Proust for Beginners is not a graphic novel in the conventional sense of the word, but it’s also not a typical prose biography with occasional illustrations either.
170 pgs., B & W; $15.95
(W: Steve Bachmann; A: Van Howell)
When it comes to name recognition, Marcel Proust must be one of the best-known authors of the 20th century. Who has not heard the story of memory being triggered by a fragment of madeleine cake, or is not at least aware of the seven-part behemoth variously translated as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past? (For the sake of consistency, it will be referred to as Recherche in this review, that being a key word in the French title.) Fewer people have even made the attempt to “climb Mt. Proust,” as the saying goes, i.e., to actually read Recherche, and many who have start out with the best of intentions soon find their interest and patience flagging. We live in the modern world of sound bites and mouse clicks, after all, and who has the time for an author who once wrote a sentence that, in translation, contains almost 1,000 words?
And yet, the fascination continues. Alain de Botton wrote a popular book called How Proust Can Change Your Life (my favorite anecdote from that one—Proust’s cork-lined studio that allowed him to retreat into perfect silence while surrounded by the noise and bustle of Paris). Edmund White boiled down Proust’s life to a very readable 165 pages. And now Steve Bachmann has given us Proust for Beginners, an illustrated biography and appreciation that’s as friendly an introduction as you will find to this giant of literature.
In the first section, Bachmann offers biographical notes about Proust and places him in historical context, discussing matters such as Jews in France and the political climate during Proust’s lifetime. The second section takes on Recherche, offering a brief overview followed by a summary of each of the seven volumes. The third section covers what other people have had to say about Proust, and could serve as a handy little cheat sheet if you’re taking a lit class. The final section wraps it all up with a discussion that the relationship between Against Sainte-Beuve (a book unpublished in Proust’s lifetime) and Recherche, developing the idea that Against Sainte-Beuve was a sort of warm up or initial sketch for Recherche. This last section is the only part of this book that might scare off people who aren’t grad students in literature, but you can skip it and still enjoy the rest of the book.
Proust for Beginners is not a graphic novel in the conventional sense of the word, but it’s also not a typical prose biography with occasional illustrations either. The publisher calls it “graphic nonfiction,” but you may well wonder what that means. In this book, the illustrations are drawn, and they are not just “realistic” representations of things serving as replacements for photographs (and let’s just set aside for a moment discussions whether photography can ever simply reflect the world in any objective sense), but the interpretations of artist Van Howell. Some of the illustrations are fairly realistic (such as portraits of famous people who figured in Proust’s life), while others are quite fanciful (such as the many cartoons and collages which make specific points about Proust and his work). The illustrations are more integrated with the text than in a typical prose book with illustrations, but less so than in a traditional comic or graphic novel. So maybe there’s no preexisting category to describe this type of work, but who cares? It’s effective and entertaining, and that’s what really counts.