A biography of Proust: devotion, bulk

March 26, 2000|By Craig Nova | By Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

"Marcel Proust: A Life," by William C. Carter. Yale University Press. 1,024 pages. $35.

When considering a book like this, which is more than 1,000 pages, one is forced to confront the sheer size of the thing, and when you consider this heft, if not bulk, it seems that large scale in books is a lot like large scale in other pursuits, such as the accumulation of money. Size is intimidating.

In fact, it is difficult to conceive of the devotion that has gone into William C. Carter's "Marcel Proust: A Life," although, to be perfectly honest, there are times when one's eyes glaze over, as though contemplating some other exceedingly difficult and detailed operation, the building of a sailing ship out of kitchen matches, for instance.

William's C. Carter's book is an attempt to assemble the raw material for Proust's exquisite portrayals of people and things, and to do this he includes not only details that got into Proust's work, but those that didn't, too. It is all here: Proust's childhood, his exceedingly close relationship with his mother, the polite society to which Proust was attracted and to which he had easy access, his attractions to men, and to some women, his excesses of finickiness, his bizarre way of living (often sleeping all day and waking up in the evening), his frailness, his asthma, his use of drugs, his financial troubles.

In a nutshell, Carter's book seems to imply that Proust was his own worst enemy and that the mystery of Proust is that the qualities that made for such exquisite prose came out of a sensibility that was at once so frail as to be dangerous to his health.

For sheer frailty, which in Proust's life had an almost epic quality, it is hard to beat such moments as this one. "In April he had an accident while boiling milk to take with his Veronal. He made a clumsy movement and knocked over the kettle, spilling scalding milk on himself and his bedclothes. His skin was burned and his sweaters and bed soaked, which made the bed too cold afterward and brought back his sore throat."

There is also the matter of what it is like to read this book. I am sure that the scholarship of it is excellent, but for the general reader, it is heavy sledding. One of the difficulties is that the book has a scholastic voice, which is to say it is written without obvious or even detectable passion.

Detail after seemingly disconnected detail pile up with a numbing effect, and at the end the reader is desperate to pick up a volume of Proust's own work. The desire for this comes out of a good reason, since the almost infinite details of the biographer's work show just what Proust's own gifts really were: to write in a clear, detailed and lucid manner.

This biography adds bulk but not clarity. In the end, after the endless pages, you are left with a difficult to describe but still palpable quality sensation. It is not so much like taking a bath with your socks on as using chopsticks while wearing potholders: You just can't get a grip on how it all comes together. For that, I would suggest, it is better to pick up a copy of "A Remembrance of Things Past."

Craig Nova is the author of 10 novels, including "The Good Son," "Tornado Alley" and "The Universal Donor." Lyons recently released his "Brook Trout and the Writing Life." He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of "The Good Son."

Pub Date: 03/26/00

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