Pain of a martyr nailed to the bed

Marcel Proust
May 5, 2000

Richard Parish leafs through the letters of Proust and finds an obsessive who disinfectec his correspondence and lived on ice-cream and asparagus

The last volume of Proust's letters takes us through the years leading to his death. This is the period of the publication of Pastiches et Mélanges , but above all the appearance in print of much of the central part of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu . It thus covers the reception of A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs (awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1919) and of what we now know as Sodome et Gomorrhe I, the correction of Sodome et Gomorrhe II , published together with the second part of Le Côté de Guermantes in 1921, and the final stages of preparation of the Albertine books and of Le Temps Retrouvé , posthumously completing the novel in 19. And, in the last couple of years, the problems posed by an English translation are also beginning to be broached with Charles Scott-Moncrieff, the first volume of whose translation appeared as Proust was dying.

Two perspectives on the masterpiece are fascinating in this account. First, the insistence on and empirical evidence for the understanding of the novel as a single vast entity, borne out not least by the fact that the last pages of Le Temps Retrouvé were completed in 1914, well before the intervening books (and indeed before the earlier parts of the final volume), thereby closing the great parenthesis opened in the first line of Du Côté de Chez Swann ; but also the tentative nature of the sub-divisions and even titles of Sodome et Gomorrhe and the Albertine books, seen in many respects by Proust as a single enterprise, with a common overarching homosexual emphasis, later to constitute a cause for anxiety on account of the threat that it would be considered obscene.

Many other passing insights are afforded, such as in Proust's exposition of how the novel aims "to bring (the) tenebrous subconscious into the full light of the intelligence", or his assertion, in reply to the accusation that the novel was merely subjective, that "the 'I' is a pure formula, and the phenomenon of memory that triggers off the work, a deliberate device". Elsewhere we find a remarkably accurate account of the reader's own experience of Proust's novel in his appreciation of an article written about him by Jacques Boulenger: "Parts of it are truly astonishing in their depth, and express the nearly inexpressible with bewildering felicity"; one contemporary reviewer, Joseph Gahier, encapsulates much of the quality of the entire work, evoking Proust's capacity to "discern the indiscernible, setting down in a harmonious prose, fully, vividly, the nuances of our sensibilities, the infinite aspects of our inner world"; and Jacques Rivi re writes to him of Charlus that "never has the strangeness to which human nature is susceptible been more accurately pinpointed... No being has ever lived in a book in quite that way before".

More biographically, illness is inevitably a recurrent obsession, although rather like Tante Léonie in the first book of the novel, it is only when Proust dies that we feel convinced that it is not hypochondria; and he lives in increasingly intolerable conditions (largely self-imposed), on a diet of ice-cream and asparagus. Letter after letter charts his asthmatic attacks, his fevers, his inability to eat, sleep, read or write, ironically interspersed at one point with disclaimers that he ever talks willingly about his state of health. Indeed the rhetorical device of paralipsis - saying you are not going to talk about what you then proceed to explore at length - is a recurrent feature of the correspondence, and embraces snobbery, homosexuality, finances and the act of letter writing itself, with substantial missives opening with an assertion of the impossibility of their ever being written.

(From 1920 there is evidence of their being dictated to his devoted but despised Celeste Albaret, which was of itself a cause of great frustration, as he describes himself as "nailed to my bed, unable to write".) As his mobility diminished, Proust's world became progressively narrower, and the backdrop of the aftermath of the first world war is little more than that, although the Dreyfus affair chimes through the correspondence like a motif; and his attendance at the New Year's Eve ball given by the "discreetly homosexual" Comte de Beaumont in 1921 was his last public appearance. The premonitions of death are already present in 1919 (and the publication of a satirical Ode à Marcel Proust by Paul Morand in that year clearly caused great irritation, not least in the lines: "I say: / You're looking very well. / You reply: / Dear friend, I nearly died three times today"), yet these are accompanied by a manifest confidence in the posthumous reputation of his novel and, latterly, by a more irenic tone, with the writer seeking to settle his quarrels on this side of the grave. The vexed question of clefs tantalisingly arises. Here, too, denials proliferate, for the most part convincingly, as we see how Proust's astonishing fictional creations borrow a feature here or there from a biographical model. He writes in 1918 of how "there are no keys to the characters in this book [ Du Côté de Chez Swann ], or rather, there are eight or ten to a single one", and yet, elsewhere, telling slips of the pen seem to propose a more sustained correlation, as well as a deep conviction in the reality of his fictive creations, as he imagines what Madame de Guermantes or Monsieur de Norpois "would have said". Just as much of an irritant as that of identification is that of the observation by certain critics that he had transposed the genders of his characters, a hypothesis that he equally vehemently denies.

There is an extensive cast of correspondents, of whom relatively few are independently famous (Cocteau, Gide, Mauriac), others known to us primarily by virtue of their connections with Proust, such as the terse exchange with the dying Robert de Montesquiou, widely seen as the archetype of Charlus, and still more arising from relations of a practical nature, above all in the letters to Gaston Gallimard concerning the complex saga of proofs, royalties and extracts (and a small number of replies is included, the latest of which no doubt suffered the indignity of being disinfected on receipt which, we learn, became his practice in the last months of his life). The figure of Sydney Schiff, who was eventually to translate the novel under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson, is a late addition to the addressees, and initiates in the writing a freshness absent from many of the other, wearier exchanges. The tones range from the not infrequently touchy and pedantic, most obviously with his reviewers and critics, through the gossipy and sententious, to the lyrical and, on occasion, overtly sentimental. Particularly memorable are his moving letters to the bereaved, such as that to the critic Paul Souday, whose mother had died, exquisitely lucid in its evocation of the need "to live with your grief, to allow atrocious pain slowly to metamorphose into luminous, sorrowful meditation"; or, at the opposite extreme, his louche fascination, in the last year of his life, with one of the participants in a brawl witnessed at a bar (Proust had hoped for a duel), with whom he then embarks on an inevitably short-lived correspondence.

Here we are coming close to something that could have been written in the novel; but the style of the letters is in other respects very different. Of course there are complex parentheses and subordinations, a capacity for mordant irony (and, albeit rarely, self-mockery), elaborate investigations of minutiae and above all a wide-ranging exploration of literary, artistic and musical reference, notably in his apposite and effortless quotation of French writers from the 17th and 19th centuries (with some fascinating asides, such as his remark that he finds Racine more immoral than Baudelaire); but in other respects the immense draughts of sustained introspection, the multiple extended metaphors, the brilliance of the irony, or the acuity of description, let alone the great metaphysical investigations, are absent, no doubt in part because of the simple practical limitations of the genre.

Yet even if the reader does not share Proust's disappointment with what he considered to be the mediocrity of the correspondence of Flaubert, such a lack must also raise a question as to whether we therefore need the sheer bulk of material that this volume offers (and certainly it is best taken, like Proust's caffeine, in small doses).

Many letters, inevitably, repeat material, or amend it only slightly to the taste of a given destinataire ; and the physical details of Proust's existence - his nocturnal visits to the Ritz, his moving from one flat to another, or his precautions against draughts, repeated in letter after letter - all this begins to pall for the reader who is not a dedicated Proust specialist.

The translation is fluent and idiomatic, if sometimes at the expense of strict accuracy, and together with the lively and infallibly pertinent annotation takes the reader effortlessly through this often complex and allusive material. (On the other hand, the blithely innocent use of terms such as "coming out", not to mention Proust's professed "indifference to queens", brings in the context an occasional moment of unwitting humour.) Titles are, confusingly, in French in the text but in English in the notes and introduction; and the originals of French literary quotations are provided.

There is a helpful introduction by the translator, a discordantly meretricious foreword by Alain de Botton, and an afterword by the daughter of Philip Kolb, the editor of the French edition of the complete correspondence, in which the unquestionable value of his massive enterprise is aptly articulated: "The search for letters was not an end in itself but a way of getting closer to the novel... much of the value of Proust's correspondence lies in what it reveals about his poetics." Those now available in this final English selection afford a revealing insight into the last heroic stages in the composition of his masterpiece by a writer whose inestimable contribution to European letters was perhaps best encapsulated in the dedication of a now-forgotten contemporary novel: "To Marcel Proust, master of introspection, biologist of the inner life."

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Marcel Proust: Selected Letters, Volume Four 1918-22

Editor - Philip Kolb
ISBN - 0 00 257032 7
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £40.00
Pages - 498
Translator - Joanna Kilmartin

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