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Recollections of the Young Proust

by P. F. Prestwich

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1999
ISBN: 0-7206-1056-7

Drawing on letters exchanged between Marcel Proust, remarkable composer and musician Reynaldo Hahn, and Marie Nordlinger, Hahn’s British cousin, who distinguished herself as an artist, journalist, and businesswoman, Prestwich weaves a sketchy portrayal of the fin-de-siäcle European cultural elite. In a superficially erudite manner, Prestwich (a freelance arts journalist and heir to Nordlinger’s letters and memorabilia) throws into her book all sorts of references to various turn-of-the-century personalities and events, from the Dreyfus affair to the 1900 Universal Exhibition to Oscar Wilde’s trial. Amazingly, random mosaic pieces like these eventually fall together to form a rather coherent account of the episodes that served as raw material for Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. Although Prestwich pays equal tribute to each of her three protagonists, it’s undoubtedly the figure of Proust who keeps our interest afloat. As reflected in Nordlinger’s memories and letters, Proust seems to have been a passive, self-reflecting observer rather than an active participant in the turmoil of life. Inclined to hypochondria, he was constantly preoccupied with issues of his own mortality and often remained bed-ridden for months due to attacks of asthma or hay fever. His nervous disorder might have resulted from semisuppressed homosexuality, which he himself once qualified as an “incurable disease,” or from the overprotective attitude of his loving mother. Hahn’s remarks to Marie suggest that Marcel deliberately cultivated pain and suffering, considering them beneficial to his art. One of the most invaluable portions of the book deals with Proust’s fascination with Ruskin’s aesthetic theories. During the long 14 years (1895—1909) he spent drafting preliminary episodes for his major novel, Proust’s main passion and regular occupation was translating and interpreting Ruskin’s works with Nordlinger’s assistance. Prestwich’s analysis of the correspondence between Proust and two of his friends can supply the key to a fuller understanding of many episodes from In Search of Lost Time, but readers unfamiliar with the details of the novel may find it hard to appreciate this biographical commentary.