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 recherché 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.
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.