Proust biography: The gift that keeps giving
Nadar's portrait (1892) of a twenty-one-year-old Marcel Proust on the cover of Benjamin Taylor's short biography
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Do we need another biography of Marcel Proust? Almost certainly not. After all, only in 2013 Adam Watt brought out his excellent short Life (Reaktion). And, while we're on the subject of short Lives, there is Edmund White’s breezy 150-page book of 1999. Also within the past twenty years we have had door-stoppers by the pre-eminent Proust scholar in France, Jean-Yves Tadié, and by the American academic William C. Carter.
None of this appears to have deterred Benjamin Taylor, whose Proust: The search has recently been published in Yale’s Jewish Lives series. (The Jewish Lives list is an eclectic one, ranging from Sarah Bernhardt to Einstein, from Moshe Dayan to Peggy Guggenheim. Forthcoming are biographies of Jesus, Benjamin Disraeli, Rabin, Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan, among others.) Taylor is the editor of Saul Bellow’s Letters, published in 2010. His new book comes with a ringing endorsement from Philip Roth: “Those who found reading Proust too grand an undertaking over the years because of distractions and deficiencies of their own, might well rush to reconsider after confronting this dazzlingly elegant biography”. Praise indeed! I particularly like “distractions and deficiencies of their own”. Anka Muhlstein, author of the enjoyable Monsieur Proust’s Library, calls it “a very subtle, thought-provoking book”.
Taylor’s book is indeed elegant, but for this pedantic reader there are rather too many typos as well as omitted French accents – surprising to see in a book from such a prestigious press: I spotted “Faubourg-Poissonière” rather than Faubourg-Poissonnière, “cinqieme (eighth grade)” rather than cinquième, “grandes lycées” rather than grands lycées, Guy “du” Maupassant rather than de, Jean “Giradoux” for Giraudoux, “Tannhaüser” rather than Tannhäuser, “pathéonisation” for panthéonisation, Nouvelle Review Française (twice) for Nouvelle Revue Française, preceding a paragraph in which Taylor notes that there are more than 1,000 misprints in Grasset’s first edition of Swann’s Way, “Méseglie" (ouch) for Méséglise. Elsewhere we have “Batallion”, “stationary” for stationery, Dreyfus’s “court-marital”, an “indeliable” portrait. These errors suggest careless proofreading or, perhaps, an unfamiliarity with French-language material – a bit of a drawback if one’s tackling Proust.
And yet Taylor’s book has much to commend it. He is particularly good on the way the Dreyfus affair and its consequences are woven into the fabric of the novel. He reminds us of how poisonously anti-Semitic some people Proust regarded as friends could be – the staunchly anti-Dreyfusard Léon Daudet, whom Taylor describes as “virulently bigoted all his life”, for example. Daudet was the dedicatee of The Guermantes Way. Shortly before he died, Proust arranged for flowers to be sent to him in gratitude for his laudatory article on the novel in . . . Action française (a far-right publication). It all seems rather strange in retrospect.
Proust: The search will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.