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

July 18, 2021 24 comments

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.

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