It is nearly impossible to describe the peculiar joy of reading Proust’s masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past. Walter Pater, the 19th century’s great defender of the sanctity of art, argued that true beauty is awesome, sometimes unsettling, and always as strange as it is sweet. Proust’s writing is all of these things. In encountering Proust, we are encountering a mind laid bare to an extreme and dogmatic degree, where every thought and every sensation are carefully documented and given their loving due. Commensurate with this task of capturing consciousness—for that and nothing less is what Proust attempted to do—is a wildly exquisite prose that seeks to wrap itself letter by letter, sentence by sentence, around every aspect of experience. It is somewhat maddening, as quixotic quests often are. It is also intoxicating and unforgettable.

Edmund White’s Proust, a handsome early installment in Viking’s new series of “Penguin Lives” short biographies, is a knowledgeable portrait of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. White, the author of a biography of Genet and several novels, with clean and confident strokes provides an introductory sketch of Proust’s life and work. What is more, in dealing with his prolific subject, White shows that a short biography need not be a niggardly one.

Early on, we are treated to keen glimpses of Proust’s Paris: “Proust grew up in the then recently constructed Paris built by the baron Haussmann, Napoleon III’s master town planner—a spacious, bourgeois world of broad boulevards radiating out from the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées, a web of tree-lined streets of nearly identical facades of seven-story apartment buildings constructed out of pale stone and wrought-iron balconies.” Inside these apartments were “massive reception rooms, creaking parquet floors, machine-cast plaster ornaments on the ceilings, white marble fireplaces, a rabbit warren of servants’ quarters, and all the modern conveniences.” Such specifics are appropriate given that Proust was himself obsessed with details in his tireless efforts to vividly render time and place. As he put it in The Guermantes Way, “Every habitual glance is an act of necromancy.”

White also examines Proust’s family and love life, although he is not given to rabid psychologizing. He avoids the singular sin practiced and institutionalized by one of the great literary critics of Proust’s day, Sainte-Beuve, who, unforgivably in Proust’s opinion, sought to reduce works of art to their biographical origins. On this count Proust was something of a proto-New Critic and a steely advocate of Art for Art’s Sake. As White points out, Remembrance of Things Past was originally conceived as a short novel in which Proust would argue against Saint Beuve’s didactic and reductionist tendencies.

Of course, certain aspects of Proust’s life are inseparable from his work. White tells us:

As a little boy Marcel could not go to sleep without his mother’s kiss…Quite understandably she was worried by these signs of her son’s total dependence on her and would attempt to cure him by refusing to indulge him in his “whims,” but he would become so hysterical if denied a kiss or his mother’s tenth “good night” visit to the bedroom that usually she gave in…

Here, famously, is Proust on the

matter, in the opening section of Swann’s Way:

Sometimes when, after kissing me, she opened the door to go, I longed to call her back, to say to her “Kiss me just once more,” but I knew then she would at once look displeased, for the concession which she made to my wretchedness and agitation in coming up to give me this kiss of peace always annoyed my father, who thought such rituals absurd, and she would have liked to try to induce me to outgrow the need, the habit, of having her there at all, let alone get into the habit of asking her for an additional kiss when she was already crossing the threshold.

Proust—as so many great men in history have been—was a mama’s boy par excellence. But literature will remain grateful that his mother never fully weaned him from his childish sensitivity. In fact, it was Proust’s ability to see and feel with the curiosity and intensity of a child that empowered his work. In Remembrance of Things Past, he approvingly quotes Baudelaire’s dictum—Baudelaire was himself taking up this line from his hero, Poe, who wrote, “The man who is not ‘irritable’…is no poet”—that artistic genius amounts to the ability to return to the fresh and severely sensitive perspective of childhood.

Proust’s sensitivity was legendary—and productive where his writing was concerned—but it could also be annoying. White tells us that his maid, Celeste, had to have his coffee ready

the moment he rang for it, but the preparation took at least half an hour, since he liked the water to be dripped, drop by drop, through the grounds, in order to produce the thickest, strongest possible “essence” of coffee. Nor could he bear for it to be reheated…if Proust did not ring soon after the coffee was ready, she would have to pour it out and start the whole process all over again.

Yet for all Proust’s fussiness, he was a man of courage and conviction. Several times he challenged other men to duels over slights. Whatever one thinks of such a course of action, a man who is willing to risk his life for honor’s sake cannot be dismissed as effete. He was also a Dreyfusard, taking a stand that was extremely difficult for a person who relished society life and longed to be well-thought-of.

Proust’s mother was Jewish, and his father was Catholic. Proust thought of himself as a sort of lapsed Catholic, a man of reverence, though of shifting, vague beliefs. There is one small caveat that ought to be mentioned concerning White’s treatment of Proust, the Dreyfus affair, and Jewishness. In a nod to political correctness, White informs us that Proust could be anti-Semitic:

[T]o be sure, in Remembrance of Things Past there are unflattering caricatures of the members of one Jewish family, the Blochs. Jews were still considered exotic, even “oriental,” in France…In a typically offensive passage Proust writes that in a French drawing room “a Jew making his entry as though he were emerging from the desert, his body crouching like a hyena’s, his neck thrust forward, offering ‘salaams,’ completely satisfies a certain taste for the oriental.”

Whatever critics and readers may think of such an assessment, a writer will know exactly what to do with it: ignore it. Proust made even greater sport of the aristocracy and their hypocritical attitudes toward Jews; and, in any case, if there are groups that are protected from unflattering portraits in literature they may as well be left out of literature altogether. The good news is that White doesn’t carry on long in this vein. A great admirer of Proust, he enthusiastically provides a quick but valuable tour of the writer’s life.

Ultimately, a work about Proust must be about Proust’s work. White could have given us more along these lines—he could, for example, have done better in explaining why Remembrance of Things Past is so wonderful. But what we are given is quite good:

[I]f any writer would have benefited from a word processor it would have been Proust, whose entire method consisted of adding details here and there and of working on all parts of his books at once, like one of those painters who like to keep a whole canvas “in motion” rather than patiently perfecting it section by section, one after another.

In another passage, White explains:

Proust had learned a method of presentation that falls midway between that of Dickens and that of Henry James. Dickens assigns his characters one or two memorable traits, sometimes highly comic, which they display each time they make an appearance; James, by contrast, is so quick to add nuances to every portrait that he ends up effacing them with excessive shading. Proust invented a way of showing a character such as Charlus in Dickensian bold relief at any given moment—Charlus the enraged queen or, later, Charlus as the shattered King Lear. Yet, by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at, though far more memorably.

I say we could have had more of such writing from White, for one reason: To read Proust is to change one’s mental landscape forever. Proust makes us more aware of the world and our intimate connection to it; he tears open the dark interior of private thought and tries to diagram and record; he writes sentences that won’t give up on the attempt to correlate words with the world, sentences that fight and fight against the distance between our mental lives and Proust’s own. In the end, Proust prevails; his sentences endure until we surrender to them.

Proust’s views about life, homosexuality, and even society are secondary to his monumental artistic achievement. It was just this that Nabokov’s fictional professor Charles Kinbote had in mind when, in Pale Fire, he burst into ecstatic flames over the Proust: “Proust’s rough masterpiece was a huge ghoulish fairy tale, an asparagus dream, totally unconnected with any possible people in any historical France, a sexual travestissement and a colossal farce, the vocabulary of genius and its poetry…”

Nabokov, an Art for Art’s Sake artist if ever there was one, recognized in Proust a fellow traveler. Like White, he ranked Proust as one of the greatest artists of all time. It is difficult for me to believe that anyone who takes the time to peruse Proust’s pages—and that is what one must do; there is simply no speeding through them—could come to any other conclusion. By this logic, White has achieved something quite worthwhile: He has written a fine short book that gives us an introduction to one of the greatest and longest literary works of all time.CP