Virginia Barton

The genius of Marcel Proust

The Chesterton Review, February 1992

 

Review: Proust by Ronald Hayman (London: Heinemann, 1990), £20.00.

 

Petit Marcel was many things that Chesterton was not: reclusive, secretive, introvert, foppish; and, of course, French. But they had at least two things in common: a great sense of humour, and the stamp of genius. Ronald Hayman cleverly reminds us, at a crucial point in this biography (when Proust’s mother dies), that for Baudelaire, genius was “childhood clearly formulated, and childhood rediscovered at will. The genius will combine adult articulacy with the analytical mind that can bring order to accumulated experience.” The achievement of Hayman’s book is that he demonstrates how Proust did exactly that.

Genius cannot expect to hide its light under a bushel. The work, and to some extent the man, become public property. Proust’s great novel is there for all to read, and his private life, with his own deliberate connivance, is probably better known than any other writer’s-at least the more extreme aspects of it. But if his colossal masterpiece were not a work of genius, no-one would give a tinker’s curse if he lived for years in a cork-lined room, or preferred his oeufs coddled or scrambled. That the masterpiece A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is based upon Proust’s own experiences is agreed.

 

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Hayman’s contribution to our understanding of the work lies in showing how Proust shifted the light a little to alter the slant; or used a basket of characteristics drawn from various friends and acquaintances to create a new fictional person; or matched a steeple from here to an apse from there in order to build a church, set in a landscape elsewhere. Hayman is very convincing. Relying on a host of original sources (letters, memoirs, the cahiers), he establishes that Proust’s characters were composite creatures, and that his places were an amalgam.

Most of the sources that Hayman uses are recently published. A new biography of Proust in English was long overdue. It is inevitable that comparisons are drawn with George Painter’s Marcel Proust (London, 1959). When Painter declared in the Preface to his classic portrait of Proust that he had “endeavoured to write the definitive biography,” one was irritated by the presumptuous tone. As one finished reading that outstanding work, one had to admit that his claim was justifiable.

Despite the fact that it was written without benefit of much of the new material that Ronald Hayman incorporates, Painter’s book must surely still rank as the standard life of Proust in English (personally, I would place it not far from Boswell’s Johnson). Everything that comes after it is an embellishment. But the Proust fan (or fanatic) welcomes every new scrap of evidence, every interpretation, every variation on a beloved theme, and he will not be disappointed with Hayman’s book. Because the book relies so heavily on quotations from sources, it has a slightly disjointed fragmentary effect. One feels that the narrative was fitted around the quotations, rather than that the quotations were used to support the story.

The Proust that emerges from these pages is a much more loveable man than Painter’s. Perhaps the passage of thirty years has something to do with it; we are more tolerant of extremes, and because we are more at home with psychology, we are also more understanding of vice – not that Painter was judgemental. The liberal use of personal letters presents Proust as the firm and loyal friend, generous to a fault, beloved by his contemporaries, both men and women. Equally obvious in his erudition, his love of literature, art and music; and his working knowledge of several languages.

But we glean little more from Hayman’s book than we did from Painter’s about Proust’s “religious” life. It is hard to believe that he didn’t have one (his wish for an abbé to attend his deathbed was foiled. The abbé was ill). In this connection, Proust reminds me of Wagner, another genius whose work I find totally earthbound.

Every reader of Proust must be struck by his magnificent descriptions of nature. Hayman quotes Boulenger who reviewed the first part of Guermantes for L’Opinion: “There are passages of a really surprising profundity, and an astonishing felicity of expression for things which are almost inexpressible.” How did this man who spent most of his life indoors, summon up a view, a bush, a twig, a petal? Hayman gets as close as anyone to showing how Proust was able to do this – even though the very fact of burying his face in the freshness of a bouquet was tantamount to sentencing himself to ten days in bed, racked with asthma. Hayman indicates many new signposts and tackles this enigma with perceptive insight, sympathising perhaps with the reader’s groping attempts to get to the heart of Proust.

Hayman is a professional with at least half-a-dozen biographies to his credit; this one is a valuable addition to the collection of Proust criticism with which his critics have surrounded the central core of his great novel. The four pages of bibliography and the chronology are useful, the illustrations adequate. The corraling, or rounding-up, of so many original sources is invaluable.

The quotation that sent my hand reaching (for the umpteenth time) for Swann’s Way reads, “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way.” Ruskin wrote that; one feels that Proust must have read it.

 

 

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