"A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, our social life and our vices." This apercu from the ever-perceptive Marcel Proust appears about two-thirds of the way through Edmund White's new, brief life of the novelist but might more logically have served as its epigraph because the difficulty of untangling Proust's life from his work is the supreme challenge of writing his biography, at whatever length.
The dilemma is one White clearly recognizes. "Perhaps the strangest drama . . ." he notes, "is the transformation of little Marcel--the dandy and party-goer [and] time waster . . . into the great Proust, who wrote one of the longest and most remarkable novels of all time."
The transformation is all the more mysterious because the major components of Proust's fiction were clearly derived from his own life, with its intense family bonds, particularly to his mother and grandmother; his half-Jewish, half-Catholic origins; his wide, varied and complex friendships; his history of love demanded, unrequited or unsatisfyingly requited; his fascination with society and sexuality; his devotion to literature, music and art; his weakness for flattery and gossip; and his long and painful struggle with asthma. How all this passed through the sieve of talent and hard work and came out "Remembrance of Things Past" is one of the more elusive phenomena in all of literature, and it is no less elusive by the end of White's book.
That said, White does a generally elegant job of distilling the principal themes in Proust's life and writing in "Marcel Proust," which (with Larry McMurtry's "Crazy Horse") marks the debut of the new Penguin Lives Series, a group of uniformly designed brief biographies that are setting out to countervail the swollen tomes that have become the genre's standard in recent years. White nimbly sketches in Proust's family, with its "fleshy, bearded" doctor father; his doting, literature-loving mother; his robust brother; and his grandmother, who was "almost romantically in love with her own daughter."
White gives us Proust the student, Proust the soldier, Proust the socialite, Proust the invalid. He places his subject first in the bourgeois and aesthetically dreary comfort of a large modern apartment, where he grew up in a late-19th century Paris remade by Baron Haussmann, and later in the famous cork-lined room where he wrote much of "Remembrance."
Selection is everything in a book this compact, and White deploys his narrative craft in supplying the revealing detail. Thus, early on we find Proust, watched by his friend Reynaldo Hahn, standing frozen beside a rosebush, "communicating totally with nature, with art, with life." We meet Proust the "playboy-monk" who (after inheriting a fortune) bought himself nothing, but tipped lavishly and bestowed extravagant gifts on friends and lovers. We observe the housebound asthmatic who, as the years progressed, could only go out after midnight when "the dust of the day had settled," but thanks to Thea^trophone, a service that held a telephone receiver up to a concert, could listen to Wagner or Debussy from his drawing room. In slivers and in summary, a portrait accrues.
There are inevitable simplifications, such as when White characterizes Proust's relationship with his brother as one of "complete harmony" (why then was Robert eliminated from "Remembrance" while the rest of Proust's family was lovingly memorialized?); mistakes, such as when he identifies Proust's friend Walter Berry as Edith Wharton's lover; and curious choices, such as when White speculates that at an early meeting, Colette was irritated by Proust "because the young flatterer had already divined her bisexuality." White's skewed (though admittedly capsule) account disregards Colette's eventual--and far more representative--openness about her sexuality and fails to convey what evolved into her profound admiration for Proust's writing.
It also speaks to the biggest problem in White's biography, which is its extreme emphasis on Proust's homosexuality. While homosexuality is incontrovertibly a prominent theme in Proust's novel as in his life, White's use of terms such as "closetedness," "gender-bender" and "straight trade" is anachronistic and reductive of a man who observed so subtly the behavior of the human heart and appetites. And White's repetition of gossip about what "kick-start[ed]" Proust's own sexual encounters lacks sufficient context, fails to evaluate the speakers and feels irresponsibly voyeuristic.
White otherwise makes a strong case for Proust's endurance and modernity, citing his fusion (which White himself practices) of autobiography and fiction, his truth-telling, "his resolution to mine every last ounce of gold from a subject," his discovery of the powers of involuntary memory and his understanding of impermanence. All this, and several elements unnamed too, contributes to the "radiant vision" that shines out with such incandescence from "Remembrance of Things Past."