Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein takes us on a literary pathway through Marcel Proust’s great work, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This slim volume (141 pages) is a printed in blue ink on high quality paper, with attractive illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.
I can’t say that I have finished reading Proust’s seven volume work despite its having been on my shelves for ten years or so. I have made several attempts but have only read three of the books so far and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever complete the set.
It is not that La Recherche isn’t fascinating but that reading it slows you down so much that it takes weeks to read it properly; Proust keeps bringing you to a halt, sentence by sentence, so much is there to think about on each page. As Anka Muhlstein says, Proust “is the master of long sentences with a grammatical foundation so refined that they accommodate themselves miraculously to all the meanderings of his thoughts”. What a job for a translator!
Despite the difficulty I have in reading the book, I would not like to be without it – the books sit there on the shelf both as a rebuke and an invitation, the ultimate reading challenge. But would reading it be enough? Proust’s work is so loaded with literary and artistic references you’d almost need to read an annotated version to understand fully what was going on in it.
I can only admire people like Anka Muhlstein who have not only read the book but have made it their own by absorbing it so much into their system that they can write books as clever as this one, making an in-depth analysis of the text so they can guide others through “Remembrance” and help them to understand it.
The importance of literature
The literature of the time played a huge part in La Recherche. Anka Muhlstien points out that Proust “made literary taste and reading habits a means of defining his characters”. The conversations round dinner tables were often literary and the characters frequently quote from books. The Narrator’s family loved to quote from memory, his mother even quoting from Molière on her death-bed.
“A life without books was inconceivable for Proust”, and so books were central to La Recherche, especially writers like John Ruskin (a key influence), the poets Racine and Baudelaire, British writers George Eliot and Charles Dickens, Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Proust seems to have been a bit of a literary sponge and had to cleanse himself from the influence of other writers before putting pen to page, but this did not stop him from imbuing his work with the thoughts and words of other writes by quoting from them.
Proust is known for his use of memory – the famous episode from La Recherche when the Narrator tastes a madeleine cake and found himself being taken back to his childhood, but I had forgotten that he also describes later the pleasure of finding an old volume which he read in childhood, provoking memories of the first thoughts about the book and thus recovering his original feelings about it.
I recently went to an antique book fair and found that there were quite a number of stalls selling books I read as a child such as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. As I turned the pages, I also found myself drifting back to that feeling of excitement I felt as I joined the children on their adventures on Lake Windermere. Anka Muhlstein chases this theme through the pages of La Recherche and refers to similar instances in books Proust admired like The Mill on the Floss by Georg Eliot.
The meaning of words
Proust had a very French belief that the meaning of a word could be precisely defined and that “common words should be used with the utmost exactitude”. He agreed with Victor Hugo who wrote, “A great writer should have in-depth knowledge of his dictionary and be able to follow a word through the ages in the works of all great writers who have used it”. This is very different to the use of English, which has never been so precisely defined and in which words change their meaning regularly and can be scattered about almost randomly to create new ideas and impressions. In Britain language seems to change with each generation and we have little concept of a fixed meaning for the words we use.
Anka Muhlstein’s knowledge of French literature is so vast that she is able to detect the many allusions in La Recherche to other writers and their novels. I would have passed over them without noticing but I now wonder whether Proust was playing tricks on his readers or whether he did it just for his own amusement. These appear at various odd moments throughout the novel, such as when the Narrator as a child is taking a walk he notices a woman who has all the features of a woman from Balzac’s novella, The Deserted Woman, even down to the long, elegant gloves she is wearing which have a special meaning in the novella. Various other examples are given and Muhlstein shows how key themes from Balzac have been borrowed from, for example, the novels ‘s Père Goriot and Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans.
The poet Racine was also an important influence on Proust and echoes of his work are found throughout the novel.
In conclusion . . .
What this book has shown me is that while you can spend a lifetime in À la Recherche de Temps Perdu, without a knowledge of the literary world which Marcel Proust inhabited, you are going to miss out on many of his allusions and references. This is not to say that you need a degree in French literature before you can read La Recherche, because books like Anka Muhlstein’s give you the background you need.
I think what Anka’s book has shown me is the richness of Marcel Proust and the immense care he took in writing his novel. You can almost see him in his cork-lined room (a protection from asthma attacks) painstakingly pondering each word and phrase to get just the right effect, bringing in references from his much-loved library of other French writers. Perhaps it all seems a bit too precious for modern readers, to take so much care over developing such a vast work, but for me at least, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu stands as a great Mount Everest of a novel which sooner or later I will have to get to grips with.
I first decided to read Proust by reading Alain de Botton’s 1998 book How Proust Can Change Your Life, which remains a worthwhile read to this day. If you wish to read Remembrance of Things Past in English, I recommend the 2003 Penguin edition, each volume of which was newly translated by a different translator. The first volume, The Way By Swann’s was translated by Lydia Davis and is very readable (but see paragraph after next!).
I would also recommend the fantastic little book in the Overlook Illustrated Lives series, Marcel Proust, by Mary Ann Caws which gives a short introduction to Marcel Proust’s life and works with many photographs and illustrations of the world he inhabited.
NOTE since writing this article, Anka Muhlstein has mailed me to say this,
“I do have one quibble and that is your recommendation of the Penguin edition. One of Proust’s greatest achievements is to have endowed every character with a very distinctive tone and with different translators this unique quality is lost as perforce every translator interprets differently the language of the cook, of the duchess or of the mother. I believe that the best translation remains that of Montcrieff-Kilmartin. In the USA, the edition in four volumes is extremely well done, easy to use because of the summing up at the end of each volume. I imagine something equivalent is available in the UK. I feel very strongly about this issue because I really believe that one betrays Proust by not preserving the unity of his work”.
I am grateful to Anka for this insight which makes a lot of sense to me.
In a vain attempt to recover some of the costs of running this site I have allowed Google to place a small panel of sponsored links in the right hand column. I notice this morning that they are serving up an advert for the Mormon Church. I would like to point out that I have no control over the adverts selected by Google. At least this one isn’t as bad as the “mature dating” site which appeared in the panel a couple of weeks ago illustrated by a “mature” woman in her underwear!