On Reading Ruskin
On Reading Ruskin, with authorial ascription to Marcel Proust, is in fact the first publication together in any language of the French prefaces Proust added to his translations of two books by John Ruskin, The Bible of Amiens (1880-1885) and Sesame and Lilies (1865). These prefaces were themselves put together from his earlier occasional writings on Ruskin and (in the case of the second) taken in part from the abandoned novel that served as the prototype for À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), Jean Santeuil (1952; English translation, 1955). The edition at hand includes as well some of the accompanying notes that Proust wrote for the two books, selected by Jean Autret, William Burford, and Phillip J. Wolfe. The whole is bound together by an introductory essay by Richard Macksey, which reflects on Proust’s relation to Ruskin and provides a superb chronological overview of Proust’s lengthy literary infatuation with the English author and art critic. The publication of this collection in the year that Proust’s works enter the public domain is thus clearly more than a scraping of the Proustian barrel for some neglected crumbs of the famous madeleine, for both the work and its introduction provide a fascinating view of the coming-of-age of one major literary figure through his reactions to another. The translations, perhaps because of the collaboration between the three scholars who are responsible for them, seem distinguished by both grace and accuracy.
Yet it is not only facts that the introduction offers but also an interpretation of them. It is this latter that may produce in the reader a certain skepticism. For the pages by Macksey, which the reader is almost obliged to read in order to orient himself for the fragments that follow, are strewn with the buzzwords (exfoliate, liminal, subtext, palimpsest, incompletion) of the American school of deconstructionist or poststructuralist literary criticism that is centered at Yale and Johns Hopkins universities. This school characteristically insists on the indebtedness of each writer to his predecessors, as well as to the language in which he writes—a kind of post-Romantic reaction to the nineteenth century cult of genius which insisted on the uniqueness of the individual’s creative act. Therefore, it is this set of literary-critical ideas which informs and even justifies publication in this form of the self-cannibalized writings of Proust on another writer who was himself, as an art critic, engaged in reflection on the works of others. A better title for this volume, then might be “Yale-Hopkins Criticism Reads Proust Reading Ruskin.” The book in question is, quite clearly by intention, a sort of hall of critical mirrors.
The reason most people will read this book, however, is certainly based upon an affection for Proust—which means, of necessity, the Proust of Remembrance of Things Past. Proust himself, in fact, gives an encouragement to do so in the opening “Translator’s Preface” to his first set of musings on Ruskin; “To read only one book by an author is to see that author only once.” For a writer, in fact, the “variation of circumstances that enables [him] to discern . . . the permanent features of character is found in the variety of the works themselves.” The reader learns about Proust from reading his works, even if these are works on other writers.
Proust is at his most suggestive here in the preface to Sesame and Lilies, which perhaps for that reason has already been published in English as On Reading (1971). The essay opens with the pages pirated from Jean Santeuil that record the narrator’s experiences while reading at his parents’ summer home in the country, in a proto-Combray. Proust concludes from this that in childhood one’s memory (and the reader quivers at the word in recollection of Proust’s masterpiece, yet to be written) links the books one reads with the circumstances in which one reads them. He then goes on to his central point, which is to disagree with Ruskin’s claim—in “Of Kings’...
(The entire section is 1703 words.)