A new work by Julia Kristeva admittedly generates both a certain amount of anticipation and expectation that the book we hold in our hands will offer something grand—a ground-breaking theory, a position, an argument—be it feminist, psychoanalytic, semiotic, or, more likely, a hybrid of those reading practices. Time and Sense: Proust and the [End Page 551] Experience of Literature may not be theoretically ground-breaking in the tradition of, for instance, Revolution in Poetic Language. Yet in its meticulous investigation of Proust’s multivolumed In Search of Lost Time (as it is translated here), Time and Sense continues Kristeva’s attention to language in its social-subjective reality and delivers a reading of Proust that rigorously and, at times, in startlingly original fashion, addresses the epic content and structure of Proust’s vision and language.
Kristeva’s concerns are broad: she seeks to arrive at an understanding of Proustian time that is ontological and epistemological, but also sensory, grammaticaI, and syntactical. In the process, keeping faith with her title, she also imparts an understanding—a sense—of literature that is likewise sensorial, experiential, and temporal. In a book that can be frustrating in its density and its lack, on occasion, of a clear-cut focus, the great marvel here is how Kristeva will lead her reader to epiphanic moments in which are condensed the full multiplicity of meanings embodied in what are ordinarily commonplace categories of literary analysis: character, the sentence, the first-person narrator.
In her first chapter, “Superimpositions,” she performs a long reading of Proust’s characters, one that at times seems quite meandering as it moves along from character to character. Yet, in the last three pages of this 120-page chapter, Kristeva crystallizes what she has been doing in all that precedes, as well as prepares what is to come. Her wandering has not been aimless, even if it has not come across as particularly methodological. Rather, there has been a certain contingency to her analysis of the various characters, even, one might hazard, a sense that it is some kind of textual contiguity that leads Kristeva from one character to another, from Swann to Bloch, to Oriane, to Mme Verdurin, to Albertine, to Charlus, to homosexuality, and, finally, to Venice, which Kristeva in her finale to this chapter will designate the “cornerstone, the very character of time embodied.”
Initially, such a sustained interest in Proust’s characters seems to promote Kristeva’s contention that the characters—culminating with Venice—reveal the symbiotic relationship between the two dominant novelistic identities vying for prominence throughout Proust’s text: “aesthetic bildungsroman” versus “exploration of sexual dramas masked in social convention.” For the characters, and the narrator’s encounters with them, lead him along the tortuous (and torturous for some) but exhilarating, the sublime but also the sublimating path to [End Page 552] writing, all the while entertaining us, as Kristeva masterfully recreates, with the social and sexual intrigue of a fin-de-siècle soap opera. Kristeva spends a lot of time looking at Proust’s depiction of the Dreyfus Affair, homosexuality, and sadomasochism, although her interest in these sexy topics is implicated in her larger questioning of identity—Proust’s and the narrator’s.
As Kristeva’s work progresses, however, the individual figures she seems to revel in analyzing become increasingly subordinated to the textual and semiological resonance of the word “character” itself. The word “character,” as in the title to the first of Kristeva’s three parts, “The Characters Regained,” takes on superabundant meaning, something that, if we haven’t yet realized it, we will at the start of the second chapter with the aid of a Translator’s Note (by Ross Guberman, Kristeva’s very skillful translator), reminding us of the etymological roots (and thus inherent translation problems) of the word “character.” Besides meaning a literary personage, character means “the particularity of a sign” and “an imprint.” Even if Kristeva throughout the long preceding chapter has been engaged in readings of Proust’s literary personages—often, I...