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Marcel Proust: A Life
by Jean-Yves Tadié
THE BOOK OF LIFE (AND
Over the past few years, a number of new books have come out in English on the subject of Marcel Proust and his great novel, A la recherche du temps perdu. Besides the two under review here, there have been: in 1997, Alain De Botton's delightfully original venture into Proustian self-help, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and biographer Phyllis Rose's memoir, The Year of Reading Proust; in 1998, Malcolm Bowie's critical study, Proust Among the Stars; in 1999, Edmund White's introductory study, Marcel Proust, and Proust's Lesbianism, by Elisabeth Ladenson; and last year, William Carter's full-length biography, Marcel Proust: A Life, and Roger Shattuck's Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time (as it is now titled in English). Most of these - Heuet, De Botton, Rose, White and Shattuck - are aimed at general readers rather than academic scholars; Heuet's, in fact, is a comic-book adaptation of the first chapter of Swann's Way.
Nor have film treatments of Proust and his novel been lacking. Another chapter of Swann's Way, "Swann in Love," was made into a movie, starring Jeremy Irons, in 1983. The documentary Marcel Proust: A Writer's Life, produced by Carter, was released in 1992. And last year saw the critically-acclaimed movie adaptation of the epic's final volume, Time Regained.
To what do we owe this resurgence of interest in the novel? After all, in its sublimely prolix style and rarified subject matter (not to mention its formidable page count: six volumes in the latest Modern Library English translation, totaling 4,347 pages, not including addenda, notes and indices) it can hardly be considered an easy read. And to add to this, in 1989, Pléiade/Gallimard brought out the final installment of Tadié's mammoth, four-volume, expanded (!) French edition of A la recherche - a project slammed by Shattuck in The New York Review of Books as a misbegotten venture in "hypertrophization", of use only to scholars, not readers of Proust. (A shorter version of this review can be found in Proust's Way.)
While publication of the new definitive edition may supply the literary basis for this Proustian renaissance, it can hardly explain it. I suspect the reason may lie more in the area of popular culture than literary taste. (And if so, what a vindication for Proust, who may finally be gaining the more general audience he always felt he should have!) Some of it may have to do with the popular success of De Botton's book, stressing Proust's relevance for today, and designed as a classy self-help book for a general audience. Or with the current vogue of memoir and autobiography, of which Proust stands as the master. Or with the self-absorption of the Boomer generation, to whom those genres may seem particularly relevant. And some of it, too, may be consumer reaction against the "dumbing down" of the publishing business in a world more and more dominated by the media corporations. But whatever the reasons behind the Proust revival, it is cause for celebration, not only for Proustians, but also for those interested in the creative links between popular and literary culture.
Those links are explored in Stéphane Heuet's charming adaptation of "Combray", the first chapter of Swann's Way. Fans of the world-famous French comic-book series Tintin will recognize in Heuet a fellow-traveler. The oval eyes of the Hergé-like cartoon characters; the yellow background of the italicized exposition running along the top and bottom margins of the picture frames; even the question marks, exclamation points, and radiating droplets of sweat exuded by the characters to denote surprise, consternation, bafflement, or mere exertion - all are strongly suggestive of The Adventures of Tintin (pub. 1929-1976), written and drawn by Georges Remi, alias Hergé (1907-1983). The readership of Tintin - whose adventures have been translated into at least 21 languages, including Afrikaans, Icelandic, Persian and Malay -- was (and presumably still is) primarily children. But Heuet's Proust seems more like an homage for the cognoscenti than an introduction for the neophyte. Children will likely be bored, since -- Heuet's being a faithful (though, of necessity, highly selective) rendition of Proust's text -- there are no adventures, nor even a plot to speak of (at least not in the conventional sense of those terms). The events of the story as depicted are largely personal and internal, consisting of the Proustian narrator's recollections of his childhood, and his reflections on those recollections - epitomized most memorably by the "Madeleine" episode. The charm of Heuet's adaptation lies in our sense of the wild incongruence of the genres juxtaposed: the expansiveness of Proust's highly literary prose, in which the Narrator's most nuanced distinctions receive page after page of detailed, loving analysis, versus the graphic brevity of the cartoon format. The fact that Heuet's adaptation serves as an homage to Tintin as well as Proust only adds to its charm. It reminds us, too, that the two genres - cartoons and prose fiction -- are not always mutually exclusive. This is evident in the success of such publications as "Classic Comics," which must be at least two generations old by now. Heuet's dust-jacket blurb describes a hipper, more up-scale version of the literary comic:
ComicsLit: novels in the true sense about exploring our lives, our feelings, our experiences. In comic art. In graphic novels. At times uplifting, at times controversial - always insightful and enriching. Here are the most intelligent comics the world has to offer.
I applaud their venture, while remaining sympathetically dubious about its application to Proust. But at the very least, those readers of Heuet's adaptation not yet familiar with the opening of Swann's Way (are there really such people in the world?) will get their first delicious taste of the Proustian experience, in however abridged a form; and no Proustian worth his or her Petites Madeleines could ever find fault with that. After all, they cannot be expected to drink if they are not brought to tea. **********************
Tadie's massive biography (986 pp., including bibliography, notes and index) is a project more congruent with its original; which is perhaps another way of saying that what it lacks in charm it makes up for in documentary exhaustiveness. Yet mere exhaustiveness is not a Proustian virtue. However expansive he is, Proust is never boring, just as he is never detailed merely for the sake of it. As Tadié himself tells us, of Proust's response to the writing of André Gide (who as an editor at the Nouvelle Revue Française rejected Swann's Way and never quite forgave himself, though Proust did):
he criticized the presence of 'thousands of prosaic details': he was incapable of recording 'anything which hadn't produced [in him] an impression of poetic enchantment, or in which [he had not] felt he had grasped a general truth.'"
Dutiful documenter that he is, Tadié does not shy away from those "prosaic details", which can be boring (especially when he sees fit to reproduce the guest lists of social occasions, which he does too often). Like Heuet's adaptation, Tadié's biography is really not for the uninitiated, who would do better to read Carter for a more coherent and less exhaustive narrative. Then again, it is not Tadié's intention to provide a narrative, "novelistic" biography in the manner of Carter -- or of George Painter, his distinguished predecessor, and the author of the first (and still the best) full-length biography (pub. 1959-65). Instead, Tadié chooses a thematic rather than narrative or chronological approach, and arranges his long chapters in short, topical sections -- which also helps to make them more readable.
Unfortunately, Tadié is not well-served by his translator, Euan Cameron, whose persistent use of the solecism "different to" (I counted at least 10 instances - for which the copy-editors at Viking must bear some of the blame) is the most annoying, but not the only, error in English idiom. (Others include "substitute with" for "substitute for"; "the press reception for" for "the press reception of" [The Bible of Amiens]; the pedantic Latinism "cecity" for "blindness"; the Frenchism "building works" for "construction"; the misleading title "Impressions of the Road in a Motorcar" for Proust's important essay "Impressions de route en automobile" (which Carter, by the way, gets right: "Impressions on Riding in an Automobile"); and the infelicitous phrase "
a psychology which would vary very little".
Yet even taking into account the deficiencies of the translation, and the fact that it is not always possible to see the forest of Proust's life and work for the trees of Tadié's documentation, his biography will probably be the definitive one for some time to come, for several reasons. Unlike Painter, Tadié (as he himself points out) has taken the trouble to interview as many people as he could who knew or had met Proust. The portrait we get of Proust in Tadié, though not as flowingly told (read "novelistic") as in Painter or Carter, may for just that reason be more true to life, which as we know is rarely as shapely (or as shaped) as narrative. Though Proust's, at moments, comes close. Here he is at 45, approximately halfway through the composition of A la recherche, rousing the members of the Poulet String Quartet in the middle of the night to come play for him in his apartment. The accounts are by two members of the quartet, Poulet and Massis, as paraphrased by Tadié:
According to Poulet, one evening is 1916, at about eleven o'clock, a stranger rang the bell: "I am Marcel Proust. I am tormented by the desire to hear you play César Franck's quartet." He offered to go and collect the other three musicians by car (Massis last); at one o'clock in the morning they all went back to Boulevard Haussmann by car. Proust stretched out on the divan in his bedroom. When the quartet had finished, he asked them to play the piece again. Four taxis delivered the musicians to their homes. He asked them back on several occasions so that he could hear Mozart, Ravel, Schumann, and above all Fauré and Franck. "He was familiar with everything. Fauré was the composer most in tune with his sensibilities." But very often he asked them to play the third movement of Franck's violin sonata for him again, and Beethoven's last quartets. "For us Marcel Proust was a marvelous listener, straightforward, direct, a man who drank in music without raising any questions
And, conversely, we could sense the reverberations of his style, within him."
According to Massis, during the interval at one of his concerts, a man came to look for him and invited him to come and play at his home one evening in the near future. At twelve o'clock one night, the bell rang, and Proust asked the viola player to gather his friends together. They went downstairs to Odilon Albaret's motor car, which had a vast eiderdown inside; on the folding seat was a soup tureen containing mashed potatoes. Odilon indicated, with a gesture, that "his employer was a little bizarre but not dangerous"; they went to collect the three others. Back in his bedroom, Marcel lay down in the darkness. Franck's quartet was played; not a sound, not a movement from the writer. He asked them to play it again. He gave each of the musicians 150 francs [a little over $500 in today's currency].
In the words of Dr. Johnson: Had Tadié written often thus, it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.
Even so, one more bit of praise is in order, for Tadié's biographical method. Without "novelizing" the life, Tadié does a better job than any other biographer of teasing out, in Proust's words,
what are the secret relationships, the necessary metamorphoses, which exist between a writer's life and his work, between reality and art, or rather
between the appearances of life and reality itself, which under[lies] everything, and which c[an] be released only by art.
Those "secret relationships" and "necessary metamorphoses" are the chief interests of his biography, which, in the author's words, "does not tell us about 'some vague wholly prefabricated novel', but about the source of the novel and what made it possible." Tadié's magisterial scholarship as editor of the four-volume Pléiade/Gallimard edition of A la recherche (pub. 1987-89; a very full volume larger than the previous 1954 edition) puts him in an especially authoritative position to speak about the genesis, composition and revision of Proust's novel - a process of revision that ended only with Proust's death (and, according to Shattuck's criticism of the Tadié edition, not even then). The greatest value of Tadié's biography lies in his vast fund of knowledge about the growing life of Proust's book, from 1908 onward. It was the literary pastiches that Proust wrote that year - including brilliant parodies of Balzac, Flaubert, Sainte-Beuve, the Goncourt brothers and Michelet - that provided the critical insights and framework out of which A la recherche was to evolve. "His art had its beginnings in criticism," Tadie writes; and while this perception in itself is not particularly original, Tadié's painstaking documentation and elaboration of it, based on his authoritative knowledge and analysis of the compositional labyrinth of Proust's numerous manuscripts, printer's proofs and revisions, give us -- for the first time -- a more concrete understanding of the specific ways in which the novel gradually took substance, shape, and final flowering out of the rich loam of Proust's reading, his other writings, and his life.
The possibility that Proust's masterpiece may at last be reaching the larger audience that he always wished for it seems not only poetic justice, but an especially apt and gratifying vindication, as mentioned earlier. Perhaps we are now seeing fulfilled Proust's conviction that his book, despite its many difficulties, is a work that should have wider readership. For it is a book that is vitally concerned with matters of common and universal significance -- among them, the search for beauty, truth, purpose, and meaning in life. Furthermore, the particular story this book has to tell is itself one of vindication: the story of an underdog, a "lightweight", perhaps even a failure; a person of great gifts - sensitivity, intelligence, talent, wit -- who for one reason or another is wasting those gifts, wasting his time, wasting his life. Hoping, year after year, page after page, volume after volume, to "get down to work", but never quite succeeding - until the very end, when all is made right, the truth is revealed, and the work can begin. In a very real sense, Proust's story - cultural and historical and personal differences aside (and much of the pleasure of reading the novel lies in our exploration of those differences, so we would never really want to put them aside) -- is the story of all of us, at one time or another in our lives. The story of the "disappointment", the lazybones, the dreamer, the artist manqué, who could do and be and give so much if he could only, as we used to say in the 60's, "get it together." Well, he finally does - but you won't find out how until you go the journey with him. Proust's book is our book, our life. Read it, and live.
© 2001 Joshua GiddingJoshua Gidding is an assistant professor of English at Dowling College. He is also chair of his department and Director of the Honors Program.