Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve
Proust wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve sometime between 1895 and 1900. This unfinished project was collected together from his posthumous papers. The structure appears to be complete but there are many gaps and missing details and it lacks the polish of his later masterpiece. Not quite a novel, not exactly literary criticism–it provides a fascinating look into the genesis of A la recherché du temps perdu. It provides readers an overview of his early ideas and a sense of the things he set out to accomplish with the major work. There are many parallel episodes and a good bit of theory.
The structure is unusual and can be a bit puzzling at first. Contre Sainte-Beuve is divided into three sections. After a brief Prologue we have the first part of the frame tale. The middle section consists of four essays on Sainte-Beuve and his method of literary criticism. The final sections resumes the frame tale which is followed by a brief conclusion. The transitions between the sections are a somewhat abrupt and at first appear as unrelated works. But the three sections, however discontinuous in this unfinished draft, work together to create a unified vision of Proust’s aesthetics. Central to this is his critique of Sainte-Beuve and his scientific method of literary criticism. This critique sets up the problem and forms the basis for his own theoretical approach. He will demonstrate the practical and creative application of his theoretical approach in the frame tale.
Should one read Contre Sainte-Beuve before or after reading A la recherché du temps perdu? Read before it makes for a much shorter and easier introduction to Proust than diving directly into Recherché. Contre Sainte-Beuve is only three hundred pages long. Recherchéis over three thousand pages. Because of it’s brevity, Contre Sainte-Beuve makes it much easier to discern and follow ideas that in Recherché are developed much slower and spread out. There are fewer characters and events to keep track of and so there is less tendency to lose the overall picture in the myriad of details. Also, because the theoretical point of view is made explicate in Contre Sainte-Beuve it is easier to see what Proust is trying to do and how the pieces all come together. Reading Contre Sainte-Beuve before Recherché will leave you better prepared to get more out of reading the larger work..
Reading Contre Sainte-Beuve after Recherché you can see how Proust developed his themes and plot of the larger work. Several of the characters, events and themes of Recherché appear in Contre Sainte-Beuve in a slightly different form. You can see how, starting from this more simple and straight-forward story, he was able to expand, enlarge and develop not just the length but the depth and richness of his original ideas.
Ideally you would read it both before and after, but then that means you need to read the three thousand page Recherché twice. But you know it’s worth it.
- Classics Spin (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)
- Spring Tryst with Marcel Proust (mtholyoke.uloop.com)
- Proust Visits New York (vol1brooklyn.com)