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Marcel Proust: A Life by William C. Carter

Marcel Proust: A Life (edition 2000)

by William C. Carter (Author)

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Reissued with a new preface to commemorate the publication of "A la recherche du temps perdu" one hundred years ago, this title portrays in abundant detail the life and times of literary voices of the twentieth century.
Title:Marcel Proust: A Life
Authors:William C. Carter (Author)
Info:Yale University Press (2000), Edition: First Edition, 1024 pages
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Marcel Proust: A Life by William C. Carter


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This is a 5-star biography. Marcel Proust was the strangest man I have ever encountered--in life or in literature, and throughout the first quarter or third of the biography, I found him so exasperating that I wasn't sure I could continue. Both he and his Belle Epoque era seemed so fussy, artificial, self-absorbed that I wanted to smack him and it, but I was on a mission to read the biography in preparation for tackling the novel that was his life's work.

At about the point where all of France became obsessed with the Dreyfus Affair, my sense of Proust began to soften. He was among the Dreyfusards who supported Dreyfus against the wholly trumped up charges against him, when the lines between the anti-semites and militarists and those who stood against them and for justice began to emerge. There was a moral hook to hang one's hat on. It also became clearer that, ultimately, Proust's sympathies would not lie with the socialites and aristocrats who so enchanted him as a very young man. These factors opened a way for me to begin to understand Proust. He was rich but not an apologist for aristocracy. He was not a dogmatist and was not to write in support of a political or social ideal. He was, it turns out, a mirror and an author who sought, above all, to portray the truth of human souls as he uncovered those truths in his hyper-attentive experience of others. As his life continued he became only more of an eccentric, a piece of work, both challenging and adored by most who knew him. As he spent most of his later life sick and in bed--seeming like the most intransigent of hypochondriacs (and not just to me), he turned himself inside out, he poured himself out, he quite literally gave his life to his book.

Some of Proust's eccentricities were amusing. Here’s a quotation from the biography (p. 712), from around 1920, when Proust was awarded the Prix Goncourt. It made me laugh out loud:

"Jean Binet-Valmer, a conservative critic and militarist, praised elements of Proust’s work but thought it was “prewar”. He would have favored giving the Prix Goncourt to Swann’s Way in 1913 but blamed the Académie Goncourt for passing over Dorgelés’ patriotic novel for one whose morality appeared suspect. Proust wrote Binet-Valmer that he was eager to read Dorgelés’ novel once his sight improved: “Since I have not been well enough to go see an optometrist, I’m going to buy all kinds of glasses, and if I succeed in finding the right lenses, I will read ... Les Croix de Bois.”

He had indeed refused to get out of bed to see an eye doctor and directed his house-keeper to buy a lot of glasses from which he would try to find one that would provide the correction he needed. His response to Binet-Valmer also contains, between the lines, a jab at and dismissal of both the criticism and the other novel. For all his weird ways, Proust was strong: not the servant of himself (or others) but always and only of his great novel.

Carter has written a great, exhaustive (but not exhausting!) biography. He brought me around to find more sympathy for Proust. Proust's behavior was often exasperating and infuriating to those around him. And yet he was loved. It's harder to see that side of him. What was it? His courtesy, his brilliance, his kindness, eventually his manifest genius as his novel was published in stages? I don't know what it was, but the evidence is clear from the letters, the attention, and the behavior of his friends, family, and retainers. And so, the story of his death was achingly sweet and painful. Man Ray took a photo of him on his death bed and James Joyce apparently showed up at his funeral. And A La Recherche du Temps Perdu has made him immortal.
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  jdukuray | Jun 23, 2021 |
Carter's giant of a book doesn't offer too much in the way of analysis of the novels themselves, but in terms of it being a straight bio of someone who spent the last 15 years of their life in bed, up to the eyeballs in barbiturates, I'm surprised at the momentum it builds and how easy it is to read. Padding his youth out with a series of slightly kitsch asides about scraps that'd one day end up in the novel isn't the most auspicious start, but thankfully he knocks it off once he's got something to sink his teeth into. Excellent stuff - think I lost patience with the subject sooner than I did the book (turns out Proust could be an annoying shit towards the end of his life). ( )
  mattresslessness | Feb 6, 2014 |

A la Recherche de Proust: Une vie retrouvée.

Whenever one mentions the reading a biography of a famous artist or writer or composer, a debate always springs up. Why bother with the life of this creator, why not just concentrate on his/her production? When this door-stopper of a tome arrived on the mail, I thought again: why bother? I jumped in nonetheless, with a curious mixture of curiosity and incredulity. I knew so little about Proust’s life that I did not even know that there was very little to be known anyway.

I continued with my doubts in the earlier part of the book. I felt the suspicion that I was reading a full fledged The Life and Miracles of Saint Proust. Proust as the object of a cult. The book seemed to be based on the premise that we were to adore everything Proust did and touched. This is something that he himself seems not to have fallen for, except for once with his covetous hiding of Whistler’s leftbehind gloves. But when he did this, Proust was still young.

So, what is the interest of a life of someone who basically did not have a life? He was a spoilt kid of an upper middle class family; he relished in letting his delicate health trap him in his body; he could not find a profession or a socially respected activity; he lived off the rents of his inheritance; he could not participate in any way in the war because of his general weakness; he was a social butterfly whose only activity was to attend parties; he travelled little and always on the trail of someone else’s journeys. The relics that have become the center of adoration are his eccentric habits and absurd antics. His contemporaries themselves perceived him as a dilettante and superficial socialite. As he was seen as no more than a society-page writer, or at the most as an ingenious author of funny literary pastiches, Gide at first rejected to publish his Du côté de chez Swan. Gide did not think that Proust was capable of writing anything of weight. For years then, Proust became a voyeur, figuratively and literally. By wanting to know about this uninteresting life we become voyeurs too, idle ones at that. So, why bother with this hagiography?

Proust himself took issue at this obsession with knowing the lives of writers as a necessary step to understand someone’s artistic production. This is one of his main contentions in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve and an opinion that he repeatedly expressed. This could have been, however, his defensive stance. He must have thought that the superficial impression of his overall life did not represent his inner self, and also, may be, that it was better to keep out of view some aspects of his chosen habits.

But I am fascinated by history and Proust lived during a fruitful and fertile age of French--mostly Parisian-- cultural production in which social circles were the breeding grounds. To follow his life then provides an entry into those Salons of a gilded world, the legendary Fin-de –siècle which we now know was also the fin d’un monde or foregone age. And although Proust has a point in his critique of Sainte Beuve’s insistence of the private lives as a key to understanding of art, our contextualizing is now different.

Together with the interest offered by the wider context, Carter’s ability becomes apparent as the book proceeds. In his account, among all the details of a seemingly superficial and capricious lifestyle, Proust starts emerging as a very intriguing and endearing personality. Yes, granted, Proust was irritating and manipulative, and Carter does show impatience with him a couple of times, in particular when he has detected that even his parents had to suffer the despotic mischief of their beloved child. But as he says, Proust had an extraordinary capacity for tenderness and sensitivity. He also emerges as a brave man incapable of base behavior. For example, Proust spearheaded the involvement of the intellectuals in the defense of Dreyfuss during that shameful episode; he would walk through Paris at night during a bomb blitz without seeking refuge; he was very generous and distributed economic help for the needy; and for all his high society fluttering, he had no prejudices against lower social strata.

Carter’s biography is therefore a wonderful read. It is also the product of an admirable task that must have been blatantly and excruciatingly hard work. He has presented, chronologically, in a very clear language his very clear conclusions after an incredible amount of labor. I cannot image the volumes of material Carter must have dealt with, but he seems to have rummaged and explored with a fine-toothed comb heaps and heaps of letters, articles and diaries. And it is noticeable that he has methodically and rigorously checked the long list of names of the persons who cropped up in Proust’s gregarious life style, and has contrasted despairing testimonies. So this big tome is a very economical way of dealing with all the complementary written material that Proust has left behind.

This biography is therefore an excellent source for tracking other aspects of his writing. Along the 800 pages Carter gradually lists the names of writers Proust was familiar with and on which he built his extraordinarily extensive and rich literary baggage. The same can be said about his musical and artistic interests. In music his taste was partly guided by the ear of his friend, the composer Reynaldo Hahn, and Carter includes those pieces that had a special resonance in Proust. As for painting Carter shows how Proust relied on the tastes, knowledge and illustrated material of the collector Charles Ephrussi. These are all arts that found a place in La recherche. Finally, Carter gives also a very meticulous account of the very complicated history of the printing of the whole of La recherche.

In spite of the great amount of information presented, however, Carter does not drown in the material nor does he present a simple chronicle. He develops captivating themes. While following ordered time, the titles of his chapters, such as “Vanity Fair”, “Love and War”, “Fountain of Youth”, are inviting from the very moment in which one is just flicking through the pages in anticipation of reading this biography.

The fact that Proust could produce La recherche only once he had turned forty shows that his had been a fertile life after all. The literary soaking up and inexhaustible bookish pedigree; the resolved creativity crises with the Ruskinian salvation that showed him that he could seek an alternative way to structure his work; the Sainte-Beuve dialectic that helped him in formulating a suitable Narrator with a rich voice that spoke of more than one kind of existence, and who could shift in time and record life from different vantage points; all are topics that Carter develops alongside more trivial aspects of Proust’s life.

And Carter does not give all of these away in one delivery. He presents them gradually, by installments, in a Proustian structured and paced way. So that it is by the end of the biography that we can grasp what La recherche entails although Carter has not spoilt it by giving it away. The structure of Proust’s work becomes clear also in the conclusion of this reading. Carter has not damaged our encounter with Proust’s Oeuvre. He has prepared us to approach it with attuned ears and focused eyes, as well as awaken our olfactory senses to enter the Narrator’s world.

I have only one wish left unfulfilled in this book. I would have welcomed the numerous original quotes, in French, to be included somewhere in the book.

This has been a memorable reading, with or without a madeleine.

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2 vote KalliopeMuse | Apr 2, 2013 |
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THE FIRST DAYS OF SEPTEMBER 1870 were among the most calamitous in French history.
For those wondering whether the 2013 reissue of the original 2000 edition of the Carter biography incorporates information Carter discovered subsequently to the 2000 edition:

Preface to the 2013 Edition
"In 2013 , this centennial year of Swann's Way, I am glad to have to opportunity to publish a new edition of this biography, which first appeared in 2000. A number of corrections have been made in this edition. I have not incorporated fresh material because I had the opportunity to provide and discuss what I consider to be important new information about Proust's life in two subsequent books, both published by Yale University Press in 2006: Proust in Love and The Memoirs of Ernest A. Forssgren."
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Reissued with a new preface to commemorate the publication of "A la recherche du temps perdu" one hundred years ago, this title portrays in abundant detail the life and times of literary voices of the twentieth century.

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