[6 April 2009]
You might wonder why there is need for another biography of Marcel Proust. After all, the 3,000+ pages of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu draw heavily on his life and experiences. There’s also a minor industry in books about Proust, including recent biographies by William Carter (Marcel Proust: A Life; Yale University Press, 2000) and Jean-Yves Tadié (Marcel Proust; English translation by Euan Cameron; Viking, 2000), both of which are over 900 pages long. What could possibly be left to say?
Never fear, the distinguished American novelist Edmund White has found something and expressed it with admirable clarity in the slim paperback Marcel Proust: A Life, part of the Penguin Lives series. Not having read all the other books published about Proust (that would be a full-time job in itself), I can’t testify whether anything White has to say is actually unprecedented in the annals of Proust scholarship: I can say that White’s great contribution is bringing his novelist’s sensibility and personal experience as a gay man to bear on the complex life of one of the great writers of the 20th century. White has expressed his insights in a book so brief you can read it at one sitting, and so well-written that you’ll probably want to do so.
White has written a biography of Proust, not an examination of his works, although it’s almost impossible to write about the man without some consideration of the role writing played in his life, or the way he reprocessed his experiences in his fiction. White focuses primarily on Proust‘s life, beginning with his childhood in a bourgeois Parisian household which Proust later recalled as possessing “an ugliness completely medical.” Oscar Wilde seems to have shared this opinion: when the 20-year-old Proust invited Wilde to the family apartment for dinner, Wilde took one look, remarked “How ugly everything is here,” and departed.
Proust suffered from crippling asthma, an experience which shaped his life in many ways. In the absence of any effective treatment (ten times Proust underwent the process of having the lining of his nose cauterized, to little effect), he became accustomed to the role of an invalid, spending much of his time alone in his room, lying immobile on his bed. This was excellent preparation for becoming an introspective writer, but perhaps not the best thing for normal social development. As a sickly child, Proust also learned how to manipulate others to tend to his needs.
As a teenager, Proust fell in love with his classmate Jacques Bizet (son of the composer of Carmen). This did not please his mother, who forbade him to spend time with the young Bizet. The infatuation seems to have been completely one-sided: Bizet rejected the Proust’s advances, and Daniel Halevy, a classmate of both boys (and a relative of Bizet) recalls that he and his friends found Proust unpleasant and affected and that his “kindnesses and tender attentions seemed mere mannerisms and poses.” Proust also paid elaborate court to several women in this period, including Bizet’s mother, who would remain an important confidante throughout his life. Another object of his apparent affections was Laure Hayman, his uncle’s mistress, also old enough to be his mother: the improbability of success in either case suggests that going through the ritual of courtship was itself the point of the exercise.
Beginning in his early 20s, Proust had affairs with gay men of his own age, including the composer Reynaldo Hahn and the writer Lucien Daudet (both Proust’s junior, by six and seven years respectively): these affairs were conducted fairly openly for the time, yet the latter prompted one of the more bizarre incidents in modern literary history. Jean Lorrain, himself a gay writer, publicly referred to Proust’s affair with Daudet, and for this “insult” Proust challenged him to a duel with pistols. Fortunately, both men deliberately fired to miss (the consequences of a bullet wound in the years before antibiotics are not pleasant to contemplate), but Proust made his point and Lorrain ceased making public reference to Proust’s sexuality or his affairs.
His mother’s death in 1905 (she was 56, Proust was 34) seems to have shocked the playboy and party animal into beginning his work of a lifetime. Proust also inherited a sizable fortune (about 6 million in contemporary US dollars) at this time, which allowed him complete freedom to write (and maintain an extravagant lifestyle) without having to worry about money. Proust moved to a new apartment, sound-proofed his studio with cork, installed layers of heavy curtains to keep out the light and dust, and began the work which would become À la recherche du temps perdu.
White devotes over twice as many pages to the years before 1905 as to the years after: as Proust buckled down to write, he had less time to be a social butterfly. But he didn’t entirely become a recluse: Proust continued to see people socially, conducted several heated affairs (all of which ended unhappily), and visited male brothels (for purposes of “research” according to his devoted maid Céleste Albaret). He had difficulty getting his great work published and the last volume would not appear until five years after his death, in 1922, from complications of pneumonia.
Marcel Proust: A Life is not a substitute for reading Proust’s own work, but it’s a fascinating interpretation of the man’s life and provides an intuitive path to understanding his work. It’s also beautifully written, full of aptly chosen anecdotes and rich descriptions, and involving enough for a beach (or airplane) read while informative enough to interest literary scholars. Like a good detective novel, this is one of those books you won’t want to put down once you’ve started reading it.