Marcel Proust - Edmund White

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
― Marcel Proust


Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.
― Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia


White calls Proust the most influential and respected among writers, "the first contemporary writer of the 20th century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times." His renown outshone those of "Joyce, Beckett, Woolf, and Faulkner, of Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, of Gide and Valéry and Genet, of Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, for if some of these writers are more celebrated than Proust in their own country, Proust is the only one to have a uniformly international reputation." 


The chapters flow easily, in chronological order, and follow his upper middle class life from his sickly childhood ( Proust suffered from bouts of asthma) up to his death in 1922 from pneumonia, that turned into bronchitis and eventually abscessed lungs. He wrote: "a child who from birth has always breathed without paying any attention has no idea how much the air, which swells so sweetly his chest that he doesn't even notice it, is essential to his life." 


White recounts Proust's (near pathological) obsessiveness with those he loved - from his clingy needs as a child for his mother to kiss him goodnight numerous times to his possessiveness with his lovers. White pays frequent attention to Proust's pédérastie (the French word for homosexuality) although Proust later preferred the label inversion. His diverse amours would include his chauffeur Agostinelli, Jacques Bizet, Lucien Daudet, Robert de Flers, Robert de Montesquiou, Raynaldo de Caillavet, Henri Rochat. He would lavish extravagant gifts on them and want them with him all the time. When Agostinelli secretly left him one time, Proust went so far as to inquire about a "policeman who could follow someone - a private eye." In his writings, Proust used many of his male companions as archetypes for some of his female characters. In some instances, he would blend characteristics of his loves in modeling one person.


Proust mingled in high societal circles to the dismay of his more placid parents, who were astonished to find dukes, duchesses, painters en-vogue and well-known actresses around their dining table. White illuminates that "as Proust's writings demonstrate, when he was young and naive a noble name was for him a piece of living, breathing, walking, talking history, a modern incarnation of a medieval legend." He seemed a bit of a gossip- from his observations or social liaisons, he would learn of others' dalliances, secrets, even the type of dress in style; information which, without question, were used to enrich his novels.


Proust greatly admired Honoré de Balzac and was influenced by his extensive series of interconnected novels in which the characters constantly recur. He was inspired by "the story of how young, ambitious men from the provinces could social-climb their way through Paris with the help of mistresses."


Since writing the semi-autobiographical Jean Santeuil, Proust discovered how to manage themes- pick them up, let them drop, then come back to them, though each time the theme was exposed to a different light. His writing was taking shape with innovative style, always with his concept of recollecting past experiences through the process of involuntary memory. Proust examined the psychological linkage to pure recall; he pursued the idea that involuntary memory allowed recollected experiences: "to be mirrored at one and the same time in the past, so that my imagination was permitted to savor it, and in the present, where the actual shock to my senses of the noise, the touch of the linen napkin, or whatever it might be, had added to the dreams of the imagination the concept of 'existence' which they usually lack, and through this subterfuge had made it possible for my being to secure, to isolate, to immobilize- for a moment brief as a flash of lightning- what normally it never apprehends: a fragment of time in the pure state."



We are all novelists who have been handed by destiny one big book, the story of our lives. - Edmund White 


In June 1919, Proust finally saw the publication of three of his books: Swann's Way, Within the Budding Grove and a collection of pastiches. He received the Goncourt award, France's most distinguished  literary award, that same year. Some said he was undeserving of the honor, alluding it was garnered through "expensive gifts and fine meals." He was sure that his critics would change their minds once all of the seven volumes were published and the overall design could be greater appreciated. They did, especially the publishers who originally turned down his work. 

This Penguin Lives version of Edmund White's biography of Marcel Proust is controlled, concise and extremely lightweight reading. In as much as Marcel Proust's life and legacy were undeniably epic, I felt more than satisfied after reading White's "Marcel Proust" that I've been substantially informed. Anything of a denser or lengthier nature might probably, involuntarily, trigger my own sense of lost time and remembrance.