Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein

First the disclaimer: I have not read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Several years ago, I started to read the first volume and while I enjoyed it, something came along which distracted me from my reading project. Since this was a work that I really wanted to pay attention to, I decided that the time wasn’t right. I meant to return to Proust, and I will, thanks to the encouragement of other bloggers, so when I saw the nonfiction book Monsieur Proust’s Library from Anka Muhlstein, I decided to read it as a sort of enticement–an encouragement, if you will. But there’s another reason I decided to read Monsieur Proust’s Library: last year I read and enjoyed Balzac’s Omelette from the same author. As anyone who has read Balzac knows, it would be easy to spend one’s entire life analysing and dissecting La Comédie Humaine, but author Anka Muhlstein wisely chose to examine the place of food in Balzac’s work. This now brings me to Monsieur Proust’s Library, and here the focus is books and reading in Remembrance of Things Past.

I’ll admit that I would have got more out of this book had I read Proust’s work, but on one level, while Monsieur Proust’s Library is an academic work, it’s also very user-friendly, so even if I didn’t know who some of the characters were, their place in Proust’s world was adequately explained. So in other words, if you haven’t read Proust yet, or you’ve only read bits, then don’t be put off of this book as it illuminates a particular accessible thread that runs through Proust’s work. The author acknowledges that while “there are many ways of approaching a novel as complex as La Recherche,” she elected to “shed light on subjects as varied as Proust’s literary affinities, his passion for the classics, his curiosity about contemporary writers, and his knack of finding astonishingly apt quotations to put in the mouths of his characters.” And so for around 160 pages, the author appears to have great fun picking out just how books and reading fit into Proust’s masterpiece. Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

Proust seemed incapable of creating a character without putting a book in his hands. Two hundred characters inhabit the world he imagined, and some sixty writers preside over it. Certain of them, like Chateaubriand and Baudelaire, inspired him, while others, Mme de Sévigné, Racine, Saint Simon, and Balzac enhanced his personages.

The author explores Proust’s early reading life and how books “enabled him to escape the narrow confines” of his world (I’m sure most of us can relate to that), and the influence of Baudelaire and Ruskin on La Recherche before moving onto the contributions of Racine and Balzac’s work. I was delighted to learn that Proust was influenced by Balzac, and yet theirs was not an overwhelmingly positive reader-writer relationship. Anka Muhlstein notes that Proust “never claimed to be fond of the great nineteenth century novelist,” and instead Proust’s noted favourites were Racine, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Baudelaire. Proust considered Balzac’s work to show a “certain lack of elegance,” and “an obsession with the ways in which money is made.” At the same time, however, Muhlstein argues that Proust was an avid reader of Balzac and admired him for his use of re-appearing characters and “audacious treatment of sexual deviation.” And I’ll admit a certain gratification to learn that Proust greatly admired Dostoevsky, and when once asked which was ‘the most beautiful novel he ever read,” he selected The IdiotDostoevsky is worked into La Recherche in several ways, including through the analysis of his work in the “literature courses the Narrator inflicts on Albertine.”

The author argues that Proust “establishes a hierarchy” for the book’s characters with some being ‘good’ readers and other characters being poor readers, either for the choice of reading material or for their utter lack of understanding of the material at hand. According to Muhlstein, “every bad reader exemplifies a distinct moral or intellectual shortcoming,” so we see Professor Brichot (“Proust has little regard for academics“), Mme de Villeparisis and Mme de Brissac who are all sadly lacking as readers. Oriane, Duchess of Guermantes, on the other hand, uses books to wield “a wonderfully subtle form of domination” over others in her social circle, while Baron de Charlus, (inspired, argues Muhlstein by Balzac’s Vautrin) is so obsessed with literature that he acts out parts of Saint Simon’s memoirs.

A life without books was inconceivable for Proust. Not surprisingly, he made literary taste and reading habits a means of defining his characters. Everybody in La Recherche reads: servants and masters, children, parents and grandparents, artists and physicians, even generals. Conversations at dinner tables and among friends are mostly literary.

I’ve always thought that if I wrote fiction, I’d have great fun creating characters who were composites of people I really couldn’t stand as well as a few I’d really liked. In other words I’d have a sort of literary and social revenge, so I throughly enjoyed reading about Proust’s characters as good, bad, or indifferent readers.

 Another marvellous aspect of the book is the way glimpses of Proust peer through the pages. We see Proust not just as a writer, but also as a reader–someone for whom reading was a serious business. We learn about how as a child “he cried at the end of every book and was unable to go to sleep, desolate at the idea of leaving the characters he had grown attached to.” But this is Proust in childhood. Anka Muhlstein shows an adult Proust writing La Recherche applying all that was dear to him and yet also playing with those ideas through his characters.

It’s always interesting to know who authors were influenced by, who their favourite writers and their favourite books were, and the fact that Proust read & was influenced by Balzac, in spite of his flaws, tells me that I’ll really like La Recherche when I get to it, and I sense that reading Monsieur Proust’s Library has not only prepped me for The Big Read, but will also help me enjoy the novels when I finally get to them.

 Review copy

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20 Comments

Filed under Muhlstein Anka, Non Fiction

20 responses to “Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein

  1. Of course, I want to read this! I was already rempted by her Balzac’s Omelette. You’re not good to my book buying ban…I’m adding your review to my Reading Proust page.

    I didn’t know Proust liked Thomas Hardy. Now that I think about it, it makes sense, at least from what I’ve read from the two writers.

    Proust also makes the cover of Télérama this week. (Cultural magazine) I haven’t read the article yet. Something about his early work.

    I’m still trying to finish La Prisonnière. I knew I’d struggle with this one and I do. Some things don’t change…

    I also recommend In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson. Proust is in there as a character.

    • I didn’t know about the Hardy connection either (or Eliot) and I’m a fan of both. Thanks for adding me to your Proust page. I don’t know how much press this book will get and it really zoned in on Proust for me.

  2. This sounds excellent. I like what she doesn, looking at one aspect of an author’s work. I never realized there were so many writers in his book.

  3. Yes it’s structured like a thesis but without quoting as many outside sources. The author notes a “triumvirate of artists” Bergotte, Elstir (she argues is based on Dostoevsky) and Vinteuil. Apparently the Goncourts don’t fare so well in the book.

  4. Muhlstein has probably mentioned this already in the book you’ve just read, but the “Saint-Beuve and Balzac” chapter in Contre Saint-Beuve, the unfinished but posthumously published manuscript that turned into Temps Perdu, is good and very subtle. Proust starts off arguing that Balzac’s “vulgarity of mind was so massive that a lifetime could not leaven it” and never drops that argument but works with it until the “vulgarity of mind” becomes a positive character — e.g. — “With Tolstoy the account of an evening party in high society is dominated by the mind of the author, and, as Aristotle would say, we are purged of our worldliness while we read it; with Balzac, we feel almost a worldly satisfaction at taking part in it.” [tr. Sylvia Townsend-Warner] I don’t remember who said that Proust could have been one of France’s great literary critics if he hadn’t been one of its great authors — was it Apollinaire? — but he’s right, the man was a skilful reader.

    • Here’s a quote I thought you might enjoy:
      “He placed Tolstoy–”a serene god”–very high in the pantheon of artists, far above Balzac, probably because he considered a novel like Anna Karenina to be ‘not the work of an observing eye but of a thinking mind. Every so called stroke of observation is simply the clothing, the proof, tha instance of a law, a law of reason or of unreason, which the novelist has laid bare.’ ” I think the quote bounces off of your comment. Balzac seems to relish the humanness of his characters whereas I sense Tolstoy tutting in the background.

      Another part of the book explains that Proust was quite an expert on Dostoevsky and he was asked to write a commerative article on the Russian author for an influential literary mag but he refused saying he didn’t know the author ‘that well,” whcih was, apparently not true at all.

      • “Relish” is nice: he relished them, he gobbled them, says Proust: he was so greedy and quick that he was sloppy but don’t dismiss him for the sake of that one thing (P. says to the reader) instead consider him this way …

        Which gives him, Proust, I suppose, a thinking mind, like Tolstoy’s (not hard to imagine him liking a writer who thinks) but a different kind of thinking mind; he sees the buts, he searches for the reconsiderations: Balzac was vulgar, but it meant that he could do such and such — Tolstoy was a serene god, but he didn’t have this quality that Balzac has — he was always finding different nourishment in different places, Proust, which might be one of his prime discoveries as an author: the diversity of possible nourishments.

        • While I love Tolstoy’s work, I have problems with the man, and I was discussing Tolstoy this weekend with someone who is unfamilar with Balzac, in a comparison of the two sort-of-way. In the Muhlstein book, there’s a passage in which Proust discusses Tolstoy setting out “laws” and then showing what happens when they are crossed. You can certainly see that in AK and Redemption. Balzac doesn’t seem that concerned with moral laws specifically being broken–in his books they’re being broken, ignored and trammelled on all the time and the sky doesn’t fall in. That’s the fun of it. With Balzac it’s all about unbounded appetite.

          • Resurrection, sorry, not Redemption–although that must have been a Freudian slip

          • Fun — he’s actively excited by it — Balzac — the rule-breaking — here’s Lucien sinking into degradation in Illusions perdues and he’s thrilled. The drama! The squalor! It’s in Victor Hugo, too, that idea of disaster as spectacle, or horror as thrill. And the idea of rules being broken: Hugo quickly sets up mini-boundaries so that he can have the pleasure of knocking them down. (I don’t have an exact quote on me, but I’m thinking of those sentences he likes — “He could have been the king of angels; instead he was the king of monsters!” — that sort of violation-in-miniature.) Appetite unbounded: also omnivorous. Tolstoy not so omnivorous: his serene god doesn’t really appreciate the grotesque. Sees it, but sees it differently, with sorrow. Or am I forgetting my Tolstoy? Proust somewhere between the two extremes? Appreciates the grotesque but approaches it serenely with his modulating sentences.

            • Grotesque Proust: the woman who dislocates her jaw from laughing too hard. Marcel bashing in his own hat. Life gulped down in too great a quantity.

              Grotesque Tolstoy: Vronsky’s toothache or the naked soldiers swimming in the pond that Prince Alexei sees. Ivan Ilych’s cancer. The grotesque is a step towards death.

  5. leroyhunter

    What a great idea for a study of Proust – sounds like it’s superbly executed as well.

  6. acommonreaderuk

    Fascinating stuff. I love books like that and already have Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles – and also the enlightening but horrific Hitler’s Private Library by Timothy Ryback (he liked Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Don Quixote).

    I have had a lengthy but somewhat unsatisfying relationship with Proust over many years and have still only read the first three volumes of Remembrance. On the other hand I have half a dozen books ABOUT Proust and his times, some of which are excellent and capture the atmosphere of the times brilliantly.

    I have pre-ordered Balzac’s Omelette for its release next year – so thanks for bringing this author to your readers’ attention.

  7. Alan Shuback

    I, too, began reading Proust only to put the first volume down after about 75 pages. I found that, for whatever reason, I could not properly concentrate on what he was writing. So, a year later, I picked him up again and read him almost straight through, with only brief pauses between volumes (the Moncrieff translation). I advise you to get on with it, the sooner the better. No one who has not read him knows what they’re missing. But get real, man. It is the height of conceit to review a book about Marcel Proust with having read Recherche.

    • I don’t see why it’s the height of conceit. I’m not the best reviewer for the book, but I selfishly think it’ll pay off when I restart Recherche again. I’d read the author’s other book and really enjoyed it, and I wanted to help get the book’s name out there. I doubt it’ll get a huge audience.

      I’ll add that this isn’t an analysis of Proust’s life or work, but instead the book’s focus is what & how Proust read, as well as how books figured into the lives of his characters. This makes the book accessible for a great many readers–not just those who’ve read Proust.

      I’m trying to work my way through Balzac and don’t want to start another big reading project until that’s complete.

  8. It’s not conceit to review this at all. If you’ve read it, you have the right to review it.

    That aside, I’m glad I found this post because this will definitely be something I want to look out once I’ve finished working through the volumes (in about 2016 at present speeds, sigh).

    The comment about Balzac shows that Proust never had to worry about money. It also makes me keener to read Balzac. The fondness for Hardy is fascinating, but then I already wanted to read more Hardy.

    Thanks for this one Guy. A definite add to the (admittedly longer term this time) TBR pile.

    • Glad you’ll try it Max. I hesitated before deciding to review it as I haven’t read Proust–well some a long time ago. But then is the book ONLY for those who’ve read Proust? Couldn’t it also be written to encourage Proust to be read?

  9. Tom

    I have at last got around to reading this and agree with you that it is a great encouragement to continue reading this immense book

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