An amusing, albeit too tightly condensed look at clues to Proust’s treatment of style, memory and homosexuality.
Literary biographer Muhlstein, whose previous work charmingly explored how Balzac used food in his novels (Balzac’s Omelette, 2011), mines the territory of Proust’s literary influences, such as Racine and Anatole France. In Racine’s audacious grammar, Muhlstein notes, Proust learned that “an original writer was entitled to stray from strict rules of syntax but was bound to respect scrupulously the precise meanings of words.” Proust acknowledged that he gleaned the idea of the evocative madeleine from a passage in Francois de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, in which the narrator is roused by the “magic sound” of the warbling thrush to recall the estate of his father. Muhlstein also emphasizes Proust’s debt to Anglo-Saxon writers, especially Ruskin, whom Proust apparently spent nine years studying and translating, largely thanks to his mother, who was fluent in English. Proust admired Ruskin’s “exquisitely minute descriptions” and a kind of organic order that helped Proust understand how to give a proper form to his own towering novelistic structure. In his character Baron de Charlus, the homosexual aristocrat, Proust consolidated much of his reading in Balzac, Saint-Simon and Madame de Sevigne, while Proust imbued his character Bergotte, the writer, with his young-adult adulation for novelist France. Muhlstein has evidently read and absorbed Proust and his influences deeply, but some readers may wonder why she does not employ Lydia Davis’ fresh new translation of Proust’s work rather than the dated Moncrieff-Kilmartin edition.
A mostly stimulating study that should deepen readers' appreciation of Proust and draw them back to the original “underpinning.”