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.