In England not long ago a survey of writers and critics revealed that the twentieth-century novelist they most admired--and who they thought would have the most enduring influence on the next century--was Marcel Proust. Certainly the madeleine moistened by herbal tea has become the most famous symbol in French literature; everyone refers to sudden gusts of memory as "Proustian experiences." Snobs like to point out that if the Prousts had been better-mannered and not given to dunking, world literature would have been the poorer for it. Even those who haven't read Proust speak of him freely and often.
Studying him, of course, can have a disastrous effect on a young writer, who either comes under the influence of Proust's dangerously idiosyncratic and contagious style or who feels that Proust has already done everything possible in the novel form. Even Walter Benjamin, who became Proust's German translator, wrote the philosopher Theodor Adorno that he did not want to read one more word by Proust than was actually necessary for him to translate because otherwise he would become addictively dependent, which would be an obstacle to his own production.
Graham Greene once wrote: "Proust was the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, just as Tolstoy was in the nineteenth.... For those who began to write at the end of the twenties or the beginning of the thirties, there were two great inescapable influences: Proust and Freud, who are mutually complementary." Certainly Proust's fame and prestige have eclipsed those of Joyce, Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of Gide and Valery and Genet, of Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, for if some of these writers are more celebrated than Proust in their own country, Proust is the only one to have a uniformly international reputation. The young Andrew Holleran, who would go on to publish the most important American gay novel of the seventies, Dancer from the Dance, wrote a friend eight years earlier: "Robert, much has happened: That is, I finally finished Remembrance of Things Past and I don't know what to say--the idea that Joyce ended the novel is so absurd; it's Proust who ended the novel, simply by doing something so complete, monumental, perfect, that what the fuck can you do afterwards?"
Joyce met Proust once and they exchanged scarcely a word, even though they shared a cab together (neither had read the other). Beckett wrote a small critical book about Proust; Woolf admired Proust so intensely that she felt swamped by his genius. Gide's bitterest regret was that as a founder of a fledgling but already prestigious publishing house, he turned down Swann's Way, the first volume of Proust's masterpiece (he thought of Proust as a superficial snob and a mere reporter of high-society events). Genet began to write his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, after reading the opening pages of Proust's Within a Budding Grove. Genet was in prison and he arrived late in the exercise yard for the weekly book exchange; as a result he was forced to take the one book all the other prisoners had rejected. And yet once he'd read the opening pages of Proust he shut the book, wanting to savor every paragraph over as long a period as possible. He said to himself; "Now, I'm tranquil, I know I'm going to go from marvel to marvel." His reading inspired him to write; he hoped to become the Proust of the underclass.
And yet Proust was not always so appreciated, and even his chief defenders were capable of making snide remarks about him. Robert de Montesquiou (whose arch manners and swooping intonations Proust loved to imitate and whose life provided Proust with the main model for his most memorable character, the baron de Charlus) said that Proust's work was "a mixture of litanies and sperm" (a formula that he considered to be a compliment). Gide accused him of having committed "an offense against the truth" (Gide was irritated that Proust never acknowledged his own homosexuality in print nor ever presented homosexual inclinations in an attractive light). Lucien Daudet, a young writer with whom Proust had an affair (Proust liked artistic young men with mustaches and dark eyes: that is, those who resembled himself), at one point told Cocteau that Proust was "an atrocious insect." Lucien's father, Alphonse Daudet, one of the most celebrated writers of the generation before Proust's, though now largely forgotten, announced, "Marcel Proust is the devil!" He might well have taken such a position, since it was Proust's seven-volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past (in recent editions, translated more literally as In Search of Lost Time), that surpassed--indeed, wiped out--the fiction written in the two decades before him. Who today reads Anatole France, Paul Bourget, Maurice Barres, or even Alphonse Daudet? Paul Claudel, the arch-Catholic poet and playwright, described Marcel as "a painted old Jewess." In New York during the 1970s one popular T-shirt, using the Yiddish word for a female gossip, brandished the slogan "Proust Is a Yenta"!
These insults, many of them handed out by people who on alternate days adored Proust, were neutralized by an issue of La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, France's best literary magazine at the time, that was entirely dedicated to Proust. It came out in 1923, just a year after Proust's death, and contained photos of the dead master, previously unpublished snippets from his pen, and evaluations from critics, French but also from nations all over the world. Most touching were the many personal testimonies. The poet Anna de Noailles, herself a monument to egotism, praised Proust for his ... modesty. (The duc de Gramont, one of Proust's highest-born friends, once remarked that aristocrats invited Proust for country weekends not because of his art but because he and Anna de Noailles were the two funniest people in Paris.)
Everyone had a sharp memory to share. Jean Cocteau, the poet-playwright-impresario-filmmaker (Beauty and the Beast), recalled Proust's voice: "Just as the voice of a ventriloquist comes out of his chest, so Proust's emerged from his soul." The writer Leon-Paul Fargue remembered seeing Proust towards the end of his life, "completely pale, with his hair down to his eyebrows, his beard, so black it was blue, devouring his face...." Fargue noticed the long sleeves covering frozen hands, the Persian, almond-shaped eyes. "He looked like a man who no longer lives outdoors or by day, a hermit who hasn't emerged from his oak tree for a long time, with something pained about the face, the expression of suffering that has just begun to be calmed. He seemed possessed by a bitter goodness." A young aristocratic woman recalled that when she was a girl she was supposed to be presented to him at a ball, but the great writer, "livid and bearded," wearing the collar of his overcoat turned up, stared at her with such intensity that when they were finally introduced she was so frightened she nearly fainted.
One of Proust's ex-lovers and his most constant friend, Reynaldo Hahn, the composer, recalled that soon after he met Proust they were walking through a garden when suddenly Proust stopped dead before a rosebush. He asked Hahn to continue walking without him. When at last Hahn circled back, after going around the chateau, "I found him at the same place, staring at the roses. His head tilting forward, his face very serious, he blinked, his eyebrows slightly furrowed as though from a passionate act of attention, and with his left hand he was obstinately pushing the end of his little black mustache between his lips and nibbling on it.... How many times I've observed Marcel in these mysterious moments in which he was communicating totally with nature, with art, with life, in these `deep minutes' in which his entire being was concentrated...." Typically, Proust also invoked this very scene, but said that inhaling the moment was ineffectual; only the sudden, unprompted awakenings of memory, triggered by something illogical and unforeseen (the madeleine, for example), could invoke the past in its entirety.
The great Colette completely failed to sense his value when she first ran into Proust (they were both very young and just starting out as writers). She'd even gone so far, in one of her early Claudine novels, as to call him a "yid" (youpin), but her husband urbanely crossed out the insult and replaced it with "boy" (garcon). Even cleaned up, the passage doesn't make for very pleasant reading. It states that at a literary salon, "I was pursued, politely, all evening by a young and pretty boy of letters." Because of her cropped hair, unusual for the period, he kept comparing her to the young god Hermes or to a cupid drawn by Prud'hon. "My little flatterer, excited by his own evocations, wouldn't leave me alone for a second.... He gazed at me with caressing, long-lashed eyes...." At the same time, in 1895, she wrote Proust a letter in which she acknowledged that he had recognized a crucial truth: "The word is not a representation but a living thing, and it is much less a mnemonic sign than a pictorial translation."
Perhaps Colette had been initially irritated because the young flatterer had already divined her bisexuality. By 1917, after Proust had begun to publish Remembrance of Things Past, she could see him in another light. He was very ill, he weighed no more than one hundred pounds, and he seldom emerged from his cork-lined room. He had become a martyr to art (and she herself was one of his few living rivals as a stylist). She saw him at the Ritz during the war with a few friends, wearing a fur coat even indoors over his evening clothes: "He never stopped talking, trying to be gay. Because of the cold, and making excuses, he kept his top hat on, tilted backwards, and the fan-like lock of hair covered his eyebrows. Full-dress uniform, but disarranged by a furious wind, which, pouring over the nape of his hat, rumpling the calico and the free ends of his cravat, filling in with a grey ash the furrows of his cheeks, the hollows of his eye-sockets and the breathless mouth, had hunted this tottering young man of fifty to death."
These portraits already suggest the outlines of Proust's extraordinary personality. He was attentive to his friends to the point of seeming a flatterer, though he thought friendship was valueless and conversation represented the death of the mind, since he believed only passion and suffering could sharpen the powers of observation and the only word of any value was the written. He could stare transfixed at a rose--or at anything else or anyone who was on his peculiar wavelength--but though he read everything and was deeply cultivated, he had little interest in disembodied ideas. He wasn't an intellectual, though he was supremely intelligent. He applied his attention to flowers and people and paintings, but not to theories about botany nor to psychology nor aesthetics. He never read a word of Freud, for instance (nor did Freud ever read a word of Proust). He was hilariously funny and entertaining, but he emanated a calm spirituality except, perhaps, when he was doubled up with a crazy bout of laughter (his famous choking fit of hilarity, his fou rire, which could go on so long it struck strangers as weird, even slightly mad). He was such a presence that many people spoke of him as tall, but in fact he stood just five feet six inches.
Marcel Proust was the son of a Christian father and a Jewish mother. He himself was baptized (on August 5, 1871, at the church of Saint-Louis d'Antin) and later confirmed as a Catholic, but he never practiced that faith and as an adult could best be described as a mystical atheist, someone imbued with spirituality who nonetheless did not believe in a personal God, much less in a savior. Although Jews trace their religion through their mothers, Proust never considered himself Jewish and even became vexed when a newspaper article listed him as a Jewish author. His father once warned him not to stay in a certain hotel since there were "too many" Jewish guests there, and, to be sure, in Remembrance of Things Past there are unflattering caricatures of the members of one Jewish family, the Blochs. Jews were still considered exotic, even "oriental," in France; in 1872 there were only eighty-six thousand Jews in the whole country. In a typically offensive passage Proust writes that in a French drawing room "a Jew making his entry as though he were emerging from the desert, his body crouching like a hyena's, his neck thrust forward, offering profound `salaams,' completely satisfies a certain taste for the oriental."
Proust never refers to his Jewish origins in his fiction, although in the youthful novel he abandoned, Jean Santeuil (first published only in 1952, thirty years after his death), there is a very striking, if buried, reference to Judaism. The autobiographical hero has quarreled with his parents and in his rage deliberately smashed a piece of delicate Venetian glass his mother had given him. When he and his mother are reconciled, he tells her what he has done: "He expected that she would scold him, and so revive in his mind the memory of their quarrel. But there was no cloud upon her tenderness. She gave him a kiss, and whispered in his ear: `It shall be, as in the Temple, the symbol of an indestructible union.'" This reference to the rite of smashing a glass during the Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony, in this case sealing the marriage of mother to son, is not only spontaneous but chilling. In an essay about his mother he referred, with characteristic ambiguity, to "the beautiful lines of her Jewish face, completely marked with Christian sweetness and Jansenist resignation, turning her into Esther herself"--a reference, significantly, to the heroine of the Old Testament (and of Racine's play), who concealed her Jewish identity until she had become the wife of King Ahasuerus and was in a position to save her people. The apparently gentile Proust, who had campaigned for Dreyfus and had been baptized Catholic, was a sort of modern Esther.
Despite Proust's silences and lapses on the subject of his mother's religion, it would be unfair, especially in light of the rampant anti-Semitism of turn-of-the-century France, to say that he was unique or even extreme in his prejudice against Jews. And yet his anti-Semitism is more than curious, given his love for his mother and given, after her death, something very much like a religious cult that he developed around her. His mother, out of respect for her parents, had remained faithful to their religion, and Proust revered her and her relatives; after her death he regretted that he was too ill to visit her grave and the graves of her parents and uncle in the Jewish cemetery and to mark each visit with a stone. More important, although he had many friends among the aristocracy whom he had assiduously cultivated, nevertheless when he was forced to take sides during the Dreyfus Affair, which had begun in 1894 and erupted in 1898, he chose to sign a petition prominently printed in a newspaper calling for a retrial.
The Dreyfus Affair is worth a short detour, since it split French society for many years and it became a major topic in proust's life--and in Remembrance of Things Past. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jew and a captain in the French army. In December 1894 he was condemned by a military court for having sold military secrets to the Germans and was sent for life to Devil's Island. The accusation was based on the evidence of a memorandum stolen from the German embassy in Paris (despite the fact that the writing did not resemble Dreyfus's) and of a dossier (which was kept classified and secret) handed over to the military court by the minister of war. In 1896 another French soldier, Major Georges Picquart, proved that the memorandum had been written not by Dreyfus but by a certain Major Marie Charles Esterhazy. Yet Esterhazy was acquitted and Picquart was imprisoned. Instantly a large part of the population called for a retrial of Dreyfus. On January 13, 1898, the writer Emile Zola published an open letter, "J'accuse," directed against the army's general staff; Zola was tried and found guilty of besmirching the reputation of the army. He was forced to flee to England. Then in September 1898 it was proved that the only piece of evidence against Dreyfus in the secret military dossier had been faked by Joseph Henry, who confessed his misdeed and committed suicide. At last the government ordered a retrial of Dreyfus. Public opinion was bitterly divided between the leftist Dreyfusards, who demanded "justice and truth," and the anti-Dreyfusards, who led an anti-Semitic campaign, defended the honor of the army, and rejected the call for a retrial. The conflict led to a virtual civil war. In 1899 Dreyfus was found guilty again, although this time under extenuating circumstances--and the president pardoned him. Only in 1906 was Dreyfus fully rehabilitated, named an officer once again, and decorated with the Legion of Honor. Interestingly, Theodor Herzl, the Paris correspondent for a Viennese newspaper, was so overwhelmed by the virulent anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair that he was inspired by the prophetic idea of a Jewish state.
In defending Dreyfus, Proust not only angered conservative, Catholic, pro-army aristocrats, but he also alienated his own father. In writing about the 1890s in Remembrance of Things Past, Proust remarks that "the Dreyfus case was shortly to relegate the Jews to the lowest rung of the social ladder." Typically, the ultraconservative Gustave Schlumberger, a great Byzantine scholar, could give in his posthumous memoirs as offensive a description of his old friend Charles Haas (a model for Proust's character Swann) as this: "The delightful Charles Haas, the most likeable and glittering socialite, the best of friends, had nothing Jewish about him except his origins and was not afflicted, as far as I know, with any of the faults of his race, which makes him an exception virtually unique." It would be misleading to suggest that Proust took his controversial, pro-Dreyfus stand simply because he was half-Jewish. No, he was only obeying the dictates of his conscience, even though he lost many highborn Catholic friends by doing so and exposed himself to the snide anti-Semitic accusation of merely automatically siding with his co-religionists.
Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871, to well-to-do middle-class parents. His mother was Jeanne Weil, a twenty-one-year-old Parisian, daughter of Nathe Weil, a rich stockbroker. Her great-uncle Adolphe Cremieux was a senator and received a state funeral; he was also president of the Universal Israelite Alliance. Her mother, Adele, was (like the Narrator's grandmother in Remembrance of Things past) a cultured woman who loved, above all other literature, the letters of Madame de Sevigne, one of Louis XIV's courtiers and a woman who was almost romantically in love with her own daughter (the one-sided Sevigne mother-daughter relationship inspired Thornton Wilder when he wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey). This intense intimacy was in fact characteristic of Marcel and his own mother, who were inseparable, who fought frequently (usually over his laziness and lack of willpower) but always fell into each other's arms as soon as they made up. Mother and son shared a love of music and literature; she could speak and read German as well as English. She had a perfect memory and knew long passages from Racine by heart; her dying words were a citation from La Fontaine: "If you're not a Roman, at least act worthy of being one." Marcel inherited her taste for memorizing poetry and knew long passages from Victor Hugo, Racine, and Baudelaire. Most important, Marcel and his mother both loved to laugh--gently, satirically--at the people around them, and in her letters to him she sends up the other guests at a spa or hotel with the same spirit of wickedly close observation and good-natured if prickly fun that was to inspire so many of his best pages.
Proust's father, Adrien, thirty-five years old when Marcel was born, came from a far more humble background, though he rose to great heights in the medical profession. His father had been a grocer in Illiers (the name is derived from that of Saint Hilaire), a village near the cathedral town of Chartres, south of Paris; Marcel gave the village the name of "Combray," and today it is known officially as Illiers-Combray and has become a major goal for Proust pilgrims from all over the world. (The local bakeries are all grinding out madeleines in Proust's honor, and the house where he and his family summered has become a museum. Perhaps in another century the name Illiers will be dropped altogether as life completely surrenders to the tyranny of art.)
Adrien Proust was originally intended for the priesthood and he brought a nearly religious zeal to his work as a doctor. It was he who made famous--and effective--the idea of a cordon sanitaire, a "sanitary zone" circling Europe in order to keep out cholera. In order to put his principles to work Dr. Proust traveled to Russia, Turkey, and Persia in 1869 and figured out the routes by which cholera in previous epidemics had entered Russia and thereby Europe. For this successful investigation and the resulting efficacious sanitation and quarantine campaign Dr. Proust was awarded the Legion of Honor. He became one of the most celebrated professors of medicine and practicing physicians of his day. Whereas Marcel would be willowy, artistic, asthmatic, and obsessed with titled ladies, his father was the very model of the solid upper-middle-class citizen, fleshy, bearded, solemn, and, thanks to his wife's fortune, rich. He was also, unbeknownst to his son, an inveterate ladies' man. His extramarital adventures were never noticed by Marcel's mother--or if she did know something about them, she was too discreet to mention it.
In the partially autobiographical novel Jean Santeuil, written while his parents were still alive, Marcel portrays his father as a brute ("What a vulgar man," thinks Jean Santeuil), someone whose peasant ways had not been amended by a lifetime of honors. In his correspondence Marcel later told his editor that his father had tried to cure him of his effeminacy and neuroses by sending him to a whorehouse. But by the time he came to write Remembrance of Things Past, after his parents' death, he idealized both of them and disguised his father as a wise, indulgent minister of state.
Proust's mother was pregnant with him during the Franco-Prussian War and the difficult aftermath of France's defeat, the period when Napoleon III was chased from the throne and a socialist commune was briefly declared in Paris before the Third Republic was at last established. During the months of war and the internecine street fighting, coal and wood supplies ran out and houses went unheated. In Paris the starving populace ate dogs and cats, even the animals in the zoo. As a result, Jeanne Proust was so weakened from hunger and anxiety that when Marcel was born he was sickly and fragile and at first not expected to live.
In this respect, as in so many others, Marcel was the opposite of his hearty, healthy brother, Robert, born two years later, on May 24, 1873, in more prosperous and settled times. The two brothers were perfect companions as children and remained very close all their lives, although it was the robust younger brother, Robert, who often played the role of protector to the asthmatic Marcel. Like his father, Robert became a doctor--and a womanizer--yet the two brothers never quarreled, and lived their whole lives in the most complete harmony. In the 1890s both brothers were Dreyfusards. At the end of his life Marcel asked Robert to intervene and secure for him the Legion of Honor and, once this honor was obtained, to confer it on him. Robert was at Marcel's bedside when he died, and after his death it was Robert who oversaw the publication of the last two volumes of his masterpiece as well as his selected correspondence.
As a little boy Marcel could not go to sleep without his mother's kiss; this necessity would become a major theme of "Combray," the first section of Remembrance of Things Past. Quite understandably she was worried by these signs of her son's total dependence on her and would attempt to cure him by refusing to indulge him in his "whims," but he would become so hysterical if denied a kiss or his mother's tenth "good night" visit to his bedroom that usually she gave in--or her less rigorous husband would urge her to do so. Not only did Proust not outgrow his dependence; it became the template for his adult loves, since for Proust passion was a nagging need that became only more demanding the more it was denied. Indeed, Proust would drive away all his lovers (in his fiction as in his life) through his unreasonable demands.
© Copyright 1999 Edmund White
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