Counter on Prendergast (2022)

Prendergast, Christopher. Living and Dying with Marcel Proust. Europa Editions, 2022, pp. 243, ISBN 978-1-60945-760-0

The year 2022 marked one hundred years since Proust’s death and saw the publication of several edited collections and special journal issues intended to assess or re-assess the place of Proust today. Given this, a text that reads like a book-length reading journal of À la recherche du temps perdu is refreshing. As noted in the preface, Living and Dying with Marcel Proust “is not organized as a through-argument defending a particular thesis. The individual chapters are on the whole left to speak for themselves around the principal topic each individually addresses” (12). Christopher Prendergast, as is clear from his monumental undertaking as general editor of Penguin’s English translation of the Recherche (which now has had its own 20-year anniversary), has lived with Proust and, as a result, moves around comfortably within his work. According to the preface, “the book unfolds on three major axes, initially as an extended account of the rich sensory world of bodily life, before turning to more formal matters centred on Proust’s way with the structural properties of the art of fiction, and from there gravitating to the preordained realms of ending and extinction” (12). While these are well-tread grounds in Proust scholarship, Prendergast’s formulations are especially instructive and will be useful to readers depending on their own approach to and concern with the Recherche.

Likening the Recherche to “the ancient notion of the pharmakon as both remedy and poison,” the introductory chapter, “The Proust Effect,” considers the question “Is Proust good for you?” (15-16). Beginning with the importance of sleep, with which the Recherche begins and which “is also important for the genesis and structure of the novel” (18), Prendergast writes of the importance of the threshold in Proust insofar as “losing and finding your way is one of the things that Proust is fundamentally about” (20). This doubleness or interrelatedness of the opposing sides of any given spectrum—whether sleeping and waking, or life and death—makes up a large part of Prendergast’s meditations here. For instance, Prendergast notes in a later chapter entitled “Lost, Found and Lost again” that the apocalyptic, end-times vision accompanying Bergotte’s death in the novel “suggest[s] the lineaments of a Proustian cosmology” (209). At first drawing in the stars, Prendergast is careful to note that such a cosmology would also include the moon (by way of “moonlight walks in Combray and the waning moon as an image for Swann’s countenance in the grip of mortal affliction”) and the sun, whose light not only gives life but is also implicated many of the novel’s instances of aesthetic experience. Living and dying are bound together and, in turn, each is linked to art through the attention Proust turns to the aesthetic capacities of sensory perceptions of the world.

In an early chapter of the book, Prendergast compares the rhythm of Proust’s prose to “the visceral depth of [his] grasp of ‘being alive’” (26). The musicality of Proust’s writing is noted here, as well as the difficulty one may face in attempting to read the Recherche aloud; in connection with this latter point Prendergast offers an example of an analysand who “found a cure [from chronic respiratory illness] in the challenging, initially aggravating but ultimately successful enterprise of reading Proust out loud” (27). Charming anecdotes like this can be found here and there in the book, but oftentimes it is a point that follows some pages later, in loose connection with what prompted the anecdote in the first place, that is especially compelling. In this case—relative to the way that Proust’s writing conveys a sense of life, and to Proust’s preoccupation with life in general—Prendergast writes that “the terms of the affirmation of ‘literature’ and ‘art’ are continuous with what from the eighteenth century onwards was to become ‘aesthetics’ as a branch of theoretical inquiry, but whose principal object (aesthetic experience) lies below the threshold of rational cognition and abstraction, in the immediacy of the ‘lived’” (36). Aside from its bearing on Proust’s concern for lived experience, this is a crucial insight for aesthetics and Proust scholarship alike. The tendency for aesthetic experience to become subsumed and therefore obscured by aesthetics as a field of inquiry is yet another threshold explored in this study, as it is a key point of mediation in the Recherche itself.

Another standout is the fifth chapter, “Pinks,” a meditation on various roles of the color in the Recherche. Proust is characterized as someone “for whom the value of colour lies not in what it depicts, stands for or represents, but because of what it intrinsically and self-sufficiently is—a fact of and a force in the world” (80). Whether pink or otherwise, color figures in an overwhelming number of iconic scenes in the novel, including the passage leading up to the narrator’s “aesthetic theory” in the final volume. Importantly, as Prendergast highlights, the role of the color pink in the Guermantes library passage, where the narrator experiences several involuntary memories one after another, is simply to describe the color of the reflected sky in the evening. Though seemingly contradictory, the restricted sense of color—not as a symbol, but instead as a phenomenological fact of life—highlights the force of the aesthetic experiences undergone by the narrator. With reference in a later chapter to the famous “intermittences du coeur” section, Prendergast writes of “the supercharged unpredictability of involuntary memory forcing to the surface, as if from nowhere, a buried self” (204). Though Prendergast is careful to specify that the book does not have a through line, this unpredictability calls back to the Guermantes library passage, the color pink, the distinction between aesthetics and aesthetic experience, and the connection between life and writing. In other words, the arbitrariness of the sign that prompts an involuntary memory is corroborated by the acknowledgement that an object’s involvement in a symbol or metaphor is only possible after the fact, through the experience of writing a life.

In short, Living and Dying with Marcel Proust is a delight to read. For newcomers to Proust, it is an exercise in the many paths or angles that one might take while reading the novel. More seasoned readers of the Recherche will find value in the aspects of the book that are more subtle or even interstitial. To end with a forward-looking line from the book, commenting on the narrative closure occasioned by death, Prendergast writes: “In the meantime, there are all the days, and the places, before the hearse arrives. We shall be going to many of them” (32).

Bryan Counter
State University of New York at Buffalo