Should I call this book a novel? It is something less, perhaps, and yet much more, the very essence of my life, with nothing exraneous added, as it developed through a long period of wretchedness. This book of mine has not been manufactured: it has been garnered.
It is fair to consider Jean Santeuil as a forerunner to his later book In Search of Lost Time (ISOLT) (a.k.a. Remembrances of Things Past). Many of the themes from ISOLT are contained within this book, as well as many of the episodes but there are of course many differences as well. Jean Santeuil is much more clearly biographical than ISOLT with many of the characters, especially Jean’s parents, obviously based on people that Proust knew. Once the introduction is out of the way Jean Santeuil starts off in a similar way to ISOLT with Jean unable to sleep unless he gets a goodnight kiss from his mother. Jean Santeuil is written in the third person and, unlike ISOLT, we get to know some of the other characters’ thoughts and views. I found this of interest right from the start of my reading of Jean Santeuil as it is quite a different approach to that taken in the later novel where we are basically stuck in the narrator’s head and point of view. When I was reading ISOLT I often wondered what the other characters were thinking. The writing style of Jean Santeuil is also more succinct than ISOLT, lacking Proust’s more labyrinthine sentences that can be both a joy and a nuisance, giving it a much more direct and punchy effect but maybe missing some of the mystery of ISOLT. Because it’s more straightforwardly autobiographical we get more facts: for example, it’s stated that Jean is seven years old during the ‘night-time kiss’ episode: it was never quite clear how old the narrator was during the episode when reading ISOLT and many of us (I read it along with a GoodReads group) believed he was older.
We are warned by André Maurois, in the preface, that:
Jean Santeuil is an entirely different book from Remembrances of Things Past, not only because it is unfinished, but because it lacks the master theme of the later work (the metamorphosis of a weak and nervous child into an artist); the continuity of the leading characters (Odette, Swann, Charlus, Legrandin, Norpois, Vinteuil, and many others are not yet born); the decision to write in the first person, and the courage to plunge into the sulphurous abyss of Sodom.
Which is all true and is what makes Jean Santeuil the weaker book, but for those of us who have read ISOLT it is very interesting to see the early manifestations of the characters and scenarios and to experience Proust trying to work out what to do with his characters. In Jean Santeuil Jean becomes obsessed with a girl, Marie Kossichef, as well as her parents; they play together on the Champs-Elysées and becomes distraught when she does not turn up. Whilst on holiday in Etreuilles (cf. Combray) Jean becomes overwhelmed by the beauty of the hawthorn blossom; his aunt is confined to her bed and views the village events from her window; later on Jean befriends a young aristocrat, Bertrand de Réveillon (cf. Saint-Loup), and recounts an episode where he clambers over the tables and chairs in order to speak to Jean; and there are involuntary memory episodes and artistic musings, which will all sound faimiliar to readers of ISOLT.
One of my favourite epsiodes in ISOLT is when the narrator sobs over having to leave the hawthorn blossom in Combray as he has to return to Paris. Well, in Jean Santeuil there is a similar episode, not quite as histrionic, but great nonetheless.
When Jean and his mother left Etreuilles, Monsieur Sureau had gathered for them great boxfuls of hawthorn and of snowballs which Madame Santeuil had not the courage to refuse. But, as soon as Jean’s uncle had gone home, she threw them away, saying that they already had more than enough in the way of luggage. And then Jean cried because he had been separated from the darling creatures which he would have liked to take with him to Paris, and because of his mother’s naughtiness.
It’s worth comparing it to the episode in ISOLT:
“Oh, my poor little hawthorns,” I was assuring them through my sobs, “it isn’t you who want me to be unhappy, to force me to leave you. You, you’ve never done me any harm. So I shall always love you.” And, drying my eyes, I promised them that, when I grew up, I would never copy the foolish example of other men, but that even in Paris, on fine spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would set off for the country to see the first hawthorn-trees in bloom.
In the Jean Santeuil version I imagine little Jean stamping his feet a bit and shedding a tear, whereas in the ISOLT verison I sense something close to psychological trauma. I have to admit that I like both versions.
There is also an example of one of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’ episodes. I found it very striking and more powerful than the episodes in the later work. I think this is partly because it involves smells rather than taste or other sensory stimuli as the trigger, as I find smells are the most likely, for me, to have such an effect and this event also comes at a point when Jean is already emotionally unstable. It occurs after the teenage Jean has just had an argument with his parents who have told him that he can’t see his friend, Henri, as they believe him to be a bad influence. He calls his parents ‘mad’ and stomps out of the room to his bedroom, slamming doors along the way and smashing a vase in his fury. After he’s calmed down a little and feeling a little cold he goes to his wardrobe and pulls out a coat roughly and tears it. It’s one of his mother’s old coats that has been stored in his wardrobe.
This happened to be a black velvet coat, trimmed with braid, and lined with cherry-coloured satin and ermine, which, mauled by the violence of his attack, he pulled into the room like a young maiden whom a conqueror has seized and dragged behind him by the hair. In just such a way did Jean now brandish it, but even before his eyes had sent their message to his brain, he was aware of an indefinable fragrance in the velvet, a fragrance that had greeted him when, at ten years old, he had run to kiss his mother—in those days still young, still brilliant and still happy—when she was all dressed up and ready to go out, and flung his arms about her waist, the velvet crushed within his hand, the braid tickling his cheeks, while his lips, pressed to her forehead, breathed in the glittering sense of all the happiness she seemed to hold in keeping for him.
The whole scene is brilliant and I wonder why it didn’t make it into ISOLT in this form. Jean Santeuil also contains scenes and events that don’t appear in ISOLT. For example Jean’s father seems to be more prominent than in ISOLT. There are some schoolday scenes as well as character studies of fellow schoolchildren, teachers and work colleagues of his father. There is also a chapter on various scandals that were topical at the time, especially the Dreyfus Affair.
I am only half-way through this long book but it is certainly worthwhile reading. It is always going to be mainly of interest to people that have read ISOLT but the good thing is that it’s not just an early version of that novel but different enough to have some novelty. I suspect that the second half may not be as good as the first half, which may indicate why Proust gave up on it but it is surprising that he just abandoned it so abruptly. I have re-read the relevant chapters in the William Carter biography to try to see why Proust gave up on the book but there is little to help us; although Proust experienced some personal problems during this period I think it was mostly weariness that caused him to stop as he’d been working on it for several years. It is surprising though that he didn’t try to work some short stories from his efforts or show it to a potential publisher as I’m sure some would have seen the potential in it. Or maybe he didn’t because he knew that he would return to it later, refreshed.