April 13, 2000 (New York Times)


Why Proust? And Why Now?


By DINITIA SMITH

Poor Proust! Lying in bed in a soundproof room swaddled in layers of wool, gasping with asthma, trying to recapture with words the lost sensation of his mother's kiss. But like Einstein, Marcel Proust was, in his own way, a theorist of time and space. "An hour is not merely an hour," Proust wrote, "it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates."
Countless volumes have been written about the author, who died in 1922. Proust's own novel, Remembrance of Things Past (often referred to by enthusiasts as simply The Novel), is a very autobiographical 3,000 pages long. A two-volume study by George Painter, published in 1959 and 1965, is generally acknowledged to be one of the finest literary biographies in English.
But it is as if every generation has to ask its own questions of Proust. In recent years there have been a number of books about him, including How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton; A Year of Reading Proust, by Phyllis Rose; Proust's Lesbianism, by Elisabeth Ladenson; even a Proust comic book in French, which sold 12,000 copies in the first three months after its release.
Now come two immense new biographies, both, as it happens, called, Marcel Proust: A Life. One is by William Carter, a professor of French at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, published (at 946 pages) last month by Yale University Press. The other (934 pages), by Jean-Yves Tadié, a professor at the Sorbonne, is to be released in August by Viking.
Both draw on material previously unavailable in English, including the 22 volumes of Proust's letters assembled by Philip Kolb. Mr. Kolb, who made the Proust letters his life's work, was correcting the final proofs until a few days before he died in 1992 at 85.
Proust's work has never gone out of print. What is it about Proust that makes him of such enduring interest?
"Like Proust, we are going through a fin de siècle," said Mr. Carter, his biographer. "In the novel he really traces the effects of modern inventions, machines of mass transit, on our perceptions of time and space."
The intense contemporary interest in Proust "may be some connection with the age of the Internet, where everything seems instantaneous and we have the perception we can communicate instantly, but still, we are governed by the laws of time," Mr. Carter said. "It's exciting, but it causes anxiety."
In "Remembrance of Things Past," the narrator catches sight of an aviator flying a plane and sees him as a symbol of the artist with the power to conquer time and space.
Mr. Carter said that the sexual themes in Proust's work also contributed to the interest among contemporary readers. "Proust was the first novelist to explore the entire spectrum of human sexuality," he said. "Characters could be homosexual in the first part of their lives and heterosexual later, or the reverse."
The new biographies are only part of the Proust revival. In England in January, HarperCollins published the final volume of the English translation of Proust's letters. In April, Norton will publish "Proust's Way, A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time," by Roger Shattuck, whose book title is based on a more precise translation of the novel's French title, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has one of the world's largest collection of Proust's letters, will be host for a Proust conference, along with the Bibliothèque Nationale. Next fall in England, Harold Pinter's "Proust Screenplay" will be staged at the National Theater, and in 2001, Penguin plans to publish a new translation of the novel by seven different authors.
Proust is so popular these days that in San Francisco a gathering of fans called the Proust Support Group has had to form a second section because so many people signed up to read The Novel. The Support Group also publishes a newsletter, "Proust Said That," with the author's observations on everything from drugs -- "It is easy to speak of the beauty of opium" -- to fashion.
In New York, the Proust Society of America, formed in 1998, also has a reading group and celebrates Proust's birthday. Recipes from the novel are served, including, of course, "those squat, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell." Last year the society's newsletter printed what is thought, at 958 words, to be Proust's longest sentence, if not the longest sentence in all of literature: "Their honor precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable . . ." etc., etc.
The new biographies, based on the letters, annotated editions of "Remembrance of Things Past" and Proust's notebooks, which have also become available, provide fresh insights into Proust's life.
"We have a much fuller picture of the struggle he went through to decide on the genre, and the story, of The Novel," Mr. Carter said. "We know a tremendous amount more about his sexual development. There were a number of letters his family didn't want published."
Proust was born in 1871, the son of a prominent doctor. His mother, to whom he was famously close, came from a wealthy, cultivated Jewish family. At the age of 9 he had his first asthma attack while returning from the Bois de Boulogne.
Previous biographers have depicted Proust as a hopeless neurotic whose asthma was assuredly psychosomatic. Mr. Carter offers evidence that Proust suffered from acute allergies. He also conveys an image of the author that is different from the conventional one. Mr. Carter's Proust is no wimp; rather, he is an authoritative presence who served in the military and was a plucky duelist.
Mr. Carter adds new details about Proust's sex life. In his youth, Proust struggled with his homosexuality. In an effort to turn him into a "normal man," his father sent him to a brothel. But Proust, Mr. Carter writes, was so chagrined that during his visit he broke a chamber pot. Mr. Carter also depicts Proust's unsuccessful adolescent attempt to seduce a Mme. Chirade. Proust loved many men, including the composer Reynaldo Hahn and his own chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, and Mr. Carter adds another, Jacques Bizet, son of the composer Georges Bizet.
Proust frequented the salons of the Belle Époque, and there he encountered the figures upon whom he would model his characters. There was Comte Robert de Montesquiou, who became the Baron de Charlus; Sarah Bernhardt, who became the actress La Berma; Geneviève Straus and the Comtesse Élisabeth Greffulhe, who were melded into the Duchesse de Guermantes. Proust based the character of Swann on Charles Haas and Charles Ephrussi, founder and editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts.
Proust also heard the music of Saint-Saëns and César Franck, which would become Vinteuil's famous sonata and septet in the novel.
In his biography, Mr. Carter underscores Proust's long search for the plot of his novel, and his deep discouragement. He cites passages from Proust's abandoned work, Jean Santeuil, which prefigured the themes of Remembrance: "a perfumed smelled in that past time, a remembered light shining into our room, will suddenly bring back so vividly, that it fills us with . . . intoxication, so that we become completely indifferent to what is usually called 'real life.' " Eventually Proust realized that the subject of his novel was his own struggle to write. Mr. Carter cites a jotting from Proust's notebook of 1908 in which he announces that he is finally ready "to settle down to a fairly long piece of work."
Mr. Carter argues that by shifting from the third person in Jean Santeuil to first person, Proust was finally able to write Remembrance. "He was freeing himself to speak as the persona," he said, "as the voice which tells the story." The novel was published in successive volumes from 1913 to 1927.
Mr. Tadié, the general editor of the Pléiade edition of Proust's work and the author of Proust and the Novel, did not set out to write a traditional biography.
"Proust had written against biography," Mr. Tadié said in a telephone interview from Paris. Indeed, in his essay "Contre Sainte-Beuve," another precursor to his ultimate work, "Proust said that the man does not explain the work, he is not the same man who writes the work."
"I decided to tell you how the work was written from Proust's life," he said. Mr. Tadié was able to interview a number of Proust's friends, including Cocteau and the writer and diplomat Paul Morand, who filled in some gaps about his life.
Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Tadié was surprised by how hard Proust worked. "I had to see it to believe it," he said of the many drafts and notebooks. Proust rewrote the novel's first page -- which begins "For a long time I have been in the habit of going to bed early" -- 12 times.
"I would have been perfectly happy with the first one," Mr. Tadié said.
Mr. Tadié said he was also struck by the breadth of Proust's learning in literature, science and history: "You can find 300 names of painters in the drafts." Unlike previous biographers, Mr. Tadié emphasizes the role that Proust's father, the doctor, played in his life, and the way his father's theories are embodied in the character of Dr. Cottard.
Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Tadié delves into the complexity of Proust's sex life. "He was half sadist, half masochist," said Mr. Tadié, referring to incidents in which Proust had rats killed in front of him so that he could achieve sexual gratification. "His attempts always to go deeper and deeper in his work," he said, "could be related to his sadism."
Mr. Tadié also adds a name to the list of Proust's lovers, the playwright Francis de Croisset. Mr. Tadié said he began to notice a curious pattern in Proust's sex life, indeed in his everyday life as well. "He had to change partners every 18 months," Mr. Tadié said.
Mr. Tadié said, though, that in the end he was not even sure that Proust actually had sex with other men. "The problem was, what kind of happiness could Proust draw from a lover? Was it physical or spiritual?"
Proust's sexual pleasures may have been mostly solitary, he said. Like Stendhal, who also wrote great love stories, Proust may have finally been impotent. And his sex life may have been only an extension of his loneliness.
"He belonged to four minorities, Jew, homosexual, artist among the upper class," Mr. Tadié said. "Finally, he was also ill. Every time he entered the house, people used to whisper about this."
Mr. Tadié sees in Proust "a lesson of courage." Loneliness, he said, "was the grammar of Proust's life."