George Painter, who died on December 8 aged 91, was best known as the author of a magisterial biography of Marcel Proust which enjoyed huge critical success and has remained in print ever since its publication in two volumes in 1959 and 1965.
Painter believed the key to understanding the complexities of Proust’s great novel sequence À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, lay in uncovering the details of the writer’s life and friendships, and devoted himself to the task of finding sources for all the characters, places and events in the books.
“I have endeavoured to write a definitive biography of Proust,” Painter explained in his preface, “a complete, exact and detailed narrative of his life, that is, based on every known or discoverable primary source and on primary sources only.”
The resulting study provided a captivating and brilliantly-written tapestry of Proust’s life, though Painter’s hope that his account would be uncontroversial proved wide of the mark. Strangely, he relied solely on published sources, interviewing no one, despite the fact that several of Proust’s friends were still alive.
He took the experiences of the narrator in À la Recherche to be, broadly speaking, Proust’s own and identified the characters with real people in Proust’s life. He used the novel to elaborate his account of the life and fed the reconstructed life back into an analysis of Proust’s work.
Another of Proust’s biographers, Jean-Yves Tadie, described Painter’s work as an alternative novel to Proust’s own and it was, perhaps, as a work of literature that it was most effective.