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Remembrance of Proust Past

ISSUE:  Spring 2001
Marcel Proust: A Life. By William C. Carter. Yale University Press. $35.00.

In the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator reflects on whether he really knows Françoise, the family’s longtime maid with whom he is in daily contact, and comes to the conclusion that contrary to what he had believed “a person does not . . .stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his faults, his defects, his plans, his intentions in regard to ourselves . . .but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge.” This moment of insight on the part of the narrator informs Proust’s entire work, which could be read as a prolonged questioning of anyone’s ability to know another person. His narrator, who expends vast amounts of time, energy, and money in a fruitless attempt to understand Albertine, the woman he loves, consistently casts doubt on the possibilities of interpersonal knowledge. How much more difficult to fathom, then, must be the self of great artists. If Françoise and Albertine cannot be understood through their personal lives, can we expect to understand a genius by knowing his personal life? And, what right have we to try to know? Proust seems to have thought that we have no such license, for his answer to the question, put to him when he was but 15, “For what have you the most toleration?” was: “For the private lives of geniuses.”

This early willingness to concede a wide latitude to the behavior of geniuses and the accompanying sentiment that their privacy must be respected led to his profound conviction that a work of genius is greater than the life of its creator. A creative artist’s life cannot explain his work which is the product of a self other than the one he manifests in his daily habits. If Proust is correct, as surely he must be, are we then left with an epistemological impasse rendering biography but a useless curiosity? Can we hope to understand Proust’s genius by knowing his life? The answer from Proust’s perspective would seem to be, no, but such a response would require drawing sharper lines than he intended. Proust’s distinction between the social and the creative self is not meant to signify an unbridgeable abyss between the two. That the social self cannot explain the creative self does not preclude a level of interdependence between them. Proust’s masterful depiction of the mores of high society in Paris during the belle époque is, after all, dependent on his having himself been an assiduous presence in that milieu. If Proust, the socialite, cannot explain Proust’s genius (any more than could his physical illnesses or his homosexuality), Proust would not, I believe, have denied that an author’s having been a socialite, a sick man, or a homosexual might have nourished his writing, and he would have readily acknowledged a reciprocal exchange between the life of the artist and the work of art. In his case, not only did his life experiences inform his work, his life was in turn changed by his work.

Proust’s own strictures against biographical approaches to the arts notwithstanding, he has not suffered from a lack of biographers since his death nearly eight decades ago. In France, the first biography, by Léon Pierre-Quint (1925), appeared within three years of his death, two years before the publication of the final volume of In Search of Lost Time and five years before the first, very incomplete, edition of Proust’s correspondence. Its understandable inadequacies invited the increasingly more comprehensive versions of André Maurois (1949), Ghislain de Diesbach (1990), Rocher Duchêne (1994), Michel Erman (1994), and Jean-Yves Tadié (1996). The first biography in English, by Richard H. Barker (1958), was followed almost immediately by George Painter’s considerably more reliable effort (two volumes, 1959 and 1965), a work that has been so influential (it was translated into French as well as five other languages), that it succeeded in forestalling any further biographies in English until Ronald Hayman’s (Harper Collins, 1990). Proust’s biographers have, for the most part, been competent scholars or serious men of letters, some of them professional biographers, who have tried to represent his life as objectively as possible (though not always avoiding the perils of identifying Proust with the narrator of In Search of Lost Time), avoiding the various opportunities that Proust afforded to sensationalize his life. The earlier biographies, based on quite partial information, are now dated and each subsequent one has profited from its predecessors as well as from the continuing new documentation that has been made available on Proust. This has resulted in increasingly hefty tomes, however: Pierre-Quint’s 1925 biography is less than 100 pages, while Carter’s and Tadié’s both run to well over 900 pages, including notes.

Carter, well aware of the biographies that have preceded his own, some of which are still in print, takes pains to justify having written still another, as does Tadié (whose own biography of Proust has recently been published by Viking). There is ample justification for a retelling of Proust’s story, for the earlier biographers, including Painter, did not have access to a good portion of Proust’s correspondence that is now available through Philip Kolb’s 21-volume edition (completed in 1993), to Proust’s notebooks and manuscripts that became available only in the 1980’s, nor to a number of pertinent sources, such as the recollections of Proust’s maid, Céleste Albaret. Moreover, much good work has been done in recent years on important figures in Proust’s literary life, such as Gaston Gallimard. Ronald Hayman, a professional literary biographer who has written biographies of Sartre, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Sade, among others, was in a position to avail himself of most of this material, and clearly did. He is a good, sometimes insightful biographer, but not as seasoned a Proust scholar, as is Carter who published a well-received critical study, The Proustian Quest, in 1993 (Hayman, however, does provide a bibliography, which Carter does not). Carter is superior to Hayman in delineating the genesis of major Proustian themes in his earlier works, demonstrating how earlier writings already show Proust searching for laws of psychological behavior, tracing the development of his style, and chronicling the development of his aesthetic thought (I also find Carter stronger than Tadié on Proust’s engagement with Ruskin). Carter succeeds in demonstrating Proust’s anxieties regarding his style and his uncertainties once he reached his mature style, which Carter dates from the time of Proust’s preface to his translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. One would not be led astray by reading Hayman, but Carter’s is a more careful, precise, and scholarly work that is concerned with the writer as much as the man.

So much is now known in such detail about Proust’s life that there is a constant danger that the details might distort the whole. Biographers writing about Proust today have access to the same information, and so may differ only in what they consider to be a significant detail, on what they might include in their narrative that would add to the configuration of the self that is being reconstructed. Should a biographer report that Proust in the last months of his life asked the Catholic poet, Francis Jammes, to pray to St. Joseph on his behalf? Tadié does; Carter does not. Yet, Carter gives more detail on Proust’s funeral than does Tadié. On balance, Carter has been judicious in his choices and moreover never distorts the facts at his command to make the story more interesting. He possesses the admirable quality of being able to process an enormous amount of data without becoming engulfed in it. Hence, he is able to inform his readers when he thinks an acquaintance of Proust may be deviating from the truth or when Proust’s own veracity may be called into question. Carter has read Proust and his correspondence meticulously, has scoured the memoirs and recollections of all those who knew him, and is well-informed on the cultural and social life of the times. And, he is careful to document all his sources, revealing a very high level of intellectual integrity. His errors are few, and of the inconsequential variety, such as situating rue Hamelin, the site of Proust’s last residence, in the 8th arrondissement instead of the 16th. Misleading statements are rare as well. In that category would be the assertion that at age 28, Proust was “long an avid reader of . . . American literature,” a statement that overstates, in my judgment, Proust’s interest in American literature, which was limited to Emerson and Poe, and possibly later, Whitman and Thoreau. In a text as long as Carter’s, however, one cannot but be impressed at the scarcity of such imprecisions.

The occurrences of fictionalization of the subject—a temptation always difficult to resist for biographers—are also rare and easily excused, as in the case where Carter attributes specific emotions to his subject at the age of two: “The birth of a sibling and the move to a new apartment at first shocked the toddler.” Compared to Painter and Hayman, this is minor indeed. I would, however, question one of Carter’s strategies, also used by other biographers of Proust, namely the technique of referencing what is given as a biographical fact to another biography. An example of this occurs when Carter relates that Marcel and his brother, Robert, on a childhood trip to Illiers, placed “hawthorn branches dripping with blossoms on the altar of the Virgin Mary” in the local church. This detail is footnoted by a reference to André Maurois’s The World of Marcel Proust, but Maurois, whose tendency to identify the life with the work is well-known, himself gives no reference for this incident. Another such example would be when Carter affirms that Proust was proud of his certificate of first communion and confirmation, but gives as his source Painter’s essay introducing a collection of Proust’s letters to his mother but where Painter gives no source for this statement. The danger for the biography of Proust is the perpetuation from one biographer to another of minor information that is actually undocumented.

Given Proust’s strong reservations on identifying the artistic creator with his social self, one might be led to question a biographer’s referencing the fictional work as support for biographical data about its author. On this score, Carter is much more circumspect than many Proustian biographers, Painter and Maurois among them, who blurred the distinctions between their biographee and his novel’s character, yet he does not avoid it entirely. Consider for example Carter’s narrative of Marcel and his brother, Robert, watching magic lantern shows in their youth. Carter relates how they watched in wonderment as images of Geneviève de Brabant, Bluebeard, and Golo moved across the wall in “an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colors.” The words in quotation marks are from Proust’s novel and Carter gives the appropriate reference. But the novel cannot be a guarantor of the veracity of the biographical fact. There are not many of these, a half dozen maybe, hence considerably fewer than in Painter and Hayman who don’t always indicate that they are using the novel as a prop. Usually, Carter will acknowledge in the text itself, as opposed to a footnote, that he is shifting to the novel.

While Carter’s documentation is impeccable, making it possible for the reader to verify the source of every assertion made, one documentary method that I found less than satisfactory is that references to Proust’s fiction and correspondence are given to the English translations only, when these exist. In the case of the correspondence, this creates a double system of referencing, since those letters that have not been translated are necessarily referenced to the 21-volume French edition. Since this biography is addressed to Proust scholars as well as the general public, giving a reference to both the English and the French versions would have been helpful.

These, however, are but minor blemishes. Carter is highly skillful in handling Proust’s complex psychology and never yields to the temptation to make of him a case study. Proust’s private demons are there—his obsessive clinging to his mother; his constant craving for affection; his problematic sexuality; his obsequiousness; his possessiveness—but they are woven into the narrative texture without Carter attempting, as did Painter, to provide a global interpretation of Proust’s psyche. Carter has in abundance the greatest quality required of a biographer: a profound respect for the autonomy of his subject. I cannot help but believe that while he would have cringed at revelations about his sexuality, Proust would have been pleased with this life. He would have found this work respectful of both his social and his creative self and would have concluded that Carter’s careful method is far removed from that of Sainte-Beuve which he so despised. Proust the creative genius will forever remain elusive, no matter how many details we may learn about his daily life, and Carter, a sophisticated reader of Proust, does not pretend that his biography will allow us to understand him at the deepest level. He has, however, provided us with a remarkable entry into the life of a genius, and that is no mean achievement. Unlike Painter, who referred to his biography as “definitive,” Carter makes no claim to having said the last word on Proust’s life. Yet, while there is still material on Proust to be uncovered (many of his letters to Robert de Fénelon, for example, have yet to be seen by any Proust scholar), Carter’s biography will likely stand for as many years as Painter’s.


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