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Philip Kolb Biography 

Making of a Proust Scholar

Works by Philip Kolb

The Making of a Proust Scholar

On occasion, people have asked me how I could have spent a lifetime "working on a single man." I take exception to that sort of loaded question because, in the first place, my work has never been confined to Proust as a man. He had dated so few of his letters that I had to begin work by acquainting myself with all of his writings as well as his life. And the bibliography of his writings that I was able to constitute shows that he published far more than is generally assumed of one whom many people consider to have been a dilettante. But more important than that, one cannot work "on" Proust without embracing his entire universe, which was extraordinarily wide in scope. In order to comprehend the mind that had written the works, it was necessary to steep myself in the period in which he lived. And since, from his early years, he was fascinated with history, I had to follow him there, too. But since, contrary to popular notions about him, Proust's interests were so wide, I had to delve into music, painting, architecture, sculpture, botany, and other realms. His principal concern, of course, was literature. And with his phenomenal memory, his knowledge encompassed not only the centuries of French literature, prose as well as poetry, but the writings of English and American novelists and philosophers, novelists of Russia and some other European countries, mostly in translation. One cannot hope to comprehend Proust's world without familiarity with these various worlds, too.

image of Kolb    Consequently, the question about working on a single man is somewhat like asking how one could listen "only" to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I could be happy doing so, but can we not listen to Bach and still enjoy other composers as well? With Proust, the work that needed to be done was endless, so it was indispensable to concentrate on him. But the answer to the question is that, when the subject of one's inquiry is Proust, a lifetime would scarcely suffice to permit exploration in depth of the innumerable facets of his universe. Nothing could be more captivating than to explore the mind of such a genius-an intellect of such capacity, an artist of such prodigious sweep and power, whose ability to move us, to make us feel the beauties of nature, and the warmth of human affection was so great-or to observe how he reacted when confronted with current events, how he judged his contemporaries, how his own ideas evolved with the passage of time, or simply to observe what inspired him, how he created his characters and episodes. In editing the correspondence of such a man, one should, of course, bear in mind that so modest an endeavor cannot constitute one's sole aim, but rather it should be a means of attaining a deeper comprehension of the work of the creative artist. In Proust's case, his correspondence represents a special kind of work, since he never intended its publication. For the reader, it offers a means of gaining a better understanding of his mind, his character, and, consequently, his great work. And to the editor, delving into his writings has meant an unending enchantment, an enrichment, and a widening of horizons.

Philip Kolb. "The Making of a Proust Scholar". The American Scholar, Vol. 53, Number 4 (Autumn 1984), pp. 506-513.