Proust’s most famous critic claims that he didn’t have “even a vague or confused idea” of how his novel was going to hang together. Others tell us that every statement in the novel is a “transient hypothesis,” that Proust has “made up his mind about nothing,” or even that Proust thinks he himself is “mad” for believing that art has the power to transfigure reality. This paper will explain why none of that is true. As is clear from his essays, his letters, and even his actions, Proust was not an “essayist,” in the Musil sense: not someone, that is, whose assessments were always tentative and provisional, ready to be relinquished at any moment. At least when it comes to the relationship between selfhood, style, and art, Proust had a set of pretty robust beliefs; and those same letters, along with elements of the novel itself, also show that he wasn’t flying without instruments. So why have some critics thought otherwise? Perhaps, in part, it’s because they have assumed the narrator always speaks for Proust. If so, their foundational assumption isn’t just mistaken; it’s also likely to prevent the novel from doing some of its most important work on us, a work not of deconstruction, and not simply of didacticism, but of self-understanding, formal modeling, and habit cultivation, all in the service of a better life.

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