Julia Kristeva
Proust and the Sense of Time
Trans. Stephen Bann
New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Pp. xvi + 103. $20.50

Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature
Trans. Ross Mitchell Guberman
New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv + 407. $32.50
Reviewed by Anthony Pugh

Kristeva enjoys such acclaim, and these overlapping studies of Proust have been greeted with such reverence, that one needs courage to admit publicly to certain reservations. For me, her 1992 Eliot lectures on Proust emerge less as a major landmark than as another intelligent gloss on Proust’s aesthetic, as he de­fined it in Le Temps retrouvé, along the lines of Roger Shattuck’s unforgettable aphorism: “Twice upon a time.”

Proust, too familiar as the novelist of memory, is also the creator of an in­comparable gallery of characters who give us an image of fin-de-siècle Parisian society as powerful as Balzac’s representation of the 1820s and 1830s. Kristeva is concerned with illuminating the unity Proust forges in these two different “pro­jects.” To the secular dimension, where all is ultimately illusion and death, is added a biblical dimension, “understanding Being by exploring the obscurities of Time,” seen as “felt time.” In the famous scene of the madeleine, pleasure comes not just from the sensation of biting into it, but also from the way one sensation recovers another, and by so doing leads us behind the surface to a world of rich­ness and depth which, if we tease it out further, brings us to general laws. This hardly radical idea is illustrated with countless well-chosen quotations and par­allels, and, as happens so often, these parallels can offer new illumination.

Kristeva weaves into her argument psychology, philosophy, and literary ge­netics. She explores the impact of the death of Proust’s mother through other writings, through biography (including Céleste), and through episodes in the novel (the good-night kiss, obviously, and Vinteuil and the death of the grand­mother), and shows how it brought about guilt connected with Sodom and Go­morrah. In the fourth lecture she discusses Proust’s debt to Schopenhauer’s ideal­ism and also the less well-known Gabriel Tarde (a dissector of social life). Genet­ics comes into the second lecture, on the madeleine, with some intriguing asso­ciations with the name Madeleine.

When it comes to the more positivistic aspects of genetic studies, it must be confessed that Kristeva’s way with the complex data is superficial and inconsis­tent. Most baffling (not to say dishonest) is her handling of the 1909 typescript, curiously called a typewritten manuscript. She tells us (35, citing Françoise Leriche) that it is usually dated 1909, but says in the note that “by contrast” Rob­ert Brydges puts it later (1910), and clutches at this straw to argue that one ver­sion of the madeleine was prompted by Proust’s rereading of an early story of his, in 1910 (44); Kristeva calls this influence “important” (33). But Brydges was following the “usual” dating of 1911 (not 1910), and that position was effectively discredited by Leriche and others. The typist followed the draft, and the type­script was definitely late 1909. Kristeva tries to have her madeleine and eat it too.

Kristeva’s longer study, published in French as Le Temps sensible: Proust et l’expérience littéraire in 1994, draws on some of the same material as the lectures. There is incidentally much to be learned, and much sport to be had, from com­paring the very different translations of the sections that the two publications share. Both read awkwardly, but the translation of the lectures is less flawed than that of the big book, which is stilted in the extreme (as we suspect from the dead­ening and quite unnecessary “which is” in the first sentence), and hardly pro­vides pleasurable reading. Kristeva’s elegant French deserved better.

The example of the date of the typescript will serve to show the dangers of a translation which is in places downright inaccurate and hence misleading. The first chapter expands the madeleine lecture. In the French original Kristeva re­tracts a little from her position in the lectures, playfully suggesting that the idea that Proust’s reading of his early story led to his changing the word biscuit to madeleine is tempting, but admitting that the solid arguments of Leriche rule it out. The translation, however, gives the impression that she is holding on to her theory despite everything, and the text emerges as contradictory. This is entirely due to a series of unjustified emendations by the translator, Ross Guberman, who badly distorts Kristeva’s subtleties by replacing carefully chosen conditionals with indicatives, rendering on peut supposer (one might suppose) as “we can as­sume,” omitting conjunctions and thereby giving the status of fact to what are really fanciful hypotheses, and attaching adjectives to the wrong nouns (so that Leriche is said to have edited the typescript, where the French talks of “la datation de la dactylographie établie par F. Leriche”), translating ne … que (only) as “even,” etc.

If you wish to read Kristeva’s book, read it in French. It is not easy even in the original tongue, but it becomes virtually impenetrable in this version. One wonders indeed whether readers unable to tackle the French would really want such a densely packed study to be translated at all. If it is meant for people with­out French, why are all the references to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu to the French edition (sometimes referred to as Search and sometimes as RTP) rather than to a standard translation of the novel?

Readers who persevere will find much to engage their interest, but may find it difficult to locate the central thesis. After discussing the madeleine, Kristeva moves on to Swann, Bloch, Mme de Guermantes, Mme Verdurin, Albertine, Charlus, and finally Venice. She makes many suggestive points about the charac­ters, but leaves at least one reader with the uneasy feeling that we are back in the old days when critics “discussed” characters, judging them as if we could meet them in real life, and approving or disapproving accordingly. The difference is that here we are dealing with the judgment of a practising psychiatrist. An ab­sorbing chapter on identity, in which Kristeva takes on Hannah Arendt, explores the Jewish presence in La Recherche. Kristeva’s own summary of Part One is that “to create characters one must know how to be one of them and how not to be one of them” (161). Again, hardly headline news. Part Two picks up the other three lectures, adding a new chapter on the way Proust was able, through lan­guage, to overcome the servitude of sensation. Freud is brought on board, and Merleau-Ponty, too.

Part Three, exploring new ground, is to my mind the most interesting part of the book, beginning with close readings of two characteristic sentences of Proust, relating their syntactical complexity to the project itself. Kristeva makes useful distinctions between Proust and the philosophers Hegel, Heidegger, and Berg­son. The study ends with a brief, courageously personal essay, reclaiming the experience of a reader of Proust for an individual struggling to “read” herself.