The Long Proustian Shelf

MARCEL PROUST: A Life,
by Jean-Yves Tadié.
Trans. by Euan Cameron.
Viking. $40.00.

MARCEL PROUST: A Life,
by William C. Carter.
Yale University Press. $35.00.

MARCEL PROUST,
by Edmund White.
Viking. $19.95.

PROUST’S WAY:
A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time,
by Roger Shattuck.
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. $26.95.

PROUST AMONG THE STARS,
by Malcolm Bowie.
Columbia University Press. $30.00; $16.50.

HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE,
by Alain de Botton.
Vintage.  $12.00p.

THE YEAR OF READING PROUST:
A Memoir in Real Time,
by Phyllis Rose.
Counterpoint. $15.

He is France’s great modern writer. Ubiquitous on the shelves of educated readers around the world—and serving for many of them, indeed, as an intentionally conspicuous warranty of their cultural sophistication (a role Proust would have hated)—his multiple-volume masterpiece is nonetheless far more often mentioned than read, and is ventured into by countless adventuresome souls whose spirits fail them, alas, long before the novel’s end. This is less the fault of the book, or (perhaps) of the would-be readers themselves, than it is of the pace and pressures of the times we live in, whose comforts, conveniences, and “time-saving” gadgetry increasingly conspire to alienate us from the natural rhythms of life-and to make a book like Proust’s (though there is, of course, no other book that is anything like Proust’s) seem unbearably slow and uneventful.

In this age of sound bites and music videos, then, À la recherche du temps perdu—a book that reminds us on every page how much there is in everyday existence to notice, relish, and learn from, and that will simply not yield up its rewards to those who speed through life, barely noticing the names on the station platforms as they pass—would seem to be the ultimate back number and the quintessential cultural casualty. And yet somehow, nearly eight decades after his death in 1922, Proust is (by some measures, anyway) a hotter commodity than ever. The last few years have witnessed a tidal wave of new biographies, critical studies, and barely categorizable odds and ends with his name in the title; the year 2000 alone saw the publication of two 900-page biographies, both entitled Marcel Proust: A Life—one of them written by William Carter, the other a translation by Euan Cameron of Jean-Yves Tadié’s authoritative life (which appeared in French in 1997).  Both books are very fine, though with different strengths. Tadié—a professor at the Sorbonne, an editor at Gallimard, and the author of several earlier books on Proust—has obviously made use of the research he did in connection with his controversial Pléiade edition of À la recherche du temps perdu: his Marcel Proust swarms with details, dates, and both footnotes and endnotes (often several of each on a single page).

To be sure, as with Proust’s novel (which first entered English, thanks to the translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff, as Remembrance of Things Past but is now increasingly referred to by the more accurate if rather less poetic title In Search of Lost Time), it can take a while to orient oneself to the style and structure of Tadié’s book. The proliferation of sentence fragments can be off-putting at first; so, too, can the frequent blizzards of commas (“Robert [Proust], imitating his father, kept an accredited mistress, Mme. Fournier, for whom, it is said, he provided accommodation not far from where he worked, using Marcel, especially during the war years, as a messenger”). The prose is such that one feels at times as if one is reading Tadié’s notes. Yet one soon comes to see the hasty style as a function of authorial enthusiasm—an eagerness to get all these goodies down on paper; and eventually one finds oneself not only understanding but also sharing Tadié’s sense of urgency and excitement.

And one had better, for Tadié’s book is every bit as obsessively inclusive as À la recherche. The narrative constantly breaks off so that we can read, for example, several hundred words on the life of Georges Bizet’s wife (whose son was a friend of Proust). Yet one never tires of these detours: they add up to a fascinating portrait of a time and place in which human civilization may arguably be said, in some respects at least, to have reached a zenith. And Tadié (who is patently Proust’s Leon Edel) writes with a sense of absolute authority about every last bit of it—not just about Proust’s work, family, friends, and acquaintances, but also about his era’s manners and morals, scientific and technological advances, and political and cultural developments.

Everybody knows about Proust’s intense attachment to his doting mother, with whom he lived until her death, but Tadié also recognizes the extensive influence of Proust’s physician father, Adrien (whose epidemiological studies helped inform Camus’s novel The Plague). “Proust’s view of the world, of life and its passions,” Tadié points out, “was also medical: everything is a matter of pathology, of symptoms, and every description becomes a diagnosis; nowhere more so than where love is concerned.” Tadié examines at length the part played by figures like Carlyle, Emerson, and Henri Bergson (a cousin by marriage) in the formation of Proust’s mature art, as well as the crucial role of Ruskin, whose Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies Proust translated—a key step in the development of both the sensibility and the prose style of À la recherche. (As Tadié writes: “The structure of Ruskin’s sentences, which were long, rich in incident and imagery, supple and musical, and had been influenced by the Authorized Version of the King James Bible, which British men and women of that period knew by heart, impregnated [Proust’s] own style.”)

This biography is a rare example of total imaginative sympathy. Tadié has immersed himself so fully in Proust’s life and work that you sometimes have the feeling he knows and understands the man as well as Proust himself ever did. The book abounds in confident and authoritative—if often exceedingly recondite—assertions, none of which seem to overreach. For example: “Very often, when Proust mentions poems of secondary quality in À la recherche, such as ‘Ici-bas’ by Sully-Prudhomme, or poems by Leconte de Lisle or Armand Silvestre, it is because they have been set to music by Fauré.” Or: “It would be incorrect to claim, as does one of Proust’s biographers, that [Reynaldo] Hahn was Saint-Saëns’ ‘lover’; the manner in which he wrote about the composer in Notes at this period does not for a moment allow us to suppose this.” Tadié’s discussions of the ways in which Anatole France, say, is and is not a model for the novelist character Bergotte, or Fauré a prototype for the composer Vinteuil, are entirely convincing. And his comment that “hardly any figures or prices (nor dates, time’s own price) [are] mentioned in À la recherche” is also significant: this omission, one realizes, is part of what can give readers of the novel the odd, almost otherworldly feeling that its events are floating in time, in and yet somehow outside of it. Tadié entirely undermines the image many of us have of Proust as a social climber who spent the first half of his adult life exclusively hobnobbing with titled dimwits and the second half of his life neurotically isolated in his bedroom, writing it all down. First, one is reminded at every turn that Proust numbered among his friends and acquaintances not only now forgotten aristocrats but most of the distinguished French writers, artists, and thinkers of his period. Second, Tadié makes it clear that the illness that kept Proust bedridden for so long was quite real, and that he struggled mightily against it. Third, Tadié’s tireless comparison of the novel’s dramatis personae and story line with the real people and events of Proust’s life reminds us that it is wrong to read even so much as a sentence of Á la recherche as autobiography—that Proust, in other words, was not a mere diarist but an artist who transformed everything utterly.

One turns to William Carter convinced that no one can easily top Tadié. Yet Carter has his own distinctive strengths. If Tadié serves up a data-heavy portrait of Proust’s world—indeed, a veritable Proustian biographical encyclopedia—Carter, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who has written an earlier book on Proust and co-produced a documentary about him, gives us a fluid narrative that seeks to get at the truth of Proust’s inner life, to capture the texture of his experience. The two books make for a continually absorbing contrast in perspective and emphasis: while Tadié looks back at the boy for premonitory signs of the great artist, Carter shows us the boy growing into the man (whom one of his editors, by the way, called “the most complicated man in Paris”); while Tadié inspects the pieces of the puzzle under a microscope, Carter fits them together; while Tadié is impressive, Carter is moving. Reading Carter, one feels genuine empathy for the boy who, in his mid teens, wrote to Bizet’s son confessing his crush on the addressee and describing his father’s dismay at having caught him masturbating. (Another friend, Daniel Halévy, who saw the letter, copied it into his diary and wrote: “This deranged creature is extremely talented, and I know NOTHING that is sadder and more marvelously written than these two pages.”) Many readers of À la recherche find that the novel, which they may at first find off-putting, even repellent, gradually grows on them, eventually securing their fast affection; the same is true of the Proust that one meets in Carter’s biography.

Carter’s approach repeatedly makes for greater vividness. One small example: while Tadié mentions in passing Proust’s subscription to a service called the theatrophone, by means of which he listened to live theatrical performances from home, Carter takes the trouble to tell us what the thing looked like—”a large black ear-trumpet connected through telephone lines to eight Paris theaters and concert halls”—and thus enables us to picture Proust actually using it. Carter’s more conventional book is friendlier than Tadié’s to non-specialists—and, one might add, to American readers. The latter becomes especially significant in connection with the Dreyfus case, in which Proust (who claimed, exaggeratedly but not without some justification, to be “the first Dreyfusard”) played a small but highly admirable role, defying his own father’s pro-Army stance by circulating a petition in support of the unjustly accused. Tadié provides very little context for this episode, assuming that readers will already be acquainted with the important facts of the Dreyfus case and will recognize the names of the principal figures; Carter, aware of what educated Americans are likely to know and not know, not only chooses (wisely) to recount the story of the case at length but also skillfully delineates its effect on French society. (This turns out, indeed, to be one of the most interesting parts of Carter’s book.)

If Proust’s support of Dreyfus was one of his finest moments, less admirable were episodes such as the one in which he, who had been cruelly ridiculed as a child, began taunting the composer Léon Delafosse (whom he had praised extravagantly) for no other reason than that Delafosse had fallen out of favor with the beau monde. Another low point was Proust’s feeble response to his friend Robert de Montesquiou’s anti-Semitism: in a letter to the arrogant count, Proust explained that since his beloved mother was Jewish, he was “not free to have the ideas I might otherwise have on the subject.” Then there is the matter of homosexuality. If Tadié (who consistently uses the word “invert” instead of “homosexual”) largely dodges the subject, Carter faces up to the logical and moral inconsistencies on the question of sexuality that are on display throughout both Proust’s life and art. That an author as profoundly consecrated as Proust was to the deepest truths of felt experience should have considered it necessary to place at the very heart of his novel a colossal set of distortions—that is, consistently to disguise males as females and homosexual attractions and relationships as heterosexual ones, and to affect a brand of moralism that was in fact alien to his own moral sensibility—certainly demands to be addressed. Tadié, in essence, declines to open this can of worms; not so Carter, who manifestly considers it important to tote up the ethical pluses and minuses of a writer whom Edmund White, in his own Proust biography, rightly calls “this generous, selfish man, this strong weakling, this compassionate snob.” (For Tadié, one gathers, Proust is above such calculations.)

Another difference between Tadié and Carter: if you ever thought of Proust as—well—a trifle odd, Tadié seems (for the most part) determined to disabuse you of that notion, while Carter’s attention to some of the quirky specifics of Proust’s life serves to bring out his weirdness in all its splendor. For example, while Tadié doesn’t even deign to mention the name of Albert Le Cuziat, the proprietor of a male brothel in Paris, Carter devotes several pages to Proust’s patronage of this establishment, where the author’s special kink was, reportedly, watching famished caged rats attack each other. What’s more, writes Carter, “Proust allegedly showed photographs of his distinguished lady friends to male prostitutes, who had been instructed to spit on them. . . . Other accounts claim Marcel subjected photographs of his mother to such defilement.” These stories, far from being improbable, make perfect psychological sense, given Proust’s desperately conflicted attachment to his adoring but relentlessly smothering and world-class guilt-tripping mother (who, as her deathbed nurse told Proust, always viewed him as a four-year-old). Such anecdotes also help explain the bizarre scene in The Guermantes Way–arguably the single most dissonant episode in the whole of À la recherche–in which the Baron de Charlus proposes to the narrator that the latter’s Jewish friend Bloch, for Charlus’s entertainment, “give his [Bloch’s] hag . . . of a mother a good thrashing.” Tadié’s deep-sixing of such material makes one wonder whether, like the French Army generals who covered up Esterhazy’s guilt and Dreyfus’s innocence, Tadié is interested less in setting forth the whole truth about Proust than in serving the greater glory of France.

White, in his own slim 1999 biography of Proust, says of these brothel anecdotes that they “conspire to suggest that Proust’s sexuality depended on defiling sacred objects, at least as a way of kick-starting it.”  This is one of many sharp insights in a book that is well suited to readers who, overwhelmed by the scale of Proust’s novel, may be disinclined to take on the additional tonnage of a Tadié or Carter. Of course, some Proust admirers might choose to eschew the reading of literary lives altogether, on the grounds that Proust himself (for reasons spelled out in his book Contre Sainte-Beuve) abhorred biographical criticism. Fine; but it should be kept in mind that dismissing biographical criticism is not the same thing as disapproving tout court of literary biography. Certainly there must be some textual illumination to be found, after all, in the life story of a writer who, in his final hours—knowing very well that he would shortly be dead—dictated a passage about the death of Bergotte, the distinguished author who serves as a mentor for the Narrator of À la recherche.

One thing, in any case, seems certain: while Proust might well have winced at Carter’s retailing of his private peccadilloes, he would, one suspects, have been outraged by the efforts of some contemporary critics to convince readers that his chef d’oeuvre is such a daunting piece of work that they must be protected at all costs from the fearful prospect of actually encountering it on their own. Case in point: Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way, published last year, which modestly offers itself up as (to quote the subtitle) “a field guide to In Search of Lost Time.”  Or take Malcolm Bowie’s Proust among the Stars (1998), whose jacket copy promises that it “brings readers back to the pleasures of the text rather than to the caprices of biography.” Yet “the pleasures of the text” are, of course, already there in the text. Why, then, shouldn’t the text be enough? Do intelligent readers really need Bowie at their side to explain to them how much they’re enjoying it?

Both Shattuck (a professor at Boston University) and Bowie (Oxford) have their merits. Yet each appears determined to make À la recherche out to be challenging in ways that render his own services indispensable to readers. The hyperbole put at the service of this effort can be absurd: the dust jacket of Proust among the Stars even ventures to claim that it “sends Proust into orbit and sends back truly startling pictures of our world.” What, in earth or in heaven, can this possibly mean? Naturally one hesitates to pay too much attention to jacket copy, but then again Bowie’s text is itself not entirely free of such overheated and borderline perplexing rhetoric. (“Proust’s political imagination plunges with abandon toward the abyss.”) Nor does he refrain from tedious professorial posturing. (“There seems to me something unsatisfactory about any reading of the book that does not resist as well as endorse Le temps retrouvé in the performance of this harmonizing and integrating role.”) Divided into seven chapters, each devoted to a major Proustian theme—self, time, art, politics, morality, sex, death—Bowie’s study (whose precise, unhurried prose moves at a pace rather reminiscent of Proust’s own) intermingles long quotations, plot paraphrases, commonsensical explications, the occasional genuine insight about syntax or perspective, and loads of hyberbolic huffing and puffing about paradox, ambiguity, “the ‘self'” as “mobile force-field,” and suchlike.

Shattuck, too, serves up his share of irksome, bemusing prose. “Mere awareness,” he writes, “volatilizes what it seeks and hampers its own functioning. The most reflective of us are endowed with this antithesis of the Midas touch.” And: “The mystery of Proust’s world arises not from gratuitousness or from the absence of motivation but from the conflictingly overdetermined quality of most actions, and from the adaptability of most actions to a greater number of attributions.” Nor is one’s admiration for Shattuck enhanced by the discovery that Proust’s Way, while representing itself as a new work, consists mostly of very lightly revised material from previous volumes, including most of his 1974 paperback Proust. One footnote, apparently preserved intact from his even older book Proust’s Binoculars (1963), suggests that “Proust scholars will be fascinated by Dr. Wilder Penfield’s report” on brain research–from 1958!

It’s no surprise, accordingly, that Shattuck’s “field guide” feels like something of a grab bag, its contents ranging from a synopsis of the novel (complete with structural diagrams) to a critical survey of academic Proust studies to a rant about Tadié’s indiscriminate shoveling of discarded drafts into his Pléiade edition. Portentous analyses alternate with chummy, rather condescending expert tips: in one chapter, lifted right out of his 1974 book, Shattuck poses, and answers at length, such questions as “In what language should one read Proust?” (Urdu?) and “How many of the three thousand pages should one read?” My favorite line in the book follows a long quotation from Proust: “What can I say about such a passage? There’s nothing to add.” Alas, Shattuck isn’t silenced for long.

 No, Shattuck’s book isn’t terrible. Neither is Bowie’s. But both studies are so much less engaging than the novel itself–and, unlike Proust, are so full of prose that makes one’s eyes glaze over–that one has trouble understanding their raison d’être, given that their supposed goal is to ease the plight of readers tackling À la recherche, and given, furthermore, that most of the observations contained in either of them will be self-evident to anyone who has actually read the novel.

Want a neat little antidote to windy tomes like Shattuck’s and Bowie’s? Try Alain de Botton’s tongue-in-cheek, whimsical-but-serious, small-scale confection How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997). Setting on its head the established view of Proust’s book as a purely aesthetic object, entirely divorced from any conceivable pragmatic end, de Botton (a writer whom one would hardly know how to describe were it not for the existence of such words as “twee” and “fey”) encourages us to approach Proust’s masterwork, in good old American fashion, as a teaching tool—a “guidebook” that instructs us (to quote some of de Botton’s chapter titles) “How to Love Life Today,” “How to Take Your Time,” “How to Express Your Emotions,” and “How to Open Your Eyes.” (For those who might object to Proust being moved to the self-help shelves, de Botton quotes something Proust once said to his maid: “Ah, Céleste, if I could be sure of doing with my books as much as my father did for the sick.”)

De Botton quotes to splendid effect a diary entry by Harold Nicolson, ignored by both Tadié and Carter, in which the British statesman describes meeting Proust at a party. When the novelist asked Nicolson to explain the workings of the political committees on which he was then active, Nicolson began a brisk account. Proust stopped him: “Mais non, mais non, vous allez trop vite. Recommencez . . .” Nicolson: “So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time–‘Mais précisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.'”  For de Botton, the moral of this is obvious, and flagrantly Proustian: Take your time. Savor the details. That’s where life is. Or, as a friend wrote me, by e-mail, after I told him I was slogging through all these books about Proust: “I’ve been reading Proust almost every morning before I get out of bed since last November. . . . He’s doing wonders to slow me down, help me see into gestures and memories, strip away idealization of places and people and still see beauty there.”

Indeed. On every page, Proust reminds us how rich life is with things of beauty that we never recognize as such and with depths of meaning we never bother to plumb, let alone articulate fully and precisely. And why don’t we? Because we don’t have the time (or don’t think we do); because we are constantly inviting a new sensation to rush in and take the place of the last; because—if the truth be told—we prefer an underexamined life to an underlived one. When one first plunges into À la recherche, one may find oneself protesting that Proust devotes too little attention to the political currents and international conflicts of his time; yet one may gradually find one’s critical eye turning uncomfortably on oneself, and reflecting on how much time one wastes on, say, newspaper articles that will soon be forgotten even as one allows life itself—that precious thing—to slip by, perhaps not unnoticed but insufficiently probed, penetrated, fathomed. In these fast-moving times, this truth that lies at the heart of Proust speaks to readers more urgently than ever. Yet some still manage not to get it.

Meet Phyllis Rose. In her 1997 memoir The Year of Reading Proust, she chronicles a year during which she worked her way through À la recherche. Yet Rose, who teaches English at Wesleyan, apparently managed to pick up absolutely nothing from Proust other than the grotesquely misbegotten idea that he put the stamp of belletristic approval on books consisting chiefly of name-dropping, drooling accounts of A-list soirées, and braggadocio about wealth and privilege. We don’t read much about Proust in this book, but we do read about how the ever-busy Rose ran into Tom Brokaw at “the Bernsteins’ party,” about how she threw a big dinner for Salman Rushdie, about how famous her father-in-law is (he wrote the Babar books), and about how her mother was, in her youth, “a blue-eyed beauty, a Jewish girl who somehow had ended up looking like Leni Riefenstahl.” (Yes, reader, that one bothered me, too.) We learn that Rose felt “different” as a child “in a time when difference was not admired.” Different why? Because a chauffeur drove her to school. (There are a lot of good ways to write about being a rich kid, but Rose’s isn’t one of them.) And so it goes: from beginning to end, this book is little more than a soliloquy of self-advertisement and self-congratulation. It would have made even Proust’s ultimate narcissistic snob, the Baron de Charlus, cringe.

Rose claims to have read À la recherche, but somehow she managed to miss one of its cardinal points–namely, the ephemerality and intrinsic meaninglessness of precisely those things (fame, affluence, social position) that for her, as for many a Proustian duchess, plainly serve as cornerstones of personal identity. Indeed, to read this memoir in connection with Proust’s novel–something that Rose’s title pretty much insists we do–is to observe the utter difference between a grotesque display of shallow social values and a profound analysis thereof. Rose doesn’t write much here about Proust, but when she does, the recurring word, believe it or not, is “glamour”: how staggering that what appears to impress her most about his novel are the bluebloods and the haute Parisian milieu! One is reminded of the English publicist and novelist Sydney Schiff, who misread À la recherche as an affirmation of his own snooty elitism and, in a letter to Proust, regretted its availability in a cheap edition that made it affordable by “any idiot.” Proust÷who felt that his most devoted and understanding readers were ordinary folks who read his book on the Métro÷upbraided Schiff for his snobbery, telling him, in Carter’s paraphrase, “that if Schiff really read his book he would see that he [Proust] cared nothing for society.”

At one point in Rose’s book, her brother-in-law, Thierry, “legendary in Paris for his talent, looks, and charm,” stuns her by giving up a highly promising career and a (what else?) glamorous social life to become a hermit in the countryside, where he maintains silence and communes with God. Proust could have made an unforgettable character out of Thierry (whose withdrawal from high society is not unlike his own); Rose is simply made uncomfortable by him. She doesn’t get it. The ultimate irony of Rose’s memoir, indeed, is that it gives us÷entirely unintentionally, of course÷an unforgettable first-person portrait of precisely the sort of vain, clueless individual whom Proust himself so brilliantly exposes throughout À la recherche du temps perdu.

THE HUDSON REVIEW, Autumn 2001