Books: The uses of impurity

Take the plunge and enjoy Proust, advises Gabriel Josipovici
Proust Among the Stars

by Malcolm Bowie

HarperCollins, pounds 19.99

As the opportunities for reading expand, our intellectual horizons contract. It is now possible to go into a Waterstone's in any big town and buy any of the world's classics for not much more than a pint of beer, yet English anti-intellectualism combined with an educational system which instils anxiety rather than curiosity into the young means that few avail themselves of the opportunity. There is a genuine fear of tackling the "great books" of the world, such as Homer's epics, Dante's Divine Comedy or Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. And yet these works, if one dare plunge into them, turn out to be as easy as Fay Weldon or Nick Hornby, and a good deal more rewarding.

Malcolm Bowie is professor of French at Oxford and the author of books on such difficult writers as Mallarme and Lacan. But he is also the "common reader" of Dr Johnson and Virginia Woolf, a man who is moved to tears and laughter by good writing and can explain why in simple and powerful language. Not for him the "easy" option of reading biographies of Proust when the much more exciting prospect of reading what Proust actually wrote is present; not for him the "easy" option of finding out what A la Recherche is "about" when there is the dizzying prospect of actually negotiating that novel sentence by sentence, savouring the artist's control of both detail and mass, and entering a world both fascinatingly different from our own and yet profoundly familiar.

His central thesis is simple: Proust does of course create a grand and satisfying structure: "The narrator in his last triumphantly stable form becomes a capacious container for all the waywardness, inconsistency and self-division that have marked his passage through the text." And yet "there seems to me something unsatisfactory about any reading of the book that does not resist as well as endorse Le Temps Retrouve in the performance of this harmonising and integrating role." In chapters on the self, art, time, politics, morality, sex and death, he moves with the ease of an old acquaintance through the labyrinth of Proust's novel, bringing out the way the sentences actually work to enrich the grand narrative.

For Proust, though master of the moral apercu and plot control, is also deeply suspicious of peaks, of look-out points. He wishes in the end to take us on a journey rather than revealing truths to us; though he sees art in the modern world as akin to what religion was in the past, yet he is prepared to recognise that art is powerless in the face of suffering and death. He is "gloriously impure", and also much more violent and aggressive - in the anti-Semitism he allows characters, or the sado-masochism he shows lies so close to love - than bland phrases about the novel demonstrating the triumph of art would allow us to see.

There is something very English about Bowie's respect for impurity, contradiction, detail, but also very refreshing. Unlike many critics with his learning and intelligence, he never imagines Proust is there to enhance his status rather than the other way round. His comparisons - with Homer, Montaigne, Stevens - are always apposite, never a way of showing off. And his striking formulations are not designed to make us admire his skill but to help us understand Proust better: "The monumental weight of a centuries-old literary tradition dissolves into the light-limbed dance of the narrator's fantasies and talk"; or "An affair must be nearing its end when it begins to be conducted as an academic seminar on the Russian novel."

Proust's book is so vast and multifarious that, like the Bible and Shakespeare, we could say that it reads us rather than we it: Beckett finds the Beckett in Proust, Butor the Butor, Genette the Genette. Bowie, who has always had greater sympathy for La Prisonniere than for Combray, for the torments of jealousy rather than the joys of childhood, provides us with a guide to his Proust too. But that is inevitable. Proust is infinitely various, as ecstatic as Wordsworth, as funny as Dickens, as pithy as Montaigne. Anyone who has so far avoided him out of fear should start reading him now. Anyone thinking of going back to him should make the time to read this splendidly tough-minded and generous introduction.