Saturday, April 27, 2019

Proust on Goethe

Swann in Love
Recently I have been reading "Swann in Love," a novella-like episode within Swann's Way, the first volume of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. "Classic" authors, such as Proust, always serve as something of a foil for considerations of Goethe, and the major difference that struck me was the lack of "society" in Goethe's novels. One does discern some idea of German social relations circa 1770s in The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the obsession that drives Swann in regard to Odette is similar to that of both Werther and Eduard, but where in the heck are we, anyway? There are no recognizable landmarks, no Faubourg Saint-Germain, no Bois de Boulogne, only generic places and settings. I have actually written on this subject before, in connection with Trollope and Jane Austen. In that earlier post, I pointed out that Goethe knew a lot about government, first hand, in contrast to Anthony Trollope, who only worked in a post office. It was Trollope, however, who wrote about the workings of government and politics.

At home I have a volume entitled Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, which besides Proust's well-known "Contre Saint-Beuve," also contains the section "Proust the Reader," the first essay of which is on Goethe. Editors date it to the period of Jean Santeuil, Proust's first novel, between 1899 and 1904 . Here are a few nuggets:

The habits we constantly recur to in our books show what has fired our imagination ... In Goethe sites are extremely important. We often come upon a place where there is a wide and varied prospect. Valleys extend before us, with villages and a fine river on which the light of morning dazzles, and we look down on all of this from a little mountain. Various private collections, too, are dwelt on with pleasure, collections of pictures, natural history collections. One feels that these things were not merely put in to please, but that they had an extremely serious bearing on his intellectual life; that the concern of his intellect and its essential aim was to analyze the pleasure he drew from them ... and to ascertain their effect on his mind.

Characters, likewise, show us "the habitual preoccupations of Goethe's mind." Proust also draws attention to an aspect that is sometimes mentioned in connection with his own work, i.e., allegory, and to the seeming importance to Goethe of symbolizing "what is seen and unseen in our lives by ceremonies."

Proust's reading of Goethe appears to have been fairly wide. He mentions the Wilhelm Meister novels (of which the quote above might refer to the opening of the second novel) and Elective Affinities (commenting on the Count and the Baroness and on the laying out of gardens), as well as to what the translation calls "the Reflections," which I assume means the Maximen und Reflexionen. I can't help thinking back to my post a few weeks back in which I discussed what I considered the deficits of J.M. Coetzee's piece on Goethe in the New York Review of Books. Proust's take on Goethe, in contrast, shows the mind of a great writer thinking deeply about another great writer.


Tom Yarbrough said...

That's great. I love to hear other authors take on Goethe and it seems like Proust had an informed and interesting one. I got Hesse's essays thanks to your Blog and I may have to get this as well. Look forward to the next post.

Tom Yarbrough said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.