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Reading was so important to Marcel Proust that it sometimes seems he was unable to create a personage without a book in hand. Everybody in his work reads: servants and masters, children and parents, artists and physicians. The more sophisticated characters find it natural to speak in quotations. Proust made literary taste a means of defining personalities and gave literature an actual role to play in his novels.
In this wonderfully entertaining book, scholar and biographer Anka Muhlstein, the author of Balzac’s Omelette, draws out these themes in Proust's work and life, thus providing not only a friendly introduction to the momentous In Search of Lost Time, but also exciting highlights of some of the finest work in French literature.
What was Proust reading? In this set of essays about the library of the author of In Search of Lost Time, Muhlstein (Balzac's Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honor de Balzac) wonders why "Proust seemed incapable of creating a character without putting a book in his hands," and how investigating some of the writer's literary touchstones might help us to better understand his oeuvre. Ferreting out all the textual sources and influences of the man who had "read everything and forgot nothing" would be a Herculean task; Muhlstein recognizes this. Her study limits itself to what she sees as the formative texts of Proust's childhood: Saint-Simon, Racine, Balzac, Thierry, Chateaubriand, de Nerval, Baudelaire, the Goncourts. She also makes the case that the work of John Ruskin is a significant and underappreciated presence in Proust's fiction. Muhlstein offers some deft intertextual readings (The chapter entitled "A homosexual reader: Baron de Charlus" offers a marvelous insight about how Proust takes up the Balzac-ian theme of "cruelty of children towards their parents.") but sometimes the breadth of the subject makes Muhlstein's slim volume seem more like a frenetic catalogue of proper names than a thematically coherent exegesis.