October 1, 2000
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Then I encountered Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust’s immortal and interminable masterpiece. Enchanted, I resolved to read every word of it, which has meant staying up late every night for years, and I’m still not done. I will probably never go to bed early again. But I don’t regret it for a moment.
Proust inspires that kind of devotion in his readers. Also, alas, in his biographers. The standard biography, George Painter’s elegantly written two-volume Marcel Proust (1959), is 800 pages long. The two new entries by William Carter and Jean-Yves Tadié are truly impressive in their combined (or separate, for that matter) weight and bulk. Fortunately, they are impressive in other respects as well.
Proust was born in 1871, amid the chaos of war and revolution. The Prussians had just humiliated the French army, and the postwar government turned savagely on the insurgents of the Paris Commune. But when these irruptions died down, France embarked on the glorious forty years of the Belle Epoque, the golden age of bourgeois civilization. Marcel had the ideal bourgeois upbringing: a cultivated mother from a cosmopolitan Jewish background, an eminent and indulgent father, one of the leading medical specialists in France, doting grandparents, wealthy uncles and aunts, summer houses, and the idyllic French countryside, as yet unspoiled by war and industrialization. It was a childhood full of lively domestic affections and delicious sense-impressions, and Marcel was a preternaturally sensitive child, storing up the innumerable memories that flooded out when released by that legendary madeleine.
It was an equally delightful adolescence, passed among other high-spirited, intelligent boys and teachers at one of the best lycées in Paris. Marcel emerged (as hard-working lycéens still do) with the equivalent of an Ivy League education, then passed a pleasant year in obligatory military service, at which he was comically inept.
To please his family, he spent a couple of years studying law and diplomacy. But his unfitness for any profession except literature was obvious, and his parents good-naturedly gave in. A blissful childhood had been his first literary apprenticeship. A splendid secondary education was his second. With the help of relatives, school friends, and his own exotic, captivating personality, he now began his third: high society. “Petit Marcel”’s sweetness, ardor, and elaborate compliments and rococo endearments (known as “Proustifications” among his friends) were irresistible. But he was never a mere socialite. If he had not been as intellectually earnest as he was witty and charming, he could not have become the most dazzling talker of the age. Proust’s conversation was described by an awed contemporary in terms that apply equally well to his mature prose style: “singsong, endlessly qualified, answering objections the listener would never have thought of making, raising unforeseen difficulties, subtle in its shifts and pettifoggery, stunning in its parentheses, which, like helium balloons, held the sentence aloft … that sentence vertiginous in its length, carefully constructed despite its apparent disjointedness; as you listened, spellbound, you risked becoming enmeshed in a network of incidents so tangled that you would have been lulled to sleep by its music had you not been startled awake by an observation of unbelievable profundity or brilliant comedy.”
Throughout the 1890s and the first years of the new century, Proust was a literary journeyman. He wrote stories, essays, reviews, and “pastiches” (imitations). He immersed himself in the writings of John Ruskin, the English critic of art and society, and translated Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies. He began and abandoned an autobiographical novel, Jean Santeuil. He cultivated the friendship of prominent men and women of letters: Anatole France, Alphonse Daudet, Robert de Montesquoiu, Anna de Noailles. He was briefly but deeply stirred by the Dreyfus Affair. He flirted with a great many handsome and clever young men and fell in love with a few of them. And he inherited a comfortable fortune on the death of his parents, which was considerably diminished by his stock market speculations, his extravagant gifts to friends and servants, and his asthma medications (many of them – like his investments – self-prescribed and disastrous).
In the fullness of time came his artistic consummation. Proust had long meditated a response to the influential critic Sainte-Beuve, who maintained that literature is best approached biographically and historically. Proust believed, on the contrary, in a radical disjunction between the social self and the creative self. The latter is called into being by “involuntary memory,” occasioned by chance impressions. Habit and everyday rationality seal off the past; aesthetic inwardness liberates it.
In 1908 Proust began writing this reply to Sainte-Beuve in the form of a story. It grew – and grew – into the longest and arguably the greatest of novels, now generally called In Search of Lost Time (rather than Remembrance of Things Past). The Search recreates the inner life of a Narrator who loses hold, as everyone does, of the thread connecting the present to the past, our surface to our depths, and who regains it in midlife, a discovery prepared for by his immersion in art and literature. The formal architecture, psychological insight, and verbal music of these three thousand pages will amaze and delight readers forever. (Or at any rate until television and the Internet eradicate aesthetic inwardness.)
Most geniuses are eccentric, but few can have been as eccentric as Proust. He slept (when he slept) through the day, rarely going out and then usually on impulse, often in the middle of the night, waking a bewildered friend for a few hours’ conversation while a taxi waited all night outside. About half his adult life seems to have been spent recovering from asthma and hay fever attacks. He was addicted to sleeping pills and potions, which of course ceased to help after a short while. He would go out in summer in a fur coat, because the slightest chill would render him immobile for days. Much of William Carter’s biography is devoted to recounting this sad, funny, heroic story, along with the parallel story of Proust’s continual misunderstandings and reconciliations with publishers and friends. Carter does a marvellous job of keeping this multitude of mini-events moving along and of keeping our sympathies engaged with the (after all) admirable Marcel.
Proust was also one of the most erudite of geniuses. Jean-Yves Tadié seems to be aware of the literary or historical source of every phrase Proust wrote, and determined to share this information. He also offers bolder and more frequent (sometimes even more illuminating) critical interpretations than Carter. Both biographies are rewarding; it’s safe to say that every Proustian will be entertained by Carter and instructed by Tadié.
First, of course, one must become a Proustian. But that’s easy. Just open Swann’s Way, the first volume of the Search, and Proust will do the rest. Plunge in, dear reader. You may never go to bed early again, but you won’t regret it for a moment.