By Benjamin Taylor
Yale University Press, £16.99
It was perhaps the most astonishing dinner party of the 20th century. On May 18 1922, Marcel Proust attended a dinner in Paris to celebrate the première of Stravinsky's new ballet, Renard. Other guests included the Stravinskys, the Picassos, Diaghilev and James Joyce.
Paris was the centre of early 20th-century Modernism, and Proust, author of À la recherche du temps perdu, was the great French Modernist writer.
Like so many of the great figures of Modernism, Proust was Jewish. He was born in 1870, the son of Adrien Proust, a Catholic and an eminent figure in French medicine, and Jeanne Weil, daughter of a leading Jewish stockbroker.
One of the most interesting features of Benjamin Taylor's short, readable biography of Proust is his attention to the prominence of antisemitism during Proust's lifetime. He moves between Proust's life and the Dreyfus Affair, and the rise of a visceral new antisemitism in late 19th-century France, epitomised by Edouard Drumont, author of the best-selling La France Juive, which Taylor calls "the sacred text of French Jew-hatred".
Proust's relationship to his own Jewishness and French antisemitism was complicated. His lifelong friend Leon Daudet attended a salon and wrote in his diary: "The imperial dwelling was infested with Jews and Jewesses." Other antisemitic friends and acquaintances included Edmond de Goncourt. Taylor writes: "Marcel had fallen in, not for the last time, with some of the most distinguished Jew-haters in all of Europe."
Proust was an outsider twice over. The non-practising son of a Jewish mother, he was also a homosexual, who from his adolescence had a series of affairs with young men. In 1897, Proust even challenged another French writer to a duel but nobody was hurt.
His affairs tended to be brief, usually between 12 and 18 months, "a period," he wrote, "after which such affections, in medical terms, always recede and die away."
A third central subject in Proust's life was illness and death. He had his first asthma attack as a young child and suffered from asthma for the rest of his life, famously living in a cork-lined room in Boulevard Haussmann. The last pages tell a story of terrible decline into "asthma, angina, insomnia, and weakening eyesight." His final years became a race against time to finish his masterpiece before illness overtook him.
Taylor tells Proust's life story briefly and well. He writes about Proust's love of music and art, his career as a critic and essayist, and the world of literary salons. However, the problem with his book, and one which bedevils many volumes in the Yale Jewish Lives series, is his failure to do justice to what his subject is famous for: he never brings the writing to life. There are occasional insights. In À la recherche, he observes, the narrator's parents "do not die or even grow old in the course of a book spanning decades". Dostoyevksy was a great influence but Taylor never does justice to Proust as a stylist or makes clear what is distinctive about his writing.
Compare Taylor's book with one of the great writers on Proust, Gabriel Josipovici. The first chapter of Josipovici's fine account, The World and the Book (1971), begins:
"Eight words emerge from the silence, hang for a moment in the air, then fade away: 'Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure'… The three thousand three hundred pages which follow provide the most subtle, tenacious and profound exploration of the problem ever undertaken, as the 'I' of the opening sentence unfolds in search of his identity."
This is a world away from Taylor's book and makes clear, in a way Taylor never even begins to, why Proust still matters to readers almost a hundred years after his death.