Things past, seen through Mother's eyes

Madame Proust

October 19, 2007

In the final volume of  À la recherche du temps perdu , as the narrator considers the task that lies ahead of him - the construction and execution of the book that would envelop and redeem his life and offer a kind of optical instrument for others to reinvent their own - he writes the following elliptical and devastating sentence: "Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature." This principle creates the transformative effect with which readers and scholars of Marcel Proust will be familiar: worldly life is emptied of content and siphoned off to fill up the work, in a kind of thermodynamic operation. Rather, then, than the work being read as the description of a life, however removed it is from that life, life is re- formed as a function of the work.

This, among other factors, makes the biography of Proust a fundamentally challenging enterprise. To do it "straight" is to wrench the work and the life that it projects back into the world and into the status of mere "description", a category of literature derided by Proust. To write Proust's life as a function of the work, on the other hand, is to write it always in the shadow of the Recherche itself and risks becoming a redundant exercise.

The same principle holds for the multiple biographies of the family, servants and acquaintances of Proust. Thus Evelyne Bloch-Dano's biography of Jeanne Proust, formerly Jeanne Weil, Marcel's mother, partly reconstructs the family and home life of the Prousts in the mode of fictional narrative, in the light of episodes from the Recherche , the earlier prototype Jean Santeuil , and the voluminous correspondence. This is somewhat unsettling; the reader is unsure whether he or she is reading the author's imagined reconstitution of what went on and how it went on or whether this is a hybrid by-product of Proust's writing itself, a beam projected backwards and illuminating fragments of the historical past with its particular light.

There is a sense that the work itself is speaking here, through an uncanny form of ventriloquism. The book is supported by a carefully constructed web of footnoted references to the Recherche and to the correspondence, which key the reconstruction into the writing. As a result, Madame Proust demands readers already familiar with Proust's work; its constituency is decidedly Proustian, if not necessarily solely academic. It is unlikely that it will be read as a way into the work for those who have not yet taken up the challenge.

Madame Proust is not, however, limited to a retelling of the story. Despite the fact that the episodes of Weil's life that tend to come under closest scrutiny are those that relate most obviously to the Recherche (the episode of the goodnight kiss in particular), the object of the biography is the mother, not the son. Bloch-Dano thus offers a rich cultural and social history, identifying and vividly recreating the contexts that affected her life, that of her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, her education, her marriage and her household. We learn, for example, that Weil was well educated and extremely cultured for the time. Bloch-Dano speculates that Weil, had she been born 15 years later, would have been among the first women to enter the Sorbonne, and notes with implicit poignancy that marriage and child-rearing was the expected career choice for educated young women of the time.

Weil's marriage to Adrien Proust, an eminent doctor who had specialised in the study of cholera, is described as happy, despite the latter's lack of interest in the artistic and intellectual tastes of his wife. Lest Weil's almost complete concern for her husband, family and household strike the reader as casting her in a sacrificial role, Bloch-Dano adds, with an anachronism that rings awkwardly: "To understand Jeanne, we must put our 21st-century feminist values aside."

Despite the pull of the focus towards the son and his writing, Madame Proust is also full of information and detail concerning satellite members of the family, prototypes for the minor members of the cast of the Recherche . For example, a degree of attention is paid to the life, career and death of Adolphe Crémieux, an illustrious and noble member of the Chambre des Députés, who did much to further the cause of Jewish French citizens in the latter part of the 19th century. The religious question, indeed, is a leitmotiv of Bloch-Dano's book, rivalling the literary for the place of primary focus. The author traces meticulously the lineage of Weil's Jewish forebears, revealing in the process the miraculous trouvaille that Proust and Karl Marx were (very) distant cousins. The decision, on the part of Adèle and Nathé Weil, Jeanne's parents, that she should marry a non-Jewish atheist is symptomatic, in Bloch-Dano's account, of the progress of integration and assimilation of Jews in France. Alice Kaplan, whose translation is fluid and subtle, chooses to keep the word "Israelite", the word used, she writes, for Jews in "polite French society". Whatever complications this causes, this story is told carefully and empathetically.

One of the most engaging aspects of Weil's life and personality, as it is revealed by Bloch-Dano, is the intimacy and importance of her relation to literature. The author notes, for example, that Weil and her mother tended to communicate their feelings for each other via literary quotation, invariably from Madame de Sévigné. The mediation of life through literature was already de rigueur , among the Prousts, at least among the women.

Whatever reservations one might have about the hybrid form Bloch-Dano's biography takes, Madame Proust is at the same time a convincing account of that osmosis and a continuation of its legacy.

Patrick ffrench is professor of French, King's College London.

Madame Proust: A Biography

Author - Evelyne Bloch-Dano
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 291
ISBN - 9780226056425

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