by Françoise Rees
Monsieur Proust's Library - Anka Muhlstein
The book contains spoilers in the list of characters at the beginning and in most chapters.
Because of the spoilers I chose to highlight some sections or anecdotes from the book that either pertain to sections we've already read or are general to the whole book.
Muhlstein looks both at books/authors who influence Proust based on his copious correspondence and articles he's written but also at what characters read in La Recherche and how authors (Bergotte especially) are described in it.
Proust as a reader
At the time, children didn't read books especially written for young readers. They read renowned authors, generally in illustrated editions that were sometimes abridged.
"He adored Théophile Gautier's Capitaine Fracasse, a cloak-and-dagger story set in the 17th century under Louis XIII".
"Another favorite was Alexandre Dumas, who he quoted often in letters to his mother and to his brother, and continued to read for fun all his life."
As a teenager Proust did serious reading, encouraged by his grandmother. "He wrote to her how sad and beautiful he found Balzac's Eugénie Grandet, and in the same letter incorporated quotes of Corneille, Racine and Molière with abandon, perhaps to impress her with a familiarity-unusual for a teenager- with the classics."
"By the time he was in seconde (10th grade), he had discovered both Anatole France's ironical, skeptical, and often racy novels written in the purest French and those of Pierre Loti, whose style is very sensual and impressionistic; he was familiar with the obscure poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, and memorized poems by Leconte de Lisle, holding in great regard his detachment, precision, and richness of classical references. And Proust had read a number of novels by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens and George Eliot."
What characters are reading in La Recherche
"In Combray, one evening the young boy is so upset that his mother reluctantly agrees to spend the night in his room, and as he is too agitated to fall asleep, she reads him François le Champi by George Sand, a somewhat curious choice.
The story is that of a foundling, an infant boy raised by Madeleine, a good woman married to a miller. The boy leaves when he is old enough to find work, but returns to marry the window Madeleine, thus transforming a filial attachment into conjugal bliss."
Marcel recalls in La Recherche that he used to read Augustin Thierry, a historian of the Middle Ages, before setting off for a walk toward Méséglise.
Authors mentioned in La Recherche
Style preoccupied Proust greatly, but memory, and particularly the phenomenon of involuntary memory and its potential role in artistic creation, obsessed him. Three writers, François de Chateaubriand, Gerard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire shared this obsession.
The most well known passage in La Recherche is the episode of the madeleine. Chateaubriand has used this technique, but, in his case, it was a sound that awakened the involuntary memory. Proust recognized the debt to his predecessor for a process that would prove all-important in La Recherche in a candid admission: “ And in one of the masterpieces of French literature … les Memoires d’outre -tombe… there figures a sensation of the same species as the taste of the madeleine” [P 19]
Critics have often commented on the similarities between the two men, who both remained absorbed by the lost paradise of their childhood, were passionately attached to their mothers, fell sick at a relatively young age, and used narcotic freely.
Poem Les petites vieilles (Baudelaire) to which Proust returns many times in Contre Saint Beuve
In Proust , the mother “stood with the unheeding desolation of a tree lashed by the rain and shaken by the wind” [P22]
Description of the dying grandmother. This vision is as cruel as anything in Baudelaire’s work. Similar to Baudelaire’s poem, both reflect a deep understanding and compassion.
Baudelaire’s famous line “The sounds, the scents, the colors correspond” echos Proust description and unexpected association [P27]
No character in La recherche directly brings to mind Baudelaire. Instead Baudelaire’s presence in the novel is inescapable yet hidden.
John Ruskin: English writer and critique. 19th century art critique. Proust enthusiasm was kindled by Ruskin’s conception of the artist as interpreter, a link between nature and men, and his belief that beauty resided in the “simplest of objects…”
[P 30] Find some of Ruskin theory in Elstir.
That the artist should only paint or describe what he sees was a precept which delighted Proust, who claimed he had no imagination. In La Recherche, the painter Elstir will present this very same theory to the Narrator. He needs to shed all preconceptions when he starts painting in order to paint only what he sees and not what he knows.
Proust translated Ruskin with the help of his mother who was fluent. She did the first draft of the translation and he rewrote it. Proust was asked to write a long obituary on Ruskin when he died in 1900, from then on he was recognized in France as an authority on the English master.
Robert Louis Stevenson, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy
Tolstoy. [P44] He placed Tolstoy-“a serene God”- very high in the pantheon of artists, far above Balzac, probably because he considered a novel like Anna Karenina to be “not the work of an observing eye but of a thinking mind."
The reflections on Tolstoy appears in Proust’s notebook but not in La Recherche.
Dostoyevsky, who in Proust’s opinion surpassed all other writers, is the subject of extensive comments and analysis in the course of the novel.
Straightforward and brilliant analysis of his work is provided in the literary courses the Narrator inflicts on one of the characters in a section to come.
Dostoyevsky never reveals the true personalities of his characters at the outset. Neither does Proust and in a curious letter to Gaston Gallimard he asserts that The Guermantes Way has a lot more Dostoyevsky in its composition (and add that he hopes Gallimard will excuse the arrogance of the comparison) than the other volumes because the characters will do the contrary of what one expects them to do. There is, however, one constant in their behavior, and that is a passion for reading. Positions, opinions, and sexual orientations may change, but everyone keeps reading in La Recherche.
Good readers and bad readers
Not surprisingly Proust made literary taste and reading habits a means of defining his characters.
Readers are ranked according to their attitudes toward books, and he catalogues with delight those he finds wanting.
In Combray, scene when the kitchen maid suffers appalling pains in the kitchen soon after giving birth. The narrator’s mother send Françoise to get the medical encyclopedia in hope of finding some information, but Françoise doesn’t come back and when sent to check on her the narrator finds her in tears in the library reading about afterbirth cramps and so move that she’s sobbing violently. But when she’s back in the kitchen and faced with reality, rather than the written word, she’s totally unmoved .
The footman, wants to show that he’s became a sophisticated Parisian, steals the narrator’s books and copies from them quotations with which he peppers haphazardly the letters he writes home.
For Françoise as for the footman books are foreign objects and they see no relations between what they describe and their own lives.
For the Duchess de Guermantes, reading is less a source of enjoyment than a wonderfully subtle social instrument of domination. (for ex when she declares Zola to be a poet to rattle the Princesse de Parme.)
Her husband the Duke, is polished enough to know that one is expected to appreciate literature, but he is ordinarily content to bask in the reflected glory of the Duchess, whose accomplishments, in his opinion, subjugate the most erudite guests.
Madame de Villeparisis. When we meet her she’s busy writing her memoirs. In the eyes of Proust, she commits the ultimate reader’s sin: she judges authors who were her contemporaries by the figure they cut in society. [P 58]
Mme de Villparisis’s opinions about writers are a spoof of the theories of the great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who held that knowing an author’s character, morals, religion, and comportment was indispensable for assessing the value of his work.
A homosexual reader: Baron de Charlus
Charlus – Mme de Sévigné et Saint-Simon
Mme de Sévigné is used to demonstrate the Baron’s sensibility especially at the beginning of the novel when we don’t know yet that he’s an homosexual. (conversation with the Narrator’s grandmother about Mme de Sévigné and the mother daughter love, and love in general)
Saint Simon is used to caricature the Baron’s peculiarities.
Proust wrote at length about Balzac in Contre Sainte-Beuve
He complained about a certain lack of elegance in Balzac's style and the excessive explanations of his characters' feelings (Proust prefers to evoke)
"Readers interpret the great books of the past in light of their obsessions" wrote Proust.
"Balzac did in fact write at length about homosexuals and lesbians without ever pronouncing a moral judgment. This neutrality, and the willingness to plunge into the world of Sodom and Gomorrah, must have endeared him to Proust, and may explain why he read Balzac so assiduously, and made such striking use of him in La Recherche.
Mention a couple of passages in La Recherche where anecdotes based on Balzac stories (Lily in the Valley and The Deserted Woman) serve no purpose in the story but only to make the text richer for the reader who recognizes its provenance.
More Balzac themes evoked later in the novel: cruelty of children toward their parents and "unnatural passions"
Charlus and Vautrin live in worlds separated by an incalculable social distance, but they have many things in common. Each is extremely powerful in his milieu. Each of them in his own sphere is feared, and rightly so. [P80] Both are given to orating, and both are nonconformists. Vautrin is in open revolt against society; Charlus's insolence and recklessness in pursuit of sexual satisfactions are capable of undermining a social position even as unassailable as his. If they care to be they are delightful with women. However the resemblance between the two characters remains superficial. There inner selves are completely different . One feels that Proust took the outer envelope of Vautrin and poured into it a very different man.
Proust looks closely at three plays by Racine, Phèdre and the two biblical plays about Jewish queens, Esther and Athalie.
Allusion to the princess in Phèdre occurs in the comparison between her and the Narrator, still a child in Combray, distraught at the thought of parting with his beloved hawthorns: "On the morning of our departure I had my hair curled, to be ready to face the photographer, had had a new hat carefully set upon my head, and had buttoned into a velvet jacket; a little later my mother, after searching everywhere for me, found me standing in tears on the steep little path near Tansonville, bidding farewell to my hawthorns, clasping their sharp branches in my arms and, like a princess in a tragedy oppressed by the weight of these vain ornaments, with no gratitude towards the importunate hand which, in curling all those ringlets, had been at pains to arrange my hair upon my forehead"
[...ingrat envers l'importune main qui en formant tous ces nœuds avait pris soin sur mon front d'assembler mes cheveux, foulant aux pieds mes papillotes arrachées et mon chapeau neuf.]
Phèdre" "What efficious hands/Has tied those knots, and gather'd o'er my brow/These clustering coils"
[Quelle importune main en formant tous ces nœuds a pris soin sur mon front d'assembler mes cheveux?]
The Narrator admiration for Racine gets him invited to the Swann, where Gilberte procurs him with Bergotte's little volume of Racine
Phèdre is consumed by an illicit passion for her stepson Hippolyte. She could accept being separated from him if she was the one who had banished him. But it is he who decides to leave, with the result that, half demented, Phèdre reveals to him her passion. The young man is unmoved. She grasps the reason: he is in love with another woman. From that moment, she pursues him with deadly hatred, although, if he had given any sign of being interested in her, she would have rejected him as an unworthy son and lover.
Phèdre is the symbol of l'amour-maladie, love experienced as a sickness, which underlies the Narrator's masochistic conception of love.
Brothers, Jules and Edmond. Best known for having created the arguably most important of French literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt, which is awarded each year by ten writers who constitute the Académie Goncourt, a literary foundation established by Edmond both to honor his brother and to encourage young and innovative novelists.
They wrote art criticism and theater reviews, and then history books, biographies, sketches of living authors, and novels.
All the while keeping a journal that described the literary and social life of the time (they're one generation alder than Proust, Edmond the oldest was born in 1822 and died in 1896, Jules 1830-1870).Their malicious gossip was irresistible, as was their mastery of what was known as l'écriture artiste, distinguished by the use of rare and archaic words, audacious neologisms, and startling juxtapositions of seemingly conflicting terms.
The Goncourts occupy an unusual place in La Recherche. They are not quoted, though they often serve as a source of anecdotes, and they never serve to illuminate a character's personality. Nor are they the favorite authors of any of Proust's characters. Their Journal appears in the most ambiguous form as the subject of pastiche, several pages long, and is crucial to understanding, first what the Narrator initially perceives as his inevitable failure as a writer, and second his subsequent determination to commence and complete his work. As a result, the Goncourts' importance is more negative than positive. They are used as a foil and never as an ideal.
The Princess of Parma's physical appearance and way of dressing, as described by Proust, no doubt reminded readers of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, the Emperor's cousin, who figures prominently in the Journal. Mme Verdurin owes a lot to Mme Aubernon. And Mme Villeparisis, as a source of anecdotes, may have been inspired by Mme de Beaulaincourt.
The Goncourt pastiche appears near the end of Time Regained, in the form of a passage of the Journal. [spoiler]
The Goncourts - or rather the Goncourts as imagined by Proust in his pastiche- see the Verdurin very differently from the way they were perceived by Swann, or twenty years later, by the narrator. In Swann's and the Narrator's version, M. Verdurin is very much the husband whose role is to pay the bills and show his wife in the best possible light; Mme Verdurin is a ruthless, gratuitously cruel, and morbidly ambitious. But as seen by the fictional Goncourts, M. Verdurin is a sensitive artist and Mme Verdurin a charming hostess.
The Goncourts did not have the profound , personal resonance that Racine, Beaudelaire, or Balzac had for Proust, but they stimulated his critical faculty, enriched his knowledge of an era he was too young to have known except secondhand, and in the process helped him find his own voice.
Bergotte: the writer in the novel
First meeting between Marcel and Bergotte. The young narrator has a mental image of this writer of genius that he derived from his books. He's shocked to meet "a youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man, with a red nose curled like a snail-shell and a goatee beard.
The contrast illustrates the divergence, which Proust always insisted upon, between the artist in society and the artist at work. According to him the artist reveals himself only in his creations;
He (Bergotte) wrote so well and yet his speech was affected, emphatic, and monotonous. This trait was inspired by Anatole France, the author of many delectably ironic novels, who was known to be something of a bore in society. He has many characteristics that reminded contemporaries of Anatole France, and Proust went so far as to plant real France sentences in passages of Bergotte's prose, as if he had secretly wanted to sanction the identification.
Bergotte is very different from Anatole France in many respects, the most important distinction being his total lack of political engagement as opposed to France's very active role in the Dreyfus affair, but his relationship with the narrators mirrors faithfully that of Proust and France.
However as the narrator develops intellectually and emotionally, his admiration for Bergotte's work diminishes, even though he continues to read and reread his books. In real life, Proust's enthusiasm for France's writing also waned over the years.
The narrator may be disappointed that the artiste is so eager to ingratiate himself with society people and second-rate writers and journalist and that he leads what appears to be such a boring life, but soon the young man comes to understand that it is not an interesting life that makes a great writer; rather, it is the ability to transform the elements of which a life is composed -whatever they may be-into something else: "But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them ... Genius consist[s] in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected".