish the plant.
In The Mysterious Correspondent there are some brushstrokes that, in the most optimistic of cases, serve as an incentive to reach the contemplation of the system that makes up the painting. Although in all of them there are undulations of the older writer, there are two or three stories in which the stylistic horizon is clearer: the first of them is the homage to music, and to the arbitrariness and the emotion of images; I am referring to After Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, the sensations that the prose creates do not seem to correspond to the final effect.
The love insecurity that shines in The Prisoner and Albertine is Missing is barely touched on in pages like A captain’s Reminiscence, The Awareness of Loving Her, That Is How He Loved. Texts -let’s not call them stories- of which it is not necessary to make value judgments, since it would imply entering into a controversy that goes beyond the literary. (If Proust kept these sketches hidden, if he did not discuss them with anyone, if they were not to his liking, why spread them now?).
All in all, if it were a question of choosing from the trunk, I would prefer The Gift of the Fairies, because it speaks of disability as a creative embryo, of a state that the almighty health is unaware of: that adversity from which artists are doomed to pain, works at all: the idea of a lifestyle based on art. The work is the destiny of homo doloris; the ups and downs and the conditions unrelated to its creation, amor fati. It is therefore not gratuitious to remember that Nietzsche, a philosopher also consulted by the French autor, reveals to us that his best work was due to his illness.
“The sick people I help often see things that escape those who are healthy. And if good health has its beauty, then what healthy people do not notice is that illness also has a grace, which might be enjoyed and even deeply. Indeed, Proust wrote in unfavorable health circumstances. Locked up and ruined by asthma, without envisioning that his books would be read apart from the considerations of his publishers Grasset et Gallimard, who made suggestions regarding the volume of work. The French novelist wanted a larger number than the seven we read today.
There is not much more that can be added, but it is easy to infer it: the Proust after Proust is for proustians; everything we now read and find out is to understand, to question or to complement something that precedes or succeeds the genius of the world, one who said it like no one had said it before: “The fairies bring gifts to our cradle that will sweeten our lives. Some of us learn to use them quite quickly and on our own, it seems no one needs to instruct us on how to suffer.»
This article first appeared in El Magazín Cultural of El Espectador newspaper in Bogotá. Jaír Villano is a literary critic, lecturer and essay writer. He has become a regular collaborator of our magazine and some of his essays and literary criticisms can be read on El Boletín Cultural y Bibliográfico del Banco de La República
El remitente misterioso y otros relatos inéditos (Lumen) or its English translation The Mysterious Correspondent: New Stories (Oneworld) can be purchased here.