Teasing Proust out of his work

Marcel Proust

May 3, 2002

Jean-Yves Tadié knows more about Marcel Proust than anyone. His edition of A la recherche du temps perdu , which appeared some dozen years ago in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series, will remain definitive for decades; he has written major studies of Proust. Who better to write a definitive biography?

When this book appeared in France in 1996, it was on the bestseller list for months. It supersedes earlier Proust biographies in its honest documentary research and understanding of the intellectual and social milieu from which Proust came. In part, this is because Tadié has been able to draw on archival material that was not available to earlier biographers (although some remains under lock and key: the complete diary of the composer Reynaldo Hahn, Proust's one-time lover and lifelong friend, will not be made public for another 60 years). He has also tracked down the few survivors who knew Proust - something that George Painter, Proust's first thorough biographer, did not do, missing the opportunity to interview one of Proust's longest-serving secretaries and intimates, Albert Nahmias, who died in 1979. Tadié discreetly corrects previous biographies and displays saintly patience even with those editors who tried to hit the headlines with "new" discoveries once A la recherche came out of copyright in 1987 (the most spectacular case being the claim that the "authentic" Albertine disparue is some 200 pages shorter than the familiar one, Proust having supposedly shorn these off on his deathbed).

But there is more to this comprehensive work than professional fair-mindedness. Tadié gives us a different Proust from the melancholic and solipsistic invalid of many other biographers. He stresses Proust's intellectual curiosity and his humour, likely to have derived from his mother's culture and wit; he presents a man who, unhappy love-affairs aside, was of an energetic and even sanguine disposition, able to see the funny side of his adversities and to cheer up those more wretched than himself - a writer, furthermore, who, after a youthful flirtation with decadence and symbolism, was resolutely committed to the intense and confident art forms of the early 20th century. Another welcome emphasis is on Proust's interest in history and political science. Tadié pertinently describes the long-standing liberal traditions in Proust's family and Proust's leftwing sympathies, linking these to key scenes of the novel that, as he points out, is full of national and international affairs.

Aspects of this compendious study may make it a little rebarbative for the general reader: it is, perhaps, easier to imagine it being consulted as a reference work than read through. But it is subdivided into readily assimilable short sections, and one of its virtues is precisely that it does not try to turn the life into a highly coloured story.

In paperback, the book will no doubt be bought by Proust lovers in as large numbers as any earlier biography. The translation from the French contains a few errors (for example, apropos the Dreyfus affair, we find, for " le faux Henry ", "the false Henry", instead of "the Henry forgery"), but it is serviceable and usually very readable.

The book's publication in English by Penguin testifies to the continuing Anglo-American fascination with this greatest of French prose writers, or at least with his life. Where, in this first-person novel that teases us with the idea that it might be the author's own autobiography, does Proust the man end and the fictional narrator begin? This is the reef on which all biographies of Proust founder. For Proust is only teasing, is talking not so much about himself as about the self. His revisions of his drafts, and reworkings of his own earlier fiction, show him progressively reducing what autobiographical content remains - or reshaping it so radically that it no longer makes sense - to "explain" it as material from his life that is "put into" the novel. Such autobiographical elements need to be seen as part of a particular narrative structure, and as part of a complex and robust dialogue with French or European culture. Thus, if we assume that the narrator suffers from illness because Proust did, what are we to say about the 19th-century literary (and political) interest in illness that Proust is taking up for his own ends?

There is something about the genre of biography that lulls its practitioners into underestimating the gap between the life and the work. The most notorious example is Painter's biography. He supposed that everything in the novel could be related to events in Proust's life; from there, it was a fatally easy step to cite Proust's fiction itself as primary evidence, which Painter unashamedly did. So, Proust himself must have had a revelation comparable to that of the madeleine; because his narrator has heterosexual experiences, Proust must have had. Tadié is far too subtle to proceed down this path. He takes Painter to task in his preface, and comes close to giving us the "alternative biography" that Proust studies lack - an account of what is in the novel that is not in the life. Yet the temptation remains, and even this distinguished scholar undervalues Proust's gifts of imagination. He expresses surprise that Proust should, for his main character Swann, have used a "model" little known to him - Charles Haas. Why the surprise? Tadié thinks it "curious" that Proust the man nowhere says the hawthorn is his favourite flower (it is the narrator's); he seems puzzled by the fact that Hahn's music goes unmentioned in A la recherche ; and he asks whether a review written by the 28-year-old Proust marks a decline in his inspiration as a writer of fiction. This seems a strange query when one compares the impoverished fiction Proust had written until then with the exuberant range of characters and the stylistic variety of A la recherche , still to come. As one of Proust's critics said in the 1960s, why do we allow great novelists to have every gift other than inventiveness?

Alison Finch is fellow of Merton College, Oxford.

Marcel Proust: A Life

Author - Jean-Yves Tadié
ISBN - 0 670 87655 0 and 0 14 100203
Publisher - Penguin (Viking)
Price - £30.00 and £12.99
Pages - 986
Translator - Euan Cameron

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