Elstir's Harbor at Carquethuit
When staying at a luxurious Normandy beach hotel, Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, and a pal write a friendly note to a famous painter, Elstir, who lives nearby. Elstir then invites Marcel for a studio visit, though Marcel would prefer to meet the girls he sees but doesn’t yet know. At his grandmother’s insistence, he reluctantly accepts the invitation. In the studio, Marcel sees a seascape in progress, Harbor at Carquethuit. Then a subtler visual thinker, Marcel Proust, effectively takes over the first-person narrative from his namesake, and presents two distinct aesthetic theories. Elstir, he says, unifies his works by a metamorphosis of depicted things, analogous to poetic metaphor, comparing land to sea, thus visually “blurring all distinction between them.” And, he later adds, Elstir shows things not as he knew them, but as they appear. The first theory seems original, while the second, a different account, is Ruskin’s well-known analysis of “the innocent eye.” Marcel describes a number of delicious details in Harbor at Carquethuit. It shows the town of Balbec, with its churches, the fishing fleet, men pushing boats into the tide, women shrimping, and people on holiday in a yawl. There has recently been a thunderstorm, but now the calm waters reflect the ship hulls. Marcel’s desire for the girls inspires his admiration for Harbor at Carquethuit, a very sensuous painting. The boy’s aesthetic pleasure is thus linked with erotic desire.
Commentators have suggested many sources for Harbour at Carquethuit: the seascapes of Turner, who was championed by Ruskin, whose drawings also are potential sources; seascapes by Degas, Manet, Monet, and Renoir; also the paintings of Boudin, Carpaccio, Moreau, and Vuillard. And “Elstir” is an amalgam of two relevant painters’ names, (Paul) Helleu, an obscure friend of Proust, and Whistler. Just as it isn’t obvious how the details Proust mentions could all fit within one picture, it’s unclear how a work with such diverse possible sources would look. In Search of Lost Time inspired a comic book, which shows how formally Marcel and the girls are dressed at the beach. But although it presents seven plausible pictorial details of Elstir’s painting, it doesn’t add up to a whole convincing image of Harbor at Carquethuit. Sometimes spelling everything out is less fascinating than leaving a mystery.
Marcel discovers that Elstir, who is a great friend of the girls, could have introduced them but didn’t. And in Elstir’s studio is a youthful picture of Odette, the great love of Charles Swann. Marcel wants a photograph of her. What Elstir gives Marcel instead is something that he doesn’t particularly desire, a valuable sketch of Harbor at Carquethuit. Marcel is too callow to learn much about art from the patient painter. But he does discover that when Elstir was young, he lived in society and then because of a painful experience, chose to lead his relatively solitary life as an artist, like Proust himself. Later when Marcel meets one of the girls, Albertine, with whom he has his great, ultimately disillusioning affair, he discovers that love fails to satisfy. Only art, he concludes, can provide true satisfaction.
Why does Proust describe an imaginary painting when, after all, he could have described a real work of art? In Search of Lost Time is about transitions. In Normandy, Marcel rides in a horse-drawn carriage; by the end of the book he sees cubist paintings and watches the aerial warfare over Paris during the Great War. And the work of Elstir, an old fashioned painter, is described using this somewhat archaic literary technique. Although many actual artworks appear in In Search of Lost Time, the three great artists, Elstir; Vinteuil, the composer; and Bergotte, the writer, are fictional. As is Marcel. He cannot be Marcel Proust, not only because unlike his creator, he is a straight gentile with no siblings, but also because at the conclusion of volume seven, Time Regained, he prepares to begin writing the novel that we have just finished reading, a book which will include this beachside scene. Like Elstir, who creates an unreal image based upon solid Normandy reality, Marcel Proust depicts his society using imaginary works of art. The seemingly real world presented in In Search of Lost Time thus is as imaginary as Harbor at Carquethuit.
The quotations come from Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (New York, 2005). This essay draws on my Proust/Warhol: Analytical Philosophy of Art (2009) and “Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: The Comics Version,” in The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach, edited by Meskin and Cook (2012).