Tout contre Sainte-Beuve: l’inspiration retrouvée by Donatien Grau (review)
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Tout contre Sainte-Beuve: l’inspiration retrouvée. Par Donatien Grau. (Figures.) Paris: Grasset, 2013. 402pp.

Published in the elegant series ‘Figures’ directed by Bernard-Henri Lévy, this book argues that Marcel Proust, who famously dismissed biographical, historical literary criticism and its main French representative, Sainte-Beuve, was in fact quite close to the great critic. Contre Sainte-Beuve (‘Against Sainte-Beuve’), the title under which Proust’s polemical essays were published half a century ago, is amusingly reformulated as Tout contre Sainte-Beuve (‘Right next to Sainte-Beuve’). Proust’s conviction that the biographical self of a writer is different from the artistic creative self has become a commonplace of contemporary reflection on literature, including on Proust’s own work. But, as Donatien Grau shows, Proust was a splendid example of fin-de-siècle French culture, a true expert in the French literary tradition as defined by — precisely — Sainte-Beuve, and an immensely erudite lover of history. When Proust criticizes Sainte-Beuve’s ‘method’, he uses a late nineteenth-century commonplace invented by Hippolyte Taine and other historicist thinkers who aimed at enlisting Sainte-Beuve as one of their precursors. Sainte-Beuve, however, had no ‘method’, if this term designates the rigorous procedures of history, sociology, and, more generally, of what later came to be called the ‘human sciences’. As a literary critic and historian he was interested in bringing back to memory in all its vividness the world in which writers, thinkers, and their public had lived and interacted. In his À la recherche du temps perdu Proust tried to do the same thing. True, Grau continues, Proust pursued other aims as well, some quite opposite to those of Sainte-Beuve, for example to achieve a synthesis between poetry and prose fiction, incorporate a multitude of genres in a post-Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, and articulate a theory of art as mixture of creative effort and involuntary insight. Grau also reminds us that Proust had been equally close and equally opposed to those other leading lights of fin-de-siècle French literature, Anatole France and the Goncourt brothers, whose depiction of subjectivity he deplored as superficial. Yet these authors challenged Proust to reach a deeper understanding of reality, at a level at which, as he points out in Le Temps retrouvé, the appearance of the subject ‘ceases to matter’ (p. 184). Moreover, Sainte-Beuve’s only novel Volupté had its own impact on Proust’s views on the Bildungsroman, while his sarcastic depiction of socialites and snobs is indebted, as Grau notices, to Sainte-Beuve’s attentive descriptions of society life. To conclude, Grau emphasizes the unmistakably French aspects of Sainte-Beuve and Proust’s personalities, their similar mixture of erudition and artistic talent, as well as their contrasting choices: Sainte-Beuve having decided in favour [End Page 401] of knowledge, Proust of art. Dialoguing with the best contemporary French scholars who have written on this topic — Antoine Compagnon, Marc Fumaroli, Dominique Jullien, Marielle Macé, and Jean-Yves Tadié, among others — Grau offers a complex, seductive portrait of the great writer, a portrait ready to be hung in the Early Twentieth-Century Gallery of the Imaginary Museum of French Literature.

Thomas Pavel
University of Chicago
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