Letters of Marcel Proust
by Mina Curtiss, translator and editor; with a new introduction by Adam Gopnik
Helen Marx Books
Without discounting the voyeuristic impulse in us all, we are generally drawn to an author’s correspondence either to illuminate his or her work or to better understand the personality behind it. But what happens when the work and the author are so inextricably linked, when the work is so rooted in autobiography, as Marcel Proust’s cycle In Search of Lost Time is generally assumed to be, that reading it is hardly much different than reading the author’s own personal diary? A cursory glance at the somewhat abbreviated trajectory of Proust’s life and the events in his seven-volume masterpiece would seem to lead to that conclusion.
In Search of Lost Time opens in the first person with resoundingly authentic memories of childhood (“For a long time I would go to bed early”), wending its way through expositions on memory and art, and continues until the personal epiphany that presumably results in the book we are now reading, all the while charting the romances and scandals of society through the eyes of an observant dilettante-cum-writer. Aren’t Proust and his narrator therefore one and the same? Why refer to the correspondence at all? What could it possibly reveal? In the case of Proust’s correspondence, quite a lot, even if we only have his side of the conversation. His later missives show that he and his masterpiece are not so inextricably linked as is commonly thought, and he took issue with friends and prominent contemporaries who dared to suggest as much. For anyone with even a passing interest in Proust, the promise of dispelling lingering myths like this one is reason enough to delve into his letters.
But that isn’t the most interesting part of Letters of Marcel Proust. As New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik notes in his fine, if occasionally too pally, introduction, there are several, often unexpected things that make these letters worth reading.
First is the matter of Proust’s snobbery, a charge leveled at him long before he established himself as a writer and one which continued long thereafter. To be sure, he was a social climber and a social butterfly, but mingling with the who’s who of French society was how he found the most intellectual conversation, the most exquisite food, the most sumptuous fashion, and the greatest familiarity with the art and architecture he loved. Yes, some of those snobbery charges do stick, but Proust was above all an aesthete. He prized beautiful things, both tangible and intangible, and the intensely transcendent sensations they produced in him.
Still, if you do search for evidence of snobbery, you will find it here. The early letters are rife with Proust’s sycophancy toward the social elite of his day, but it shouldn’t always be taken at face value. As Gopnik also points out, a good portion of this toadying has a playfully ironic ring, an inside joke between sender and recipient making light of the ritualized fawning and self-abasement required by the upper echelons of society. When it is sincere, there is still the very real possibility that it had less to do with currying favor and more to do with that recurring matter of beauty. Proust loved to extol the charms and intelligence in the people with whom he associated, and flattery gave him a way to conjure poetry out of the mundane, sometimes resulting in almost comic hyperbole. One is prone to wonder whether he’s writing to boost the ego of his correspondent or to simply evoke something sublime from his pen.
From the first entry in this collection, a letter to his grandmother dated 1885 or 1886 (making Proust, who was born in 1871, only about 14), we meet an adolescent who delights in the way his words read on the page and enjoys employing those words in baroque adulation toward his correspondent as well as any incidental characters in his life at the time.
“Madame Catusse’s conversation has come to console my multiple sorrows,” he writes of a lifelong family friend, continuing many clauses later: “I bless the immortal gods who caused to come here one woman so intelligent, so well informed, who teaches much and spreads such a pervading charm, ‘mens pulcher [sic] in corpore pulchro‘ (a beautiful mind in a beautiful body) … I send you a kiss, furious until the time her ‘melodious accents enchant my ears, put my sorrows to sleep.'” And there he signs off, asking, “[H]ow are you?” as though it were an afterthought. So preoccupied was the teenaged Proust with writing beautifully about beauty, it probably was, though he would save his most concentrated attempts at beautiful writing for his fiction.
-wm In following these letters chronologically, we witness how his preoccupation with beauty remained constant over the years. Yet, in a real-life parallel with In Search of Lost Time, there is a clear evolution from sentimental dandy to full-fledged writer. Then again, “evolution” may not be the best word. Perhaps “miraculous transformation” is better. The young man here, the slightly fruity, asthmatic waffling on about translating Ruskin when he can hardly muster a sentence in English to address a pair of American servicemen (or order a lamb chop in a restaurant, as his friend George de Lauris observed), is in no way capable of the work that will eventually emerge from Proust’s bedroom, a work so weighty, intricate, and grand that initially no publisher was willing to take it on. The rather pathetic, irritating mama’s boy who repeatedly presses his schoolmate Robert Dreyfus to determine whether or not their mutual friend Daniel Halévy truly likes him, or if he is only pretending to like him, or if he is merely indifferent toward him, and whether he isn’t perhaps analyzing this in too much depth, and so on ad nauseum, will go on to create some of the most enduring psychological pen portraits in the history of literature. Mina Curtiss, editor and translator of this collection, mentions in her brief introduction that Halévy himself, subject of these whining, often silly schoolboy letters, never “credited [Proust] with the will power ever to achieve a masterpiece.” That came as a surprise to his contemporaries, and it remains a surprise to anyone who considers Proust’s legacy in light of his life. It’s actually quite comforting as it reassures all of us that the idiotic frivolity of youth wears off, even though current fashion would have us stay young and idiotic forever.
Proust might have been quickly disabused of any illusion of eternal youth as his health started out poor and tanked from there. I detect some malingering in his letters, and I think his suffering afforded him many opportunities to throw his head back, place the back of his hand to his forehead and wax pained and lyrical, as seen below in one of his analyses of the Dreyfus Affair. These were opportunities the more histrionic side of his personality was loath to let pass. Rare is the letter in this collection — and being selected, remember, they are the best of the best; one can only imagine how the more prosaic ones sounded — that omits some mention of illness, usually as an excuse for not replying or receiving visitors. But he truly wasn’t in good shape, and if he was only half as ill as his letters make out, his Nietzschean ability to remain so prolific in spite of a cursed body is as miraculous as his transformation from dilettante to author.
As Proust’s body failed and his creative ambitions became more realized and resolute, some of the most significant events in European history occurred around him. Born in July, 1871, two months after the formal end of the Franco-Prussian War, amid the tumult of the Paris Commune and the birth of the Third Republic; twenty-three when the false conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus split the nation into two bitterly opposed camps; and in his early forties when the Great War broke out, Proust lived through exciting times, and his observations on these times are the icing on the whole epistolary cake.
“I shall become more and more ill,” he writes to his frequent correspondent Geneviéve Straus in 1906, the year Dreyfus was exonerated, in a seamless combination of self-pity and sociopolitical commentary, “more and more shall I miss the ones I have lost, and all that I dreamed of in my life will be farther and father beyond my reach. But for Dreyfus and for [Colonel Georges] Picquart [the first to offer evidence in Dreyfus’ defense] it is not so. For them life has been ‘providential’ after the fashion of fairy tales and serial thrillers. That is because our suffering was founded on fact — on truths — physiological truths, human and emotional truths. For them, suffering was founded on error. Fortunate, indeed, are those who are victims of error — judicial or otherwise! They are the human beings for whom there are redress and restitution.” In a sort of too-perfect-to-be-true interweaving of fact and fiction, author and work, Madame Straus’ initial comment, a disgusted (and, one hopes, ironic) lament over the likeability of the innocents in the Dreyfus Affair, to which this quoted passage is a reply, was later put into the mouth of the Duchesse de Guermantes in The Guermantes Way, the third volume of In Search of Lost Time.
Twelve years later, just two days after the final Armistice of the Great War, he writes again to Madame Straus:
“One must not discriminate against Destiny, particularly when the delayed action of clockwork, which had seemed motionless for four years, gives us this final shower of triumphs. Still I, who am so much the friend of peace because I experience man’s suffering too deeply, I believe, just the same, that since we wanted a total victory and a hard peace, it would have been better had it been a little harder.
“I prefer, among all the different kinds of peace, those which leave no bitterness in anyone’s heart. But since we are not dealing with that kind of peace, since it will perpetuate the desire for revenge, it might then have been wise to make it impossible.” His thoughts on the matter are quite prescient. Two decades on, the world was to discover that Germany’s collective bitterness and desire for revenge had realized the impossible, and that once-humiliated nation would embark on a lunatic quest for world domination.
Taking a page from Proust, who, as these passages demonstrate, tended to view events of international importance primarily in relation to himself, we can look for relevance (meaning, in these self-absorbed days of ours, how does this apply to me personally?) in his comments and observations. With the Dreyfus Affair in particular, it’s not hard to detect contemporary parallels in the development of a military scandal, the political cover-up, the willing complicity of large portions of the media and the rapid manifestation of paranoia as a valid political ideology, and perhaps empathize with Proust’s outrage at the situation, appreciate his cynical quips to friends, and understand the divisive effect it had on an entire nation that was reshaping its identity. (Paul Schroder, I might add, neatly draws the full parallels between the Dreyfus Affair and the Iraq War in the recent spring issue of The American Interest.) Proust’s century-old world seems much less distant and different as a result.
The later letters will hold the most for Proust’s wider audience, the one that will perhaps approach this correspondence with the sole intention of finding out more about In Search of Lost Time and couldn’t care less about background details like the author’s youth, health, and politics. From this strictly textual point of view, things like the casual query in 1909 to Georges de Lauris — “Do you know whether Guermantes, which must have been the name of some people, was even then in the Paris family or rather … whether the name of the Count or Marquis de Guermantes … is entirely extinct and available to an author?” — knowing what Proust had in mind and who the Guermantes would become, take on a certain importance, as does the rather haughty (and in hindsight entirely accurate) remark to René Blum, “I have no hopes that the book will sell, at least not until the public has gradually become accustomed to it.” Proust clarifies this worry as he closes the same letter. “[T]his book … is a deliberately formed whole, although the composition is so complex that I am afraid no one will grasp it and that it will appear to be a series of digressions.” Which was exactly what happened. André Gide, one of only two correspondents (the other is Madame Straus) whose letters to Proust are reprinted here, realized his mistake and was forced to humble himself and recant. His brief but sincere letter to Proust explaining why he passed on publishing In Search of Lost Time at the Nouvelle Revue Française is at once brutally honest (“I thought of you, shall I confess it, as … a snob, a man of the world, and a dilettante — the worst possible thing for our review”) and deeply apologetic.
Once the book is published and the public does warm to it, Proust then has to deal with longtime friends who write with great indignation about having become material for fictionalized characters. His rebuttals are polite but firm and unequivocal. “Odette de Crécy not only is not you,” he writes in a fit of controlled anger to the exotic beauty Laure Hayman, “but your exact opposite.” But, finally, the accolades do come in, and Proust, whose frail body is now spent, is able to put his elegant words to use in describing the magnificent work he has created. “It is perhaps like a telescope, which is pointed at time, because a telescope reveals stars which are invisible to the naked eye,” he writes to the critic Camille Vettard, parenthetically adding that he doesn’t “attach any special value to the simile,” which is a modest fib, given that he has employed this very same simile multiple times when summarizing his work to others. No matter. Proust has reached a rare and enviable state. He is now beauty’s medium as well as its interpreter.
And then, as a bonus of sorts, there is the literary trivia, such as the possible names for the first three volumes of the cycle. “Would you like as a title for the first volume,” Proust suggests to novelist Louis de Robert, “Gardens in a Cup of Tea, or The Age of Names. For the second, The Age of Words. For the third, The Age of Things? The one I prefer is Charles Swann, if I could make it clear that it is not all of Swann: First Sketches of Charles Swann.” Or his letter to the vain and frequently mistaken critic Paul Souday, which reveals, “This work is so meticulously ‘composed’ … that the last chapter of the last volume was written immediately after the first chapter of the first volume.” That almost comes as a disappointment. One half-imagines Proust to have begun writing, his story unfolding as fluidly as memories do, until he arrived at a perfectly natural, self-developed conclusion, not one he had cooked up years before.
All these, then, are the reasons why we do (or should) read Proust’s correspondence, despite having such strong autobiographical touchstones in his magnum opus. And these are the reasons why Helen Marx Books has resurrected and refreshed this collection, originally published in 1949, so admirably translated and assembled by Mina Curtiss. There are more specialized and more comprehensive collections of Proust’s letters available, but none will offer such a concise and elegant overview as this.
Turtle Point Press: www.turtlepoint.com