It took me three years to read Marcel Proust’s sprawling novel À la Recherche du temps perdu in translation. It’s true that after a few hundred pages, one gets pulled in by the book’s hypnotic allure, and eventually Proust’s world becomes as difficult to step away from as a plate of warm madeleines. But I needed a break between volumes in order to read other things, restore my own vision and at least attempt to create my own sort of Proustian existence, albeit on a shoestring and minus a cork-lined bedroom.
Since finishing the final volume some years ago, while on a slow train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, I have on occasion returned to certain favorite passages among the novel’s 3,200-odd pages, as Proustian devotees tend to do. These lines frequently center on observations by the novel’s unnamed narrator on music and drama performances (whether salon-style or theatrical), architecture and especially artworks. Some of the compositions described in the text were entirely imagined by Proust, such as the paintings by Elstir, whom the narrator so admires. Others, though real, are rather obscure works celebrated in Proust’s time but largely forgotten today. Most of the examples, however, are familiar art-historical pieces or avant-garde productions that remain celebrated; prominent among them are works by Giotto, Bellini, Titian, Velázquez, Chardin, Whistler, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Picasso, all vividly evoked in the writing.
Establishing a kind of meta-art criticism within the narrative, Proust uses paintings in startling ways to elaborate a point, to help explain a complex social arrangement, to formulate a political position or, most often, to render an exacting account of a subject’s physical appearance and character. Proust, in the voice of the narrator, manages to precisely identify the emotional intensity and nuance that these paintings, sculptures and drawings possess in actuality. He offers a heightened illumination of the art object, couched in observations that are rarely less than revelatory.
In Paintings in Proust, the California-based New York artist and author Eric Karpeles focuses on the more than 100 real-life artists mentioned in the novel. Karpeles’s book opens with a lucid introduction examining, among other things, Proust’s technique of “sustained integration of painted image and written text,” by which characters and pictures seem to melt into each other, with esthetic responses mirroring each individual’s deepest personal traits. The main body of the book features Proust’s own words, passages chosen by Karpeles from the novel’s seven separately titled volumes in the order of original publication (1913-27). Karpeles provides a brief introduction to each entry and reproduces some 200 related works, many mentioned specifically in the text. The result is a visually stunning and surprisingly accessible book that brings out subtle facets of Proust’s masterpiece, as well as the artworks he cites.
Following the course of the narrative, Karpeles chooses representative passages that show Proust’s use of art as part of a scathing critique of aristocratic snobbery, hypocrisy and intellectual pretentions. In one instance, he selects a particularly humorous and biting passage from The Guermantes Way in which the narrator recounts how the Duchesse de Guermantes describes to the Princesse de Parme a sculptural decoration on the bed frame of a young male friend who was lying ill.
“With the palm-leaves and the golden crown on one side, it was most moving, it was precisely the same composition as Gustave Moreau’s Death and the Young Man. (Your Highness must know that masterpiece, of course).” The Princesse de Parme, who did not know so much as the painter’s name, nodded her head vehemently and smiled ardently, in order to manifest her admiration for this picture. But the intensity of her mimicry could not fill the place of that light which is absent from our eyes so long as we do not understand what people are talking to us about.
A full-page reproduction of the Moreau painting (1856-65) appears on the adjacent page.Later in Karpeles’s study, in one of the selections from Sodom and Gomorrah, is an account of the smug and self-righteous socialite Mme de Cambremer, about whom Proust writes:
In her passion for realism in art, no object seemed to her humble enough to serve as a model to a painter or writer. A fashionable picture or novel would have made her sick; Tolstoy’s moujiks, or Millet’s peasants, were the extreme social boundary beyond which she did not allow the artist to pass. But to cross the boundary that limited her own social relations, to raise herself to an intimate acquaintance with duchesses, this was the goal of all her efforts, so ineffective had the spiritual treatment to which she subjected herself by the study of great master-pieces proved in overcoming the congenital and morbid snobbery that had developed in her.
Following the course of the narrative, Karpeles lingers on the narrator’s extended stay in Venice, and Proust’s eloquent remarks on the city’s uniquely decadent grandeur. Karpeles’s selections build to a crescendo that echoes Proust’s in the construction of the novel’s visionary and almost hallucinatory final installment, Time Regained, unfinished when the author died in 1922. In those pages, Proust explores the most profound themes of life, death and time, as well as the central position that art has held for him through the years. Near the end of Karpeles’s book, appropriately accompanied by reproductions of Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654)and Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance (1662-63), is a reflection by the narrator that amounts to one of Proust’s strongest statements about art.
Through art alone we are able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscape would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.
In this sly and sumptuous compendium, Karpeles comes close to encapsulating Proust’s vision, at least as it pertains to art and culture. Paintings in Proust could serve effectively as either a concise preface or a meaningful afterword to the monumental novel. What’s more, it can be appreciated entirely on its own.