In this sense Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows is the project of a great writer. In the first few chapters there is an extract from a letter written in Latin by Descartes, a passage from Chin P’ing Mei, a novel of the Ming Dynasty, and the story of Syagrius, the last king of the Romans, as told by Gregory of Tours. But this is not a waterfall to disrupt Proust’s deeper current: each chapter is a discrete approach to suppressed forms and persistent traces, the shadows of the title. “I seek only thoughts that tremble” he writes, “a flush interior to the soul”. This does not always require many pages, as short stories and poetry attest. The Roving Shadows seeks its own form – Quignard insists the book, published in 2002 as Les Ombres errantes, is not a novel or an essay but “a sequence of beginnings of novels, stories, landscapes, autobiographical fragments” – and yet yields similar rewards.
It is a still very Proustian quest, as Ombres suggests: to experience the presence of Time Past (he capitalises the phrase throughout) not as the past but as “a ceaselessly active actuality”. Our access is frustrated by the blinding light of modernity. In chapter 15, he describes Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s 1933 . . .