This book boldly proposes that Proust cannot truly be understood without taking Henry James’s less literary brother, William James, into account. Marilyn M. Sachs directs the reader to two references to the elder brother in Proust’s Correspondance, and uses these as a starting point for a full-scale investigation of similarities and points of overlap between the pair. While one of these references is really part of an editorial footnote, and two is hardly a significant number, there is much evidence that William James was a conspicuous presence—both scientific and journalistic—in French culture at the time. Many of Sachs’s arguments are persuasive, particularly when discussing translations of James and publications of his works available to Proust and his mentors, such as the philosophy tutor Alphonse Darlu. It is also perhaps fascinating that James shared Proust’s appreciation of writers such as George Sand or Théophile Gautier, a line of reasoning not developed here. Using Proust’s relations with Henri Bergson (a thorny issue in itself) as proof of Proust’s knowledge of James is, moreover, a risky line of reasoning. Ultimately, Sachs seems to be torn between aligning herself with reception studies (how Proust’s possible encounters with the writings of James might have influenced his own work) and comparative literature more generally (there are interesting connections between the two that are worth teasing out). Trying to do both at once somewhat undermines the potential force of either argument. More frustratingly, the arguably long overdue introduction of James into Proust studies cannot be said to shed much new light on Proust; James is used to support and illustrate well-established tropes of Proustian scholarship (memory, habit, grief, perception, consciousness, names, and so on) but not to destabilize or [End Page 411] challenge these concepts. Sachs is an elegant evangelist for James, and introduces complex Jamesian concepts such as the fringe or perchings in clear and thoughtful terms. More attention ought to be paid to the undoubted differences between the two writers, which the author tends to overlook in her quest to demonstrate unequivocally their intellectual kinship. As the book progresses, a second aim becomes evident in addition to the wish to trace connections between Proust and James. This is the desire to situate the pair as forerunners of modern knowledge, especially in the area of neuroscience. Sachs is hardly alone in such an endeavour, as she demonstrates clearly in relation to recent references to Proust and James in neuroscientific writings. The problem with such studies is that they make of Proust a prophet of modern science (albeit with striking examples), thereby risking the reduction of literature to the status of scientific truth. Proust may be the spokesperson for such a truth, but he is much more besides.
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Marcel Proust in the Light of William James: In Search of a Lost Source. By Marilyn M. Sachs. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. xvi + 312 pp.
St John’s College, Oxford
Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Rushworth