The title of my latest book—Monsieur Proust’s Library—can be taken as a sort of teaser. Am I alluding to actual volumes or to virtual ones? The answer is easy. If I had been concerned with Proust’s material, tangible books, my own book would have been about a paragraph long. His library has not been preserved as a whole and how could it have been? He lived in his parents’ apartment until the death of his mother forced him to find new lodgings. Disposing of some of the family possessions and finding a new place to live proved to be traumatic.
A friend of his mother’s helped him find and arrange a suitable apartment. There were lengthy discussions between them about the placement of furniture, rugs, and paintings, but books were never mentioned. They were packed up in boxes that Marcel did not empty once he moved; he always complained of not being able to navigate the crates that crowded his dining room and of not finding the book he needed. It did not matter much: actually his library was in his head. And it is this inner library that sparked my interest. What were the books he kept in his mind? How did he read them and how did he use them in his own novel?
As a schoolboy, Proust read more contemporary and foreign literature than most of his classmates. The reasons were that, as his teacher noted in a report card, “He does absolutely nothing in math class,” that his parents let him read whatever he wanted to, and that the asthma attacks that often obliged him to skip school gave him more time to read on his own. He also read differently from most people.
As one of his friends recalled, he never forgot anything, but more important yet, he was an ardent and passionate reader who never considered that reading was something one did to amuse oneself. The Narrator of In Search of Lost Time recalls, “My great-aunt would say to me, ‘How can you go on amusing yourself with a book; it isn’t Sunday, you know!’ putting into the word ‘amusing’ an implication of childishness and waste of time”*. Proust read as a moralist for whom “reading is the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter.” But he also read as a homosexual, extremely sensitive to all transgressions and imprecisions of gender, and finally he read as a novelist, or rather as an artisan of the written word, analyzing endlessly the style, the technique of authors, whether he liked their work or not. This very deep sense of an author’s style carried a certain danger with it because imitation came so easily to Proust, but it served him extremely well when it came to endowing Charlus, Swann, Bloch, or the duchess—his more literary characters—with a special tone.
Actually, Proust seemed incapable of creating a personage without putting a book in his hands. Two hundred characters inhabit the world he imagined and some sixty writers preside over it. In my book, I have endeavored to show how certain among them, such as Chateaubriand or Baudelaire, inspired him, while others—Mme. de Sévigné, Racine, Saint-Simon, and Balzac—enhance his characters. There are many ways of reading a novel as complex as In Search of Lost Time. I found that concentrating on Proust’s literary affinities and his use of literature was one of the most rewarding.
*Proust, Days of Reading, translated by John Sturrock, New York: Penguin Books, 2008
Anka Muhlstein was born in Paris in 1935. Muhlstein has published biographies of Queen Victoria, James de Rothschild, Cavelier de La Salle, and Astolphe de Custine; studies on Catherine de Médicis, Marie de Médicis, and Anne of Austria; a double biography, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart; and most recently, Balzac’s Omelette (Other Press). She has won two prizes from the Académie française and the Goncourt Prize for Biography. She and her husband, Louis Begley, have written a book on Venice, Venice for Lovers. They live in New York City.
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 edition of the Other Press newsletter. Click here to subscribe.