LETTERS of Marcel Proust became available in quantities after his death in 1922--those long spider-spun epistles that at first suggested Proust was an artful flatterer, a sycophant, an embattled social climber: the letters seemed to accuse him of endless deception and double-identity. Artists in a certain sense are deceivers; the art is a record of their imagination, not of their actual lives which might be the opposite of what they imagine. But letters are another matter: they belong to a kind of ironic roulette game, played after a writer dies--and the spin of the wheel often pitches the little ball in the direction of the worst letters instead of the best. This was Proust's fate and it has taken Philip Kolb, the great collector and editor of Proust's entire epistolarium, 50 years to correct those false first impressions. His many- volumed definitive edition of the correspondence--of perhaps the greatest novelist of our century--is being published in France. And from the first three French volumes, he has put together the present book covering the first half of Proust's life, from his ninth to his 23rd year. There are 264 letters. We can judge the quantitative difference when we notice that Mina Curtiss, in her pioneering collection of 1949, gave us 243 letters for the entire 51 years of Proust's shortened life.
What will be new to those who read Proust in English are certain letters which for the first time illuminate Proust's attitudes towards his homosexuality. In Remembrance of Things Past he depersonalized inversion and at times sat in severe judgment on it. But in these new letters we discover the remarkable maturity of his youthful view of himself and an unusual self-acceptance which is not that of an egotist or narcissist but of a human being who wants to respect certain imperious demands of his body and spirit. Proust was the great fictional analyst of love, of aging, of social decay and human decadence in his novel. He was also the anatomist of homosexuality; nothing that the "gay liberation" movement has produced can equal his dissection of society's codes and the distortion they can bring to certain kinds of human love. Those who are troubled and mystified by the "gay" side of literary and musical genius may find it illuminating to read in this volume how Proust defends himself --at 17--against an apparently brusque warning from a fellow-student, Daniel Hal,evy (later an eminent writer and editor), that he is being too attentive to young Bizet at the Lyc,ee Condorcet.
"Don't call me a pederast," Proust writes, "it hurts my feelings. If only for the sake of elegance I try to remain morally pure." To Hal,evy he shows his literary mastery in his first youth when he affirms, "My ethical beliefs allow me to regard the pleasures of the senses as a splendid thing. They tell me to respect certain feelings, a certain refinement in friendship." And he insists on the use of precise and elegant language and not brute words usually associated with sex. "When guilt evaporates," the young man reminds Hal,evy, "sensuality becomes lyricism."
Proust's fundamental observations are no longer novel; he affirms them in his young days with a certain adolescent-kittenish touch that contains the charm and truth he always sought. Hal,evy's strictures would have been more fitting for "someone surfeited with women and seeking new pleasures in pederasty." And Proust argues, with a distinct seductive touch, that natural feelings between humans, even when inter-masculine, would not seem to be so depraved if they had not acquired continual distortion over the centuries. Here is the core of this capital letter:
"You think me jaded and effete. You are mistaken. If you are delicious, if you have lovely eyes which reflect the grace and refinement of your mind with sure purity that I feel I cannot fully love your mind without kissing your eyes, if your body and mind, like your thoughts, are so lithe and slender that I feel I could mingle more intimately with your thoughts by sitting on your lap, if, finally, I feel that the charm of your person, in which I cannot separate your keen mind from your agile body, would enhance 'the sweet joy of love' for me, there is nothing in all that to deserve your contemptuous words."
In the middle of Remembrance of Things Past Proust speaks of "what is sometimes, most ineptly termed, homosexuality," and in his writings, with the greatest delicacy he tries to explain that loves of human beings must be differentiated from socially-conditioned stigma.
Aside from the homosexual subject and the self-examination, the letters of this volume take us through his multiple illnesses, those allergies of childhood that doomed him, the assembling of his early volume of essays, and the novel Jean Santeuil which he later abandoned. We can see, in his letters to his mother, the peculiar bondage that shaped his personality and his need for constant attention; and in his letters to the fashionable mother-figures of the Faubourg St. Germain he shows himself at his most artful in the cultivation of social relations and social duplicities. He is in reality always the little boy in search of a good-night kiss--but within the aging man, there resides a great maturity, a depth of insight that serves his continual quest for ultimate truth. The world-weary Count Robert de Montesquiou, who would sit for the Baron de Charlus in the novel, well understood Proust's nature and in certain chiding words achieves Proustian finesse when he tells him he is a "congenial and somewhat evasive person" and bids him tooabandon "the social wilderness where your good qualities are rather going to seed."
Proust's mother was Jewish, but he was baptized and grew up a Catholic. We can see once more how Proust spoke up for justice and civil rights at the moment when he might have turned his back on the Dreyfus "affair" that split the French and revealed their deepest anti-Semitic feelings. For those who tend to glamorize certain literary figures of the early Third Republic, it is helpful to read Proust's brilliant letter describing a dinner at Alphonse Daudet's, where Edmond de Goncourt and others around the table reveal to him, in spite of their literary eminence, their middle-class prejudices, in depressing small talk. Proust writes to his early love, the composer, Reynaldo Hahn, that he "noted with sadness the frightful materialism so surprising in 'intellectuals' " --a theme that will recur many times in his novel. "They account for character and genius," he writes, "by physical habits or race. Difference between Musset, Baudelaire and Verlaine (is) explained by the properties of the spirits they drank." Proust arraigns them for having "the narrowest view of the mind," and Jews were detested in that household "in the name of I don't know what principle."
The 24-year-old Proust saw that there was a psychology deeper than the shibboleths and tags an older generation of writers employed to observe and describe. At this end of our century--with all his weaknesses and flourishes and social manipulations--Proust seems to me to loom more firmly and more importantly in literature than most of the novelists of our time. One always comes back (however much his novel describes the tragic decay of individuals and society), to the continual freshness of his observations, the illuminations he sheds in the very act of spinning subtleties. Professor Kolb's self-effacing scholarship and dedication give him a role of the greatest significance in an academe that has preferred criticism to scrupulous research, and pedantry to imagination.
It was my curious experience as I read these Proust letters to encounter certain of his personages as if I were looking at double exposures. I had met during my own callow years in France in the late 1920s, Proust's early loves when they were old and past the age of loving (or so it seemed) and I had even had one meeting with Daniel Hal,evy to whom he wrote the fascinating letter I have quoted. I remember shaking hands at a musicale in an Auteuil studio with Reynaldo Hahn and what I now recover, beside the memory of his fragile and beautiful songs (sung by dazzlingly beautiful young prima donnas wearing white gauzy dresses), is a round-faced heavy little man in his fifties, with a 1920s straw hat firmly set on his head, looking with dark luminous tired eyes, eyes of boredom, at the young singers and the party into which he had apparently been drawn out of politeness, because his own music was being sung and he had been invited by an aging prima donna he had once known who had taught all these young things. I was just into my twenties. I hadn't read Proust then. But I would have to be Proust to do justice to that particular scene in the sun-speckled leafy Auteuil garden.
Later, during the second war, I met Lucien Daudet, an old man, who appears so young in these letter-pages. We talked not of Proust but of Henry James, George Meredith and Daudet's father, Alphonse. So too when I met Daniel Hal,evy, no longer young, and looking like an Elizabethan in girth and stature, it did not occur to me that Proust might have been a better subject of talk than Henry James. I stood, without being aware, on the boundaries of a rich past; I looked into a Proustian world without seeing it. Strange and mysterious what a bundle of old letters can stir up!