I have tried to provide the reader with, so to speak, an improvised memory

From the opening pages of Proust’s preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens. This translation is from the Yale press On Reading Ruskin. The French is available here

To read only one book by an author is to see that author only once. True, in a single conversation with someone we can discern particular traits. But it is only through repeated encounters in varied circumstances that we can recognize these traits as characteristic and essential . For a writer, for a musician, or for a painter, this variation of circumstances that enables us to discern, by a sort of experimentation, the permanent features of character is found in the variety of the works themselves. We meet again in a second book, in another painting, the peculiarities which we might have thought the first time belonged to the subject matter as much as to the writer or the painter himself. By comparing different works, we distinguish common traits which, taken together, reveal the moral character of the artist.

When several portraits by Rembrandt, painted from different models, are gathered in a room, we are immediately struck by what is common to all of them, what constitutes the very features of the Rembrandt face. By inserting a footnote to the text of The Bible of Amiens each time this text evoked, through even remote analogies, the recollection of other works of Ruskin, and by translating in the note the passage which had come to my mind, I have tried to put the reader in the position of one who would not find himself in Ruskin’s presence for the first time but who, having had previous conversations with Ruskin, would be able to recognize in his words what is permanent and fundamental in him. Thus I have tried to provide the reader with ,so to speak, an improvised memory in which I have arranged recollections of other works of Ruskin-a kind of sounding board against which the words of The Bible of Amiens will be able to ring more deeply by awakening fraternal echoes. But these echoes will undoubtedly not correspond to the words of The Bible of Amiens, as they penetrate a memory which is itself composed of horizons generally hidden from our sight and whose various distances our life itself has measured day by day. In order to come into focus with the present word whose resemblance evoked them, these echoes will not have to go through the gentle resistance of that interposed atmosphere which is the span of our life and all the poetry of memory.

Fundamentally, the first part of every critic’s task should be to help the reader appreciate these special traits by drawing his attention to similar traits that enable him to recognize them as the essential features of the genius of a writer.

If the critic is aware of this and has helped others to awareness, his function is almost fulfilled. Ifhe has not perceived it, he can write all the books in the world on Ruskin: the Man, the Writer, the Prophet, the Artist, the Influence of his Thought, the Errors of his Doctrine, and all these works may perhaps reach a very high level of excellence, but skirt the subject. They may exalt the reputation of the critic but, as regards the true understanding of the work, they will be of less value than the exact perception of a correct nuance, however insignificant it might seem.

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