When the narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu at last meets his idol, the great writer Bergotte, he gets a terrible shock: instead of the 'white-haired, sweet Singer' of his imagination, he sees 'a young man, uncouth, short, thickset and myopic, with a red nose shaped like a snail-shell and a black goatee'. The fantasy Bergotte vanishes, but the caricature that replaces him is not intrinsically more 'real'. Time radiates in two directions, or dimensions, from this encounter: as a mirage belonging to the past dissolves, knowledge from the future comes into play. The narrator, who will become Bergotte's close friend, now tells us things about him which he only gradually learned, but which in turn correct the disillusioning swerve of that first physical impression. Among these things are Bergotte's family history, his milieu. When the narrator meets some of Bergotte's siblings, he realises that there is a family 'voice' from which Bergotte's style has developed: 'something brusque and rough in the final words of a lighthearted sentence, something faint and languishing at the close of a sad one'. These traits of spoken language belong to a vulgar household, filled with the clamour of a large family fond of coarse jokes and prone to sentimental effusions. Other households might be more refined, more elegant, but not, the narrator realises, necessarily more suited to the formation of a great artist. Bergotte does not simply transmit his inherited voice, he transposes it. 'To wander the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful automobile,' Proust writes, 'but an automobile which . . . is capable of converting its horizontal speed into the power of ascent.' When Bergotte became a writer, the 'simple machine' bequeathed to him by his family acquired this power; wittier or more refined friends 'might return home in their fine Rolls-Royces, showing a certain scorn for the vulgarity of the Bergottes; but he, in his simple machine which had at last "taken off", he soared above them.'
LRB 8 May 2003 | PDF Download