About the only thing Michael Sprinker’s History and Ideology in Proust and Maria Paganini’s Reading Proust have in common is a preoccupation with context. And yet, the similarity ends with the word, for what each connotes by “context” is something entirely different. In Sprinker’s Marxist reading of Proust’s Recherche, context is historical: the signifieds of Proust’s text exist autonomously outside the text which reflects them, recuperable as facts, acts, events, signs of a history that is unstable but linear, troubled but eminently readable. For Paganini, context is intratextual, sometimes intertextual, located in the play, or “modulations” and “interpolations” as she calls them, of Proust’s signifiers. Intoxicated by the “intoxication of Proustian writing,” and interested in both maintaining and exposing the opacity of Proust’s [End Page 198] idiosyncratic writing, Paganini’s take on the Recherche is as idiosyncratic as the post-colonic part of her title suggests.
In History and Ideology in Proust, Sprinker’s project is to take the Recherche “at its word, maintaining that the dominant instance of class struggle during the first half-century of the Third French Republic was that between the bourgeoisie and the titled nobility as portrayed in Proust’s novel. The laboring classes played only a subordinate role in this historical process, for which reason they remain marginal to the narrative.” Throughout his reading, Sprinker restores historical specificity to the broad strokes of Proust’s narrative canvas in ways that are often quite illuminating. Covering in his four chapters the classical categories of Marxian analysis—“base and superstructure,” “class and class struggle,” “ideology,” and “revolution”—Sprinker convincingly argues for Proust as a cognizant chronicler of the social and political instability of the Third Republic and of the ascendant usurpation by the bourgeoisie of the titled nobility’s previous hegemony on economic, political, and social power.
Where Sprinker’s work is especially strong is in making us realize that the seemingly inevitable narrative course of the hero’s life has historical dimensions. It’s not just changes in Marcel’s perspective or maturity that lead to his entering the Faubourg Saint-Germain—issues that (1) result from Proust’s narratological choices and (2) have been well-attended to by literary critics writing on Proust. Rather, it is the fact that high society, once populated exclusively by the nobility, becomes increasingly open to the bourgeoisie in Third Republic France. Social barriers and class identities become much more fluid and Sprinker foregrounds this historical and class awareness on the part of Proust to a degree that Proust scholarship has not done in decades, if ever.
In the process, he also exposes major and minor moments in the Recherche as representations by Proust of ideological state apparatuses crucial to the social and political transitions occurring throughout the Third Republic, among them the military, the schools, religion, and the salon (“the quintessential institution for ideological elaboration and social stratification in the Recherche”). Sprinker reinserts the Dreyfus affair and its messy account of French nationalism into Proust’s narrative of class struggle, and he views sexuality—especially male homosexuality—as a further loosening of “society’s invisible barriers against unrestricted circulation.” [End Page 199]
Yet, if Sprinker convincingly argues his case for Proust’s historical sensitivity and subtlety, his methodology—that is, his rigorous, almost old fashioned Marxism—is not without problems that are sure to strike late twentieth-century readers well versed in theory from the last four decades. Early in his introduction, Sprinker distances himself from both Althusser and Macherey, making clear his belief that the literary text is a product, not a producer of history. His hierarchization is explicit throughout: the greater authority belongs to history; the novel—however ingeniously or beautifully—(merely) reflects it. As Sprinker presents it, the Recherche “confirms” what other historiographers have already ascertained. A passage like the following is...