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The eye of the beholder

A coffee-table book for aesthetes: every painting referred to in Marcel Proust's epic In Search of L

Paintings in Proust: a Visual Companion to "In Search of Lost Time"

Eric Karpeles

Thames & Hudson, 352pp, £25

What list begins with Corot and ends with Char din, encompassing not just the likes of Vermeer, Carpaccio and Whistler, but such now obscure artists of la Belle Époque as Paul Helleu, James Tissot and Jules Machard? The answer is the roll-call of painters whose works are invoked, evoked or otherwise suggested in À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust's great semi-autobiographical novel, published in seven parts and written between 1909 and 1922.

For Paintings in Proust, the American artist and scholar Eric Karpeles has assembled these pictures in the order in which they are cited in the novel. On each double page, the painting is reproduced next to the relevant excerpt. Accompanying these is a wide-ranging and perceptive introduction, along with helpful endnotes.

Art plays a central thematic role in Proust's novel, which is narrated by an aspiring young writer who recalls his life from childhood, through adolescence and into the adult world. Through his narrator, who draws on examples from painting, music and literature, Proust sets out a theory that links art intimately to memory and experience.

Karpeles declares that In Search of Lost Time is a vast repository of paintings, "like the labyrin thine galleries of the Louvre". Charitably, he says that Proust "generously" plundered art history books when researching his novels; "freely" might have been a more appropriate word. Charles Ephrussi, editor of the influential art journal La Gazette des beaux-arts, gave Proust unlimited access to the periodical's extensive library. The novelist was anything but a dilettante in his self-education.

In Search of Lost Time is structured around certain transforming instances of involuntary memory - from the taste of a madeleine soaked in lime tea and the feel of a starched napkin to the sound of a spoon struck against a plate. None of these is primarily a visual sensation, but Karpeles's anthology demonstrates the acuteness of Proust's perception of pictures and their social function, as well as the novelist's ability to alter one's own view of a particular painting.

Karpeles gives a nice example of how Proust could twist his own encounters with art to the ends he needed for his novel. His friend Ephrussi once admired Manet's small painting A Bunch of Asparagus (1880). In his eagerness to purchase the work, Ephrussi sent the artist 200 francs more than the asking price of 800. Manet responded by dashing off and despatching to him a picture of a single stalk of asparagus to even things up.

Paintings in Proust reproduces both images with a passage from Le Côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way). This third volume of the novel was Proust's attack on the shallowness of French upper-class society, embodied by the aristocratic Guermantes family. Here, the Duc de Guermantes is incensed at the suggestion that he should buy a painting of a bunch of asparagus. The price, he declares, is extortionate. "Three hundred francs for a bundle of asparagus! A louis, that's as much as they are worth, even early in the season." With the same paintings as touchstones, Ephrussi's gesture of generosity has been transformed into a parable about the tight-fisted philistinism of the aristocracy.

Proust's talent for the defamiliarising stroke is constantly informed by wit. There is a passage in Time Regained, the final volume of the series, where the narrator meets a friend who is on leave from the front in Paris during the First World War. Their sense of the dissociative absurdity of the current world - the farcical lives of civilians, carried out while the threat of apocalypse looms above them - is conveyed through a comparison with the vertically split-level composition of The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-88) by El Greco. The clothed body of the deceased aristocrat is awkwardly manhandled into the grave by the archbishop, saints and clerics in the bottom half of the picture, while - in a whirl of melodrama in the top half - his half-naked, risen self is welcomed into heaven by the Virgin Mary.

Vermeer's View of Delft plays a pivotal role in the novel. Bergotte - the fictional author whose works Proust's narrator has admired since childhood - is dying, yet summons the last of his strength for a final visit to see this much-loved picture. While gazing at a patch of yellow wall in the painting, Bergotte has an epiphany. He realises that he should have written as Vermeer painted, layering more colours into his prose. In the notion that he should have mixed a fuller palette, one is reminded of how the narrator of the novel remembers waiting in childhood for his mother's kiss, "as a painter prepares his palette for a subject he can only have for short sittings and does in advance everything that can be done in the sitter's absence".

According to Karpeles, the eclecticism of Proust's references made him a postmodernist at the dawn of modernism. He includes a passage from the second book, À 'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove), where the narrator muses on the way in which all the artistic revolutions of bygone eras now seem at least to have respected certain rules - "an illusion similar to that which makes everything on the horizon appear equidistant" - whereas contemporary experiments in cubism and futurism appear to differ outrageously from all that has gone before. Next to this, Karpeles reproduces Juan Gris's portrait Homage to Pablo Picasso (1912) and appends an endnote recalling Proust's comment on Picasso's drawing of their mutual friend, the author and film-maker Jean Cocteau: "when I contemplate it, even the most enchanting Carpaccios in Venice tend to take second place in my memory". What a pity that Proust's nocturnal work schedule prevented Picasso from memorialising him.

Compact and a pleasure to handle, this volume is both the dernier cri of the highbrow coffee-table book and a deep, often humorous encouragement of more sensitive thought about Proust and his masterpiece.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama