[Note: I wrote this review back in 2000, and just stumbled on it. I haven’t edited it, other than correcting a few infelicities in the writing. I read this book in French, and the review discusses the book’s content, not its translation.]
I was expecting to read a real biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, but it turned out to be a long book of little more than intellectual masturbation.
I find some of the pre-publication comments on the Amazon.com site quite perplexing– “critically acclaimed, best-seller in France…” Critically acclaimed, for this sort of book, means only that the author’s friends, and his publisher’s hirelings, wrote excellent reviews of the book–in France, it is all too common to see reviews written by writers who publish or act as “series editors” for the same publisher as the book they are reviewing. Unlike in the US, where reviewers are independent, at least in some periodicals, these reviews are nothing more than advertisements. And best-selling, well, that is of course relative. Having worked in a French bookstore for several years, and being involved in publishing in this country, I know that this means only that the book sold better than expected. When you read the term “best-seller” in English, you tend to think of such books as Tom Clancy or John Grisham, and I can imagine that this biography sold nowhere near one tenth, even perhaps one one-hundredth of what those books sell in France.But I wonder exactly what the critics acclaimed in this book? Was it the overlong lists of people Proust knew, the thousands of footnotes, the never-ending quotes with which the author peppered his text? This is a fine example of a biography that was written for scholars and is, as is often the case, poorly written; it inspired, as I read it, nothing more than a desire to get to the end. The author writes like a scholar, which is fine if you like that style (although I feel sorry for the translator who has to put this work into English). But this is a minor problem compared to the total lack of character that he develops.
For me, the benchmark for literary biographies is the Richard Ellman biography of James Joyce . Not only does Ellman examine the author’s life and work, but ties the two of them together. At the end of the book, the reader has the feeling that he or she “knows” Joyce, that he understands his personality. In this book, the personal aspect is totally missing–if I hadn’t read other biographies of Proust before, I would undoubtedly not understand his life. While Tadié mentions often enough Proust’s illnesses and anxiety, and mentions his homosexuality more than enough, the reader learns very little about Proust other than the people he met and added to his novel. For while La Recherche is a roman a clé, and it is useful to know who the characters represent, it is also a highly introspective novel where a better knowledge of the author is far more valuable to its understanding.
One example: those who know about Proust know about his cork-lined room at the end of his life, but Tadié mentions this only in passing. I would think that this part of Proust, the anxious, obsessive part, is far more important than the number of times he ate dinner at the Ritz.
Reading this book was a real chore. Hardly a paragraph goes by without one or several quotes from Proust’s correspondence, from works written by others about him, or texts by the many people he met. This cuts the text up, giving the author no room to stake out a voice for himself. And when he does try and use his own voice, it is in the excessively pedantic, and overly “precious” style of French pseudo-academic writing.
The author is clearly writing to defend his own approach, one that has not been unanimously accepted. Roger Shattuck’s review of the latest Pléiade edition in French, published in the New York Review of Books, points out how Tadié has taken the work and turned it into a huge mass of sketches and drafts. [Unfortunately, this review is no longer available on the web, unless one has a subscription to the New York Review of Books.]
TadiÃ©, in this biography, often refers to these drafts rather than to the actual work, in order to show not only what Proust thought about the people he met, but also to remind the reader just how important he thinks these drafts are. I would rather he refer to the text of the work that we know and read, rather than attempt to defend his approach in this manner. But he is the author, and this biography, published by Gallimard, the publisher of the PlÃ©iade edition, obviously sees the value in trying to hype their over-priced and over-thick version.
It can be difficult to take a person like Proust and make him more human, to make readers understand who he was. Growing up in a bourgeois family, independently wealthy, at least until the First World War, Proust is not the kind of person that I feel great sympathy for, at least not when reading this biography that sounds like the very long society page of a newspaper. Yet, when reading La Recherche , I feel such incredible affinity with this lonely man whose life was full of suffering. It is a shame that there is such a difference between the Proust of his work and the Proust of this biography.
In the end, I gave up and skipped over the last few hundred pages, out of lassitude. I found little in this book that was interesting. For a biography that better depicts Proust as the person he was, and gives insight into his life and feelings, the book written by William Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life , is far more interesting. The Tadié book is useful perhaps if you want to look up who was the source for a given character, but other than that, read Proust’s work–you will learn far more about his life in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Read more about Marcel Proust in this article.