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Marcel Proust: A Life (Penguin Lives) Paperback – February 24, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Marcel Proust documented his existence so lavishly--albeit in fictional form--that many of his biographers have functioned as little more than code-breakers, doggedly translating art back into life. It's a great pleasure, then, to welcome Edmund White's slender, superbly artful account. A novelist himself (as well as a biographer of Jean Genet), White beautifully evokes "the France of heavy, tasteless furniture, of engraved portraits of Prince Eugene, of clocks kept under a glass bell on the mantelpiece, of overstuffed chairs covered with antimacassars and of brass beds warmed by hot-water bottles." And he's no less canny at summoning up Proust's personality, in all its neurotic, contradictory glory.

Of course, Proust's life can't truly be separated from his art. Every biography of him is bound to operate in the shadow of Remembrance of Things Past, and White has some shrewd things to say about that mammoth work, whose style he describes as "an ether in which all the characters revolve like well-regulated heavenly bodies." Yet the focus remains on Proust and on his unlikely transformation from momma's boy to social climber to world-class genius. Like his subject, White often proceeds by anecdote. His book is packed with telling, hilarious little nuggets, which find Proust being snubbed by that "powdered, perfumed, puffy Irish giant" Oscar Wilde or luring back his lover Alfred Agostinelli by buying him an airplane.

At the same time, White conveys the considerable pain that Proust endured as an invalid, an artist, and (more to the point) a closeted homosexual. No doubt these factors shaped his rather hopeless take on human affections, which impoverished his life even as they enriched his writing. "Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera," White writes, "a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless these fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise--the artificial paradise of art." In White's view, this recognition makes his subject not only a supreme poet of impermanence but the greatest novelist of the century. Here, of course, it's possible to quibble. But the world would be an emptier place indeed without Proust's mighty masterpiece--and readers curious about its brilliant, bedridden creator should start with White's witty and exquisite portrait. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In this quietly brilliant contribution to the Penguin Lives series (see review of Crazy Horse, p. 58), White has resuscitated the art of biographical appreciation?a form favored by the first generation of writers who could be considered to exemplify a gay sensibility (Walter Pater, Henry James, Edmund Gosse)?and brought it out of the closet. He follows Proust's evolution from social-climbing dilettante to dedicated artist, placing him in the social milieus of high-society Paris and turn-of-the-century arts and letters. As in his acclaimed full-length biography of Jean Genet, White uses the life of his subject to examine the modern history of homosexuality, and he does so with the same combination of earthiness and worldliness that has marked his essays and autobiographical fiction since the 1970s. By now Proust is perhaps the least mysterious of writers, blessed with several good biographies and many excellent studies (helpfully noted in White's bibliography); but while White claims that his work owes "everything" to the most recent of Proust's biographers, Jean-Yves Tadie, no one can match White's sensibility or his sympathy for the subject. His criticisms of Proust's work are consistently trenchant and insightful, and he brings to Proust's life the earned, respectful familiarity of a distinguished acolyte. Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life marked a revival of popular interest in Remembrance of Things Past; White's small marvel of economy and organization should supersede de Botton's book as a handy introduction to one of the century's greatest novelists.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (February 24, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143114980
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143114987
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,137,521 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Someone at Penguin (James Atlas?) had a stroke of genius. The Penguin Lives series seems to takes its inspiration from seventeenth century writers like Izaak Walton and John Aubrey who churned out brief, engaging prose portraits of their contemporaries and other worthies. Readers know from the moment they pick up one of the Penguin Lives that they are not going to get a thorough-going, heavily annotated exploration of the person under scrutiny. They also know, when they check the page count, that they will not stall out midway and that they can easily finish it on a long weekend at the beach. The choice of "celebrity authors" to do the story-telling is also intriguing. Edmund White, for instance, may not have the final say on all things Proustian, but as a gay novelist and biographer of Jean Genet, we can be pretty confident that he will be forthright and honest when discussing Proust's sexuality and careful, appreciative, and insightful when discussing In Search of Lost Time. In fact, the balance White strikes in his discussion of the man and the novel is quite impressive. In contrast to many modern biographies that wallow in unflattering detail and leave the reader wondering how the subject ever managed to become a person worthy of being written about, White gives us a sense of what Proust was up against (personally and emotionally) without diminishing what he achieved. One piece of advice, if you do decide to buy this great little volume: Don't skip the bibliography. It's only nine pages long and White's descriptions of the books listed will point you toward some good reading (and away from some duds).
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Format: Hardcover
Edmund White's Proust is a superb model of stripped down biography. In a succinct and constantly illuminating appraisal of the writer as homosexual, White succeeds in making public what Proust was outwardly at such pains to conceal. Proust's outsidership--he was part Jewish, gay, a semi-invalid by way of chronic asthma, and an unctuously ingratiating social climber--were all necessary facets of his person, developed in the slow evolution of his genius.
White's elegant and incisive prose evident here in his evocation of Proust's characteristically neurotic obsessions allows us that rare opportunity of perceiving how one distinguished novelist writes about another. This is White's Proust, and so the conception is of value to literature. White succeeds in getting under Proust's skin, and by virtue of uncanny empathy reads his subject with the familiarity of one profoundly psychological writer resonating with another. White understands that 'Every autobiographical novel inevitably mixes harsh truths about its first-person hero with a bit of wish fulfilment.'
If Proust's forté was to apprehend the psychological building blocks out of which the twentieth-century was to be constructed, then he achieved this through what he called 'involuntary memory', or the unconscious. White is good on this crucial aspect of Proust, for it was the writer's facility to establish an interface between buried associations and their reappearance in the light of memory which was to prove the basis on which A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu was created.
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Format: Hardcover
When the dust settled after the Millennium lists of Best Books of the 20th Century, there was Marcel Proust's magnum opus Recherche le temps perdu at the head of the line. Though many of us struggled through all the volumes as a college assignment, fewer of us returned to the masterpiece, much less explored the ambiguitites of the author's life and times that afforded such a work. Well, here in easily digestible prose is a succinct history of a phenomenal writer (written by an equally phenomenal writer) that opens the door to more ventursome readers to explore the "Best of the 20th Century" writing. Edmund White distills all the facets of Proust's persona and what results is a fastidiously correct picture of a fertile imagination and man. How better to understand the turn of the century in all its multifaceted changes than to simply read this fine biography? Another work of seeming staggering proportions reduced to a gentle and absorbing read by one of our better authers writing today. Hats off!
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Format: Hardcover
Although there is no shortage of books on Proust in English, and no shortage of enormously long biographies, there is a surprising lack of short biographies. Luckily, this excellent little volume by Edmund White fills a major need. While we have major long biographies like those of Painter, Tadie, and Carter, these may not be appropriate for someone wanting a brief overview. The trick with any biography of Proust is striking a balance between writing about Proust's life and Proust's art, not an easy task given the degree with which Proust based his work on events in his own life. It is virtually impossible to disentangle the two.
This is a short book (around 150 pages), but in that brief span, White is able to touch on all the major events of Proust's life, the key relationships of his life, the major themes of his work as an author, and the ways in which Proust's life became the basis for his work. If one is unfamiliar with Proust before picking up this book, one will gain a first rate overview of him before setting it down. One thing that tremendously enhances the value of the book is an excellent annotated biography that gives a great overview of work on Proust both in English and French.
White, who is a well known gay author, does a superb job writing about the myriad of contradictions in Proust's own work as a lightly closeted gay author. Although Proust's being gay is the worst kept secret of the century, Proust fought many duels over accusations that he was homosexual (or, an invert, as Proust would have put it). Proust was the first writer to write extensively about homosexuality, both male and female, but maintained a façade of heterosexuality to those who did not know him well.
All in all, this is an excellent brief biography of the man many regard as the great novelist of the 20th century. I heartily recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about Proust.
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