- Reading in Dante and Proust
Dante’s early 14th-century epic poem the Commedia (Divine Comedy) and Marcel Proust’s early 20th-century novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) are both first-person narratives of literary vocation.1 The parallel was first drawn in the 1950s by the philologist Gianfranco Contini, according to whom Proust’s novel was built upon a question which was extremely pertinent to Dante studies: what is the relationship between the author and the protagonist?2 The Commedia tells the story of the otherworldly journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven of the poet Dante Alighieri, who is identified as the author of the poem. Through extradiegetic interventions, the Commedia also tells the story of its own writing. The highly individualized nature of the poem, with a protagonist who is its author and characters who are unique historicized individuals, led Erich Auerbach to describe Dante as “the first to configure […] man […] not as an abstract or anecdotal representative of an ethical type, but man as we know him in his living historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness” (Dante: Poet of the secular world 174–75).3 More recently, Dante’s literary self-awareness has led Albert [End Page 1130] Russell Ascoli to make a case for Dante as a “modern author.” It is the precocious “modernity” of the Commedia, both in terms of its realism and of its self-reflexivity, which makes it a relevant subject of comparison to Proust’s novel despite their distant historical contexts.
À la recherche du temps perdu tells the story of an anonymous Parisian contemporary to Proust who, from childhood, yearns to be a writer, but proves himself unsuccessful until, in the closing pages of the novel, he discovers his lived experience can provide material for the construction of a work of literature. Therefore while the narrator-protagonist of the Commedia is already a poet at the beginning of the poem, and over the course of the narrative evolves in terms of authority, the narrator-protagonist of the Recherche is not a writer,4 but only projects himself in this role in a concluding ecstatic vision.5 The Recherche also makes abundant use of extradiegetic comments, but these operate in a very different way from Dante’s. While the Commedia strives to remind us that its protagonist and its author are the same person, references to “l’auteur de ce livre” (“the author of this book”, III, 583) in the Recherche playfully trip up the reader’s expectations, so that one is never quite sure who this “je” is, nor what his exact relationship with the author might be.6 Dante’s use of the first-person and exploration of his creative identity rely on what we might call a poetics of assertiveness, whereas Proust’s use of the first-person and his exploration of his narrator-protagonist’s creative identity rely on a poetics of ambiguity.
My aim here is not to argue for a Dantean or Medieval influence on Proust, though this has been shown to be a relevant area of study,7 but rather to read these two works together so that they may prove mutually illuminating. Indeed, I share Contini’s intuition that both novels hold at their heart the same questions, and that these questions are mainly to do with the role of literature and its relationship to identity. Their worldviews may ultimately be irreconcilable, the Commedia being deeply Christian and the Recherche celebrating art as the only necessary form of spiritual experience,8 but both works are [End Page 1131] equally meta-literary. On a diegetic level, they both center around protagonists who are highly concerned with literary creation, which is invested with redemptive powers.9 They also feature many literary encounters: the protagonists of both narratives talk about literature with other characters, listen to other characters talk about literature, meet writers they have read, and interact with readers of their own. On an extradiegetic level, both works are self-referential and make a complex and varied use of metaleptic breaks and addresses to the reader.10 On top...