Evelyne Bloch-Dano's Madame Proust: a Biography opens with a young Jeanne Weil preparing to marry Adrien Proust, and for the length of a few chapters I was sorrowful, thinking, "It's Penne Hackforth-Jones and Barbara Baynton all over again," because Bloch-Dano, for her own convenience, turns these people into fictional characters and has them fall silent ("Jeanne fell silent") and stare at plates ("She lowered her eyes and stared at the plate") in ways absolutely undocumented by evidence. She does not seem to be doing this out of energy and inspiration, as Peter Ackroyd does when he puts lines in Charles Dickens' mouth during Dickens, but because she worries that we, the readers, will lose interest in bits about plates and families if we don't have a friendly face there, smiling and staring like a piece of cardboard with a curve drawn on it, and two dots for eyes. Or the dots are cut out, and the author peeps through.
Ackroyd's inventions are phantasmagoria; they make Dickens seem stranger, larger, and less explicable; but Bloch-Dano's inventions shrink Jeanne down to the size of a schematised heroine whose brain tinkles its thoughts out neatly and in a logical order, as the brains of human beings do not do.* "Jeanne was ready to admit that she didn't dislike Adrien Proust. She even felt she might be able to love this quiet man with his gentle ways. He was serious, hard-working. But she knew so little about him," writes the biographer, mind-reading ghoulishly; the mind is dead, the brain is decayed, and it leaves no documents to support her.
It is a distraction rather than an addition and I wonder what else the author might be fabricating. I doubt her.
But then Jeanne Proust gives birth to her first son, Marcel, who is destined to be researched in the future, and the author acquires so many facts that she can abandon the padding. Now she can start to strike facts together like flints and make sparks. My favourite spark comes on the last page, after Bloch-Dano has been telling us how Jeanne and her son would argue over his bedtime. He would go to bed late. But the first sentence in Lost Time is, "For a long time I used to go to bed early." "Jeanne would have loved those words," writes Bloch-Dano, and for the first time I saw that sentence as an in-joke aimed at a mother who was dead by the time it was published, and would never respond -- this joke, generated, born, and left to shoot off into the darkness, like the Voyager probe that represents a desire to say hello to an alien rather than a realistic plan for actually meeting one.
Whether the line was meant that way or not Bloch-Dano doesn't know and nor do I, but when I saw that this thought had occurred to her, I realised that she had experienced in Lost Time the kind of window-quality that Borges saw in all books, the Narnian-wardrobe, a series of doors opening into possibilities -- a book not as an end in itself, but as an epicentre.
And I thought: "Any book could be like that, if we could look at it like that, but how do you look at it like that?"
You love it, I think; you have to love it first, you have to love it so much that you trust it to become an epicentre, and so it becomes one. It responds to your wish. "Fall in love with a dog’s bum / And thou’ll think it pretty as a plum," Françoise says in Swann's Way. Lydia Davis translates. Qui du cul d'un chien s'amourose, / Il lui paraît une rose. But it is both things at once, an epicentre and a book, and an arse and a rose or plum. There is the book, or the arse, you look at it, you concentrate, and there is your focus. Henri Raczymow looked at a single one of Proust's characters and wrote a book of one hundred and forty-eight pages about the relationship between this character and one of the living people who inspired him. Proust was jealous of this man, says Raczymow, and he was glad to kill the character. That line of thought gets him, Raczymow, onto the subject of Judaism, and is it not significant, he asks, that the Jewish character Albert Bloch decides to give himself the pen name Jacques du Rozier, when the Parisian Judegasse mentioned by the character Baron de Charlus is the Rue de Rosiers, and the letter Z, as we all know (now he is referring to Roland Barthes' S/Z) is "the letter of mutilation"? "By incorporating this z in du Rozier, Bloch mutilates and chastises himself. He effaces and censures his Judaism." Also! Charles Swann's daughter Gilberte (Swann is the character who gave Raczymow the idea for this book in the first place) drags the tail of her S across the letter G when she signs her name, G.S. Forcheville, the 'Forcheville' coming from her stepfather, after her father's, Swann's, death. "Of course this S isn't exactly a Z," says Raczymow, "but it's close enough. And doesn't it belong to Barthes' paired S/Z? For it served the same purpose of "cutting, crossing, and slashing.""
Raczymow, who leaps between thoughts too abruptly, is as convincing as a man who tells you that a butterfly is a species of bat because they both have wings; his focus on Swann and his real-life part-counterpart has overwhelmed him, but still, a focus puts the mind in a seed and invites it to sprout; it makes the mind a seed or bud or nut, and a famous book is a prime focus: look at all of the essays that have come out of famous books, look at John Livingston Lowes' The Road to Xanadu -- six hundred and forty-eight pages out of a poem of six hundred and twenty-five lines. Books give birth to books, it's miraculous. Focus is the thing. And not only books, but anything. What else? Cees Nooteboom decided that the way to acquaint himself with Gambia was to interview the president. "So on that Friday morning I take my first steps toward a president who, in the end, I do not manage to reach, but that was not the point anyway." Hannah Arendt often liked to orient her thought by touching on Romans and Greeks. In The Promise of Politics she thinks of The Iliad next to The Aeneid and uses the word amazing twice on one page. Thoreau wonders about the origin of his surname and ends up with mead --
Feb. 15. 1852. Perhaps I am descended from that Northman named "Thorer the Dog-footed." Thorer Hund …
Feb 16. Snorro Sturleson says, "From Thor's name comes Thorer, also Thorarinn." Again: "Earl Rogenvald was King Harald's dearest friend, and the king had great regard for him. He was married to Hilda, a daughter of Rolf Naefia, and their sons were Rolf and Thorer … Rolf became a great viking, and was of so stout a growth that no horse could carry him, and wheresoever he went he must go on foot; and therefore he was called Grange-Rolf.
King Harald "set Earl Rogenvald's son Thorer over More and gave him his daughter Alof in marriage. Thorer called the Silent, got the same territory from his father Rognvald had possessed." His brother Einar, going into battle to take vegeance on his father's murderers, sang a kind of reproach against his brothers Rollang and Rolf for their slowness and concludes,--
"And silent Thorer sits and dreams
At home, beside the mead-bowl's streams."
And stereotypes are a focus and a way of grasping. Stuart MacIntyre finishes off his Concise History of Australia by telling you that Australians are "a largely undemonstrative people" who "rally in misfortune; fire and flood brings out the best in them," and, oh, see, this is why I am never at my best, having never encountered fire or flood and instead proceeding undemonstratively and feebly and when the American at the library spoke to me yesterday I did not understand her accent, and instead of asking her what she meant I grinned and went away and almost left the building without finding out how to open the cases of the DVDs I'd borrowed.
Focus is the one magic force. The words of a spell are the focus for a wish. A witch or a wizard is only the Don Bradman of wishing.
* This is key for me, although I don't know if I've explained it very well. It's not the fictionalisation of real people that bothers me, it's the way that Bloch-Dano uses it to make her subject tidy and small. I go to a biography to see the person made bigger, and more detailed, and more interesting. Not smaller, and less detailed, and less interesting.
Bloch-Dano is French and her book has been translated into English by Alice Kaplan. Raczymow's book is known as Swan's Way, or, originally, La Cygne de Proust, and it was translated by Robert Bononno. Nooteboom goes to Gambia in his essay Lady Wright and Sir Jawara: a Boat Trip Up the Gambia, published in Nomad's Hotel, a book of his travel essays. It was translated out of Dutch and into English by Ann Kelland. Thoreau was writing in his journal.