An admiring, even loving, look at the dying Marcel Proust’s final six months, with many glances backward (and sometimes askance) at the novelist’s family and friends.
British historian Davenport-Hines (The Pursuit of Oblivion, 2002, etc.) begins with a terrific set piece: a description of the lavish party at the Majestic Hotel in Paris arranged on May 18, 1922, by Violet and Sydney Schiff, to honor the Ballets Russes’ first public performance of Le Renard. The guest list included many of the artistic geniuses of the early 20th century, including Igor Stravinsky (the ballet’s composer), Serge Diaghilev (the dance company’s impresario), James Joyce, Pablo Picasso and the late-arriving Proust. (The Schiffs get their own chapter later, in which they are chided for their sometimes unwelcome intrusions on the writer in his last days.) Chapter Two offers a quick look at Proust’s family and childhood. In 1908, the author tells us, the 37-year-old author settled on the structure of his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, the multi-volume work that would consume him until his last breaths in that famous bedroom with the cork-lined walls. There the sickly Proust lay writing and suffering and adhering to one of earth’s oddest diets: cold beer, café au lait, ice cream and occasional injections of adrenaline. Some interesting folks populate these pages, among them Jean Cocteau and Edith Wharton (an early advocate of Proust’s work). Davenport-Hines closely examines Proust’s fascination with the upper reaches of society and his views on sex, crediting Lost Time for opening world literature to unconventional sexual behavior. The author marvels, too, at Proust’s reputation in his beloved Paris. His books sold briskly, and celebrity quickly followed publication of the first volume. A final chapter details the writer’s death on Nov. 18, 1922, his funeral and burial.
Informed and sympathetic portrait of a genius struggling to complete his life’s work, no matter what.