The Days After: Edmund White's Proust

Marcel Proust: A Life, by Edmund White 
Penguin Books, 2009

While I was blogging about In Search of Lost Time, I pretty much avoided reading biographies and critical studies, except occasionally to check some facts or details on the Web, where I read Edmund Wilson's essay on Proust. And now that I've finished the three thousand-odd pages of the novel, I don't have much stomach yet for reading another thousand pages of biography, like the ones by Jean-Yves Tadié or William C. Carter. But Edmund White's little volume, in the Penguin Lives series, is just the right size. It's nice to revisit the novel through White's eyes, and he's a fine writer.

White asserts at the beginning that "Proust's fame and prestige have eclipsed those of Joyce, Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of Gide and Valéry and Genet, of Thomas Mann and 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."

But he notes that his contemporaries were less enthusiastic: "Gide was irritated that Proust never acknowledged his own homosexuality nor ever presented homosexual inclinations in an attractive light." Alphonse Daudet called him "the devil" and Paul Claudel "a painted old Jewess." He was also the source of many anecdotes. Reynaldo Hahn, one of Proust's lovers, recalled his rapt contemplation of a rosebush, about which White comments:.

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.
Colette described him as a "tottering young man of fifty." And White sums up: "He was such a presence that many people spoke of him as tall, but in fact he stood just five feet six inches."

His father was Christian and his mother Jewish, and he was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic church. But White classifies him as "a mystical atheist, someone imbued with spirituality who nonetheless did not believe in a personal God, much less a savior." He caricatured Jews, such as the Blochs, and never reveals his Jewish origins in his fictions. "The apparently gentile Proust, who had campaigned for Dreyfus and had been baptized Catholic, was a sort of modern Esther" -- who concealed her Jewishness until she could use it to help her people. His support of Dreyfus (whose case White summarizes) caused a strain in his friendships in the aristocracy as well as a split with his own father.

He was born on July 10, 1871 to Jeanne Weil, the daughter of a rich stockbroker, and Adrien Proust, a physician whose father had been a grocer in the village of Illiers, near Chartres. His mother, like the narrator's grandmother in In Search of Lost Time, loved the letters of Madame de Sévigné. They were very close, and he shared her passion for literature and for making fun of other people. He describes his father as a "brute" and a "vulgar man" in Jean Santeuil, but idealizes both of his parents in the Search. The village of Illiers is of course the model for Combray, and is today officially known as Illiers-Combray. His mother was pregnant with him during the Franco-Prussian war, when Paris was besieged and its residents nearly starved. "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." His brother Robert was born two years later, and they were close throughout his life. Like the narrator of the Search in the opening section of Swann's Way, he "could not go to sleep without his mother's kiss.
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.
The Prousts lived at 9 boulevard Malesherbes when he was small. The parents' room was at the other end of a forty-five-foot long corridor from the children's rooms. Marcel's schoolfriend Fernand Gregh remembered the apartment as having "a rather dark interior, bursting with heavy furniture, weatherstripped with curtains, stuffed with carpets, everything black and red." White observes that "This was the Paris of ... the recently built Palais Garnier opera house, which resembles a cross between a Victorian inkwell and a Liechtenstein medal for bravery." The Eiffel Tower was new "(and much criticized)" in the Paris of Proust's childhood. "All his life Proust would remain faithful to the ugly furnishings his parents and relatives had accumulated" and "he filled his room with hideous but sacred objects which spoke to him of his dead parents, his childhood, time lost."

Like the narrator, Proust played in the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, where his closest friends were two sisters, Marie and Nelly Benardsky. Marie may have been the model for Gilberte Swann. White notes that readers are often confused (I certainly was) about how old the narrator and Gilberte are in these early scenes, since they seem sexually precocious at the same time that they are playing children's games and being watched over by nannies like Françoise: "In fact they are teenagers, sixteen or seventeen, in a period before adolescence was invented, at a time when people passed directly from childhood to adulthood, when a boy would be wearing short pants one day and taking a mistress the next."

White observes that "it would be a mistake to see all of Proust's women as disguised men." Some, like Odette or the Duchesse de Guermantes or La Berma, "are unquestionably, quintessentially womanly." (La Berma is modeled on Sarah Bernhardt and Réjane.) But others, such as the delivery girls with whom the narrator flirts, are "boys-in-drag." The narrator's obsession with Albertine's lesbianism is possibly drawn from his experience with Alfred Agostinelli, "who was primarily heterosexual."
Can the putatively heterosexual Narrator's overpowering jealousy about Albertine's lesbian affairs actually be a reflection of the homosexual Proust's fury when his bisexual lovers drifted back to women?

Proust had his first asthma attack in 1881 after a walk in the Bois de Boulogne. "Asthma was one of the great decisive factors in Proust's development." It made him solitary and kept him distanced from the world: "if he wanted to see hawthorn trees in bloom, he had to be driven through the countryside in a hermetically sealed car." His school attendance was irregular: He entered the Lycée Condorcet in 1882, and made friends with Jacques Bizet, the son of the composer of Carmen, and Daniel Halévy, the composer's nephew. He fell in love with Bizet when they were seventeen, but Halévy recalled, "we were beastly to him." Proust's mother, suspecting that Marcel and Bizet were lovers, forbade her son from seeing him. White says that Proust "believed that sex between boys was innocent and became a 'vice' only with age." Bizet later became a drug addict and committed suicide ten days before Proust's death.

Rejected by Bizet, Proust fell in love with Bizet's mother, Geneviève Straus, who was the daughter of Fromental Halévy, composer of the opera La Juive, which is alluded to in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. (Rachel, Robert de Saint-Loup's mistress, is nicknamed "Rachel, when of the lord" by the narrator, in an allusion to an aria from La Juive.) Because of her wit, Geneviève Straus is one of the models for the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Proust's favorite professor at the Lycée Condorcet was Alphonse Darlu, "who believed in spirituality but not Christianity." Darlu's brand of idealism influenced him greatly.

Proust rejected André Gide's more ordinary form of realism, his method of building up a character or situation through the accretion of small details, by saying that he, Proust, could be interested only in those details that pointed towards a general truth or that expressed poetic enchantment. Every page of Proust's masterpiece piles up several "general truths"and adds to the elevated philosophical tone.
White calls Proust "the great philosophical novelist," and puts him in the company of George Eliot, Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and Robert Musil.

He struggled with his homosexuality when he was seventeen, and cultivated an infatuation with forty-year-old Laure Hayman, who was his uncle's mistress (and, he would later find out, his father's). Laure, like Odette, had a house on the rue de La Pérouse, rode in the Bois de Boulogne and loved chrysanthemums. He shunned the "decadent" writers of his day and modeled his style, including his long sentences, on the classics. When he was in his early twenties, his favorite writers were Pierre Loti and Anatole France, whose style fitted his taste for classicism. Later, John Ruskin "would influence him to abandon France's materialism for a more congenial brand of spiritualism."

On November 11, 1889, after graduating, he signed up for a year of military service, which he would remember nostalgically as "a paradise," though "at the time he complained bitterly." The nostalgic view of his service is depicted in The Guermantes Way, when the narrator visits Saint-Loup at Doncières, which is modeled on Orléans, where he was stationed.

In September 1890, he visited Cabourg, a resort on the coast of Normandy that became Balbec in the novels. And that fall he started reading law in Paris and entered the École libre des sciences politiques ("Sciences-Po") to study politics. His legal and political studies gave him a grounding in those subjects, which makes it possible for him to create pictures of the diplomatic corps in his novels. He was inspired by Balzac, who moves with ease in various sections of society. And these studies also gave him, "more important for a writer, to their vocabularies, including their sophisticated strategies of evasion." He took a course in diplomacy from Albert Sorel, who is the model for M. de Norpois, "the ultimate slippery statesman."

In 1891 he met Oscar Wilde and invited him to dine with his parents, but the perhaps apocryphal story has it that Wilde was offended by the Prousts' "heavy, dark furniture" and left after saying, "How ugly everything is here." In Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust alludes unsympathetically to Wilde's fall. A scandal involving Prince Philip von Eulenberg in 1906 also alerted Proust to the uneasy position of gay men in contemporary society. At the same time, however, he was becoming friends with Robert de Flers and Lucien Daudet, and his mother was alarmed by a photograph he had taken with them in 1892, touching off a quarrel with his parents that he depicted in Jean Santeuil. Although he continued to seek out the company of other gay men, he tried not to be identified as gay himself:
Years later he would tell André Gide that one could write about homosexuality even at great length, so long as one did not ascribe it to oneself.
He began his rise in society and cultivated his gift for imitating the mannerisms of the people he met. White notes that this talent for mimickry "would come in handy later when he would begin to create his cast of great Dickensian eccentrics: the baron de Charlus, Madame Verdurin, the duc de Guermantes, the maid Françoise, all of whom have a distinctive, not to say preposterous, way of speaking." He also loved to write pastiches of famous writers, and said that he did it to purge his own style of imitation: "to become original again afterwards and not produce involuntary pastiches the rest of one's life." He also used it as an analytical tool, examining other writers' style by attempting to reproduce it. He includes a pastiche of the Goncourts' journal in Finding Time Again. He attracted the attention of eminent writers like Anatole France and Maurice Barrès, and became a regular at the salon of Princess Mathilde, Napoleon's niece, who appears under her own name in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

He also met Henri Bergson, but White dismisses him as a serious influence on Proust's thought, except for a conversation on the nature of sleep that they had after World War I, which is reflected in Sodom and Gomorrah. "Bergson seems to have dismissed Proust as someone interested only in high society (le monde)," White says. And he notes that Proust developed a reputation as a snob. Jean Cocteau wrote of Proust that he "doesn't hesitate to judge society people and accuse them of stupidity. He finds them stupid but superior, which is the very definition of snobbism." White asserts that the young Proust was attracted to aristocrats because he saw them as "living, breathing, walking, talking history, a modern incarnation of a medieval legend." The Duchesse de Guermantes, whom the narrator first sees in the church at Combray in the chapel of her ancestor Gilbert the Bad, becomes the narrative embodiment of this attitude. But as White observes, "he ended up as the most penetrating critic of snobbism who ever lived." His contemporaries in society were shocked by his portraits of them in the Search, and the Comtesse de Chévigné, "one of the models for the duchesse de Guermantes," burned his letters. But others were impressed by "his elaborate politeness."
He knew all the secrets of the aristocracy and spent thirty years learning their rituals, feuds, genealogies, and vanities, but he was also distanced from this world by the fact he was half-Jewish, untitled, gay, and an invalid. 
In 1892-93, Proust, Daniel Halévy, Robert Dreyfus and Fernand Gregh started a literary magazine called Le Banquet. When it folded, Proust began publishing fiction in La Revue Blanche. In 1893, he met the dandy Robert de Montesquiou, who became one of the models for Charlus, as he had already been the model for des Esseintes in Huysmans' Against the Grain, although Huysmans had never met him -- he heard about Montesquiou from Mallarmé. Montesquiou was a subject for Proust's mimickry, but he admired his "reverence for the arts and extraordinary social connections; the young man shared the first and coveted the second." But Montesquiou wasn't the only model for Charlus's "tantrums, his preposterous pride in his social position and lineage, his endless monologues." Proust also modeled the baron on the corpulent Jacques Doasan, "who ruined himself heaping presents on a Polish violinist," just as Charlus does with Charles Morel. And White suggest that Proust gave Charlus "his own tyrannical whims, his aestheticizing, and his peevishness."

In 1894, he met the composer Reynaldo Hahn, who was five years his junior, beginning an affair that would last for two years -- "like Proust, he was half-Jewish, gay, and artistic." They "traveled together and were put up in châteaus together by tolerant hostesses." One hostess who tolerated them was Madame Lemaire, whose "tyrannical ... attentions to her guests" influenced Proust in his creation of Madame Verdurin. Their relationship finally foundered on Proust's "obsessive neediness." The scene in which Swann goes searching through Paris for Odette "had its antecedent in Proust's life when he was unable to find Reynaldo and nerly went mad."

In 1895 they visited Sarah Bernhardt at Belle-Île on the coast of Brittany. While there, Proust began writing Jean Santeuil, a novel that he later abandoned. The character he based on himself is not the narrator but is observed in third person. In it, his parents are depicted as "vulgar bullies and obstructionists who stand in the way of their son's social and artistic ambitions," whereas in the Search, written after their deaths, they are "wise, refined, melancholy beings who want nothing but their ailing, neurasthenic son's health and happiness." There is scant mention of homosexuality in the early novel, "although already Proust is disguising his boyfriends as girls," and Jean obsesses over a suspected lesbian relationship over two girls modeled on Hahn and Daudet. Hahn is not represented in the Search: "Already in Jean Santeuil Proust was ridding himself of Hahn by writing about him, since for Proust to paint the verbal portrait of a friend was to give him the kiss-off." White suggests that breaking up with Hahn may have been one reason why Proust stopped working on the novel. But its was also "one of the few equal and reciprocated sexual and romantic relationships of Proust's life" and they remained friends -- Proust read Swann's Way to him while he was working on it, and the relationship of Swann and Odette in the novel, with its "alternating bouts of jealousy and reconciliation," is based on the dynamic of Proust's relationship with Hahn. Lucien Daudet, seven years younger than Proust, was his next "focus of amorous interest in 1896 and 1897." Daudet was the son of one of the most celebrated French writers of the day and had studied painting with Whistler. Their affair lasted eighteen months, and they, too, remained friends afterward.

Proust's first book, Pleasures and Days, was published in 1896, when he was twenty-seven. It was not enthusiastically received. Anatole France, the model for Bergotte in the Search, "complained that Proust wrote 'sentences long enough to make you consumptive,'" and Léon Blum called it "this book that is too coquettish and too pretty," partly because it was printed in an unusually luxurious and expensive edition, costing four times as much as other books its size. Proust did no significant writing in 1897 and 1899, but read constantly, particularly Balzac.

Proust was influenced by the story of how young, ambitious men from the provinces (epitomized by Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions) could social-climb their way through Paris with the help of mistresses -- and even a powerful male lover: Lucien, for instance, is aided by Vautrin, a master criminal who is clearly in love with him. 
Balzac also gave him "a taste for the theatrical," as in the scenes in Jupien's male brothel in Finding Time Again, the scene in Swann's Way in which Mlle. Vinteuil and her female lover desecrate the portrait of Mlle. Vinteuil's father, and the cruel treatment of Charlus by Mme. Verdurin in The Prisoner. Proust also read Shakespeare, Goethe, and George Eliot, and was especially affected by the character of Casaubon in Middlemarch, "who labored all his life on an insignificant and absurd work," as Proust put it.

In 1897, Proust fought a duel with the novelist Jean Lorrain, who had called Proust "one of those pretty little society boys who've managed to get themselves pregnant with literature" in a review of Pleasures and Days, and managed to suggest that Proust was gay in a newspaper article. (Lorrain was gay, too.) Neither man was injured. He would fight other duels in the years to follow, never harming anyone. (The narrator of the Search alludes to his own duels, but never gives an account of one.)
It was this hypervirile image  that Proust was eager to cultivate, as a way of offsetting his spreading reputation as a homosexual. To be labeled a homosexual in print (as opposed to living a homosexual life in private or discreetly among friends) was social anathema, even in Paris, until the recent past. 

Proust now turned his literary efforts to translating John Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies. He was interested in Ruskin the aesthete, not Ruskin the social thinker and pacifist. White notes that Proust "was a fierce patriot, a proud ex-soldier, and anything but a pacifist." He worked from a literal, word-for-word translation done by his mother and Marie Nordlinger, Hahn's English cousin, and traveled to Amiens with Hahn and to Venice with his mother to see the architecture Ruskin described. "The style Proust worked out in French and retained for his later fiction, with its complex syntax and long sentences (so unusual in French literature) sounds very much like Ruskin." But it's the essay that served as the translation's preface, "On Reading," that constitutes Proust's "first mature piece of writing." It's about the effect of reading on the development of a child's imagination, a theme to which Proust returned in the "Combray" section of Swann's Way. 
What is important to point out is that Proust's first genuine writing came in the form of a personal essay written in opposition to the theories of a major thinker.... So much of the literary art of our times has struck sparks by opposing one genre to another -- novel and memoir, for instance, or fiction and essay.... In Proust's case, the fertile encounter took place between the essay and the novel. 

Proust now made friends among the aristocracy. Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld, a member of one of France's most eminent families, is one of the models for Robert de Saint-Loup. Another friends was Antoine de Bibesco, a Romanian prince, who once tried to show Proust how to shake hands with a firmer grip, only to be told that people would think he was gay if he did.
Which is just an indication of how devious the thinking of a homosexual of the period could become -- a homosexual affects a limp handshake so that heterosexuals will not think he is a homosexual disguising himself as a hearty hetero -- whereas in fact he is exactly what he appears to be: a homosexual with a limp handshake...
He was shocked when Bibesco told people what Proust had confided to him: an attraction to another aristocrat, Bertrand de Fénelon. "Proust seems not to have realized how his reputation as a homosexual had become general knowledge in his circle." It turned out that Fénelon was bisexual, but Proust didn't learn it until later years. Fénelon also contributed to the portrait of Saint-Loup: He once walked along the backs of the banquettes in a restaurant to fetch a coat for Proust, as Saint-Loup does for the narrator in The Guermantes Way. Proust also enlisted Bibesco to spy on Fénelon, as the narrator does "in his fits of jealousy over Albertine." With his friends, he traveled to various cathedrals around Paris, recording architectural details that would enter into descriptions in the Search. He went to Holland with Fénelon in 1902, where he saw Vermeer's View of Delft, which is the painting with the patch of yellow that Bergotte goes to see in The Prisoner before being felled by a stroke.

In February 1903, his brother Robert married, and in November of that year their father died, one day after the birth of Robert's daughter. Two years later, in September 1905, their mother died at age fifty-six. Marcel would mourn her death for the rest of his life, and said, "In dying, Maman took with her her little Marcel," which White interprets as a turning point from "the intellectual dandified Marcel" to "the determined, wise, ascetic Proust." He also observes that the narrator's mother in the Search has Proust's mother's "disappointment with her son's lack of self-discipline," while the narrator's grandmother is given "his real mother's tenderness, her unconditional love for him in spite of all his failings."

He was thirty-four when his mother died, and had published only a book of stories and a translation of Ruskin, but his ambition was "to write a book that would rival Balzac's panorama of Parisian society." He had both the knowledge of the world and the sensibility to accomplish the task, and he had been left a fortune by his parents: "the equivalent of about $6 million of our money today, including a monthly revenue of some $15,000." He would squander a lot of it on gifts, even ordering an airplane for Alfred Agostinelli -- though he canceled the order after Agostinelli's death -- which becomes the yacht the narrator offers to buy Albertine in The Prisoner. He would also make bad investments on a whim, but he spent little on himself: "He was a playboy-monk."

In December 1906 he moved to 102 boulevard Haussmann, where he insulated his bedroom from noise and dust, lining the walls with cork and covering the windows "with layers of heavy curtains that were never opened." Here he began his project, beginning it "as a sort of Platonic dialogue with his mother on the subject of Sainte-Beuve, the nineteenth-century literary critic," the centenary of whose birth had been widely celebrated in December 1904. Proust dissented radically from Sainte-Beuve's belief that the reader should study a writer's biography in order to fully understand his work. Proust believed that this led Sainte-Beuve to radically undervalue such writers as Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Nerval. "A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, our social life and our vices," Proust asserted. But the dialogue about Sainte-Beuve was not the only thing he was planning to write:

In a letter of this period he said he was planning: a study of the nobility; a Parisian novel; an essay on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert; an essay on women; and an essay on pederasty. Other topics mentioned were gravestones, stained-glass church windows -- and an essay on the novel. What is crucial to underline is that at its very inception Proust thought of his book as several books, mostly essays. 

By June 1908 he was working on the fictional conversation with his mother on Sainte-Beuve, writing constantly, but also worrying about publishing what he was writing, which he called "obscene." The work, which had a "provisional title," Against Sainte-Beuve, Memories of a Morning, was a novel, and one of the characters was gay. It would end, he wrote to Georges de Lauris, "with a long conversation on Sainte-Beuve and aesthetics." White observes that In Search of Lost Time ends with a meditation and not a conversation on aesthetics. And that Sainte-Beuve's autobiographical theory has been countered in the novel by Vinteuil, who "is a mighty creator as a composer and a totally self-effacing wimp as a man -- the perfect counterargument to Sainte-Beuve's theory of the harmonious congruity between an individual's life and work." And that from the very beginning Proust had planned to write about homosexuality in his novel.

He was afraid he wouldn't live to complete the work: "He was so ill that he was spending about twenty thousand dollars a year for medicines." But he hadn't completely withdrawn from the world. At Cabourg, "he studied the actress Lucy Gérard and the two daughters of Viscount d'Alton" as models for the "gang of girls" in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. But he also studied "with feverish fascination" a group of boys he met on the beach, including 19-year-old Marcel Plantevignes, who visited Proust in his room until a woman warned Plantevignes about Proust's homosexuality. Proust flew into a rage when the woman told him that Plantevignes had agreed with her about the accusation, "and even challenged Plantevignes's father to a duel." Proust's own seconds thought the challenge absurd and like "a duel from an operetta by Offenbach." The duel was called off and the friendship resumed when Plantevignes and his parents assured Proust that they didn't believe he was gay. Plantevignes also claimed that he suggested the title, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur.

In mid-August 1909 Proust talked to an editor about the novel he said he had nearly finished: a novel of about 300 pages, followed by an essay, a conversation about Sainte-Beuve, of 150 pages. The editor turned it down and another decided not to publish it as a newspaper serial. Proust decided to continue work and did so for the next three years. He conceived of the novel as a story about the narrator's childhood in Combray followed by the adolescent experiences of the narrator and Gilberte Swann in the gardens of the Champs-Élysées -- the "Swann in Love" section, which is four-fifths of Swann's Way, was not part of the original conception. The section is integral to the complete Search because Swann's unrequited love for Odette is echoed later in the narrator's relationship with Albertine, and Swann's failure to become a writer is reflected in the experience of the narrator, who finally overcomes what is blocking his writing.
And it suggests that one reason for Swann's failure is his addiction to friendship and frivolity and especially to "idolatry," by which Proust meant the collector's love of fine furnishings, beautiful mistresses, and great paintings: the perishable Things of this world rather than the immortal ideas that lie behind them, which can be recaptured only through involuntary memory -- and which only then can be codified in great works of literary art. 
Proust had learned how to shape a novel, how to introduce a theme, drop it, and return to it later, and how to work with a narrator whose impressions of other characters changes as the story progresses: The narrator of the Search first hears of Charlus as a womanizer and assumes that he is Odette's lover, but gradually learns otherwise. The creation of the character of Charlus, White observes, "falls midway between that of Dickens and that of Henry James." Like Dickens's characters, Charlus is made up of "memorable traits" and presented in "Dickensian bold relief." But "by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at."
Dickens could draw with a firm bounding line but used so little shading he gave no sense of perspective. James was all shading and depth but (especially in his late novels) nothing vigorous distinguished the profile of one character from another. Proust succeeded in rendering characters with the same startling simplicity as Dickens but generated a lifelike subtlety and motion by giving us successive "takes" over hundreds of pages.
Proust rewrote and expanded the first volume of the Search from 1909 through 1911. He dictated to his stenographers, had the manuscript set in type, then filled the margins with changes and additions, even pasting in new pages. "In fact, if any writer would have benefited from a word processor it would have been Proust." He paid for the typesetting, which was expensive, himself. In 1910 he worked on what would become Swann's Way and The Guermantes Way, then divided the manuscript in two volume, one called Time Lost and the other Time Regained. He rarely went out, although he was present at the famously controversial opening night of the Stravinsky/Diaghilev/Nijinsky Rite of Spring. In 1911, he subscribed to Théâtrophone, which broadcast concerts over the telephone. He heard Act III of Die Meistersinger and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande this way. He preferred Wagner, and some critics have compared the Search to Parsifal: Parsifal's quest for the Grail being parallel to the narrator's search for "the secret of literature" and the "young girls in flower" to the Flower Maidens. And the name Guermantes echoes that of Gurnemanz, the leader of the Grail Knights.

By 1912, Proust's manuscript had reached 1,200 pages and he began to look for a publisher. He was working with a typist named Albert Nahmias, on whom he had a crush, and who eventually lent his name to Albertine. The novel was sent in October to the publisher Fasquelle, which had published Flaubert, Zola, and the Goncourt brothers. They returned it in December with a reader's note expressing complete bewilderment. He then sent it to Gallimard, which was a new publishing house started by André Gide, Jacques Copeau and Jean Schlumberger. But the readers, led by Gide, seem not to have read the manuscript, dismissing Proust as "a socialite and a snob." In any case, "the book was much too long for a fledgling house." Gide would later express regret at the missed opportunity. Then it went to Ollendorff, where a reader protested about Proust's using "thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep."

Finally, Proust resorted to self-publication through Bernard Grasset:
Grasset, whom Proust compared to an ebony paper-cutter, so hard and sharp and efficient was he, virtually invented modern publishing in France; he was the first to resort to massive press offensives, advertising, bribing well-known personalities to launch a good word-of-mouth campaign, and so on. 
 Proust met Alfred Agostinelli in 1907; he chauffeured Proust in Normandy, and again a year later drove him from Cabourg to Versailles. But Proust did not see him again until 1913, when Agostinelli was 25 and living with a woman named Anna. Proust hired him as a secretary, and both Agostinelli and Anna moved into Proust's apartment.

At that time homosexual relations, especially between the classes, were viewed benignly as a form of patronage -- or weren't focused upon at all, except when a scandal erupted; and such scandals were never characteristic of France ... in large part because the laws dating back to 1791 (and ratified by the penal code of 1810) had already decriminalized sodomy.
"Patronage" relationships were typically between an older rich man and a younger poor man, and were then "considered to be charitable and generous." Proust was indeed generous, sending money to members of Agostinelli's family. He "was certainly in love," and his fits of jealousy are reflected not only in his portrayal of the relationship between the narrator and Albertine, but also in that of Swann and Odette, passages of which he reworked in August 1913.

Agostinelli and Anna moved out of Proust's apartment on December 1, 1913, while Proust was sleeping. They had lived with him from the beginning of the year. Proust was "devastated" and tried to lure Agostinelli back by promising to buy him an airplane -- Agostinelli's interest in flying is reflected in the narrator's accompanying Albertine to the airfields around Paris. The departure of Agostinelli cast a shadow over the publication of Swann's Way in November 1913. The reviews were good, but Proust took no pleasure in them.

On May 30, 1914, Agostinelli died while making his second solo flight over the Mediterranean: He clung or a while to the wreckage of the plane, but drowned because he couldn't swim. Proust took Anna in and helped her until she could go out on her own again. He was unable to work even on the page proofs of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, which he began receiving in June. But the publication of that book had to be postponed because of the outbreak of World War I in August, giving him time to rework it, to separate it from The Guermantes Way, and to give Albertine a greater role in it. He also conceived of The Prisoner and The Fugitive at this time. He also gave the theme of lesbianism a greater prominence in the work as a whole. "In the eight years following Agostinelli's death Proust's book doubled in volume." As the nature of the book Proust was working on became better known, André Gide wrote him to apologize for rejecting Swann's Way.  Proust also recovered from Agostinelli's death by having an affair with Ernst Forssgren, "a six-foot-four blond Swedish Adonis," his valet-secretary, which ended when Forssgren emigrated to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Swedish army.

Proust worked through the war, researching details by writing thousands of letters to people asking for facts, details and anecdotes. He lost many friends in the war, including Bertrand de Fénelon, killed in combat, and Emmanuel Bibesco, who killed himself because he had a terminal illness. His faithful companion and only servant during the war was Céleste Albaret, who wrote a memoir of her life with Proust. "Only his mother and Céleste ever gave him the unconditional love that he expected." Céleste steadfastly denied to biographers that he was gay, but admitted that he had visited a male brothel -- for "research," she claimed. He "even gave some of his parents' furniture to be used in this hotbed of homosexual prostitution" -- a detail reflected in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, in which the narrator gives some of the furniture he has inherited from his Aunt Léonie to a brothel. According to one not entirely reliable witness Proust was turned on sexually by watching live rats stabbed to death with hatpins. Several others report that he would spit on his mother's picture while having sex -- a reënactment of the scene with Vinteuil's daughter and her lesbian lover in Swann's Way, and perhaps also reflected in The Guermantes Way when Charlus has an excited fantasy about wanting to see Bloch beat his mother.

In 1917 and 1918 Proust started going out more often, especially to the Ritz, whose headwaiter, Olivier Dabescat, gave him many anecdotes about the well-to-do for the novel. But his health, exacerbated by uppers like adrenaline and caffeine and downers like opium, was deteriorating. He was also forced to move, and stayed for a while in the home of the actress Réjane, one of the models for La Berma, before settling at 44 rue Hamelin.

In June 1919, Gallimard reissued Swann's Way, and published In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and a collection of short pieces and pastiches. At the end of the year he won the Goncourt Prize for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by a vote of six to four, after campaigning for the award with presents and dinners for the judges. The award was controversial, regarded by some as "the coronation of an invalid who lived in the past." His book was "dismissed ... as disorganized childhood and adolescent memories -- formless, plotless, endless." The criticism was frustrating for Proust, who knew the shape of the novel as a whole, and especially the role of memory in it: "the theme of involuntary memory" is introduced in the episode with the madeleine near the beginning of Swann's Way, but is not fully developed until the final book, Finding Time Again. The complete work was not published until 1927, five years after Proust's death.
Proust was anti-intellectual and convinced that the domain of art, which is recollected experience, can never be tapped through reasoning or method alone; it must be delivered to us, fresh and vivid, through a process beyond the control of the intellect or willpower. Paradoxically, if Proust was anti-intellectual he was also profoundly philosophical, in that what he sought was not the accidents but the essence of a past event. Involuntary memory, be definition anti-intellectual, nevertheless refines away all the unnecessary details of a forgotten moment and retains only its unadorned core. 

In the summer of 1918, he fell in love with a waiter at the Ritz, Henri Rochat, "a handsome Swiss who wanted to be a painter." Although his fortune had been shrunk by 25 percent through spending and poor investing, he again showered his lover with gifts. Rochat moved into Proust's apartment where he spent his days painting.
What researchers have figured out in recent years is that Proust wrote first The Fugitive, soon after Agostinelli's departure and death, while the material was still vivid in his mind and a weight on his heart, whereas he elaborated [The Prisoner] later, even though the book actually precedes The Fugitive in the published sequence. Why? Simply because the main inspiration for the Albertine of [The Prisoner] is Henri Rochat, not Alfred Agostinelli. It was Rochat who lived in his own room, solitary and self-sufficient, in Proust's gloomy apartment, whereas Agostinelli had lived with his wife and only briefly under Proust's roof. Accordingly, [The Prisoner], which had been sketched out as early as 1916, doubled in size during the two years Rochat lived with Proust. 
Eventually, Proust tired of Rochat's mooching and managed to get rid of him.

In January 1920, Proust published his essay on Flaubert in La Nouvelle Revue Française, in which he differentiates his style from Flaubert's by writing about the author's lack of use of metaphor, whereas Proust's style is richly metaphorical. In the spring of 1921, he began to suffer increasingly from dizzy spells, and one of his last outings was to see Vermeer's The View of Delft on loan to the Jeu de Paume. He would refer to this visit in his account of Bergotte's similar outing and death, and "on the night before he died Proust dictated a last sentence, 'There is a Chinese patience in Vermeer's craft.'" (Vermeer is also the subject of Swann's never-completed study.)

In May 1921, Sodom and Gomarrah was published, "and Proust was almost disappointed by the lack of scandal." One who took offense at Proust's "ugly picture ... of homosexuals" was André Gide. In a conversation with Gide, Proust explained "that he had transposed to the female characters all his homosexual memories that were tender and charming and so had been left with nothing but grotesque details for his homosexual characters." But elsewhere Proust argued that gay people had been so persecuted by Christians "that the only gays who'd survived had been invalids impossible to cure."

In September 1922, his health began to fail more rapidly. He developed pneumonia which turned into bronchitis and a lung abscess. He died in the evening of November 18, 1922.

"Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking ... the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice: the sovereign intellect," White comments. He is not, however, a realist: "Instead, we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales."
Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera, a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless those fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise -- the artificial paradise of art.... Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times. 


cantueso said...

I have just been at your other blog reading your Manche freilich müssen dsrunten sterben translation, when I saw that you had something on Proust, but I cannot read it now, because I have been sitting here too long.

I read the Temps Perdu in French and the beginning 3 or 4 volumes so many times that they have started to come apart, and so I am curious to see what you know.

un home sobrer said...

What's your other blog? I'd like to read it...

Charles Matthews said...

Thanks for asking! I added a link to it in the sidebar. It's at