Proust the Passionate Reader

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Adoc-photos/Art Resource
Marcel Proust on vacation with his family, circa 1892

Proust was a great reader, as are all his characters. He 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.” Books are often the subject of his characters’ conversations and disputes. Certain authors are associated with the leading characters (Racine is the narrator’s mother’s favorite). Books often influence the themes and even the structure of Remembrance of Things Past (Charlus is obviously a descendant of Balzac’s imperious, mercurial, homosexual master criminal Vautrin). Proust’s style seems to owe a lot to his translations of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies and The Bible of Amiens; his complex syntax and parenthetical interpolations sound more like the great English Victorian writer than like his French antecedents or contemporaries, although a case can be made that he was influenced by Saint-Simon.

Anka Muhlstein, who most recently wrote about Balzac (Balzac’s Omelette), here turns her attention to Proust’s enthusiasms, antagonisms, and literary influences—a perfect subject during this centennial of Swann’s Way.1 That she herself is French and was brought up in Paris and in a not dissimilar lycée system makes her a reader who is sensitive to nuances of style and echoes of older standard French authors.

For instance, she has examined the book—George Sand’s François le Champi—that the narrator’s mother reads him as a bedtime story when he is an anxious little boy. It is a peculiar choice on Proust’s part, given that it is the tale of a lad who is raised by a kindly older woman, Madeleine, and grows up to marry this maternal figure—especially since Proust himself worshiped his mother and, three years after her death, began his vast novel as a sort of Platonic dialogue one morning between the narrator and his mother as they discuss Sainte-Beuve, the critic who dominated French literature earlier in the nineteenth century.

In a fascinating new study called Tout Contre Sainte-Beuve by Donatien Grau,2 we learn that Proust long hesitated whether to present his attack on Sainte-Beuve as a “classical” essay in the manner of the critic and historian Hippolyte Taine or as a dialogue with his dead mother. There are two letters he wrote to old friends, Anna de Noailles and Georges de Lauris, in which he asked their advice about which form he should choose. As Muhlstein quotes Proust: “Should I write a novel? A philosophical essay? Am I a novelist? I find it consoling that Baudelaire based his Petits Poèmes en prose and Les Fleurs du Mal on the same subject.” He was hesitating between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. He chose to be modern.

That the most respected novel of the twentieth century (in the last thirty years Proust has superseded Joyce) should have been generated by a debate about Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who ruled French …

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  1. 1

    The Morgan Library is marking the centennial with the exhibition “Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way: 100th Anniversary,” which runs through April 28. See Colm Tóibín’s “ The Sweet Troubles of Proust,” NYRblog, February 22, 2013. 

  2. 2

    Paris: Grasset, 2013.