Home > 20th Century, About an author, About reading, French Literature, Highly Recommended, Muhlstein Anka, Proust, Marcel > Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein – a delight for all Proust lovers

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein – a delight for all Proust lovers

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein (2012) French title: La bibliothèque de Marcel Proust.

It isn’t enough that he names or quotes the great writers of the past: he has absorbed them; they are an integral part of his being, to the point of participating in its creation. As such their works will survive, not in the immutable way great monuments endure, but constantly rediscovered and reinterpreted thanks to Proust’s unexpected, playful, and intensely personal take on different masterpieces. One of the great joys of reading La Recherche is to disentangle the rich and diverse contributions of the past.

Marcel Proust was born in July 10th, 1871. We are now celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth and Open Press has published a new edition of Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library. It has new illustrations by Andreas Gurewich.

In a slim volume (129 pages), Anka Muhlstein explores Proust and literature. On one side, there’s Proust as a reader and on the other side, there’s literature in In Search of Lost Time, or as French fans call it, La Recherche.

I had a lot of fun going through Proust’s first bookish loves and discovering which foreign writers he admired. We know from La Recherche that Racine, Balzac, Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon were among his favorite writers. When you’ve read Proust and seen his style, it’s hard to believe that Proust as a reader enjoyed books with lots of action, like Capitaine Fracasse or novels by Alexandre Dumas.

I knew he was fascinated and influenced by John Ruskin. He translated his work into French, without knowing the English language. His mother, who was fluent in English, helped him and he learned how to read English on the go. He could read but he couldn’t speak. How incredible is that? I didn’t know that he was influenced by Dickens, Hardy and Eliot and loved Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Proust was a great reader and the characters in his books are avid readers too. They all read but the Narrator sort them out between good and bad readers. In this chapter, Muhlstein picks characters in La Recherche and shows who’s a good reader in Proust’s opinion and who is not. Some are even an opportunity for Proust to convey his ideas about reading and literary criticism.

Mme de Villeparisis’s opinions about writers are a spoof of the theories of the great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who held that knowing an author’s character, morals, religion, and comportment was indispensable for assessing the value of his work. This theory was so abhorrent to Proust that he wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve, arguing passionately that it represented the negation of all that a true writer is about. According to Proust, an artist does not express his inner self—the self that is never exposed in everyday life and is the only self that matters—in conversation, or even in letters. To look at the artist’s life in order to judge the work is absurd.

Unbeknown to be, I’ve always had the same opinion as Proust. How cool is that?

The chapter about the Baron de Charlus as a reader was enlightening too. He’s the homosexual character in La Recherche and an excellent reader. He bonds with the Narrator’s grand-mother over Madame de Sévigné. She sees in him a good, erudite and sensitive reader. In this chapter, Muhlstein demonstrates how much Balzac is embedded in Proust’s text. I discovered that Proust’s favorite works by Balzac are Girl With the Golden Eyes, a lesbian story, A Passion in the Desert, a strange love for panther, Lost Illusions, with Vautrin in love with Lucien de Rubempré and Sarrasine. I didn’t remember that Balzac had homosexual characters.

illustration by Andreas Gurewich

Another discovery for me was about Racine’s innovative ways with the French language. For me, Corneille and Racine are boring 17th century playwrights stuck in alexandrines. This chapter was truly eye-opening and the explanations about Proust’s fascination for Phèdre were very interesting.

The chapter on the Goncourt brothers was useful as their Journal was a source of information about the French literary world of their time. Proust won the Goncourt Prize in 1919 for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

A book about Proust and literature had to include a chapter about Bergotte, the great writer in La Recherche. It’s modeled after Anatole France, a very famous writer of the time that nobody reads anymore although Proust was convinced that France/Bergotte would reach immortality. Bergotte did as a character thanks to his author.

Proust has created a prodigiously interwoven universe,the form and complexity of which do not reveal themselves easily; but fortunately, it is a universe within which are to be found planets—the worlds of the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Narrator’s family, for example—inhabited by a diverse population of characters in turn moving, entertaining, hilarious, and cruel, to which readers are readily attracted. The same may be said of the complex world of literature that Proust himself inhabited.

As always with Proust, I’m amazed at how much I remember of the characters in La Recherche. They stayed with me and when Anka Muhlstein evokes a character or a scene, I know whom or what she’s referring to. I loved her short book about Proust and literature because it is accessible to common readers like me. You don’t need a PhD in literature to read it and it’s an enjoyable and instructive journey into Proust’s library.

Many thanks to Other Press for sending me a free copy of this affectionate book about La Recherche.

I’ve read it at the same time I went to Paris and visited the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet. They have made a whole room about Proust, since they have his bed in their collection. I wish they had redone the corked walls as well, to help us understand the atmosphere in which he wrote.

PS: Tamara at Thyme for tea organizes Paris in July again and that’s an opportunity for me to contribute to her event.

  1. Mae
    July 18, 2021 at 2:15 pm

    I read Muhlstein‘s book Balzac’s Omelette a few years ago, and I really like her approach to literature, Your review makes this one sound like a great idea too. I loved seeing Proust’s room at the Carnavalet, which is one of my many museum favorites in Paris. It was under reconstruction on my last couple visits to Paris, I hope it will reopen the next time I go there.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    Like

    • July 18, 2021 at 9:26 pm

      I’ve heard about Balzac’s Omelette and I’m tempted to read it. And after Proust’s Library, I want to read more books by Balzac anyway.

      The Musée Carnavalet has just reopened and it’s reshaped. They have done a special room for Proust’s bed and other related objects. I also really like this museum.

      Like

  2. July 18, 2021 at 3:51 pm

    This book made me want to read the same kinds of books about different writers. What Henry James Read and so on. It made me want to write such a book, although I have not done that yet.

    Like

    • July 18, 2021 at 9:29 pm

      I totally agree with you. It’s a slim volume and perfectly done for common readers.

      I’ve downloaded The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped French 19thC Novels. I’m curious about this one.

      And there’s her Balzac’s Omelett, about food in Balzac’s books. Sound great too.

      Like

  3. July 18, 2021 at 4:27 pm

    This sounds like a perfect companion to my copy of Eric Karpeles’ Paintings in Proust. I love books about books and authors and this will enhance my next rereading of In Search of Lost Time.

    Like

    • July 18, 2021 at 9:31 pm

      iIt’s fascinating to have a peak behind the scenes. Now I want to read François le Champi and the Balzacs that Proust loved. ‘ve read The Girl With the Golden Eyes and wasn’t thrilled by it. I’ve yet to read Lost Illusions.

      Like

  4. July 18, 2021 at 5:44 pm

    I love books like this, cannot resist them and this one sounds marvelous!

    Like

    • July 18, 2021 at 9:32 pm

      It’s great, really. It’s short, easy to read and oozes affection towards Proust as a writer, as a reader and as an artist.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. July 18, 2021 at 7:15 pm

    Sounds wonderfum Emma – straight onto the wishlist!!

    Like

    • July 18, 2021 at 9:32 pm

      I’m sure you’ll like it. It’s your kind of books.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. July 18, 2021 at 7:16 pm

    *wonderful, even…..

    Like

  7. July 19, 2021 at 1:11 am

    On my wishlist too:)

    Like

  8. The Reading Life
    July 19, 2021 at 2:14 am

    My thoughts from Sepyember 2016
    My recent reading of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance of Things Past) was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  I will very soon begin again.   As I read through I thought that this might be the ultimate book about people who lead reading centered lives.  Everyone reads in the world of Proust.  I loved it when Princess Guermantes said there was nothing better in life than reading.    Anka Muhlstein in her short very pleasant highly cultured book, Monsieur Proust’s Library helped me to understand how classic French literature helps structure the novel and she also lets us know a lot about the writers that Proust most admired.
    Among English writers he loved Robert Louis Stevenson, George Elliot,and above all Thomas Hardy.
    The most mentioned writer in In Search of Lost Time is Honore de Balzac. Refrences to Balzac permeate the work.  People have extended conversations about Balzac and relate events in their own world to La Comedie Humaine.  One glaring difference between Proust and Balzac is that if a character in one of Balzac’s works is rich, he explains how they got rich in detail.  In Proust we don’t find this. 
    We also learn of the great importance of Racine and Baudlieire to Proust and his novel.  
    We learn the Proustian difference between good and bad readers.  One intriguing chapter is devoted to the « homosexual » reader.  
    In the closing lines of the book, I was deeply impacted and knew she was very right when Muhlstein said one of the meaning of a search for lost memories was in a rediscovery of old books.  

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 19, 2021 at 6:42 am

      Thanks! Her book is enlightening for Proust readers, isn’t it?
      It makes you want to read La Recherche again but also the other writers.

      Like

  9. Vishy
    July 19, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    Loved your post, Emma! So beautiful! Your remark about Racine and Corneille made me smile 😊 I remember there was a comparison of these two and Moliere in Madame de Sevigne’s letters. So your favourite is Moliere? 😊 I didn’t know that Madame de Sevigne made an appearance in ‘In Search of Lost Time’! So nice! Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊 I want to read Anka Muhlstein’s book.

    Like

    • July 19, 2021 at 6:43 pm

      Thanks Vishy! It’s a terrific book.
      I prefer Molière to Racine and Corneille.
      Madame de Sévigné is the Narrator’s grandmother’s favorite writer.

      Like

  10. July 19, 2021 at 8:56 pm

    Thanks, I definitely want to read this one. I’m currently reading his Days of Reading, delightful, as usual

    Like

    • July 20, 2021 at 10:35 pm

      I hope you’ll like it. I should read his Days of Reading too.

      Like

  11. buriedinprint
    July 29, 2021 at 7:39 pm

    I absolutely love reading about what writers read when they are younger and throughout their lives. It’s one of my pet themes!

    Like

    • July 29, 2021 at 9:31 pm

      It’s truly a lovely book and it seems like it’s your cup of tea. (With a madeleine, of course!)

      Liked by 1 person

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