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 admirers of A la recherche, both in France and abroad, were dismayed by the fussy, excitable, ingratiating, and even “smarmy” personality that was revealed. It was well-known, of course, that the novelist had led anything but a “normal” existence. From childhood onward he was asthmatic and dyspeptic to such an extent that he behaved like a progressively handicapped invalid, until he eventually retreated altogether to the famous corklined bedroom and to his extraordinarily complex, neurotic routine. Whether his ills were primarily physical or psychosomatic, it is impossible to say; in this, he resembled those medieval saints who were afflicted with boils and fevers that made their every hour a misery, but it cannot be said that he accepted his sufferings with saintly patience and discretion. On the contrary, he complains about them endlessly, and one cannot help suspecting that he sometimes uses them as a means of bringing pressure to bear on friends and acquaintances. There are 362 letters in this second translated volume and, without counting, I would guess that he refers to his state of health in at least 300 of them. This makes for monotonous reading, however sympathetic one may feel, but at least it proves that he was not, like some writers, self-consciously composing his letters with his posthumous reputation in view.

Most of them, in fact, are very much of the moment, dashed off at great speed, to judge by the handwriting of the facsimile reproductions, and directed to some immediate purpose—requesting a service, thanking for a service rendered, praising or criticizing a book received, ticking off a friend who in some respect has failed to come up to scratch, consoling another in his or her hour of need (these are among the best), and keeping society hostesses and other luminaries in play through elaborate flattery, expressions of devotion, and sometimes faintly double-edged hyperbole. Their most disappointing feature is that it is difficult to tell when Proust is being sincere and when he is making social gestures. Even in letters to his closest friends, such as the Bibesco brothers or Bertrand de Fénelon, he reveals very little, since he doesn’t deploy the analytical ability which gives such force to every page of the novel. It seems clear that Reynaldo Hahn occupied a unique place in his emotional life, since they correspond at all times in the kind of baby-talk that some couples evolve at the height of their intimacy, but even these notes or letters do not convey much to the outside reader, and why should they, if they were no more than rapid signals exchanged between two people who did not need to articulate the complexity of their relationship on paper? It is possible, of course, that more revealing letters were destroyed by the correspondents themselves, or later by their families.


Frankly, then, Proust is a prolific letter writer rather than a deeply interesting one. His correspondence is, for the most part, tactical and utilitarian. Having largely withdrawn from the social round which had been his chosen habitat and would be his literary material, he kept in touch by sending out missives whose often excitable garrulity hardly seems to correspond to the calm breadth of his intelligence, as expressed in A la recherche. At times, he even becomes an unconscious figure of fun, as when he makes a rare attempt to organize a tea party or a dinner party; orders and counter-orders follow each other in a stream, as he juggles with the guest list, rounds up deserters, tries to avoid clashes, generally makes a mountain out of a molehill and, after exclaiming, “This tea-party has killed me!” retires to bed, for all the world like Mme. Verdurin in a state of collapse. At such moments, he appears to be no more than the fluttering social butterfly that André Gide first knew him as, and could not believe to be capable of writing anything of serious interest.

But occasionally, the luminous intelligence comes into play. In 1904, replying to a questionnaire by Maurice Le Blond, who was campaigning against the official, academic training of painters, he gives a magisterial definition of the relationship between traditional disciplines and originality:

Whether or not the State has “the right” to subjugate artistic personality, do you think that so important since in no circumstances will it ever have the power to do so. What can subjugate the personality of an artist is, first of all, the beneficent force of a more powerful personality—and that is a servitude which is not far from being the beginning of liberty—and secondly, the pernicious effect of sloth, sickness or snobbery [an obvious reference to his own case]. But the “State,” Monsieur, how do you imagine that the State can subjugate a personality?… The truth is that there is only one real freedom for the artist: originality. The slaves are those who are not original, whether the State interferes with them or not. Do not try to break their chains; they would immediately forge new ones.

Also in 1904, writing to Fernand Gregh, he suddenly reveals in an aside how he has moved on from the restrictive or hierarchical nineteenth-century concept of beauty to a modernist acceptance of all phenomena as being potentially transformable into art. He had once been an admirer of the Parnassians, but he now makes a disparaging reference to

the beauty of the Parnassians (that is to say essentially a privileged beauty, the beauty of certain things and not of others, and hence the non-beauty of things in themselves, of life in itself).

In 1907, by which time he was thirty-six and had not yet come to grips with his major work, le moi profond begins to make itself heard in a letter to Lucien Daudet:

I can tell you that I’m not so modest, and if I consider that I haven’t any talent, that for a variety of reasons I haven’t been able to make the most of my gifts, that my style has rotted without ripening, on the other hand I’m aware that there are many more real ideas, genuine insights, in what I write than in almost all the articles that are published.

There are a number of such passages in this second volume of translated letters, where Proust, the great writer, can be seen to be about to break free from Proust, the very contingent man, but they are hardly frequent enough to make his correspondence an independent literary work to be enjoyed for its own sake. It remains an ambiguous set of documents about a maimed and complicated life, out of which a strange masterpiece was to emerge.


In stressing his hostility to the biographical approach, and in emphasizing the gap between the visible self and le moi profond, Proust was no doubt pleading, to some extent, pro domo sua. This being so, one would have expected Painter, in embarking on a full-scale literary biography, to begin by discussing and contesting Proust’s theoretical position on the subject. He doesn’t do so, although he mentions Contre Sainte-Beuve several times in the body of his text. Instead, he makes a harsh remark about those readers who concentrate on the novel and disregard the biographical data:

The “closed system” Proustians have been egoistically contented to know of Proust’s novel only what it means to themselves.

Proust, I imagine, would have been quite happy to have such egoistical readers, who use the work to discover their own inner being, which would have remained unrevealed to them but for the help of the artist’s extra perceptiveness. In borrowing his genius in order to see more clearly into themselves, they are allowing art to function in the way he repeatedly says it should. Painter takes quite a different line. Since he considers A la recherche to be not so much a fiction as a “creative autobiography,” he argues that most of its details can be traced back to the events of Proust’s existence and, more importantly, that the novel only takes on its full significance when read in conjunction with the life:

It is surely relevant to learn what the novel meant to the author, to understand the special significance which, because they were part of his life and being, every character and episode had for Proust and still retains in its substance. What do they know of A la recherche who only A la recherche know?

Proust, I think, would have been shocked by this last sentence, which appears to deny the independent reality of the work of art. He, who tried so hard to distill an essence that would transcend his contingent existence, has a fervent post-humous admirer who attempts, as it were, to reverse the creative process, so as to reroot the work of art in the life from which it was meant to escape.

The question: “What do they know of A la recherche who only A la recherche know?” suggests that the ultimate truth or experience of literature lies not in acquaintance with the literary work itself, but in knowledge about the work and the life, which together form a higher, and more important, object of study. I doubt this. If we modify the question to “What do they know of Shakespeare who only the writings know?” we have a major case where the presumed higher object of study doesn’t exist at all, since we know next to nothing about the person or persons who wrote all that remarkable poetry. But does this matter, since Shakespeare’s work, wholly detached from its author, is alive and powerful in the modern world? Similarly, A la recherche may work effectively for readers who know nothing of Proust’s life, as indeed was the case with Painter himself, when he first stumbled on it. His subsequent writing of the biography is an act of pious homage, but I can see no proof within its pages that it has increased or diminished his appreciation of A la recherche as a work of art, whatever the information he has accumulated about the author.

The biography is an autonomous exercise, a semifactual, semispeculative reconstruction of what he imagines Proust’s life to have been—it is almost, one might say, his novel about Proust. It is meant to be “true,” but we cannot know for certain how far it represents the now irrecoverable truth of Proust’s existence. It cannot combine with the novel as a higher object of study, because it is quite different in kind from A la recherche, which exists as an artistic monument whose validity is within itself and does not depend on its correspondence to any particular, preexistent reality, but only on its correspondence to life in general.

What I am saying about Painter’s Proust applies, I think, to most literary biographies in their relationship to the work. They may be extremely interesting as human stories, if the author had a dramatic or intriguing life, but they rarely seem to be as firmly centered as the biographies of politicians, or other men or women of action. Might the reason not be that the psychology of the man of action, even though there may be some difference between his private self and his public persona, is imprinted more or less directly on the external world, where its effects are concrete enough to be used retrospectively as reliable evidence of his character? It often seems that the man of action is, recognizably, what he does or what he can be seen trying to do, whereas the center of the writer’s being is his inner transformation mechanism, a sealed compartment that one can talk around but never really look into. In other words, the work of art is not necessarily—perhaps only rarely—a direct emanation of the artist’s visible personality, in the same way as a politician’s policy corresponds to his identifiable Being-in-the-world. On this point, I find Proust, with his idea of le moi profond, more convincing than Painter with his confidence in being able both to recapture the life with some certainty, and to demonstrate how the life turned into the work.

Using all the printed sources available at the time of writing, Painter pieces his narrative together by combining elements taken from contemporary documents, the memoirs and letters of Proust’s friends and acquaintances, and Proust’s own correspondence and other writings. He also visited the sites relevant to Proust’s novel, and is able to show, very interestingly, how the imaginative, symbolic landscape of A la recherche is a complex rearrangement of the localities of real life, some details being transferred from Paris to the provinces, or vice versa.

For actual events, he adds an appendix which lists his sources for almost every paragraph of the text. This seems admirably scrupulous, until one notices that some of these sources are open to question. For example, in an early chapter, he gives a vivid description of the bedroom that Proust as a child occupied in his uncle’s house at Illiers; on checking, one discovers that the passage, which sounded familiar, is translated almost directly from Proust’s essay, Journées de lecture, which is being taken as a reliable, factual account. Now Proust’s practice, as Painter shows in many places, was to fuse together details borrowed from different sources, and so who is to say that this bedroom is not a synthesis of various different ones?

It is a small point but, alerted by this instance, the reader notices that, throughout the book, Painter pursues a rather erratic policy: sometimes he takes excerpts from Proust’s creative writings as objective evidence; sometimes he shows that other excerpts are transpositions or telescopings of the probable reality. His only criterion of distinction appears to be his personal intuition; it is as if he were taking as true what fits in with his own sensibility or preconceptions.

His careful dovetailing of quotations, which are not surrounded by question marks or queried, leads to another doubtful effect. The text takes on at times the random, sporadically emotional, style of the society gossip writer, as in the following passage about Mme. Straus, one of the many models for Proust’s hostess characters; it is a mosaic adapted from three or four different accounts:

The social ascent of Fromental Halévy’s daughter and Bizet’s widow had been extraordinary, almost impossible; though she never forgot her middle-class musical origins, and once, when asked by a great lady whether she was fond of music, replied: “They played a great deal of it in my first family.” Her portrait by Delaunay, white and appealing in widow’s black, had created a sensation in the Salon of 1878; Degas found his way to the house in the Rue de Douai where she lived in retirement with her uncle Léon Halévy, and begged to be allowed to see her combing her hair. Then, as we have seen, Émile Straus, the favourite lawyer (and, it was said, the illegitimate half-brother) of the three Barons Rothschild, Alphonse, Edmond and Gustave, insisted on marrying her. He came up to town every morning with Joseph Reinach, who used to say: “I could always relax on the train with Émile—he did all the talking, it was Geneviève, Geneviève all the way.” “You must see Geneviève,” Straus told the Rothschilds, and soon all society was saying “We must see Geneviève.”

It was precisely this sort of material that Proust, thanks to his perceptiveness and intelligence, raised from the banal level to the status of art; Painter, in such passages, returns us to the gossip column, as it were, not apparently to show us what Proust was reacting against, but as if he thought this kind of writing intrinsically good, or as if he were actually enamored in retrospect of the society game that Proust was fascinated by as a young man, then began to see through and, in the end, analyzed so pitilessly.

In spite of these doubtful points, Painter’s book remains the fullest account of Proust’s life that has so far appeared, and it seems probable that future biographers will be able to do little more than reshuffle the same material. Painter’s own arrangement of it is a fairly definite interpretation of the neo-Freudian kind.

Marcel, the son of middle-class parents, an eminent doctor and his non-orthodox Jewish wife, was born a sickly child, perhaps because of the privations endured during the siege of Paris in 1871. He was not expected to live, but he pulled through thanks to his mother’s care, and remained completely dependent on her. When, around the age of nine, he discovered that he could not always bend her to his will (cf. the symbolic episode of the goodnight kiss), he developed asthma as a half-conscious means of exerting emotional blackmail on both his parents. His invalid status allowed him to avoid the distraction of earning a living (his younger, “normal” brother became a doctor like the father), and to devote such energies as he had to social life, art, and literature.

After his father died, his relationship with his mother became even closer; she attended to his every whim, and encouraged him in his literary ambitions, particularly in the case of his Ruskin translations. He made several attempts at original work, but could not get his book properly into focus until after his mother’s death, which left him free to express himself as he wished. From then on, under the care of motherlike servants, he devoted himself entirely to the completion of A la recherche, which was a transposition of his life onto the imaginative plane. Pursuing the Freudian line, we might conclude that his weird daily or nightly routine, which was meant to be therapeutic, was also a half-conscious suicide. Referring to Proust’s behavior toward his parents, Painter goes so far as to say: “…he sinned through his lungs, and in the end his lungs were to kill him.”

On the particular theme of sexuality, Painter outlines a rather more complex pattern. Whether or not Marcel’s homosexuality was inborn, his mother-fixation, which amounted to love/hatred (cf. the curious article Sentiments filiaux d’un parricide), was not enough to make him completely homosexual. His many attachments to girls and young women contributed to the creation of the representative figures of Gilberte, Albertine, and Odette. The actress, Louisa de Mornand, declared that her relationship with Proust was an amitié amoureuse, from which Painter seems to conclude that it was fully carnal, although the expression usually implies what the French call des câlins (caresses) but not le gros câlin. Incidentally, if I remember rightly Proust refers somewhere to sexual intercourse as “la possession, où d’ailleurs on ne possède rien,” which seems to suggest that he never experienced any fusion of personality, whatever the nature of his sexual encounters. He paid court at times to older women, erotic mother-substitutes, with whom his relationships could never come to anything. He toyed at intervals with the idea of marriage, but presumably found no one who could take precedence over the image of his mother.

As a teenager, he began falling in love with young men, first his middle-class schoolmates, and then young aristocrats whom he encountered in society. No definite evidence exists about how many of them, if any, were his lovers, but there are strong presumptions in favor of Reynaldo Hahn and Lucien Daudet. All the indications are that he looked upon homosexuality as an affliction to be endured, not as a source of either guilt or pride. In later years, he seems to have fallen back on relationships with lower-class young men in his employ, Henri Rochat, his secretary, and Alfred Agostinelli, his chauffeur. For his final phase, there are anecdotes about masturbatory, sadomasochistic practices in a homosexual brothel, run by a former male prostitute, one of the models for Jupien. It is said that Proust gave some of his dead parents’ furniture to this brothel, in a deliberate gesture of profanation, comparable to those he describes in A la recherche. If these stories are true, his sexual behavior seems to have become more unrestrained as his creative effort neared its completion. Perhaps he felt he could let his peculiarities rip, now that his literary conscience was more or less appeased through the creation of his masterpiece—his “cathedral,” as he called it, although the term has to be taken in the Gaudi, rather than in the medieval, sense.

To return now to the original question: Is the biographical information thus rapidly summarized essential for our better appreciation of A la recherche? Certainly, it increases our wonder at the fact that a sickly person of extreme peculiarity should have produced such a body of writing, in which non-sickly and relatively “normal” readers can recognize so much of their mental makeup, described with a robust and minute perceptiveness which, so far as I know, has never been surpassed. But this interesting human fact does not make the biography any less tangential; it remains a case history about the very odd man who wrote the novel, but it sheds very little light on the process by which elements of the life were transformed into the fiction, apart from the information that Proust probably took such and such a detail from here and placed it there; what dictated the move remains a mystery.

One of the major puzzles, for instance, is Proust’s method of character creation. He himself said that his people, who appear so highly individualized and speak with their separate voices, were each based on several different models, sometimes as many as six or eight for a single character. Following up this statement, Painter investigates what has been recorded about Proust’s circle of acquaintances, and makes many suggestions about which feature, say, of which lady entered into the composition of Mme. Verdurin, or which flamboyant homosexuals, apart from Robert de Montesquiou, contributed to M. de Charlus. Having spotted a probable connection, Painter lists it and leaves the matter there, as if that were explanation enough in itself. But the vital problem is: How was the synthesis achieved, and why does it work?

Starting from a mass of disparate elements, Proust fashions great, lifelike representative characters—the hostess, the dilettante, the servant, the elusive mistress, etc. They seem astonishingly real in themselves, and yet they are patched together, in the manner of Frankensteinian monsters, with the help of bits and pieces from various human beings. Proust looked at the superficial, parasitical Tout-Paris of his day and philosophicized it into types, who are caricatural without losing their basic, universal humanity. How he managed to do this is not explained by the life; it could only be illuminated, if at all, by aesthetic theory.

This Issue

January 18, 1990