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 literary life until his death in 1869, is one more indication of how besotted Proust was with books. In order to attack Sainte-Beuve he caricatured his “method” as insisting that one could not read Balzac, say, without first understanding everything about Balzac’s life. Like a good New Critic, Proust thought this biographical approach was absurd; it had led Sainte-Beuve to dismiss Stendhal, whom he had known in society as M. Beyle and who didn’t impress him. As Grau suggests, perhaps Proust feared that future critics would dismiss him as a Jew, a homosexual, and a dandy. No wonder, as everyone knows, the narrator is Catholic, one of the few heterosexual characters left standing at the end of the book, and a serious man who laughs at mere aesthetes such as Bloch and ridicules him for his grotesque Jewishness and pedantry.

What Proust doesn’t admit is how much he was influenced by Sainte-Beuve, especially in his youthful journalism. Just as Proust had written in Le Figaro portraits of his friends and their salons, so Sainte-Beuve had written about similar topics in his weekly column, Les Lundis, and in his Portraits. That Proust chose to refute this master who’d dominated his earlier writing reveals to what extent his thoughts about literature had evolved. Proust’s thoughts on Sainte-Beuve, rough drafts and sketches never intended for publication, were brought together only in 1954 by Bernard de Fallois under a title conceived by Fallois, Contre Sainte-Beuve.

According to Grau, Proust took the curse off fiction about oneself, which everyone likes but no one respects, by changing crucial details in his presentation of characters, in particular the narrator, thereby allowing him to devise a narrator derived from the part of himself that is the most noble, the strongest, and reduced to its very essence. What did Proust propose to replace the biographical method? He made a strong distinction between the “Moi Social” (the person one meets at dinner parties) and the “Moi Profond” (the person who expresses himself only in writing books). This distinction has attracted the attention of hundreds of commentators, overshadowing other issues Proust broaches such as the conversation among the different arts, the problems of metaphor, and the entire question of style.


We learn from Muhlstein’s book that Proust’s favorite novel was, surprisingly, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. He had read and thoroughly explored Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as well. His sometime friend André Gide had written an entire book on Dostoevsky, whose remarkable influence on the various European literatures is sometimes underestimated. During a conversation with his friend Gilberte, the narrator praises Dostoevsky’s method, which proceeds “as Elstir painted the sea, by reversing the real and the apparent, starting from illusions and beliefs which one then slowly brings into line with the truth, which is the manner in which Dostoievsky tells the story of a life.” In a letter to his editor Proust claimed that in The Guermantes Way there was much more of Dostoevsky than in the other volumes because, in Muhlstein’s paraphrase, “the characters will do the contrary of what one expects them to do.”

Proust was also an intense admirer of English literature and valued George Eliot above all her countrymen. As he wrote a diplomat friend: “It is curious that in all the different genres, from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there is no literature which has had as much hold on me as English and American literature…. Two pages of The Mill on the Floss reduce me to tears.” He studied German in high school but felt there were no contemporary German writers of value (he probably never read Mann or Freud, though he had heard of Freud from one of his brainy society friends, the Princess Bibesco).

If all of Proust’s characters read, some of them are bad readers. Saint-Loup’s tastes, for instance, vary with his politics or with mere fashion and are not born out of inner convictions or profound inclinations. As a child of the nineteenth century Saint-Loup admires Victor Hugo and prefers him to the outdated Racine. The absurd Bloch admits that Racine composed one good line in Phèdre, the nonsensical and purely euphonious “La fille de Minos et Pasiphaë.” (Proust apparently borrowed the remark from Théophile Gautier—or was it Mallarmé?) As often in society, people score points by saying ridiculously paradoxical things. For instance, the Duchess de Guermantes, famous for her wit, shocks and excites the dowdy Princess of Parma by claiming that Zola, the father of Naturalism, is a poet, not a realist. As Muhlstein observes, “For the Duchess, reading is less a source of enjoyment than a wonderfully subtle social instrument of domination.”

Proust himself may have esteemed the poets Alfred de Vigny and Baudelaire, but Proust’s character the snobbish Mme de Villeparisis dismisses Vigny because he didn’t know how to hold his hat. Only a few people belong to the secret order of sincere and insightful readers whom Proust respects and among whom there exists a powerful complicity. Lest one think this observation is merely novelistic, one can usually, and often instantly, sort out readers of genuine taste from the poseurs and they immediately feel a bond of confraternity among themselves.

And if one knows an author, one must guard against judging his or her work on the basis of his or her social persona, just as Proust warns us. For instance, in Paris through Michel Foucault I knew Hervé Guibert, whose novels I never bothered with since he was suspiciously good-looking and strikingly mannered. Only after his death from AIDS did I discover that he was one of the most original and captivating writers of his generation. (I tried to make up for my earlier mistake by writing a long essay about him, “Sade in Jeans.”) I mention that only because a familiar game among Proust readers is finding parallels in real life to those in his book. (Not to sound too much like Alain de Botton, whose pursuit of “rules for life” in Proust’s pages seems middle-brow, especially since he chooses to ignore Proust’s condemnation of both love and friendship and his many observations about male homosexuality and lesbianism.) I guess those thoughts about vice and talent aren’t sufficiently life-enhancing.

One of Proust’s good readers, according to Muhlstein, is Charlus, who values above all other writers the Duc de Saint-Simon, Mme de Sévigné, Racine, and Balzac. The prickly Saint-Simon is esteemed not only for the beautiful prose in his forty-volume memoirs but also for his obsession with the niceties of precedence at Versailles, which appeals to Charlus’s own touchiness. Saint-Simon’s obsession is Louis XIV’s ennobling of his bastards, which enables them to enter a door before a genuine duke such as Saint-Simon; he devotes hundreds of pages to this worrisome and maddening problem. Proust shows that even in a sleepy village such as Combray the routines of a shut-in invalid like his aunt are as inexorable and unvarying as the king’s at court.


Charlus betrays his almost feminine sensitivity by his love of Mme de Sévigné, the great letter-writer of the seventeenth century who was enraptured by her indifferent daughter and tried to amuse the girl by telling her court gossip (Thornton Wilder, incidentally, transposed their relationship to South America in The Bridge of San Luis Rey). When Mme de Villeparisis, overhearing a discussion of Sévigné, says that she believes the mother’s passion for her daughter was unnatural, Charlus revealingly remarks, sounding like Tennessee Williams decades later, “What matters in life is not whom or what one loves…it is the fact of loving…. The hard and fast lines with which we circumscribe love arise solely from our complete ignorance of life.”

Charlus’s affection for Balzac arises partly out of the great novelist’s examination of homosexual and lesbian passions. “Readers interpret the great books of the past in the light of their obsessions,” Proust observes. Although he found much to reproach in Balzac’s crude style, he was evidently impressed by his way of having the same characters reappear in successive volumes of The Human Comedy, a practice he adopted.

Charlus’s (and Proust’s) love of Racine can be traced to the playwright’s delineation of unnatural passion—in the case of Phèdre a near-incestuous love. He also liked the way Racine, in portraying passion, could break the rules of grammar. Proust moreover establishes a link between Jews and homosexuals—“the accursed race…brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism to which they are subjected….” In his portrait of Nissim Bernard, the elderly rich homosexual Jew, Proust frequently makes reference to Racine’s two biblical plays, Esther and Athalie.

As Muhlstein points out, when Proust is searching for a comparison his mind automatically turns to Racine, whose lines he knows by heart. Thus, when he talks about the narrator’s tearful farewell to his beloved hawthorn blossoms, he compares himself to Phèdre being oppressed by the hair ornaments her maid attaches to her tresses. Racine’s words have become part of Proust’s spontaneous vocabulary.

In affirming his own way of reading (subjective, passionate), Proust chooses to attack the great chroniclers of the nineteenth century, the Goncourt brothers, who always wrote their daily journal together until one of them died and the other brother soldiered bravely on. Proust, who loved pastiche and used it frequently in his forma- tive years to isolate and purge the influences of other writers on his style, resorted to a mock entry by the Goncourt brothers in Time Regained. The narrator supposedly stumbles upon an entry by the Goncourt brothers (actually invented by Proust) on the Verdurin salon in the 1860s or 1870s. We know that in truth Mme Verdurin is cruel, a self-dramatizing hysteric, and ambitious, but the Goncourts present her as nothing but a charming hostess. To be fair, Proust did acquire from the Goncourts many details and anecdotes about an earlier period of Paris society, which he was able to use for Swann’s youth, for instance.

The principal writer in Proust is a fictitious character, Bergotte, loosely based on the Nobel Prize winner Anatole France, the older writer who wrote a preface for Proust’s maiden effort, Pleasures and Days. The three artists in Proust are all fabricated: Bergotte the novelist; Elstir the painter; and Vinteuil the composer. And yet all three contain recognizable elements of actual men Proust knew or knew of.

Proust regretted that France wasted his time running after second-rate writers and vacuous society people and was such a social bore himself, but he recognized that what counts in writing is the ability to transform common occurrences into art rather than an intrinsic intelligence or refinement. Moreover, Proust was grateful to him for his support in the Dreyfus Affair when so many reactionary, anti-Semitic people in society assumed Dreyfus’s guilt; he rewarded France with the gift of a Rubens sketch. When Proust was facing his own imminent death he felt the necessity to add details to his book about the death of Bergotte. The great invented author has gone to see a Vermeer show at the Jeu de Paume, as Proust himself staggered out on his last legs to see this very exhibition.

France may have been dull but in his best novels, such as The Red Lily, he shows a subtle, sophisticated knowledge of society, art, adultery…. Although Proust happened to have mainly secondary novelists in the generation before him, nevertheless he adhered to the best of the lot, France and Pierre Loti. Among the older poets Mallarmé was his god; indeed Mallarmé, with his adherence to art for art’s sake, can be placed in the spectrum of the mature Proust at the opposite end from Sainte-Beuve.

Proust, in contemplating his future readers in his last volume, returns to the essential strategy of realism, identification with the experiences recounted on the page:

For it seemed to me that they would not be “my” readers but the readers of their own selves…. With its [the book’s] help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves. So that I should not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether “it really is like that,” I should ask them whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written….

Proust, as Muhlstein’s perceptive readings suggest, never seemed certain what genre he was writing, and in some letters he called his massive book his “autobiography,” but in the end he seemed to land on the side of the novel of psychological realism.