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Classics Reissued: Marcel Proust – A Life

By (April 8, 2013) No Comment

Marcel Proust: A Lifeproust - carter

By William C. Carter

Yale University Press, 2013

2013 marks the 100-year anniversary of the publication of Du cote de chez Swann, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s monumental novel-in-volumes A la recherché du tempts perdu, which was given an iconic English-language translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff as Remembrance of Things Past and has recently been more literally retitled In Search of Lost Time. From 1913 to 1927, seven big volumes came pouring out of Proust’s pen; they were widely reviewed right from the start, and they’ve been in print continuously ever since they first appeared. It’s therefore inevitable that the centenary would be something of an event.

It’s a problematic event in this case, and not just because Remembrance of Things Past (in whose 4,500 pages exactly 15 things happen) is such a steaming heap of Gallic wet-wash, the kind of hideously prolonged stupeur that only the worst excrudescence of modernism could produce. No, it’s problematic also because the work’s author was – how to put it? – a trouduc extraordinaire. Such a combination can make it tough to squeeze a happy anniversary out of even the most significant literary milestones.

And yet there’s a silver lining: Yale University Press has taken the opportunity to reprint William Carter’s massive, comprehensive, and utterly authoritative Proust biography as part of its Henry McBride Series in Modernism and Modernity. When Marcel Proust: A Life first appeared to universal praise in 2000, it instantly supplanted George Painter’s fifty-year-old two-volume set as the definitive life of the writer, and its re-appearance is cause for celebration regardless of the occasion.

The book is a doorstop, and it boasts a quick new Preface by the author in which – in a gentle note of staggering egotism that the book’s subject would have found completely recognizable – Carter informs us that he hasn’t revised his book in any way because the only really important advances in Proust studies in the last fifteen years were made by Carter himself and published a few years ago in a book called Proust in Love. Apres moi le bibliographie.

In this case it hardly matters, since Carter has done a truly definitive job of chasing down every last detail (including a great deal of correspondence not used by previous biographers) pertaining to his subject, the spoilt and much-petted hypochondriac son of a prospering Catholic doctor and his wealthy Jewish wife. Proust inspires his legion of hagiographers in exact countermeasure to how he challenges his few serious biographers: until he found his great literary vocation, he was idle, self-pitying, egotistical, and rude, and after he found his great literary vocation, he was extremely busy – and self-pitying, egotistical, and rude. Carter is forced to remind his readers (and perhaps himself?) that these extremely prominent characteristics counterbalance happier traits. “Although Proust’s gentillesse was legendary,” he tells us on more than one occasion, “his friends often needed to call on their own reserves of patience and understanding.”

His friends aren’t the only ones. A great deal of Marcel Proust: A Life requires readers to consult their own stores of patience. Much like the life’s work of its subject, this book is rather aggressively unedited for length, with the result that passages like this one, about the great writer as a dilatory schoolboy, fill the first two hundred pages when they ought not to occur at all:

In spite of many absences during the second term, Marcel’s name appears on the February 14 [1885] honor roll. But on March 31 he withdrew from Concorcet for reasons of health. His schooling now depended entirely on his mother and private tutors. Over the summer he would have to make up the work he had missed after dropping out if he wanted to stay with his class.

Even so, Carter is a wonderfully observant guide to the broader social contexts of Proust’s life, and of course his book is a revelation of frankness when it comes to the subject of Proust’s open homosexuality (also covered at length in, you guessed it, Proust in Love). Carter has an unfailingly sharp ear for the best quips, the perfect anecdotes, and just the right color to bring all of his digressions to life. One example among countless others is his quick discussion of the scandal that enveloped Kaiser Wilhelm’s court in 1907 when Prince Philipp von Eulenberg, the Kaiser’s close friend, was accused of filling the court with homosexuals:

The French, unaware that the disgrace of Eulenberg and other “catamites” could only work to France’s disadvantage as Germany grew more bellicose, enjoyed the embarrassment brought upon the kaiser’s court. In Paris one heard references to the “German vice,” and Berlin was nicknamed Sodom-sur-Spree. In the places where French homosexuals gathered, “Parlez-vous allemand?” – Do you speak German? – became the password for those seeking partners.

Once Proust began writing his maundering, meandering, monotonous masterpiece, even Carter can’t keep the narrative from flattening out a bit. The chapters become a serialized post mortem of all the various ways a prickly, demanding, inconsistent, conniving, ungrateful author can bully well-intentioned editors and publishers. Proust’s imagined ailments grow more numerous and begin to spawn genuine ailments, for which copious amounts of drugs are necessary, and his eccentricities become legion (steaming all newly-received letters for an hour in formaldehyde, for instance). The long-standing contention that writers should be read but not read about gets as strong a reinforcing as it’s ever likely to need in Carter’s last few chapters.

Just the same, it’s comforting to have this tome back in print. In its wit, panache, and broad-canvas intelligence – and even in its bloat – it’s a fitting tribute to the Oblomov of the writerly set.