- Causeries, or Critical Chit-Chat, or A Gift for Slighting the Gifted
Marcel Proust, as a writer, was even more, shall we say (in order to invoke the first near-complete and also tea-based experience of involuntary memory had by the would-be-writer narrator “Marcel” of À la recherche du temps perdu, which as you may not know was the second novel Proust never finished writing, the first of these having been Jean Santeuil), “steeped” in literary work by others than were so steeped such equally “classic,” as they are by now called, or “canonical” twentieth-century novelists as James Joyce, who, like Proust, seems to have had but in fact did not have a photographic memory, and Vladimir Nabokov, who did have one, or than are such literary critics (for Proust, at heart, was a critic) as the neo-conservative and photographic-memory-blessed – or perhaps cursed – Harold Bloom, who does not appear to have been quite so, well, influential as I imagine he would like to be, and – of course I do feel some anxiety here about naming myself – the non-neo-conservative, non-photographic-memory-blessed, and equally non-influential Kevin Kopelson.
In her latest and perhaps most beautifully conceived book, Monsieur Proust’s Library, the biographer Anka Muhlstein demonstrates – nearly completely, as I myself will demonstrate – just how steeped in or, to use her own metaphor, “absorbed” by such other work Proust was. (Monsieur Proust’s Library, moreover, is very beautifully written – not to mention well worth your reading. Muhlstein is never guilty of the kind of Proustian pastiche that I’ll soon stop – so serio-comically – attempting here. Nor is she plagued by the kind of logorrhea that in the final analysis caused the incompletion of À la recherche – although not the incompletion of Jean Santeuil. She achieves, instead, in this very brief book, an engaging, engrossing, and I must say [having chosen this metaphor while very aware, as I hope you’ll soon be too, of an interesting irony involved, while also aware, unhappily, that the choice may seem to some like plagiarism] conversational style throughout. “Whether they follow an established tradition [End Page 156] or rebel against it,” the book begins, “whether they are authors of classics or are considered innovators, rare are the writers who were not also great readers.”) After reading something, Proust would often “cleanse himself,” as he put it metaphorically, by writing a serio-comic pastiche of the thing. This love of – or perhaps need for – imitation, Muhlstein shows, shaped almost every important aspect – whether substantive or stylistic – of À la recherche. The terrible snobbery of Legrandin, a character there, derives from the “preciousness” of Anatole France. The somewhat amusing discourse of the Duchess de Guermantes, another such character, derives from that of the Duke de Saint-Simon. The somewhat violent homosexuality (or “inversion”) of the Baron de Charlus derives – along with his charm – from that of a character in Balzac: Vautrin. (Charlus is the brother-in-law of the Duchess de Guermentes.) The non-violent (yet very unhappy) heterosexuality of “Marcel” derives from that of a character in Racine: Phaedre. Proust, though, was very wary of being reduced to “no more than the full consciousness of another” and so he knew when to resist such influence, or to call such derivative writing quits, or to just be himself. (Proust’s genius, writes Muhlstein, lay in his ability to transform what he read into something “unexpected, playful, and intensely personal.”) Or, rather, he knew when to be his very best but otherwise imperceptible self, because one’s social self, the man believed (as I myself, like the critic I am about to discuss, cannot), has absolutely nothing to do with who one is on, and only on, the page.
Yet there is a terrible omission by Muhlstein: that of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869). It’s a near-complete omission, rather. Muhlstein does write: “Mme de Villeparisis’s opinion about writers are a spoof of the theory of the great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who held that knowing an author’s character, morals, religion, and...