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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Edmund White Takes on Proust
Proust is best remembered for his epic that begins with Swann's Way and continues through thousands of pages, considered by many to be the masterpiece of the 20th century. Proust began to publish his work in the late teens of this century, and by the early 1920s, he was dead. But in a brief span of years following the publication of the entire opus, Proust's name became synonymous with literary genius. Many people know the story about how Marcel Proust dipped a cookie — a madeleine — into a steaming cup and, suddenly, the past came back to him, remembered through this experience. Edmund White, in a short but sharp biography, has now detailed the rest of the story.
What White manages to do with this makes for fascinating reading. Because of his understanding of gay personae, he's able to delve into the shadowy half-truths that surround Proust and his creation. Born in 1871, Proust came into the world through an upper-middle-class doctor's household. His mother was from a wealthy background, and as Marcel grew, the two of them were rarely apart. Her love of literature was passed to her son, and White adds that when she died, her last words were a quote from La Fontaine. Proust's father was from less prestigious origins and had intended to be a priest before he entered the medical profession. Proust's younger brother became his protector from the slings and arrows of misfortunes, and it was his brother who, after Proust's death, ensured that Marcel's other writings were published.
Proust grew into a sickly, asthmatic young manwhoroutinely cancelled meetings with friends and could barely go outside in spring for his difficulties breathing. From his dependence on his mother to his neediness with his lovers, White writes, Proust managed to "drive away all his lovers (in his fiction as in his life) through his unreasonable demands...."
And lovers he had, some who were sexual partners, others whom Proust adored and loved with a passion that was not necessarily physical. Of one of them, who had died in an airplane accident, he wrote: "I truly loved Alfred. It's not enough to say I loved him, I adored him. And I don't know why I write that in the past tense since I still love him."
As Edmund White simply and beautifully details Proust's life, his coterie of friends and celebrities of the early 20th century, his loves, and his literature, Marcel Proust comes alive as an entertaining and literate biography of one of the greatest writers ever to have lived. This should not be missed.
—Douglas Clegg Douglas Clegg is the author of numerous novels, including The Halloween Man and Bad Karma, written under his pseudonym, Andrew Harper. His recent Bram Stoker-nominated short story, "I Am Infinite, I Contain Multitudes," can be found in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Volume 11.