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If there is anyone worthy of producing an intimate biography of the enigmatic genius behind Remembrance of Things Past, it is Edmund White, himself an award- winning writer for whom Marcel Proust has long been an obsession. White introduces us not only to the recluse endlessly rewriting his one massive work through the night, but also the darling of Parisian salons, the grasper after honors, and the closeted homosexual-a subject this book is the first to explore openly. From the frothiest gossip to the deepest angst, here is a moving portrait to be treasured by anyone looking for an introduction to this literary icon.
In this quietly brilliant contribution to the Penguin Lives series (see review of Crazy Horse, p. 58), White has resuscitated the art of biographical appreciation--a form favored by the first generation of writers who could be considered to exemplify a gay sensibility (Walter Pater, Henry James, Edmund Gosse)--and brought it out of the closet. He follows Proust's evolution from social-climbing dilettante to dedicated artist, placing him in the social milieus of high-society Paris and turn-of-the-century arts and letters. As in his acclaimed full-length biography of Jean Genet, White uses the life of his subject to examine the modern history of homosexuality, and he does so with the same combination of earthiness and worldliness that has marked his essays and autobiographical fiction since the 1970s. By now Proust is perhaps the least mysterious of writers, blessed with several good biographies and many excellent studies (helpfully noted in White's bibliography); but while White claims that his work owes "everything" to the most recent of Proust's biographers, Jean-Yves Tadie, no one can match White's sensibility or his sympathy for the subject. His criticisms of Proust's work are consistently trenchant and insightful, and he brings to Proust's life the earned, respectful familiarity of a distinguished acolyte. Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life marked a revival of popular interest in Remembrance of Things Past; White's small marvel of economy and organization should supersede de Botton's book as a handy introduction to one of the century's greatest novelists.