part two

Flaubert said that the artist in the work was like God – everywhere and nowhere. For the novelist around 1900, this phrase was rather like the gate to the Law in Kafka’s The Trial. It was a phrase to sit before, while one waited for it to open. Surely the God in question was the Jansenist god, the deus absconditus, the god who elaborately creates the conditions that seal his vanishing act, and not the god of the prophets, who communicates angry messages and speaks in a still small voice in the wind. A novel, if Flaubert was right, was not a confession. Even a confession wasn’t a confession. Art was made out of stuff, descriptions, and not of sentiments. So you couldn’t understand a novel or a poem – to confine this to verbal art – better by knowing about the artist. That seemed like the conclusion to which Flaubert’s phrase moved you. Sitting before the sentence, it seemed to reveal a great and obscure truth. But if you considered it more telescopically – if you looked at what novels have done over the centuries – the phrase didn’t seem wholly credible. The division between matter and sentiment, for instance, couldn’t be right. Even the story that is built on an obvious attempt to arouse pity and terror on a low scale has to use matter, and even a novel that is built on an attempt to trace the foundations of modern stupidity, like Bouvard et Pechucet, uses the sentiments released by description to legitimize its sequence of events. It was much more credible to think that Flaubert had put himself into Madame Bovary, as he said himself. It was much more satisfying.

The heirs of this dilemma, the new critics of the fifties, resolved it by making it a rule that, in a novel or poem, the author who speaks can never be identified with the living person who wrote the novel or poem. This Gordian judgment has become the basis for teaching literature and composition as though texts derived, ultimately, from axioms. The problem with the great concordant, teased out in the sixties by Derrida and his school, has not been resolved. It has merely gelled into an orthodoxy. This orthodoxy separates readings outside the classroom – Oprah readings, you could call them – that are curious about authors, that look for sentiment, that think of a text as an annex to that much more interesting thing, the life experience of a celebrity, and look for lessons to be derived therefrom, from those inside the classroom, where the author’s godlike disappearance has produced the miracle that we still group together novels in terms of authors names: here are the novels of James, here are the novels of Joyce, etc.

When Proust set out to write a series of essays that would become a sort of novel, his theme was to elaborate on Flaubert’s notion, in a way. He aimed at Sainte-Beuve, the critic. He aimed at debunking Sainte-Beuve’s notion that the judgment of the personality of the artist is what the art leads us to. What it is for. On this principle, Sainte-Beuve could allow himself to expatiate more on some wretched book penned by some countess than on all of the works of Stendhal. Sainte-Beuve’s principle is the same principle that lies behind Vanity Fair magazine and the like. Everything is about getting a glamorous name and a confession. Everything is about the agony and the ecstasy of a certain class in beautiful poses.

Perhaps Sainte-Beuve so irritated Proust because Proust recognized his own weakness for countesses. In any case, when he came to write about Sainte-Beuve and Balzac, he came to repair an injustice. The injustice was not only Sainte-Beuve’s patronizing and in the end dismissive view of Balzac, but the echo of that view since – the notion that Balzac wrote before the God of the prophets became the God of the philosophers. Instead of being everywhere and nowhere, he was simply everywhere. He was simply busy.

Proust wrote his defense of Balzac as though he were talking, in fact, to a countess. That is why he begins with a “tu” – a you. “Tu fronces le sourcil. Je sais que tu ne l'aimes pas.” (You make a face. I know that you don’t love him) immediately interjects the fictional into the essay – just as in Wilde’s The Decay of Lying. But the “I” here does not possess the degree of alienation Wilde threw into his essay. The I does stand, until further notice, for Proust.

The sticking point with Balzac – why a true princess makes a face at his name – is his vulgarity. As Proust writes,

“It isn’t only that at the age when Rastignac debuts, he gave for the goal in life the satisfaction of the grossest ambitions, or, at least, the most noble so mixed up with the base that it is impossible to separate them.”

I am not going to go through Proust’s essay sentence by sentence – I urge LI’s readers to do so, either in translation or here -- but I do want to draw attention to the twists of the argument. Proust quickly throws up Flaubert as a counter-instance to Balzac.

You have sometimes found Flaubert, revealed in certain aspects of his correspondence, vulgar. But of him at least there was one thing completely free from vulgarity, his understanding that the goal of the live of the writer is in his work, and that the remnant only exists “to be used as one more illusion to describe.” Balzac totally puts the triumphs of life and of literature on the same plane.”

Having built this dichotomy, Proust goes on to show that Balzac embodies a principle of truth that, to return to Wilde and Zola, can only be denied by one who is vulgar enough to find the vices and virtues of tedious people tedious – which may well be Vivian’s fault, in The Decay of Lying, the shadow that crosses between Vivian and Wilde.

“There is nothing here to separate his [Balzac’s] letters from his novels. If we have heard perhaps too much that his characters were real for him, and that he seriously discussed if such and such a move was better for Mlle de Grandlieu, for Eugénie Grandet, one can say that his life was a novel that he constructed in absolutely the same manner. There is no line of demarcation between the real life (that which is in fact not so real in our opinion) and the life of his novels (the only true one for the writer).”

The exchange between the realities of experience and the realities encoded in art has been one way out of the conundrum expressed in Flaubert dictum. Surely the god that is everywhere and nowhere in the novel might be, by the same logic, everywhere and nowhere in the life.

Well, we are not going to keep developing this chain of reasoning, because we want to get to the point: Proust’s mention of Wilde’s opinion of Lucien de Rubempre. This occurs near the end of his essay, when he is examining Balzac’s style, which he considers strikingly explicative in the large and in the small. This brings him to consider Balzac’s treatment of p.o.v. – how does one make the explicative, which depends on the generalization, into an illustration of a perspective, which depends on the singularities of the personality? And from this topic he turns to Vautrin, whose point of view is a sort of raw parody of Balzac’s own ambition, ambition running in a world in which all values tend towards zero. This is where Wilde comes in. I’ll give you the French, and then the English:

." Et de fait, Vautrin n'a pas été seul à aimer Lucien de Rubempré. Oscar Wilde, à qui la vie devait hélas apprendre plus tard qu'il est de plus poignantes douleurs que celles que nous donnent les livres, disait dans sa première époque (à l'époque où il disait: "Ce n'est que depuis l'école des lakistes qu'il y a des brouillards sur la Tamise"): "Le plus grand chagrin de ma vie? La mort de Lucien de Rubempré dans Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes." Il y a d'ailleurs quelque chose de particulièrement dramatique dans cette prédilection et cet attendrissement d'Oscar Wilde, au temps de sa vie brillante, pour la mort de Lucien de Rubempré. Sans doute, il s'attendrissait sur elle, comme tous les lecteurs, en se plaçant au point de vue de Vautrin, qui est le point de vue de Balzac. Et à ce point de vue d'ailleurs, il était un lecteur particulièrement choisi et élu pour adopter ce point de vue plus complètement que la plupart des lecteurs. Mais on ne peut s'empêcher de penser que, quelques années plus tard, il devait être Lucien de Rubempré lui-même. Et la fin de Lucien de Rubempré à la Conciergerie, voyant toute sa brillante existence mondaine écroulée sur la preuve qui est faite qu'il vivait dans l'intimité d'un forçat, n'était que l'anticipation - inconnue encore de Wilde, il est vrai - de ce qui devait précisément arriver à Wilde.

“And in fact Vautrin is not the only one to love Lucien de Rubempré. Oscar Wilde, to whom life was to teach later, alas, that there are more poignant griefs than are given by books, said in his first epoch (that epoch in which he remarked, it is only since the school of the lake poets that there have been fogs on the Thames): the greatest sorrow of my life? The death of Lucien de Rubempré in Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes." There is something particularly dramatic in this predilection and tenderness of Oscar Wilde, at the brilliant period of his life, for death of Lucien de Rubempré. Without a doubt, he was moved by it, like all readers, by putting himself in the point of view of Vautrin, which is the point of view of Balzac. And from this point of view, besides, he was a reader particularly selected and elected to adopt this point of view, more than most readers. But it is hard to repress the impression that, a few years later, he had to become Lucien de Rubempré himself. And the final hours of Lucien de Rubempré at the Conciergerie, seeing all his brilliant, worldly existence flowing away with the proof of the fact that he lived in the intimacy of a convict, was only an intimation – still unknown to Wilde, it is true, of what must happen precisely to Wilde.”