Anxiety among the silver and crystal
Madame Proust By Eveleyne Bloch- Dano Translated by Alice Kaplan University of Chicago Press, 291pp, $ 49.95
IN July 1870, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia. In August, Prussian troops entered France, and in September Marcel Proust’s parents were married in Paris. ‘‘ The deal,’’ writes Eveleyne Bloch- Dano of the marriage contract, ‘‘ was made among men’’, a reciprocal arrangement that brought the ambitious doctor Andre Proust 200,000 francs and a pension for life in the event of his wife’s death. Jews had won the right to citizenship in 1791, but in 1870 being Jewish was still a handicap. For Jeanne Weil’s German- Jewish family, despite their long history of public service, the marriage accomplished what good deeds alone could not: official assimilation into French society.
Anxiety is the word favoured by this biographer to describe Jeanne’s first pregnancy and confinement. In a Paris under siege, Madame Proust lost weight, nauseated by the revolting food on offer. As bonfires crackled and grenades exploded, her husband risked his life helping the wounded. When the Commune began to restore a terrifying kind of order, the Prousts left for Auteuil, on the edge of Paris, where their first son, Marcel, was born on July 10, 1871. ‘‘ The birth may have been long and difficult,’’ guesses Bloch- Dano without recourse to proof, and ‘‘ Marcel almost died’’, another shot in the dark unsubstantiated by a five- page bibliography.
Determined to set in concrete the idea of the mother and son’s extreme co- dependency, Bloch- Dano says that ‘‘ from the moment of his birth, it seems Marcel caused his mother ( yes, more) anxiety’’. The impression I get, however, is of a normal, sensitive child reacting to a typically formal fin de siecle environment, the point of which was to turn him into a man and, moreover, a man of his class.
The epicentre of this emotional tension was the goodnight kiss to which Bloch- Dano devotes a whole chapter, painting pretty, witty Jeanne as ‘‘ a hostage to love, caught between a son who was too demanding and a husband who didn’t demand enough’’. The situation comes to a head one evening when Proust’s father sends him to bed and his mother is detained by a guest. As told by Marcel in Swann’s Way, what happens next is very interesting in the light of Bloch- Dano’s interpretation. For just as the seven- year- old ambushes his mother on the stairs as she retires for the night, he sees to his horror ‘‘ the light from my father’s candle already creeping up the wall . . . Too late: my father was upon us!’’ But Andre proves unexpectedly understanding: ‘‘ You can see quite well that the child is unhappy,’’ he tells his wife. ‘‘ Stay beside him for the rest of the night.’’
In contrast, Bloch- Dano’s version has strange inconsistencies. Andre’s kindness is paraphrased into something patriarchal and patronising, and she gives Jeanne words that don’t appear in Proust’s book. Since 1931 English readers have been misled by the rampant individualism of some translators, but this French writer has no such excuse.
Increasingly circular and repetitive, the story follows the family from spa to spa, giving us glimpses of silver and crystal but never quite seating us at the Prousts’ table. An exception is the ‘‘ violent quarrel’’ between Marcel and his parents over a photograph of him and two male friends. Indolent, lazy and with his health dangerously compromised by asthma, he had also begun to exhibit what, as late as 1979, the Oxford Companion to English Literature called ‘‘ abnormal tendencies’’, and here was the picture to prove it. It is all too much. Voices are raised, doors are slammed and Venetian glass is smashed. Classy that, and all very normal really.
Jeanne Weil Proust outlived her husband by only two years, dying in 1905. After her death, and drawing on an earlier unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil , Marcel knuckled down to write what would become one of the masterpieces of 20th- century literature, A la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time , formerly known in English translation as Remembrance of Things Past , a direct quote from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30.
In a cork- lined room on the Boulevard Haussmann a bereft Proust began to realise that ‘‘ the work of art was the only means of finding Lost Time again’’ but ‘‘ that the essential book, the only true book, was not something the writer needs to invent . . . so much as to translate’’, reality being a relationship between sensation and memory, enclosed ‘‘ within the necessary armature of a beautiful style’’. He was writing against time for ‘‘ all those people who had revealed truths to me, and who were no longer living’’. In the quiet of the night he could hear, ‘‘ if I listen attentively’’, the sounds of the past. ‘‘ Actually’’, he wrote in Swann’s Way, ‘‘ their echo has never ceased.’’ Kathy Hunt is a literary critic based in rural Victoria.