Who’s afraid of Marcel Proust?

Patrick McGuiness in The Telegraph:

Marcelproust_2737624bIn autumn 1912, a writer best known for pastiches and society columns took a manuscript to the Nouvelle Revue Française, recently founded by Gaston Gallimard. It was passed to a reader who opened it randomly at page 62 and found what he decided was a boring and overwritten description of a cup of herbal tea. The manuscript was politely declined.

The novelist was Marcel Proust, the novel was Swann’s Way, the first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, and the reader was André Gide. Proust took the book to Grasset, a few streets away in the septième arrondissement, who published it at the author’s expense 100 years ago this week. The following year Proust received one of the best-known apologies in literary history: “Turning down your book,” wrote Gide, “remains one of the greatest regrets of my life.” After some knotty negotiations with Bernard Grasset, Gallimard managed to win Proust back, buying up the last 200 unsold copies of Swann’s Way. Proust won the Prix Goncourt in 1919, and from then the novel became what we now think it to be: a book so famous that we don’t need to have read it to talk about it. Do we expect our classics to be misunderstood? Is that how we measure their path-breaking greatness? Ten years after Swann’s Way, Gallimard received a long Irish novel which one of their most distinguished writers dismissed as “obscene” and “blighted by a diabolical lack of talent”. The Irish novelist was James Joyce, and disgusted of the septième was Paul Claudel. Even geniuses can misunderstand one another: when Proust met Joyce, his most radical successor, the two men barely spoke except to compare ailments. If we really want to understand how art works, how books and paintings and symphonies and buildings get made, survive and become part of our lives, we need to understand the role misunderstanding plays in culture.

More here.