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Proust and Ruskin: Perspectives on Amiens and its cathedral
Proust and Ruskin
Perspectives on Amiens and its cathedral
Keywords: Literature, Literary criticism, National cultures, Europe
John Ruskin and Marcel Proust are two great writers who, although not read as widely as they should be, did much to shape the cultures of Britain (England especially) and France in the modern era. Indeed in today’s Europe, a study of their work helps us better to understand the world views of these two major players in the EU, so that we can appreciate both the continuities between them and the creative tensions. Cynthia Gamble is an expert on both writers, whose lives overlapped. She brings them together at Amiens, a city they both loved, to illustrate their common interests and their sometimes differing perspectives.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and John Ruskin (1819-1900) were both fascinated by Amiens and its cathedral. Both writers visited the “Venice of Picardy”, or “Venice of France”, and incorporated it into their writings in very different ways. These two writers never met each other, and it was only in 1899, a few months before Ruskin’s death, that Proust really became engrossed in Ruskin’s writings. Ruskin remained throughout his life unaware of Proust and his work.
Proust probably made a Ruskinian pilgrimage to Amiens soon after Ruskin’s death, but the only documented visit took place on Saturday 7 September 1901. On that occasion, the 30-year-old wrote to his mother a fairly banal letter highlighting, not the great Gothic cathedral, but practical information concerning train times, train connections, the cost of lunch and the general expenses incurred on the day trip. Proust prepared a multi-faceted homage to Ruskin: the publication of five obituary articles, all impregnated with quotations from Ruskin’s works, a translation of The Bible of Amiens which would be published in 1904 as La Bible d’Amiens, and a series of visits to places imbued with his spirit – to Rouen, to Amiens and to Venice.
One of the obituary articles, entitled “Ruskin à Notre-Dame d’Amiens”, published on 1 April 1900 in the Mercure de France, is addressed specifically to the individual reader of that Journal – to make the reader want to undertake a Ruskinian pilgrimage to Amiens. Proust concentrates on three aspects of the cathedral for the visit: his triptych consists of “la Vierge Dorée” (Gilded Virgin), the choir stalls and the west façade. He presents each part bathed in an Anglo-French light, illuminated by Ruskin translated by Proust, and illuminated by Proust himself. This rich double perspective resembles two lamps of architecture that enlighten the edifice differently and bring out its nuances, its texture and its mystery.
Proust’s itinerary, based on Ruskin’s, is the route along the “rue des Trois-Cailloux”, with a stop at “one of the charming patissiers’ shops”, then past the theatre and into the street now called rue Robert de Luzarches, so named after one of the cathedral architects. At the end, almost blocking the street, is the south transept with the statue of Proust’s “Gilded Virgin” or Ruskin’s “pretty French Madonna” in St Honoré’s porch:
… everybody must like the pretty French Madonna, [wrote Ruskin] … with her head a little aside, and her nimbus switched a little aside too, like a becoming bonnet. A Madonna in decadence she is, though, for all, or rather by reason of all her prettiness, and her gay soubrette’s smile. […] But they could still carve, in the fourteenth century, and the Madonna and her hawthorn-blossom lintel are worth your looking at … .
This first stop on the itinerary enables Proust to engage in his own aesthetic appreciation of the Virgin, unlike like of the Protestant female spectator for whom Ruskin wrote. On a warm, sunny day, the formerly gilded Virgin is now re-gilded momentarily by the sun’s rays in its diurnal visitation: the sun and the statue are personified by Proust. The welcoming and welcome sun pays a visit to the entire cathedral, alighting on every saint, “draping a mantle of heat on their shoulders, or an aureole of light on their faces”. On reaching the Gilded Virgin, a dialogue ensues: as the sun “caresses her”, the Virgin responds “with her eternal smile”. The statue is given renewed life with Proust’s pen: she is imbued with maternal qualities and great charm, lyrically expressed:
I dearly love this Gilded Virgin with her very special smile, the smile of the mistress of some celestial mansion: I dearly love her welcome at this door of the cathedral, in her exquisite and simple frame of hawthorn. Like the rose trees, the lilies and the figs wrought on another of the porches, these hawthorn boughs are still in bloom.
But this happy moment is tinged with melancholia, for the destructive force of time is apparent: “the winds of the centuries have already scattered on the ground before the church […] a few carved roses. Doubtless, some day too, the Gilded Virgin’s smile […] will cease, through the crumbling of the stone […]”. Proust makes his farewell to the one who has become a “Amiénoise” (“girl from Amiens”), a “beautiful friend whom we must leave on this melancholy provincial square […] where […] she will continue to feel on her face the wind and sun of Amiens, letting the little sparrows perch […] in the hollow of her welcoming hand, or peck at the stone buds of the ancient hawthorn which, through the centuries, make her appear in such a youthful dress”. Before the sun has “ceased to touch with silver the ancient greyness of the porch”, Proust reverts to Ruskin’s itinerary that he had temporarily abandoned during his “own homage”.
The choir stalls
Ruskin is unusually lyrical, although brief, in his praise of the virtuosity and skill of the woodcarvers and carpenters who created, in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries – with joy Ruskin liked to believe – a world of wonderment and a book (or rather several books), combining “Flemish stolidity” with the flamboyant “playing French fire”:
Sweet and young-grained wood it is: oak, trained and chosen for such work, sound now as four hundred years since. Under the carver’s hand it seems to cut like clay, to fold like silk, to grow like living branches, to leap like living flame. Canopy crowning canopy, pinnacle piercing pinnacle – it shoots and wreathes itself into an enchanted glade, inextricable, imperishable, fuller of leafage than any forest, and fuller of story than any book.
Inspired by Ruskin’s lyrical prose and sensitivity, Proust, the budding novelist, amplifies the description. He demonstrates the functional and aesthetic nature, as well as the modernity of these choir stalls, which are, nevertheless, so deeply rooted in Picardy. They are almost metamorphosed by Proust who links them with the “meubles parlants” (“furniture that speaks”) and the art nouveau of Emile Gallé (1846-1904), the famous glass and furniture maker from Nancy, in eastern France. His ecstatic and lyrical description is also a discreet homage to his close friend, Reynaldo Hahn, who wrote the music to accompany Verlaine’s poem Green, part of which (“these fruits, these flowers, these leaves and these branches”) Proust integrates into his text. The melancholia of the Proustian theme of the passage of time (the stalls are worn away through frequent touching) is redeemed by the immortality of the carved figures that are nourished and revived by the sap. They are as alive, vibrant and meaningful today as in the sixteenth century.
Proust, unlike Ruskin – who relied to a large extent on the descriptions of the stalls by the former cathedral canons Jourdain and Duval (in a long note in The Bible of Amiens) –, leads the visitor among:
… all these figures who, in their colour, in the pattern of their gestures, in the worn surface of their robes and the stockiness of their bodies, still display the essential character of the wood, exhibit its strength and sing its softness.
He draws attention to some of the rich iconography and detail such as the story of Joseph and of Pharoah’s dream. Proust even recalls the name of the sacristan, Monsieur Regnaut, who allowed visitors to touch the choir stalls. This reference to the sacristan is a delightful Ruskinian homage by Proust who knew that Ruskin enjoyed a warm and beneficial relationship with these influential custodes of churches and cathedrals both in France and in Italy.
The west façade
The west façade is Ruskin’s real Bible of Amiens. Proust is not interested in an interpretation of the statues – he leaves Ruskin the task of explaining their religious significance, teaching and iconography … there are pages and pages of often banal facts translated by Proust in his obituary article and in his preface to La Bible d’Amiens. Proust, on the other hand, presents this façade differently, in two long sentences (154 and 132 words respectively) that are strikingly contrasting, both in style and content. First, he paints an atmospheric and impressionist picture of the façade at various times (in the morning, the afternoon and evening), in different lights and colours (blue, yellow, pink), as Claude Monet painted Rouen cathedral, but with an additional dimension, an almost tangible element:
The porch at Amiens is not only in the vague sense which Victor Hugo might have given to it, a book in stone, a Bible in stone – it is the Bible in stone. I do not doubt that before you grow familiar with it, when, for the first time, you see the west façade of Amiens, blue in the mist, dazzling in the morning light, drenched by the sun, and heavily gilded by the radiance of the afternoon, pink and already touched by the tender evening glow at sundown – at any of these times, when the bells sound in the high heavens, times that Claude Monet has fixed in his sublime canvases, where he has displayed the life of that thing that men have made, but which Nature has resumed and made part of herself – a cathedral, whose existence, like of the earth in her double revolution, has unwound through the long tale of the centuries – I do not doubt that then, isolating it from the changing colours with which by Nature it is endowed, you will feel at sight of this façade, a confused but powerful impression.
Then, in the contrasting sentence that immediately follows, Proust condenses the grandeur and splendour of the impressive building, as the spectator’s gaze is borne upwards:
Seeing raised heavenward this fretted, this monumental swarm of figures, life-sized and stone-wrought, each bearing in his hand a cross, a phylactery or a sceptre, this world of saints, these generations of prophets, this race of kings, this procession of sinners, this assembly of judges, this flight of angels, one beside another, one above another, upright in the porch, staring down upon the city from niche and gallery, and higher still, where, in a jangle of bells, they seem to watchers at the foot of the towers, no more than a dazzle and a vagueness of the sight – then, doubtless, in the warmth of your emotion, you will feel how great a thing is this vast, upward surge, so motionless, yet so eloquent of passsion.
This play on light, the alternating sun and shade, is accompanied by rich intertextuality, sometimes dissimulated. In “Ruskin at Notre-Dame d’Amiens”, the cathedral is associated with Italy, Germany, Netherlands, England, and France of course, in the realms of poetry, theatre, music and art (I have already drawn attention to Monet, Verlaine and Hahn). Like the intricate nature of Gothic ornamentation, and in particular the flamboyant style, textual echoes of Flaubert, Leonardo da Vinci, Shelley, Wagner, Huysmans, Hugo, Molière, the Goncourt brothers mingle and intertwine with those of Holland, Brittany and Normandy.
To a lesser degree, Ruskin uses a similar technique in some of his drawings that he deliberately produced at different times of the day in order to capture the changing colours and nuances of the stone, as well as the architectural complexity of the building. Ruskin was particularly aware of this during his 1848 tour of Picardy and Normandy, when he sketched and analysed every church or cathedral he visited (in preparation for his first illustrated work The Seven Lamps of Architecture). One example is his sketch of the north tower of Coutances cathedral “made [at] about ten o’clock on a September morning”, and his observation of the towers being “so completely varied at different hours of the day”.
Unlike Proust, Ruskin stayed in Amiens on several occasions: in 1844, 1849, 1854, 1856, 1868 and especially in 1880 when he was preparing The Bible of Amiens. Ruskin was particularly under the influence of the artist Samuel Prout (1783-1852) during his early stays. A diary entry on 11 May 1854 reveals the extent to which Ruskin is torn between the poetic nature of the picturesque of Amiens life (that he sees to some extent through the eyes of Prout and his sketches) and the harsh reality:
Amiens. I had a happy walk here in the afternoon, down among the branching currents of the Somme; it divides into five or six, shallow and green, and not over wholesome; some quite narrow and foul, running beneath clusters of fearful houses, reeling masses of rotten timber; […] a few stumps of pollard willow […] and boats, like paper boats […] paddling among the weeds […] and floating the dead leaves fallen from the vegetable baskets with which they were loaded.
There is a sharp contrast between, on the one hand, the charming little boats and flowers (wallflowers and geraniums), and on the other hand, the filth and decay:
All exquisitely picturesque, and as miserable as picturesque. We delight in seeing the figures in the boats pushing them about the bits of blue water in Prout’s drawings, but, as I looked today at the unhealthy face and melancholy, apathetic mien of the man in the boat, pushing his load of peats along the ditch, and of the people, men and women, who sat spinning gloomily in the picturesque cottages, I could not help feeling how many suffering persons must pay for my picturesque subject, and my happy walk.
Proust acquired an extensive and intensive knowledge of Ruskin’s works to which he often responded as a novelist, with his own vision and perception. Proust had an incredible memory and a sharp ear for the nuances of language: through his translations of Sesame and Lilies and The Bible of Amiens, he assimilated the style, rhythms and subtleties of the English of Ruskin. Themes introduced by Proust in this obituary article – time, cathedral and architecture, not forgetting Amiens – will be developed by him and incorporated into his great work À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust transposed some of Ruskin’s more technical descriptions to recreate them on a literary and aesthetic plane.
Throughout his life (albeit short) Proust remained indebted to Ruskin’s thought and works, and his presence can be felt in the pages of his great novel. Proust’s financial advisor, Lionel Hauser, encapsulated the importance of Ruskin for Proust when he wrote on 16 May 1918: “the high opinion that you have of that writer [Ruskin] makes me think that he was really an extraordinary chap” (“un type extraordinaire”).
Cynthia J. GambleVisiting Fellow of the Ruskin Programme, Lancaster University, UK
NotesCW33: 128. The abbreviation CW refers to E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (Eds), The Works of John Ruskin, George Allen, London, in 39 volumes, 1903-1912. This is followed by the number of the volume and the page(s).Marcel Proust, A Selection from his Miscellaneous Writings, chosen and translated by Gerard Hopkins, London, Allan Wingate, 1948, p. 33-34. Henceforth, Hopkins translation.CW33: 125. The emphasis is by Ruskin.Hopkins translation, p. 37.Hopkins translation, p. 38.Hopkins translation, pp. 38-9.CW12: p. 43.Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse (Eds), The Diaries of John Ruskin, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 3 volumes, 1956-1959, p. 492. Hereafter, Diaries, followed by the page number(s).Diaries, p. 493. The emphasis is by Ruskin.Correspondance de Marcel Proust, Philip Kolb (Ed.), in 21 volumes, 1970-1993, volume XVII, p. 250.
AcknowledgementsThis article was adapted from an illustrated lecture given by Dr Gamble to the Ruskin Society, London on 3 November 2003.