Notes on Proust

I’m reading and enjoying Roger Shattuck’s book Proust’s Way, but I found myself puzzled and amused by part of one chapter where he complains bitterly and at length about how awful the 1989 Pléiade edition of Proust’s novel is. He quotes himself on the subject at one point, inserting part of a talk he gave at a conference into his text (this practice of quoting himself strikes me as odd — why not just rewrite the idea so it will make sense in the new context?):

I propose that we boycott the overblown, misconceived, and over-priced new Pléiade edition. It saps and traduces Proust’s life-long devotion to a single work … Let us not yield to the temptation to accept unthinkingly the prestige of the Pléiade collection.

Why the religious language of temptation here? The problem with the Pléiade edition Shattuck hates so much (the earlier 1954 version is acceptable) is that it includes extensive notes, early drafts, and variants, so that Proust’s 3,000 page novel swells to 7,300 pages — and that this edition isn’t meant to be a scholarly one. It’s not just that he can’t stand all the textual apparatus, but that the textual apparatus, especially the drafts of the novel, isn’t confined to a book produced solely for scholars. The general reader, he thinks, should have only the novel itself with just the essential footnotes.

He’s making an argument against “genetic criticism”: “the study of the evolution of a work out of earlier outlines and drafts and sketches into its (presumably) final state.” According to Shattuck, the editor of the Pléiade edition, Jean-Yves Tadié, is a practitioner of this form, and Shattuck sees his 7,300-page edition of Proust as an embodied argument for this form of reading and study.

Shattuck hates this. He wants to see the author’s final version, and that’s it:

The genetic critics, particularly when led by so disciplined and informed a figure as Jean-Yves Tadié, were able to do something that deconstructionists never succeeded in accomplishing. They unmade a work of literature. Intending to carry In Search of Lost Time to its final apotheosis in their sumptuous 7,300-page edition, Tadié and his associates have in effect buried Proust’s novel in trappings and distractions and commentary. The volumes honor scholars’ decisions about what to include more than they honor Proust’s decisions about what to exclude … [the edition] shrouds and demeans the author’s work.

Am I the only one who thinks this is going a bit too far? I don’t see how all the textual apparatus could demean an author’s work. Shattuck seems entirely too worshipful of Proust and of authorship generally. I do see that there’s a theory of reading built into the way an edition is shaped (and I find that an interesting idea), but I don’t agree with Shattuck’s argument that this particular way of reading is a bad one.  I think having the early drafts and variants is valuable. Why not have a multiplicity of ways of reading Proust?  If the Pléiade edition were the only one available, I might see his point, but that’s not the case.

He’s careful to say that he thinks all the apparatus ought to be available — but available only in scholarly editions. I don’t like this idea at all — I’m not likely to want to read early drafts of Proust’s novel, but why assume that only Proust scholars would be interested? His argument strikes me as an insult to the general reader.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

6 responses to “Notes on Proust

  1. Shattuck sounds like a rather odd duck. I’m sure if a general reader didn’t want all the extras she would buy the regular text and not worry about it. But as you say, there is no reason a general reader who loves Proust shouldn’t also have the option of what the Pleiade edition offers. I’m not sure I understand why Shattuck has got his undies in a bunch about it.


  2. He IS an odd duck Stefanie! I do like the book, but he does some amusing things sometimes.


  3. I do love Stefanie’s phrase ‘got his undies in a bunch’!! Perfect description! I wouldn’t want all the extra bumph myself because to read other drafts of the novel would just confuse me in my mind. I don’t like sixteenth century novels like Rabelais much because you’ve got to pick your way through all the various versions and additions (if you read it in an edition that points them out). Also, 7,300 pages is a heavy tome to carry around and I object to books that make my arms ache to read them, faintly ridiculous as this is. But I couldn’t get as worked up about it as Shattuck. I’d say this hints at deep, dark entanglements of a personal nature with genetic critics in his past…. now that would make an interesting story to read in all its different versions!


  4. yaeli

    It is rather an insult to the general reader, who would presumably only choose this addition if s/he were genuinely interested in reading from the various versions and additions.

    Perhaps a case of misguided snobbery – but it sounds to me like the objections of a purist. Whilst I wouldn’t choose this edition of Proust because I’m not familiar enough with the “definitive” text to want to meander around earlier versions of it, if this sort of thing were available for a work I do know well and love, I would snap it up. I enjoy annotated editions of books that I love.


  5. Litlove — I’d love to know the full story, wouldn’t you? Or maybe it would be a boring and typical tale of academic jealousy, on second thought. I would have agreed with him, if he’d been less adamant about it, but with that tone, I had to wonder what was going on …

    Yaeli, I won’t be picking up this edition of Proust either, but I agree with you — similar editions of books I like (short ones!) would be fascinating.


  6. From a writer’s point of view, I really question this idea that variants and early drafts have to be published. When you replace a part with another one, it’s because you think the latest part is better, or conveys more of what you want to tell. I’m not sure whether Proust would have agreed to it.
    Now, if as a reader you love so much a book and an author that you want to read anything he ever wrote, from his diary to the notes on the fridge, then of course you’d want to analyze the early drafts to try and reconstruct the writing process. But it comes as a secondary experience, in my opinion. Nothing to be so judgmental and stiff about, as Shattuk looks from the outside.


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