ISYGF, Chapter 9: So you're a genius now, are you?
This length of time that it takes someone to penetrate a work of some depth ... is only a foreshortening, and as it were a symbol, of all the years, or even centuries perhaps, which must pass before the public can come to love a masterpiece that is really new. This is why the man of genius, wishing to avoid the discontents of being unrecognized in his own day, may persuade himself that, since his contemporaries lack he necessary hindsight, works written for posterity should be read only by posterity, much as there are certain paintings that should not be looked at from too close up. However, any craven urge to avoid being misjudged is pointless, as misjudgment is unavoidable. What makes it difficult for a work of genius to be admired at once is the fact that its creator is out of the ordinary, that hardly anyone is like him. It is his work itself which, by ferlizing the rare spirits capable of appreciating it, will make them grow and multiply.
Do you think Proust was talking about himself? There is a sense of frustration there that makes me think so--"buck up, you 'andsome devil you, ze people today, zey cannot appreciate your amazeeng talent, but een feefty years, hahaha!" (Okay, my written French accent sucks.) I know some of his early writing wasn't particularly well-received, though it wasn't like his stuff didn't get published. Okay, maybe not the books, but some of his shorter (the mind boggles, doesn't it?) essays got into various literary reviews, so it seems weird to find him pouting about how nobody loves him here.
Can genius only be appreciated in retrospect? I dunno. I mean, Casablanca was a huge hit when it came out, and is still considered one of the best movies ever made some six decades later. And, as I said, Proust himself was given all due props in his own time--Young Girls would wind up winning the prestigious Goncourt Prize. Though I guess, from what I've managed to pick up so far around the Internets, it looks like Swann's Way rocked the world of Marcel Proust and pretty much nobody else. But still, six years (the time between the publishing of SW and ISYGF) is not that long, in the grand scheme of things. No, I'd say that this is just another one of those grand pronouncements Proust makes that sound really deep until you realize that empirical evidence suggests that they're actually total bullshit.
And it's not like posterity always has the best taste. Personally, I find Kerouac incredibly annoying, and I've never understood the group swoon he produces in the writing world. Meanwhile, other writers who probably deserve more recognition wind up relegated to the sad has-been world of library stacks and estate sales.
My mother has this thing where she picks up old books by authors she's never heard of. Her theory is that is anyone held onto a book for 50 years, it could very well be really good. She says her success rate is at least 50/50. I have one of the books she found this way: Gus the Great, a book based on a PT Barnum-like character, written in the 1950s. It's really good--it's been a while since I read it, but I'd put it near Kavalier & Clay in both tone and quality. I guess it was a smash hit at the time, but it's been out of print for years. Was it a work of genius? Probably not. But I'll tell you what: It was a helluva lot more fun to read than Swann's Way.
Was Proust a genius? Most people seem to say yes. He was definitely innovative. But it's weird to see how whiny he is about it. I don't know, I don't think I'm as focused as I should be today--I really need to get back to Real Life stuff, like painting my kitchen, so I'm distracted--but I do have to wonder if obsessing about whether people recognize your genius kind of gets in the way of any genius you might possess. But, like I said, the kitchen is guilt-tripping me right now, so I could just be extra-irritable. And I'm sure that if Proust knew he was getting upstaged by paint drying, he'd do an extra summersault in that well-visited grave of his.