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The Mystery of Human Desire

PROUST AMONG THE STARS;\o7 By Malcolm Bowie; (Columbia University Press: 352 pp., $28)\f7

May 16, 1999|VICTOR BROMBERT | Victor Brombert, the Henry Putnam University professor of romance and comparative literatures at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of "In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature 1830-1980 ."

Among the many brilliant developments in Malcolm Bowie's book on Marcel Proust, the most striking may be the one that concerns the novelist's moral imagination. It leads to an unexpected redefinition of virtue. The central chapter of "Proust Among the Stars" argues convincingly that the narrator's self-centered aestheticism in "A la Recherche du temps perdu," and his seemingly inexhaustible attraction to what he himself terms vice give rise to a concern for others, compassion and a vision of moral life that extols sympathy and communion. Pietas and caritas are virtues attained by sounding the depth of suffering, and they in turn account for the narrator's "almost sacramental tone." Bowie compares Proust's all-embracing novel of cruel desire, commemoration and forgiveness to Victor Hugo's grandest and most compassionate poetry in "Les Contemplations."

Bowie's very personal voice, his ability to be tersely abstract while remaining closely bound to the sensuous rhythms of the narrative, suffices to renew one's faith in the value of literary criticism. He can say more in three sentences than many a scholar in a belabored chapter. His erudition is graceful, and his references, including classical sources, are not presented to flaunt his knowledge but to bring the reader into more meaningful contact with the text under discussion. This is criticism motivated by intellectual joy, creatively sustained by felicities of expression. Whether Bowie writes of the narrator's many voices, his talents as mimic or magpie, the teasing and caressing syntax of the Proustian sentence or the sexual and social labyrinth of exacerbated desires, there is aphoristic pleasure to be derived from almost every page of this book. Bowie clearly relishes the act of writing. He comes up with especially telling formulations when discussing Proust's satirical genius and powers of derision.

There are, however, more substantial reasons for admiring this study, though these very same reasons--avoidance of conclusions, syncopations in the development of ideas, revealing ambiguities--may also unsettle readers who are not already familiar with Proust's elastic and cunning narration. While never exactly deconstructive, the trains of thought and overall method are polyphonic in nature. Like Proust's, and much like his narrator's, Bowie's voice contains any number of voices. It is at times willfully unstable in its defense and illustration of plurality. Not infrequently, Bowie qualifies and challenges his own provisional inferences.

The structure of the book is deceptively thematic. Reading the table of contents, one expects a conventional treatment of shopworn categories--self, time, art, politics, morality, sex, death--but one is in for a surprise. Each chapter multiplies and even contradicts its thematic premise, leaving the reader with the task of putting together the disassembled pieces. Meaning is not served on a platter. What is more, a blending and blurring occurs between the chapters, so that ultimately, in an overlapping and telescoping manner reminiscent of Proust's artistic processes, no single theme is allowed to stand in isolation.

Each chapter highlights some crucial aspect but always with excellent lateral vision. The first chapter, titled "Self," brings out from the beginning the unrestrained plurality at the core of Proust's fictional world, the gradual discovery, by means of discontinuous simultaneities, of "uncharted moral territories." In discussing the temporal dimension of the novel, Bowie establishes a link between loss and redemption, but at the same time he points to the inertness of the vaunted involuntary memory and shows how unredeemable the Proustian temporal process really is. As for the chapter on art, instead of rehearsing the usual banalities about Marcel's artistic vocation, it offers some searching pages on the appropriation of Homer (the perilous descent to hell, Odysseus' addiction to storytelling) but suggests almost in the same breath how this self-deflating modern epic represents a difficult journey toward silence. A fundamental paradox is thereby established. Art is surely all-important to Proust as the highest human achievement, yet its sublime value is somehow linked, tragically in fact, to its nothingness. A disturbing chapter indeed.

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