A La Recherche … …de Proust

Marcel Proust: Selected Letters Volume Two, 1904–1909

edited by Philip Kolb, translated and with an introduction by Terence Kilmartin
Oxford University Press, 482 pp., $29.95

In his brilliant, fragmentary pamphlet known as Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust gives forceful expression to the view that the biographical approach to writers is misconceived, because the literary work is produced not by the artist’s everyday personality but by what he calls le moi profond, which operates according to its own independent, mysterious rules. He maintains that this inner, creative self stands in a very uncertain relationship to the observable, documentable human individual in which it occurs, and that to argue from the latter to the former is a debatable procedure. Proust was writing, of course, before the popularization of psychoanalytic theory in the mid-twentieth century, and he could not foresee that, for better or for worse, biography of all kinds was to become one of the most flourishing literary, or para-literary, genres.

He himself remained true to his principle. Among his critical articles there are none of a biographical nature. His youthful energies were mainly devoted to translating the works of Ruskin (with much help, it must be said, from his mother and such friends as the bilingual Marie Nordlinger) and to the composition of pastiches (of Sainte-Beuve, Balzac, Flaubert, etc.), pastiche being a secondary creative form, entirely dependent on direct appreciation of the style of the target-work, on sensitivity to its “music,” as he said. Proust was endowed with this sensitivity to an amazing degree, and his pastiches are unique, untranslatable, little masterpieces of critical impersonation.

However, his principle and his practice have not prevented enthusiastic Proustians from taking exactly the opposite line, and investigating the Master’s life in scrupulous detail according to contemporary practice. The two books under review, in particular, are outstanding examples of American and English biographical scholarship. Professor Kolb has devoted his whole career to collecting, collating, and editing Proust’s letters. Now in active retirement, he has reached Volume XVI of the French edition, and the year 1917; there will presumably be several further volumes to cover the period up to 1922, after which we can expect a third selection for English-speaking readers, excellently translated, like this one, by Terence Kilmartin. Mr. Painter, for his part, spent at least ten years on his biography, which was first published in two volumes in 1959 and 1965 and won him golden opinions. The reissue is identical with the original edition, even to the page numbers, and the word “expanded” on the dust jacket means no more than that Mr. Painter has added a short new preface to say that he stands by his original conclusions.

Both volumes face the reader with the same questions. Is he to side with Proust or the literary biographers? Does Proust, the man, gagne à être connu? Are our understanding and appreciation of A la recherche du temps perdu improved by a closer acquaintance with him through his letters, and through knowledge of the actual details of his existence, insofar as they can be ascertained?

When the first collections of Proust’s letters were published several years ago, many …

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