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He’s Not There

David Scott

Proust: The Search, by Benjamin Taylor, Yale University Press, 224 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0300164169

The second decade of the twenty-first century coincides with the centenary of the publication of Proust’s famous novel À la recherche du temps perdu, usually referred to in English as In Search of Lost Time. The first part of the seven volumes that eventually constituted the novel, Du côté de chez Swann, was published in 1914, while the second, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, confirmed Proust’s status as a major new author, it being awarded soon after its publication in 1918 the Prix Goncourt. The novel, which was not published in full until after Proust’s death at the age of fifty-one in 1922, was ground-breaking in many ways. This was because in its subtle though convoluted style, its vast and to some extent inchoate volume, it responded not only to revolutionary changes in European thinking about time, space and personal identity but also to the technological changes – air, train and motor travel, the telephone and telegraph – that were in this period transforming human interaction and human understanding of communication. In addition, being written at a time of immense political and social upheaval – the crisis brought to a head in France at the turn of the century by the Dreyfus Case, the last decade of the Belle Époque, and the five years (1914-18) of the First World War – the novel explored through such themes as snobbery, heroism and racism the way the France of the Third Republic was undergoing radical transformation. It was also deeply sensitive to the way such change impacted on human identity – sexual, social, family – and the way that the old certitudes were being challenged in a world increasingly defined by modernity, in particular by the mobility and innovation that characterised it.

But it was perhaps only in the second part of the twentieth century that the full implications of Proust’s novel were felt in the realm of literary criticism and in the theory and practice of the novel, especially in France. Many of the issues that concerned structuralist and post-structuralist criticism, in their focus on form and the problematisation of form, were raised in a preliminary way by À la recherche du temps perdu, while the elaboration of new theories and practice of the novel, as exemplified in the nouveau roman, were unquestionably inspired by Proust. In addition Proust’s novel raised some fundamental semiological issues relating to human experience, in particular the question of representation as it is raised by both the recognition and the interpretation of signs. It is significant in this respect that one of the earliest books of a writer who was to become a major philosophical thinker in France ‑ Giles Deleuze – should be the study Proust et les signes (1964). From a literary perspective also, Proust’s work poses the problem of the status of the autobiographical novel, the relationship between journal and fiction, the question of the way writing almost inevitably blurs the distinction between “real” (in so far as that concept is admissible) and imaginary experience. In this sense, the massive burgeoning of “autofiction” in twenty-first-century writing is significantly tributary to Proust’s work. But it also raises the issues, central to this critical review, at stake in attempting to write the biography of a writer who so elaborately extemporised on the interaction between personal experience and literary creativity.

In the light of this, it is surprising that Benjamin Taylor’s biography of Proust has so little to say about this problematic and shows such slight interest in the whole question raised by the search for the truth (his book’s subtitle is The Search) in the life of a writer who used fiction to explore actual and imaginary aspects of his experience. There is not even a summary review in Taylor’s book of earlier biographies of Proust, despite the excellence of some of them ‑ for example George D Painter’s two-volume work in English of 1959 and 1965 that is still today, half a century later, considered a standard reference. Someone called “Carter” is occasionally referred to by Taylor (it is left to the bibliography to specify the details), but why this writer is privileged above many others is not clear: one can only deduce it was due to the fact that Yale University Press also published his book on Proust in 2000. Meanwhile, the work of Proust’s leading French biographer, Jean-Yves Tadié, is shamelessly plundered for solutions to critical problems raised by Proust’s life, long citations from it being used in lieu of the discussion that one would have expected Taylor himself to elaborate.

Of course Taylor’s book, being one of a number of studies within Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, may best be read within the spirit of what that publisher claims to be a “major series of interpretative biography designed to illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences”. The press’s blurb at the end of the book further declares that “Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of Jewish experience”. So the value of Taylor’s book should perhaps be assessed according to these criteria.

This raises the key issue of the extent to which Proust may be considered a Jewish writer and how this categorisation might throw light on his understanding of his social position in France, his religious and political views and his response to the creative process as a writer in the French language. Proust was of course only half-Jewish, his father being French, and the education he received was of a broadly secular kind (he went to the Lycée Condorcet). His adored mother retained her Jewish religious affiliation, but this does not seem to have affected in any major way Proust’s social or intellectual development. These facts are rehearsed by Taylor, but not submitted to any close investigation or evaluation. The chief focus of the “Jewish” question in the book is to be found in Chapter 4, which notes the impact of the Dreyfus Affair on middleclass French society, on Proust and on certain aspects of his novel. Once again though, despite the complexities and the divisions the Dreyfus Affair gave rise to in France, for Proust, Taylor essentially argues, it was not a question of adopting a “Jewish” position but rather of taking a stand for equity and justice. Readers seeking a deeper understanding of the Dreyfus Affair and its impact on French intellectuals, Jewish or other, would therefore need to look elsewhere for illumination.

Not the least of the challenges Proust offers to the biographer is the ambiguity, not to say mauvaise foi, of the changing positions he adopted in relation to a number of key moral and aesthetic issues – his confrontation of his homosexuality, his social insecurity as expressed through snobbery, and his mixed racial pedigree – which were neither consistent nor coherent, this incoherence and mauvaise foi being evident in many aspects of his novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Of course this ambiguity and moral weakness lead to the creation of some of his most vivid characters, such as the improbable Baron de Charlus, who in effect becomes in part the ragbag into which Proust may thrust many of his own less savoury or admissible moral, social and sexual tendencies or characteristics. But it also leads to a highly questionable stance on the part of the first-person narrator of Proust’s novel: the structural incoherence, contradictory statements and narrative inconsistency (not to mention the sometimes intolerable longueurs in the middle volumes of À la recherche) are further exacerbated, from the point of view of the reader, by a narrator whose vanity is such that at times it leads him to upstage other leading characters in the novel, as for example, when, in the long and frequenly tedious Doncières episode of Le Côté des Guermantes, his friend the Marquis de Saint-Loup is made jealous by Marcel’s ingratiating himself with Robert’s fellow soldiers.

Alas, such complexities seem over the head of Taylor in his biography, which seems far more at home trotting out the already well-known peculiarities of Proust’s life and the many anecdotes associated with it. Even here, he has difficulty establishing narrative coherence as unrelated snippets of information ‑ Proust’s discovery of the pleasures of masturbation and the writing of his first story (Chapter 1), the Paris floods of 1910 and his first meeting with Jean Cocteau (Chapter 8), his financial difficulties, and his dealings with the pimp and male brothel keeper Albert le Cuizat (Chapter 10), his use of the term “Boche” and the sighting of famous people (including Winston Churchill) at the Ritz (Chapter 11) etc – are juxtaposed in adjacent paragraphs without any attempt at linking. Ends of chapters in Taylor’s book are often left hanging (Chapter 2, Chapter 10), very often on a quotation from someone else, or they are brought to a meretricious conclusion by the assertion of resounding but spurious hyperbole (Chapters 6 and 7).

Equally disconcerting is Taylor’s apparent obsession with trivial information, in particular if it takes the form of figures: do we need to be told that the name Albertine is cited 2,360 times in the course of Proust’s novel, or that following a French mutiny in the trenches in June 1917, there were 3,427 “courts martial [sic]”? We are also told that the First World War encompassed in all 1,566 days of warfare and that a second world war would erupt “twenty years and sixty-eight days” after the 1918 armistice. These figures seem to be offered in lieu of any deeper insight into the major events recounted in Taylor’s book.

Proust’s life was undoubtedly one of paradox and contradiction but the role of a biographer is usually understood to encompass some effort at creating order or sense from the plethora of information available. A biography is also expected to be as far as possible knowledgeable about the cultural background of the writer in question and meticulous in the accuracy of its information. In this respect, it does not appear from his book that Taylor has a very advanced knowledge either of the French language or French literature and criticism. For example, the issue of Proust’s difference in literary and critical perspective from the psychological determinism promoted by the nineteenth-century critic Sainte-Beuve (one of whose most famous works is misspelt as Port-Royale) is never fully clarified, and the importance of Proust’s creative detour through pastiches of other predecessors in the nineteenth-century French tradition is underestimated.

Taylor’s knowledge of À la recherche du temps perdu, which seems to have been read by him in English translation, appears also to be patchy: the incorporation by Proust of qualities or characteristics of historically real aristocratic figures such as the comtesse de Chevigné and the comtesse Greffulhe into his fictive creations the duchesse and the princesse de Guermantes seems to have been imperfectly grasped. In Chapter 5 we are told that La Raspalière was “the Verdurin’s house at the Normandy coast” whereas part of the saga surrounding this place (which was not on the coast) was precisely that it did not belong to the Verdurins but was rented by them from the provincial aristocratic family Cambremer (“dont le nom”, as Oriane de Guermantes tartly observes, “s’arrête juste à temps”) who were incensed by the way the Verdurins had altered the appearance of what the parvenue marquise de Cambremer refers to as “notre vieille Raspalière”. In Chapter 11, Gilberte rather than Odette is identified as Mme de Forcheville, whom she becomes after Swann’s death. Gilberte herself marries Saint-Loup and in the process unites the two “Ways” explored in Proust’s novel, that of the middle class Swann and that of the noble Guermantes (Saint-Loup being the duc de Guermantes’s nephew).

References to real (and important) historical figures are similarly slipshod: the emperor of France is in Chapter 1 successively referred to as “Louis”, “Napoléon III” and “Louis Napoléon”, without it being made clear at any stage that these three are one and the same person, while on p 76 the Marquis Louis d’Albufera’s name changes to Alfubera. The names of real and fictional places are confusingly mixed (Illiers, Combray and Illiers-Combray, all in the same chapter), while Louis-Napoléon’s great uncle is referred to in a mistranslation as “Napoléon the Great”.

In addition, famous people are confusingly referred to by their first name (“Jacques”, for Jacques Bizet, “Reynaldo” for Reynaldo Hahn), a practice seemingly based on the presumption that readers are on first-name terms with these celebrities. Meanwhile the author of À la recherche is himself referred to successively as “Proust”, “Marcel Proust” or, if a major point is being made, “Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust”!

Mistakes in Taylor’s French are often embarrassingly elementary: the Lycée Condorcet, we are told, is a grande [sic] lycée, (p. 9); “La verité [sic] est en marche et rien n’arrêtera [sic]”; we learn that the placing in the crypt of the Panthéon in Paris of France’s national heroes is called “pathéonisation”. Proust at one point appears to undergo a sex change to become an “erstwhile ingénue of the beau monde while reference is twice made to the Nouvelle Review Française. But, more seriously, Taylor misconstrues the meaning of the word “salonnier” or “salonnière”: this term is usually applied to habitué(e)s of salons rather than to their hosts or (most often) hostesses. So in Chapter 1, Mme Straus is mistakenly identified as “one of the leading salonnières of the day”, a misconception that is repeated throughout the novel.

Some readers will also find irritating the consistent Americanisms, anachronistic or in other ways jarring use by Taylor of inappropriate terms, as in “At the midpoint of this life, ramifying every which way, was the Dreyfus Affair”, or “Walking the great man [Elstir] home” or “Adrien [sic] caught Marcel [sic] masturbating and gave him ten francs to go to a whorehouse”. “On July 15, 1889, the Chambre des Députés passed a new law requiring every eighteen-year-old Frenchman to serve one year in the military” while not long after “A great new venture was aborning in him”. Marcel, we are told, managed a “side trip to Padua”, while in 1903 he “checked into Dr Paul Sollier’s clinic”. Having been subjected to the indignity of having “rejections fired off by Mercure de France”, Proust, while remaining with the publisher Grasset, continued “to dicker with NRF”.

Some of Taylor’s solecisms give rise however to unexpected amusement, as for example his reference to Proust’s “First blush of love for Reynaldo” or “Proust at 46 had forged the weapon of a style”. Alfred Agostinelli is described as being “round and appealing with a streak of bravado at the wheel of his red cab”, while “Proust’s gorge rose” and a little later his “mature masterpiece was taking shape with praeternatural speed” as “fictional imagination more and more drove out belles lettres”. In reference to the presentation by the Ballets russes of Debussy’s adaptation of Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune, we are told that the “iconoclastic choreography was Nijinsky’s own”, while Gabriel Astruc is described as being one of Proust’s “most passionate devotées”.

Some of Taylor’s literary misapprehensions are also unintentionally comic. A certain Mme Scheikévitch, we are told, “greatly appealed to Proust”, not least since “she was no stranger to Racinian gestures. A few years earlier, in marital despair, she had shot herself through the chest with a revolver”, though no handguns were ever, to my knowledge, ever used in the works of the seventh-century playwright Racine.

A final area in which Taylor’s book is as a biography to be found sadly wanting is in the paucity of illustrations: there are in total but eight (they are unnumbered and no list is given). Two of these figures (nos 5 and 8) add little to our understanding of the subject, being rather blurry photos of the entry to one of the apartments in Paris Proust inhabited (45 rue de Courcelles), and to a general conscription notice issued in 1914. Presumably these poor images were only included as they were both taken by the author himself. The remaining six images are familiar shots of Proust on his deathbed, with his mother and brother, on board ship in Venice, with another photo of his father and brother and two of Illiers (the Prousts’ house, and the Église Saint-Jacques). It is surprising that no photos or paintings are provided of the many handsome women Proust knew, of the numerous beautiful men he lusted after, or of the key political, literary and artistic figures of his day.

Overall then, this biography tells us very little that is new about Proust and opens up no avenues of fresh inquiry. Offering nothing to the specialist, it does not even provide a very trustworthy introduction to neophytes. “As for the rest, harder to say” as a critical attitude, hardly inspires confidence in the reader of a biography, especially of a writer as complex as Proust. Nor do the glib certainties and facile hyperbole that take the place of conclusions to Taylor’s argument, such as it is, offer much by way of insight. For whom, then is Taylor’s book written? Perhaps merely for uncritical or unsophisticated sophomores who, to adapt Philip Roth’s curious endorsement reproduced on the back cover of the book, “found reading Proust too grand an undertaking [...] because of distractions and deficiencies of their own”. One would have thought that Proust, whether from a Jewish, French or other perspective, deserved better than this, and that Yale University Press would be more discriminating in its choice of writers of biographies of great women and men.


David Scott is Professor of French (Textual & Visual Studies) at Trinity College Dublin.