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Monsieur Proust's Library by Anka Muhlstein
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Monsieur Proust's Library (2012)

by Anka Muhlstein

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In an effort to get my mind in the right place to start reading Proust, I picked up this slim volume that focuses on reading and readers in In Search of Lost Time. Muhlstein focuses on authors who influenced Proust (Racine, Balzac, the Goncourts), the fictional author Bergotte, and the way his characters read and understand their reading. This was a great place to start for me as I now have some themes to grab on to that were presented in a very interesting and easy to read manner.

Recommended for anyone reading Proust. ( )
  japaul22 | Dec 23, 2016 |
A wonderful, quick read about the role literature played in shaping Proust's life and his approach to the Recherche. Muhlstein's prose is readable; her use of quotes from the Recherche are generous and contextualized well so that someone who has yet to read it will not be lost in any way; and her quotations from Proust's work and letters are unfettered by academic jargon (she leaves most of these in footnotes which doesn't interfere with the flow of her main text—a wise choice in this sort of book).

Here, we see how Proust was shaped by Racine's rejection of proper syntactical structure and also how Baudelaire piqued Proust's interest in issues of queerness and sexuality in literature; we learn of his unemphatic views of George Sand from whose book, curiously, the Narrator's mother in the Recherche reads to him in the beginning of the first volume; we see how British writers such as Hardy, Eliot, and especially Ruskin influenced Proust's approach to his novel; we get a good grasp of how influential Ruskin was on Proust after he had shelved his unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil, and found Ruskin to be "the gateway" to finding a workable structure for the Recherche both in terms of narrative and aesthetics; and we also meet the many writers and artists that populate Proust's massive novel, learning how their reading tastes reflect their moralities.

Recommended to any fans of Proust, or those who are embarking on their first read of the Recherche Note: Muhlstein offers an introduction of the major characters from the novel in the beginning of her book. Some major plot points are given away in these character sketches, and, given that she contextualizes the quotes from the Recherche rather well throughout, I would advise first-time Proust readers to skip this so as to not ruin the novel for them. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
A wonderful, quick read about the role literature played in shaping Proust's life and his approach to the Recherche. Muhlstein's prose is readable; her use of quotes from the Recherche are generous and contextualized well so that someone who has yet to read it will not be lost in any way; and her quotations from Proust's work and letters are unfettered by academic jargon (she leaves most of these in footnotes which doesn't interfere with the flow of her main text—a wise choice in this sort of book).

Here, we see how Proust was shaped by Racine's rejection of proper syntactical structure and also how Baudelaire piqued Proust's interest in issues of queerness and sexuality in literature; we learn of his unemphatic views of George Sand from whose book, curiously, the Narrator's mother in the Recherche reads to him in the beginning of the first volume; we see how British writers such as Hardy, Eliot, and especially Ruskin influenced Proust's approach to his novel; we get a good grasp of how influential Ruskin was on Proust after he had shelved his unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil, and found Ruskin to be "the gateway" to finding a workable structure for the Recherche both in terms of narrative and aesthetics; and we also meet the many writers and artists that populate Proust's massive novel, learning how their reading tastes reflect their moralities.

Recommended to any fans of Proust, or those who are embarking on their first read of the Recherche Note: Muhlstein offers an introduction of the major characters from the novel in the beginning of her book. Some major plot points are given away in these character sketches, and, given that she contextualizes the quotes from the Recherche rather well throughout, I would advise first-time Proust readers to skip this so as to not ruin the novel for them. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
I can't imagine reading this before reading A la Recherche, but as a pleasant afternoon post-Proust read, it's charming--very light scholarship on a number of topics vaguely connected to books in Proust. It's clearly meant for the kind of people who are obsessed with books *and* literature, rather than one or the other, although I imagine that bibliophiles will enjoy the design and very cute illustrations, and the literati will enjoy being told things they possibly already knew, and picking up one or two new facts, all in very pleasant prose. The whole thing has a vaguely belletristic odor, which, again, will appeal to those who've read Proust and feel at home with his aesthetic. And it's a great incentive to (re-re-re-)re-read the novel itself. ( )
1 vote stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |

I have two warnings or disclaimers:

First, I have not read Proust’s La recherche yet, and as this book reviewed contains many spoilers, I scanned through those parts. And second, I have read it in parallel with Carter’s Biography [b:Marcel Proust: A Life|1258289|Marcel Proust A Life|William C. Carter|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1182310193s/1258289.jpg|1247105], which, furthermore, I have not finished yet. This has been both a cursing and a blessing.

Monsieur Proust’s Library has been a mixed bag for me. It is a delightful read and a fascinating topic. And in spite of the spoilers it is a good warm up for La recherche. As it is only about 150 pages it could be read as an after exercise stretching as well.

The book succeeds in reminding us how important books and reading were for Marcel Proust. Muhlstein overviews what Proust read as he was growing up, with Dumas, George Sand, Gautier and Homer holding the imagination of a child who still looked for busy plots. Of the French classics, his attention was drawn by the seventeenth century and in particular by Racine, Saint-Simon, Mme de Sévigné and, to some extent, Molière; and by the earlier nineteenth century literature with Balzac and Baudelaire holding the main focus but with attention also paid to Chateaubriand, Gerard de Nerval, and Vigny. Writers from the eighteenth century were not so attractive to Proust. There is no mention of sixteenth century reading. Would Proust have not touched Rabelais or Montaigne?

She also mentions that he read some contemporary writers, such as Pierre Loti, Zola, and especially Anatole France. And although he learnt German in School, his interest was drawn to the Russians (Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy) and the English (Dickens, G. Eliot, and especially Ruskin).

So, right at the beginning of this book we are given a very rich literary pedigree for Proust.

But most of this pedigree would be almost common coin in the education of a young boy, who is literarily inclined, in an upper middle class family at the end of the nineteenth century France. What was so extraordinary about Proust is that not only had he read the typical school syllabus, but a great deal more. And particularly, that he read with great attention, paying notice to each term, making sustained incursions into the dictionary, and remembering how each writer used each word. And if a particular work fascinated him, he held it well engraved in his memory. For example, he had not just read Racine’s Phèdre. He knew it by heart.

Muhlstein is right in putting emphasis on his dexterity to write pastiches, natural to someone who had sponged in volumes. His aptitude to regurgitate back the styles of the French canon is the best proof that he had been a very attentive reader. This ability became for a while his salvation as a writer, since the pastiches were his only writings that periodicals were willing to publish. These are now found in L’Affair Lemoine and in Pastiches et mélanges, although some are lost and some commissions were never fulfilled. The pastiches eventually became a curse, since he began to feel pigeonholed in them, got bored with them and, rightly, felt called for grander things.

She then focuses more attention on some of those favorite writers, such as Balzac, Racine, Ruskin, the Goncourts (these as a negative model) and Anatole France and looks for more direct links to La recherche. These links tend to be either explicit quotes, or parallels to plot elements, or solutions to the riddles of a roman-à-clef, or the writers being mentioned by a character in the novel.

There is some attempt at a more formal and deeper literary analysis of literary genealogy. She discusses how Proust liked Racine’s use of somewhat irregular sentence structure in his Alexandrines, and in particular his ability to create ambiguities that add richness to his depiction of human tragedy. Muhlstein quotes from Proust’s famous letter to Mme Geneviève Strauss, example that Proust had also included in a footnote in his Sur la lecture.

A second instance of a somewhat deeper analysis is her evaluation of what Proust learnt from Ruskin. For this she quotes the valuable notes that Proust included in his translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies in which he states that he has discovered Ruskin’s “inner structure” in his writings. Having brought up this issue she does not elaborate it further and leaves it at that. And yet, later on, in what seems to me a somewhat bold manner, she states that Proust “chose not to publish his Jean Santeuil”. Well, it was not quite like that. He just could not finish the novel. This earlier work was a valuable proto-recherche; it consisted of a collection of descriptions, characterizations, scenes, dialogues, but he had not been able to pull it all together and present it as a full-fledged novel. Proust found himself in a literary cul-de-sac. He had not yet discovered this Ruskinian “inner structure”. So, he abandoned his draft and undertook for the following nine years the study and translation of Ruskin.

Indeed, it is believed that this immersion in Ruskin is what showed him the way of how to construct his novel. Proust became a novelist only after a long maturation. His novel was not going to be just a simple tale, a plot. Instead he conceived of a much more abstract structure, more similar to a musical composition, in which the internal links would not be immediately apparent but emerge at the end of the work and give, retrospectively, a unity to the whole. This complete unity was to be of an aesthetic quality that embraced the whole work in a coalesced order of time wasted and lost and then regained.

In contrast, although Carter’s book is a biography, and is therefore full with tales on how much Veronal was Proust taking, how he mismanaged his finances, what exactly was he doing at a male brothel, and with whom was he having dinner and where, Carter however gives a much richer indication than Muhlstein of the literary baggage that Proust was accumulating. And he also goes further and provides a sketch of how Proust solved the hurdle he had encountered when structuring his fiction.

Muhlstein sometimes presents to us some incidents as if she were walking on her toes. She mentions the Asparagus painting episode with the painter Elstir (for her just Whistler) as an illustration on how Proust wanted to present the Duke de Guermantes as a philistine. She however forgets to mention that this was a major anecdote related to two elegant men, Edouard Manet and Charles Ephrussi. When Ephrussi sent a FF1000 check to Manet for a painting of a bunch of asparagus, which had an original price tag of FF800, Manet sent Ephrussi the missing FF200 Asparagus painting. Proust, for whom money had no value, must have loved the “généreux esprit” of both gentlemen and had to include it in his work.

I knew already about this Manet anecdote. I did not know that Proust had included it in his novel. Here are the full worth of FF1000 of painted Asparagus (one at the Musée d’Orsay and the other in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne), and the story.





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And then there is a mistranslation. She includes the famous quote from one of Proust’s letters, in defense of the writer’s powers to fashion a language as such:

“..each writer is bound to create his own language as each violinist must create his tone. This idea that there is a French language that exists outside of the writers who use it and that must be protected is fantastic”.

This quote jumped up at me because it seemed contradictory. Then I encountered it again in Carter, and I found no contradiction there. The culprit is her translation of the word “inouï”, rendered as “fantastic” (my bold in the quote) and as “preposterous” by Carter (p. 460). The latter corresponds to the original sense and the contradiction disappears.

As said above, the reading pedigree Muhlstein gives does not necessarily correspond to a very special breed. There are some major omissions if she is intending to present us a finer ilk. There is very little mention of contemporary writers and art critics who at the time were perceived as of high caliber. I am thinking of Huysmans, Montesquiou (as writer not just as an eccentric dandy), Anne de Noailles, Geneviève Straus, Maurice Barrès, Paul Bourget, Julien Leclercq, Léon Blum, Félix Fénéon, and Colette amongst many others. Some of these are not so well known now, but at the time they were important for Proust. He was reading everything they were publishing and/or reading.

The importance of his contemporaries is pressing given that Proust said that to have an opinion on the classics was easy, but to be able to form a judgment on contemporary writers was a great deal more difficult. It was in the ability to emit such appraisals when a writer/critic could show his mettle.

And as the historical aspects also fascinate me, I was missing some discussion on libraries (title of the book, after all), and how easy or cheap was the access to books at the end of the nineteenth century for someone who devoured them. Would his learning by heart, as a child, be the result of being in any way limited by what was available in the family library and having exhausted the volumes at hand? There is no mention of the generous offer that Charles Ephrussi made to Proust when he put his magnificent and expensive art library at his disposal.

This was also a time when serialized fiction was beginning to die away and when new editorials were being formed. Literary periodicals played a major role, with the Mercure de France still shaping tastes, or its rival La revue blanche managed by the Natanson brothers, or the NRF rapidly rising in prestige and all of them fighting for the leading position as art and literary taste-setters. Of these circles, only Gide is discussed, but more on the anecdotal level, for his homosexuality or for his first refusal to publish La recherche. It was due to the prestige that the NRF was enjoying that Proust tried to wriggle himself out of his first publishing contract so as to be able to issue the sequel with the NRF – swallowing any possible pride for having been rejected by them at first.

So, to suggest a discussion of Proust’s Library is such a major undertaking that if is to be sampled in only 145 pages, it will taste good but will leave you hungry for a great deal more. Proust had not just dipped into past literature; he had bathed and soaked in the wealth of the French and other literary traditions. He also zealously and constantly surveyed what was being produced in his country at a time when France enjoyed a legendary golden age in its cultural production, whether literary, musical or artistic.

Proust’s extensive and thorough readings, observations, recordings and musings, accumulated during more than three decades, cemented in his mind slowly, until he could lie down in his bed, warmly and all corked up, and begin building up with his writing and writing, with all the necessary scaffolding and suitable flying buttresses, and letting his Narrator speak to us from all his different vantage points, and all during the night while everyone else was sleeping.

I recommend reading this book. Muhlstein writes in a flowing and pleasant style and the theme is fascinating. And even if her treatment of the subject is neither flawless nor exhaustive, it is engaging.

Anything that helps in bringing into one’s minds Proust’s universe is welcome.




( )
1 vote KalliopeMuse | Apr 2, 2013 |
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Examines how virtually all characters in Marcel Proust's body of work are diligent readers in spite of age, class, or profession, tracing how many of his more sophisticated characters speak in quotations and how Proust used literature to define personality.… (more)

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