biographical notes, charming illustrations, and photos
This short biographical study offers an introduction to Proust’s strange life, and his unrelenting devotion to creativity. It’s written by an expert, and presented in a very attractive manner with archive photographs on almost every page. Mary Ann Caws admits from the outset that with so many other excellent biographies of Proust available [by George Painter, Ronald Hayman, and William Sansom] there’s no point in writing another.
Instead, she produces an account of Proust which takes themes and motifs from his life as a starting point for meditations upon them – some of them not much longer than a single page, and others stretching out in more leisurely fashion to make well-informed reflections on the social context which gave rise to his work.
For those who don’t know Proust well, she includes a sufficient number of tantalizing biographical details to whet any appetite for more. He slept between eight in the morning and three in the afternoon, then worked late into the night, fueled (like Balzac) by strong coffee and a variety of drugs. He turned up to the best restaurants in the middle of the night and paid for special dinners to be laid on. He left some of his best furniture to a male brothel which he frequented.
Caws is steeped in knowledge about Proust and his background, and her account moves easily from his personal life to cultural issues. Her most extensive chapter is a lengthy analysis of Proust’s relationship to music, and the influence of the Ballets Russes on Paris and London in the early years of the last century. She also discusses the influence of the English art critic Ruskin on Proust’s literary style, and notes in addition his enthusiasm for the work of Thomas Hardy.
The beginner expecting a chronological introduction to the main events in Proust’s life might be disappointed, but by way of compensation it is the photographs and illustrations which make this book such a charming experience. The images of late nineteenth century Paris which inspired so much of his work are surrounded by sketches from his notebooks, paintings of the people who inspired his characters, and photographs that you rarely see elsewhere.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Mary Ann Caws, Marcel Proust: an illustrated life, New York: Overlook Press. 2005, pp.112, ISBN: 1585676489