Proust: The Search by Benjamin Taylor, book review: A social climber who found the keys to the human condition

If you’ve read Proust’s novel, Taylor is entertaining and tells you things you didn’t already know

Max Liu
Sunday 13 December 2015 14:05
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“It resembles nothing I know and reminds me of everything I admire,” wrote Jean Cocteau in his review of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel’s Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, when it appeared in 1913. Cocteau’s wisdom is one of countless examples in Benjamin Taylor’s biography of Proust where an important truth is encapsulated. Taylor is a skilful curator of words, as he demonstrated when he edited Saul Bellow: Letters (2010), but here he writes beautifully too. In fewer than 170 pages, he chronicles the life of the man whose autobiographical novel ran to six volumes, yet still makes room for his own valuable insights.

Taylor sculpts a narrative from the significant events and emotional upheavals in the life of “the most extraordinary redeemer of lost or wasted time that literature has ever known”. He follows Proust from his childhood with his Jewish mother and Catholic father, through his youth, his social climbing in Parisian society, the devastating death of his mother, his love affairs with men and, finally, the years writing his masterpiece in his cork-lined room. When Proust died in 1922, Cocteau found the manuscript piled on the mantelpiece, “still alive, like watches ticking on the wrists of dead soldiers”.

Like the novel, Taylor’s biography tells readers about life in France from the 1870s, through the anti-Semitic scandal of the Dreyfus affair, which made Proust consider French attitudes to his Jewish ancestry, up to the period immediately following the First World War.

Taylor presents the real-life models for Proust’s characters – Charles Swann, Odette de Crecy, the Baron de Charlus et al – and describes how his experiences with his male lovers fuelled the creation of the enigmatic Albertine Simonet, the woman who becomes the focus of the narrator’s romantic longing. But Proust gets to the nub of the relationship between reality and fiction when he says: “There are no keys to the characters of this book; or rather there are eight or ten for each one.” The same is true of its settings.

If you’ve read Proust’s novel, Taylor is entertaining and tells you things you didn’t already know, deepening your appreciation of Proust and his world. For those who have so far been put off reading him by the long sentences and precious stuff about mums, this biography is a peerless introduction. Taylor will leave you raring to get stuck into In Search of Lost Time. To read it, he demonstrates, is to make oneself “at home in time and in eternity”, perhaps even to arrive at “a new way of living”.

Order for £14.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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