What Proust Read

Intriguing title by Anka Muhlstein called Monsieur Proust’s Library, just published by Other Press.

Reading was so important to Marcel Proust that it sometimes seems he was unable to create a personage without a book in hand. Everybody in his work reads: servants and masters, children and parents, artists and physicians. The more sophisticated characters find it natural to speak in quotations. Proust made literary taste a means of defining personalities and gave literature an actual role to play in his novels.
In this wonderfully entertaining book, scholar and biographer Anka Muhlstein, the author of Balzac’s Omelette, draws out these themes in Proust’s work and life, thus providing not only a friendly introduction to the momentous In Search of Lost Time, but also exciting highlights of some of the finest work in French literature.

Excerpt at The Paris Review. I’m very pleased to see that Proust was a closet acolyte of George Eliot.

The writers who star in La Recherche are all French, but it is a mistake to disregard the strong influence on Proust of British literature. The fact that Ruskin, Stevenson, Eliot, and Hardy are rarely mentioned in the novel is not an indication of their lack of importance. Like Baudelaire, they have been completely interiorized. In a letter to the diplomat Robert de Billy, a college friend, Proust wrote: “It is curious that in all the different genres, from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there is no literature which has had as much hold on me as English and American literature. Germany, Italy, very often France leave me indifferent but two pages of The Mill on the Floss reduce me to tears.” Proust did not refer to Ruskin in the letter, but his influence was greater than that of any other non-French writer. Named only four times in La Recherche, Ruskin’s attenuated presence, which is more like an absence, illustrates perfectly the Narrator’s quip: “a book is a huge cemetery in which on the majority of the tombs the names are effaced and can no longer be read.” Ruskin’s monument towers in this imaginary necropolis.

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Proust’s discussion of Hardy’s work in “In Search of Lost Time” is amazing. It’s clear that he devoured the work of great authors…

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