Whoever reads Marcel Proust enthusiastically, again and again, usually and quite rightly concentrates on his main work, the “Research”, on the volumes that begin with “Combray” and end with “The Time Again”.
The rest of the work, the many, many letters, the early stories, the essays, the aborted attempt at a novel “Jean Santeuil” and the novel essay “Against Saint-Beuve” are all more for specialists, for obsessive Proust readers .
The latter two books in particular, which were only published long after Proust’s death in the 1950s and were begun by Proust before his main work, already point deep into the novel world of “research” in terms of motifs and themes.
Just reading the first drafts of the “Sainte-Beuve” essay, which Proust became more and more narrative in 1908 after his arguments with the great critic he didn’t appreciate and turned into an autofictional conversation with his mother, one has exactly the same feelings (so one says the “research” known) that Proust is trying to describe, which presents itself to him as an involuntary memory.
Right at the beginning there is talk of him returning home from a walk frozen through with snow, starting to read and getting a tea from his cook, which he otherwise never drinks. And then the Madeleine moment begins, which everyone knows so well.
Only here it is toasted bread that triggers the cascade of memories: “I let the bread soak in the cup and the moment I put it in my mouth and had the sensation of its softness infused with the taste of tea on my palate, I felt one Confusion, smells of geraniums, of orange trees, a sensation of extraordinary light, of happiness.”
Then he remembers summers in the country, his grandfather, who always dipped rusks in his tea, and these rusks, together with the bread he is now enjoying, make him visualize the garden of that time “with its forgotten paths”, “Beet auf Beet, with all its flowers in the little cup of tea, like those Japanese flowers that only come up in water.”
This is followed immediately by the cobblestone moment from Venice, which is repeated in “The Time Again”, the attempt to get a fixed view of a landscape from a moving train, a spoon banging, and also the sight of a group of trees on a walk, the is elaborated in “Shadow of Young Girl Blossom”.
In order to be able to look at the trees in peace, Proust lets his friends go ahead. This is also well known about him: On a visit to Réveillon Castle, for example, he asked Reynaldo Hahn to leave him alone, and Hahn reported that five minutes later Proust was still standing there.
“Against Saint-Beuve” (and certainly also “Jean Santeuil”) is therefore ideally suited as a pre- and post-reading of the “Recherche”, and the many déjà-vues in the latter case have something Proustic about them.