Contre Saint-Beuve

by Michael Shapiro

Among the notebooks found at the time of Marcel Proust’s death were those containing Contre Sainte-Beuve, written 1895–1900. Contre Sainte-Beuve is an unusual document—part narrative, part essay—that can be read as an early draft of the first volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu and as a statement of Proust’s aesthetic principles.

Saint-Beuve’s Criticism, Proust’s Aesthetics

At the center of Contre Sainte-Beuve are three essays refuting the literary criticism of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–69), a prominent French intellectual and member of l’Académie française. Sainte-Beuve championed a form of biographical criticism that saw texts as morally and intellectually inseparable from their writers. Here is Sainte-Beuve, as quoted by Proust:

So long as one has not asked an author a certain number of questions and received answers to them, though they were only whispered in confidence, one cannot be sure of having a complete grasp of him, even though these questions might seem at the furthest remove from the nature of his writings. What were his religious views? How did he react to the sight of nature? How did he conduct himself in regard to women, in regard to money? Was he rich, was he poor?[1]

Such queries led Sainte-Beuve to rank Bernard, Vinet, Molé, Verdelin, Meilhan, and Azyr among the great writers of his time, to dismiss Baudelaire and Balzac as vulgar and Hugo as overly political. History has not been on Sainte-Beuve’s side, and neither was Proust.  A la recherche, the novel that grew out of this early piece of literary criticism, persuasively refutes Sainte-Beuve’s method by bringing into contrast the sometimes sordid lives of its characters and the emotional nuance of their experiences of the world. At the time Proust wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve,
however, this refutation was still taking shape.

Proust first subjects Sainte-Beuve’s writings to biographical criticism. Sainte-Beuve wrote an article every Monday for a decade, which “industry compelled him to put forth a throng of ideas” that expended in weekly articles “the material of books that would have been more permanent” (108–9). Journalistic writing, Proust unkindly observes, is like “an armless Venus” that owes its completed effect to a “highly select mob” at best (112). This does not seem to be an implicit critique of Sainte-Beuve for the mere fact of having to write for a living—Proust does not dismiss Balzac for that reason—but a hint of class snobbery comes through in the contradiction between Sainte-Beuve’s “armless Venus” and Proust’s article in Le Figaro that teaches readers “to feel as I do” (64).

The second mark against Saint-Beuve is his history of praising writers while they are alive and attacking them once they are dead—one of the Goncourt brothers is reputed to have observed “How ghastly to be survived by Sainte-Beuve” (114–15). Sometimes a writer need not die to suffer Sainte-Beuve’s double-dealing: Proust traces the correspondence of Sainte-Beuve and Charles Baudelaire to show they were “very intimate” friends, though Sainte-Beuve withheld public support that would have helped Baudelaire substantially during the obscenity trail surrounding Les Fleurs de Mal.

In the most powerful essay in Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust dissects the relationship between Baudelaire and Sainte-Beuve. At the center of his argument is an annotated reading of a letter Sainte-Beuve wrote to Baudelaire about Les Fleurs de Mal:

By doing this with subtlety”—appreciation number one, but it could be read ambiguously—“with refinement, with a fastidious talent,”—the first word of praise, if praise it be, but it won’t do to cavil, for it’s almost the only one—“and with an almost chiseled freedom of expression, in conversing”—the italics are Sainte-Beuve’s—“or sonneteering about horrors . . . ,” then, paternally: “You must have suffered much, my dear lad.

When Sainte-Beuve later published this letter in a collection of essays, he added a preface calling Baudelaire’s poems “spiteful innuendoes, wrapped up in elegant verse” (123). Proust notes “‘spiteful innuendoes’ doesn’t go too well with: ‘You must have suffered much, my dear lad.’ How often Sainte-Beuve tempts one to cry out, What an old ass! or, What an old blackguard!” (123.)

Proust’s careful translation of the banalities of what Goncourt said about Sainte-Beuve, what Sainte-Beuve said to Baudelaire and about him—in a word, gossip—into a study of the reception of poetry is perhaps the principal value of Contre Sainte-Beuve. His close reading of Sainte-Beuve offers an early example of the role thoughtfully-interpreted social exchange will play in resolving the more numerous intellectual problems of A la recherche.

But if Sainte-Beuve’s is the method to avoid, what is the correct approach to literary criticism? Compare the specificity of Proust’s attention to Sainte-Beuve’s prose to his vague praise for Baudelaire’s poetry: he quotes “a noble line” from Les Fleurs de Mal “dear to the high-minded and generous-hearted” but offers neither commentary nor interpretation; instead, he regrets that it has been appropriated by society women looking for a sharp-tongued insult to throw at their rivals. In other words, he writes startlingly little about Baudelaire and rather a good deal about himself.

After quoting forty-odd lines from Les Fleurs, Proust observes that Baudelaire extracts the phrases of his poetry from his own heaven and hell and unfindable in any other man’s, phrases from a planet which he alone has lived in and which is nothing we know of. [ . . . ] one feels he has experienced it all, understood it all, and has the most quivering sensibility and the profoundest comprehension. (132–3).

In the concluding pages of the book, Proust suggests that good writers cast aside the “coarse veil of appearances which disguises our thoughts from us at every turn”—the “hackneyed flatness” of conventional phrases—and instead write in “a sort of foreign tongue” that can begin to reveal “confused remembrance of truths they have never known” (270, 267, 276). A great writer must, like Baudelaire, filter shared human experience through the lenses of his own peculiar way of seeing—the light of his own unfindable planet—to reveal the world in a way the reader could not otherwise understand. This is in contrast to Sainte-Beuve’s aesthetic, in which novelty seems immoral or, at best, vulgar.

The aesthetic problem Proust confronts in Contre Sainte-Beuve is the same aesthetic problem faced by other moderns looking for modes of expression to cut through the ornamental clutter and moralizing banalities of nineteenth-century fiction. Contre Sainte-Beuve constitutes Proust’s first attempt to learn that “sort of foreign tongue,” that “heaven and hell and unfindable in any other man’s phrases,” by which to express a heightened experience of the real—to, if possible, render the entire experience of a lost era into language.

Frame and A la Recherché

The three essays on art at the center of Contre Sainte-Beuve are bookended by the first-person narrative of a character named Marcel Proust, an early demonstration of the aesthetic system Proust proposes to replace Sainte-Beuve’s. Like the narrator of A la recherche two decades later, the Marcel of Contre Sainte-Beuve is a neurasthenic and an aesthete, a student of literature and the visual arts who is at the beginning stages of discovering his voice as a writer. Proust uses the narrative to suggest that the experience of a life cannot be reduced to its incidents; that the act of casting aside the “coarse veil of appearances” reveals a world richer than questions about wealth or religion can.

This fictive Marcel experiences in fast-forward many of the revelations at the center of the Recherche—the madeleine appears on the first page of Contre Sainte-Beuve, for example, in the guise of a piece of toast dipped in tea. On the next page, the toast-memory is yoked to the memory of an uneven paving stone in Venice, one of the climactic images of A la recherche, compressing to a few sentences what would later become 3,000 pages of intellectual peregrination. In short chapters, this Marcel meditates on the dimensions of rooms and the beauty of young girls, sees his first article published in Le Figaro, recalls with horror memories of being separated from his mother, mingles with the aristocratic Guermantes—topics that will occupy chapters or volumes of the later text.

Many of the themes at the center of the first three volumes of A la recherche appear in draft form in Contre Sainte-Beuve: the narrator’s tracing of overwhelming sensory experiences to their source, his recovery of an aesthetic history by ecstatically searching for aristocrats’ names on the tombstones and in the stained glass windows of village churches, and, most powerfully, his hope some day to conjure up the world “itself, not some pallid ghost” (22).

In this way, Proust shaped his narrative system in reply to the critical and aesthetic problems posed by Sainte-Beuve. Although Sainte-Beuve merits only a passing mention in A la recherche, he remains even in his absence a kind of organizing figure.

What Contre Sainte-Beuve most notably lacks is a love story—there no Albertines, much less a Gilbertine; the Swanns are named only as distant relatives of the Guermantes, with no hint of how they came together. There is a Baron de Charlus figure (the not-so-subtly named Marquis de Quercy), but no Morel. It as though through the process of crafting Contre Sainte-Beuve Proust realized that he left out the most universal metaphor for the heightened experience of reality.


One of many motivations for Proust’s repudiation of biographical criticism may have been his knowledge that his sexuality would invalidate his writing according to the Sainte-Beuvian rubric. At the time he wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve Proust was still formulating his theory of homosexuality. The topic is given its own chapter—“A race accursed”—an uncomfortable, pitying condemnation of gay men “to whom we cannot offer a greater insult than acknowledging that he has [ . . . ], like all human characters, the right to enjoy love in the form that nature allows us to conceive of it” (222). The chapter suggests little of the sensitivity of Proust’s engagement with this subject in A la recherche.


I have relied on the Sylvia Townsend Warner translation (1957) of Contre Sainte-Beuve, which is written in a style closer to the recent Penguin In Search of Lost Time led by Christopher Prendergast than to C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s ornamental Remembrance of Things Past. Warner avoids mucking about with Proust’s long sentences, and lets Proust occasionally skewer himself on his own overly-elaborate language.

  1. ↑ Proust, “Contre Sainte-Beuve,” in Marcel Proust on Art and Literature: 1896–1919, trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner, 2nd edition (New York: Carroll & Graf Pub., 1997), p. 99.