The title of Anka Muhlstein’s new book, ‘M. Proust’s Library’, at first struck me as odd, since Proust did not have much of a book collection. Proust seems to have committed large sections of whatever he read to memory, making the ownership of books superfluous. But she has the wider meaning of library in mind. One of her threads helped me to better way frame the famous madeleine incident.
Proust’s Search can actually be condensed quite a lot once we ignore all the Marcel flashback stuff. A middle-aged man, in anguish over how to become a writer, has a pleasant glow of reminiscence after the taste of a pastry dipped in warm tea creates a kind of space-time wormhole to his childhood. But the glow fades. He takes a walk in the Bois in order to bring back more of these unforced memories. The walk ends in gloom as he is reminded simply of the loss of beauty in his life. He visits a childhood friend—but their conversations do not show him a way forward as an artist. He commits himself to some sort of asylum for renewal, which he interrupts to take a short trip to Paris during the war years. He sees startling events, but still cannot figure out how to knit them together into a narrative. Years later he returns to Paris again and accepts an invitation to a soirée filled with characters he had known throughout his childhood and youth. It is here that everything changes.
Muhlstein writes about the moment of his artistic self-discovery:
At the very end of the novel, the Narrator suddenly sees François le Champi on a shelf in the Prince de Guermantes’s library, and the mere sight of the volume triggers the memory of “the child I had been at that time, brought to life within me by the book, which knowing nothing of me except this child it had instantly summoned him to its presence, wanting to be seen only by his eyes, to be loved only by his heart, to speak only to him. And this book which my mother had read aloud to me at Combray until the early hours of that night… [A] thousand trifling details of Combray which for years had not entered my mind came lightly and spontaneously leaping, in follow-my-leader fashion, to suspend themselves from the magnetized nib in an interminable and trembling chain of memories… [and re-created] the same impression of what the weather was like then in the garden, the same dreams that were then shaping themselves in [my] mind about the different countries and about life, the same anguish about the next day.” George Sand is the only writer Proust read as a child whom he comments upon in La Recherche…. (pages 7-8)
So this book-inspired unforced memory, about a country waif adopted by (and later married to) a woman named Madeleine, is the more powerful of the madeleine stories, touching as it does not only on Marcel’s artistic breakthrough and its source in literature, but also Proust’s deepest psychological nature.