215. (Marcel Proust)

In the fifth volume of Recherche, The Captive, Baron de Charlus refers to a visit he has recently paid to the famed writer, Bergotte, who has been for some time dead. Even after reading the explanatory note, I wanted to believe that the Baron was supposed to be shown in a lie, but even the aging Charlus would not commit such a blunder. Neither, though, had Proust, since (as the note explained) Proust’s own death had interrupted his correction of the typescript; he had inserted the death of Bergotte prior to this scene, and so Bergotte’s death seemed, for an instance, to have been undone by Proust’s own. But such a possibility barely flickered before it suffered its own extinction: Bergotte was indubitably dead. The moment was strange, in that in that it showed me where my allegiances to lay: to which moments of Proust’s creation had precedence over the others, and led me to ask why. Perhaps Bergotte’s death seems immovably a part of the novel owing to the scene itself, with the author keeled over on a bench before a Vermeer canvas, regretting that he had sacrificed his life for the glimpse of a brilliant patch of yellow wall that he had hitherto neglected in his favorite painting. Or perhaps it was simply priority: my having read about Bergotte’s death before Charlus’ bumbling reference might have made all the difference.

If an editor were compelled to resolve the inconsistency, several solutions would present themselves: Bergotte’s death might, contra Proust’s wishes, be moved to later in the novel; or else, Charlus’ speech might be modified, with the simplest revision taking the form of the insertion of “some writer” for the name “Bergotte.” But neither solution feels adequate. The first because Bergotte’s death takes its place in crucial proximity to the narrator’s meditation on the death of Swann. The second because it would feel a betrayal to Charlus, and the Proust’s conception of Charlus, to suppose that he would forget a name. This, after all, is the Charlus whom the narrator suggests would be a fine novelist himself, on account of his powers of naming: “In any case, even if I am mistaken about what he might have achieved with the merest page of prose, he would have performed a rare service by writing, for, while he observed and distinguished everything, he also knew the name of everything he distinguished.”

It matters to me both that Charlus be allowed to claim his visit to Bergotte that day and that the author and narrator know that Bergotte is dead. And it seems to me that the desire to reconcile the error, to smooth out the text, does an injustice to something that is essential to the novel and Proust’s imagination: the significance of names, both to those who are named and to those who do the naming. It feels wrong to deprive Charlus of the act of naming, just as it feels wrong to erase Bergotte’s being named here or elsewhere.

Charlus’ mention of Bergotte is, I find, extraordinarily poignant, for the knowledge it conveys, not of the world of the novel, but of the death of the novelist himself, who is both of and apart from the text. That mention of Bergotte shows both the independence and dependence of Charlus on Proust: a character whose existence endures and whose rounds of motion perpetuate themselves in the fiction of the novel, and who nonetheless suffers a momentary failure to recognize his own incongruity with the rest of the fictional world. It is a moment of textual queerness, appropriately for Charlus, who might have reveled in it as such.

The author’s (not narrator’s, not Charlus’) belated naming of a character already dead redounds with wistful irony upon an earlier instance of the narration, in the fourth volume:


That great game of hide and seek which is played in our memory when we seek to recapture a name does not entail a series of gradual approximations. We see nothing, then suddenly the correct name appears and is very different from what we thought we were guessing. It is not the name that has come to us. No, I believe that, as we go on living, we spend our time moving further away from the zone in which a name is distinct, and it was by an exercise of my will and attention, which heightened the acuteness of my inward vision, that all of a sudden I had pierced the semi-darkness and seen daylight. In any case, if there are transitions between oblivion and memory, then these transitions are unconscious. For the intermediate names through which we pass before finding the real name are themselves false, and bring us nowhere nearer to it. They are not even, strictly speaking, names at all, but often mere consonants which are not to be found in the recaptured name. And yet this labour of the mind struggling from blankness to reality is so mysterious that it is possible after all that these false consonants are preliminary piles clumsily stretched out to help us hook themselves to the correct name. “All this,” the reader will remark, “tells us nothing as to the lady’s failure to oblige; but since you have made so long a digression, allow me, dear author, to waste another moment of your time by telling that it is a pity that, young as you were (or your hero was, if he isn’t you), you had already so feeble a memory that you could not remember the name of a lady whom you knew quite well.” It is indeed a pity, dear reader. And sadder than you think when one feels that it heralds the time when names and words will vanish from the bright zone of consciousness and one must forever cease to name to oneself the people whom one has known most intimately.


The error over Bergotte’s name occurs because Proust is not naming “to oneself,” but is instead naming to others, in a work of art that will outlast his own acts of naming; but that such a naming of Bergotte goes wrong is occasioned by the author’s having ceased too soon to name.

It is, on the face of it, strange to find oneself mourning for an author in the process of reading a first-person novel of which a thousand pages remain; a work that, we are told elsewhere in the novel itself, holds at least the hope of preserving the author’s individuality. But that peculiar mingling of loss and endurance, of mourning and teasing, is made possible by the games that Proust plays with his own name in the fifth volume:

Then she would find her tongue and say: “My—-.” or “My darling —.” followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be “My Marcel,” or “My darling Marcel.”  After this I would never allow a member of my family, by calling me “darling,” to rob of their precious uniqueness the delicious words that Albertine uttered to me.”

Later still, she calls him “My darling Marcel” with no apology from the narrator, though we are perhaps to think that the narrator feels no need to explain what we can recognize as a game of make-believe. Participation in the game of make-believe, participation in the play of the novel itself, requires us holding two mutually opposed ideas in our minds: “This “I” is Marcel Proust; This “I” is not Marcel Proust.” And it requires us delighting in the variously swelling and thinning significance of a name, its seductive indeterminacy as well as its range of determinacies, and it requires us to do so at the same time as the narrator does the same.

Names, like poetry and music and the works of art that the narrator admires, cannot possibly mean all that we want or need for them to mean; but that does not entail their meaning nothing. They do something, bring something into clarity:

Her social personality, which had been so doubtful, became clear to me as soon as I learned her name, just as when, after racking our brains over a puzzle, we at length hit upon the word which clears up all the obscurity, and which, in the case of a person, is his name.

And with the loss of a name, in turn, a person may fade, or become strange, as when, later in the fourth volume, the narrator recalls his progress returning from the Verdurin household along the coast to Balbec. The name of each train station has the name of a person, or more than one person, attached, all of which have taken on life and history through the novel:

The same place-names, so disturbing to me in the past that the mere ‘Country House Directory,’ when I leafed through the section devoted to the Department of the Manche, caused me as much dismay as that railway timetable, had become so familiar to me that even in that timetable itself I could have consulted the page headed ‘Balbec to Douville via Doncieres’ with the same happy tranquility as an address-book.

But the absence of a name in the list serves to refocus our attention, to make us see afresh a character we thought we knew so well, and to startle somewhat at the description the narrator offers in the place of his name:

The name Saint-Pierre-des Ifs announced to me merely that there would presently appear a strange, witty, painted fifty-year-old with whom I should be able to take about Chateaubriand and Balzac.

That “strange, witty, painted fifty-year-old” is of course Baron de Charlus, but that the narrator would describe him thus, so generously, so humanly small, and so approachable, is surprising, something that feels at odds with the word “Charlus” as we have come to know it.

Something similar happens when the narrator announces that he might have the same name as the author of the book, and does so with the refraction of first-person narrator pronoun “we,” and the words “narrator” and “author.” The “we,” we come to feel, is neither the narrator nor the author, but serves somewhat as the list of adjectives does, to open onto a more intimate subject, one that exists between or beyond the two other words, “narrator” and “author.” It is not a name, but it serves as a name does when a person speaks of himself, to himself; it is the name of self-consciousness alone, and essentially private even when publicly spoken. It is the name anterior to naming of narrator or author; the novel describes its effect when describing the music of Vinteuil:

Composers do not remember this lost fatherland, but each of them remains all his life unconsciously attuned to it; he is delirious with joy when he sings in harmony with his native land, betrays it at times in his this for fame, but then, in seeking fame, turns his back on it, and it is only by scorning fame that he finds it when he breaks out into that distinctive strain the sameness of which—for whatever its subject it remains identical with itself—proves the permanence of the elements that compose his soul. But in that case it is not true that those elements—all the residuum of reality which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even from friend to friend, from master to disciple, from lover to mistress, that ineffable something which differentiates qualitatively what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with others only by limiting himself to externals, common to all and of no interest—are brought out by art, the art of a Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, which exteriorises in the colours of the spectrum the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, but for art, we should never know?

“Whatever its subject it remains identical itself”: a subject that is an individual forming and formed of world “which, but for art, we should never know.” That, I think, gets at the unnamed “we” that hovers between the “narrator” and the “author,” and that allows for us to reconcile ourselves both the Bergotte’s being dead and to his being named, to Proust’s being dead, to the narrator’s having told us about Bergotte’s death, and yet to Charlus’ seeming to have seen him before the party at Quai Conti.


That subject, that individual, also emerges in the beautiful reflection on Swann’s death, which occurs also in the fifth volume. The passage turns on names and identities, on names and deaths, and on how names struggle to preserve identities beyond death. But the shock is withheld till the final two sentences (beginning “And yet, my dear Charles Swann”):

Swann’s death had deeply distressed me at the time. Swann’s death! Swann’s, in this phrase, is something more than a mere genitive. I mean thereby his own particular death, the death assigned by destiny to the service of Swann. For we talk of “death” for convenience, but there are almost as many deaths as there are of people…And it is this diversity of deaths, the mystery of their circuits, the colour of their fatal badge, that makes so moving a paragraph in the newspapers such as this…From this standpoint, if one is not “somebody,” the absence of a well-known title makes the process of decomposition even more rapid. No doubt it is more or less anonymously, without any individual identity, that a dead man remains the Duc D’Uzes. But the ducal coronet does for some time hold the elements of him together, as their moulds held together those artistically designed ices which Albertine admired, whereas the names of ultra-fashionable commoners, as soon as they are dead, melt and disintegrate, “turned out” of their moulds. We have seen Mme de Guermantes speak of Cartier as the most intimate friend of the Duc de la Tremoille, as a man highly sought after in aristocratic circles. To a later generation, Cartier has become something so amorphous that it would be almost aggrandizing him to link him with the jeweler Cartier, with whom he would have smiled to think that anybody could be so ignorant as to confuse him. Swann on the contrary was a remarkable intellectual and artistic personality, and although he had “produced” nothing, still he was lucky enough to survive a little longer. And yet, my dear Charles Swann, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a young idiot has made you the hero of one of his novels that people are beginning to speak of you again and that you name will perhaps live. If, in Tissot’s picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond de Polignac and Saint-Mauirce, people are always drawing attention to you, it is because they see that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann.

What happens in the final two sentences echoes, without mirroring, Proust’s insertion of “Marcel” into the novel, for the second-person address shifts from Swann, the character, addressed by the narrator, to another “you,” who is unnamed but who, from the painting by Tissot, might be identified as Charles Haas, and whose real standing apart from the fictional world of the novel is registered in the suggestion that traces of his person are contained “in the character of Swann.” Just as the “you” of the passage, intimate with fiction and reality alike, and participating equally in both, seems in fact to occupy a realm distinct from other, so the “I” of the passage is author and narrator, and neither altogether. The pronouns attach to subjects for whom we have no names at all—and who are, perhaps, as a consequence, beyond death as we know it, if also beyond life.


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