There are books about writers' wives and mistresses, even books about their pets, but very few about their mothers, who are usually dispatched in the early chapters of their children's biographies. Evelyne Bloch-Dano's Madame Proust is, therefore, an exception, but Marcel Proust's relationship with his mother, like much else to do with this greatest of all novelists, was exceptional.
The passages in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu concerning his goodnight kiss are among the most memorable in the entire novel. When, aged 25, he made a short visit to Fontainebleau, he wrote to his mother twice a day and made frequent phone calls in-between. After her death, he wrote to Robert de Montesquiou: "My life has now forever lost its only purpose, its only sweetness, its only love, its only consolation."
Bloch-Dano's admirable biography paints a vivid portrait of a sensitive, cultured, sometimes sharp woman who, in the manner of the times, devoted her life not only to her endlessly demanding elder son but to his younger brother, Robert, and their father, Adrien. Bloch-Dano confidently charts the rituals of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie which Madame Proust, as the wife of an eminent professor of medicine, observed, along with her part in the genesis of one of the glories of world literature.
Equally fascinating is her account of the young Jeanne Weil's early life. She was born in 1849 into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family. Her father was a stockbroker; her grandfather, a porcelain manufacturer awarded the Légion d'honneur, a rare distinction for a Jew, at the Exposition des Arts et Manufactures in 1827. More eminent still was her great-uncle, Adolphe Crémieux, appointed Minister for Justice in 1848.
Jeanne's intense bond with her mother, Adele, is reflected in the intimacy of the narrator's mother and grandmother in A La Recherche. They shared a passion for Madame de Sévigné, whose celebrated correspondence stands as a testament to her own maternal devotion. After Adele's death, Jeanne sought to submerge her personality in her mother's, wearing her clothes, carrying her handbag and reading her books - a process her son later described in The Guermantes Way.
In marrying a Catholic, albeit one from a modest provincial background, Jeanne was fulfilling her father's desire for her total assimilation. She nevertheless kept faith with her roots and, like both her sons, opposed her husband by becoming an ardent supporter of the wrongly imprisoned Captain Dreyfus in the 1890s.
This was a rare source of conjugal conflict, since she otherwise supported Adrien even in his attacks on the seemingly frivolous life of their older son. Her happiness was not, however, unclouded. Like many prominent men in the Third Republic, Dr Proust enjoyed his share of affairs, not least among the chorus of the Opéra Comique, to which he was the official physician. Bloch-Dano suggests that Jeanne's increasingly acute gynaecological problems might have been due to a venereal infection caught from her husband.
Whatever her marital dissatisfactions, Madame Proust found ample compensation in her sons. Much of the book's interest lies in its account of her relationship with Marcel, whom she doggedly protected in childhood and alternately cajoled and chid during his twenties and thirties. Her resigned, if not wholly relaxed, attitude to his sexuality can be inferred from his description of a new friend who has gone "overboard" on him: "I say overboard in a good sense, so don't go imagining that it's an evil connection, great gods!!!"
Bloch-Dano makes much of Jeanne's collaboration with Proust on his translation of Ruskin. Not only did she supply a literal translation since he himself, according to one friend, "would have had a terrible time even ordering a chop in an English restaurant", but she imbued him with the discipline and perseverance necessary to sustain a lengthy literary project. This work was to feed directly into A La Recherche, which, as Bloch-Dano ably shows, stands as one of the most deserved, as well as the most profound, tributes ever paid to a mother by her son.
Michael Arditti's novel 'A Sea Change' is published by Maia
University of Chicago Press, £16 (310pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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