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  • La Vraie Vie de Vinteuil par Jérôme Bastianelli
  • Jennifer Rushworth
La Vraie Vie de Vinteuil. Par Jérôme Bastianelli. Paris: Grasset, 2019. 272 pp.

In the first volume of Proust’s novel, on hearing Vinteuil’s music Swann wonders ‘qu’avait pu être sa vie?’ (Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, ed. by Jean-Yves Tadié, 4 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1987–89), i (1987), p. 342). Appropriately, Jérôme Bastianelli takes this question [End Page 642] as his starting point and as the epigraph to his novel. La Vraie Vie de Vinteuil is a daring fictional answer to Swann’s question. Proust himself had left this question unanswered, beyond some scarce details: Vinteuil is a widower, has a daughter who is a lesbian, and lives in Combray, where he teaches piano and plays the organ, his compositional talents entirely ignored. In fact, Swann’s question suggests a biographical approach to art which, according to Proust, is fundamentally flawed. Consequently, the attempt to answer Swann’s question seems an inherently anti-Proustian gesture, establishing a connection between life and work and enacting the fall of Vinteuil from an elusive chimera to a real historical individual called Georges (1817–95; ignore the birthdate given on the quatrième de couverture). Yet no one could be better placed to write this book than Bastianelli, an author known both for his biographies of real composers — which include Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Bizet — and for his work as a Proustian. The marriage between Bastianelli’s two interests in his first novel is clear, and it is to be celebrated as a strange sort of thought experiment, as creative criticism, or — in the words of a student of mine — as ‘high-brow fan fiction’. The undertaking is audacious and enjoyable. In many respects, Bastianelli sticks close to Proust, citing relevant passages from Proust’s novel which are explicitly marked as such by footnotes to Tadié’s edition. At the back, a section entitled ‘Décodage et démystification’ reveals an anxiety that has long been associated with the historical novel: how will readers manage to parse truth from fiction? In order to aid the reader, Bastianelli clarifies his sources of inspiration, noting at points the exactitude (‘exact’ is his chosen adjective; for example, p. 262) of the information. Within the novel, in contrast, sources are part of the invention, particularly the putative Mémoires de mon père by Vinteuil’s daughter Pauline. Bastianelli’s Vinteuil is much more prolific than Proust’s, owing to the claimed rediscovery of his works in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2009 (see the catalogue at the back, pp. 245–47). Questions of influence are treated archly, with Bastianelli noting the influence of Vinteuil on Fauré, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Franck, and Debussy, rather than vice versa. The novel also acts as an oblique biography of Franck, not because Bastianelli argues that Vinteuil is Franck, but rather because Franck was, in this account, Vinteuil’s ‘seul véritable ami’ (p. 13). Apart from the annoying conflation of Proust and his narrator and, worse, the lack of distance from Vinteuil’s moralizing — which is to say homophobic — view of his daughter’s relationship with her ‘amie’, the leap of faith required to accept Vinteuil as a real composer is richly rewarded.

Jennifer Rushworth
University College London


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pp. 642-643
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