Malcolm Bowie the critic
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
In between the mince pies and rounds of charades I’ve been dipping into the Selected Essays of Malcolm Bowie. It’s proving a rewarding experience. Bowie (1943–2007) was one of the most penetrating and stylish critics the TLS had the good fortune to commission (and whom I never had the fortune to meet). One of his last essays for the paper was a characteristically generous and thoughtful review (July 26, 2002) of two massive biographies of Marcel Proust, one by the French scholar Jean-Yves Tadié, the other by the American William C. Carter. Here is its bracing opening paragraph:
“The narrator of Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu has many unkind words for self-proclaiming art lovers. And as he prepares to launch his own aesthetic manifesto in the final volume of the novel, his hostility to those he calls ‘les célibataires de l’art’ – art’s bachelors – acquires a new intensity. They are locked inside their admirations, and when they eventually do break out into speech they often merely exclaim and expostulate. They are like goslings who flap their infant wing-stumps in a ridiculous attempt at flight. Or rather, he adds, pressing home the insult and warming to his aeronautical theme, they are like those early flying machines that never left the ground. Critics are even worse, the narrator goes on to say, in that they combine docile adherence to fashion with a fondness for desiccated classificatory schemes, whereas the enthusiasts at least have the merit of an active appetite for artistic experience. Their oohs and aahs may even conceal a nascent idea or two.”
Bowie praises both biographies, while referring to them as “untouched by textual discussion” (Bowie was all about the text), and concludes “Finishing either of these thousand-page volumes will . . . leave readers hungry for the pleasures of Proust’s book. As we turn again the pages of the novel, the wit, malice and swagger that are so little present in the story of Proust’s life suddenly reacquire life of their own”.
This article is not included in Dreams of Knowledge, the first of two volumes of Bowie’s essays (published by the Oxford-based academic imprint Legenda). The two volumes will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS but I thought it worth while to draw attention to them here as these books will not be available in your local bookstore.
In her Editor’s Introduction, Bowie’s widow Alison Finch (herself a French specialist at Cambridge) gratifyingly suggests that his “relationship with the TLS was a productive one. He enjoyed ‘talking to’ its educated readership . . . . The reviews gave full scope for that quality which, in Proust, he describes as ‘intellectual gaiety’”.
As the second volume bears out, Bowie’s range was considerable: as well as the probing essays on French poets from Mallarmé to Francis Ponge and René Char, he wrote programme notes for opera productions at Covent Garden, reviewed Edward Said’s Musical Elaborations, while his last long piece for the TLS was an article on the German Lied. He was also excellent on film.
Among the essays on Proust in this volume (in “a wealth of material which will be new to almost all of his readers”) is the brilliant “Proust and Italian Painting”, which was first published in Comparative Criticism. (At this point I make no apology if a TLS blog should once again find its focus on Proust. as his anniversary year draws to a close.)
“Simplifying matters somewhat, we could say that, for Proust, Italian painting springs fully formed into life as Giotto paints the Scrovegni Chapel in the early fourteenth century and expires some two hundred and fifty years later during the old age of Titian. Baroque and eighteenth-century painting exist only fitfully in his compendious [good adjectival variant!] novel, and later Italian painting not at all.” How strangely useful it is to be told this.
Bowie discusses an episode in La Prisonnière in which Charlus takes his young lover the violinist Morel to a restaurant:
“I can’t go out with him to a restaurant without the waiter bringing him notes from at least three women. And always pretty women too. Not that it’s anything to be wondered at. I was looking at him only yesterday, and I can quite understand them. He’s become so beautiful, he looks like a sort of Bronzino; he’s really marvellous.” (C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation, revised by Terence Kilmartin and further revised by D. J. Enright)
“We could say that Bronzino appears here simply as shorthand for sexual ambiguity in males, and that the languid elaborations of the Mannerist style are being summoned up by Charlus for his familiar purpose of erotic provocation. He seems to know what Bronzino was at when he painted those beautiful feminized youths whose displaced virility is returned to them by a sword, an armoured codpiece, or a nearby marble figurine.” Bowie directs us to Bronzino’s “Portrait of a Sculptor” (in the Louvre, above). Brilliantly illuminating.
But then Italian painting has its more prosaic purposes for Proust’s characters: they “use paintings for their own worldly ends, handle them with carefree impropriety, and have only a fleeting sense of their independent aesthetic dignity. Proust’s novel is a disorderly imaginary museum in which no exhibit has a fixed position or a stable value. The Italian galleries of this museum have their own fluttering population of ghostly grandees, whether artists or sitters.”