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, White beautifully evokes "the France of heavy, tasteless furniture, of engraved portraits of Prince Eugène, 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 mummy'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 aeroplane.
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 20th 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 [via]