Sesame and Lilies
Here in the translator's preface you see Proust going beyond Ruskin; I include it because it's a lovely piece of prose and also because it's from a marvelous and unique preface where the translator disputes the author he translates; the preface and notes to the translation are more about Proust than about Ruskin.
We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires. And these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach. But by a singular and, moreover, providential law of mental optics (a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves), that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours, so that it is at the moment when they have told us all they could tell us that they create in us the feeling that they have told us nothing yet.
From On Reading, the translator's preface to John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies translated into French by Marcel Proust 1906; On Reading translated into English by Jean Autret and William Burford, 1971.
The real mystery of Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu is considered my many to be the greatest work of imaginative literature in the past 100 years) and his fiction is how did he, being unable to compose a novel until he'd reached the age of 35, come to write fiction at all in real life. What provoked his genius? Tadié suggests his reading of Ruskin was responsible instead of the fictional claim in the work where the narrator* specifies, in one case, the taste of a madelaine as the agent that brings forth involuntary memory enabling the him to write about his past.
Ruskin's book (Sesame and Lilies) is concerned with reading. Proust seized on it (to translate) as an opportunity to recall his childhood reading during the holidays, improving on some of the passages from Jean Santeuil (his first 800 page attempt at a novel, abandoned and not published until 1952); the themes and the use of the first person provide a foretaste of Du cote de chez Swann. If old books can conjure up the past, which can rise up into the present through the phenomenon of involuntary memory, reading can lead us to the threshold of spiritual life (Ruskin), although it is not a substitute for it (Proust).
(In On Reading) he was making a clean break with the past, and with Ruskin, to whom he was bidding farewell; the choice had to be made between reading and writing, between other people’s books and his own work: 'We can only nurture the power of our sensitivity and our intelligence within ourselves, in the depths of our spiritual life,' from Contre Sainte Beuve. Proust turned back into himself, into fictional creation. Escaping in someone else's work had been both a failure and a success, because it had helped shape his mind, broadened his cultural knowledge [annotating Ruskin had required a considerable amount of research] and it had enriched his use of language. The pen that began Jean Santeuil was very different to that which framed the first lines of' On Reading:
'There are perhaps no other days of our childhood that we lived so fully as those which we believed we had left behind without experiencing them, those which we spent in the company of a favourite book.’
Both actively and reactively, Ruskin had thus given Proust the opportunity to clarify the aesthetic philosophy that he lacked, and to nurture the library of books which this least accumulative of men kept, not in his apartment, but in his mind…we pass from Ruskin as a reader to Proust as an adult reader, and thence to a small boy reading: that is to say, to a fictional character.
Fate would decree that just as Dante was abandoned by Virgil as they left Purgatory ['Thee o'er thyself I therefore crown and mitre'], Marcel should be deserted by Ruskin…at the very moment that he embarked upon the novel…
Marcel Proust, A Life Jean-Yves Tadié 1996, translated by Euan Cameron.
*In his letters and notes to himself about the novel, Proust usually spoke of the Narrator as "I," making no distinction between himself and his fictional persona. Proust's friends would recognize that voice as the writer's own. Whenever the Narrator speaks about art and literature, he is speaking for Proust. Still, Proust was engaged not in writing his autobiography but in creating a novel in which there are strong autobiographical elements. The symbiosis between Proust and his Narrator can be explained by the hybrid origin of the story. Having begun as an essay (Contre Sainte Beuve) in which the "I" was himself, as the text veered more and more toward fiction, the "I" telling the story became both its generator and its subject, like a Siamese twin, intimately linked to Proust's body and soul and yet other. This novel that passionately examines and contrasts the poetry and reality of proper names has none for the Narrator and his family. They are known only as "I," "Mama," and "Papa." The novel's creator was truly "another I," Proust at his best and most profound, reinventing himself for this novel that lacked obvious precursors.
From Marcel Proust, A Life William C. Carter 2000.
Proust's rhetoric and syntax, components of his complex style of multiple perspectives, develop for the first time into what is often described as "Proustian" in the preface he wrote for his translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies; he continues using these long and intricate sentence structures in his next critical work, Contre Sainte Beuve, before he begins his masterwork À la recherche du temps perdu about 1908.
“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we let slip by without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book." Thus Proust began in the preface (On Reading) to his translation of Sesame and Lilies…
Anna de Noailles and other friends marveled at Proust's essay on reading (first published in the Renaissance Latine). She wrote immediately to express her admiration: "My dear friend, I only see people who are dazzled... touched... by the dear, divine pages you have written." She told him that people were quoting extensively from his article and that she (and critic) Andre Beaunier had passed his preface back and forth, describing to each other his sentences that were like "adorable threads of silk."
(Marcel) refused to believe it. Accustomed as he was to showering the most lavish compliments on his friends' mediocre writings, he could not believe that their words were sincere. He answered by "beseeching" Anna to "stop being so nice . . . for I cannot bear it any longer; the burden of happiness, gratitude, emotion, stupefaction is too overwhelming and I might die of it. There is also the fear that the whole thing may be a joke, for nothing can penetrate the armour of my sadness, (his asthma had been getting worse) my conviction that all those pages are execrable, a sort of indigestible nougat which sticks between one's teeth."
Beaunier had taken particular delight in the style: "These long sentences, encumbered with all the details and circumstances, have a strange and delicious charm," which came, Beaunier said, from their "meticulous truth."
Writing to Mme Straus, Proust worried that his ... essay might be dangerous for his languid friend to read and urged her to avoid it: "Don't read it, it's a failed effort and horribly wearying to read, with sentences that take up an entire page" of the kind “that Dr. Widmer would particularly forbid you to read."
From Marcel Proust, A Life William C. Carter 2000.