Proust In Love, by William C Carter

The cook, the rats and remembrance of liaisons past
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In 2000, William Carter's doorstop biography of Proust fought for shelf space with the translation of Jean-Yves Tadié's equally full, but charmingly unorthodox, life. Each book of Proust's In Search of Lost Time then appeared in a new translation. This year has seen Richard Davenport-Hines's study of homosexual manners, Proust at the Majestic, and a new work from the academy, Daniel Karlin's Proust's English.

Where now for the Proust industry? Carter's return, Proust in Love, is more than offcuts from his longer book, but less than an integral work. Those turning to a life of Proust may be assumed in part to want to trace his romantic life, particularly the seductive assonance between his desires and those of his novel's narrator, and of that paradigm of perverse sexual self-knowledge, baron Charlus. They will expect, perhaps, the stories of Proust's excitement at a pair of rats devouring each other in a male brothel, or the allegations that the writer "profaned" his mother's portrait.

The rat tale was ridiculed by Proust's housekeeper Céleste Albaret in her memoirs. Carter tends to believe her, but concludes that details of "the amorous relationships between Proust and the men to whom he was attracted are likely to remain unknown". The writer kept much from Céleste; including, possibly, an affair with a Swedish valet. Ernest Forssgren's account of Proust comprises one of two chief new sources used in Proust in Love. The other, Paul Morand's posthumous Journal Inutile, is as yet untranslated, though much more useful.

Yale and Carter have bafflingly chosen to offer a full edition of Forssgren's insane memoirs to accompany the publication of Proust in Love. Forssgren insists upon two things: that Proust remained devoted to him, and that he had no suspicion his master might be gay. Footnotes allow Carter to correct the facts, referring the reader either to Céleste or to his own... Proust in Love.

The Proustophile with French would do better to seek out Morand's beguiling infelicities. The monoglot should keep to Tadié, whose compelling but never prurient work gleans a single mention in Proust in Love. Carter can't help but entertain on occasion with such material. His interpretations of the novel, though, are overly literal. One key aspect of Proust's knowing showmanship never raises its head: his glorious sense of humour.

Richard Canning's life of Ronald Firbank is published next year