By Joseph Epstein
No one should read Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” for the first time. A first reading, however carefully conducted, cannot hope to unlock the book’s complexity, its depth, its inexhaustible richness. Roughly a million words and more than 3,000 pages long, it is a novel I have read twice, and one of the reasons I continue to exercise and eat and drink moderately and have a physical every year into my 70s is that I hope to live long enough to read it one more time.
Told with France’s Belle Epoque (that bright and lavish quarter of a century before World War I permanently darkened all life in Europe) as its background, “In Search of Lost Time” is the recollections of a first-person narrator over several decades. This narrator, who bears many resemblances to its author (he is called Marcel, and his family and circumstances are similar to Proust’s) but who also differs from him in striking ways (chief among them that his life is not devoted to writing a great novel), is relentless in his energy for analysis. In his detailed attempt to remember all things past, he is as all-inclusive as literature can get; what normal people filter out of memory the narrator channels in. And so it was with Proust himself: While most authors working at revision tend to take things out of their manuscripts, up to his death in 1922 Proust was continuing to add things to his.
“In Search of Lost Time” is a masterwork. Masterworks seem to require new translations every half-century or so, and such has been the case with Proust’s vast novel. Penguin has recently undertaken a re-translation, with different hands assigned each of the novel’s seven volumes, though, alas, not each of these hands is up to the difficult task of translating Proust, and so the translation is uneven. I prefer Terence Kilmartin’s 1970s reworking of the earlier C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, which appeared under the title “Remembrance of Things Past” (a phrase that Scott Moncrieff took from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past”). It remains in print from Random House, and among its other advantages is that the edition is spaciously printed, no small benefit in a lengthy work composed of sentences sometimes running several cubits long.
Masterworks also engender writing about them by superior people. Small books have been written about Proust’s novel by François Mauriac, Samuel Beckett and Jean-François Revel. Other studies of the book have been done by the poets Howard Moss and Howard Nemerov and the critic Roger Shattuck. Full-length biographies of Proust have been written by George Painter, André Maurois, William C. Carter and Jean-Yves Tadié. Others have written books about photography and Proust; about painting and Proust; about his May 1922 dinner meeting with James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky and other of the great figures of Modernism; about his interest in but limited knowledge of English. There is even an excellent biography of Proust’s mother, who played so important a role in his life. Proustolators, of whom I count myself one, do not want for excellent reading about their idol.
With “Monsieur Proust’s Library,” Anka Muhlstein has added another volume to the collection of splendid books about Proust. A woman of intellectual refinement, subtle understanding and deep literary culture, Ms. Muhlstein has written an excellent biography of Astolphe de Custine, the 19th-century French aristocrat who did for Russia what Alexis de Tocqueville did for the United States. Her previous book, “Balzac’s Omelette,” was a study of the place of food in that novelist’s life and in his work.
“Monsieur Proust’s Library” is a variation on her Balzac book. Early in “Balzac’s Omelette” she wrote: “Tell me where you eat, what you eat, and what time of day you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Much to it, but there is even more to be learned by discovering, as Ms. Muhlstein in effect does in “Monsieur Proust’s Library,” what a person reads and when, what he thinks of what he reads, and what effect it has had on him. Omelettes for Balzac, books for Proust: Ms. Muhlstein is an excellent provisioner of high-quality intellectual goods.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was immensely well read. “In Search of Lost Time” encapsulates within itself the main traditions in French literature: both in fiction (from Madame de Lafayette through Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert and Zola) and in the belle-lettristic-philosophical line (from Montaigne through Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and Chamfort). Proust formed a strong taste for generalization through these latter writers. I own a small book of his maxims, drawn from the novel and his discursive writings, and an unusually high quotient of them are dazzling. Let one example suffice: “It has been said that the greatest praise of God lies in the negation of the atheist, who considers creation sufficiently perfect to dispense with a creator.”
As an asthmatic child, Proust read more than most children. Ms. Muhlstein recounts that, by the age of 15, he was already immersed in contemporary literature, having read the essays and novels of Anatole France and Pierre Loti, the poetry of Mallarmé and Leconte de Lisle, and a number of the novels of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens and George Eliot. Unlike Henry James, who referred to their works as “baggy monsters,” Proust fully appreciated the great Russian novelists. He thought Tolstoy “a serene god,” valuing especially his ability to generalize in the form of setting down laws about human nature. Ms. Muhlstein informs us that, for Proust, Dostoyevsky surpassed all other writers, and that he found “The Idiot” the most beautiful novel he had ever read. He admired Dostoyesky’s skill with sudden twists in plot, providing the plausible surprises that propelled his novels.
In his 1905 essay “On Reading,” a key document, Ms. Muhlstein notes, in Proust’s freeing himself to write his great novel, he quoted Descartes: “The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most cultivated of men of past centuries who have been their authors.” Proust’s examination of “the original psychological act called reading,” that “noblest of distractions,” holds that books are superior to conversation, which “dissipates immediately.”
A book, he felt, is “a friendship . . . and the fact that it is directed to one who is dead, who is absent, gives it something disinterested, almost moving.” Books are actually better than friends, Proust thought, because you turn to them only when you truly desire their company and can ignore them when you wish, neither of which is true of a friend. One also frequently loves people in books, “to whom one had given more of one’s attention and tenderness [than] to people in real life.” In his own novel, Proust wrote: “Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature.”
Ms. Mulstein provides a comprehensive conspectus of Proust’s reading tastes and habits. But the true strength of her book resides in her lucidly setting out how Proust put his reading to work in the creation of “In Search of Lost Time.” Characters in the novel are imbued with the ideas of the writers Proust admired. The painter Elstir, for example, enunciates many of the theories of the English art critic John Ruskin, whom Proust translated with the help of his mother (whose English was superior to his). As Ms. Muhlstein remarks, Proust also “endows his great creation, Charles Swann, with Ruskin’s artistic taste.”
The narrator’s grandmother is a devoted reader of Madame de Sévigné—whose 17th-century letters are unparalleled for their maternal endearment—who supplies the model for her treatment of her own daughter, the narrator’s mother. At home the Baron de Charlus attempts to imitate the quotidian life of Louis XIV as chronicled by the memoirs of Saint-Simon. Charlus, perhaps the most brilliant of all Proust’s characters—certainly the novel comes most alive when he is at its forefront—is a great reader. The writer Bergotte, who some say is modeled on Anatole France, held many of the views on literature that Proust himself held. The Brothers Goncourt, whose journals provide the most intimate view we have of the great 19th-century French writers—Flaubert, Maupassant, Gautier and others—figure throughout the novel in both direct and indirect ways. Racine’s play “Phèdre,” drawn from the Greek myth about a woman’s passion for her stepson, is used throughout to illustratel’amour-malade: illicit love, possessiveness, jealousy, disappointment, rejection.
Perhaps no other novel has ever been written in which so many characters are readers, and what they read and how they react to it often determine their standing in Proust’s and ultimately our eyes. Characters reveal themselves by snobbishly criticizing lapses in style in Balzac, or, in the instance of the narrator’s friend Bloch, chalking up Ruskin as “a dreary bore.” The Duchesse de Guermantes, who is socially and artistically the central female character in the novel, sees literature as a weapon of social domination, using her heterodox opinions about books to shock and make others uncomfortable. “In Search of Lost Time,” as Ms. Muhlstein demonstrates, is not merely a magnificent book but also a highly bookish book.
The one sentence in “Monsieur Proust’s Library” with which I find myself in disagreement comes late, when Ms. Muhlstein, considering Proust’s condemnation of the Goncourt brothers for their attacks on the morality of their contemporaries, writes: “For Proust literature had nothing to do with morality.” Perhaps Ms. Muhlstein meant to write “conventional morality,” because a reversal of that sentence—”For Proust literature had everything to do with morality”—is closer to the truth. No other modern author was more alive than he to the toll taken by snobbery, cruelty, brutishness; none so exalted kindness, loftiness of spirit, sweetness of character, the kind and generous heart. No great novelist has ever written oblivious to morality, and Marcel Proust is among the novelists in that small and blessed circle of the very greatest of the great.