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Proust & Edmund White

February 15, 2013 | By Edmund White

Now when I look back on Proust’s immense achievement in this year of the centennial of Swann’s Way (whose publication he had to subsidize), I realize that in the last twenty years his book has edged out Ulysses out as the canonical work of the 20th century.  Although Proust predicted that he himself would be forgotten in ten years after his death, and his book in a hundred years, the renown of his great work only grows.  As Proust observed, a revolutionary work of art must go out into the work and greet its own posterity.  As he wrote, ‘it was Beethoven’s quartets themselves (the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th) that devoted half a century to forming, fashioning and enlarging the audience for Beethoven’s quartets, thus making, like every great work of art, as advance if not in the quality of artists at least in the community of minds….’ Today Proust owns a secure place in our community of minds.

Because of Proust’s great example I dared to write A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony, as an afterthought The Married Man, seeking in my volumes to trace out a representative character who lives through history, from the oppressive Fifties to the liberating Sixties on to the hedonistic Seventies and ending with the devastating Eighties and its losing battle with AIDS.  Without Proust would I have seen the possibility of turning my experiences into something typical of those of my generation?  Of course I realize that my achievement is only a minor footnote to his sovereign oeuvre, but every year brings not only hundreds of contributions to Proust scholarship but even new fiction indebted to him, such as the six volume novel by the Norwegian master, Karl Ove, Knausgaard, the provocatively titled My Struggle, a microscopically detailed look at the life of a passionate, literary heterosexual.

"Proust is the most companionable of the great writers..."

Proust is the most companionable of the great writers, and he has provided me with good company throughout my long life – as I’ve recognized in his pages parallel thoughts and experiences of my own. Proust, in contemplating his future readers in his last volume, returns to the essential strategy of realism, identification with the experiences recounted on the page:  ‘For it seemed to me that they would not be ‘my’ readers but the readers of their own selves… with its [the book’s] help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.  So that I should not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whetherit really is like that,’ I should ask them whether the words that they read within themselves are the same which I have written…’  Proust never seemed certain what genre he was writing, and in some letters he called his massive book his “autobiography”, but in the end he seemed to hang on the side of the novel of psychological realism.

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