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Miriam Heywood – Searching in silence: Proust’s musical hypertext

The Humanities and Arts Research Centre at Royal Holloway University of London (HARC)

Event Date: Friday 11 June, 2010 – 10am-6pm

The Boardroom, 2 Gower Street, London


Unsettling Scores: A Study Day on French Musico-Poetics from Banville to Duras

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Miriam Heywood (UCL): Searching in silence: Proust’s musical hypertext

Music has long dominated discussions of Proust’s treatment of sound in A la recherche du temps perdu, due in part to its privileged thematic and discursive role in the novel. But what exactly is the nature of Proust’s ‘musicality’ and to what extent can music be transposed into literary expression? To answer these two questions I begin by investigating the anagrammatic quality of Proust’s prose in relation to Genette’s discussion of hypertextuality (one of five kinds of transtextuality set out in Palimpsestes: la littérature au second degré (1982)). In altering the terms of Genette’s conception of hypertextuality (which he describes as the imitation or transformation of a text by another text – such as parody or pastiche) I consider the extent to which the imitation and transformation of music as a formal hypertext is implemented in A la recherche.

Jean Milly suggests that the mot-thèmes distributed in Proust’s sentences, which he considers in relation to musicality, are linked to underlying signifieds that are distinct from the signification of the words and sentences themselves. More importantly, he pointedly refrains from offering any fixed interpretations of these specific signifieds. It is exactly this aspect of the anagram as unhinged from the signifying system of natural language that also underscores the hypertextual possibilities of Proust’s sentences, for it is on the imitation of music and not the use of music as a textual device or agent of meaning that the notion of formal hypertextuality depends. However, Adam Piette argues that Proust’s anagrammatic offerings are, on the contrary, musical ‘memory-signals’ that signify the ‘deep dramas’ of Proust’s prose. My paper will consider the implications of each of these arguments, which reflect divergent understandings of the relationship between music and literature, and of Proust’s novel at the most fundamental level. My argument coincides with both Jean-Jacques Nattiez and Peter Dayan who insist that the resistance to interpretation is the necessary criterion for the expression of music in literature. And it is through Proust’s refusal to offer the reader the treasure of artistic transcendence – that we, along with the narrator, have been searching for throughout the entire novel – that the musical hypertext is sustained and strengthened.

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