Haussmann's Paris

Proust, a Critic and a Philosopher on Space

The Sense of an Interior
by Diana Fuss
Routledge, 270 pp., $45.00

In The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard writes, “In Paris there are no houses, and the inhabitants of the big city live in superimposed boxes.” He is complaining not about architectural modernism, with its characteristic “towers in parks,” but about the phenomenological flatness of Haussmann’s Paris. For Bachelard, a Second Empire apartment could never be a home—or at least not an “oneiric home,” cousin of the castle and the hut and a cradle of imagination. Lacking cellars and attics, “no longer aware of the storms of the outside universe,” he suggests, the “boxes” of Paris are no place to dream.

The narrator of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, on the other hand, “endowed by love” for Gilberte Swann with a heightened sensibility, “had singled out and sanctified one particular family from within the social Paris just as it had from within the Paris of stone one particular house whose carriage entrance it had sculpted and whose windows it had made precious.” His parents “did not see in [the house] anything unique,” just as they saw nothing unique in the Swanns: “I was the only one who could see these ornaments.” But there they were: dreams written across superimposed boxes.

We have all known a love like this; perhaps that is why Bachelard recants. A few pages after his Paris barb, he acknowledges that the dream of living elsewhere—in this case a hut, the primordial home—can manifest itself, quite literally, wherever one sits. “In most hut dreams we hope to live elsewhere, far from the over-crowded house, far from city cares. We flee thought in search of a real refuge. Bachelin [a “forgotten writer” whose novel he is discussing] is more fortunate than dreamers of distant escape, in that he finds the root of the hut dream in the house itself,” where simultaneously he sits by the hearth with his beloved father and feels himself “living in the round house, the primitive hut, of prehistoric man.” Now it seems that any house (or apartment) will do for dreaming; and dreams, as Proust’s narrator would agree, are powerful enough to refashion, even transfigure space.

At the end of “Place-Names: The Name,” revisiting the Bois de Boulogne, where as a child he marveled at the promenading figure of Mme. Swann, the narrator of À la recherche concludes, “The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.” Places are as ephemeral as our fleeting impressions—they are our impressions; but so too are impressions a register of space and place, the location of their emergence, not just the ticking of the clock.

“Place-Names”: a view down the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile to La Grande Arche de la Défense. Photograph: Michael Mangi

Diana Fuss explores the dialectic of space and imagination in her 2004 book The Sense of an Interior: Four Rooms and the Writers that Shaped Them, going beyond fiction and phenomenology to consider the lives of four “creative geniuses.” Emily Dickinson, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, and Marcel Proust are her subjects, linked by their associations with rooms and, to a lesser extent, sensory disorders. “How do writers inhabit domestic space?” she asks in the book’s introduction. “How does domestic space inhabit writing?” Largely eschewing architectural history and literary scholarship (one is too literal, “ignoring the metaphorical in favor of the functional,” the other too figurative, viewing “houses as metaphors for something else”), Fuss attempts to reconstruct the interiority of her subjects, like a chatty home improvement show, “room by room.”

From the outset, Fuss rejects literary readings that “present the house as nothing other than subjectivity,” as well as those “posing the house as an ‘analogue’ for the text,” and indeed she does neither of these things in The Sense of an Interior; but neither does she provide us with a sound architectural history. So what does Fuss do? For starters, she rehashes old ideas. “In Proust’s novel, time inhabits space,” she writes in the essay “Proust’s Nose,” just as space inhabits time; there is no absolute interiority or exteriority. Getting to her Proustian point: “Involuntary memory… effects an immediate temporal and spatial dislocation that suspends not only then and now but also here and there.”

Joseph Frank and Georges Poulet made similar arguments long ago, advocating for the salience of space in readings of À la recherche, neither with the doggedness of Fuss. Like her forebears she wants to theorize textual spaces, but she also wants to investigate places—real spaces, which she diagrams—“for how they mold the interior lives of the writers who inhabit them,” as if walls could talk. If this sounds dangerous, that’s because it is. Challenging the “too easy bifurcation between literal and figurative space reinforced by the separate disciplines of literature and architecture,” an admirable project, Fuss slides haphazardly between registers, achieving none.

Too often she veers into the kind of artless biographical criticism that treats authors’ lives like texts for decoding. Discussing the arrangement of mirrors in Proust’s famous bedroom, she writes, “The surface of the Proustian mirror remains opaque, suggesting that, even where the aperture of the self is concerned, Proust was no above erecting protective defenses around the alluring but dangerous practice of radical introspection.” Likewise, “the most obtrusive object in the room, [Proust’s piano] dominated [his] subconscious life, its ivory keys simulating his mother’s voice more powerfully than any telephone line.” Fuss has plenty of interesting things to say about technology, death, space and time, but the avidity of her speculative prose, tightly woven with self-congratulating metaphors, jars. One is reminded of Pale Fire‘s Preface: the academic kiss of death.

Like Vladimir Nabakov’s fictional critic Charles Kinbote, who confuses annotation and interpretation to hilarious result, Fuss is a stickler for details. Schematically, her rendering of Proust’s apartment at 102 boulevard Haussmann seems absolutely precise; the Chinese screen is precisely where it should be. Lined up against Fuss’s fast and loose turns at biography, however, this kind of precision takes on an air of absurdity. Here is Fuss on Proust’s reasons for having his telephone line removed: “At the dawn of a world war, in which Proust was to lose a number of his friends, the telephone had become too painful a reminder of exactly what it had always been: a disembodied voice carrying messages from the dead.” Was Proust a psychic? Is Fuss? Better to stick with the telephones in his novel, and letters, than conjure a zombie telephone somewhere in-between.

But what else can she do? Like the subjects of her book, Fuss is “entombed.” She is not conducting literary criticism, so here is no new analysis of Proust’s novel; she is not conducting an architectural history, so here is no thorough analysis of Proust’s physical environment; and she is not conducting biography, so here is no evidenced analysis of, well, Proust. It is not that The Sense of an Interior is bad (in 2005 it won the MLA James Russell Lowell Prize for outstanding scholarly book of the year), but that its essays, “Proust’s Noise” in particular, rarely amount to more than associational wordplay. After all the theory, Fuss’s contention in “Nose” is simply that for the Proust of 102 boulevard Haussmann “life is what is lived on the inside,” in his apartment, senses, imagination, and ultimately, writing, but that his “sense of an interior” required constant negotiation with the “external world.” Outside of academe we know there are no pure states, but inside it, where this book was written, the point is probably worthwhile. It makes one happy to be an academic—as Proust was reportedly a sexual—voyeur, instead of the real thing.

Toward the end of his book, Bachelard becomes interested in rooms as well. “There is consolation in knowing that one is in an atmosphere of calm, in a narrow space,” he writes, agreeing with Rilke (Proust, Woolf) that a great deal of spatial “concentration” is required for poetic production. He concludes that it is admirable “to make space withdraw, to put space, all space, outside, in order that meditating being free to think,” a sentiment echoed by Fuss when she writes, “Paradoxically, Proust found it necessary to suspend the senses in order to write about them. To think the experience of involuntary memory, Proust had to stop doing it, if only for the time it took to convert sensory impression into literary language.”

The author is one thing, his text another. When Bachelard writes, earlier in The Poetics of Space, “Every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color,” we are moving in the spirit of Proust’s survivor, the narrator of À la recherche, not the author himself. In the last lines of Swann’s Way, the narrator returns to the Bois de Boulogne, where “the real sky was gray,” unlike the Elysian images of his memory. Yet here is there, not locked up in a room. As if in response, Bachelard writes, “It is not until late in life that we really revere an image, when we discover that its roots plunge beyond the history that is fixed in our memories. In the realm of absolute imagination, we remain young late in life. But we must lose our earthly Paradise in order to actually live in it.”

The sky may be gray, but it is still the sky.

Featured image (top): Fabien Baunay