Reading Proust

Beyond Elstir

Dr. Stan Burnett explores the connection between Proust and Cézanne


This is a brief exploration of the idea that there is a serious connection between Proust and Cézanne and their relation to colleagues in their arts, a connection that is not just some anecdotal coincidence, but a significant parallel that may contribute to our understanding of both artists.


In A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, writers receive valuable education from painters, although they don't all get out of the Jeu de Paume alive to make use of the teaching. 


The most important, of course, is what the Narrator learns from Elstir. It is even possible to hear the voice of Elstir as the voice of Proust himself. Whether or not that is the case, Elstir's teaching is much in line with the apparent normative guidance of the novel (if such exists), except for the fact that it doesn't go far enough.


Elstir, of course, first hints to the Narrator that instead of regret about the ongoing succession of mistakes, misjudgments, and misunderstandings to which the Narrator is so prone, these stumbles are, in fact, the path to understanding. But he also teaches him what might be called the lesson of Impressionism: that first sight (or hearing, or taste, etc.) of a phenomenon is crucial. One must see it and record the impression before one starts intellectualizing the sight, attaching labels to its elements, ordering its parts. When one first sees a stretch of color, that first impression is signal, before the mind tells one that it is sea, or land, or town.


This experience is not new to the Narrator. A characteristic of the episodes of "involuntary memory," the most celebrated instance of which has already occurred, is that the Narrator's effort, intense effort, to understand what is happening is beyond the stretch of his mind at that first moment. But the intense impression, triggered always by a sensuous phenomenon, pours in on him.


However, the Narrator, through the course of the novel, goes well beyond Elstir. It is not enough for him to have the sensation and then let it drop. With different levels of success or failure, he does begin to order, to organize, to understand, and then to generalize from that and similar experiences. In doing this, he is not only going beyond Elstir, he is going beyond the writers of naturalistic description, as dramatized by the Goncourt journal left by his bedside at Tansonville. And he is even going beyond writers he much admired, such as Flaubert. Flaubert's wonderful, powerful characters and their adventures may or not have been intended as obvious standard-bearers of generalizations. Some of them certainly achieved that status after the publication ofMadame Bovary. But if that was the intention, Flaubert went about it in a different way from Proust's way. Thus, the same acts and situations are not repeated in the same work by the same character or more than one character, as in Proust, in order to underscore that, for example, the Narrator is not to be seen as uniquely jealous, because we have already had the pain of Swann's jealousy. It's not about a weird guy, it's about jealousy.


James Sloan Allen, who leads the Great Books group at the Center for Fiction, suggests that Flaubert's approach was to use the emblematic character. So Emma Bovary is led to romantic illusion by reading the wrong novels (like most of us), and then led to disillusionment by life itself, and this is true of many other characters in many other novels, beginning with Don Quixote. Emma also evokes recognition, a phenomenon that's crucial to much powerful writing. In all of these ways, Flaubert succeeds in making Emma convincing, without taking the step of pointing to phenomena that we see over and over in the same work to such an extent, as in Proust, that we can see them detached from the characters who display them. 


What separates the artist from the rest of us is that he/she does not stop at the initial impression. What separates Proust from other writers (among a long list of items) is how extraordinarily far he goes beyond the level of mere impression.


Cézanne, irascible loner that he was, also learned much from other painters. Monet taught him to see. Pissaro taught him patience and the slow development of a canvas. But at a crucial point in his development, Cézanne decided that the Impressionists (the name they had already received from their mocking enemies) had, by stopping with the éclats of light and the surfaces they defined, not gone far enough. 


When Cézanne, in 1876, was painting alongside Guillaumin in the park at Issy-les- Moulineaux, he began to see a gulf opening between the other Impressionists and his own work, especially the work he intended in the future. The Impressionists seemed to him content to render the dance of light, a colored mirage. They sacrificed everything to light. 


Cézanne felt they had, to take just one element as an example, sacrificed the expression of space (an important element to Renaissance painters), which he found himself unwilling to do. He wanted to work with perspective, to understand it, not ignore it. He thought further that his colleagues failed to express the volume of objects, and the reality of the matter out of which they were made.


He credited some of this dissatisfaction to his peasant blood, making him sensitive to the reality of things, not just their surface. He decided that it was reality that he wanted to render in his canvasses, and for this he must leave the Impressionists behind.  As Henri Perruchet put it, he wanted to render this reality "....dans sa totalité, sans rien négliger."  To understand that reality, Cézanne believed that the intelligence must be brought into play. (Sound familiar?). 


Perruchet's phrase is important because of its emphasis on what is encompassed in the portrayal of "reality." There is no denying the achievement of the Impressionists in giving us the true experience of reflected light. They took a partial step away from mere surface accuracy of image. Monet shows us how the smoke and steam look in the great shed of the Gare St Lazare, how they are affected by the light coming through the glass ceiling, and how this contrasts with the clouds seen through the end of the shed, and he does so in a loose, painterly way, not a photographic way. By avoiding the photographic, he seems to give the viewer a more intense reality, to get it more right.


Cézanne, an early admirer, would, later, never challenge the accuracy of the "impression" of light, and perhaps color, in the painting, but would be dissatisfied. He would find missing the great depth of the shed, the true feel of smoke, the metal and great weight of the trains, etc. The years of pain Cézanne suffered trying to achieve a realism that encompassed more than Monet's almost broke him. One collector walked over the hills near Aix, finding canvasses that so dissatisfied Cézanne that he had simply heaved them into the woods.


Where his colleagues wanted merely to register spontaneously the sensations, in all their freshness, that light and nature provided, Cézanne wrote that "...l'artiste ne note pas ses émotions comme l'oiseau module ses sons: il compose." He felt he could achieve this only through rigor and intellectual asceticism. A canvas must not just reflect the world, but must bring out its internal structure, drag out of the apparent chaos of things their hidden order.


Proust and Cézanne come stunningly close to each other on issues of process. Proust's celebrated instances of involuntary memory describe a phenomenon that is available to all of us. Where the artist separates from the rest of us is in the next step of the Proustian process. The artist will not turn away after the experience.  He will then engage his esprit. He applies his intellect to an effort to understand what has just happened, and then to reason about it, organize it, "process" it, and perhaps turn it into art.


Cézanne, placing his easel in front of a landscape, does not try simply to capture the play of light and color, the shapes and surfaces, that he sees. Violating the laws of perspective of the Renaissance masters he knew and loved more than any of his close colleagues, Cézanne will ignore any fixed distant point, will make distant objects more sharply defined, with no blue tones or mist. Those distant objects will be made larger, nearer objects smaller. Trees, stones, and even mountains will be rearranged. Houses will be given a steep tilt. (See Erle Loran's excellent monograph Cézanne's Composition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963, with photographs of such landscapes side-by-side with what Cézanne made of them.)


Cézanne called the scene at which he was looking his motif. It was merely a suggestive starting point for his composition, which was the result of painstaking, and painful, thought. It is the taking of the Proustian next step.




The author has invested more time than is sensible in front of Cézanne's painting of his wife holding a fan. Reproductions of this painting are fairly common, but the canvas itself lives in the Zurich museum, off the common path for most of us. But a show this winter at the Grand Palais in Paris of the collection of the Stein family has given many more people a chance to see it.


No painting I know loses more in reproduction.


There are two literary connections here, one factual and one my own speculation. Gertrude Stein who, with all her grand collection, kept this painting above her mantle, said, "I began writing under the auspices of this painting." (Picasso named this painting as the one that had had the most influence on his work.)


But there is, I believe, a further Proust connection beyond what I discuss above, but this one is speculative.  Cèzanne, as in his other late works, makes no effort to hide his brush strokes, nor the flecks of counter-intuitive color, nor small patches of bare canvas. It is not, to move a little into literary terminology, a naturalistic representational painting. But it is more real, closer to the feeling and meaning of the reality, than anything else in Impressionist or Post-Impressionist painting. The plum-covered chair on which she sits has heft and texture, as does the lady herself, moreso than could ever have been accomplished by literalism, even by a Renaissance painter. Roger Fry wrote in 1910 that Cézanne's paintings aim not "at a pseudoscientific fidelity to appearance. This is the revolution that Cézanne has inaugurated ... His paintings aim not at illusion or abstraction, but at reality."


James Sloan Allen again cuts to the core by suggesting (quoting without permission here) that this is "aesthetics or artistry, the quality that takes a painting out of 'reality' and gives it the power to arrest our attention and alter our perceptions. I'd say that is the compelling drama you saw..... That quality makes art 'better' than reality. Reality serves as a pretext for artists to arouse the imagination and the senses and to expand our experience." (I'm cheating here, because Allen's comment relates to another exchange about another Cézanne. But it applies just as well to the painting in the Grand Palais.)


Those words describe beautifully the success of both Cézanne, about which Allen is writing, and Proust. The question is the route by  which this artistic success is achieved, that route among many, that route which, I am suggesting, is a path shared by Cézanne and Proust and which distinguishes them from their fellow artists, along with their shared full consciousness of that distinct route. The Cézanne chapter in Johan Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuro-Scientist tries to analyze how Cézanne played with the  properties of eye and brain. (The effort to reproduce a mere surface accuracy of image is an objective beyond which the art of photography has long since gone. Any mention of photography properly belongs here, in a consideration of the different paths toward aesthetic goals that might be shared by painters, novelists, photographers, and New Orleans jazz musicians [If A la Recherche can be seen as an epistemological novel, then what about Louis  Armstrong's recording of "I Been Down so Long it Looks like Up to



When we consider Cézanne's effort to go beyond the other painters of his time, his conscious effort to do so, the parallel to Proust is striking. Proust too did not use the tools of naturalism. As he said, when someone leaves a room, he never has him walking to the door and turning the knob. But the overall effect of Proust's brush strokes and patches of bare canvas and quirks of coloring is that intense realism to which all of us respond. National Book Foundation chief Harold Augenbraum once suggested in a Center reading group that a major effect of one's first reading of the novel is to prepare one for subsequent readings. I believe this to be true partly because Proust allows us to understand his methods, to see his brush strokes, to pull back the curtain that hides the Wizard of Oz's machinery.


Both Cézanne and Proust's Narrator decide to go beyond Elstir, and in precisely the same direction. And both reaped heaps of scorn until more thoughtful viewers/readers started having the patience to see what they were up to.



Dr. Stan Burnett left television writing and university teaching for the diplomatic corps, where his service abroad included the major East-West arms negotiations. In Washington he was Director of Research, Director of European Affairs, and then supervised all USG culture and information programs abroad, all for the US Information Agency. He then became Director of Studies of the largest Washington foreign affairs think tank, and author of books and articles on Italy and international affairs, including The Italian Guillotine, winner of Italy’s major non-literary book prize.  


Dr. Burnett is currently Senior Advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Senior Fellow in Social Sciences at Yale. But, most important of all, he is an impassioned reader of Proust and avid supporter of the Center for Fiction’s leadership of the Proust Society of America.