Marcel Proust was unusual in this as well: he turned every moment, from the most rarefied to the most ordinary, into an occasion for boundless introspection. He took the private temperament and mental habits of someone accustomed to prolonged solitude and applied them to the world around him, giving, as would become his signature, an internal mold to anything external. Everything, he discovered, from tea biscuits to stewed chicken to asparagus when they were in season, or from the very first stirrings of jealousy when a lover isn’t even aware he’s being cheated on down to the early morning streets with their telltale sounds that it rained all night—everything cried out to be looked at from the inside.
Proust not only made introspection and its attendant solitude the cornerstone of a new aesthetic; he built an epic around them. After he sought out the very rich and was coddled by them, or after he found love—which rarely happened—Proust, like the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu, returned to his solitude, to his private world, as to a coming home. At the end of the novel, when Marcel finally has his artistic vocation revealed to him in three successive flashes, he discovers that the very solitude he had sought out and lived with all of his life, and which followed him like a shadow, was perhaps the most authentic and enduring thing about him.
And yet, quite apart from writing and reading, that solitude, voluntary as it was, must also have weighed on Marcel Proust—for he was very often alone. From the opening pages of his epic, Proust gives us several instances where, lying in the dark, having put away his book, Marcel is prey to terrible anxieties. The man who from his early twenties became an accomplished social creature and seemed to need no courage to brave the snubs that might come from climbing too fast from one exclusive salon to the next1 couldn’t stand being left alone in a hotel room. At the end of a difficult night in their adjacent bedrooms, what the adolescent Marcel needed most was to hear his grandmother tap three times on her side of the partition wall to tell him that he wasn’t alone, that someone would always “come to look after him,” that the ordeal was over. Her knock meant: “Don’t get agitated; I’ve heard you; I shall be with you in a minute. I could hear [you] just now, trying to make up [your] mind, and rustling the bedclothes, and going through all [your] tricks.”
What could be more intimate and more precious and less solitary in Proust’s universe than such intimacy between two beings? She knows he knows she knows that he’s reluctant to wake her up, but that the thing he needs most now is to hear her three little good-morning taps. What could be worse than to wake up somewhere strange and know that these three taps won’t come to relieve the dead silence in the room, or that they won’t ever come again, because the person whose hand once seemed to reach through the wall to shoo away his fears will never again lie behind this or any other partition wall, for the wall between them now is the cruelest one of all?
Intimacy this is, and at its most poignant, but, as always in Proust, intimacy comes with its own insidious barriers and screen walls. Readers of Swann in Love will recall that kissing is less a union of two beings than it is a mournful farewell to solitude abandoned and a near-desperate summoning of desires once nursed in solitude. Touching hardly comes any easier, either for Proust or for Marcel, the narrator. The barriers between one being and another are so great that sexuality itself can pay the price and acquire attenuated forms. Writing in 1919 to Jacques Porel, the son of his landlady, the famous actress Réjane, Proust confides that hearing through a wall his neighbors making love reminds him that sexual pleasure is, for him, “weaker than that obtained from drinking a glass of cold beer.”
This detail is not without interest, since Proust incorporates it in his novel when he has the young Marcel, who’s just witnessed the courtship ritual between the vestmaker Jupien and the Baron de Charlus, pin his ear to yet another partition to make out the intimate cries emitted by the two men. The often-repeated story of sexual arousal at the sight of tussling rats, to say nothing of Proust’s alleged practices in Le Cuziat’s brothel, where he is said to have undressed, slipped under the bedcovers, and satisfied himself at the sight of a young man standing naked at arm’s length, suggests at least the difficulty both author and narrator must have experienced in simply touching another human being.
Yet sadomasochism, homosexuality, voyeurism pale when compared to the most consuming passion known in Proust’s universe: epistemophilia, the desire to know—or rather, speculophilia, the compulsion to speculate about what others do when he’s not there, though when they offer to do it with him, he’ll neglect to take them up on it. Thus Marcel will prefer to take a promissory offer from Albertine rather than sleep with her, and Swann will intentionally arrive late one evening once he feels that Odette must surely be waiting for him. Intimacy is always thwarted, and desire, if consuming jealousy can indeed be called desire, is invariably the work of one’s solitude. In the end, Proust was fully prepared to accept, and from a very young age, that happiness is the one thing in our lives others cannot bring.
If there is happiness—and there were happy moments in Proust’s life—then the anticipation of its loss is almost sure to mar it. Hardly a day passes when the characters worshiping their current flames do not already anticipate the gradations that will unavoidably lead them from fierce obsession to sorrow to languishing indifference. Even as they pine for a beloved, Proust’s lovers are already able to regret that they will soon no longer recall what could possibly have made them suffer for someone they’ll have almost certainly forgotten. Hardly a day went by when Proust himself did not rehearse the moment when his mother would no longer be with him. “Our entire life together,” he writes in a letter about his mother, “was only a period of training for her to teach me to live without her for the day when she would leave me.”
Some men, to paraphrase Pascal, make a virtue of balancing two opposing vices. Proust stood in the present by letting both past and future tug at him with equal force. Everyone encounters life however he can. Proust met his in a time warp all his own.
We wouldn’t have Proust’s books if he had been more social than he was, or if he had let his desires run more to a human being than to a book. Other than his mother and, occasionally, his old friend and lover the composer Reynaldo Hahn, and, in the latter years of his life, his housekeeper, Céleste Albaret, there was, really, no one. His reclusive writing conditions are by now legendary: he wrote in bed, in a cork-lined room, with his clothes and sweaters forever crumpled around him, drinking too much coffee, taking too many drugs in an overheated room that reeked of disinfectant, which made all of his guests uncomfortable. He wrote for himself, not for others. Yet he wrote for himself as though he were another—i.e., someone who was trusted enough to know the day-to-day details of his life but with whom a touch of intimate ceremony was not unwelcome. He wrote as though he had forgotten his entire life and, like a stroke patient who needs to have every limb and faculty reeducated, had to relive through everything all over again, only this time with the small things given larger scope and the larger ones allowed to shrink to their true proportions, everything finally restored, thus implying what everyone more or less suspects: that the life we know is mere rehearsal, but that the second-time-around life is the true and final performance we’ll never live to see. In between both lives, Proust found his place.
Proust’s genius was not to reinvent his life—which he did—or to add to or patch up its unsavory moments—which he most certainly did—but to make going back to its pains and sorrows a source of aesthetic pleasure. He had to find a voice, a vision, a style that would allow him to revisit everything he had felt, experienced, remembered, and longed for:
The fine things we shall write if we have talent enough, are within us, dimly, like the remembrance of a tune which charms us though we cannot recall its outline, or hum it, or even sketch its metrical form, say if there are pauses in it, or runs of rapid notes. Those who are haunted by their confused remembrance of truths they have never known are the men who are gifted…. Talent is like a kind of memory, which in the end enables them to call back this confused music, to hear it distinctly, to write it down, to reproduce it, to sing it.
This is Proust in his late thirties, writing around 1908, when he had more than likely begun work on À la recherche du temps perdu.
What Proust will write about in this book is precisely a life that was spent putting off real life, a life spent watching others live, dreaming of others who never quite fit in his life. Sitting down and writing meant above all to think of time, but as a matter not so much of childhood lost or of love lost as of a vocation deferred. Looking back meant looking back to those fateful hours in Combray when he read away entire summer afternoons, dreaming of Italy and of the Middle Ages and finally taking up a sheet of paper to jot down his impressions of the steeples of Martinville. Time started then.
And yet, Proust’s happiest days were spent not when he was a child in Illiers but as a young man of twenty-four, in the very late summer of 1895. He was accompanied by Reynaldo Hahn, a man he must have adored, and with whom he spent an idyllic vacation in the small sea town of Beg-Meil, on the tip end of Brittany. Here Proust, who was about to publish a collection of short stories, spent days reading Balzac, Madame de Sévigné, and Carlyle. Better yet, in no time, he started writing a novel. The novel, entitled Jean Santeuil, was much later abandoned, but it was a young draft of what would become his masterpiece. That summer, everything—love, writing, friendship—had come together.
But then, no sooner had it come together than it was lost. Proust’s biographers never pinpoint exactly what went wrong or why the joy of these few months seemed to dissipate so quickly. Where had Proust erred, and why, with so much going for him—talent, wealth, good looks, charm, and brilliance—did happiness seem to elude him?
No other writer has managed to turn his failures and frustrations as a human being into such a success story, just as no other man—going by what biographers have suggested—has made of impotence a source of so much strength. Self-doubt, insecurity, tentativeness modulate each and every one of his sentences, which explains, among other reasons, why they are so long. With them, Proust made an art not just of introspection, but of irresolution. He courted the world as if he were an outsider looking in, but his vision, like that of so many moralists before him, from Plutarch to Saint Augustine to Pascal, was essentially that of a confident contrarian who knows the twisted ways of the world because he knows them in himself so well. He sees “against the grain,” in the sense that what he sees is what we were never taught to see, or what we’ve always seen without knowing we were seeing, or—to put it more bluntly—what we’ve always known we were seeing but didn’t want to see. He exposes love for the utter selfishness it is, loyalty for self-interest, beauty for bad taste, purity for perversion. In his biography Jean-Yves Tadié captures these contraries best:
…The more resolute and decisive Proust’s thinking became in intellectual and artistic spheres, the more hesitant he became over daily concerns; the qualities of synthesis and dialectics, and the ability to encompass multiple hypotheses, produced catastrophic results in daily life, but triumphed in terms of ideas.
The split between ambivalence and its opposite, between failure and strength, the timeless and the time-bound, between life refantasized and life unconsummated, is, like so many other things in Proust, reflected in part by the novel’s two “ways”: Swann’s way, the more intimate, solitary, introspective way; the other, the Guermantes way, the worldly and glamorous. That these two, or any other “ways,” may share secret passageways between them reflects Proust’s desperate need to make connections on paper that may not have existed in life. How indeed and through what form can one connect all the facets of one’s life? The partitions separating us from others are bad enough, but those separating us from ourselves, or our life from what it truly should have been or could still be—how do we breach these?
Torn as he saw himself in so many directions, Proust wrote to his friend Louis d’Albufera in 1908 that he was thinking of writing “a study on the nobility, a Parisian novel, an essay on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert, an essay on women, an essay on pederasty (not easy to publish), a study of stained-glass windows, a study on tombstones, a study on the novel.” In À la recherche Proust was fortunate to have discovered a form that allowed him to synthesize all of these scattered segments and gather them all in one work. This—insofar as the realm of fiction is concerned—worked. Yet the man who finally gave a pattern to his life on paper was by no means living in a novel. And, despite his claim that “real life is literature,” Marcel could never be the same man who, on his deathbed, turned to Céleste Albaret and simply said: “Mon dieu, Céleste, quel regret…quel regret!” Proust spent so much time putting things down on paper and getting them right on paper that, in retrospect, he had little time for anything else—and this was, to put it as paradoxically as possible, a comforting source of infinite regret.
What seems even more paradoxical in light of the voluminous Lives of Proust that have appeared in the past decade is that a fairly comprehensive account of Proust’s life could be summed up in no more than a hundred pages. He went to school, had crushes on several of his male classmates, was totally devoted to his mother, did not travel much except for a yearly trip to the beach, although he went to Venice, Belgium, and Holland and loved to travel about France, translated Ruskin without knowing much English, responded to Jean Lorrain’s printed insinuation about his homosexuality by challenging him to what turned out a “friendly” duel, became a Dreyfusard, was always writing, lived with his parents until their death and then continued to live in their apartment as if they were ghosts in it, moved elsewhere in Paris, but went on living as he had in his parents’ flat, until he became a ghost in his.
The most detailed and by all standards the most readable account of Proust’s life (limited to his later years) happens to be the one dictated to Georges Belmont by his former housekeeper Céleste Albaret, called Monsieur Proust (1973). How reliable Céleste’s account is remains a matter for some conjecture. Yet part of her memoir’s attraction lies in its ability to let the man Proust who emerges from her pages come quite close to the one an average reader might have extrapolated from Proust’s own fictionalized version of his life: private, touchy, calculating, naive, by turns solemn and impish, and always unremittingly loyal, generous, and fussy. Monsieur Proust owes part of its success (it was even made into a subtle and lovely German film, Céleste, in 1981) to its ability to “humanize” so withdrawn and reclusive a man. But it is a memoir, not a biography. In a biography, we want to encounter a consciousness, a temperament, a mind struggling to become what we already know it will become. A critical biography—for example, Walter Jackson Bates’s John Keats and Iris Origo’s Leopardi—goes a step further and does what criticism itself is not allowed to do: it must dig out the links between the man and the work and seek out the sort of correspondences that Proust himself deplored when he attacked the nineteenth-century French critic Sainte-Beuve for practicing biographical criticism.
A critical biography of Proust should explain how something worked its way into his novel, or, conversely, how it was altered or altogether omitted. Ultimately, it must relate the processes by which the alchemist in every artist came upon his gold. Who would not care to know that Albertine was in all likelihood based on Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli? Or that Saint-Loup was in part modeled after one of La Rochefoucauld’s descendants, or that Charlus was inspired by Robert de Montesquiou, or that Marcel’s grandmother was a stand-in for Proust’s mother? Who wouldn’t care to know that his brother, Robert Proust, was entirely left out of the novel? Or that despite Proust’s habit of keeping a distance between himself and his mother’s Judaism, his closest friends were more often than not Jewish? Or that, for Proust, homosexuality and Judaism were linked, as Swann’s and Guermantes’ ways are?
But all these are tiny keys and, unless handled with a great deal of tact, they will only open tiny doors. It is not enough to tell us that Proust sometimes left his cork-lined room to have dinner at the Ritz where he met so-and-so with such-and-such, and later picked up a young waiter, who ended up sharing Proust’s quarters, as Albertine would do in the novel. Disclosing that Proust liked to wear his underwear ever so tightly, with safety pins, as if he were in diapers, or that his mother frequently inquired into his sleeping habits and bowel movements, or that he felt no compunction telling his grandfather of his masturbatory habits—all these are details that give us a sense of the man’s behavior but very, very seldom take us where he himself was headed: inward.
Given Proust’s singularly uneventful life, a biography of him should, in theory, be exceptionally short. A critical biography, on the other hand, especially given the availability of Proust’s twenty-one-volume correspondence,2 can be significantly longer. A biography that documents ever so minutely how the work mirrors the life, or a biography that tells us when Proust wrote what where, without touching on the how, much less the why, can, like Poe’s hapless detective, shadow Proust around Paris and around his correspondence and its dizzying spate of references and, despite its swollen documentation, fail each time to explain something essential about Proust, which—in keeping with the detective metaphor—may be called, quite simply, Proust’s motive. This is especially true of a writer like Proust. One needs to know his motive, and one needs to know each shade this motive takes throughout Proust’s life and work. What, to go back to the root of the noun itself, got him going, what was he after, what made him write the way he did? Without such information—however speculative it is—Proust’s life sinks under the weight of the one thing that nearly drowned it: trivia. And his life, as he himself recognized, had plenty of trivia to go around.
But this has not daunted Proust biographies, which are always very long: George Painter’s (1959) is 782 pages long, Ronald Hayman’s (1990) 564 pages, Ghislain de Diesbach’s (1991) 775 pages, Roger Duchêne’s (1994) 845 pages, Jean-Yves Tadié’s (1996; US edition 2001) 986 pages, and William Carter’s (2000) 946 pages.
Since George Painter’s book appeared more than forty years ago, all biographers have had more to say about Proust. By the time Tadié’s biography was published in France, Philip Kolb had already collected and annotated Proust’s correspondence in twenty-one volumes, a lifelong achievement of uncompromising scholarship and devotion. By then, also, Mr. Tadié and his team of scholars had seen through the second and highly prestigious Pléiade edition of À la recherche du temps perdu, with its extraordinary critical apparatus. For example, following 630 pages of text in the first volume of the Pléiade edition are 890 pages of variants and notes—a true feast of information unjustly criticized by Roger Shattuck in these pages.3
Indeed, the forthcoming Viking Penguin translation of À la recherche under the direction of Christopher Prendergast will be based on the new Pléiade edition. Viking Penguin, which published Tadié’s Life, will also be issuing all of Marcel Proust’s other fiction and essays as well. Viking’s im-minent publication of the new À la recherche may explain why Tadié’s English-language biography “refers” (as the preface says) but refuses to quote—and by so doing, presumably, to ratify—existing English translations of Proust’s novel. Instead, he uses his own translations. And, quite absurdly, whenever quoting Proust’s novel, he refers the English-language reader to pages in French from Tadié’s Pléiade edition. The unstated assumption here must obviously be that anyone wishing to consult Proust must surely be a serious enough devotee to read the French original. But then, why even bother translating Tadié’s Life from the French in the first place? (Or, in fact, Proust’s work itself?)
Tadié’s Proust: A Life is a stunning work of scholarship by a man who, like Kolb, has devoted his entire life to Marcel Proust. Today’s dean of Proust studies around the world, he knows everything there is to know about Proust. What Tadié omits he probably deems irrelevant. The rumor that Proust may have frequented Le Cuziat’s male brothel—a scene so reminiscent of Jupien’s brothel in À la recherche—is dismissed, after the most thorough discussion of all available references (among them, Walter Benjamin), as gossip. Yet, despite his ability to discriminate between the actual and the alleged, Tadié is unable to sort out those facts that tell us more about Proust the man and writer from those that exhaust the page with faits divers. Every conceivable fact about Proust, and about Proust’s friends, and the friends of his friends, and about what they wrote, read, saw, heard, and loved is literally stuffed into the Life, usually in very short segments that are, despite the author’s desire to suggest otherwise, a hasty collage of disconnected scènes et portraits.
Tadié’s analysis of John Ruskin’s influence on Proust, for example, is rife with very helpful short insights that place Ruskin in a French turn-of-the-century aesthetic context and give a sense of what inspired Proust to seek out Ruskin after reading about him in the pages of the French art critic Robert de La Sizeranne. The idea that a “painter has only to concentrate, as does Turner, upon ‘what he sees, not what he knows'” suggests quite cogently that “in discussing Ruskin’s aesthetics, Proust discovered his own in the process.” In fact, Ruskin explaining Turner cannot but foreshadow Proust explaining Elstir, the painter in À la recherche who, Tadié repeats, “drew what he saw, not what he knew,” echoing Mallarmé’s notion that one should “paint, not the object, but the effect it produces.”
Equally incisive is Tadié’s sense that the rich, supple, musical prose of Ruskin’s long sentences may have indirectly passed on to Proust’s Jean Santeuil the King James Bible rhythms on which all nineteenth-century English writers were raised.
For all their quality, however, Tadié’s insights are almost always surrounded by innumerable facts that end up clouding a sustained meditation on the inner Proust. Tadié machine-guns facts with vertiginous dispatch, for he not only knows everything there is to know about Proust—but he also means us to know it.
And yet, despite his punctilious erudition Tadié is not always as thorough as one might expect. Painter had already mentioned that, after translating Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens, Proust was asked by Maurice Barrès to consider translating Walter Pater. This is reported by Tadié, as well as by Diesbach and Carter, each biographer ultimately drawing on Philip Kolb’s Correspondance. Proust declined the idea, saying he wished to translate two more books by Ruskin. As both Painter and Tadié inform us, Proust had already read Pater and he and his friend Douglas Ainslie had indeed discussed Pater. Painter suspects that Proust had read him in translation; Tadié, through Kolb, reminds us that Proust had even asked to have Pater’s Imaginary Portraits sent to him—which implies that he was either already familiar with Pater’s work or had been told enough to prick up his ears. And yet, none of the biographers, it seems, has taken the trouble to read Imaginary Portraits or, if he has, to make the unavoidable connection. How could a biographer have resisted the following sentence:
Our susceptibilities, the discovery of our powers, manifold experiences…belong to this or the other well-remembered place in the material habitation—that little white room with the window across which the heavy blossoms could beat so peevishly in the wind, with just that particular catch or throb, such a sense of teasing in it, on gusty mornings; and the early habitation thus gradually becomes a sort of material shrine or sanctuary of sentiment; a system of visible symbolism interweaves itself through all our thoughts and passions; and irresistibly, little shapes, voices, accidents—the angle at which the sun in the morning fell on the pillow—become parts of the great chain wherewith we are bound.
This is Pater, not Proust. Pater’s “The Boy in the House” was so clearly a beginning that it is still a mystery why Pater never went beyond it. Perhaps we should ask instead: What miracle permitted Proust to go beyond his “The Boy in the House” after so many of his other attempts to do so, as numberless sketches prove, had failed? None of the recent biographies explains the reason to any satisfaction.
Tadié’s most frequent way into the workings of Proust’s mind is to practice a form of bland psychologism destined to snuff out any exploration of the writer’s mind. In analyzing one of Proust’s earliest memories, for example, he is pleased to remind us that this particular memory has “until now… gone unnoticed.” He is referring to Proust’s fear of having his curls pulled as a boy. This fear makes a tiny appearance in the first few pages of À la recherche. The fact that it reappears in many drafts of Combray is “proof of the terrifying nature of the fantasy.” The young boy’s dread disappeared, however, “only once ‘the organ which had been the seat of the pain’ had been removed.” Proust is referring to the shearing of his locks, but Tadié instantly pounces on the missing link by asking: “What is this agony, a transference of Samson’s hair, if not the fear of castration?” Yet what if it were a fear of castration, with or without transference—what then?
No less does one wince at the following psychological summations: “[Proust’s] illness was also fear of illness, his neurosis, fear of neurosis.” Or this remark about Proust’s loss of a sinecure he didn’t much desire: “So we see that Marcel, like many of those ‘highly strung people’ whom he would describe, though kind and concilia-tory in appearance, was in reality terribly stubborn and was forever achieving, through devious paths, his own ends.” Do such insights need to be formulated?
Tadié’s Life is indeed riddled with similar psycho-notions. In his descriptions of Proust’s place as terzo incomodo between Gaston Arman de Caillavet, the comic playwright and partial model for Saint-Loup, and the latter’s then-secret fiancée Jeanne Pouquet, or between Paul Morand, the writer and diplomat, and Princess Soutzo, or between so many other men and women whom Proust befriended, Tadié resorts to René Girard’s theory of triangular desire to produce each time—and he does repeat himself—the following kind of flatfooted insight:
Was it to mislead other people by allowing himself to be seen with a girl? Or to draw himself closer to Gaston by sharing Jeanne’s feelings for him? In becoming closer to Jeanne, he was also getting to know those mysterious creatures, women, about whom all novelists have a duty to be able to speak with some experience. Was not the best way of acquiring this knowledge, given that he was not affected by such feelings, to pretend to them?
Perhaps it would be more useful to investigate the nature of Proustian desire, or the meaning of its seeming etiolation, rather than produce these pretzels that are not especially psychological, astute, or profoundly literary, nor even, for that matter, intuitive. George Painter, writing fifty years earlier, had himself already made this point—sans Girard.
Tadié’s book is less a critical biography than it is what one might call a reference life—a life one consults, a life one looks up to get the facts; it is not a life one sits down to read to find out why and how and following which tortuous path the man became the artist.
Like Tadié, William Carter is also interested in diagnosing Proust’s neurosis. But he has a finer touch. In trying to get a sense of young Proust’s neurosis he uses Proust Senior’s L’Hygiène du neurasthénique to explain how the father might have regarded the son, and probably how the son learned from his father to regard himself: namely as someone afflicted by a disease that frequently struck the wealthy, and whose symptoms were “dyspepsia, insomnia, hypochondria, hay fever, and abusive masturbation.” Tadié’s treatment of this book is at best perfunctory. In either biographer’s case, however, knowing what was being said or read about neurasthenia in Proust’s immediate circle doesn’t tell us much about Proust we hadn’t already gathered from Painter, even if Painter was less explicit in the details.
Carter examines his characters more closely than Tadié does and is less fussy about telling us everything they did and said. Like a good college professor he gives cautious hunches and discerning readings of how Proust the writer became Marcel the narrator. Indeed, his attempt to explain how for years Proust shuffled in the ante-chambers of À la recherche without knowing exactly what he would end up writing yields admirable results:
[Proust] saw, though not clearly, what he wanted to achieve, but did not yet know how to transpose the “very essence” of his life into a work of fiction…. He had not been able to bring his story into sharp focus, nor had he found the narrative voice in which to tell it…. The absent elements were the vital organs of fiction: plot, point of view, and structure.
This is persuasive, though “sharp focus” and “vital organs” are a tad too unnuanced:
Marcel seemed to know everything and to have it all at his fingertips…. The one thing Proust did not know—and its absence tormented him, then and for years to come—was the story. What plot could he find sturdy enough to support the characters, scenes, images, moods, sensations that he wanted to describe?
Again, the language may smack of workshop-ese, but the view of the problem is essential to Carter’s book. It is not an unsophisticated—or for that matter an unfamiliar—view, and it harks back to the list of seemingly disparate topics Proust had listed in his famous letter to his friend Albufera. What Carter doesn’t tell us, though, is that something must have encouraged Proust to break down the partitions that kept these topics so segmented and finally to create passageways between them that would allow a coherent, overarching narrative to emerge. What, in the end, made Proust feel it was possible—and necessary—to start this and no other book?
Carter touches on these matters, but he prefers to sidestep them most of the time. His merit as a biographer lies elsewhere. He gives the characters in Proust’s daily life flesh and blood. The deaths of Proust’s parents are moving scenes; in Tadié they are merely glimpsed. Carter examines private suffering: rejection, mourning, anxiety. On the other hand—and this is a problem every biographer of Proust has encountered—Proust’s sexuality is so obscure, and every attempt to portray or reconstruct it in his youth and middle age seems so hypothetical, that it would be more believable by now to suggest either that Proust didn’t have much of one, or that he made a perfect job of hiding it, than to go about sniffing for clues. Unlike Tadié, Carter does not pass up the opportunity to mention or describe the male brothel scene; but Carter goes a shorter distance than Tadié in exploring Proust’s adolescent sexuality. For all of this, neither biographer seems to consider that perhaps Proust’s novel, like Proust’s life, is about desire, but that desire is not necessarily sexual. Where the man buried his libido is anyone’s guess. After Edmund White’s shallow foray into the subject, the best course is to drop it.4
Despite his willingness to empathize with his subject, Carter’s worst fault, like Tadié’s, is his inability to sustain a narrative. His book, in which the years of Proust’s life are always difficult to situate, is very often a collage of index cards taped together chronologically without the slightest hint of why they should exist on the same page, or how each paragraph flows into the next. Thus, one paragraph will begin with “The April issue of Le Banquet…,” to be followed a few lines later by another paragraph starting with “The May 25 issue of Littérature et critique…,” to be followed yet a few lines down by “In early June…”—with nary a connection among them.
When it comes to a man like Proust, the biographer’s task is by no means an easy one. The master has chewed off all the meat, and the fat he has left behind is more often than not unusable. Proust played fast and loose with memory precisely because he wished to piece his life together, to narrate it and make something of much that seemed so trivial. How misguided can a biographer be when he assumes that so many trivial incidents, whether retold or untold by Proust, stand to be revisited by yet another man walking down the very path that Proust had so cautiously managed to avoid.
In October of 1896, a year after his idyllic stay in Beg-Meil with Reynaldo Hahn, Proust, wishing to continue writing his novel alone and away from home, arrived in the little town of Fontainebleau. An entire novella could be written on the few days Proust spent there that fall, and all his biographers make something of it. Upon arriving at the Hôtel de France et d’Angleterre where he had booked a room, Proust was instantly struck with a terrible crise d’arrivée, feeling homesick already—a clear foreboding of a scene familiar to readers of Within a Budding Grove, where Marcel experiences similar anxieties on stepping into an unfamiliar hotel bedroom. Everything that could go wrong goes wrong. In his haste to leave Paris, he has forgotten to pack a number of items. Then, as he writes to his mother, he’s forced to sleep on a new bed. Plus the bed is facing one way, and he has to keep all his small essentials—his coffee, his herbal tea, his candle, his pen, his matches, etc.—on what turns out to be the wrong side. Plus, it’s raining. And no one wishes to speak to him. And Fontainebleau is without character. Could she send him clothing items as well as some books? Then he writes that he has stomach problems. Shouldn’t he just come back home?
This, after all, is the all too familiar scene which occurs on page two of À la recherche, when a solitary traveler wakes up at night in a hotel room and knows help won’t be coming his way until daybreak, which looms hours away.
His mother, who is forever inquiring about his health and tries to coax a bit more stick-to-itiveness out of him, humors his numberless crises, urging him to try getting used to Fontainebleau. After a few letters back and forth, he and she arrange to speak by telephone. Unfortunately, their téléphonage doesn’t take place as anticipated, so that the two will have to try again.
Proust writes asking his mother to wire him money. It appears either that the more than thirty francs he is missing have slipped through a hole in his pockets or may have been stolen. Roger Duchêne in his 1994 Life is perhaps the only biographer who suspects that the “more than thirty francs” may have gone to pay for “undivulged expenses.”
On October 20, following some technical difficulties, the telephone conversation finally takes place. Proust is struck by his mother’s voice, which seems ever so faint, so disembodied, almost a stranger’s, full of cracks and fissures as though this voice, which he’d known all his life, could, in one second, suddenly fail, or be taken away from him, or worse yet, remind him that it might no longer be his soon. Shaken, Proust immediately writes to his mother describing the confused sorrow he’d experienced on hearing her voice, begging her all the while—and this is vintage Marcel Proust—not to throw away his letter because he might want to use it someday.
He would use it in the very book he had started in Beg-Meil in 1895 and was planning to work on in Fontainebleau in 1896: Jean Santeuil. Here, Proust, switching the years around, antedates the téléphonage to his wonderful interlude in Beg-Meil.
All biographers realize that the téléphonage is a key moment. Its evolution over the years gives a very good sense of how Proust transposed, altered, elaborated, and magnified what was after all, even in those days, as relatively straightforward an event as a phone call from maman. But the scene suggests something of a totally different order as well: that, for all the miles between them, it is one of those very rare moments in À la recherche where someone suddenly becomes one with someone else and, by so doing, has intimations that are intensely disturbing.
After many rewritings, both published by Proust and found in Proust’s correspondence, the scene will appear for the last time in The Guermantes Way as a telephone conversation with his grandmother. Here, Marcel, holding a receiver to his ear and hearing several uncertain sounds, finally makes out his grandmother’s squeaky voice. Instantly, he has fierce premonitions of the one thing he is unable to countenance but has been living with his entire childhood and adolescence: the certainty, now almost palpable—because she already sounds so otherworldly, so ethereal by phone—that she may indeed soon leave him. What is so poignant in the scene is not just Marcel’s disturbed presentiment, but his realization that those we love most in life have ways of disappearing into spaces where we’ll never be admitted, and that no matter how we try to hold on to what they’ve left behind for us—their picture, their voice, their smell—the course of time will unavoidably rob them from us a second time, and a third and a fourth after that, until, against our will, we’ll have forgotten, not who they were—this we may never forget—but the feel, the all-enfolding warmth, the cadence of their love when it sprang in their voice.
None of the biographers skips this scene. Carter quotes both from Jean Santeuil and À la recherche as well as from Proust’s correspondence. Tadié, whose supervision of the Pléiade edition was instrumental in gathering the superb notes at the back of each volume, draws from these notes in his biography. Earlier biographers—Ghis- lain de Diesbach, Roger Duchêne, and Ronald Hayman—reconstruct the scene equally well. It is, perhaps, the reviewer’s task to remind the reader now that the whole scene was already in place, explained, and sorted out in Painter’s Marcel Proust.
In an attempt to reconstruct the scene of the téléphonage, many biographers have pointed out that if Proust reacted with extreme sorrow on hearing his mother’s voice, it was because what he heard in it was not an omen of her death, but simply the strains of her sorrow over the recent death of her father, Nathé Weil. In its final incarnation, however, Proust not only transposed the conversation with his mother to one with his grandmother, but, as was his typical modus operandi, he transposed and reversed it: it is no longer his mother’s voice which is in mourning; the mourning is principally Marcel’s, and certainly that of Proust, who is rewriting the scene long after his mother’s death. That he is already mourning for her in the story long before she is dead, either as a mother or a grandmother, is simply Proust’s way of casting a backward glance into the future—something he did with consummate skill.
Yet this is only one transposition among many. The fact that Proust already knew that his mother knew how much he would suffer upon her death, and therefore was herself already suffering for his suffering, reminds us that enmeshed love is probably the most powerful kind of love Proust would ever know. He suffers because she suffers for his suffering and she knows he knows it…. Apart from these reversals love can be pretty sterile stuff in Proust. The téléphonage itself is not an isolated incident in the novel; it harks back to the three knocks on the hotel bedroom wall between Marcel and his grandmother. He knew she knew he knew….
We will encounter the same hotel bedroom wall again in some of the most moving pages of À la recherche, in Sodom and Gomorrah when Marcel, finally, returning to the same room whose wall he had shared with his grandmother once, bends down to undo one of his boot buttons and suddenly bursts out with sobs. A while later when he tries to lie down he catches himself staring at the same exact wall and realizes that even this form of solace has been taken from him. All he can say to himself, as though only simple, sobbing, sentences can make sense at this point, is: “She was my grandmother, and I was her grandson.” It bespeaks near-perfect communion between two beings: A to B as B to A. In the words of Tristan to Isolde, “Not I without you, nor you without me.”
If that’s not enough, a few lines down, Marcel will stammer the same words, more forcefully yet: “It’s grandma, I’m her grandson.” (Camus was to write the exact same words about his own mother.) But the words, their arrangement, almost certainly echo not the letter that Proust wrote his mother from Fontainebleau but the letter she herself had written to him the day after speaking to him by telephone. (It is quoted in Tadié’s Life.)
In her letter, Madame Proust playfully reproaches her son for scorning telephones. Now, she chides, he should know better than to make fun of modern contraptions. And then she adds in a language that couldn’t be simpler or more soulful: “Hearing the poor darling’s voice—the poor darling hearing mine!” A to B as B to A. “Poor darling” is Euan Cameron’s translation for Jeanne’s pauvre loup, poor whelp. Loup, as it turns out, is exactly the word which, in an earlier draft, Marcel’s grandmother used after tapping three times on his bedroom wall. Such a love couldn’t be more earthbound. As Proust was to write to his mother eight years later, “when we are near one another…linked by a kind of wireless telegraphy…one is always in close communion, always side by side.”
By the end of October 1896, Proust returned to his mother in Paris feeling at once chastened and absolved for his extravagant experiment in Fontainebleau. The episode could easily have sobered the budding writer, for the excursion into solitude proved a total fiasco. To write, Proust needed someone to tidy up a room for him, someone to replenish his inkwell, to steady his life. It is always easier to write about solitude when one knows that others will be there to shield us from it or to lure us back from it when we fear we’ve gone too far. All we have to do then is knock three times and three little taps confirming our existence will come directly enough. But Proust started to write À la recherche only when it became clear there no longer was and would clearly never be again someone to knock back. Then, indeed, sometime in 1908, at the age of thirty-seven, three years after his mother died, Proust started thinking not of life but of another, immortal life, not so much because very few of those he loved remained for him as because, with the years wearing on, alone in his bedroom, with barely any desire for clean air or food, he knew that each time he wrote the word je he was indeed already convening the immortals.
July 18, 2002
This exclusive world, which fascinated Proust and which he described with so trenchant an eye, was captured by the French socialite photographer Paul Nadar (1856–1939). Nadar not only photographed the Proust family, but as the recently published Le Monde de Proust (to be issued in the US by MIT Press in November) will show, he immortalized the rich and famous of turn-of-the-century France: Charles Haas, the model for Proust’s Charles Swann (see illustration on page 58); Sarah Bernhardt, the actress who inspired Proust’s La Berma; Armand de Guiche, one of the many models for the dashing Robert de Saint-Loup; Claude Monet, the prototype for Proust’s Elstir; Robert de Montesquiou, more famous nowadays as Proust’s Charlus than the great poet he mistook himself for; and a young wide-eyed Gabrielle Réju (Réjane), the actress whom Proust admired and who in her old age rented out her apartment to none other than the author himself. ↩
Marcel Proust: Correspondance, edited by Philip Kolb, Vols. 1–21 (Paris: Plon, 1970–1993). ↩
Marcel Proust (Lipper/Viking, 1999). ↩