Monsieur Proust's Library

Monsieur Proust's Library

by Anka Muhlstein

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Reading was so important to Marcel Proust that it sometimes seems he was unable to create a fictional personage without a book in hand. Two hundred of his creatures inhabit his fictional world, and sixty writers hover over them. These writers—among them various classical authors of the seventeenth century such as Mme de Sévigné the letter-writer,

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Reading was so important to Marcel Proust that it sometimes seems he was unable to create a fictional personage without a book in hand. Two hundred of his creatures inhabit his fictional world, and sixty writers hover over them. These writers—among them various classical authors of the seventeenth century such as Mme de Sévigné the letter-writer, Racine the playwright, Saint-Simon the memoirist, and novelists and poets of the nineteenth century, including Balzac, Baudelaire and Dostoevsky—are not there for show; their works play an active role in the construction of In Search of Lost Time.

A life without books was inconceivable for Proust. Not surprisingly, he made literary taste and reading habits a primary means of defining his characters. Everybody in the novel reads: servants and masters, children, parents and grandparents, artists and physicians, and even generals. Conversations at dinner tables and among friends are mostly literary. The more sophisticated characters find it natural to speak in quotations, and quoting from memory is much appreciated in the narrator's family—his grandmother, grandfather, and mother all excel at this pastime.

Literature is omnipresent in Proust's work but takes many different forms. It may be straightforward when it comes to the books read by the narrator and other characters; it may be a tool used to define the personality of a personage, a clue to hidden traits of character, or a comical ploy when quotations are taken out of context or when turns of speech are directly inspired by classical writers.

In this wonderfully entertaining book, scholar and biographer Anka Muhlstein, the author of Balzac's Omelette, draws out these themes in Proust's work and life, thus providing an indispensable introduction to his long and intricate novel.

More Praise for Balzac's Omelette:

"Original, delectable, and entirely readable." —Washington Post

"Scholarly yet escapist . . . irresistible." —Daily Beast

"Balzac's Omelette . . . is a charming and modest little book." —New York Review of Books

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
What was Proust reading? In this set of essays about the library of the author of In Search of Lost Time, Muhlstein (Balzac's Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac) wonders why "Proust seemed incapable of creating a character without putting a book in his hands," and how investigating some of the writer's literary touchstones might help us to better understand his oeuvre. Ferreting out all the textual sources and influences of the man who had "read everything and forgot nothing" would be a Herculean task; Muhlstein recognizes this. Her study limits itself to what she sees as the formative texts of Proust's childhood: Saint-Simon, Racine, Balzac, Thierry, Chateaubriand, de Nerval, Baudelaire, the Goncourts. She also makes the case that the work of John Ruskin is a significant and underappreciated presence in Proust's fiction. Muhlstein offers some deft intertextual readings (The chapter entitled "A homosexual reader: Baron de Charlus" offers a marvelous insight about how Proust takes up the Balzac-ian theme of "cruelty of children towards their parents.") but sometimes the breadth of the subject makes Muhlstein's slim volume seem more like a frenetic catalogue of proper names than a thematically coherent exegesis. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

"This gemlike exploration of the literary underpinnings of  A la recherche du temps perdu reveals a Marcel Proust who did not so much read books as "absorb" them." -The New Yorker

"Anka Muhlstein, who most recently wrote about Balzac (Balzac's Omelette), here turns her attention to Proust's enthusiasms, antagonisms, and literary influences- a perfect subject during this centennial of Swann's Way.  That herself is French and was brought up in Paris and in a not dissimilar lycee system makes her a reader who is sensitive to nuances of style and echoes of older standard French authors." -Edmund White, New York Review of Books

"With Monsieur Proust's Library, Anka Muhlstein has added another volume to the collection of splendid books about Proust. A woman of intellectual refinement, subtle understanding and deep literary culture…Ms. Muhlstein is an excellent provisioner of high-quality intellectual goods.” -Wall Street Journal

"...Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library, which looks at In Search of Lost Time by way of the books that Proust himself read and the way they influenced both the book and its characters, has become a permanent addition to my Proust library, and is a must read both for Proustians and want-to-be Proustians alike...It’s a marvelous book." -Publishing Perspectives

"Muhlstein shows admirable restraint, focusing on select topics to contextualize Proust’s work in an accessible way...It’s a quick read, and the tight focus and brisk, topical chapters offer an entrée to a work that is not always easy to penetrate." -The Coffin Factory

"This engaging little volume looks at the writers and literary works that influenced Marcel Proust, a passionate reader whose characters often appear book-in-hand. A helpful introduction to A la recherche du temps perdu, this new work reveals the ways in which Proust’s favorite writers—Saint-Simon, Racine, Mme de Sévigné, Balzac, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky—inform his magnum opus." -France Magazine

"The author of Balzac’s Omelette offers another sensual appreciation of a classic author, this time submitting to the books that Proust loved...You don’t absolutely need to know In Search of Lost Time to read Muhlstein’s brisk little volume, a mini-biography that dissects the many literary influences of [Proust]." -The Daily Beast (Hot Reads)

"[Muhlstein] is thoroughly versed not only in Proust’s life but also in his work; her knowledge of individual characters is especially striking...This biography is an easy and interesting read, even for the novice Proust scholar, and an excellent accompaniment to an In Search of Lost Time (re)read." -San Francisco Book Review

"Muhlstein has ideas of her own about the way in which Proust not only dealt with the anxieties of influence but also brought to a head a long and rich tradition — something one can scarcely imagine a writer doing today." -Gay and Lesbian Review

Library Journal
Muhlstein (Balzac's Omelette) undertakes to reveal the large role that literature plays in Marcel Proust's magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. Her work arises from her talk at the New York Society Library in April 2011. She explains that Proust was a great reader from childhood, and that most of the characters in In Search of Lost Time also have some relationship to books. Furthermore, his interpretation of certain authors, such as Ruskin and Baudelaire, gave him ideas for creating the form of his novel, while some fictional characters dreamed up by other writers inspired him to enhance his own literary personages; for instance, Muhlstein claims Balzac's Vautrin in La Comedie humaine inspired Proust's Baron de Charlus, while the narrator of In Search often quotes Racine's Phèdre. VERDICT The academic Proust expert may not uncover any literary revelations in this title, but the general madeleine enthusiast is bound to be entertained by Muhlstein's witty and lucid prose, despite its plot spoilers. Unlike the books of the Duc de Guermantes, the volumes in Proust's library were not bound uniformly in blonde calf-skin leather, and this tome energetically explores the distinct literary tastes of a modern writing genius.— Lara Jacobs, Brooklyn, NY
Kirkus Reviews
An amusing, albeit too tightly condensed look at clues to Proust's treatment of style, memory and homosexuality. Literary biographer Muhlstein, whose previous work charmingly explored how Balzac used food in his novels (Balzac's Omelette, 2011), mines the territory of Proust's literary influences, such as Racine and Anatole France. In Racine's audacious grammar, Muhlstein notes, Proust learned that "an original writer was entitled to stray from strict rules of syntax but was bound to respect scrupulously the precise meanings of words." Proust acknowledged that he gleaned the idea of the evocative madeleine from a passage in Francois de Chateaubriand's Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, in which the narrator is roused by the "magic sound" of the warbling thrush to recall the estate of his father. Muhlstein also emphasizes Proust's debt to Anglo-Saxon writers, especially Ruskin, whom Proust apparently spent nine years studying and translating, largely thanks to his mother, who was fluent in English. Proust admired Ruskin's "exquisitely minute descriptions" and a kind of organic order that helped Proust understand how to give a proper form to his own towering novelistic structure. In his character Baron de Charlus, the homosexual aristocrat, Proust consolidated much of his reading in Balzac, Saint-Simon and Madame de Sevigne, while Proust imbued his character Bergotte, the writer, with his young-adult adulation for novelist France. Muhlstein has evidently read and absorbed Proust and his influences deeply, but some readers may wonder why she does not employ Lydia Davis' fresh new translation of Proust's work rather than the dated Moncrieff-Kilmartin edition. A mostly stimulating study that should deepen readers' appreciation of Proust and draw them back to the original "underpinning.".

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Other Press, LLC
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Meet the Author

Anka Muhlstein was born in Paris in 1935. Muhlstein has published biographies of Queen Victoria, James de Rothschild, Cavelier de La Salle, and Astolphe de Custine; studies on Catherine de Médicis, Marie de Médicis, and Anne of Austria; a double biography, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart; and most recently, Balzac’s Omelette (Other Press). She has won two prizes from the Académie française and the Goncourt Prize for Biography. She and her husband, Louis Begley, have written a book on Venice, Venice for Lovers. They live in New York City.

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Monsieur Proust's Library

By Anka Muhlstein

Other Press

Copyright © 2012 Anka Muhlstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781590515662

How did Proust read? As a child, like all of us: for the plot and characters. But even at a very young age he was outraged by the fact that grownups considered reading as something one did to amuse oneself. “My great-aunt,” he recalled in Days of Reading, “would say to me, ‘How can you go on amusing yourself with a book; it isn’t Sunday, you know!’ putting into the word ‘amusing’ an implication of childishness and waste of time.” For little Marcel, reading was not fun; it was traumatic. He cried at the end of every book and was unable to go to sleep, desolate at the idea of leaving the characters he had grown attached to: “These people for whom one has gasped or sobbed, one will know nothing more of them […] one would have so liked for the book to continue.”
   Proust read as a moralist, in the sense that reading could lead to greater self-knowledge, a salutary discipline sometimes necessary to shock a lazy mind into action. And he read as a novelist, an artisan of the written word, endlessly analyzing the style and technique of other authors, whether he liked their work or not. Finally, Proust read as a homosexual, extremely sensitive to all transgressions and ambiguities of gender.
   The scope of his reading was too vast to allow for a list of favorites. All the writers who are important to the characters in the novel are French, but Proust, although he did not read English with ease, had a special affinity for British and American literature and was greatly influenced by them. “It is curious that in all the different genres, from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there is no literature which has had as much hold on me as English or American literature. Germany, Italy, very often France leave me indifferent but two pages of The Mill on the Floss reduce me to tears,” he wrote.


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