There have been many biographies of Marcel Proust, some nearly as long as his masterful novel In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). William Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is the best comprehensive biography in English, and, in French, there are several, including a recently published volume, Marcel Proust: Une vie á s’écrire, by Jérôme Picon (Amazon FR). (Do avoid the tedious biography by Jean-Yves Tadié, both in French and in its abridged English version.)
But if you want to learn about Proust, you may not want to read a biography that is 600 or 1,000 pages long. Benjamin Taylor’s Proust, The Search (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) focuses on how Proust became a writer, and how he wrote his great work. Instead of going into a lot of detail, Taylor looks at the parts of Proust’s life that were integrated into his fiction. He doesn’t ignore the first forty years of Proust’s life, before he started writing La recherche, but he gives enough background information to provide context for Proust’s search, and how he finally found himself as a writer.
This brief book – 168 smallish pages of text, and another thirty of back matter – is part of a series called Jewish Lives. As such, Taylor does pay attention to Proust’s Jewishness (his mother was Jewish), but this isn’t a book about Proust as a Jew. He wasn’t much of a Jew, in fact, since he didn’t practice any religion, but he was aware of his heritage, particularly during the turmoil of the Dreyfus affair, which heightened anti-semitism in France.
Taylor is both a good storyteller and an insightful critic of Proust’s work. He doesn’t attempt to analyze the fiction, but he does make some salient comments about Proust’s intentions and themes. This is the book to read if you want to know a little bit about Proust’s life, but not get bogged down in minutia. After all, if you’re reading Proust, you probably want to spend time reading his words, not the words of others about him.
I should point out that this slim book is a tad expensive at a retail price of $25; it’s small in size, with fairly large margins, and should probably have been a bit cheaper. And the Kindle edition is currently priced at 16 cents less than the hardcover, so if you’re an ebook reader, you should probably look elsewhere. While price shouldn’t be the main consideration when buying a book, one shouldn’t ignore it either.
This is an interesting book for those who want to learn about Proust, or who are embarking on reading his fiction. If you’re looking for a detailed biography, this isn’t for you, but if you want to learn the main elements of Proust’s life and how it fits with his writing, this book will provide everything you need to know.