Counter on Ferraris (2020)

Ferraris, Maurizio. Learning to Live: Six Essays on Marcel Proust. Brill Rodopi, 2020, pp. x + 106, ISBN 978-90-04-42255-1

Consisting more or less of what is indicated by its subtitle—a collection of six essays on Marcel Proust—Learning to Live addresses several main concerns in the past century of literary scholarship dealing with the Recherche: the status of truth and misunderstanding in the narrative; the course of the novel’s genesis and development across its many drafts and versions; the dynamic between group and individual, as far as the narrator’s interactions with others are concerned; the question of autobiography; the tension between involuntary memory and the more narratively “relevant” undercurrents of the text; and the role of time in the determination of the narrator’s “self.” Though these are familiar themes, Ferraris’ reading of Proust is anything but a rehearsal of the well-known arguments. Instead, as he writes in the preface to the first edition, part of his aim is to argue that Proust’s novel “is a philosophical work precisely because it rivals philosophy” (vii).

The opening chapter sees the book off to a strong start: “to search for lost time means, then, not to relate the truth of history, but to recreate the shock of fugitive visions” (4, emphasis added). This has been addressed in previous studies of the Recherche, but stating this so early on allows Ferraris to claim, with reference to the narrator’s preoccupation with Albertine, that even “beauty and intelligence . . . easily fall into the fixity of habit” (6). This claim emphasizes that the workings of habit know no bounds, in the sense that they have no “proper” object; habit not only affects the narrator in his well-known moments of boredom or anxiety, but can extend to precisely those qualities that are of highest concern to him. This also means that the “recreation” at the center of the search for lost time can only be accidental, despite the narrator’s best efforts.

Another highlight is the second chapter, “Notebooks and Novel,” which gives a careful reading of the relationship between Proust’s notebooks and the novel proper. Through a brief look at certain variations between the two, Ferraris points to an important but often-overlooked fact: the less-than-definitive status of even the published novel. He concludes that, rather than studiously comparing drafts and “final” versions of particular scenes, “it’s better to recognize the Search as an unstable system of which the novel is only one possible determination” (31). This resonates not only with Deleuze’s emphasis on the place of seriality in Proust’s novel, but also with Barthes’ call for the critic to abandon the search for—and comparison of—variations that would be conducted with the hope of uncovering an underlying theme; instead, according to Barthes, the critic should strive to operate variations in a creative way.

The remaining chapters generally follow a similar pattern. The penultimate chapter stands out as particularly compelling, with its focus on the role that the descriptions of discrete, intense experiences play in structuring the novel as a whole. After carefully laying out the complex and frequently-discussed relation of sensibility and intelligence in the novel, Ferraris ends the chapter by calling for “a hermeneutical rereading of Proust” (89). This fifth essay has the feeling of a strong conclusion, especially with its call for a new turn in Proust scholarship.

The final chapter therefore seems slightly out of place. Besides being the shortest essay here, and furthermore co-written with Enrico Terrone, its method and tone differ from those of the previous ones. While the preceding essays avoid specific theoretical affiliations, this chapter—in a manner somewhat reminiscent of analytic philosophy—compares various theories of time with the purpose of reconciling the apparent inconsistencies in the narrator’s statements about memory, as well as his intriguing yet puzzling theory of an “atemporal self.” Concise and rigorously articulated, the argument here is nevertheless not quite as “literary” as what is offered in the previous essays. Of course, one cannot help but wonder whether this variation in style and approach is a result of this collaborative effort. At the same time, perhaps there is something about the content and aim of this essay that calls for its unique style. The task of holding together the temporal dimension of the novel and the narrator’s insistence on an atemporal “true self” is a taxing one, whatever approach one takes. With this in mind, the final chapter is best understood as a coda of sorts. It is one further interpretation of the text, to be sure, but with a very different style and aim indeed.

With its brief length and essayistic nature, this book’s interpretations are not driven (or, therefore, limited) by the teleology of a larger agenda that would seek to provide a “key” to the Recherche, or to read it with an understanding of the text as a unified whole in mind. Each essay collected in this book stands alone, and taken together they provide a diverse set of approaches to Proust’s novel. This results in a rich discussion, since the primary themes that orient each chapter are treated in their own right, with uncommon sensitivity to the subtle paths on which they might take the reader. To conclude, I wish to compare the experience of reading the six essays in Learning to Live to the practice of listening to a piece by a sextet six times, listening closely (and solely) to each instrument in turn. As much as the critic may be obsessed with discovering a unifying factor of Proust’s text, Ferraris shows the critical indispensability of following the many disparate threads therein. As he makes clear from the outset, and without espousing the claim that Proust is a philosopher, Ferraris gives a picture of the Recherche as a philosophical text—but, crucially, not a text presenting a set of concepts or tenets to follow, or a text whose status depends on how we might categorize its author, but one that demands to be read critically and creatively, keeping in mind that it is but one iteration of an endlessly complex and compelling stream of writing.

Bryan Counter
State University of New York at Buffalo