A sensitive study of literature’s favorite neurasthenic.
The French Jewish novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922), writes Taylor (Graduate Writing Program/New School; Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay, 2012, etc.), was sickly and of course really sick, physically and emotionally. Yet even before he locked himself into a cork-lined room and bid high society adieu, he labored endlessly, putting sickness to good use. At 15, for instance, he read endlessly. “Much of the literature that would be most important to Proust was internalized during this period of insatiable reading,” writes Taylor, a reading list that included huge and ambitious novels by Tolstoy, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and George Eliot. Against the backdrop of essentially private activity, Taylor does good work in locating Proust among more or less privileged contemporaries, gay and straight and indifferent, and against a time that saw the emergence of a nationally tolerated anti-Semitism in events that Proust followed carefully and incorporated into his books. But for all the strength of his cultural historicizing, the author is best as a reader of Proust alone—and an observer of Proust at work writing À la recherche du temps perdu, complaining bitterly to his publisher about the agonies of editing (“The struggle to read four thousand pages of proofs,” Taylor sagely notes, “was exhausting and enraging”), and howling, “I cannot cut the book as easily as a lump of butter.” Readers of Proust will be fascinated to find clues as to who his characters were in real life, and they should be moved to appreciation by Taylor’s assessment of Proust’s accomplishment, capturing nothing less than time itself, that thing that, if it turns us into dust, “also makes us giants.” And not only that, but capturing time in “a moral accounting as comprehensive as Dante’s….”
Though brief, a densely packed and rewarding book.