A new volume in Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series caught my eye – Proust, by Benjamin Taylor. This beautifully produced book is a short (168 pages) biography of Marcel Proust and contains material from the latest research into the novelist’s life. Let’s face it, there is no shortage of biographies of Proust; Taylor lists six pages of books about Proust in his bibliography, so what, you may ask, is the point of producing yet another?
Well, the qualities of this biography are brevity, readability and a very contemporary focus on Proust’s private life. Where earlier biographies may have covered up some of the more controversial events of Proust’s life, Taylor follows him into the world of the male brothels and to the restaurant at the Ritz hotel where attractive young waiters were assigned to Proust’s table night after night so that he could proposition them (he was later arrested and a note was put on the charge-sheet that he was “drawn to pederasty). Proust even helped to furnish a new male brothel by contributing some old furniture and Taylor recounts some fairly wild behaviour during his many subsequent visits.
Proust was extremely profligate with money, squandering a huge inheritance on bad investments and on gifts to his many lovers (he confessed that no infatuation would last longer than a 12 to 18 months, after which he would seek out someone new). These habits almost brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, but by that time, a flow of income was growing from the early volumes of his epic Remembrance Of Things Past.
We went to Monk’s House yesterday, the Sussex home of Virginia Woolf. I’m not a great fan of Woolf’s writings but the house is not far from us, and it was such a beautiful May morning we decided to go across and look at the cottage set in its gorgeous gardens.
In one of her diary entries, Woolf wrote about Monk’s House,
Back from a good week at Rodmell – a weekend of no talking, sinking into deep safe book-reading; & then sleep: clear transparent; with the may tree like a breaking wave outside; & all the garden green tunnels, mounds of green; & then to wake into the hot still day, & never a person to be seen, never an interruption; the place to ourselves; the long hours. DIARIES 1932
In those days, you had to go down a rutted cart-track to get to the house, a path beyond leading to the famous water-meadows where Virginia met her death by flinging herself into the slow-moving but deep River Ouse. It shows the depth of depression she must have experienced, for the surrounding countryside and nearby coast with its chalk cliffs is spectacularly beautiful and (you might think) would refresh any soul.
When I first saw this book, C. S. Lewis: a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet I wondered why anyone would want to write another biography of C S Lewis. After all, George Sayer, A N Wilson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Walter Hooper have all published biographies of Lewis. Most Lewis fans will also be familiar with William Nicholson’s excellent biographical screenplay Shadowlands which has been produced on both stage and screen.
However, the highly qualified Alister McGrath (Professor of Theology and Ministry Kings College London and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University) explains in the preface to his book, the huge significance of the publication of the collected letters of C S Lewis during 2000-2006 which has added 3,500 pages of source material to our knowledge of Lewis and provides a “continuous narrative backbone for an account of Lewis’s life” which was not available to earlier biographers.
I am now very pleased that I have read McGrath’s book for three reasons. Firstly, it reminded me of how important Lewis has become as a writer and thinker. Secondly, it definitely draws out some elements of Lewis’s life which I hadn’t fully understood before. Thirdly, it is a very readable biography, not over-long, nor too scholarly and full of interest throughout.
Earlier biographers were reluctant to cover some of the darker sides to Lewis’s character. McGrath’s new biography does not flinch from some of the more controversial sides to Lewis, such as his relationship (probably an “affair”) with a Mrs Moore which started when Mrs Moore’s son Paddy, a close friend of Lewis was killed in the First World War. Lewis had managed to serve in the same regiment as his best friend but was soon hospitalised with trench fever and later wounded by shrapnel, returning to Britain, while Paddy was lost in action. An intimate relationship soon developed between Lewis and Paddy’s mother and there is now a consensus among scholars that Lewis and Paddy’s mother continued as lovers for many years.
This book ticks a number of boxes for me:
– It describes the literary world of Paris in the 19th century;
– It homes in on Honore de Balzac, a writer I have been reading for the last two or three years;
– It describes the history of French cooking and eating-out;
– It’s very interesting and held my attention right to the end.
Sometimes you come to a book like this that seems to be an amusement rather than a serious work and you discover a huge amount of knowledge behind it, so vast in scale in fact that you wonder how the author managed to find out so much about the subject.
Not only has Anka Muhlstein researched the history of restaurants and the food people ate in them during the 19th century, her knowledge of Balzac’s vast number of books is little short of encyclopaedic. Balzac’s books are generally long, and contain so many characters, you wonder how she managed to hold them all in her head and keep quoting from them as she wrote (to give it’s full title Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture With Honoré de Balzac (Other Press, New York).
Perhaps I should expect nothing less from Anka Muhlstein. After all, she has published eleven books of biographies and essays and has been awarded the Goncourt prize of Biography, twice receiving the French Academy’s History Prize. Nevertheless the book is highly readable being full of anecdotes about Balzac and other writers of the time, short extracts from his books, and magnificent descriptions of meals and vastly long sittings at restaurant tables.
The story of the 20th century can be told in big, sweeping brush-strokes charting the rise and fall of dictators and political movements, the vast spread of world wars and the chaotic effects of natural disasters. But so often the stories of individuals have so much more to say to us about the day-to-day impact of world movements, the way in which the super-scale phenomena of geopolitics can shape a single life from birth to death and say more about the past than any text-book history.
Yudit Kiss’s book, The Summer My Father Died, tells the story of her father, a Hungarian academic and ardent communist, a Jew, who as a child found himself in a foundling home and somehow missed being transported to an extermination camp unlike most of his relatives. Yudit’s book focuses on the last years of her father’s life, during which he suffered two brain tumours, surviving the first one for seven years until being hit by the second which eventually killed him.
However, the book is more of a memoir than a biography for as she writes at the beginning of her book, “the story of my father’s death is interwoven with another story that is not concerned with the series of real changes in my father or the events surrounding him. This other story is made of memories, thoughts and emotions that followed, blended with and, in some cases anticipated reality”.
A new book from Giles Milton is always welcome – he is a fine writer of what might be called “narrative non-fiction” – often telling the story of forgotten episodes in history, such as in Nathaniels Nutmeg, about the battle between the Dutch and the English for control of the nutmeg trade, or Paradise Lost, a harrowing account of the the sacking of the Turkish port of Smyrna in 1922. I think if I were a writer I would very much enjoy taking Giles Milton’s approach – selecting an episode which no-one else has written about in recent years, conducting in-depth research in libraries across the world and then compiling a wholly well-written and readable book which is more or less certain to be well-received.
In the case of Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War (Kindle edition here), Giles Milton was able to work closer to home for it tells the story of his father in law, Wolfram Aïchele, who managed to become a successful Paris-based artist after defiantly surviving several years in the German Army during the Russian Campaign and the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Despite stealing the byline for this website from her (“he reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others”), I am not generally a great fan of Virginia Woolf’s writings. But living where I do in East Sussex, we are surrounded by Woolf places, including only a few miles from here the village of Rodmell where she ended her life by drowning herself in the River Ouse and where you can go and visit the National Trust property Monks House, the Woolf’s country retreat.
However, I am interested in the Bloomsbury set as a whole and any new biography is worth a look. This new one by Elizabeth Wright is an ideal introduction to Woolf’s life, while also providing some interesting discussion of her relationships with her fellow-Bloomsburys. It also acts as a useful literary history because it covers her personal circumstances as she wrote each of her books and articles – including references to her many breakdowns and times of “mania”. And at 112 pages, its not going to take very long to read.