Proust's Ruthlessness

October 21, 2013 | By Book Department

Jean-Christophe Valtat is Professor of Comparative Literature at Paul Valéry University in Montpelier. He is the author of several books, including Exes, 03, and the steampunk adventure novels Aurorarama and Luminous Chaos, both part of The Mysteries of New Venice series. On tour in the US this fall, Valtat was the special guest at the opening night of San Francisco's literary festival "Litquake" on October 11, and will present Luminous Chaos at 192 Books and the Housing Works Bookstore Café's "New Venetian Halloween Carnival" in New York later this month. On October 28, he will participate in the roundtable event Proust, Love, and Jealousy, as a part of our Year with Proust Festival.


Ah, Proust…the long, well-trimmed, intimidating shadow cast over French letters…

From an academic point of view, what interests me about Proust is his modernity, skeptical as he may be about it. It may seem a small detail compared to the greater scope of his work, but he is admirably deft at sensing what is going around him, especially the way the new technologies of transportation and communication affect our perceptions and feelings : the telephone becomes associated with loss, the camera reveals the limits of our sensory perception and of our memory, the train is a trial ground for the fragmentation of reality, the car becomes the model for the epiphany-inducing moments that will allow him to regain Time, and the plane a metaphor for a unifying point of view, as it was for the Futurists. Moreover, these are questions that are still relevant today, and perhaps more than ever.

Speaking as a reader, the first word that would come to mind is ‘ruthless.’ Ruthless in the way he confiscated and exhausted French so that his followers had but his crumbs to eat. Ruthless in the way he showed what befalls a child’s dream of a mythical and meaningful life, after years of misunderstandings and missed occasions. Ruthless in the way that he introduced homosexuality, masochism or male prostitution into mainstream Literature, especially through Charlus, one of the most outrageous and funny characters ever put on paper. Ruthless in his portrayal of social life as a gigantic game of mimetic, and ultimately empty, desires. Ruthless in the way he dismantles the discourse of love, paring it down to its two essential psychic components: projection and jealousy. Ruthless as he reveals how we lie to ourselves about our own painfully made-up feelings and how we find in morality a perfect cover-up for our own neuroses. Ruthless in the way he claims that Literature is nearly worthless if it is not bound to a mystical experience of timelessness –even if I suspect few readers really take this point very seriously.

Ruthless, and a little out there, then: but what else could you possibly want from a writer?

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