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Spotlight | L w 6 ive from the Labs cnrs I international magazine Literature Antoine Compagnon, a professor at the Collège de France, looks back at the reaction elicited by Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, first published a century ago. Remembering Proust interview by Alexandra Dejean One hundred years ago, Marcel Proust published Swann’s Way, the first volume of his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. What effect did this novel have on the history of literature? Antoine Compagnon: In Search of Lost Time is a 3000-page novel spanning seven volumes, three of which were published posthumously. Written in the first person, it retraces the life and memories of the narrator, a member of the early 20th century Parisian elite, who dreams of becoming a writer. The work is a far-ranging reflection on identity, writing, art, and memory. Rigorously crafted in both its form and style and spurning the formulas of the conventional novel, Swann’s Way is among the great works of literature that mark readers forever. This is why, a full century after its publication, it continues to captivate literary researchers. The ‘madeleine moment’ in the opening of the novel has become part of the collective memory... A.C.: Indeed, readers were especially struck by Combray, the first section of the novel, in which the narrator recalls his childhood. In a sense, Combray recounts a perverse childhood, exactly as described by Freud, who was one of the author’s contemporaries. Yet this is not in reference to the ‘subconscious,’ a term that Proust did not use, but about the strong presence of sexuality, dreams, desire, and corporeal matters. Already on the third page, there is a scene that suggests onanism. Proust also reverses the techniques of the traditional French novel. Starting with the very first line, he eliminates any attempt at character presentation and leads us directly into the bed of his narrator, who then takes ‘30 pages to wake up,’ as one reviewer complained. The madeleine episode comes shortly after: the flavor of the pastry brings back a flood of vivid memories of his childhood in Combray. Then, little by little, his desires emerge, both sexual and that of being a writer, and these become the unifying thread of the first 150 pages. Is literary analysis essential for understanding the work’s compositional sophistication? A.C.: Right after its publication, many readers called it ‘offhand, unstructured writing—just memories, idle musings, etc.’ Yet insightful readers like Jacques Rivière, then secretary general of La Nouvelle Revue Française, a reputable literary review, understood that on the contrary, the novel’s composition was meticulous. ‘Nothing is there by chance,’ Proust famously said. A given incident takes place at a given moment because it will have repercussions a thousand pages later, in an entirely different part of the novel. But this dimension is not discerned immediately, except by the most astute readers. Only in the last volume, Time Regained, is the key to the novel finally revealed. And what is that key? A.C.: With its 3000 pages, In Search of Lost Time is a novel on the inability to write. The narrator wants to write and occasionally succumbs to moments of rapture, like the madeleine episode and others. These moments of rapture are triggered by an involuntary memory, when a sensation in the present (e.g., tasting the madeleine) gives him an immaculate recollection of past events. In Time Regained, several successive episodes of involuntary memory lead the narrator to a revelation: this collision of two sensations, past and present, allows him to break free from human temporality and reach a level of transcendence. These moments, these epiphanies, are also the key to art, to the power of fiction. Proust presents an esthetic theory: metaphor, the conjoining of two terms, makes it possible to retrieve a fragment of time in its pure state. The entire Search leads to this revelation in Time Regained. Yet in the autumn of 1912, when Proust was looking for a publisher for Swann’s Way, no one would take it. Why? A.C.: Between November 1912 and February 1913, three publishers, Fasquelle, the NRF, and Ollendorff, all rejected the novel. One important factor was the condition of the manuscript itself: it was massive, with nearly 900 pages, and its format was extremely complex, with typed pages from several different periods interspersed with handwritten additions. Put simply, it was difficult to read. Furthermore, Proust had announced his intention to write a second volume of similar length, but in which he would talk about homosexuality— enough to scare off any publisher of the time. Ultimately, he was forced to fund his own publication with editor Bernard Grasset, who accepted the manuscript without reading it. How did the public react to the novel when it was released? A.C.: Contrary to popular belief, it was a success as soon as it was published, in November 1913. Backed by good press coverage, it sold nearly 3000 copies in eight months—strong sales for a © p. imbert/coll ège de fra nce q Antoine Compagnon, director of the CNRS unit “République des Lettres.” “A given incident takes place at a given moment because it will have repercussions a thousand pages later...”


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