Proust and Ruskin on Books

Le Bibliophile – Francis Edouard Vallotton, 1911.

When challenged on whether he was qualified to translate Ruskin, Proust said, “I do not claim to know English; I claim to know Ruskin.” It was a bold claim, and it is interesting to observe how closely attuned Proust was to Ruskin’s way of looking at the world. The common ground, I suggest, lay in a love of books. Proust wrote an introduction to his translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, to which he also supplied footnotes which read as a reaction to Ruskin’s discourse. At a certain point Ruskin touches on the idea of friendship, saying that too often our choice of friends is restricted by circumstances. Proust remarks, in a footnote, that “the idea seems very beautiful in truth because we can feel the spiritual use to which Ruskin is about to put it…” – and sure enough, Ruskin then advances the idea that books might be seen as friends, a notion Proust then amplifies in his introduction: “In reading, friendship is restored immediately to its original purity. With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends—books—it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: ‘What did they think of us’—’Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?’—’Did they like us?’—nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because of displacement by someone else. All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading.” Ruskin finally unfolds his own credo, which fully harmonises with Proust’s: “A book is essentially not a talking thing, but a written thing; and written, not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence … The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful … this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying ‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’”

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