Saturday, July 22, 2006

Literary Influences

I am almost done with Edmund White's Proust biography. I've been keeping track of Proust's literary and philosophical influences and I thought I'd share what I have thus far discovered.

Proust "intensely admired" George Eliot and was particularly fond of Middlemarch. He identified with Causobon who spent his life on one "great" work. Proust believed, as White puts it, "that life presents us but one book to write, the story of our own existence which we must merely 'translate.' " I imagine admiring a character who failed to complete his life's work was a reflection of Proust's concern about his own work. In his late 30s he was so ill with asthma he was always telling his friends that he expected to die soon. Yet he managed to live until he was 52.

Proust also admired, and was friends with, Anatole France. France wrote the preface to Proust's first book Pleasures and Days in 1896. Yet even he complained to his secretary, not to Proust, that Proust wrote "sentences interminable enough to make you consumptive." With friends like these...

Other authors Proust read and admired are Balzac, Shakespeare (I wonder what reading Shakespeare in another language is like?), Flaubert, and Goethe. He was especially admiring of Ruskin and translated two of his books, The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies into French. Proust did not know much English though so he had his mother and an Enlishwoman, Marie Nordlinger, write a word-by-word translation for him which he then rewrote. Apparently he managed a translation that sounded very much like Ruskin. What Proust liked best about Ruskin were his aesthetic ideas. He didn't care a whit for Ruskin's ideas about reform. If anybody has read, or knows anything about Ruskin, a post about his ideas would be interesting (hint, hint).

Proust also read, and disagreed with Sainte-Beuve. In fact In Search of Lost Time was originally conceived as a short novel called Against Sainte-Beuve, Memories of a Morning. I know even less about Saint-Beuve than I do about Ruskin. I searched my library's catalog though and found what appears to be an essay Proust wrote about Sainte-Beuve. I say "appears" because for some reason, even though the books are in English, my library insists on listing their titles in French. I have requested it and will be sure to post about it if it turns out to be worthwhile.


Blogger Transient Me said...

Sainte-Beauve posited that in order to appreciate an author's works, one must understand their context (ie the author). One should know his religious leanings, his political beliefs, how he was raised and where. In fact, learning about the man or womcan seemed almost as important as the work itself, and the two melded into an overall impression that you derived by understanding what was said by whom said it.

Proust thought this was complete hogwash, insisting that you needed to know nothing about the author in order to appreciate the book.

I've had trouble with this. When I learnt that Cordwainer Smith had strong Nazi sympathies, it tainted all his science fiction stories for me, despite their having nothing to do with the Third Reich.

12:34 PM  
Blogger sfp said...

A connection between Proust and Anatole France? That's cool to know!

2:24 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

Very interesting stuff! I love it that Proust sympathized with Causabon, and I think you're right that this reflects Proust's worries about his own productivity. And yet, what a difference! Causabon is such ... a terrible character in many ways. I'm not sure I like the idea that writers have only one book in them.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Stefanie thanks so much for that post! Its so fascinating to me that Proust found something in common with Causobon. What a wonderful insight.

I'll be jumping on the Proust wagon again soon. I am teaching this fall and have had some things to get settled for that. Sigh.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Thanks for the Sainte-Beuve information. I agree, it is difficult to separate an artist from their art especially if you do not agree with the artist's political or other philosophies even if they have nothing to do with the art.

That's right Susan, you posted a France quote recently on your blog! Yes, France and Proust were friends.

I found the Causobon/Proust association revealing too. Proust was so worried that he would never finish his book. He did die before the last two or three volumes, can't remember, were published even though they were done. But I wonder if he had the chance if he would have added even more?

3:47 PM  

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