Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Anka Muhlstein's book on Proust's reading - a secret society that allows immediate and otherwise unaccountable complicity

Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library (2012) is deceptively titled.  There is never a hint of a library, except for the one in Proust’s head.  The book is about Proust’s reading, particularly as it formed or was poured into In Search of Lost Time.  What role do Ruskin, Racine, Balzac, the Goncourt’s journal, etc. play in Proust’s fiction.

That’s another deception, actually.  The little book is actually a piece of close reading, tracing Racine or whoever through the Search.  It’s just literary criticism.

I loved it.  I wish there were similar short, punchy books  filling me in on the reading of every other writer.  Or maybe a searchable website with this sort of thing:

In fact, he [Proust] learned entire volumes of Ruskin by heart, and was able to recite from memory all of Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens.  (31)

I assume that Monsieur Proust’s Library would be gibberish to anyone who has not read Proust – and I mean read to the end.  For the younger Proust reader, meaning me in the past, the book would be an outstanding source for a reading project, a focused tour of French literature.  Madame de Sévigné, Racine, Saint-Simon, Chateaubriand, Balzac, Baudelaire, and then the big detour into Ruskin.  The older me could profitably return to these books, too.  I have only read some of the relevant Balzac, for example.  I suppose that will always be true.  Still: remember, The Deserted Woman and Lily in the Valley, alongside Père Goriot, Lost Illusions, and The Girl with the Golden Eyes.

Proust was my introduction to almost all of these writers.  What did I know about Racine or Ruskin when I first read Proust?  Madame de Sévigné and the Duc de Saint-Simon might as well have been fictional characters.  My second time through the Search, I had twenty years of good reading salted away, I can at least say that.

One of Muhlstein’s chapters is “Good readers and bad readers,” which describes the hierarchy of readers in Search.  “Readers are ranked according to their attitudes toward books, and he catalogues with delight those he finds wanting” (48).  The catalogue of bad readers includes the ignorant, the willfully ignorant, the pedant, the fop whose “feelings for books are artificial,” merely fashionable, the vulgar avant-gardist, the escapist (“Why should I pay three hundred francs for a bunch of asparagus?” 58), and worst of all, the reader who “judges authors who were her contemporaries by the figure they cut in society” (58).

Meanwhile the good readers belong to “a secret society that allows immediate and otherwise unaccountable complicity,” with “a species of telegraphic communications among readers” (59).  Muhlstein’s book is flattering.  Maybe I should be more suspicious of it.  Instead, I came away thinking that I would like to write a book like it, except about some writer no one wants to read about.  John Galt’s Library, something like that.  Ronald Firbank’s Library.

The book begins with a cast of characters from In Search of Lost Time that ought to be published with the novels.


  1. I wish I had known about literary connections/allusions when I attempted Proust (and made it through 2 volumes). Even though I have abandoned Proust (and so many other novelists and story writers), I remain fascinated by the pig trails of the imagination -- how things lead to others in so many surprising ways -- and the current condition of my mind is a very tangled pig trail. In any case, even if I have not much worth contributing to the conversations, I enjoy reading your postings; you always provoke me to some singular pig-trail thinking. If you would rather I not visit and comment with my off-the-wall irrelevancies, just say the word. In the meantime, I continue to meander the pig-trails of history at Beyond Eastrod. All the best from the Gulf coast.

  2. This book is all about the pig trails. Sometimes there is a pig at the end; sometimes it is just a nice windy walk.

    Please, comment any time.

    1. The traveled trail is always more important than the pig; in other words, a life well-lived trumps the endgame.

  3. I can't have cassoulet without that pig. I need the pig!

  4. I sounds wonderful for the Proust amateur and for a second reading of La recherche.

    Does she write something about Molière?

    I'd never heard of Ruskin before Proust and encountered him in another book, Autumn by Philippe Delerm. (It's about the pre-Raphaelit group)He didn't seem to be someone I'd like to be friends with. :-)

  5. This makes me want to re-read Proust. I did it in college for a very ambitious and wonderful class. We read a lot, but it was excerpted, so I can't actually say I've read the whole thing. I should. But I don't know any of these authors really. So much to read!

  6. Yes, very good for the amateur, and I think good both for readers who are comfortable with French literature and readers who have not yet explored it.

    Molière is only briefly mentioned. I can see how several more chapters could be added.

    So much to read - and then to read again. Those Proust characters achieve that "complicity" by knowing their favorite authors so well.

  7. ...I would like to write a book like it, except about some writer no one wants to read about. John Galt’s Library, something like that. Ronald Firbank’s Library.

    Do it, do it, do it (in your spare time, of course).

  8. Sure, then I'll "publish" it here. The idea that there is an audience for books like this, about Proust of all writers, amuses me.

  9. For a "reload" of a small part of Proust, I suggest Goldhammer's English translation of Stephane Heuet's BD, Swan's Way.

  10. The BDs were useful to me even in French for the depictions of the clothes and furniture and settings.

  11. I loved this book. It inspired me to begin a read through of The Human Comedy. I also greatly enjoyed her book on Balzac focusing on his treatment of food, Balzac's Omlet. I think readers of all levels could profit from this book.

  12. Yes, the Balzac book looks even more appealing now.