In the last week of his life Marcel Proust did something which baffles critics to this day. Only a decade ago, it was discovered that he deleted two-thirds of the typescript of Albertine Disparue. Although his intention remains unclear, there is one clue that suggests death interrupted him in the midst of a major revision. At the climax of this section of his work Proust lets the conclusion of a plot stand whose beginning is missing and had to be restored posthumously by his brother from the manuscript. The denouement is incomprehensible without the twists in the narrative that precede it; so Proust would have had either to reintegrate the twists or to cut the denouement. If we imagine that he had lived a little longer, and further assume that he would have taken the second course and suppressed both twists and resolution, there would have been a bang somewhere in the universe. For A la Recherche would have then lost what might be reckoned its last concession to human frailty: its only patent artistic flaw.
We are in the penultimate volume of the cycle. The narrator Marcel has received a telegram announcing that Albertine—lover, captive, fugitive—has been killed in a riding accident. After a period of mourning in which for an entire gloomy volume Marcel shuts himself up with the reader, he ventures forth into the world again, travelling to Venice in the company of his mother. There he receives another telegram, that reads: ‘Dear friend, she whom you thought dead—forgive me—is still very much alive and wishes to see you again to discuss marriage, on your return. All my love Albertine.’ How can this be—Albertine alive? Marcel does not doubt the news, but strangely, nor does her resurrection bring him the joy he might have expected. He examines his feelings and realizes that he is no more capable of reawakening the Albertine of old than his earlier self; that he had been right to fear the monster of amnesia would devour his love; that his love for young girls was in truth only for the dawn whose light for a moment brushed their faces; finally that even our love of life itself is like a past affair from which we cannot free ourselves; but that the idea of death which destroys it can also cure us of the need for immortality.
Wonderful, if also sad. And now comes the one major lapse of Proust’s art. The reader is flabbergasted by the possibility that Albertine, from whom he has not been able to detach himself as quickly as the narrator, may still be alive. There is the hint that her accident might have been staged as a ruse, to escape the harassments of Marcel’s jealousy, whose long grief therefore was quite misplaced, since he might now be reunited with her. What a prospect! Yet how does the narrator react? He changes the subject and starts to describe the treasures of Venetian art.
No reader in the world, no sentient person, can pay the least attention at this point. However finely depicted, marble mosaics and Carpaccios . . . To hell with them: what about Albertine? Fifteen dazzling, woefully perverse pages later, we find out. She is dead, the telegram was wrongly read, the clerk in the telegraph office had mistaken Gilberte’s baroque signature for Albertine’s, the offer of marriage was not to Marcel but to Saint-Loup. Not this forced denouement is an affront to the reader, but the virtuoso promenade that precedes it.
Proust’s error lies so deep in the craft of writing a novel that even the greatest practitioner cannot always avoid it. He has forgotten that as the author he knows the plan of the novel, but the reader does not. He underestimates the quasi-thriller suspense he has created. Above all, he underestimates how painfully well he has worked, how dear his characters have become to the reader, with how heavy a heart we have taken our leave of Albertine, and so how repugnant the mere idea of her sliding back to life like Lazarus must be. If we already knew that Albertine was not going to be resurrected, we might appreciate Proust’s digression as a last cruel demonstration of the laws of the heart, as he intended it. But we don’t know. On first reading the novel, we are in a state of innocence into which the author—whose plan has become a second skin whose every tiny vein he knows—can no longer put himself, even as an experiment.
So Proust also tries to draw the reader into his own depths. He seeks to expel us from our state of innocence. To that end, he has only one resort: to get us to repeat the act. In a famous address his colleague Thomas Mann went further, making it a public requirement. Lecturing to students at Princeton, he openly demanded that they read his fiction of lost time twice. Only then could they truly grasp the musical-ideal complexity of The Magic Mountain and scan the symbolic allusion of its key terms in both directions—like music which one must also already know to enjoy properly.
Thomas Mann called his demand ‘very arrogant’, but he only voiced what every serious author hopes for. Any writer who does not just produce pulp secretly expects to be read more than once. Re-reading is the thanks deserved by every author who smuggles more into the lines than one can casually absorb. Good, innocent first-time readers—how can they appreciate more than a handful of the treasures an author intends for them? A first reading is like puberty, a somewhat humiliating state through which we must pass to become adult; necessary less for its own sake, than to permit a second and more serious reading, now lucidly alert and delivered from mere curiosity. Without this second, deeper reading, scrupulous authors would labour in vain. No one can know on a first reading what demands particular attention. If it is thrust in our face or trilled from the rooftops, the author is a bungler. Since the reader cannot know how subtly the author has organized his motifs or how closely he has woven his tale, he will inevitably overlook most of this. So long as the ending remains hidden, we can have no more than an inkling of what may be leading up to it, or from how early on. After ten volumes of Proust, the reader has certainly forgotten that the first word of the novel is longtemps, to which the last word temps curves back. We have followed the narrative line and thought we were proceeding straight ahead; only on a second reading can we discover that the writer has bent this line, and that we are moving back around a huge circle—as in Finnegans Wake, whose final word without a full-stop directs us back to the lower case that opens the work. To understand the architecture of a novel and grasp the different levels of its construction, we always need to re-read it. The overtones and undertones of a work compose a polyphony, not at a first naive quick hearing, but only to a slow, careful listener. Only repeated soundings can tap the lateral passages beneath the surface of a work, and capture the echoes from its catacombs. More even than others, it is Alexandrian writers like Mann or Joyce who beg not to be set aside after the first time. Whoever gives them satisfaction and re-reads them, will find the free flow of aimless details settling into ever stronger channels. In the end almost every last minutia of Ulysses or The Magic Mountain is embedded in symbol or motif; even the cigars no longer glow so harmlessly, and staid desks or tiled stoves serve more than the comfort of the moribund.