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Marcel Proust: A Life

Marcel Proust: A Life - William C. Carter A la Recherche de Proust: Une vie retrouvée.Whenever one mentions the reading a biography of a famous artist or writer or composer, a debate always springs up. Why bother with the life of this creator, why not just concentrate on his/her production? When this door-stopper of a tome arrived on the mail, I thought again: why bother? I jumped in nonetheless, with a curious mixture of curiosity and incredulity. I knew so little about Proust’s life that I did not even know that there was very little to be known anyway.I continued with my doubts in the earlier part of the book. I felt the suspicion that I was reading a full fledged The Life and Miracles of Saint Proust. Proust as the object of a cult. The book seemed to be based on the premise that we were to adore everything Proust did and touched. This is something that he himself seems not to have fallen for, except for once with his covetous hiding of Whistler’s leftbehind gloves. But when he did this, Proust was still young.So, what is the interest of a life of someone who basically did not have a life? He was a spoilt kid of an upper middle class family; he relished in letting his delicate health trap him in his body; he could not find a profession or a socially respected activity; he lived off the rents of his inheritance; he could not participate in any way in the war because of his general weakness; he was a social butterfly whose only activity was to attend parties; he travelled little and always on the trail of someone else’s journeys. The relics that have become the center of adoration are his eccentric habits and absurd antics. His contemporaries themselves perceived him as a dilettante and superficial socialite. As he was seen as no more than a society-page writer, or at the most as an ingenious author of funny literary pastiches, Gide at first rejected to publish his Du côté de chez Swan. Gide did not think that Proust was capable of writing anything of weight. For years then, Proust became a voyeur, figuratively and literally. By wanting to know about this uninteresting life we become voyeurs too, idle ones at that. So, why bother with this hagiography?Proust himself took issue at this obsession with knowing the lives of writers as a necessary step to understand someone’s artistic production. This is one of his main contentions in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve and an opinion that he repeatedly expressed. This could have been, however, his defensive stance. He must have thought that the superficial impression of his overall life did not represent his inner self, and also, may be, that it was better to keep out of view some aspects of his chosen habits.But I am fascinated by history and Proust lived during a fruitful and fertile age of French--mostly Parisian-- cultural production in which social circles were the breeding grounds. To follow his life then provides an entry into those Salons of a gilded world, the legendary Fin-de –siècle which we now know was also the fin d’un monde or foregone age. And although Proust has a point in his critique of Sainte Beuve’s insistence of the private lives as a key to understanding of art, our contextualizing is now different. Together with the interest offered by the wider context, Carter’s ability becomes apparent as the book proceeds. In his account, among all the details of a seemingly superficial and capricious lifestyle, Proust starts emerging as a very intriguing and endearing personality. Yes, granted, Proust was irritating and manipulative, and Carter does show impatience with him a couple of times, in particular when he has detected that even his parents had to suffer the despotic mischief of their beloved child. But as he says, Proust had an extraordinary capacity for tenderness and sensitivity. He also emerges as a brave man incapable of base behavior. For example, Proust spearheaded the involvement of the intellectuals in the defense of Dreyfuss during that shameful episode; he would walk through Paris at night during a bomb blitz without seeking refuge; he was very generous and distributed economic help for the needy; and for all his high society fluttering, he had no prejudices against lower social strata.Carter’s biography is therefore a wonderful read. It is also the product of an admirable task that must have been blatantly and excruciatingly hard work. He has presented, chronologically, in a very clear language his very clear conclusions after an incredible amount of labor. I cannot image the volumes of material Carter must have dealt with, but he seems to have rummaged and explored with a fine-toothed comb heaps and heaps of letters, articles and diaries. And it is noticeable that he has methodically and rigorously checked the long list of names of the persons who cropped up in Proust’s gregarious life style, and has contrasted despairing testimonies. So this big tome is a very economical way of dealing with all the complementary written material that Proust has left behind. This biography is therefore an excellent source for tracking other aspects of his writing. Along the 800 pages Carter gradually lists the names of writers Proust was familiar with and on which he built his extraordinarily extensive and rich literary baggage. The same can be said about his musical and artistic interests. In music his taste was partly guided by the ear of his friend, the composer Reynaldo Hahn, and Carter includes those pieces that had a special resonance in Proust. As for painting Carter shows how Proust relied on the tastes, knowledge and illustrated material of the collector Charles Ephrussi. These are all arts that found a place in La recherche. Finally, Carter gives also a very meticulous account of the very complicated history of the printing of the whole of La recherche.In spite of the great amount of information presented, however, Carter does not drown in the material nor does he present a simple chronicle. He develops captivating themes. While following ordered time, the titles of his chapters, such as “Vanity Fair”, “Love and War”, “Fountain of Youth”, are inviting from the very moment in which one is just flicking through the pages in anticipation of reading this biography.The fact that Proust could produce La recherche only once he had turned forty shows that his had been a fertile life after all. The literary soaking up and inexhaustible bookish pedigree; the resolved creativity crises with the Ruskinian salvation that showed him that he could seek an alternative way to structure his work; the Sainte-Beuve dialectic that helped him in formulating a suitable Narrator with a rich voice that spoke of more than one kind of existence, and who could shift in time and record life from different vantage points; all are topics that Carter develops alongside more trivial aspects of Proust’s life. And Carter does not give all of these away in one delivery. He presents them gradually, by installments, in a Proustian structured and paced way. So that it is by the end of the biography that we can grasp what La recherche entails although Carter has not spoilt it by giving it away. The structure of Proust’s work becomes clear also in the conclusion of this reading. Carter has not damaged our encounter with Proust’s Oeuvre. He has prepared us to approach it with attuned ears and focused eyes, as well as awaken our olfactory senses to enter the Narrator’s world.I have only one wish left unfulfilled in this book. I would have welcomed the numerous original quotes, in French, to be included somewhere in the book.This has been a memorable reading, with or without a madeleine.

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