By Anka Muhlstein
May 7, 2013
Anka Muhlstein is the author of many books, most recently “Monsieur Proust’s Library.” Here she writes about the books that influenced Proust.
Proust’s friends claimed that he had read everything and forgotten nothing. As though to prove them right, he never created a character without putting a book in his hands, and he quotes abundantly from and alludes often to his favorite writers. It would help the reader of Proust to know the Balzac novels that pop up throughout “In Search of Lost Time”: “Father Goriot,” “Lost Illusions,” “The Girl With the Golden Eyes.” These are the novels that deal with the “uncommon passions” so important to the understanding of Proust’s homosexual characters.
Saint-Simon’s 40 volumes of memoirs of the court of Louis XIV are not required reading, but it is useful to read a few excerpts to get a taste of what the irritable French duke considered his due, and of how desperate he was to conserve his privileges. The Guermantes in “In Search of Lost Time,” who resent any ignoring of their illustrious past and are convinced that they are still at the apex of French society despite the changes brought about by the Revolution, owe a lot to Proust’s knowledge of Saint-Simon.
To seize the full flavor of the comical way Proust uses the playwright Jean Racine’s tragedies in his conflation of Jews and homosexuals, one might also read Racine’s biblical plays “Esther” and “Athalie.”
Proust’s use of French writers is straightforward and easy to detect. This is not true of his use of foreign writers: their significance is hidden, almost subterranean, and often overlooked. Yet their presence is the clearest sign of Proust’s amazing erudition. No writers had as firm a hold on Proust as English or American essayists and novelists, but he could not use them as directly or freely as French authors; he knew his French readers were most likely not as familiar with works of English literature, and perhaps not familiar with them at all.
One of Proust’s favorite novelists, one whose books reduced him to tears, was George Eliot. He read “Middlemarch” very carefully and absorbed the drama of Mr. Casaubon, the unhappy clergyman who dedicates his whole life — sacrificing on the way his young wife — to labors that produced absurd and trivial results. Proust’s narrator is anxiously searching for his true vocation, and is very much aware of the danger of losing his way in a desert of sterile and doomed tasks.
One may not think of Robert Louis Stevenson in connection with Proust, but Proust loved his work, especially “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The curious transformation of a kind and intelligent physician who turns into a psychopathic monster after imbibing a drug intended to separate the good from the evil in a person is an extreme example of personality change, a theme that runs through Proust’s novel. His characters never reveal their true personalities at the outset, and as the novel progresses they do the contrary of what one expects.
A careful reader, however, may avoid being taken by surprise. As a young man, Proust loved detective stories. Although he never wrote thrillers, he knew how to prepare his reader for a revelation by seeding a clue beforehand. Alas the reader may lose track in the thousands of pages separating the hint from the dénouement. The only remedy is to keep reading and rereading Proust!