PROUST: A Biography

By Ronald Hayman

HarperCollins. 564 pp. $29.95

"EACH TIME, after finishing a biography . . .," begins Ronald Hayman, who has finished five or six. We are to understand that this is a professional activity, the enterprise of a man for whom the lives of great writers -- Kafka, Nietzsche, Sade, Brecht, and latterly Sartre -- can be perceived as a literary form he has invested with a specific and commanding energy of his own.

In this instance, Hayman must work against what has come to be a standard work, George Painter's 1959 biography, an admired monument of the art that Hayman lists in his bibliography but never mentions in the text. Oddly, he does list, in his prefatory chronology of Proust's life, "friendship in 1917 with Emmanuel Berl" -- a philosopher and historian quite unknown to English-speaking readers and never mentioned in Hayman's own text. And his index-maker has managed to create an imaginary personage, Robert Pozzi, out of a confusion between Proust's brother Robert and Samuel Pozzi, a society physician who was one of the models for Cottard in The Novel. Such lapses, along with such curious colloquialisms as "in 1899 he'd enthuse about the steeples" or "he pepped himself up with caffeine," suggest that though this is as lively and lucid a life-story as any of Ronald Hayman's productions, it is not composed with much elegance or scruple.

Since Painter's work, many books about Proust and Proust's book have appeared, and Ronald Hayman has been able to take advantage of a good deal of literary theory (Roland Barthes and Leo Bersani appear in the bibliography, though not Gerard Genette or Maurice Blanchot) and a great deal of recently disinterred gossip. Considering the extent of the material to be covered, if not uncovered, this is a detailed yet succinct telling of the familiar story, with lots of spicy bits unavailable to biographers who did not have access to Philip Kolb's 17-volume edition of Proust's correspondence, for example, which was completed in 1989.

Hayman is not without his prejudices -- discussing Proust's behavior in a male brothel he frequented, Hayman mentions "partners who, being almost mindless, made no demands of any kind" -- but he is also extremely pertinacious in following the trajectory of an event, as his account of the initial publications of Proust's work demonstrates. Here as elsewhere, the availability of the huge (and well-edited) mass of Proust's letters has enabled the biographer to sustain his account with vivacities hitherto unsuspected: "When readers write to me at Le Figaro . . . letters are forwarded to Marcel Prevost, for whom my name seems to be no more than a misprint," and more significantly: "I call it a novel because it does not have the contingency of memoirs . . . and the construction is very severe, though elusive, because complex: I could not say what its genre is."

JUST AS every great work should be translated anew every generation (for translations date, if masterpieces never do), the lives of great writers should be retold, not only because new material becomes accessible, but because perspectives are more likely to be corrected, atmospheres clarified. Thus I recommend to English-speaking readers this industrious recension of the story of Proust and of his vast and forever indeterminate work (Hayman is good on its textual anomalies). Its aberrations of tone ("an effective jump-cut") and occasional critical perplexities ("temperamentally rebellious writers -- Rimbaud, Sartre, Brecht, Beckett, for instance -- are less prone to eclecticism, but Proust needed to flex his literary muscles") do not deflect Hayman's pervasive judgments of conduct and character from a certain sanity, always an asset in a biographer.

And there is another asset to be remarked: Nowhere does this biographer, in either narrative or style, attempt to substitute his account of Proust's life and work for that work, an attempt occasionally discernible in his predecessors. So this lack constitutes a sort of virtue; Hayman's biography of Proust leads without fuss or fulmination back (or, for many of us, forward) to In Search of Lost Time, as the author finally came to call it.

Richard Howard, poet and translator, is engaged in making a new translation of Proust's novel.