By Dennis Abrams
Marcel Proust, in a letter to Jean Cocteau, proclaimed that “My book is a painting.” And indeed, anyone who has read or has even attempted to read In Search of Lost Time has most likely found themselves overwhelmed, fascinated and even intrigued by Proust’s countless references to artists and their paintings. Characters and landscapes are described in comparison to paintings. Characters within the text describe other characters in terms of classic paintings. (On one occasion for example, Monsieur Swann describes Odette as having “a face worthy to figure in Botticelli’s ‘Life of Moses.’) Given that, can one understand the book without understanding or visualizing the art within the text?
Fortunately, artist Eric Karpeles has come to the rescue with his book Paintings in Proust (Thames and Hudson, 2008). In it, Karpeles reproduces over 200 paintings and drawings referenced in the text, along with the pertinent passage from the text, as well as Karpeles’ own introductions illuminating the book’s plot at that point. It is, as Boyd Tonkin described it for The Independent, “a sumptuous tasting menu of the work.”
In the acknowledgements for the book Karpeles gives a special thanks to the man who, in a way, made the whole project possible: the high-school French teacher who introduced him to Marcel Proust.
Dr. Stephan Ethe knowingly put Swann’s Way into the hands of
an impressionable 17-year-old reader whose exposure to the world’s
possibilities was thereafter immeasurably expanded. I remain
touched by this thoughtful gesture.
That one teacher’s generosity ignited a nearly life-long love affair with the work of Marcel Proust.
“Proust opened up a world and allowed me to cross over its threshold with gratitude and awe,” Karpeles says. “I saw a world I never could have imagined, a world that emphasized the primacy of the senses. I began to understand the way in which I had been taking things for granted. Proust provided a key or a set of glasses or a ‘transactional object’ that opened my eyes. His was a voice unlike any I’d ever heard or read, and I felt so buoyed and welcomed by that voice that I was eager to follow it in all its permutations.”
Karpeles has since gone on to read In Search of Lost Time many times and knows that the thought of tackling Proust’s masterpiece can seem daunting to the first time reader. But, he asserts, all you need is a willingness to give yourself up to Proust’s spell. “There’s no need to bring anything to any text,” he says. “It’s the text’s responsibility to bring you in. All the reader needs to bring is a sense of openness and willingness to enter a new world, a world that demands your attention. People have heard about the immensity of Proust’s world and it is intimidating and it does require an enormous amount of your time, but one you enter that world, you are rewarded amazingly well for your investment.”
Still, even the most erudite readers may feel slightly intimidated when coming across this passage early in their reading of Swann’s Way,
It was impossible for me to thank my father; he would have been
exasperated by what he called mawkishness. I stood there, not
daring to move; he was still in front of us, a tall figure in his night
shirt, crowned with the pink and violet cashmere scarf which he used
to wrap around his head since he had begun to suffer from neuralgia,
standing like Abraham in the engraving after Benozzo Gozzoli which
M. Swann had given me, telling Sarah she must tear herself away from
This is not merely an isolated reference. Around the time of Eric’s 50th birthday, a friend at Penguin asked him to review their new translations of In Search of Lost Time. (More about the question of translation and Proust can be found in our earlier post.) While reading the Lydia Davis translation of the first work in the series, Swann’s Way, when he came across the first reference to a painting, he marked it with a little slip of paper for later reference. He did the same thing with the next reference and the next reference, until he had over 300 slips of paper sticking out of the six volumes of text, a figure that overwhelmed even Karpeles.
Who, he wondered, would have the kind of art history background to be able to understand and visualize all of Proust’s references? “As an artist I’ve spent my whole life studying art and museums, but even the most educated readers would not have the information,” Karpeles said. The solution proved to be simple. Karpeles put together a proposal with fifteen reproductions of images and the accompanying texts. Within just six weeks, he had received a contract to assemble and write his book.
Paintings in Proust was published in 2008 to nearly overwhelming critical acclaim. Novelist Anita Brookner, writing for The Spectator, praised Karpeles for “the apparently simple idea of extracting all references to work in the great novel in an attempt to demonstrate Proust’s knowledge of, and reliance on, paintings to give resonance to his characters and to present them to his readers in an indelible physical form. The exercise proves both seductive and enlightening.”
Perhaps not surprisingly though, some members of the French press took Karpeles to task, calling his book merely a tool. Karpeles’ response was brief and to the point. “Well, it is a tool, to clarify what would otherwise be obscure.”
He went on, saying that “I think one of the things that my book has been able to do is to give people who are proustaphobic an opportunity to see what it’s all about from a distance to let them get drawn into the paintings and the text extracts.”
For those of you who are about to join us in our search for lost time, or those just curious about the intersection of art and literature in In Search of Lost Time, Paintings in Proust is an invaluable reference to have by your side. As Robert Douglas-Fairhurst wrote in The Telegraph, “…this is far from being a museum catalogue or dusty work of criticism…it also gets to the novel’s troubled heart.”
Personally, I can’t imagine reading Proust without it.