A third of the way through this beguiling biography, Benjamin Taylor offers a statement from Marcel Proust that he believes explains why the (arguably) greatest novelist of the 20th century dribbled away nine years of his life translating Ruskin into French before getting down to writing À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. “There is no better way of becoming aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself that which a master has experienced. In this profound effort that we make, it is our own way of thinking, together with the master’s, that we bring to light.”
Is this what Taylor is trying to do himself, but is too shy to admit? I only ask because Taylor – who is American – has written this biography in what reads like art nouveau French sieved through Scott Moncrieff’s English Proust translation of the 1920s. In fact, some of Taylor’s loose, multi-clausal sentences are as bendy as the master’s, and there is the same shimmery quality to the prose, like sunlight glancing off a shallow Normandy sea. Most striking of all are the archaisms that Taylor employs, which read as if they were at least 100 years old: “irreal”, “youth being the season for such emotion”, and a reference to the long-delayed novel that was “aborning” in Proust.
If Taylor didn’t mostly do this pastiching well – “aborning” notwithstanding – it would feel suffocating, a bit like someone stuffing you with madeleines and then pouring linden tea down your throat afterwards to make sure that you’d got the point. As it is, this biography is probably best imagined as a kind of supplementary text to À La Recherche, which is neither quite bolted on to the masterwork nor entirely detached from it. A bit like the relationship between Proust’s lived experience of high-society Paris during the third French republic and his rendering of it into over a million words of exquisite mimesis.
Previous biographies of Proust – by George D Painter, Jean-Yves Tadié and William C Carter – have been doorstops, based on decades in the ever-expanding archives. But Taylor, whose biography appears in a series of brief lives for Yale, has fewer than 200 pages to play with, which means that he has been obliged to do something different. Instead of plodding through Proust’s early life again, Taylor concentrates on the 38-year-old’s Cinderella-like transformation from high-class layabout into a great literary artist. How, Taylor wants to know, did the snobbish, sissy young man who spent a decade flirting with hideous old duchesses and going home with handsome young waiters finally find the discipline to take permanently to his bed at 102 Boulevard Haussmann and start smelting pure gold out of glitzy dross? How did all that simpering chat and gossip turn into a work of profound moral seriousness, providing us with the best account we will ever have of why love feels like a sickness and what was actually at stake in the Dreyfus affair?
Although Taylor is wonderful at making us feel the unlikeliness of the transformation, he never quite identifies the tipping point. Was it the death of Proust’s beloved Mama, his co-translator of Ruskin? Initially he had considered killing himself when Jeanne succumbed to the family curse of uremia in 1905, but worried that it would get into the papers. Or was it rather that the nearly middle-aged Proust realised that he didn’t have as much time to lose as he thought, thanks to the disabling asthma that would eventually cut short his life at just 51?
Perhaps Taylor is hazy on the detail because, in truth, there was no single moment of metamorphosis. Even after Proust finished the first instalment of his novel sequence, no one thought it was any good. “I fail to understand why a man needs 30 pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep,” snapped a publisher’s reader at Ollendorff’s. Across town at Nouvelle Revue Française, Andre Gide likewise turned down “Du côté de chez Swann”, although later, embarrassed at being caught on the wrong side of literary history, he pretended that the manuscript had never reached him. In the end Proust had to pay to get the book published with a minor house, a further signal that this was nothing but an ageing playboy’s vanity project.
But then, little by little, the right people got hold of “Swann” and pronounced themselves stunned. For Rilke it was “incomparably remarkable”, composed in an “utterly original style”. Edith Wharton loved it, but loved even more the fact that she was responsible for giving it to Henry James, who “devoured it in a passion of curiosity and admiration”. The big-picture readers were entranced at the way the book resembled nothing they had ever experienced before while seeming instantly familiar. Close readers, meanwhile, marvelled at the things Proust managed to do with tenses, eliding perfect and imperfect pasts as seamlessly as in a feverish dream.
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