Mirages and Mad Beliefs: Proust the Skeptic by Christopher Prendergast (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Mirages and Mad Beliefs: Proust the Skeptic. By Christopher Prendergast. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. xii + 220 pp.

Christopher Prendergast’s paradoxical title, mixing mirages, mad beliefs, and scepticism, might itself seem mildly mad; rather, it encapsulates an argument that, like Vinteuil’s little phrase, opens ‘more largely’ our Proustian souls. Not always with the most exquisite tact, to be sure, but Prendergast’s scorn becomes part of the book’s wicked charm as the author ridicules the Proust ‘swooners’: those (certainly not ourselves, of course) committed to À la recherche as a ‘storehouse of delicate epiphanies’ spiked with ‘a dose of class-bound aestheticism’ (p. 1). Challenging and extending the tradition of Deleuze’s ‘antilogos’ additions to Proust et les signes (1970 and 1976), Paul de Man’s deconstructive Allegories of Reading (1979), and Leo Bersani’s redemptive replication of experience by a self now absent, freed from desire (The Culture of Redemption, 1990), among other critical perspectives, Prendergast reads Proust against his own overt claims — only, I would suggest, in a cocktail all Prendergast’s own: of insight, erudition, and wit in equally terrifying quantities. The result brings to the surface Proust’s effervescent, ‘gleefully comic understanding that [the aesthetic solution] is in some ways completely mad’ (p. 15). Along the way Prendergast intrepidly takes on that most forbidding of topics, humour, which he tracks even to ‘the comedy of fog’ (p. 50) — articulated, wonderfully, by both ‘echo and negation’ (p. 50) — just as the madeleine is both parodied and tragically sublated in Mme Verdurin’s Lusitania croissant. If the chapter on magic seems not quite to deliver the charge of surprise and reward as do the others (magic remaining on the level of metaphor as we are guided through The Arabian Nights; the text’s various ‘Open sesames’; the desiring belief that enchants then deserts Odette’s Bois de Boulogne and the mother’s Venice), we may have come to expect too much of Prendergast’s own special sorcery. With a return to Venice cast in a more sacred light in the chapter ‘Éblouissement’, Prendergast’s game is clearly back, however, as he proceeds from Venetian gold to Vermeer’s layers of yellow wall to the layered feuilleté as structuring principle in literary style, narrative organization, and pastry. A ‘beguiling yet hostage-taking’ comma (p. 127) in Proust’s description of Elstir’s poetic aesthetics makes all the difference — as Prendergast demonstrates in another chapter — between an insight into nature, and the delights of illusion. Such familiar acrobatics of metaphor as Albertine’s ices — where ‘tropes trope their own destiny in the back of the mouth’ (p. 155) — and decrepit bodies on stilts are renewed for us. His range and depth undiminished, Prendergast analyses spectral apparitions and embodied souls by way of Albertine asleep, the Eucharist, and the maternal, before allowing the humble Françoise to voice [End Page 412] the Recherche that might have been: those pages too moth-eaten for her to mend. When Prendergast quotes a particularly rhapsodic ‘celebratory’ passage in explicit contradiction to his claims, his tone appears chastened: ‘Too bad [. . .] for this reader, and the arguments of this book’ (p. 80). Are we to buy such humility, or is he taunting us for any lingering traces of ‘Proust pastry worship’? Save yourself the trouble, Professor Prendergast. You already have us eating its crumbly remains out of the palm of your hand.

Margaret E. Gray
Indiana University Bloomington
...