Proust's Ruined Mirror

By Jonathan Wallace

When I was a child, my parents frequently had other adults over to the house. These were often professional acquaintances whom they didn't know very well. I was expected to put in an appearance, stay for awhile if not the whole duration of the visit, and establish that I was an intelligent, well-mannered child. Since these visits were often appallingly tedious for me, my parents would sometimes, in advance, attempt to pique my interest about a particular visitor.

On one occasion, my father, with the air of sharing a morsel that should particularly delight me, told me that a doctor coming to the house that afternoon had once made his own reflector telescope, including grinding the mirror. The reason he expected (correctly) that this would interest me was that I was in an avid astronomy phase, looking at the sky every night through my 2.5 inch refractor, and reading everything I could get my hands on about making reflector telescopes.

The guest was a mild-mannered, self-deprecating man. I was not able to talk to him alone until nearly the end of his visit. "I understand you made your own telescope," I began. He looked at the ground, obviously embarrassed and said: "Well, I tried, but it didn't really work out." The mirror he ground had been useless.

I came away with something of a sense of having been suckered: the supposed enthusiast had nothing to tell me, had never tried again and was no longer even an amateur astronomer. I felt contemptuous of him for not having done better--as well as angry at my father for foisting this failure on me as a person of interest.

Proust says that the novel is a mirror held up to life. The virtue of the work is in the quality of the mirror, not of the life it reflects. He was certainly right, but one wonders if he was aware in saying it of the deep flaws in his own work. Whether or not he was, his huge talent resulted in a 4,000 page novel which states, and simultaneously illustrates by its own structure, that humans are incapable of fashioning a perfect mirror.

The impossibility of knowledge

In the century before Proust, novels were frequently related by an omniscient narrator, who could see into every character's soul and reveal the innermost motivations. Emma Bovary is never mysterious to us; from the first moment we meet her, we know her better than we will understand Albertine at the end of Proust's huge book. Emma's husband Charles is also revealed to us, in all his workings, from the beginning. We know that there are things Charles doesn't know about Emma, but nothing is hidden from us as readers.

In other works of the nineteenth century which relied upon surprise and mystery, such as novels of Dickens which take the reader unawares with revelations of identity or relation, the truth was at least absolute and ascertainable. It was not in the nature of the nineteenth century to leave a mystery unresolved at the end of a story.

By contrast, the twentieth century novel postulates that the truth is frequently unknowable. Either "truth" is a meaningless concept, or a reality which escapes our inadequate sensory apparatus. Quantum physics suggests that we affect phenomena by observing them (much the way anthropologists know that the observer affects the group she is watching) and that there may be no phenomenon at all in the absence of the observer. In the parable of Schrodingers' cat, the cat is both alive and dead (or neither) until the box is opened. If humans aren't capable of opening the box, then there is no truth to be determined.

This would have been appalling to the rationalists of the nineteenth century. The contents of Emma Bovary's heart may be unknown to Charles, but they exist whether he can perceive them or not. Similarly, we think of certain things as being "visible", perhaps by infrared or ultraviolet light, even when shrouded in darkness to us. To a rationalist, the idea that it is the act of perception that makes the thing exist would seem like sheer solipsism.

Joyce departed from the prior century when he left certain questions unresolved. Has Molly Bloom been unfaithful to Leopold before? What did Stephen Dedalus do during the gap in his day? Beckett's Godot never arrives, and we never learn anything certain about him, leaving him a blank space to be filled in entirely by the audience. These precursors have led to the genre of the unresolved puzzle novel, a favorite of certain of the more talented (and literary) science fiction authors. In Lem's Solaris, the nature and workings of the mysterious planet that makes our fantasies true are never discovered. In his Fiasco, the amnesiac protagonist may be either of two victims of a disaster who had the same initials--and we never discover which. In Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus, the apparently human inhabitants of a neighboring planet may or may not actually be shapeshifters who killed the original human settlers. In Kim Stanley Robinson's Icehenge, a puzzling replica of Stonehenge found on Pluto may be the farewell card of a secret interstellar expedition which left only a few years before--or an expensive hoax intended to create the impression that there was such an expedition. In these novels the truth is suggested, but never told. The film equivalent is Kurosawa's Rashomon, where four contradictory accounts of a single incident are never reconciled. Or L'Avventura, in which the woman whose disappearance is at the core of the movie, is never found.

The flaws in Proust's mirror

The most fundamental flaw in Proust's mirror is the dishonesty of the narrator. Since we are never certain where Proust leaves off and his narrator (whom I will call "Marcel") begins, we cannot be sure if what we are witnessing is a deliberate creation---perhaps a self portrait with knowledge---or (as is common with lesser artists) a condition of which the author is completely unaware.

It complicates things that some of the internal evidence is itself very misleading. For example, Marcel casually mentions in one extended passage about his late teens or early twenties, that later in life he fought duels and showed consummate bravery. Based on everything we know about Marcel, this is completely incredible. He is so clearly a quivering and fearful man who has a pronounced sense of his own fragility that it is impossible to imagine him ever responding to the challenge of a duel, let alone issuing one as he claims. This leaves two possibilities: Proust has lost sight of his character, and believes we will accept this account of his bravery; or Proust has deliberately created a passage in which Marcel is lying, and is content for us to figure this out. Yet upon reading a biography, one finds that Proust fought several duels in his life, apparently with the fearlessness he ascribes to Marcel.

A biographer may theorize that Proust was so concerned about his own reputation for masculinity that he was driven to fight duels. This Freudian underpinning cannot emerge from the portrait of Marcel because Proust never knowingly gives us any reason to think that Marcel is anything but a hearty heterosexual.

Proust was half-Jewish and homosexual. Though he was raised as a Catholic, his mother's Jewishness (which makes him Jewish under Mosaic law) certainly must have played some role in his formation; but there is never any hint that Marcel's mother is anything but a good Catholic herself. There are Jewish characters in the novel--Swann, whose Jewish ancestors converted, and Bloch, who is secular but was raised in the Jewish tradition--but they (like the gay characters) are seen at a distance, and with some contempt. While some authors might write a first person account of an antisemite (or a murderer, or anything else) without being one, it seems likely that we are discovering Proust's self-loathing when he describes how a vicious beating administered by Robert de Saint Loup (who himself is revealed as homosexual later) is an exemplary lesson for an elderly man who solicits him. Similarly, his portrayal of the flaws of Bloch's upbringing and behavior, which Marcel constantly relates to his Jewishness, slide uncomfortably into prejudice.

I do not want to make the common error here of assuming in particular that any unfavorable portrayal of a Jewish character is based on antisemitism. But contrast the portrait of Leopold Bloom by Joyce, a Catholic writer, with that of Bloch by Proust. One senses that Proust is too close to his subject matter and must put it away from him. Bloom, with all his flaws, is a highly sympathetic character, but Bloch is a caricature.

These are therefore profound flaws in Proust's mirror. He holds it up to his own life, and a half-Jewish gay man is reflected back as a Catholic heterosexual. Its hard to tell the truth.

While some of the women in the book are women---Odette de Crecy is a leading example--it is well known that Albertine, the most significant female character, is an amalgam of two men with whom Proust had affairs. We can justify this based on the state of society at the time: Wilde went to prison when Proust was a young man; Gide first published his defense of homosexuality anonymously; Forster's Maurice was not published during his lifetime.

Once we accept these large lies which are at the foundation of the work, it is probably safe to conclude that Proust will not knowingly have Marcel lie to us. When we think he may be, the flaws are in Proust, not Marcel.

Other places in which Proust's dishonesty manifests itself become evident. When he visits St. Loup in Doncieres, the whole garrison makes a fuss over Marcel; all the soldiers are constantly seeking him out for his wonderful conversation; he all but becomes the garrison's mascot. This contradicts everything we know about the military, which like other organizations of men, is a club which mercilessly excludes the marginal and hates, rather than rewards, intelligence. This is one of those sections of the book which reads like a wish fulfillment.

Proust's mirror is like the Hubble telescope: built with fundamental flaws that call into question everything it reports. Just as the Hubble itself, a human artifact, teaches as much about us by its flaws as it does by its qualities, Proust's ruined mirror is a profound artistic accomplishment. The ruined Hubble is a greater monument to human effort, achievement and error than a perfect 4.5 inch reflector on Earth;A la recherche du temps perdu, however flawed, is a greater achievement than small perfect mirrors such as Silas Marner or Ethan Frome.

The annoying narrator

Many people have only two modes of first-person conversation: bragging and complaining. One goes out of one's way to avoid talking to them, because their discourse is always the same, and always boring.

In fiction, vanity and self-pity are the two major pitfalls of the first person narrative. In order for a story to have the dramatic elements we expect from fiction, sooner or later the protagonist will have something unfortunate happen to him; and it is likely he will respond to it courageously or forcefully. While we enjoy reading about these provocations and responses, they are best told by a God-like third person narrator; there is far less credibility in listening to someone relate to you how he saved five people from a burning house, and less interest in listening to him moan about how life has singled him out for terrible treatment.

While most human qualities or emotions have at one time or another formed the cornerstone of a great novel, self-pity is an exception. We would not care to spend even a hundred pages with a character who is droning on about how unfortunate he is. When we detect self-pity in a novel, we assume, usually correctly, that it is the author who feels sorry for himself.

Vanity is offensive in a novel because of our deep-rooted human dislike of boasting (which is probably related to our jealousy of people whose lives are better than ours.) A vain protagonist might be palatable if the point of the novel was to see him brought low by life. A novel about a vain human being for whom things just continue to get better and better would, of course, lack the dramatic arc we expect from fiction.

Proust's protagonist, Marcel, is highly irritating because he is both vain and sorry for himself---and it is likely a largely unintentional effect because Proust himself was. Some attempt has been made to disguise both the vanity and the self-pity by parcelling them out to other characters. Thus we have his mother, grandmother and St. Loup constantly feeling sorry for Marcel because he is suffering; and these and no end of other characters constantly telling him what a clever fellow he is, how wonderful is his conversation, etc.

In the end, Proust's myopia doesn't ruin the work because Marcel's own life and experiences are not central. Yes, his affair with Albertine provides a framework: but a 250-page account of a neurotic young man's obsession with a girl would have been a slight work indeed. (We know this because Un Amour de Swann, the second section of the work sometimes published as a stand-alone novel, though beautifully written, would not have been enough in itself to secure Proust's reputation-- nothing as memorable as if Joyce had written The Dead but never Ulysses.) The greatness of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu lies in the observation of other characters, many of whom have little interaction with Marcel, such as Swann and Charlus, and in the massive layering of observation upon metaphor upon observation that goes on for thousands of pages. Marcel is little more than a convention, a necessary but not sufficient condition to the rest of the work, which is great in spite of, not because of, his annoying presence.

Marcel's relative unimportance to the novel is illustrated by the fact that Proust simply shuts him off during the Swann section, and then whenever necessary thereafter. During Un Amour de Swann, we have the God-like nineteenth century narrator who knows what Swann is thinking, but also how Odette feels about him and what Madame Verdurin thinks of both of them. Later, when Proust reintroduces any of these characters, he is quite prone to tell you what they are thinking, even in a context in which Marcel could not possibly know.

The nineteenth century novel was a complete universe which mirrored the physical universe before the introduction of the uncertainty principle. It obeyed physical laws which could never be broken. At the other end of the spectrum lies today's novel of magical realism, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the rules are constantly broken and it is unnecessary to seek any explanation, because we are dealing with the subjective and floating symbolism of the author's unconscious mind. While in Solaris we assume that there are some rules which the human narrator is incapable of discovering, in One Hundred Years of Solitude it is unneccessary even to ask whether there are some general rules---a unified theory---which can explain the butterflies which follow a character, or a woman's assumption into heaven.

Typically in reading a novel we will look for an internal explanation of an inconsistency before we will assume the work is broken or incomplete. In Proust's world, we could assume that we are witnessing not Proust's but Marcel's artistic talent, that Un Amour de Swann is Marcel's synthesis of information he has learned from Swann, Odette or Gilberte. Similarly, when a character in Marcel's presence is assigned inmost thoughts which Marcel could not know, we can postulate that Marcel is projecting, or providing a likely explanation of that individual's motivation. But the real explanation appears again to be that Proust's mirror is broken. It suits Proust often to act as the Godlike narrator in his own work. But, since some of the stories he wishes to relate and observations he wants to make about them, require a first person narrator, he has inserted Marcel into the text as a sort of stand-in, without giving up the prerogatives of the nineteenth century Author. While Marcel alone would have provided a much slighter story, Proust alone, without Marcel as a partly-realized organizing principle, would have written a sort of Finnegan's Wake: an inner life with all direct traces of the man living it elided.

Schrodinger's whore

So far I have said we have a huge ruined mirror, and a narrator who is only partly realized and embodies the unconscious vanity of the author. Why is the book worth the bother? Like the Hubble, redeemed by an additional correcting mirror placed at the end of its tube, Proust's work is saved by the intensity, unusualness and strict accuracy of its vision of other people. Marcel's inability to see himself does not prevent Proust from being an acute observer of others. Swann, Gilberte, Albertine, Charlus, St. Loup, the Duchesse de Guermantes are all keenly described in every psychological nuance. Proust specializes in showing us that people are, in reality, completely different from what we think they are, that in fact human reality is a convention, a superficial and lazy matter of common agreement that is easily pierced by the truth if you know where to look.

Proust illustrates this by casting on the wall a series of shifting images of each character (first evoked by the magic lantern he plays with as a child in the beginning of the work.) Although the characters themselves evolve, at least somewhat, in the course of the work, our perceptions of them change much more radically. Swann is seen as a man who has made a bad marriage and is proud of mediocre connections; but this masks a man with brilliant connections to a much higher society, which refuses to know his wife but to which he himself still has access. Charlus is first seen as a swaggering alpha male, probably the lover of Swann's wife Odette; then as a proud, distant, sarcastic figure; then, via surprising cracks in his demeanor, wwe see that he is probably homosexual and also at times a sniggering lout ("He doesn't really give a shit for his grandmother, huh," he says, giggling, and elbows Marcel in the ribs.)

Along with Joyce, Proust introduced the dislocations of modern physics to fiction. Edmund Wilson wrote in Axel's Castle in 1931:

He has recreated the world of the novel from the point of view of relativity: he has supplied for the first time in literature an equivalent on the full scale for the new theory of modern physics.

A good example of the relativity of perceptions is the character Rachel, the mistress of Robert de St. Loup. Like Odette was to Swann, she is a love object to Robert, who sees her as fine, sensitive, highly cultured, even though he is aware that her background is shady and that she is dependent on the money he gives her. She is an aspiring actress, but right on the heels of learning how much Robert reveres her talent, we discover that his family, who saw her perform once, finds her completely ridiculous. Then Marcel meets her for the first time and immediately recognizes her as one of the whores in a brothel he frequented some years before. In one of Proust's wonderful set pieces, Robert, Marcel and Rachel spend an afternoon together; incident and reflection are mingled, and just as we are assimilating what is already a small overload of information: she is talented, talentless, formerly a whore--Proust informs us that Rachel, definitively, is an actress of great talent, but whose reputation will not be formed until some years later.

Proust describes Robert struggling to retain his idealized view of Rachel despite some incidental evidence of her past which comes into view during the day (Marcel never tells him he knows Rachel from a brothel). Rachel is greeted by two common whores ("petites poules") who don't see that she is with Robert and Marcel; she makes an embarassed but amicable gesture, they see she is with her lover and turn away. For Robert, the truth threatens to cut through his image of Rachel like a knife:

He didn't know them, nor their name, and seeing that they appeared to be well acquainted with his girlfriend, had the idea that she possibly had held a place, and perhaps still had it, in an unsuspected life, very different from the one he led with her, where one had women for twenty francs. He could only partly visualize that life, but also, in the middle of it, a Rachel completely different than the one he knew, a Rachel equivalent to the two common whores, a Rachel for twenty francs. In sum, Rachel had doubled herself for him, he had seen at some distance from his Rachel the Rachel common whore, the real Rachel, if in fact one could say that the whore-Rachel was more real than the other.

I am sure this is a well-worn concept by now, given that Wilson introduced it in 1931, but here we have the physics of twentieth century literature: the Rachel of quantum pathways, simultaneously great actress and petite poule, and for whom the possibilities will never quite collapse into a single reality.

Smoke and mirrors

Its worth observing that Proust's illustration of the relativity of human identity contradicts his idea of the novel-as-mirror. He soberly describes the novel as what the Hubble was intended to be: an instrument of profound resolution for examining the universe. But much of the time Proust is obviously enjoying himself too much for his goal to be as simple as it seems; in those instances when Proust is so clearly pulling the rug out from under you (for example, at the end, when the new Princess de Guermantes turns out to the the elderly and vile Madame Verdurin), he is using the mirror not as it is used in a telescope, but in a magician's act. While the Godlike narrator of the nineteenth century novel solemnly promises that everything can be known, Proust does not limit himself to saying that it is not so easy to know everything. He tells us that the purpose of the mirror is to get the best view we can---but he uses it to trick the eye, and delights in it. When young Marcel vaults out of a cab to pursue an intriguing female pedestrian, then discovers that he has been running after the elderly Madame Verdurin, Proust is describing the flaw in Marcel's perception. But when Proust encourages the reader to run after a Charlus, a St. Loup, or an Odette, only to find out that they are completely different than what we expected, he is doing more than simply illustrating that it is difficult for Marcel to know the truth. Much of the time Proust himself is playing a prank on the reader, and with a little too much delight. This is a dangerous course, because devices intended to trick and surprise the reader tend to be the weakest machinery in nineteenth century fiction--- the worst of Dickens, for example. But Proust (unlike Dickens) carries it off with such elegance and verve that one never really holds it against him.

Time's arrow

One of the big revelations in modern physics is that nothing in it excludes the possibility of time travel. Human scientific endeavor consists of identifying and then breaking boundaries. We fly faster than sound but don't know if we will be able to fly faster than light. We are limited by time but imagine that it may be a permeable boundary.

Time, and the sequence it imposes, is one of the significant limiting factors in fiction. We meet A and watch as he encounters B and experiences event C. His personality, as originally presented to us, and then modified by these encounters, finally leads to outcome D. We certainly prefer in our fiction that the personage has some influence over the events, which we don't want to be completely random. Shakespeare is a great artist because of the psychological finesse with which he portrays the downfall of a great man due to a tragic flaw. Lear's trusting nature, Hamlet's indecisiveness, Coriolanus' rigidity dictate that they will not weather event D but that it will cause their death instead.

A perfect mirror held up to life might show us a completely random series of events. To take an anecdote from this week's headlines: a young woman in upstate New York edits a local newspaper. For some reason, she leaves that job and comes to New York City, where she works as a receptionist and tries to write a screenplay. This goes on for a few years, and then for some reason, a psychotic stranger pushes her from a subway platform and she dies.

Proust would certainly argue that this could in fact provide the material for a great novel. As he would write it, it would be replete with descriptions of the people around her, their provincial nature, kindness and cruelty, and the constant shift in her perceptions of others. If we complain that the story has no sequence and ends in a meaningless death, not brought about by any tragic flaw, Proust would respond that we are mistakenly judging the novel by the life it reflects rather than the quality of the mirror. In other words, we are asking the novelist to tell us a story with more action or more development, or which fits other preconceptions. We judge the Hubble by its resolution (or lack), not by the interest or quality of the objects at which its handlers point it.

In order to agree with Proust, it is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition that we break the grip of time on the story. Because if the novelist promises us, "I am going to tell you a story about Time, one that takes place over a period of time, where a character flaw eventually, after some intermediate incidents and developments, dictates that A will not respond very well to event D", we naturally expect the same kind of sequence, the linearity, which we love so much in Shakespeare. Without linear time, there can be no catharsis, because without time, we do not have the outcome, the finality, needed to release us.

But in that case, as I have noted elsewhere, we have to sacrifice a great deal of information to preserve the flow. Here we have something similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in literature: if we are examining the position of a character, we cannot track his velocity, and vice versa. Time-bound stories are all about velocity, not position. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is the opposite: we spend hundreds of pages examining the nature and ideas of a character or a situation, while there is minimal passage of time.

In most fiction, time is a team of carriage horses that pulls the characters along while things happen to them (shades of the movie Stagecoach). In Proust's novel, time is a river in which the characters swim; it tends to carry them downstream, but like fish, they occasionally reverse themselves and struggle against its flow. The title itself-- often translated as "In search of lost time"--suggests the backward or reversed orientation of the work.

In physics, one of the great unanswered questions is why time's arrow points in one direction, when so many other phenomena can happen in either direction (atoms can be constituted or split). Proust's greatest desire (greater than Marcel's passion for Albertine) is to traverse time, to recapture the past, to regain not only lost memories but lost people and things: Marcel's grandmother (but Proust's mother); Albertine (but Proust's dead aviator-chauffeur-lover); or the Combray (Illiers) and Balbec of Marcel's childhood.

We know from Proust's biography how much he loved his mother, depended on her and lived with her until she died when he was thirty-four; this desire to reverse time gives an opportunity for some facile Freudianizing, cf. the standup comedian who said, "I wanted to be born again, but my mother wouldn't let me."

Given the new creative opportunities offered to the novelist willing to think of time as a river rather than a carriage-team, it is remarkable how much twentieth century fiction still rachets along in a straight line. I can think of two minor efforts to tell stories backwards, where you learn the results first, then the motivations: Kaufman and Hart's play, Merrily We Roll Along (a river metaphor: rolling on the river, like a steamboat) and a science fiction story I remember, author unrecalled. In the former, we start with a family coming apart in an American fascist movement, but end, years earlier, with affection, idealism and optimism about the future. In the latter, a human kills an alien in the first segment; in the second, someone hits him with a ray which makes him an amnesiac; in the third, earliest segment, the alien whom he killed in the first turns out to be his friend and partner.

Though telling a story backwards (upstream in time) may be more interesting sometimes than telling it forwards, an alternative which gives even more choices is to tell it in no particular chronological direction. Most of our lives are not as sequential as the fiction we read. Flaubert, in Sentimental Education, portrays characters who seem to spiral through life, rather than fly a straight line; in fact, the punchline of the novel is their conversation about why they missed their goal:

Both of them had missed his mark, the one who dreamed of love, and the one who dreamed of power. What was the reason?

"It was possibly the failure to go in a straight line," said Frederic.

Thus, there is a recognition that life, as we live it, is not particularly linear, and that a really accurate mirror held up to it would portray this "defaut de ligne droite." This is reminiscent of the progress that has been made in methodologies for software development. Early efforts, like Yourdon's, followed a "waterfall" model (another river metaphor!) in which analysis gave way to design which was followed by development. More modern methodologies, like Booch's, incorporate a "spiral" approach, where doing some analysis leads to some design and development, which discloses some new requirements, leading to more analysis, and so on. Just as the spiral more closely fits the way real software projects are done, life itself is more of a spiral than a straight line.

In a perfect spiral, you would end up back where you began, meaning nowhere; but in a real-life spiral, you get closer, if not to the goal, than to some result (if only entropy, age and death--this is where time sticks its head back in.) Joyce said, "Sometimes the long way round is the shortest way home"--a nice, strange device for the banner of twentieth century literature.

Ulysses itself is a spiral: taking place on a single day, it follows Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as they spiral around Dublin; we follow much longer, and stranger, spirals, in the minds of the characters (and of the author), into mythology, psychology and other destinations.

Samuel Beckett's projects proceed in a spiral from less entropy to more. Time is almost irrelevant, because he gives us no clue how much has passed. When in Happy Days the second act curtain rises and the protagonist is now buried to her neck in the sand, instead of the waist, there is no way to tell if we are now in the next day, or twenty years later. Similarly, Didi and Gogo in Godot may only have experienced a single night, but the profound changes experienced by Lucky (loss of speech) and Pozzo (blindness) suggest that there's been a hell of a lot of entropy under the bridge.

Why is this a spiral rather than a (blues) progression? Because the characters are exactly where they were, only worse. In Beckett, no-one proceeds from a castle to a beach via a blasted heath. Everything begins, proceeds and ends on the beach, with everyone the worse for wear.

Proust said, "If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure is not less dreaming but more..." Beckett's version of this statement would begin, "If a little entropy is dangerous..." In Dante...Bruno. Vico...Joyce, Beckett (discussing Finnegan's Wake, then known only as "Work in Progress") says:

Consequently transmutations are circular. The principle (minimum) of one contrary takes its movement from the principle (maximum) of one another. Therefore not only do the minima coincide with the minima, the maxima with the maxima, but the minima with the maxima in the succession of transmutations. Maximal speed is a state of rest.

In an essay in Disjecta entitled Proust in Pieces (a shattered mirror?) Beckett lambasted a Professor Feuillerat who wanted to restore a linear Proust. (Can there really have been such a person? The name would be a great Beckett (or Joyce, or Proust) invention: "Leaf-rat" or "page-rat" with a hint of "digger-rat" (fouille)). The good Professor's tastes, Beckett says, cry out in distress for

the sweet reasonableness of plane psychology a la Balzac, for the narrational trajectory that is more like a respectable parabola and less like the chart of an ague, and for Time, proclaiming its day of the month and the state of its weather, to elapse in an orderly manner. It is almost as though Proust should be reproached for having written a social Voyage of the Beagle.

Proust as hypertext

Once you have shattered the chronology of a work, opted for position over velocity, you have set the preconditions for hypertext. For it is only time which demands that event A in the work occur before B. While we only track velocity in the direction of time's arrow, we can explore position from any direction.

In Axel's Castle, Edmund Wilson also described Ulysses as a city to be explored by the reader. It was a wonderful insight for 1931, but is entirely undermined by the fact that the reader almost inevitably explores the city from page 1 to page 933. There is no reason why a novel can't be a city to be experienced in any direction---if it is hypertext and the reader is not bound by the convention of reading a printed work from the front cover to the back.

One objection to freeing fiction from the tyranny of time is that life moves in the direction of time's arrow. While life is rarely as linear as nineteenth century fiction, neither is it free of time.

If you agree with the quantum physics of twentieth century fiction, that truth is hard to determine and affected by the observer, it also follows that the life mirrored in novels is not the objective universe of a Godlike narrator but the perceptions of an individual experiencing the world. The novelist does not mirror the world directly; no human can claim to do so, because he sees it through his eyes, and analyzes it with his brain, with all the limitations and flaws that implies. Thus what the mirror reflects is the process of seeing the world, and not the world itself.

Proust excels at this. On every page of the novel he describes the spiral methodology by which we experience reality. Marcel visits the Duke of Guermantes and meets a prior visitor who is just leaving who is obviously, by his appearance and deferential behavior, a man of inferior social class (middle class instead of nobility.) The same man turns up that evening at an exclusive party given by the Princess of Guermantes and proves to be a duke of high lineage. Marcel is almost always in error in his first perceptions: he thinks Charlus is heterosexual and that Albertine is loose.

While we experience our own life and those in proximity to us in the direction of time's arrow (even then, as Proust points out, swimming upstream whenever possible), we learn the hidden facts of the lives of other people without regard to the order in which they occurred. If you hear that an attorney you have known slightly for twenty years has been forced to leave his law firm due to a drug problem, and set out to find the causes, it is probable that you will find the relevant facts--the death of his father, the pressures of the job, or an unhappy romance--in no particular sequence. You will have started with the end of the story, and along the way you may discover a variety of the facts from the beginning, then the middle, then the beginning again. At the end, when you assemble everything, you have a complete view of your subject's life (or as complete a view as you will ever have, given the unavailability of much of the information and the flaws in your equipment--your own defective mirror). The fascination of an investigation free of time, and the later assemblage of the facts into a chronological sequence, has of course given rise to its own genre of fiction, the mystery novel.

Proust, in offering us several faces of a character such as Charlus, often does not really require us to observe these different identities in any particular order. Instead, he tends to hint from the start that a character has several distinct, overlapping personalities, then fill in the details later. When we first meet Charlus in person, we already know that he is of high birth, stern, severe and a snob. We observe immediately that he is also somewhat mad, and we suspect even before we are told that he is physically attracted to young Marcel. Further revelations are simply elucidations of these three personalities: the high-born snob, the madman and the homosexual. Since even in reading the book from page one on, we have something of the sense of an investigation conducted without regard to the order of events, a true hypertext presentation of the work would not harm its structure or the author's intent. I believe that Proust would have been able to realize his artistic intentions even more fully had he had the choice of hypertext, unlike most other twentieth century authors, including contemporary ones.

If Proust had worked in hypertext, he might have created interfaces which allowed you to enter the novel through Marcel, Albertine, Swann, Charlus or St. Loup---or via different stages of Marcel, child, teenager, young man, elderly. Instead, like Ulysses, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is a proto-hypertext: it is laid out so as to raise the possibility that it can be explored like a city, but the reader always experiences it from page one onwards.


I never attempted to grind my own mirror. I knew I had clumsy hands, and I believed I would fail. I did not want to be like my parents' guest, telling a future child that "I tried, but it didn't work out."