Biographies of digestible size: Starting off with Marcel Proust

January 10, 1999|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Let's begin with a question about biography: Is it obligatory that the life stories of the great be either interminably long or indigestibly complex? I pray not. Inspired by that hope, Penguin Putnam Inc. has launched a commitment to publish two significant biographies a year, very short by traditional standards, written by demonstratedly engaging writers who are fascinated by their subjects.

The full results -- "Penguin Lives" -- will have to be spoken for book by book. But the first is out: "Marcel Proust: A Penguin Life," by Edmund White (Penguin, 165 pages, $19.95). And my verdict is in: It's splendid.

White, a distinguished literary figure and scholar, has written 11 books. The best known are "A Boy's Own Story," which is a memoir, and "Genet: A Biography." Both are significantly and sympathetically focused on the homosexuality of their subjects. Homosexuality is also important in the case of Proust, though White records that he "never acknowledged his own homosexuality in print nor even presented homosexual inclinations in an attractive light."

Beyond sexual preferences or predilections, who was Proust, anyway? Almost any authority will grant him the title of most important French novelist in the 20th century. A lot of people in the worlds of letters grant him that supreme title in all languages. The least esteemed niche he is allowed is as the first truly significant novelist of the 20th century.

Why? Because of a single novel -- though a mountainous one; with about 4,300 pages it breaks down into seven parts or volumes. Everything else he wrote is essentially ephemeral. That work is "A la recherche du temps perdu" -- long titled in English "Remembrance of Things Past" but more recently and more literally "In Search of Lost Time."

Proust was born on July 10, 1871, to a Christian father, a distinguished physician, and a highly cultured Jewish mother. He grew up in and near Paris, a nominal Roman Catholic but not a practicing one; he never identified himself as Jewish and his writings do not treat Jews kindly. He died on Nov. 18, 1922.

He was enormously gregarious, seeking out the company of the powerful, the high-born, the famous, the artistic, the people who made up the bone and muscle of the cultures he lived in and wrote about. He was chronicler of the world of Paris and beyond from the 1890s through the 19-teens, the lush era between the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and the start of World War I. He was also a superb reporter.

He was sickly most of his life, with a severely asthmatic and pampered childhood. By age 34, he had published little more than two translations and a book of short stories. Most of Proust's significant work was done in the last 14 years of his life, while he was very sick and feared imminent death.

By 1919, much of the book was done, and was widely recognized as important, if not yet as great. But even that acceptance was far from universal. Published one volume at a time, recognition was cumulative. Four of the seven volumes of the masterwork had been published before he died. The final portions were not published until 1927.

My guess is that, today, something like four out of five people who avow familiarity with Proust have read far less than they think they have. Another guess is that out of every 100 people who may claim to have read all seven volumes, perhaps 10 are telling the truth. It is a mammoth piece of work, hypnotic, lulling, almost imprisoning. I have not read it all. By far. But I have nibbled at it since I was, uncomprehendingly, about 12. And I shall go on nibbling. To do so is one of the privileges of a reading life.

But why is this mountain so celebrated?

Proust's distinguishing trademark is the idea of "involuntary memory." The principle that human memory is not always available, that its greatest sensual and emotional force enters a person's consciousness involuntarily, usually when spontaneously triggered by smells or tastes or other associated sensations.

Certainly, that insight to internal intimacy pervades Proust's work. But it doesn't explain his stature. White rises to the challenge of definition near the end of his brief book. He brilliantly contrasts Proust with the other towering modernists, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein. He vaults Proust forward into the present era, "this age of memoirs," while berating today's -- and Modernism's -- weaknesses for self-concern and narcissism:

"Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking -- not the pell-mell stream of consciousness of a Molly Bloom or a Stephen Dedalus, each a dramatic character with a unique vocabulary and an individuating range of preoccupations, but rather the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice: the sovereign intellect."

One could argue -- I would -- with White's dismissal of intellectual control in the pell-mell-ness of Joyce's internal monologues. But his celebration of Proust's near-divine discipline is perfect.

Does it work, this brisk, brief biographic form? Grandly, I think. White's book neither elaborately explores Proust's work nor richly chronicles his intricately involved personal saga. But it vividly brings to life Proust's power and profundity -- the obscure becomes irresistible.

Penguin, and the series' general editor, James Atlas, have started off on a roll. Fourteen more are in the works, including such lush temptations as Edna O'Brien on James Joyce, Garry Wills on Saint Augustine, Patricia Bosworth on Marlon Brando and Marshall Frady on Martin Luther King Jr. Oh, my goodness! They might just break the biography out of its prison of prolixity.

Pub Date: 01/10/99

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