10 APRIL 1964, Page 20


SIR.--Mr. Brien's 'Afterthought' (March 27) is a depressing piece of writing. I realise that this is journalism and not academic criticism, an attempt to persuade rather than to do careful justice. But need the 'point of view' be as grotesquely divorced from the object as it is in Mr. Brien's article on 'one of the great OK names of the period, centre of a passionate Undergraduate crush in my Oxford days.' Marcel Proust?

Here are .some of the points which trouble me: 1. Mr. Brien, by his own admission, has not really read the work he is writing about: should he not have waited until he had finished Remembrance of Things Past before consigning it to oblivion? This elementary fairness to anything claiming the status of a work of art is particularly relevant to Proust's case, for his novel reveals its meaning gradually, cumulatively, and is:organised towards a climax, the end, which places all that has preceded it in a new perspective, and which represents a triumph over the neurotic sensibility Proust recognises in his narrator. Perhaps Mr. Brien should read on to the end, pre- pared for a revelation—he is far too blasé, the simple, vulgar formulas (In Hemingway, the people swim in beer but in Proust, they tiptoe through cold cream') come too pat.

2. Mr. Brien is an enemy of cliché and common- place (Proust's sentences 'are hung with renovated clichés and restored commonplaces like paper lanterns'—one might object that the renovation of clichés and the restoration of commonplaces is some- thing achieved only by the rare and valuable among Fterary works). But Mr. Brien himself subscribes to a notorious cliche when he uses the 'invalid syn- drome' to help him write about Proust. Misled by the fact that Proust was an invalid and, in some ways, a neurotic, he assumes the work to be explained entirely in this light as 'an invalid's revenge upon a society which carries on as if he had ceased to exist.' It never occurs to him, armed in advance with an interpretation and ignorant of half the work, that Remembrance of Things Past is an operation vitale, a self-criticism as well as a self-justification, and that the finished work is the assertion of an educa- tion completed. Can Mr. Brien imagine a more 'healthy' subject?

3. Still talking of cliChés, Mr. Brien quotes from Scott-Moncrieff's translation. He seems to realise how potentially dishonest this practice is and excuses himself : '1 realise that my complaints are directed at the English version but this is the form in which Remembrance of Things Past became the cultural totem of the Forties—and C. K.. Scott- Moncrieff's translation has often been described as an original work of art itself.' But if the translation is 'an original work of art' haven't we stopped talking about Proust? Is Mr. Brien attacking a fashionable translation or Proust, or even the fact that Proust should have become fashionable? He simply has not thought about the question with sufficient care. If we look at the cliches Mr. Brien has discovered we find that he has failed to understand; 'one condition sufficed': I am not sure how this is a cliché, but I suspect Mr. Brien finds it pompous, latinate. In fact the French (une condition etait su)9isante• . .) is unexceptionable; translated into English, French often acquires a greater formality than it originally possesses. 'Dull as ditchwater' (ennuveuses comme la pluie) is the kind of cliche that Mme. Verdurin or her demi-monda'ne • protegee, Odette, but not Marcel or Swann, would use; it .is thus appropriate to its context, in which Proust is placing himself ironically in the position of Mine. Verdurin and her Clique.

4. Sometimes Mr. Brien's cho ce of evidence is not so much naive as unfairly loaded. A specimen of M. Legrandin's style, which is. intentionally vague and second-hand, is taken ak representative of Marcel's own style, where the same 'use of words' (shades of the undergraduate essay, surely the symbol of immature judgment for Mr. Brien) can be found almost unchanged. Has Mr. Brien read even the three books he claims to have read? Marcel himself consistently avoids such imprec'sions and stock romantic effects as those used by Legrandin; surely Mr. Brien noticed the way Proust's metaphor defines its object, makes it more comprehensible. Perhaps not

5. The objections of Mr. Brien to Proust's characterisation would require a longer refutation; they contain like the rest of his article a heavy dose of distortion and oversimplification. (`Proust always announces what sort of person each member of the cast is before he appears,' and so on.)

Mr. Brien is fully entitled to dislike Proust with all his heart; he need not even seek to justify his dislike, but if he decides to do so then his readers are entitled to reasons not rationalisation, intellectual honesty not journalistic slickness. 'How much else [apart from the incident of the petite madeleine] is retained after twenty years?' he asks. The question is: how retained and by whom?