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In the shade of flowering manuscripts

Thematic project deciphers Proust's cahiers

Images from the book "Em Busca do Tempo Perdido"/Editora ZaharMarcel Proust (1871-1922) launched a challenge to future literary critics when stating, in À La Recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time): “A book is like a big cemetery where the faded names on most of the gravestones can no longer be read.” Of course the writer never imagined that his precious manuscripts, the famous Proustian cahiers, used to outline the 4,300 pages of the seven volumes that comprise the  book referred to – which took him fifteen years to finish – would one day be the topic of analysis of the so-called genetic critique. Genetic critique strives to decipher the “literary DNA” of the most significant long novel of all times, in order to understand how Proust wrote (and “re-wrote”) his work. “The objective of such analysis is to try and detect the writers’ creative process – how they move from one sentence to another. Each Proustian draft is a microcosm of the work itself, in terms of the writing and the narrative, but above all, in terms of the reasons that are outlined, the topics that respond to each other and look for their echoes in other contexts where they will be disseminated,” explains Philippe Willemart, a literary critic at USP and coordinator of the Brazilian Brépols Theme Project, supported by FAPESP. The objective of the project is to decipher and publish part of the author’s 75 handwritten notebooks. Since 1962, these notebooks have been stored at the National Library in France. Starting in 2003, the manuscripts have begun to be deciphered by the Proust Team from the Institut de Textes et Manuscrits Modernes/Item, for subsequent publication.

“We are part of this international project for the publication of the notebooks by Belgian publishing company Brépols. The Brazilian team is responsible for notebooks 8, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21, 28 and 38, a part of notebook 44 and 53. The idea is to make these manuscripts easy to read and accessible to any researcher,” says Willemart. “We don’t want to extract unpublished texts; we want to reconstitute the writer’s writing style and reasoning. The notebooks are keepers of Proust’s tremendous work with the manuscripts, which he proofread endlessly, to the point of gluing sheets of paper on the sides – the paperoles – with additions and revisions,” adds Bernard Brun, head researcher of the French Proust Team. If, as Anatole France used to say, the writer’s sentences in the printed version, “were endless to the extent of leaving the reader breathless,” one can only imagine the “chaotic” world of the manuscripts, with their countless erasures and corrections. “Proust, when proofreading the drafts, would add extra sheets, because the space in the notebooks was already full of texts, on the bottom and at the top of all the pages of the books. The sheets were pasted in these places and, many times, Proust would paste on more single sheets to the existing ones,” says Carla Cavalcanti Silva, a member of the Brazilian team. In addition to the work of deciphering the author’s handwriting, the manuscripts do not follow any chronological order comparable to the published novel. “Rarely are we able to find a continuity of the development of an episode or of a description in the notebooks’ pages. He did not write any sequences to the episodes written on one page and would use the front page to develop topics and the back page to make additions or comments, in a dialogue between the back part of one sheet and the front part of the next sheet.” Nonetheless, there was an inexorable logic in this “chaos.”

Images from the book "Em Busca do Tempo Perdido"/Editora ZaharPaper
“The impression is one of total disorder, in the sense that the texts appear on the back pages or even on the front page, seemingly without any clear connection with what is being read or with anything that precedes the referred page. Proust, however, did not write in a sloppy way; Proust’s writing style was to put words on paper with a specific objective – even though this objective might sometimes be unknown – but it was never at random, as it might lead someone to believe it at first glance,” analyzes Willemart. It is clear why the writer compares his literary work to the construction of a cathedral or, more simply, to the making of a dress. “This metaphor is useful to illustrate Proust’s way of writing. The dress, even though based on an existing design, will only materialize if several layers and fragments of material are tied to it or sewn on it. Proust’s writing process resembles this procedure, because the several texts are pasted, sewn and assembled,” Carla says. There seems to be coherence in all the notebooks, or as the writer himself put it, “an alliance of words,” which, Willemart points out, “apparently goes beyond Cartesian logic and rational intelligence.” The mania of writing in fragments, using different kinds of paper, difficult to be dated and apparently without any connection, had been Proust’s ever since, as a young man, he wrote his unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil (1899).

In 1908, after having written various essays, articles and translations, the writer decided to dedicate himself to “robust work,” the essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, a criticism of the literary critic of the same name, whose opinion on the close relationship between life and work of writers he radically disagreed with. In the midst of the process, however, Proust inserted a fanciful situation and the essay on aesthetics was embellished with fictional characteristics, ultimately leading the author to think about the project again and start rewriting what would ultimately become À La recherché du temps perdu, initially named “The Intermittences of the Heart.” The original idea was a novel in three volumes; in 1912, Proust delivered the first 700 pages of the first book to his secretary for typing. After having been rejected by three editors, among whom was André Gide (who would spend the rest of his life lamenting this oversight), Proust decided to publish his novel, at his own cost, at Grasset. Swann’s Way was in the bookshops in November 1913; the second volume was scheduled for publication in the following year, when the First World War began and paper was rationed. The four-year war provided the author with the opportunity to re-think the original structure of his novel, and he added four more novels. That would be the work of his lifetime and, from 1909 onwards, Proust rarely left his apartment, a prisoner of asthma and other assorted ills, real and imaginary ones. He covered the walls of his apartment with cork, in search of isolation. He died in 1922, when he was still proofreading The Prisoner. His brother, Robert Proust, with the help of editors, took five years to produce a satisfactory text for the last volume, published in 1927, twenty years after Proust began writing it. After Robert’s death in 1935, his daughter donated the notebooks and the manuscripts to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

“It can be said that since 1909 the novel was condemned to go on indefinitely, that is, to remain unfinished. The most important consequence of genetic criticism, in this case, is to release the novel from the idea that it unfinished. By definition, the manuscript is not ‘finished,’ because its destiny is to be substituted by another step of the project, from the writer’s construction site. But what happens if the printed version is, likewise, not the last one,” Brun wonders. “Each version of that which was not used by the writer contains, in itself, narrative threads, novels that will never exist.” In search of lost time is, in the best sense of the word, an unfinished novel, which only reinforces the importance of analyzing the manuscripts and reconstructing the reasoning followed by the writer, his writing art, which, for Proust, was seen as something like “treating the same subject matter 20 times, under different lights, having the sensation of doing something profound, subtle, powerful, as original as 50 cathedrals or Monet’s 40 Nenufars.” The erasure gains a new status. “It marks the moment the writer lets go of his primitive original intention of writing and listens to literary tradition, music, his or her lover, a tragedy. When he erases, he lets himself be led by third parties and by language, which is an important factor in building the work,” points out Willemart. “There is logic behind Proustian creation, evidenced by the problem-making of the situations, which allows us to understand the movements of his writing. This is no mere repetition of episodes, but rather a constant attempt at remodeling them to transform these same episodes into something denser and problematic,” Carla points out. Everything goes through an exhausting construction, even the episodes of involuntary memory.

Images from the book "Em Busca do Tempo Perdido"/Editora Zahar“He is our Scherezade. We read Proust because he knows so much about the links between child anguish and adult passion. We read Proust because he scorns rational evaluations and knows that only the twisted knowledge that suffering brings on is really of service to us. We read Proust because we know that at the terminal stage of passion we no longer love the loved one and the object of our love is covered by love itself. He was the first writer of the 20th century, because he was the first one to describe the permanent instability of our times,” wrote critic Edmund White in his profile of the writer. This freedom to rewrite was a privilege of his century, because until the 18th century, paper was precious and expensive; as a result writers could not afford to hesitate when writing the final text. The Industrial Revolution, which popularized paper, gave the writer the chance to be daring and fix his thoughts more quickly. There is increasingly less space for “the hermetic text” that does not change, with a beginning, middle and an end. Even the theme of homosexuality in his great novel is the result of the opportunity he had to break down theme-related barriers on the basis of constant revisions of his manuscripts and his obsession for problem-making. Ironically, Proust hated the idea of having his drafts dissected. “It is not a pleasant thought to know that someone can access my manuscripts and compare them to the definitive text, to induce suppositions that will always be erroneous as regards my writing style, or the evolution of my thinking,” he wrote in July 1922.

Luckily, the Brazilian character mentioned in The Guermantes Way was not left in the manuscripts. “Suddenly I remembered: that same look I had already seen in the eyes of a Brazilian doctor who intended to cure my asthma crises with absurd inhalations, of plant essences,” says the narrator of the novel. The historian Hermenegildo Cavalcante believes that the referred doctor may have been Domingos José Nogueira Jaguaribe, a native of the State of Ceará, and a specialist in medical botany who, after graduation, went to Paris, where he treated the young Proust, who was 22 years old at the time. At first, the writer was enchanted by the exotic nature of the cure proposed by the Brazilian, but, like with the other drugs he consumed to attenuate his asthma (perfumes and great quantities of alcoholic beverages), he got tired of the tropical panacea. His friend Anatole France, who had been in Brazil in 1909, told Proust about the country and the writer met the family of the Count d’Eu, the husband of Princess Isabel. His work literally landed in Brazil in 1919, brought by French aviators who brought books along with them to spend time while waiting for their airplanes to be re-fueled. Writer Jorge de Lima, a young doctor at that time, knew this and would “torment” the aviators to bring him books to read. From one of them he got a “sleeper”, as the pilot defined it; namely this was the book, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. In 1923, Lima wrote the first article in Brazil about Proust. Prior to that, members of Brazil’s 1922 modernist movement had disdained Proust, claiming that his writing was that of a dazzled salon dandy. In 1930, José Lins do Rego devoured whatever he could of the writer’s work, which influenced his literature about mills in Brazil – Rego desired to be the Proust of the sugar cane fields. Proust’s first work to be translated in Brazil was Swann’s Way, translated in 1948 by Mário Quintana. Today, along with the French, we are re-discovering how much time has been wasted.