Proust: The Search

Ben­jamin Taylor
  • Review
By – October 7, 2015

In this con­cise and ele­gant biog­ra­phy, Ben­jamin Tay­lor ably illus­trates how Proust absorbed the life around him and trans­formed it into immor­tal art.

The son of a promi­nent Catholic doc­tor and the cul­tured daugh­ter of a Jew­ish stock bro­ker, Proust was born into and lived in com­fort. His school­ing was inter­rupt­ed by fre­quent sick­ness — notably, asth­ma, which afflict­ed him through­out his life and ulti­mate­ly caused his death — but the out­stand­ing cur­ricu­lum and fac­ul­ty of the not­ed lycée he attend­ed instilled in Proust a love of lit­er­a­ture and of writ­ing. Despite his absences from school, he read vora­cious­ly and wrote for the school mag­a­zines. He was also intro­duced to the first of the many salons that brought him into Parisian Belle Époque society.

Social aspi­ra­tion and attrac­tion to some of the love­ly young men who fre­quent­ed the salons marked Proust’s years after leav­ing school. He pub­lished short pieces and trav­eled in the heady world of the arts, min­gling with many of the dis­tin­guished com­posers, artists, and writ­ers whose works he admired, but he was gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered a dilet­tante and social climber.

Active involve­ment in the Drey­fus affair and the tri­al of Émile Zola that fol­lowed on it thrust Proust into one of the major events of late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry France. At about this time Proust also began work on Jean San­theuil, a nov­el pub­lished only in 1952, that has sug­ges­tions of his lat­er work. But he aban­doned the nov­el upon read­ing the works of the Eng­lish art crit­ic John Ruskin, who strong­ly influ­enced and enriched Proust’s think­ing. Work­ing with his moth­er, who knew Eng­lish well, he spent nine years trans­lat­ing Ruskin.

In 1903 Proust’s father died, and in 1905 his beloved moth­er died. Proust sank into despair, but Tay­lor cites a pas­sage from the pref­ace to a Ruskin trans­la­tion that in some way indi­cates Proust was mov­ing, per­haps not con­scious­ly, toward À la recher­ché: one has fol­lowed some kind of secret plan that, when it is final­ly revealed, …makes [the work] appear to lead,…to that final apoth­e­o­sis.” A 1908 let­ter out­lines sev­er­al projects, includ­ing a Parisian nov­el. Soon Proust was fill­ing note­books, writ­ing at a furi­ous pace. Retir­ing to his bed­room, fight­ing ill­ness, unfor­tu­nate loves, finan­cial pres­sure, and the hor­rors of war, Proust now had only one mis­sion: to com­plete the book he so bril­liant­ly imagined.

Rich­ly researched and draw­ing heav­i­ly on Proust’s exten­sive cor­re­spon­dence and writ­ings, Proust: The Search care­ful­ly con­trasts Proust’s life with the Narrator’s sto­ry. Tay­lor clear­ly points out that they are not the same sto­ry. À la recherche is a work of fic­tion, a work of great cre­ativ­i­ty in which Proust shaped from his some­what chaot­ic per­son­al world and the cat­a­clysmic events he lived through— strug­gles with sex­u­al­i­ty, love and loss, the Drey­fus affair, World War I — a pro­found explo­ration of the human con­di­tion. Taylor’s biog­ra­phy is an invi­ta­tion to read the work to which Proust gave life. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Relat­ed Content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions