White, Edmund. “Marcel Proust: A Life”, Penguin, 2009.
An Enigmatic Genius
I chose the phrase, “An Enigmatic Genius” for my review of Edmund White’s look at Marcel Proust because it s aptly fits both the book and the man who wrote it. Edmund White is one of the few authors that feel at home in both worlds of fiction and nonfiction as well as writing essays and literary criticism. For me that shows me a man who is an enigma. Proust has been likewise labeled an enigma by many and the coming together of these two men gives us a royal wedding. White has been obsessed with Proust and we see that in his own writing. Proust was a recluse who wrote one massive piece of literature that seemed never to end. This is the first book to explore him as a man who spent his life writing and White brings us the man in a portrait that is unforgettable and in itself a literary masterpiece.
Proust wrote of his life but did so in the genre of fiction and many who have examined the man and his writings did little more than translate his life from art to words. White, on the other hand, gives us Proust, the man, with all of his neuroses and contradictions. We really are unable to separate the man from his writing and “Remembrance of Things Past” hangs above anyone who attempts to study Proust. White has something to say about that, the literature that he describes as “an ether in which all the characters revolve like well-regulated heavenly bodies.”
Proust was transformed from the son of his mother to a social climber in Parisian society and ultimately to a genius whose work is respected and read all over the world. White takes us into the world of Proust, first with anecdotes and then with facts that are amazingly interesting and help us to understand one of the most misunderstood men in the world of literature. There is gossip and there is the pain endured by Proust as an invalid, an artist and a closeted homosexual and how these shaped the man who looked at affection as hopeless and who led a sad life because of it.
White deftly explains that Proust sees love as a chimera,”a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless these fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise–the artificial paradise of art.” White goes on to say that Proust comes to represent an impermanence yet he is to be considered the greatest novelist of the 20th century which, of course, is open for argument. White takes us on a journey with Proust from the time that he was a social climber and then a dedicated artist and a member of the who’s who of Paris as well as a man of arts and letters. It is Proust’s life through which White studies homosexuality and he gives us some very colorful and straightforward description that he is so well known for.
There have been several fine biographies of Proust; White is the most sympathetic biographer to date. His literary criticisms of the author provide a great deal with his insightfulness and we feel White’s total respect for his subject. He tells us that his fascination with Proust is what gave him the impetus to write this volume and further states that Proust is the “master of all memoirists”, a man who was able to capture rich language and characterization because Proust sees memories in their seriousness when they are triggered by sensations over which we have no control. Even with the success that Proust achieved during his lifetime, he was in constant struggle with both his homosexuality and his failing health.
I remember hearing so many people sing Proust’s praises but had never read him. He was a symbol of intellectualism when I was a college student and his name invariably would turn up in literature classes. It was always fascinating at how many had something to say about him until they were pressed and admitted that what they said was based upon hearsay and not having read Proust themselves. I have struggled with Proust for years but my struggle has been based on reading his texts and whenever I spend a few hours reading him, I get a sense of accomplishment mixed with joy.
One of the things I have learned about Edmund White is that he will always write and speak honestly about his work so we can be sure that his discussion of Proust sexuality will be based upon what he has learned from intensive research. He tells us of the battles that Proust had to fight and the life that he was forced to lead. White brings out into the open what Proust so hard tried to conceal. While discussing Proust with someone recently, he felt that White had pushed Proust out of the closet for the sensationalism of it. I replied that I saw nothing sensational about it and I felt that is important to know that Proust gay and part Jewish and the fact that he was almost an invalid because of his chronic asthma and a determined social climber allows us to better what he wrote and why he wrote it. These are important facets of his life that molded him into what he became.
I love that White has written this book. For me, it is a special treat that one distinguished novelist writes about another distinguished novelist and the fact that White’s prose is so elegant and incisive makes this book a total pleasure. White, in my mind, almost becomes Proust (or better said, Proustian) with the way he is able to get into his subject’s skin and empathetically tells us what he finds. The one aspect of Proust that White handles brilliantly is that of what he calls the “involuntary memory” and what we know as the unconscious. Proust was known to hide or bury associations and then have them reappear through memory and this was the basis of “Remembrance of Times Past”.
To members of the gay community who dabble in the study of literature, White fascinates when he writes about Proust’s “clandestine male lovers”. Proust did gender bending in his novels and White tells us that most of his female characters are actually men or boys in drag and this to a degree mirrors his private life. He had a succession of lovers which included Reynaldo Hahn, a musician, Alfred Agostinelli, his personal secretary and Albert Nahmias, a younger man.
Proust was neurotically obsessive and he lived with expectation that he would die early. He spent a fortune on medications and by 1909; he closed himself off from the rest of the world so that he could devote himself totally to writing which he did for the next thirteen years.
As I read White’s biography, I could not help but be reminded of the time I spent as a graduate student struggling with “Recherche le temps perdu” and how foreign and strange it seemed to me. I have since returned to it many, many times and the strangeness is gone replaced by the challenge to explore it again and again and in light of what I now know of the author. After reading White, I approached Proust not with hesitation but with the idea that it was going to make sense now and…IT DID. For that (and for everything else that he has done), I am beholden to Edmund White.
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