For vast stretches of À la recherche du temps perdu, there is scarcely a page unadorned by vibrant colour. To commemorate the centenary of Marcel Proust’s death, Christopher Prendergast celebrates his use of pink, how its tone shifts from innocence to themes of sexual need, before finally fading out to grey at the novel’s close.
November 9, 2022
Proust, a natural-born chromophiliac, was of the tribe for whom the value of colour lies not in what it depicts, stands for, or represents, but in what it intrinsically and self-sufficiently is — a fact of and a force in the world. When not beset by worries about “idolatry”, he was sympathetic to John Ruskin’s claim that “colour is the most sacred element of all visible things”.1 Proust would have doubtless also endorsed the spirit of Ruskin’s more secular version of the significance of colour: “it is richly bestowed on the highest works of creation and the eminent sign and seal of perfection in them; being associated with life in the human body, with light in the sky, with purity and hardness of the earth — death, night and pollution of all kinds being colourless.”2
Proust does not seem to have been familiar with Goethe’s Theory of Colours. He read a number of the German’s works, and some of his thoughts were posthumously gathered together from his diverse papers under the heading “Sur Goethe”, but with no mention of Theory of Colours. Similarly, while he partly modelled his fictional painter, Elstir, on Turner, there is no evidence that he knew of Turner’s tribute to Goethe (the 1843 painting with the title so long that Thackeray mocked it: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)—The Morning after the Deluge—Moses Writing the Book of Genesis). However, it is not difficult to envisage Proust also siding with Goethe in the great quarrel with Newtonian optics. As someone who staked nearly everything in his aesthetic on the emphatic concatenation “true impression”, “genuine impression”, “real impression”, “first impression”, “original impression”, and “deepest impressions”, it is hard to see how Proust could not have agreed with Goethe that no account of colour is satisfactory without reference to human perception and subjectivity. He would doubtless have also been much taken with Goethe’s immensely suggestive definition of colour as “light’s suffering and joys”.3
For vast stretches of À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust’s seven volume novel published between 1913 and 1927, there is scarcely a page without a vibrant colour notation. The literary equivalent of the painter’s palette is rich in hue, tone and shade, and its various applications abundantly diverse, from the natural to the human world. There are several schools of thought whose cause is the identification of Proustian favourites. One vote goes to mauve (encouraged no doubt by the asparagus “stippled in mauve and azure”, the “mauve tufts” of the lilac blossoms, the “mauve silk” of Oriane’s scarf, and the “round mauve eyes” of the seductive Princesse de Nassau).4 Another goes to the series red, white, and gold yellow, while I am aware of at least four voters rooting for pink. (The asparagus also has a tint of “rosy pink”.)5 This is where I myself shall pitch camp, while also stressing that it is not my purpose to adjudicate claims on the relative values of the colour world of the Recherche. The novel’s chromatic profuseness defies easy summary, and in the Favourites game there will inevitably be fierce competition. To grasp the pointlessness of the various attempts at constructing for Proust a hierarchy of colours that is crowned by one in particular, we need only turn to his short text on Monet (which remained in manuscript form during his lifetime). The paintings of Argenteuil, Vétheuil, Epte, and Giverny capture “those inert hours of the afternoon when the river is white and blue from the clouds and the sky, and greens from the trees and the lawns, and pink from the rays of the sun already setting on the trunks of the trees, and in the blackness lit with the red of the thickets in the gardens where the great dahlias are growing.”6 White, blue, green, pink, red, and black — where to begin in prioritizing any one colour? And especially where to begin given Proust’s reflection on the “colour” of memory in the concluding paragraph of “Combray”, with its image of memory as a geological formation, the strata of which are differently coloured, akin to “that veining, that variegation of colouring, which in certain rocks, in certain marbles, reveal differences in origin, in age, in formation.”7
The Monet text does bring us to a question much debated at the time — the question of the so-called “modern colours”, especially of the fin de siècle. In his introduction to the 1868 edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, Théophile Gautier wrote of an art made from “colours from all palettes, notes from all key-boards . . . such is the inevitable and fatal idiom of peoples and civilizations where factitious life has replaced the natural life, and developed in man unknown wants.”8 This was a description from a certain point of view of what came to be called “decadence”. In relation to the colour palette of the modern painter, a central issue was the use of the new “aniline” colours, based on an industrial extraction from coal tar, and which in particular added to the artist’s palette the colour “mauve”.
The new aniline colours were controversial. Ruskin (for whom the “absolute colour” was scarlet) detested them, while Whistler signaled his distaste by means of a wilful misspelling designed to highlight his view of them as positively excremental — “analine”.9 Proust is part of this story, as witnessed by his own penchant for mauve (from the Duchesse de Guermantes’s scarf to the “mauve September sea”, not to mention the seductive mauves of Odette’s toilette).10 However, he also has another story to tell, and one that involves the citing of Baudelaire as the apostle of “modernity”. In the essay “Sainte-Beuve et Baudelaire”, he says of the poet that he was the pioneering figure in the discovery of the distinctively “modern colours”, with a special place reserved for one of them. “Remember that it was he who discovered all the true, modern, poetic colours, not very emphatic, but delightful, the pinks above all, together with blue, green and gold.”11 “Above all” is a strong qualifier and arguably excessive given that, apart from a couple of quotations from the poem “Chant d’automne”, Proust provides no evidence of such a claim by Baudelaire on behalf of pink. But the significant point here is Proust thought he found a legitimating support in Baudelaire for what was manifestly one of his own preferences. When in the essayistic Contre Sainte-Beuve, much of which is an exploratory trial run for what will become the Recherche, he characterizes the experience of colour as a form of “harmony”, the example he reaches for is pink: “The true colour of each thing moves us like a harmony, we want to cry when we see roses that are pink.”12
Within the Recherche itself, there would appear to be broadly two explanations of this attachment to pink. The first has to do with scope, the sheer range and versatility of Proust’s deployment of the colour spectrum throughout the novel. The display begins (where else?) on the Méséglise Way, with the hawthorn filling the narrator “with a joy . . . a pink hawthorn even more beautiful than the white” and in the village shop “where the more expensive biscuits were the pink ones”, an ally of the preference for “cream cheese when it was pink, when I had been allowed to crush strawberries in it.”13 All this before proceeding on the very next page to the first perception — through the hedge on “a path edged with jasmines, pansies and verbenas” of a “fragrant pink” — of Gilberte, her “face scattered with pink freckles”, along with the overheard name of “Gilberte” as “colouring the portion of pure air it had crossed”.14
Among its many other functions, the Méséglise Way proves to be a launchpad for the career of pink throughout the rest of the novel, from the “pink flanks” of the Venetian palaces to the Duc de Guermantes’ pink pyjamas (not to mention the Tiepolo pink of both the lining of Albertine’s Fortuny dress and Odette’s tea gown).15 In Balbec, there is the view over sea and coastline from the hotel room to the “bar of soft pink, in a shade which I had not set eyes on since my very first paintbox”.16 (It is interesting to speculate what the young boy did with the paintbox.) View and viewing become a dialectical toing and froing between perceived landscape and a remembered painting, as a “touch of pink was added to the uniform grey of sea and sky” and where nature seems to be imitating a Whistler canvas (“this Harmony in Grey and Pink after Whistler”) rather than the other way round.17 And then, leaping volumes, there is the role of pink in the hallowed territory on which the birth of the Proustian aesthetic is staged, when in the Guermantes library the narrator processes the rapid succession of involuntary memories, one of which evokes “the pink reflection of the evening on the flower-covered wall of a country restaurant”.18
The more fundamental value Proust attached to pink had to do with its “transparent” quality, in contrast to the thickly opaque aniline colours associated, in more senses than one, with the “dark”. As a natural home to light, pink is what he will come to call a “colour of life”. In a passage in Le Côté de Guermantes, it is dusk in the Bois de Boulogne, where over the lake “a pink cloud adds a last patch of living colour to the now tranquil sky”.19 There are echoes of Monet’s “pink from the rays of the sun already setting on the trunks of the trees” and of the autumn evenings “veiled in pink vapour” from the Baudelaire poem cited in the essay “Sainte-Beuve et Baudelaire”. The French original for “living colour” is somewhat different: “couleur de vie”. It is an important difference (conveying less the living properties of colour than the intriguing notion of the colour of life itself), and equally important is the textual fact that it is only ever in connection with pink that the expression “couleur de vie” is ever used by Proust. Dawn rather than dusk is, however, the more appropriate setting for this relation of colour, light, and life.
But under the pressure of sexual need, the colour can change shade, from the purer, more translucent dimension of pink to something darker. “I thought of the colours which I had seen close at hand a few hours before on the esplanade, and which were now going to reveal to me their taste”, he tells us as he contemplates Albertine asleep in bed, and he notes also “her face which seemed of a deeper pink”.20 When elsewhere the narrator speaks of “the unforeseen element of colour, which acts not only as the dispenser of different shades, but also as a great creator, or at least alterer, of dimensions”, he is thinking primarily of instabilities and variations dependent on “different lighting effects” or angles of vision.21 On the other hand, the instability can also be a function of inward states, especially in the “danger zones of desire”, the “life in the body” as its secret life, elusive, unreadable, and often threatening. In the wood on the cliff top at Balbec, the narrator and the young girls play a game (“ring-on-a-string”). He is especially attentive to Albertine’s “plump pink face” and “the perfect pink of her complexion”, along with her more general demeanour — “laughing for all she was worth, pink and glowing with the joy and animation of the game”.22 But there is a flaw in the fabric of innocence: a “squeeze from the hand of Albertine had a sensual softness which seemed at one with the slightly mauve pink of her skin”.23
Mauve! The colour of depravity in the extreme denunciation of the anilines. And then some pages later, her “complexion” acquires “a dark violet” hue and “on occasion the shade of her cheeks was as deep as the purplish pink of cyclamens”.24 The darkening is accentuated by moments “when the midnight shades of certain roses, whose red is so dark as to be almost black, gave her complexion an unhealthy appearance . . . filling her eyes with a look that was more perverse and unwholesome”.25 It is also a foretaste of what will become, in Sodome et Gomorrhe, the horror story of Gomorrah coming to Balbec in the form of the narrator’s suspicion of Albertine having had relations with Mademoiselle Vinteuil. Here pinkness becomes a source of near unendurable pain, as “the precious substance of her pink body” is imagined as a “pink ball curled up like a cat” and in the “place of Mlle Vinteuil’s friend”.26 And when in La Prisonnière the narrator coyly remarks to Albertine, “You’re so sweet and pink among all that snowy lace”, we know we have crossed over into menacing territory.27
With the darkening of the revered pink, there is also the parallel story of a fading, born of the stage that succeeds suffering. Bit by bit the pathology which drives the narrator to make a “prisoner” of Albertine breeds an ennui which in turn imprisons him. There are some further baroque flourishes with cheek, blood, and colour: “Her cheeks often looked pale, but seen from the side . . . they were suffused and brightened by blood which gave them the glow of those brisk winter mornings when, out for a walk, we see stone touched and ruddied by the sun, looking like pink granite and filling us with joy.”28 But stone and granite also point to something else: petrification, where the blood flush fades and, with it, the freshness of pink. The deeper the narrator sinks into indifference and boredom, the more the hitherto alluring Albertine loses colour and vivacity, as pinkness gives way to greyness. The “glittering actress of the beach” becomes the “grey prisoner”: “once a captive in my house, the marvellous bird I had once seen walking on the promenade . . . lost all its colours”.29
Grey is one aspect of a larger pattern of fade-out as the Recherche moves into its final stages (although it can also stoke madness, as with the example of the “lady in grey” whom the narrator imagines frolicking with Albertine in one of the shower cubicles on the beach at Balbec). Alongside the powerful “redemptive” message, the novel also sketches, if cursorily, a number of apocalyptic scenarios. The grimmest is of a planet extinguished as the warmth of the sun is progressively drained from it, heralding an endless frozen night. In a less drastic key, it has been reasonably suggested that, from his readings in Ruskin, Proust might have noted the latter’s imagining of a world, if not exactly colourless, then one chromatically drained: “Consider for a little while”, Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters, “what sort of a world it would be if all flowers were grey, all leaves black, and the sky brown.”30 It would be a world threatened by a withdrawal of “nature and life”, usurped by the “colourless” realm of “death, night and pollution of all kinds”.31
Something resembling the chromophiliac’s nightmare of a world without colour is to be found in the closing pages of the Recherche, as the characters and the book that contains them approach their respective ends. There is a premonition of this in the interlude between leaving the sanatorium and returning to Paris. In deep despond at “the thought of [his] lack of literary talent”, the narrator looks out of the window of the train and views with “indifference the flecks of orange and gold” with which the sun “splashed the windows of a house”, before seeing “another house which looked as though it were built of some strange pink material” and to which he responds with the “same absolute indifference”, as if he were an observer external to himself and who “had registered the colours without a trace of pleasure.”32
But the most telling detail is a structural feature of Proust’s own prose style, as if colour is departing from the book itself. Pink is a case in point. Prior to eclipse, there is a deterioration, the fresh pink cheeks of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur giving way to those of the fossilized Legrandin, their pink aspect the narrator now learns to have been an artificial effect of make-up, whose removal leaves a face with a “greyish look” and a man who is “a pallid pensive phantom of himself”.33 And then there comes the moment when there are no more pinks at all. The last instance is in the weak form of a farewell allusion to “the lady in pink” (aka Odette de Crécy).34 It is also, with some twenty pages still to go, the last mention in the Recherche of any colour at all, bar one. With just two pages left there is a terminal colour notation, the one that, by virtue of the absence of light, is often if controversially characterised as the termination of colour itself, namely black. In context it is but the property of two pairs of moustaches sported by two purely hypothetical gentlemen imagined solely for the purpose of making a more abstract point about the nature of time and decay. It is also the colour of the narrator’s own moustache (“I had not a single grey hair, my moustache was black”) and perhaps intended as on the same level as Albertine’s “respect for the colour black because it is always suitable and never out of place”.35
One thing that it is certainly not is the Monet “black” lit with red singled out by Proust in his unpublished piece on the painter. What the translation has as “the blackness” that is “lit with the red of the thicket”, is in fact “la ténèbre”, the arriving darkness of fading daylight rather than the colour black itself, which Monet scarcely acknowledged as a colour. After his early years, he came to exclude it altogether from the palette — “I use white lead, cadmium yellow, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue, chrome green. That’s all.” — a position that Georges Clemenceau honoured at Monet’s death, when refusing to allow a black funeral shroud over the coffin.36 The triviality of black highlighted in connection with the mildly comical topic of moustaches also situates it far from the black leaves of Ruskin’s dystopian imagining of a world in the process of becoming colourless. But it is also at a great distance from the bright shades that so entranced the younger narrator. It is truly the colour of the sense of an ending.
Christopher Prendergast is a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy. He writes for the London Review of Books and the New Left Review. He is also the general editor of the Penguin reissues of Proust’s work, published in 2002.
This essay has been excerpted and adapted from Living and Dying with Marcel Proust by Christopher Prendergast © 2022. The book first published 2022 by Europa Editions.