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Monsieur Proust's Library Hardcover – November 6, 2012
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"This gemlike exploration of the literary underpinnings of A la recherche du temps perdu reveals a Marcel Proust who did not so much read books as "absorb" them." -The New Yorker
"Anka Muhlstein, who most recently wrote about Balzac (Balzac's Omelette), here turns her attention to Proust's enthusiasms, antagonisms, and literary influences- a perfect subject during this centennial of Swann's Way. That herself is French and was brought up in Paris and in a not dissimilar lycee system makes her a reader who is sensitive to nuances of style and echoes of older standard French authors." -Edmund White, New York Review of Books
"With Monsieur Proust's Library, Anka Muhlstein has added another volume to the collection of splendid books about Proust. A woman of intellectual refinement, subtle understanding and deep literary culture…Ms. Muhlstein is an excellent provisioner of high-quality intellectual goods.” -Wall Street Journal
"...Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library, which looks at In Search of Lost Time by way of the books that Proust himself read and the way they influenced both the book and its characters, has become a permanent addition to my Proust library, and is a must read both for Proustians and want-to-be Proustians alike...It’s a marvelous book." -Publishing Perspectives
"Muhlstein shows admirable restraint, focusing on select topics to contextualize Proust’s work in an accessible way...It’s a quick read, and the tight focus and brisk, topical chapters offer an entrée to a work that is not always easy to penetrate." -The Coffin Factory
"This engaging little volume looks at the writers and literary works that influenced Marcel Proust, a passionate reader whose characters often appear book-in-hand. A helpful introduction to A la recherche du temps perdu, this new work reveals the ways in which Proust’s favorite writers—Saint-Simon, Racine, Mme de Sévigné, Balzac, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky—inform his magnum opus." -France Magazine
"The author of Balzac’s Omelette offers another sensual appreciation of a classic author, this time submitting to the books that Proust loved...You don’t absolutely need to know In Search of Lost Time to read Muhlstein’s brisk little volume, a mini-biography that dissects the many literary influences of [Proust]." -The Daily Beast (Hot Reads)
"[Muhlstein] is thoroughly versed not only in Proust’s life but also in his work; her knowledge of individual characters is especially striking...This biography is an easy and interesting read, even for the novice Proust scholar, and an excellent accompaniment to an In Search of Lost Time (re)read." -San Francisco Book Review
"Muhlstein has ideas of her own about the way in which Proust not only dealt with the anxieties of influence but also brought to a head a long and rich tradition -- something one can scarcely imagine a writer doing today." -Gay and Lesbian Review
About the Author
Anka Muhlstein was born in Paris in 1935. Muhlstein has published biographies of Queen Victoria, James de Rothschild, Cavelier 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.
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I suspect that not much will be new to specialists, but it is nice to have so much Proust scholarship packaged in one place. Much of it was new to me, who have spent 25 years reading this novel. I especially enjoyed the material on how Saint-Simon's memoirs and Balzac's novels influenced the character of the Baron de Charlus. I had not known how much the character of the narrator was influenced by Racine. Much of the book consists of footnotes with French texts. Because of these footnotes, I read bits of Racine for the first time, and liked them.
These essays are well-written. The book is short--you can read it in an afternoon. I read it twice and enjoyed it both times. Highly recommended.
Proust's Search can actually be condensed quite a lot once we ignore all the Marcel flashback stuff. A middle-aged man, in anguish over how to become a writer, has a pleasant glow of reminiscence after the taste of a pastry dipped in warm tea creates a kind of space-time wormhole to his childhood. But the glow fades. He takes a walk in the Bois in order to bring back more of these unforced memories. The walk ends in gloom as he is reminded simply of the loss of beauty in his life. He visits a childhood friend--but their conversations do not show him a way forward as an artist. He commits himself to some sort of asylum for renewal, which he interrupts to take a short trip to Paris during the war years. He sees startling events, but still cannot figure out how to knit them together into a narrative. Years later he returns to Paris again and accepts an invitation to a soirée filled with characters he had known throughout his childhood and youth. It is here that everything changes.
Muhlstein writes about the moment of his artistic self-discovery:
"At the very end of the novel, the Narrator suddenly sees François le Champi on a shelf in the Prince de Guermantes's library, and the mere sight of the volume triggers the memory of "the child I had been at that time, brought to life within me by the book, which knowing nothing of me except this child it had instantly summoned him to its presence, wanting to be seen only by his eyes, to be loved only by his heart, to speak only to him. And this book which my mother had read aloud to me at Combray until the early hours of that night... [A] thousand trifling details of Combray which for years had not entered my mind came lightly and spontaneously leaping, in follow-my-leader fashion, to suspend themselves from the magnetized nib in an interminable and trembling chain of memories... [and re-created] the same impression of what the weather was like then in the garden, the same dreams that were then shaping themselves in [my] mind about the different countries and about life, the same anguish about the next day." George Sand is the only writer Proust read as a child whom he comments upon in La Recherche...." (pages 7-8)
So this book-inspired unforced memory, about a country waif adopted by (and later married to) a woman named Madeleine, is the more powerful of the madeleine stories, touching as it does not only on Marcel's artistic breakthrough and its source in literature, but also Proust's deepest psychological nature
of an extraordinary man. Proust ideal of creating beauty in literary form lifts ordinary to sublime . Anka Muhlstein scholarly review of Proust is sending me back to rereading Proust and the writers that influenced his creativity.