Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

The Two Biggies: Intermittent Reflections on Spenser and Proust
by Joe Moshenska

In a 1984 interview, Robert Hunter – lyricist for The Grateful Dead, responsible for songs such as ‘Terrapin Station’ and ‘Dark Star’ – was asked by Mary Eisenhart about his reading habits.  The ensuing exchange went like this:


Hunter: I’m just about through Proust finally – I’ve been digging at Proust for about six years, and I’m finally on Time Regained.

Eisenhart: I’m impressed.

Hunter: [Laughs] Well you should be.  I’m impressed myself.  I’m going to finish it this year.

            Proust and Spenser.  The Faerie Queene.  Those are the two biggies.  I’ve wanted to be one of those people who have read The Faerie Queene.  I have a beautiful edition of it up here, but I’m afraid that a certain amount of Spenser is about all I can take, and then –

Eisenhart: Being an eighteen year old brat at the time, I had a pretty bad introduction to Spenser.

Hunter: Even a worse introduction than reading Spenser himself?  It’s so hard.[1]


Hunter knew a thing or two about writing at length: even I, who have never really listened to The Grateful Dead, know that they were most famous for songs sprawling out in improvised form for an hour or more.  This made it all the more intriguing to me that this scripter of musical behemoths should indicate his fascination as a reader with these ‘two biggies,’ Spenser and Proust, so openly.   That said, his specific words left me with mixed feelings that I imagine will be shared by many of those who have devoted time to reading, teaching and writing about Spenser: on the one hand, excitement at the very idea of an unexpected person bothering to read The Faerie Queene, suggesting that it might be worthwhile; on the other, a degree of sadness at his immediate insistence that Spenser is difficult to stomach, palatable only in small doses, the worst introduction to his own writing.  Hunter doesn’t want to read The Faerie Queene; he wants ‘to be one of those people who have read’ the poem, perfectly encapsulating Mark Twain’s famous definition of a classic as ‘something that everyone wants to have read and no one wants to read’.[2]  Knowledge of Spenser’s poem is presented as impressive, but painfully attained and only just worth the trouble; it is knowledge won strenuously and to be wielded pretentiously, and the experience of reading is entirely subordinated to the satisfaction of having read, or being the kind of person who has read.  These two literary biggies, Proust and Spenser, are large and difficult pills to swallow.




Hunter’s juxtaposition of Spenser and Proust has taken on a new resonance for me in the past year and a half.  À La Recherche du Temps Perdu had long been high on my list of things that I wanted both to read and to have read, and in the second half of 2019 I finally began doing so, as part of a weekly reading group with a friend.  Our meetings moved with surprising seamlessness online once the pandemic began, and it became satisfying to have one project continue when so many plans had to be abandoned.  At the same time the stakes of our continuing with the novel seemed to change along with all the massive disruptions taking place around us.  Reading Proust became, in some quarters, a shorthand for the suggested ways in which people might pass the time of lockdown in meaningful and self-improving ways, and then quickly became a shorthand for the vigour with which these worthy forms of encouragement might be rebuffed: ‘They can lock me down,’ read the headline of one typical newspaper column, ‘but they can’t make me read Proust’.[3]


The idea of reading Proust as something that one should do in order to make part of life meaningful bears an obvious resemblance to Hunter’s sense of it as something impressive, worth having done.  But it became interesting to me in a different way, since the early months of the pandemic were so characterised by a sense of time changing in strange and unpredictable ways – lurching between panic and boredom, sudden crisis and prolonged stasis – and this made it a particularly complicated and thought-provoking moment to be reading Proust’s massive novel, which is so relentlessly concerned with the shifts and vicissitudes of time and the ways in which we experience it.[4]  And it was here that Hunter’s unexpected pairing of Proust and Spenser became meaningful for me in a new way, since reading and living through À La Recherche began to resonate for me in increasingly insistent ways with my experiences of reading The Faerie Queene. I’ve written before about the tendency of Spenser’s poem to draw everything else that one is reading and thinking about into its orbit, to make seemingly bizarre comparisons between it and unrelated works feel worth making.[5]  It was above all the basic feature shared by Proust and Spenser that Hunter accentuates – their bigness, their sheer length – that made reading them in conjunction feel inescapable.  For the bigness of these works is, in and of itself, an implicit demand for a certain quotient of the reader’s attentive time.  Both works are in different ways about time – they both thematise it with varying degrees of obsession – but their status as biggies necessarily connects the experiences of time that they describe with the huge amount of time that they solicit.  And for this reason both works offer opportunities to reflect upon the experience of reading through time, of subjecting oneself to their bigness, in ways that (for me) are very different from the grim endurance that Hunter describes, though they by no means involve uninterrupted joy or pleasure.


In what follows I offer some ways of thinking about what emerges through the conjunction of these two biggies, Spenser and Proust.  Of course, the very feature that forms the simple basis of the comparison – the vastness of their major works – makes it impossible to be anything akin to comprehensive in the way that I conceive of this conjunction, never mind in what I say about either writer. I offer these as intermittent thoughts, however, not only in response of this impossibility, but because, as I will go on to suggest, the category of intermittence is one on which Proust himself places a crucial emphasis, and that can be used to forge a revealing conjunction between the two writers.  Intermittence, I will go on to argue, offers a way of thinking not just about the experiences that these writers describe and inhabit, but about the kinds of relationship with their reader to which the novel and the poem aspire.  It is via this version of intermittent reading, I argue, that Proust and Spenser, the two biggies, can be most generatively aligned.




I must, however, begin with an obvious question: did Proust read Spenser?  If features of À La Recherche resonate with The Faerie Queene, could this be a matter of influence?  The relevant pages from David Hill Radcliffe’s reception history show that Spenser was of interest to French readers and critics, before and during Proust’s lifetime, and his works featured prominently in the overviews of English literature written by Hippolyte Taine and Jean Jules Jusserand.[6]  Though Radcliffe does not delve into this context, Jusserand, who also wrote important stand-alone articles on the Aristotelian virtues in The Faerie Queene, is a particularly intriguing figure in this connection.  He wrote his most important article on Spenser – which even his biographer deems ‘simply too esoteric to delay us for long’ – in 1904, soon after arriving in the United States as French ambassador.  He would spend the next two decades there – having to fend off the ambitious schemes of the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose views on time so influenced Proust and who fancied the role for himself – and Jusserand ultimately played an important role in the USA’s entry into the First World War.[7]  À La Recherche is full of oily diplomats, notably the shimmeringly unpleasant Marquis de Norpois, who supports a political alliance with England, and crushes the young Marcel’s literary ambitions with his contempt for the younger man’s favourite writer, Bergotte.  I know of no direct connections between Proust and Jusserand, but the fact that an ambassadorial figure who would have blended seamlessly into a Proustian garden party read Spenser with such care makes it feel plausible that Proust could have too. 


Against this possibility must be set Proust’s own unambiguous statements on his limited grasp of the English language.  He straightforwardly told his correspondents that ‘Je lis l’anglais difficilement’ [‘I read English with difficulty’] and ‘je ne sais plus un mot d’anglais’ [‘I no longer know a word of English’].  As Daniel Karlin has shown, however, the evidence is more complicated than it seems.  Proust’s linguistic world was shot through with snippets and echoes of English, and À La Recherche was written in, and responds to, a moment of collective anxiety about the supposed bastardisation of the French language, an anxiety tied to broader strains of nationalistic and xenophobic feeling.[8]  My guess would be that, like many a modern academic muddling by in a foreign language, Proust read English considerably better than he spoke it – ‘I learned English while I had asthma [j’ai appris l’anglais quand j’avais de l’asthme]’, he explained to another correspondent, ‘I learned it by sight and can neither pronounce words, nor recognise them when pronounced  [je l’ai appris des yeux et ne sais ni prononcer les mots, ni les reconnaître quand on les prononce]’.  But on the other hand, as Karlin points out, Proust ‘seems never to have read literary works in t­he original – he quotes from, or alludes to, many English writers, from Shakespeare to Kipling, but almost always in French.’[9]  It is difficult to imagine him sight-reading his way through The Faerie Queene; any resemblances between his and Spenser’s works must, this suggests, surely be a matter of mere happenstance.


Still, however, the matter is not entirely clear-cut.   The complex exception to Proust’s patchy knowledge of English is his relationship with the writings of Ruskin, whom he revered, and of whose work he published translations, as well as devoting essays to Ruskin’s work in which he first worked out his deepest commitments as an imaginative reader.  The exact manner in which these translations were undertaken, and what this implies about Proust’s competence in English, remain matters of dispute.  It seems likely that Proust’s mother produced a ‘literal’ translation into French upon which Proust then worked his literary magic, in a manner that has become commonplace for ‘literary’ translations such as Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf or Geoffrey Hill’s version of Ibsen’s Brand.[10] 


Whatever precise form this process took, what is certain is that it brought Proust into contact with the full range of Ruskin’s reading, which included many moments of detailed engagement with Spenser’s work.  In his rendition of Sesame and Lilies, for example, Proust encountered Ruskin’s list of virtuous women, in which the latter observed: ‘I would take Spenser, and show you how all his fairy knights are sometimes deceived and sometimes vanquished; but the soul of Una is never darkened, and the spear of Britomart is never broken.’[11]  Proust added an explanatory note to his translation: ‘Allusions à la Fairy Queen de Spencer (1589-1596).  Le chevalier de la Croix-Rouge, notamment, est d’abord par les enchantements d’Archimagus séparé d’Una.’[12]  If the note suggests knowledge of the poem’s plot beyond that provided by Ruskin, then the series of tiny errors – in the spelling of the poem’s and the poet’s names, in the year of initial publication – suggests passing rather than intimate familiarity, knowledge culled and imperfectly reproduced from elsewhere rather than gained first-hand, but knowledge of the text nonetheless. 


An even more intriguing instance of contact with Spenser by proxy appears in Proust’s rendition of Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens, largely an account of the intricate latticework of biblical figures on the West Porch of the French cathedral.  There Proust adds a footnote linking the allegorical depiction of discord in the form of ‘Un mari et une femme se querellant’ to Ruskin’s discussion in Stones of Venice of the image of discord ‘du Palais des Doges … avec le citation de Spenser’.[13]  In the passage to which Proust here refers, Ruskin quotes an entire stanza from The Faerie Queene – the description of Ate, ‘mother of debate,’ from Book IV – and focuses briefly, before continuing his description of the Doge’s palace, on a particular verb from the stanza’s end: ‘so was her hart discided/That never thoght one thing, but doubly still was guided’.  ‘Note the fine old meaning of “discided,” cut in two,’ Ruskin observes; ‘it is a great pity that we have lost this powerful expression.’[14]  Proust, then, cited and had encountered at least one moment of acute Spenserian close reading on Ruskin’s part, and one that captured one of Proust’s own most abiding concerns: the ways in which the human heart can become involuted, contorted by and around its desires, endlessly discided.


While it is unlikely, then, that Proust ever sat down for long with a copy of The Faerie Queene, one reason for nonetheless exploring his connections with Spenser might be that it provides a sense of the supple, complicated, surreptitious manner by which literary influence can operate – a model more varied and rhizomatic than the Bloomian vision of great writers aware of who their predecessors are and what it means to respond to them.  But the connection takes on a more specifically suggestive form in relation to the excellent trio of recent essays that have shown just how complicated, vexed and generative was Ruskin’s own relationship with Spenser’s work and what he took the poet’s works to stand for.[15]  As Katherine Eggert’s essay in particular shows, Ruskin uses Spenser both to see and not to see, to reveal and to occlude, to know and not to know – especially when it comes to women and their bodies.[16]  This makes the above citations of Spenser by Ruskin that Proust encountered, and which focus on idealised and wickedly divisive Spenserian women, all the more tantalising.  It raises the intriguing possibility that Proust’s own obsessions with revelation and concealment, with flashes of knowledge and its perennial evasion – not least when it comes to women and their bodies – might owe something to a reading of Ruskin that was more Spenserian in its energies than Proust himself might have known.  It also suggests a model for thinking of artistic influence as a concentric series of veiled and embedded rather than dyadic relationships: Ruskin reading Venice through the veil of Spenser; Proust, perhaps, reading Spenser obliquely through the veil of Ruskin.  And so, for me, the question of whether Proust read Spenser proves difficult to answer straightforwardly: it depends upon, and has the potential to expand, what we mean by ‘read’.




 My desire to read these two biggies together does not rely upon any direct connection between them, even though I find these tantalising possibilities worth exploring for what they suggest about how we understand literary or artistic connectedness.  But I now want to shift my focus and ask more broadly, once we accept the potential value of putting Spenser and Proust side by side, what this might reveal about their respective literary modes, and what it is like to read them.  Here again I take solace from the fact that Robert Hunter is not the only person to have connected the two: a way forward is suggested by a more respectably literary figure, though still not one whom we readily associate with Spenser.  In his seminal essay on Proust, Samuel Beckett remarks as follows:


Proust does not deal in concepts, he pursues the Idea, the concrete. He admires the frescoes of the Paduan Arena because their symbolism is handled as a reality, special, literal and concrete, and is not merely the pictorial transmission of a notion. Dante, if he can ever be said to have failed, fails with his purely allegorical figures, Lucifer, the Griffin of the Purgatory and the Eagle of the Paradise, whose significance is purely conventional and extrinsic. Here allegory fails as it must always fail in the hands of a poet. Spenser’s allegory collapses after a few cantos.[17]


Before I say anything about this particular insight, let me remark briefly on the peculiar aptness of finding Beckett, of all people, making this connection.  I began thinking about Spenser and Proust as a way into the question of Spenser’s connections with European writers, and it feels fitting that it is Beckett discussing the pair as part of what seems to be, for him, a pan-European phenomenon of necessarily failing allegory.  The editors of The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett note that Beckett attended lectures on Spenser by his literary mentor, Thomas Rudmose-Brown, at Trinity College Dublin, ‘retaining for the poet a respect the more surprising given what Spenser stood for’.  They observe that Beckett experimented with ‘obscene Spenserian stanzas’ in 1932, which sadly seem not to have survived, and point out a handful of intriguing Spenserian allusions in his work, including splicing him with Langland in ‘Text 2’: ‘Piers pricking his oxen o’er the plain.’[18]  Presumably by ‘what Spenser stood for’ they mean the viciousness of English imperialism in Ireland, and Beckett takes his place among the Irish writers described by Jane Grogan as ‘Spenser’s Lost Children,’ grappling with what can be made of Spenser’s poetic legacy in light of his historical position and implicatedness.[19]  One way of understanding Beckett’s passing mention of Spenser in his essay on Proust is as a way of, if not quite rehabilitating Spenser in passing, then at least making it easier to admire him by implicitly positioning him as a European rather than a narrowly English writer – a writer to be thought of alongside Dante and Proust rather than Lord Grey.  This is a sobering reminder that transnational and cosmopolitan discourse, in its construction of a European tradition, can be a way of evading the violence of nationalism rather than forging an alternative to it.[20]  But it can also be read as Beckett drawing Spenser knowingly into the kind of space between languages and nations that he himself sought transformatively to occupy in his literary practice.  Karlin, as I mentioned above, positioned Proust’s use of French in a context of cross-linguistic self-consciousness, comparing his stance with that of Stéphane Mallarmé, whose remarkable work Les Mots Anglais admired English precisely for its rampant borrowing of words from elsewhere, and its greatest writers – he names Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and Byron, but sadly not Spenser – for having refused ‘through misplaced patriotism [par un patriotisme mal entendu] to separate the “barbaric” element in their language from the classical.’[21]  Perhaps, on this basis, Spenser belongs with Dante and Proust not just for his allegorical technique (of which I will have more to say in due course) but on the basis of what David Scott Wilson-Okamura has shown to be his ‘international style,’ infused with the energies of more than one language at any given moment.[22]  Read in this way, Beckett’s grouping of the three creates a trio of writers who sought to beautify their mother tongues by rendering porous the boundaries that separate them from other languages – or questioning whether these boundaries obtain at all.  It is worth recalling here that one of the most prominent citations of Ben Jonson’s famous judgment on Spenser – that he ‘writ no language,’ a description typically taken to apply to his excessive archaisms, his commitment to a certain retrogressive version of Englishness – is Samuel Johnson’s in his life of Milton, who, he claims, ‘was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom,’ and Johnson concludes:


Of him, at last, may be said what Jonson says of Spenser, that he wrote no language, but has formed what Butler called a Babylonish Dialect, in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius, and extensive learning, the vehicle of so much instruction and so much pleasure, that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity.[23]


One effect of Beckett’s passing comparison of Proust and Spenser, then, even before we begin pondering its specifics, might be to fleetingly create a community of great European writers, albeit one troublingly idealised in its cohesive tendency towards incoherence and failure, characterised by their creation of Babylonish Dialects into which they transformed the languages in which they wrote.  Beckett, who would transform English and French in the process of moving between them, puts these constitutively failing biggies together as part of his own style of being between languages, and of courting aesthetic failure at every turn.




Having said something about what Beckett’s grouping of Proust and Spenser might mean in terms of the creation of a European tradition, I want to dwell for the remainder of these remarks on what he says about the nature of this connection.  For Beckett, what connects the two biggies with one another (and with Dante) is a tension between the ideal and the concrete which means that they necessarily fail in the creation of purely allegorical fictions, but in such a way that the energy produced by this tension, generated by this constitutive failure, is what animates and propels their literary creations.  Beckett’s mention of Spenser may be brief, but it accentuates the feature that has been at the centre of many of the most compelling readings of Spenserian allegory over the past several decades – the complex interplay between abstraction and particularity, between ideality and narrative figuration.  What is intriguing is Beckett’s claim that ‘Spenser’s allegory collapses after a few cantos’.  Which precise moment or moments does he have in mind?  Beckett, the great artist of the human creature poised perpetually on the brink of failure and collapse, seems to have been able to hold Spenser’s failure at bay for at least a few cantos’ worth of reading.  I wonder whether readers of the poem might be differentiated according to whether and when they begin to experience this failure, and whether they find it frustrating or thrilling.  I am among those readers who would locate the incipient collapse of the allegory even earlier – certainly it is underway by the time we meet Errour, whose inconsequential defeat seems to confirm the limitations of personification allegory itself as a form of containment and comprehension.  But I am tempted to locate its origins earlier still, perhaps even in the poem’s opening stanzas, which both demand and refuse to be read as a static tableau.  Relevant in this connection is the only other attempt that I have encountered, aside from Hunter’s and Beckett’s, to align Spenser and Proust.  In his classic work on allegorical signification, Angus Fletcher writes that, when reading The Faerie Queene,


On our first encounter the figures are miniature, like the knights Proust imagined on his bed, jousting in the playful light of a magic lantern.  But as we read our way into Spenser, his figures grow large with another size, of dull reverberations, by alluding to other cultures, other religions, other philosophies than our own.[24]


Fletcher is referring to the wonderful passage near the outset of À La Recherche in which the narrator evokes the pain and the reverie of his childhood bedroom, which became ‘the fixed and painful focus of my preoccupations [‘le point fixe et douloureux de mes preoccupations’].  His parents affixed a magic lantern to the top of his lamp ‘to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy,’ and which


replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multicolour apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window … Moving at the jerky pace of his horse, and filled with a hideous design, Golo would come out of the small triangular forest that velveted the hillside with dark green and advance jolting toward the castle of poor Geneviève de Brabant … And nothing could stop his slow stride.  If the lantern was moved, I could make out Golo’s horse continuing to advance over the window curtains, swelling out with their folds, descending into their fissures.  The body of Golo itself, in its essence as supernatural as that of his steed, accommodated every material obstacle, every hindersome object that he encountered by taking it as his skeleton and absorbing it into himself [Le corps de Golo lui-même d’une essence aussi surnaturelle que celui de sa monture, s’arrangeait de tout obstacle matériel, de tout objet gênant qu’il rencontrait en la prenan comme ossature et en se le rendant intérieur], even the doorknob he immediately adapted to and floated invincibly over with his red robe or his pale face as noble and as melancholy as ever, but revealing no disturbance at this transvertebration [cette transvertébration].[25]


This astonishing passage has long been recognised as, in the words of one critic, ‘one of the keys, an open sesame, that admits the readers to the programmatic and esoteric structures of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.’[26]  The story projected by the lantern is not, of course, Spenserian: the tale of Golo, wicked steward to Geneviève de Brabant, who tried to seduce her and falsely accused her of adultery when she rejected him, was a widely retold medieval tale, which had been reworked by Debussy in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which Proust knew well.  It serves, however, as confirmation of Proust’s interest in the narratives of medieval romance, and foregrounds them at the outset as a point of reference for his own prolonged and interlaced narrative practice.[27]  One aspect of his work’s status as a biggie is his self-conscious relationship with the long works that preceded him, the ways in which they constructed the narratives that they contained, and the ways in which these narratives were connected and related.  Proust positions himself in the wake of the varied forms of internally complex bigness represented by the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, by the proliferating tales of the Thousand and One Nights to which he repeatedly alludes, but also by the kinds of interlaced romance narrative projected by his lantern, the kinds that Spenser too would appropriate and reinvent.[28] 


What I want to further emphasise, however, and what takes us back to the terms of Beckett’s comparison, is the way in which Proust’s magic lantern resurrects these medieval tales in a shimmering, unstably material form.  These beings of light are protean in their insubstantiality, but at the same time seem to take on the materiality of whatever they pass over.  Their literal lightness is not opposed to material heft; it is the condition of their becoming material, but in a fluctuating, changeable way.  In this sense, inspired though Fletcher’s juxtaposition certainly is, I do not think it does justice to Proust’s passage or its resonance with Spenser’s techniques at the outset of his poem.  Fletcher suggests a purely playful miniaturism in Proust, and at the beginning of The Faerie Queene, which in Spenser’s case becomes heavy and bulky as the figures grow in size and assume a cumbersome burden of cultural baggage in the form of the meanings that they accrue.  This is a version of Beckett’s account, in which the poem begins to fail soon after it begins.  But Proust’s own figures, I’ve suggested, are already flirting with materiality in an unstable and shifting way as soon as they appear, putting it on and casting it aside – and this is very like the material fluctuations of Spenser’s figures.  This feature makes them less delightful to the narrator than Fletcher suggests: while ‘I found some charm in these brilliant projections’, Marcel observes, ‘which seemed to emanate from a Merovingian past and send out around me such ancient reflections of history’, he also insists that ‘I cannot express the uneasiness caused in me by this intrusion of mystery and beauty [cette intrusion du mystère et de la beauté] … my sadness was only increased by this since the mere change in lighting destroyed the familiarity which my bedroom had acquired for me’, especially since the door handle which he knew so well that its handling had become an entirely unconscious matter ‘was now serving as an astral body [de corps astral] for Golo’.[29]  The material fluctuations and estrangements occasioned by the lantern are not purely playful but intensely unsettling, and it is in this sense that the scene inaugurates the tension between the allegorically ideal and the materially particular that Beckett will rightly identify in Spenser.  Figures throughout the novel will flicker for the narrator in the manner of Golo, thrillingly and maddeningly, taking on new features from the worlds through and over which they pass, and he will never lose sight of the constant tendency of individuals to approach the condition of rarefied allegorical abstractions, while failing ever to coincide fully with them.  Many hundreds of pages later, at the Princesse de Guermantes’s soirée that begins the novel’s fourth instalment, Sodome et Gomorrhe, we meet the two sons of Mme de Surgis, the Duc de Guermantes’s new mistress:


They were resplendent with their mother’s perfections, but each with a different perfection.  Into one there had passed, sinuous now in a male body, Mme de Surgis’s regal bearing … but his brother had received the Greek brow, the perfect nose, the statuesque neck, the boundless gaze; formed thus from the diverse gifts allotted by the goddess, their twofold beauty offered the abstract pleasure of reflecting that the cause of this beauty lay outside them; it was as if their mother’s principal attributes had been incarnated in two different bodies [incarnés en deux corps différents] … on seeing us [the older one] turned his head slightly away.  The younger one, who always imitated his brother because, being stupid and short-sighted into the bargain, he did not dare have an opinion of his own, inclined his head at the same angle, and the two of them glided towards the card room, one behind the other, like two allegorical figures [pareils à deux figures allégoriques].[30]


The allegorical lingers in Proust’s novel, as it did in Spenser’s poem, as an abstracting and self-abstracting tendency towards which its figures might at different moments tend, but one that is at odds with, and in perpetual and intimately unstable relation with, the absurdities of the characters and the bodies from which such abstraction is in flight.




While Fletcher, as I have suggested, was acute in linking Spenser’s techniques to Proust’s magic lantern, I therefore read the connection rather differently: as a way of thinking about the way in which, in both of their works, figures fluctuate in the manner of Golo between evanescence and skeletal hardness, floating phantoms of abstract meaning and fleshly, recalcitrantly irreducible individuals.  I now want to turn for the remainder of these thoughts to how this fluctuation manifests itself in the experience of reading À La Recherche and The Faerie Queene, and how this might offer a new basis on which to juxtapose these two biggies.  There is a characteristic that these works share, I would argue, and that is inseparable from their sheer bulk and length.  This is the way in which, to use a term that has been richly exfoliated by Gordon Teskey, our readerly experience of intense moments of meaningfulness and interpretative pleasure is bound up with our inescapable sense of such moments as strikingly, delightfully, and intimidatingly minute and local in comparison to the entirety of the work in which they are contained.[31]  My own work on Spenser has led me to focus repeatedly on entities within The Faerie Queene that seem suddenly to take on a vivacity, a vulnerability or a complexity of their own that punctuates and complicates the poem’s larger signifying ambitions.  Some of these beings appear only fleetingly or obliquely, others are more sustainedly integral to the narrative but reveal unexpected qualities or propensities, and they encompass humans, fairies, mythical creatures, everyday animals, and objects: the fish that pull the chariot of Marinell’s mother, Cymoent, and who cannot approach the shore ‘Least they their finnes should bruze’ (III.iv.34.5), granting their piscine bodies a sudden and intimate tenderness; Archimago, whose disguising of himself as Red Crosse to deceive Una also seems to allow him to indulge his fantasy of knightly prowess and thereby grant him a complex interiority; the dragon whom Red Crosse must defeat, but that seems unexpectedly and vivaciously delighted by his arrival, making us wonder about its inner life and pastimes; the gifts given by Britomart to the priests of Isis, whose sudden emergence makes us wonder where the stuff of the poem springs from.[32]  What these examples cumulatively exemplify is my sense of the poem’s creation of a field of constant potential for meaningfulness – constant, but never stable or predictable.  Meaning is something that emerges both expectedly and unexpectedly, and the poem provides the satisfactions of both predictability and surprise: an experience of inexhaustibility, since novelty is prone to spring forth at any moment, and at different moments in any given reading


A less direct way of making the connection between these two authors would be to observe that, as I began to read some of the most interesting writers who had discussed Proust, I found them describing effects in his work that closely resembled those that I am always trying to identify and understand in Spenser’s.  Theodor W. Adorno, for example, begins his discussion of Proust’s ‘bewilderingly rich and intricate creation’ by insisting that ‘In Proust … the relationship of the whole to the detail is not that of an overall architectonic plan to the specifics that fill it in: it is against precisely that, against the brutal untruth of a subsuming form forced on from above, that Proust revolted.’  Bigness, Adorno insists, should not be mistaken for overbearing singularity of purpose: in fact it might be precisely because singularity of purpose is impossible to sustain across such length that the rich intricacies of detail can elude or break off from the whole and take on a force and autonomy of their own.  ‘Great musicians of Proust’s era,’ Adorno continues, ‘knew that living totality is achieved only through rank vegetal proliferation.’[33]  On the level of the specific moment, the meanings of Proust’s novel – as, I would suggest, of The Faerie Queene – have something of this sense of as vegetal proliferation, prone to send out unanticipated shoots and tendrils.  Adorno’s Gerank, ‘rank,’ also suggests a version of these texts as huge, mulchy compost piles, that can seem lumpen or ungainly but that glow with an internally generated heat that promises the ceaseless creation and recreation of new life.  In a distinct but related way, Malcolm Bowie has insisted that Proust’s sheer bigness should not distract from the extent to which his is also an ‘art of brevity,’ generating its meanings through the glimmering interactions of its smallest as well as its largest parts.  ‘Throughout Proust’s novel,’ he writes, ‘parts have the power to come unstuck from wholes and to acquire, by way of their unwonted semantic intensity, unofficial wholeness of their own.’[34]  This kind of ‘unwonted … intensity’ is, I would argue, precisely what the miscellaneous beings who make up the world of The Faerie Queene manage to display, as they come unstuck from the huge whole that is the poem.  


The description that I have found most resonant for making sense of these shared features, however, is that offered by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her posthumously published essays on Proust, in which she made the striking decision to approach À La Recherche not via any of its human figures, by via the novel’s weatherscape, the atmosphere in which these figures interact.  The value for Sedgwick of shifting focus to these matters of atmospherics and ambience is that it brings into focus the extent to which, starting with the floating apparitions of Golo and Geneviève de Brabant, its human figures in no way exhaust the potential forms of being that the novel contains.  Rather they exist within ‘a Proustian atmosphere in which every act and landscape brims with a proliferation of genii, demigods, Norns, and other such ontologically exceptional beings’. This ‘vast and varied divinity-field,’ Sedgwick continues, ‘the unsystematized proliferation of ontologically intermediate beings loosely attached – at once inside and outside – to places, persons, families, substances, ideas, music, building, machines, emotions, and natural elements … characterizes the vital atmosphere of Proust reading more than its landmark moments.’[35]  Sedgwick acknowledges that this sense of numinous saturation has many sources – including the genii and other supernatural beings from the Thousand and One Nights – but, most interestingly for the comparison with Spenser, she connects it most importantly with the novel’s Neoplatonism: ‘it seems to have a basically Plotinean orientation’.  Ultimately, however, this possibility of intellectual sources shared by Spenser and Proust is less significant for my interest in bringing them together than the effects that Sedgwick derives from this divinity-scape: it produces ‘not an access to any superpowers, but an elastic, pervasive, very cathectible network of versions of nonomnipotent power.’[36]  Elastic, pervasive – and therefore necessarily unpredictable.  It is because of this ‘view of the entire universe … as instinct with value and vitality’ that, ‘[f]or Proust, the ultimate guarantee of the vitality of art is its ability to surprise – that is, to manifest an agency distinct from either its creator or its consumer’.[37]   I have little to say about these wonderful descriptions other than that, when reading them, I found Sedgwick saying about Proust precisely what I had been trying to articulate about Spenser since I first began reading him: the sense of proliferating, unstable forms of being coexisting within the same space, moving in and out of focus, lingering and disappearing according to laws of their own, surprising me in ways that seemed reducible neither to Spenser’s intentions nor to my own readerly proclivities.  And indeed, Sedgwick does fleetingly mention Spenser when seeking ‘to sketch the dimensions of a complex divinity-scape’ such as she finds in Proust: ‘to be a god,’ she writes, ‘means a different thing for Lares than for Furies, rather as being a fictional character is a different thing in Spenser from what it is in Charlotte Brontë: that is, the difference in ontology between them isn’t that one is more or less real than the other’.[38]  I would add to these fine words only that ‘being a fictional character’ is not one but many different things in Spenser; there is as large a range and disparity of ways of being among his poetic figures as there is between him and Emily Brontë – as large and unstable a range of modes of fictional being, perhaps, as there is in Proust.  It is partly their teeming, surprisingly populated divinity-fields that brings the two biggies meaningfully together.




It is the manner in which we navigate and experience this field, saturated with surprising forms of being and meaning, to which I now wish to turn.  In order to do so I want to start with a famous passage from Sodome et Gomorrhe which describes the narrator’s sudden and overwhelming experience of grief for his grandmother, his true apprehension of the fact of her death, which takes place a year after the event.  ‘A convulsion of my entire being [Bouleversement de toute ma personne]’, the relevant section begins.  The narrator has bent over to unbutton and remove his boots when he suddenly ‘glimpsed, in my memory … the tender, concerned, disappointed face of my grandmother … the living reality of whom … I had just rediscovered in a complete and involuntary memory [je retrouvais dans un souvenir involontaire et complet la realité vivante] … it was only at this instant – more than a year after her funeral, on account of the anachronism which so often prevents the calendar of facts from coinciding with that of our feelings – that I had just learned she was dead.’[39]  Reflecting upon the experience, he states:


For to the disturbances of memory are linked the intermittences of the heart [aux troubles de la mémoire sont liées les intermittences du coeur].  It is no doubt the existence of our body, similar for us to a vase in which our spirituality is enclosed, which induces us to suppose that all our inner goods, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession.  Perhaps this is as inaccurate as to believe that they escape or return.  At all events, if they do remain inside us, it is for most of the time in an unknown domain where they are of no service to us [un domaine inconnu où ells ne sont de nul service pour nous], and where even the most ordinary of them are repressed by memories of a different order, which exclude all simultaneity with them in our consciousness.  But if the framework of sensations in which they are preserved be recaptured, they have in their turn the same capacity to expel all that is incompatible with them, to instal in us, on its own, the self that experienced them [d’installer seul en nous, le moi qui les vécut].[40]


The key phrase here – les intermittences du coeur, the intermittences of the heart – is the title of the section from which this quotation is taken, but, as is well known, it was Proust’s favoured original choice for the title of the entire novel.  In a letter of 1912 to Mme Straus, explaining the planned titles for the individual volumes, he claimed: ‘And above all these titles I shall inscribe the overall title which in the psychological sphere refers to a physical ailment: Les Intermittences du cœur.’[41]  If this confirms the importance of this passage to the novel as a whole, and if it has been much praised and discussed – Beckett called it ‘perhaps the greatest passage that Proust ever wrote’ – I was nonetheless caught off guard by it in my reading of À La Recherche, and struck by the difference that it would make if this moment, rather than the madeleine crumbled into tea in Du Côté de Chez Swann, had become the most renowned scene of Proustian memoire involuntaire.[42]  The upswell of memories occasioned by the madeleine – equivocally in the novel, and emphatically in the way that it has subsequently been absorbed into the wider cultural imagination – involves a sudden and total flooding of the present by the past, a merging of them into an overdetermined experiential space.  What the narrator undergoes in this later moment of deferred mourning for his grandmother, however, is much more unstable and elusive.  According to this account we neither possess past experiences nor lose them; to believe either in their (or our) total escape or in the possibility of their total return is misguided.  A given configuration of sensation – which can only be suffered unexpectedly, not striven for – can allow for a return of a past self, but one that is neither absorbed into the present self nor superimposed onto it.  Instead the self in such moments exists within and seesaws unstably between more than one time: it is this seesawing to which the word intermittence refers. Rather than the past being recaptured within the present, this is a single moment that disorders past and present and the relation between them.


There is a great deal to be said about the term intermittence and its resonances for Proust.  He himself, as we saw above, linked it to ‘a physical ailment’, and intermittence referred in a variety of nineteenth century medical writers to the features of animal life (‘vie animale’) that were subject to interruption ‘as a result of tiredness, distraction, sleep, or illness’, a link further suggested by Proust’s connection in the passage from Sodome et Gomorrhe between intermittence and ‘the existence of our body’.[43]  Walter Benjamin made a bold link between the particularities of Proust’s own bodily experience – his infirmities, especially his chronic asthma – and the intermittencies of his novel.  Quoting a letter in which Proust complained that ‘The wheezing of my breath is drowning out the sounds of my pen’, Benjamin wrote: ‘This asthma became part of his art – if indeed his art did not create it.  Proust’s syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffocating.’[44]  Even if we do not want to make the link quite this literally, bringing to the fore intermittence in all of its senses has the benefit of accentuating not the imposing massiveness of À La Recherche but the various ways in which this massiveness is shaped, interrupted, and variegated in the experience of reading it.  As Ingrid Wassenaar keenly observes,


Intermittence, astonishingly, emphasizes mental disconnection, sporadic blanks in a morse code, rather than being a representation of Time as agent of its own smoothly joined-up looping and spiralling effects on human activity.  Intermittence is as much a theory of blank spaces on a page, as it is of mental systems.  It is about mistimed interventions into the narration of suffering, and the deficient gobbets and gaps of speech by which suffering signifies in language.[45]


This was another of those passages from criticism on Proust that, when I read it, seemed instantly to resonate with and simultaneously to be describing The Faerie Queene.  Intermittence, I should acknowledge, is not a word that Spenser used: the verb ‘intermit,’ meaning ‘to leave off, give over, discontinue (an action, practice, etc.) for a time; to suspend,’ was in use in English by the mid-sixteenth century, but does not appear in Spenser’s poems, and the nominal form ‘intermittence’ is not attested by the OED until 1796.  Nonetheless, Wassenaar’s sense of Proustian time as simultaneously ‘looping and spiralling’ in smooth and continuous ways, and as featuring gaps, eruptions, interruptions, and blanks, captures a doubleness that is equally true of Spenser’s poem, even if this word does not feature.  I thought as I read Wassenaar’s description of Theresa Krier’s rich account of the blanks and voids that routinely punctuate our reading of The Faerie Queene on the basis of the white space that separates its stanzas and cantos; the way in which these pauses provide, in Krier’s wonderfully chosen term, miniature sojourns for the reader’s experience that are echoed by the ambiguous opportunities for rest and respite that the poem depicts.[46]


While there are many ways in which one might use these larger-scale ways of thinking about time, its flows and its blanks, to understand these two biggies, they also bring to my mind a less sophisticated and more obvious feature that these texts have in common.  Benjamin writes in passing of ‘the intermittence of author and plot’ in the reading of Proust, and, since it is debatable whether the word ‘plot’ is even the right one for this novel, I prefer to speak in relation to both works of intermittence of character.  I mean this in two ways.  First, and most obviously, characters in both À La Recherche and The Faerie Queeene come and go, drift into the narrative and out of it, in the manner exemplified by the quasi-allegorical Surgis brothers.  We often do not know when a figure arrives whether he or she will appear only fleetingly and inconsequentially, or whether we are meeting someone around whom parts of the narrative will go on to pivot.  But, by virtue of this basic kind of coming and going, character becomes intermittent in a second sense: what we understand by a character, by a fictional individual, is also changeable and intermittent in our reading of both works, fluctuating and altering as figures appear and reappear and behave in ways that expand or transform what we thought we were coming to understand about and through them. 


Once we understand its effects in this way, intermittence offers us a different way of approaching the sheer size of the two biggies, and of understanding something of the curiously powerful effects that both works are capable of creating for their readers.  Bigness is a necessary precondition for powerful and proliferating forms of intermittence; put simply, these works need to be large enough for huge numbers of figures to disappear and reappear across massive arcs of text.  And, both Spenser and Proust show us as we read, there is a haunting and paradoxical power to intermittent figures of this sort as they criss-cross the continuous field of consciousness inhabited by these works’ narrators, and spring forth periodically for the reader from the divinity-field of teeming potentiality that both works create and contain.  The two biggies thereby offer the surprises both of perpetual novelty, and of unexpected return and recapitulation. 




There are many figures who appear, disappear and reappear across the sweep of Proust’s novel, but I would like to focus briefly on the two whose intermittence I find most charged and revealing: Robert, Marquis de Saint-Loup-en-Brays, and his uncle, Baron Palamède de Charlus.  Both are introduced within a couple of dozen pages of one another in the portion of the novel’s second volume, À L’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs, set in the fictional seaside town of Balbec, and both crystallise in distinct but connected ways the propensity of Proust’s figures to shimmer with alternative and mutually incompatible possibilities.  It is also no accident that the pair are the two homosexual characters who are realised with the greatest detail and complexity, with the nature of their sexuality, the manner in which it is revealed and anatomised, inseparable from their intermittent flickering in and out of narrative focus. And, I would suggest, revealing Spenserian analogues can be suggested for both of these figures that reveal something about the workings of these huge texts.


The manner of their first appearances, while close together in Proust’s narrative, are very different.  Saint-Loup’s is conspicuously magnificent:


One very hot afternoon, from inside the dining room, which was in half-darkness, sheltering from the sun behind drawn curtains, which were a yellow glow edged by the blue dazzle of the sea, I saw, traversing the hotel’s central bay, which extended from the beach to the road, a tall, slim young man with piercing eyes, a proud head held high on a fine uncovered neck, and with hair so golden and skin so fair that they seemed to have soaked up the bright sunshine of the day [je vis, grand, mince, le cou dégagé, la tête haute et fièrement portée, passer un jeune homme aux yeux pénétrants et dont la peau était aussi blonde et les cheveux aussi dorés que s’ils avaient absorbé tous les rayons du soleil].  In a loose off-white garment, the like of which I would never have believed a man would dare to wear, and which in its lightness was as suggestive of the heat and brilliance of outdoors as was the cool dimness of the dining room, he was advancing at a quick march.  His eyes, from which a monocle kept dropping, were the colour of the sea.  We all sat there intrigued, watching him as he passed, knowing that we beheld the young Marquis de Saint-Loup-en-Bray, famous in the fashionable world.[47] 


Saint-Loup arrives in the novel as a billowing spectacle, shimmering in a way that makes him seem to emerge from its ambient divinity-field, or as if he has danced free from the light of his own magic lantern.  The narrator links this quasi-epiphanic experience to the prolific but unstable generativity of his adolescent mind as he underwent it, ‘which for all its alleged awkwardness, is prodigiously rich’: ‘One lives among monsters and gods, a stranger to peace of mind.’[48]  Saint-Loup arrives as, and will remain, an enigma, even as he becomes the narrator’s close friend, and will become one of the novel’s many lessons in the innumerable and only incrementally legible facets that an individual might possess: ‘In fact, before very long, all the charming manners and agreeableness of Saint-Loup were indeed to reveal another person in him, but a very different one from the person I now suspected him of being.’[49] 


It is tempting to say that, if Saint-Loup is one of the novel’s gods, then Charlus is pre-eminent among its monsters – though this would be a wild simplification.  He certainly proves himself to be capable of cruelty, viciousness, capriciousness of all sorts, but this is inseparable from the extraordinary and compelling force that he brings into the narrative whenever he appears.  Whereas Saint-Loup appears as spectacle, becomes knowable to the narrator in certain respects as their friendship develops, and then reveals new depths of mystery when the difference to which the narrator alludes – his homosexuality – is eventually revealed, Charlus, whose first appearance is far less spectacular, is the embodiment of the enigmatic from the first moment in which he features.  Each time he vanished and returns, there is the feeling that he is less an intermittent character than a black hole across whose event horizon the narrator has risked drifting, as the pull that he exerts fascinatingly warps and reshapes all who come close.[50]  He does stand out from the start, though not so spectacularly: ‘there were things in M. de Charlus, such as intelligence and sensibility, which one sensed were of acute potency [qu’on devinait extrêmement vives chez M. de Charlus], distinguishing him from the many society people.’[51]  This ‘acute potency’ means that none of his utterances or self-descriptions seem to allow the narrator even a provisional hold on his nature: ‘In the face of M. de Charlus’s refusal to explain himself, I was reduced to conjecture, though I knew that none of the possible explanations which came to mind might be the right one.’[52]  The encounter with both men marks a decisive stage in the ongoing and endless encounter with individuals, compelling and maddening because their parts refuse to coagulate into a legible whole, that will occupy so much of the narrative: ‘On seeing into the real life of another person, learning the truth of an existence that is overlaid by an appearance of truth [quand on découvre la vraie vie des autres, l’univers réel sous l’univers apparent], we can expect as many surprises as though we were exploring a house of ordinary demeanour that turns out to be full of ill-gotten gains, cat burglar’s jimmies, and corpses [rempli de trésors, des pinces-monseigneur et de cadavres]; and the opposite surprise can result if, instead of the image of ourselves we have formed from the things others say of us to our face, we discover from what they say in our absence the utterly dissimilar image they have of us and our life.’[53]


I cannot do justice here to the powerful effects created as Saint-Loup and especially Charlus disappear from and intermittently return to the forefront of the narrative, modulating and complicating the density of these first impressions, but it has again been well described by some of Proust’s keenest exegetes.  Sedgwick, in her earlier work on the Proustian closet, wrote of ‘The irresistibleness of the Baron de Charlus … Charlus is the prodigal gift that keeps opening itself to the wonder and pleasure of the reader.  At least, that is the experience of the reader, who is invited not to concentrate too much on the mechanics of the miraculous proffer.’[54]  But the self-opening of this gift is paradoxically so wondrous because it is scattershot, dispersed – intermittent – and therefore so unlike the continual and hypnotic unfolding of the narrator’s consciousness.  Charlus is realised in the narrative with what Sedgwick wonderfully calls ‘riveting inefficiency’, by which I take her to mean something like what I am calling intermittence: he appears to us in relatively short bursts, that are so compelling because they take the form of disparate and distilled manifestations of enigmatic force.[55]  Charlus’s appearances are localised, compressed.  They are powerful jolts to the system: shots of espresso or hard liquor interspersed among the soothing sips of milky coffee or smooth wine (or, indeed, madeleine dissolved in tea) that the great swathes of the narrative can feel like as we are continuously ingesting it.[56]  A complementary account to Sedgwick’s is provided by Gilles Deleuze, who notes that ‘Charlus immediately presents himself as a strong personality, an imperial individuality.  But in fact this individuality is an empire, a galaxy that conceals or contains many unknown things: what is Charlus’s secret?’  ‘The least we can say,’ he earlier writes, ‘is that Charlus is complicated … Charlus’s genius is to retain all the souls that compose him in the “complicated” state: that is how it happens that Charlus always has the freshness of a world just created.’[57]  And, I would add, this too is created by his powerful intermittence: the sense that each new appearance is both a complicating development of what went before, and an entirely new apparition, the arrival of a sui generis superhuman being. 


What, then, of Spenser?  Again without postulating any straightforward relation of influence, I would like to suggest an analogy between these two Proustian figures and the initial appearance and intermittent return of two figures central to The Faerie Queene, Arthur and Archimago.  Saint-Loup’s spectacular entrance, I would suggest, resonates with that of Arthur in the seventh canto of The Faerie Queene, a no less floatingly protracted vision of aristocratic masculinity, melding elegance and prowess in a manner that teeters on the brink of destabilising excess.  So much so, in fact, that the narrator feels the need to make an unusual defence of the plausibility of what is described, rooting its details not in his own but in Merlin’s creative powers: ‘Ne let it seeme that credence this exceedes,/ For he that made the same, was knowne right well/ To haue done much more admirable deedes./ It Merlin was, which whylome did excell/ All liuing wightes in might of magicke spell’.[58]  The sense that Arthur’s power is somewhat in excess of what the narrative can contain is encapsulated in his shield, whose violent powers of revelation are so potent that they need to be veiled lest they destroy both the fictional world of the poem and its narrative plausibility (there are various problems that the use of the shield would solve but when it is notably not used).[59]  But Arthur is introduced as potent and volatile not only in his martial force but in his affective and erotic attachments.  This is true not only, and most obviously, of his never-achieved quest to recapture the Faerie Queene herself, which gives his desire an exorbitant, unfulfillable quality that differentiates it from the neater couples whose unions are even provisionally consummated within the poem as it stands.  It is also true of his relationship with Timias, introduced here as ‘A gentle youth, his dearely loued Squire.’  As late as Book VI, when the pair are reunited after protracted separation – and Arthur, in a telling and characteristic tangle of pronouns, ‘he to him drew/ And him embracing twixt his armes entire,/ Him thus bespake; My liefe, my lifes desire,/ Why haue ye me alone thus long yleft?’ – their relationship will place a considerable strain on the distinction between homosocial and homoerotic love, the intimacies that the poem endorses and those that it supposedly rebukes.[60]  And this, too, is intimated of Saint-Loup when he erupts into Proust’s narrative, thousands of pages before the ‘truth’ of his homosexuality will be revealed: ‘Because of his general “stylishness” as a young “lion,” his cavalier manner [À cause de son “chic,” de son impertinence de jeune “lion”], and above all his own remarkable beauty, some thought there was something effeminate about him [certains lui trouvaient même une air efféminé], though no one ever said such a thing against him, as his virility and passionate liking for women were well known.’[61]


Saint-Loup, I am suggesting, is like Arthur in simultaneously exemplifying a form of aristocratic masculine virtue, and, in the very act of embodying it in such an extreme and theoretically perfected form, intimating from the outset the tensions and contradictions with which such an ideal turns out to be riven.  And in case of both Arthur and of Saint-Loup, the complexity of the relationship between the ideal and its constant and unresolved complication is magnified and intensified by their shared intermittence, their drifting in and out of narrative focus.  Each entrance into the narrative involves the injection of something powerful and compelling, but the very fact that neither figure has the time or space to develop in a sustained and unbroken way, and that we as readers are therefore denied the chance to integrate these moments into a continuous developmental whole, is precisely what allows the relationship between these ideals and their complications to unfold and compound but without false resolution.  Again helpful here is Deleuze, who, like Sedgwick, reads Proust as a kind of late Plotinean.  ‘Certain Neoplatonists,’ he writes, ‘used a profound word to designate the original state that precedes any development, any deployment, any explication: complication, which envelops the many in the One and affirms the unity of the multiple.  Eternity did not seem to them the absence of change, nor even the extension of a limitless existence, but the complicated state of time itself … The Word, omnia complicans, and containing all essences, was defined as the supreme complication, the complication of contraries, the unstable opposition.’[62]  This, I would suggest, is a way of thinking about the forms of complication that Arthur and Saint-Loup both embody, and the manner in which, in so doing, they each encapsulate an essential feature of the works that contain them.  Their infolding of complication is in no small part contingent upon, created and sustained by, their intermittence.




If Spenser’s Arthur resonates with Proust’s Saint-Loup, then the figure whom Charlus resembles, I would suggest, is Archimago.  Each of them is introduced in a less spectacular form than the unstable visions of gentlemanly prowess whom I have just been discussing, but both go on to display a shimmering, transformative set of powers that unsettle and drive both the protagonists and the narrative.  Archimago, as I have already suggested, is one of the figures whom I find Spenser’s poem investing with greater depth and pathos than the poem’s narrative and its generically created expectations either require, or can justify.  Particularly relevant for my desire to bring these two figures together is Harry Berger Jr.’s wonderful distinction between Archimago the allegorical figure, who proves both frail and inept in his attempts at villainous sabotage, and what Berger calls the ‘Archimago virus,’ the principles of disorder and deception that he unleashes into the poem once he appears and that survive even as he begins to fade from narrative prominence.[63]  Intriguingly, Deleuze writes similarly of Charlus that ‘all his verbal interpretative madness masks the more mysterious signs of the nonlanguage working within him; in short, the enormous Charlus network.’[64]  Charlus is both an individual, and a representative extreme of a certain virtuosity of language and of personhood, of which Proust’s narrator must make sense if he is to achieve his own artistic vocation.  He must work out what and how much of Charlus he must become, or at least come to resemble, in order to write. 


It has often been noted that Archimago’s magical powers, his manipulation of spirits and ability to create exact replicas of the figures who populate the poem, make him into a dark double of Spenser the poet and his own abilities and ambitions.[65]  We saw above that Spenser displaced responsibility for the creation of the implausibly ornate Arthur onto Merlin, one of many moments when he aligns his poetic agency with magical powers exercised within the poem.  And the gradual fading of Archimago’s role in this regard – the way in which the powers that he displays at the outset are taken over by figures such as the Witch who creates the False Florimell – gradually defangs the charismatic force that he displays at the outset.  The same is true, structurally, of Charlus’s role in À La Recherche, which functions like an intensely radioactive metal gradually nullified through imperceptible entropyAs Malcolm Bowie wonderfully observes, both Saint-Loup and Charlus serve as ambiguous models of linguistic virtuosity as they ‘move from one airy verbal fabrication to another with undiminished self-confidence and wit,’ and he writes of a ‘play of affinity and distance between the narrator and these aristocratic masters.’  Ultimately, however, ‘it is Charlus who has the greater originality, and who comes closer to being the supreme artist that the crazed and death-haunted tenor of the times seems to demand.’[66]  He comes closer, but not close enough.  In the final volume, Le Temps Retrouvé, the narrator delivers the last of his countless insights into Charlus’s character with startling brusqueness: ‘M. de Charlus was no more than a dilettante in matters of art, never dreamed of writing and had no talent for it’.[67] 


Bowie aptly calls this ‘a moment of cruelty as shocking as Prince Hal’s rejection of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV,’ and, as with that Shakespearean moment, we experience here both a sense of necessary repudiation and of unutterable loss.[68]  But I would suggest that, while Archimago’s fading from the narrative of The Faerie Queene is far less emphatic and painful than Falstaff’s or Charlus’s, he offers a no less instructive analogy.  In both cases, Spenser and Proust are insisting so firmly on the distinction between the truth of their literary art and the phony magic that these figures wield precisely because the difference can seem so minimal, so uncertain.  Proust’s narrator makes this judgement of Charlus after earlier writing, of the figures who inhabit these echelons of society, that ‘M. de Charlus was in a sense their poet, the man who had been able to extract from the social world a sort of poetry, in which there were elements of history, of beauty, of the picturesque, of the comic and of frivolous elegance [une sorte de poésie où il entrait de l’histoire, de la beauté, du pittoresque, du comique, de la frivole élégance].’[69]  As Bowie observes, ‘The narrator is bringing Charlus uncomfortably close to the sort of poet he might himself become, and this means, within the logic of the narrator’s creation, that Charlus must be discarded’.[70]  It is in this act of discarding, as with the cruel mechanisms of scapegoating by which The Faerie Queene often treats the figures onto whom the negative versions of its own animating energies are displaced, that the self-divided impulses of both works are revealed, as well as their shared, obsessive compulsion to make manifest the harsh costs of their own aesthetic choices and principles.[71]  And, in both cases, this is achieved in part through a figure – Archimago and Charlus – who wields a compelling but monstrous magic that the narrative needs and with which it can hardly cope.  It is a magic that can and must enter only intermittently: only thus can its force be contained and distributed; but, paradoxically, only thus can its force be fully felt by the reader, precisely by refusing to develop or coagulate into the kind of threat that can be understood enough to be satisfyingly and decisively discarded.




I began by seizing upon Robert Hunter’s grouping of Spenser and Proust as the ‘two biggies,’ but regretting his sense that they are principally alike in their difficulty.  These are, for him, the two imposing writers whose work one might want to have read, but there is little sense that the experience of reading them is something to be enjoyed as opposed to endured, toughed out.  In the course of these reflections I have suggested various ways in which I do find it valuable to read Spenser and Proust side by side: in their different but equally complex relation to chivalric and allegorical convention, in their relations to European literary traditions, in the ways in which they investigate the stakes of personhood, sexuality, and literary power through strategies of artful intermittence.  But I want to return in closing to their shared bigness, which has been the encompassing factor within which I have sought to make these links.  While I do find saddening Hunter’s flattening of the reading experience of these two biggies to mere endurance, I by no means wish to substitute an equally unrealistic sense that they provide uninterruptedly pleasurable thrills.  Instead, I would like to propose that the intermittence that I have identified as a shared narrative feature through which these works achieve their effects also offers a way of thinking through the relationship which readers establish with them: for this, too, is a relation of intermittence.


Beckett wrote of Proust’s style: ‘It is a tiring style, but it does not tire the mind.  The clarity of the phrase is cumulative and explosive.  One’s fatigue is a fatigue of the heart, a blood fatigue.  One is exhausted and angry after an hour, submerged, dominated by the crest and break of metaphor after metaphor: but never stupefied.’[72]  I do not find that this maps exactly onto my reading experience, but I do find Beckett’s willingness to acknowledge his own readerly exhaustion and anger, even as he distinguishes between the ways in which different works might tire and infuriate their readers, extremely fruitful (not least because he evolved into an artist determined to find new ways to exhaust and infuriate his own audience).  Put simply, I do not think that it is possible to produce a work of the sheer bigness of The Faerie Queene or À La Recherche du Temps Perdu without reflecting extensively on what one is asking of one’s readers in terms of their time and attention, and how this relates to what one asked of and did to oneself in the unrelenting and time-consuming creation of such a huge work.  And, if we saw that Proust linked the comings and goings of his novel to medicalised forms of intermittence – a connection that Benjamin linked to his asthmatic rhythms – then readers of The Faerie Queene are invariably struck by the exhaustion and ennui expressed by the increasingly weary narrator of the 1596 instalment.  On a basic but important level, there is an implicit contradiction between the singleness of these large works as they are presented to us – a single novel, albeit one divided into volumes and whose shape shifted and morphed as it was written; a single poem, albeit one that is divided into books, was published in distinct stages, and is unfinished – and the incremental, piecemeal ways in which they must have been written, and in which they must be read.  The simplest thing that can be said of these two biggies is that it would be unimaginable to read them at a single sitting: we must come and go, enter their narratives and leave them, much as Archimago, Arthur, Saint-Loup and Charlus all do.


This, then, is how I would recast the exhausting or intimidating features of these two writers as Hunter describes them, and why I think bringing these two biggies together illuminates them both for me. Yes, they demand our time and our energy in ways that can be daunting, draining, maddening.  But precisely because they are so large, because they cannot be consumed and assimilated all at once, they solicit from us a version of the intermittence that they repeatedly depict.  That is to say, they make an appeal that is less obviously tyrannical than the demand that we grind through them, have done with them, but that is in its own way no less onerous.  They ask for our intermittence, our recurrence.  They ask to be read through, but also to be returned to, revisited, periodically looped back upon.  They ask us not just to give a single massive block of time to conquering them, but to open ourselves up to the possibility that they will work their way into our thoughts and our ways of thinking, and keep us coming back – endlessly, but intermittently.  This is perhaps a way of understanding the seemingly opposed but in fact closely connected forms of extreme response that Spenser and Proust both tend to provoke among those who read them, try to read them, or are made to try to read them: intimated, overwhelmed alienation and severe dislike; or all-consuming obsession, a sense of being possessed by the text rather than possessing it, thought by it rather than thinking with it.  Adorno acknowledges this when he writes in another essay of ‘Proust’s magnetic force.’  He reports Benjamin’s fear of falling ‘into an addictive dependency’ when reading À la Recherche, and insists that, for his own part, ‘I cannot speak about this book in the role of a critic.  For the past thirty years Proust has been too important an element of my spiritual existence for me to have the detachment to do so.’[73]  Roland Barthes gives a similar sense of the addictive ways in which Proust’s novel can weave and insinuate its way into a life when he writes:


Proust is what comes to me, not what I summon up; not an authority, simply a circular memory.  Which is what the inter-text is: the impossibility of living outside the infinite text – whether this text be Proust or the daily newspaper or the television screen, the book creates the meaning, the meaning creates life.[74]


Barthes looks beyond the big text to the infinite text – infinite, however, not in its literal endlessness or even its inexhaustibility but in its propensity to return to us, to return piecemeal to the mind and, more or less fleetingly, into the life of which it is now a necessary part.  His inter-text carries the same prefix as inter-mittence, a word that, as Jennifer Rushworth observes, literally means a ‘sending between,’ which involves in Barthes’s own practice ‘an unstable,  intermittent, interrupted process’ predicated upon ‘openness to the unpredictable advent’ and ‘respect for the other as desirable by reason of being unreachable and opaque’.[75]  The two biggies: never knowable in their entirety or once-and-for-all, remaining unreachable in their wholeness because retaining a capacity for unpredictability in the openness of their specifics.  Us before the two biggies: never done with our readings, but always poised, even when we don’t realise it or have any specific plans, between one intermittent reading and the next.  This is the between-space (inter) into which we are sent (mittence) as soon as we open the pages of either of these two uncannily similar biggies, and, in so doing, open our lives up to them.




I am grateful to Lorna Hutson and Simon Palfrey, who read this essay and responded generously to it; so did Jack Parlett, and I am endlessly thankful to him for joining me on the journey through Proust that inspired it.

[1] The Grateful Dead Reader, ed. David G. Dodd & Diana Spalding (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p.180.  Emphases in the original.

[2] Mark Twain’s Speeches (New York: Harper, 1923), 210.

[3] Suzanne Moore, ‘They can lock me down, but they can’t make me read Proust,’ The Guardian, 26th March 2020.

[4] It was, of course, an immense privilege to be able to reflect in this way and have the time to use literature in order to do so.  One of the many strange and distressing aspects of the pandemic has been the way in which it has revealed certain forms of stasis and boredom as their own kind of luxury – difficult to deal with, of course, and productive of real forms of suffering, but still distinct from the relentless and panic-inducing pressure that this same period of time has involved for many people. 

[5] I addressed this tendency at the outset of ‘Why Can’t Spenserians Stop Talking About Hegel?  A Response to Gordon Teskey,’ Spenser Review 44.1.2 (Spring-Summer 2014).

[6] David Hill Radcliffe, Edmund Spenser: A Reception History (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1996), 143-6.

[7] Robert J. Young, An American by Degrees: The Extraordinary Lives of French Ambassador Jules Jusserand (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), pp. 35, 104.

[8] Daniel Karlin, Proust’s English (Oxford: OUP, 2005), passim, quotations at 39-40.

[9] Karlin, Proust’s English, 40.

[10] For useful discussions of Proust’s versions of Ruskin see Richard A. Macksey, ‘Proust on the Margins of Ruskin,’ in The Ruskin Polygon, ed. J. D. Hunt and F M. Holland (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1981), 172-97, and Cynthia J. Gamble, Proust as Interpreter of Ruskin: The Seven Lamps of Translation (Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 2002).

[11] The Works of John Ruskin (Cambridge: CUP, 1904), 18.118.

[12] Marcel Proust/John Ruskin, Le Bible D’Amiens, Sésame et les Lys, et Autres Textes, ed. Jérôme Bastianelli (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 2015), 581.n.5.

[13] Proust/ Ruskin, Le Bible D’Amiens, Sésame et les Lys, et Autres Textes, 333.

[14] The Works of John Ruskin, 10.390.

[15] See William N. West, ‘Spenser, Ruskin, and the Victorian Culture of Medieval England,’ Spenser Studies 33 (2019), 245-66; Christopher Warley, ‘The Pleasure of Hating the Renaissance,’ Spenser Studies 33 (2019), 267–280; Katherine Eggert, ‘Ruskin’s Taste in Spenserian Women: Not Looking at the Renaissance,’ Spenser Studies 33 (2019), 281–298.

[16] For these strategies in the description of the Doge’s palace, the same section to which Proust referred, see Eggert, ‘Ruskin’s Taste in Spenserian Women,’ 286-7.

[17] Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1957), 60.

[18] The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett, ed. C.J. Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 536; see 492 for a pen-portrait of the fascinating figure of Rudmose-Brown, who was Professor of French but apparently lectured on both ‘Colin Clout’ and The Faerie Queene.

[19] Jane Grogan, ‘Spenser’s Lost Children,’ Spenser Studies 28 (2013), 1-54.  For a fuller discussion of Beckett’s work and the legacy in it of Spenser’s involvement in atrocities in Ireland see Seán Kennedy, ‘Edmund Spenser, Famine Memory and the Discontents of Humanism in Endgame,’ Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui 24 (2012),105-20.

[20] For a fascinating account of these tendencies – especially in T.S. Eliot’s construction of a civilised European tradition and Joyce’s formation of a more porous and authentically global alternative – and their place within the formation of English literary studies as a discipline, see Peter D. McDonald, Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing (Oxford: OUP, 2017), chs.1-3.

[21] Stéphane Mallarmé, Les Mots Anglais (Paris, 1877), 30-31; cited and translated by Karlin, Proust’s English, 187.

[22] David Scott Wilson-Okamura, Spenser’s International Style (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).

[23] Samuel Johnson, ‘Milton,’ in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, ed. Roger Lonsdale, 4 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1.293.  For discussion of Jonson’s description in the context of contemporary responses to Spenser’s archaisms see Wilson-Okamura, Spenser’s International Style, 61-2.

[24] Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964), 273.

[25] Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis (London: Penguin, 2003), 9-10; À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, ed. Jean-Yves Tadié (Paris: Gallimard, 1987), 1.9-10.  Subsequent citations from the French are to volume and page number in this edition, abbreviated to ALR. 

[26] J. Theodore Johnson Jr., ‘“La Lanterne Magique”: Proust’s Metaphorical Toy,’ L’Esprit Createur 11 (1971), 17.  One of the most enjoyable English language introductions to the novel takes its title from this moment: Howard Moss, The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust (London: Faber, 1963).

[27] For an overview of his knowledge of such tales see Richard Bales, Proust and the Middle Ages (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1975).  The classic account of entrelacement in medieval romance is Eugène Vinaver, ‘The Poetry of Interlace’, in The Rise of Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 68-100.

[28] On Proust writing self-consciously in the wake of the epic tradition see Malcolm Bowie, Proust Among the Stars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 105: ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is a self-deflating epic, but Homer, together with Virgil, Dante and Hugo, is an unexorcisable phantom within it.’  For a rich set of connections between Proustian narrative and Homeric ring composition see Daniel Mendelsohn, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020), 68-80.

[29] Swann’s Way, trans. Davis, 9-10; ALR 1.10.

[30] Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 2002), 90-91.

[31] Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[32] I have listed these examples quite briefly, and allowed myself the indulgence of self-citation, in the interest of conveying my broader understanding of Spenser more economically so that I can devote more space to showing why it might resonate with Proust.  For my lengthier discussions of these examples see Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England (Oxford: OUP, 2014), 141-2; ‘The Forgotten Youth of Allegory: Figures of Old Age in The Faerie Queene,Modern Philology 110.3 (February 2013), 389-414; 407-8; ‘Spenser at Play,’ PMLA 133.1 (January 2018), 19-35; ‘“Whence had she all this wealth?”: Dryden’s Note on The Faerie Queene V.vii.24 and the Gifts of Literal Reading,’ Spenser Studies 33 (2019), 301-13.

[33] Theodor Adorno, ‘Short Commentaries on Proust,’ in Notes to Literature, Volume One, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 174-84; 174.

[34] Malcom Bowie, ‘Proust and the Art of Brevity,’ in Selected Essays of Malcolm Bowie I: Dreams of Knowledge, ed. Alison Finch (London: Legenda, 2013), 46-57; 51. 

[35] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘The Weather in Proust,’ in The Weather in Proust, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1-41; 6, 15.

[36] Sedgwick, ‘Cavafy, Proust, and the Queer Little Gods,’ in The Weather in Proust, ed. Goldberg, 42-68; 45, 48.

[37] Sedgwick, ‘The Weather in Proust,’ 33.

[38] Sedgwick, ‘Cavafy, Proust, and the Queer Little Gods,’ 44.

[39] Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. Sturrock, 158; ALR 3.152-3.

[40] Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. Sturrock, 159; ALR 3.153-4.

[41] Proust, Correspondance, 11.257; cited by Jean-Yes Tadié, Marcel Proust, trans. Euan Cameron (London: Viking, 2000), 567.

[42] Beckett, Proust, 25.

[43] Jennifer Rushworth, ‘Mourning and Intermittence between Proust and Barthes,’ Paragraph 39.3 (2016), 269-86; 272.  I am indebted throughout this section to Rushworth’s excellent account of the term and its resonances.  For a useful summary of the medical background, upon which Rushworth draws, see Anne Henry, ‘Intermittence,’ Dictionnaire Marcel Proust, ed. Annick Bouillaguet & Brian G. Rogers (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2000), 514-15.

[44] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Image of Proust,’ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), 203-17; 216.

[45] Ingrid Wassenaar, Proustian Passions: The Uses of Self-Justification for A la recherche du temps perdu (Oxford: OUP, 2000), 124.  Emphases in the original.

[46] Theresa Krier, ‘Time Lords: Rhythm and Interval in Spenser’s Stanzaic Narrative,’ Spenser Studies 21 (2006), 1-19.

[47] Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. James Grieve (London: Penguin, 2002), 308-9; ALR 2.88.

[48] Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. Grieve, 310.

[49] Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. Grieve, 312. 

[50] This analogy seems apt in light of Proust’s constant use of stellar and cosmological analogies, as observed by Bowie, Proust Among the Stars.

[51] Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. Grieve, 337; ALR 2.115.

[52] Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. Grieve, 340-41.

[53] Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. Grieve, 323; ALR 2.102.

[54] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 223.  Emphasis in the original.

[55] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 231.

[56] For this link between the speed at which we ingest intoxicating substances and their experienced effect see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Brief History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Vintage, 1992).

[57] Gilles Delueze, Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard (London: Continuum, 2000), 111, 30.

[58] FQ

[59] On the shield’s problematically extreme power see Kenneth Gross, Spenserian Poetics: Idolatry, Iconoclasm and Magic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 135–43, and Susanne Wofford, The Choice of Achilles: The Ideology of Figure in the Epic (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 262.

[60] FQ  See Jim Ellis, ‘Desire in Translation: Friendship in the Life and Work of Spenser’, English Studies in Canada 20.2 (1994), 171–85, and my discussion in Feeling Pleasures, 132-3.

[61] Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. Grieve, 309.

[62] Deleuze, Proust and Signs, trans. Howard, 29-30.

[63] Harry Berger, Jr., ‘Archimago: Between Text and Countertext,’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 43 (2003), 19-64.

[64] Deleuze, Proust and Signs, trans. Howard, 116.

[65] See for example David Quint, “Archimago and Amoret: The Poem and Its Doubles,” in Worldmaking Spenser: Explorations in the Early Modern Age, ed. Patrick Cheney & Lauren Silberman (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 32-42.

[66] Bowie, Proust Among the Stars, 164-5.

[67] Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson (London: Penguin, 2002), 139.

[68] Bowie, Proust Among the Stars, 167.

[69] Proust, Finding Time Again, trans. Patterson, 74-5; ALR 4.345.

[70] Bowie, Proust Among the Stars, 166-7.

[71] I discuss these scapegoating mechanisms further in ‘The Forgotten Youth of Allegory,’ 401-3.

[72] Beckett, Proust, 68.

[73] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On Proust,’ Notes to Literature, Volume Two, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 312-17; 313.

[74] Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 36.  Emphasis in the original.

[75] Rushworth, ‘Mourning and Intermittence,’ 279-80.


  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Joe Moshenska, "The Two Biggies: Intermittent Reflections on Spenser and Proust," Spenser Review 51.2.2 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
Not logged in or