MARCEL PROUST: SELECTED LETTERS, 1880-1903 by Marcel Proust
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MARCEL PROUST: SELECTED LETTERS, 1880-1903

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Proust scholar Kolb has prepared the French edition of the complete Proust letters; this splendidly presented volume is the first of several scheduled English-translation selections. And the young Proust found in these early letters is something of a revelation: a flatterer of shameless proportions, a butterfly, a flirt, a manipulator--a fellow so superficially unattractive that it's surprising that his letters have rarely been stressed by critics (as J. M. Cocking's introduction is quick to note). Here, for instance, is the obsequious and completely unmerited fawning over Mme. de Noailles, Charlus-prototype Robert de Montesquiou, and Marie Hahn: ""O charm without limit but not without measure, you who lend your frocks a moral charm, modesty or nobility, literary qualities, conciseness, a veil spread over too much brilliance. . . ."" Here are Proust's coy missives of flirtation and reproach to his friends Reynaldo Hahn and Antoine Bibesco, followed by his righteous skirting of all appearance of outright homosexuality; here, too, are his long, baseless letters of physical complaint to his mother. (Kolb occasionally and wisely intersperses her letters as well--and what a grandly classical Jewish mother Mme. Proust is shown to be!) Yet, on the other hand, here is Proust on Wagner and MallarmÉ--with the first snippets of the great original intelligence about art that was supremely his own. Similarly, the early letters are full of political integrities--strong and active pro-Dreyfusism, protests against the fashionable anti-clericalism of the day--which show Proust to be no fool, even quite bold and brave. And there's a literary self-awareness in the letters' efflorescent style: in an 1887 letter, Proust is gauging what this taste for excess might come to mean in terms of expanding artistic limits of language and form. In sum, the Proust to come can be seen in the young Proust here--who had so far written only Pleasures and Days, pages of Jean Santeuil, and the Ruskin translations. And the exemplary Kolb/Manheim collaboration makes this embryonic self-portrait clear, accessible, and vivid--with no attempt to muffle Proust's least endearing aspects.

Pub Date: March 25th, 1983
Publisher: Doubleday