Whether they follow an established tradition or rebel against it, whether they are authors of classics or are considered innovators, rare are the writers who were not also great readers. Proust was no exception to this rule; reading had always been his earliest and most important source of pleasure and stimulation, and it remained as such. He is distinguished from his colleagues, however, by the immense role that literature plays in his oeuvre.
Proust seemed incapable of creating a character without putting a book in his hands. Two hundred characters inhabit the world he imagined, and some sixty writers preside over it. Certain of them, like Chateaubriand and Baudelaire, inspired him, while others, Mme de Sévigné, Racine, Saint-Simon, and Balzac, enhance his personages. Finally, Proust was so steeped in the works of his favorite authors that he gave characters they had created an important place in his own novel. Thus Racine’s Phèdre plays an important role in the life of the Narrator, and Charlus would not be himself without Balzac’s Vautrin.
Proust’s friends claimed that he had read everything and forgot nothing. A book that undertook to provide a guide to Proust’s great erudition would run the risk of being as long as La Recherche. I have narrowed my focus, and deal first with books to which he came early, those that turned him as a young boy into a passionate reader and enabled him to escape the narrow confines of a child’s world, and, second, with the essential influence on La Recherche of Baudelaire and Ruskin, whose hidden, almost subterranean impact is often overlooked. Third, I devote attention to Racine and Balzac. Proust’s reading of the tragedies of the former and the novels of the latter is so personal and distinctive that we may be bewildered at times to find their familiar characters or turns of phrase in unexpected contexts.
The writers who star in La Recherche are all French, but it is a mistake to disregard the strong influence on Proust of British literature. The fact that Ruskin, Stevenson, Eliot, and Hardy are rarely mentioned in the novel is not an indication of their lack of importance. Like Baudelaire, they have been completely interiorized. In a letter to the diplomat Robert de Billy, a college friend, Proust wrote: “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 and American literature. Germany, Italy, very often France leave me indifferent but two pages of The Mill on the Floss reduce me to tears.” Proust did not refer to Ruskin in the letter, but his influence was greater than that of any other non-French writer. Named only four times in La Recherche, Ruskin’s attenuated presence, which is more like an absence, illustrates perfectly the Narrator’s quip: “a book is a huge cemetery in which on the majority of the tombs the names are effaced and can no longer be read.” Ruskin’s monument towers in this imaginary necropolis.
Excerpted from Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein, Other Press.
Anka Muhlstein was born in Paris in 1935. Muhlstein has published biographies of Queen Victoria, James de Rothschild, Cavalier 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.