<< Back

Contre Sainte-Beuve

Posted 2/15/2015 3:05pm by Eugene Wyatt.

A poet writing prose (naturally, I don’t mean when he is making it into a form of poetry, like Baudelaire in his Petits Poèmes, Musset in his plays, but Musset writing his stories, his critical essays, his addresses to the Académie) is someone who has put by his genius, who no longer requires of it the things it invents in the privacy of its own magic world, but who still bears it in mind and puts us in mind of it too. Some turn of phrase will suddenly remind us of a famous line of poetry, not perceptible, not there, but whose unspecified indeterminate shape seems to extend like an atmosphere behind a statement that could quite well have been made by anybody, giving it a kind of grace and stateliness and emotional evocativeness. The poet has flown away, but one can catch sight of his lustre behind the clouds. Nothing of it remains in the man, the everyday man who goes out to dinner and has his ambitions; and it is from this one, who has kept none of it, that Sainte-Beuve claims to extract the essence of the other.

Contre Sainte-Beuve found in Marcel Proust on Art and Literature 1954, translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner, p. 128-129.

Posted 12/31/2014 8:04am by Eugene Wyatt.

So he (Sainte-Beuve) differs from Emerson, who said one must hitch one’s waggon to a star. He tried to hitch his waggon to what is nearest at hand, to politics: and said, “I thought it interesting to collaborate in a great social movement.” He harped on what a pity it was that Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Hugo, should have taken up with politics, but in reality politics play less part in their writings than in his criticism. Why did he say of Lamartine: “The talent is left out”? Of Chateaubriand: “These Memoires in fact, are not very kind and that is their main defect. For as far as talent goes, mingled with a vein of bad taste, and with verbal abuses of all kinds—which for that matter are to be found in almost all M. de Chateaubriand’s writings—there are many pages bearing the stamp of the master, the claw-mark of the old lion; sudden flights side by side with childish whimsies, and passages of such grace, such magical suavity, that one owns the enchanter’s voice and wand.” “I really should not be able to discuss Hugo.”

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature (containing Contre Sainte-Beuve ~1908, p. 19 to p. 276) translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner 1957, p. 113.

Posted 12/17/2014 7:12am by Eugene Wyatt.

From Contre Sainte-Beuve ~1908,

And just then I saw, quivering on the sill of the French window, a pulse like a heartbeat, dim and colourless, but continually dilating and enlarging, and which one felt was going to become a sunbeam. And indeed a moment later it half invaded the sill, and then, after a brief hesitation, a shy drawing-back, flooded it all over with a pale light in which swam the rather indistinct shadows of the iron-work balcony railings. ...

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature (containing Contre Sainte-Beuve) translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner 1957 p. 74.

Posted 12/16/2014 9:10am by Eugene Wyatt.

At heart, I know quite well that a number of people, some of them my intimate friends, will make nothing of my article; but even from these I get the agreeable feeling that today I shall occupy their minds, if not with my thoughts, which will be totally inapparent to them, at least with my name, my personality, and the merit they impute to some one able to write so many things they do not understand at all. There is a person to whom this will give the idea of me that I so much desire she should have. Just by fact of existing, this article that she will not understand is a declaration of my merit which will reach her ears. Alas, a declaration of the merit of someone she does not love will no more charm her heart than a page filled with ideas she does not possess will detain her mind.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner 1957, (from Contre Sainte-Beuve) p. 66.

Posted 12/15/2014 6:45am by Eugene Wyatt.

I unfolded the copy of Le Figaro. ... It is my article! ... What I am holding in my hand is not only my own thought, it is thousands of wakened attentions taking it in. ... If I compared my article with the article I meant to write—as later on, alas! I shall do—instead of delightfully coherent passages I should probably find palsied stammerings which even to the most well-wishing reader could barely hint at what, before I took pen in hand, I supposed myself able to express. That was how I felt when I wrote it, when I revised it; in an hour’s time I shall feel so again; but at this moment each sentence that I extorted from myself flows, not into my own mind, but into the minds of thousands on thousands of readers who have just woken up and opened Le Figaro.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner 1957, (from Contre Sainte-Beuve) p. 61.

Posted 12/14/2014 8:35am by Eugene Wyatt.

Beauty is not like a ne plus ultra of what we suppose beautiful, an abstract type of the beauty before our eyes; on the contrary, it is something novel and, until life puts it before our eyes, unimaginable.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner 1957, p. 45 (from Contre Sainte-Beuve).

La beauté n’est pas comme un superlatif de ce que nous imaginons, comme un type abstrait que nous avons devant les yeux, mais au contraire un type nouveau, impossible à imaginer que la réalité nous présente.

Contre Sainte-Beuve Marcel Proust 1908 p. 70.

Beauty is not a superlative that we imagine, like an abstract concept before our eyes, but on the contrary something new, impossible to imagine, until reality presents us with it.

My translation.

Posted 12/10/2014 6:05am by Eugene Wyatt.

There are times, when a morning of spring has strayed into winter and the clapper of the man who sells goat’s-milk sends a purer note than a Sicilian shepherd’s flute into the blue sky, when I would like to cross the snows of the Saint Gothard and come down into a flowering Italy. And already, touched by this morning sunbeam, I have jumped out of bed, I perform a thousand frisks and capers that I see corroborated in the looking-glass, I delightedly utter quite uninspired remarks, and I sing—for the poet is like the statue of Memnon; one ray from the rising sun is enough to make him sing.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner 1957, p. 41  (from Contre Sainte-Beuve).

Posted 12/2/2014 5:57pm by Eugene Wyatt.

Charles Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) was an influential literary critic and a member of L'Académie française. With Contre Sainte-Beuve (~1908) Proust damns the judgement of an artist by his character while ignoring his work—which is what Sainte-Beuve did

What interests me is the hybrid nature of Contre Sainte-Beuve. A Gallimard editor, Bernard de Fallois, found a series of related writings among Proust's papers, assembled them and published it posthumously as an intriguing melange of fiction and nonfiction in 1954. 

From the Introduction by Terence Kilmartin to Marcel Proust on Art and Literature translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1957:

...At some stage during the composition of Contre Sainte-Beuve (which Proust conceived alternately as a classical essay "in the manner of Taine" and a [fictive] conversation with his mother [who had died in 1905] in which he discussed the subject with her) the novel took over...

"All the themes which will develop and ramify in the novel reveal themselves here with astonishing clarity," Fallois wrote in his preface; "Sainte-Beuve thus becomes a sort of symphonic overture in which the motifs that will be heard in the work are indicated in advance.

Here we have a precursor of the Madeline moment, one the most famous passages in À la recherche, in Proust's fictional narrative of Contre Sainte-Beuve, 

One snowy evening, not long ago, I came in half frozen, and had sat down in my room to read by lamplight, and as I could not get warm my old cook offered to make me a cup of tea, a thing I never drink. And as chance would have it, she brought me some slices of dry toast. I dipped the toast in the cup of tea and as soon as I put it in my mouth, and felt its softened texture, all flavored with tea, against my palate, something came over me—the smell of geraniums and orange-blossoms, a sensation of extraordinary radiance and happiness; I sat quite still, afraid that the slightest movement might cut short this incomprehensible process which was taking place in me, and concentrated on the bit of sopped toast which seemed responsible for all these marvels; then suddenly the shaken partitions in my memory gave way, and into my conscious mind there rushed the summers I had spent in the aforesaid house in the country, with their early mornings, and the succession, the ceaseless onset, of happy hours in their train.

And on the critical or nonfiction side Sainte-Beuve, as quoted by Proust, condemns himself. Taken from The Modernism Lab at Yale University, Contre Sainte-Beuve

"So long as one has not asked an author a certain number of questions and received answers to them, though they were only whispered in confidence, one cannot be sure of having a complete grasp of him, even though these questions might seem at the furthest remove from the nature of his writings. What were his religious views? How did he react to the sight of nature? How did he conduct himself in regard to women, in regard to money? Was he rich, was he poor?

In 1971 the Pléiade editors (of Proust's oeuvre) decided that the fictional and the critical elements were strictly unrelated in a work that was to be commonly known as Contre Sainte-Beuve.

The Pléiade editors were no doubt logically justified in excising the fictional elements from the critical study in their version of Contre Sainte-Beuve. But whatever Proust's intent (which will probably never be known), there is enough evidence to suggest that the two were intimately connected in his mind—indeed, the final novel is (among many other things) an indirect refutation of Sainte-Beuve's critical method and literary ethos, with characters such as Norpois and Mme de Villeparisis representing his views and the three great fictional artists, Bergotte, Elstir, and Vinteuil, standing in for the nineteenth-century poets and novelists he so crassly undervalued."

Contre Sainte-Beuve is a mix of the seemingly non-miscible aspects of fiction and nonfiction in the way that Bernard de Fallois assembled Proust's writing.