restricted access Proust Among the Stars (review)
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Reviewed by
Malcolm Bowie. Proust Among the Stars. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. xx + 348 pp.

Marcel Proust has recently been placed in a rather odd position on the bestseller lists, not as a bestselling author in his own right but as the inspiration for a French comic book and for upper-middle-brow self-help tomes with titles like How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Year of Reading Proust, and even Dining with Proust. These texts are probably harmless, and may even inspire some people to read Proust’s great novel, A la recherche du temps perdu. Fortunately, now comes a book that will really help the new reader of Proust to read Proust. Malcolm Bowie does not look to Proust for easy homilies or reassuring apothegms, but rediscovers what is most disturbing in this brilliant and monomaniacal author: his insights into the darker aspects of moral [End Page 1060] nature, the destructive politics of the self, and the grip of sexual obsession. Bowie offers himself as a sort of Virgil, leading us into the inferno of Proust’s imagination. What makes him such a wonderful guide is his ability to write in language accessible to the general reader and yet to invoke the challenging concepts of poststructuralism and of the most advanced Proust criticism. Bowie’s earlier books concerned Proust, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan; although Freud makes only passing appearances here, and Lacan none at all, their attentiveness to the conflictual development of the self, the complexity of sexual desires, and the emotional charges of language underlie many of Bowie’s insights.

Bowie introduces crucial topics (self, time, art, politics, morality, sex, and death) and explores their resonances in Proust’s work. With a Proustian attentiveness to the many possible interpretations of any given theme, Bowie offers a multi-faceted tour of Proust’s world, leaving all its complexity and ambiguity evident. For example, on the question of politics, Bowie notes that for Proust, “there is no bedrock, no stable map or measuring-rod, and no viewpoint from which all other viewpoints can be made to make sense. There is instead a continuous dialectical trajectory in his thinking, and a disinterested scrupulousness in his handling of divergent political passions.” Despite the “wilful thinness” of his representation of formal politics, Proust chronicles the social transformations wrought in the body politic by the Dreyfus affair and the First World War. Although his sympathies lie all with the Dreyfusard cause, Proust is able to represent with full understanding the antisemitic imagination and to “know hatred from within.” Some academic readers may feel frustrated that Bowie never gives a conclusive resolution to paradoxes of this sort, but then this book is an introduction to Proust and is not meant to pursue any very rigid thesis. Furthermore, Proust himself leaves such questions wide open. Careful and original readings of many passages from the novel support each of Bowie’s generalizations.

Among the insights allowed by Bowie’s open-ended approach is the recognition that we must “resist as well as endorse” the “harmonising and integrating role” of the novel’s final volume, Le Temps retrouvé. Bowie demands that readers remain attentive to “a whole range of paradoxes, dissonances and unusual consonances, and with them a vein of disturbing moral speculation” in the novel and understand “the centralised and resolved self on which the novel ends [. . .] not as a redemption but as one momentary geometry among many others.” [End Page 1061] Bowie writes particularly well on Proust’s moral speculation. Too many Proust critics, from Samuel Beckett on, consider morality a distraction from Proust’s aesthetic concerns, but Bowie shows the importance of the moral imagination in the work. This consists not only of the sections in which we can read the narrator’s ethical development in a positive light, but also of those parts of the novel that are most disturbing, in which the narrator, seemingly so enlightened and free of prejudice, becomes sexually fascinated with young children. Bowie discovers the “awkward blend of pathos and farce” in a work that, among all its other theories, seems to contain “[its] own theory of paedophilia.” He reads La prisonniere and...