Proust and His Mother

Michael Wood

There are texts that seem to require a certain craziness of us, a mismeasure of response to match the extravagance of their expression. But can a mismeasure be a match? All we know is that we don’t want to lose or reduce the extravagance but can’t quite fall for it either. An example would be Walter Benjamin’s wonderful remark about missed experiences in Proust:

None of us has time to live the true dramas of the life that we are destined for. This is what ages us – this and nothing else. The wrinkles and creases on our faces are the registration of the great passions, vices, insights that called on us; but we, the masters, were not at home.

Even without the ‘nothing else’ this is a pretty hyperbolic proposition. With the ‘nothing else’ it turns into a form of madness, a suggestion that we shall not grow old at all unless we keep failing to receive the passions, vices and insights that come to see us. This would be a life governed by new necessities, entirely free from the old ones, exempt from time and biology. The sentences are clear enough but don’t read easily as fantasy or figure of speech. Benjamin is asking us to entertain this magical thought for as long as we can, and not to replace it too swiftly by something more sensible.

He is writing about Proust and he found the trope in Proust, where ageing and death are caused not by missing experiences but by fret and worry, and more significantly by the fret and worry we bring to others:

In the end, we get older, we kill everyone who loves us through the worries we give them, through the troubled tenderness we inspire in them, and the fears we ceaselessly cause.

The implication, again, is that a human life would last for ever if we didn’t intervene – or in Benjamin’s case, fail to receive our visitors. But why would anyone make such a claim, and why does it, on a certain wavelength, seem so weirdly plausible?

Proust had a great teacher of tropes – his mother, the inspiration and victim of this murder project – and it was thinking about his relationship with her that started me on the question of readerly craziness. I had in mind especially her extraordinary metaphor for the mending of that relationship after a quarrel she and her husband had with Marcel, where their repaired future is represented as a Jewish wedding. The Prousts were not a noisy family and this was one of the few real rows – as distinct from lots of niggling and moaning – they ever had. They were nice people, and very polite to each other; and are very polite again as soon as the quarrel is over. We may want to remember though what Proust says about nice people in a notebook: ‘In my novel, there is an ultra-bourgeois family, how many sick people in it?’ – ‘combien de malades dedans?’

What seems to have happened is that at the end of the episode of shouting, Proust slammed the door behind him so hard that the glass in its panels broke. He has written to apologise – that note is lost – and this is his mother’s reply in full. The date is not certain, but is thought to be some time in 1897:

My dear little one

Your letter did me good – your father and I were left with a very painful sense of things [une impression fort pénible]. I must tell you that I had not thought for a moment of saying anything at all in the presence of Jean [the servant] and that if that happened it was absolutely without my knowledge [à mon insu]. Let’s think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple – the symbol of an indissoluble union.

Your father wishes you a good night and I kiss you tenderly.

J.P.

I do however have to return to the subject in order to recommend that you don’t walk without shoes in the dining room because of the glass.

There’s a fictional version of this event in Proust’s early novel Jean Santeuil, and late in life he told his housekeeper Céleste about it. Biographers have made various guesses at what the quarrel was about – Proust’s homosexuality, or his expensive lifestyle – and in the novel part of it at least is about the hero’s not wanting to get a job. The postscript about the glass in the dining room doesn’t require any kind of crazy reading, although obviously it is open to several interpretations, some kinder than others. Evelyne Bloch-Dano, the biographer of Jeanne Proust, thinks her subject’s forgiveness is ‘contradicted by the mock warning’. I don’t think it’s contradicted, but clearly there is something about the postscript that makes it a sort of mockery, probably just a bit of what we would now call passive aggression: patent further talk about what we are not going talk about. But what about the allusion to the wedding, and the glass thrown to the ground by the groom and then crushed underfoot? This gesture has been taken to mean many things apart from indissoluble union, but even (or especially) on this reading Edmund White finds the image ‘chilling’, and George Painter has this to say:

If [Mme Proust’s] words were given their full, terrible meaning they would imply a mystic union with her son more valid than her marriage, in an alien faith, to his father. But their consequences need not be taken so seriously. Psychoanalysis had not yet been invented; and moreover, the malady in Proust’s heart fed not on his present relationship with his mother but on the buried, unalterable fixation of his childhood.

This is a quite remarkable example of having your cake and eating it, or better perhaps, of getting rid of the cake and still having lots of cake left. We don’t have to take the words seriously, but we do have to know what they would mean if we did take them seriously; no need for psychoanalysis, not because it hadn’t been invented – it had – but because we have our own brand, childhood fixation. In the terms of my question about reading, Painter has elegantly invoked a bit of craziness only, in rapid succession, to deny it and to return to another version of it. My suggestion would be that Jeanne Proust is not thinking, even unconsciously, of a mystic union with her son, but the extravagance of her analogy does mark a degree of continuing distress, does seek to contain and compensate for that distress, in a way that all the reasonable talk of forgiving and forgetting cannot. We need to go along with her extravagance in order to see how upset she is. The imaginary wedding turns a shattering into a unity, and the fantasised result is not a marriage between mother and son but something better and different: an endless maternal and filial intimacy for which marriage can only serve as an oblique hint. The result is not less crazy in this transposed form; but the craziness is what the case requires.

Dr Adrien Proust and Jeanne Weil were married on 3 September 1870, the day after the disastrous defeat of the French by the Prussians at Sedan. Almost everything that happened in France in the next forty years was marked by this defeat and French responses to it – including the modernisation of the army in which the Jewish Alfred Dreyfus could become an officer. Jeanne was pregnant during the Commune, a time of harsh repression of a chaotic popular movement, where burning buildings could be seen almost everywhere in Paris. Marcel Proust was born in 1871, his brother Robert two years later.

We might think a marriage between a rich Jewish girl of 21 and a well-established Gentile doctor of 36 was unusual, and so said something striking about both partners. The marriage was Jeanne’s family’s idea, it seems; no members of Adrien’s family came to the wedding. But in the actual context such a marriage, while certainly unusual, was not as controversial or caught up in conflict as its equivalent would later become in many places, and hindsight reveals a pathos in the ease and success of this marriage, the ability of husband and wife to see each other as persons, to respect different modalities of tradition and family and culture without making them exclusive markers of identity. Jeanne Weil did not convert to Catholicism, and did not insist on her Jewishness. Didn’t deny it either, any more than her sons did. Bloch-Dano makes two telling remarks on this subject:

Jeanne was as far from the ghetto as Adrien was from his village.

And:

Her marriage to Adrien Proust might have given her the illusion that she was a Frenchwoman, like everyone else. But the Dreyfus Affair lifted the veil.

Her idea wasn’t an illusion. She was a Frenchwoman. What the Dreyfus Affair showed her, and everyone, was that Frenchness had changed, and no longer included certain options. But this is a long, other story.

Some of the craziness that Proust and his mother instigated in and required of each other – and that we can follow in their letters – is very mild, and often there is no craziness at all, embodied or solicited. They report on hotels, travels, acquaintances, discuss the Dreyfus Affair, tell jokes, worry about each other’s health. Jeanne Proust, in particular, is given to quotations from the classics, especially Racine, Corneille and Molière, a habit that has produced some interesting divergences among biographers. Take the last entry in a collection of Proust’s letters entitled Correspondance avec sa mère, which also shows up in Contre Sainte-Beuve. This doesn’t come from a letter at all, either his or hers, but from a notebook. ‘Mother sometimes had a great deal of sorrow,’ the note says, ‘but one didn’t know it, because she never wept except with gentleness and wit. She died making a quotation from Molière and a quotation from Labiche to me.’ The note also illustrates the mother’s wit by her use of a quotation from Corneille to cheer her son up, an exhortation to the French equivalent of a stiff upper lip: ‘If you are not a Roman, be worthy of being one.’

André Maurois cites the fragment as autobiographical, noting that it is unpublished. Painter dramatises the moment: Mme Proust stammers her quotation, Marcel interjects that he can’t bear to be without her. Roger Duchêne coolly insists that this is just a draft of a novel: ‘A beautiful scene, a too beautiful scene. The notebooks are not a place of confessions but of sketches of scenes for the work to come.’ Jean-Yves Tadié doesn’t mention the scene at all.

But then there is a sense in which these letters begin to look more like symptoms than a means of communication, or like a language in which an otherwise unspoken communication can take place. The mother constantly asks about the son’s health, and the son constantly, obsessively answers. Unless we are card-carrying hypochondriacs we are going to find these exchanges annoying, and we might feel like just leaving them to it. If there is an invitation to readerly craziness here it is easy to turn it down.

Jeanne Proust says her son is to write to her filling in the following details:

Got up at …
Went to bed at …
Hours outdoors …
Hours of rest …
Etc.

‘I ask and I ask again,’ she says in a later letter – ‘je demande et je redemande.’ ‘Went to bed at … Got up at …’ The son doesn’t always comply with this formula, but he tells her plenty: ‘I don’t know how my hayfever came back these last two days,’ ‘no asthma last night’, ‘intense asthma’, ‘I came home sneezing, coughing and above all full of asthma.’ He tells her when he smokes the cigarettes that were supposed to keep asthma away; tells her, perhaps truthfully, about all the drugs he’s not taking. She instructs him to dress properly when he goes out, and above all to get his hair cut: ‘Your hair gets in the way of my sight when I think of you.’ Marcel Proust is 18 when his mother writes the first of the letters I have quoted; 33 when she writes the last. It’s hard not to put together the story they are enacting but not quite telling themselves. She is making sure her son remains an infant; and he is making sure she remains his mother. Both of them use political metaphors for this kind of relationship – she in her letters, he in his fiction – so they clearly understand something of what is happening. But they don’t, I think, quite understand the damage they are doing to each other, and what alternatives there might be to this tenderly stalled or frozen relationship.

On 1 February 1907, Proust published on the front page of the Figaro a long article about a man who had killed his mother – and then killed himself. The initial newspaper reports, like Proust’s own piece, were full of the idea of madness, and nearly all of them carried the notion in their headlines: ‘Fou et parricide’ [Journal des Débats], ‘Un fou tue sa mère’ [L’Echo de Paris], ‘Un drame de la folie’ [Le Figaro], ‘Terrible drame de la folie’ [Gazette de France and La Croix], ‘Tragédie de la folie’ [Le Gaulois]. One paper [L’Intransigeant] called the case ‘Un drame de famille’, and only L’Aurore chose to take a firm moral line with ‘Détestable parricide’. There is something touching about this consensus: a man would have to be crazy to kill his mother. But is the craziness in doing it or wanting to do it? In doing it without wanting to? Proust resolutely sidesteps the question of desire, conscious or unconscious, and moves to the claim I’ve quoted above. It doesn’t matter whether we want to murder our mothers because we do it anyway. Colm Tóibín wryly suggests J.M. Synge tried bohemianism as ‘a new way of killing his [doggedly Protestant] mother’, but Proust’s idea is that we don’t have to try at all. We can’t really acknowledge this fact, he suggests, because we would probably commit suicide if we did, but we can picture murdering her as a detailed rhetorical event, which is what Proust does at the stupendous end of his article:

If we knew how to see in a loved body the slow work of destruction wrought by the painful tenderness that animates it, how to see the withered eyes, the previously indomitable black hair now defeated like the rest and going white, the hardened arteries, the blocked kidneys, the strained heart, the defeated appetite for life, the slow, heavy walk, the mind whose hopes were once invincible now knowing that it has nothing left to hope for, gaiety itself dried up for ever, that innate and seemingly immortal gaiety, which kept such pleasant company with sadness – perhaps the person who could see that … like Henri van Blarenberghe when he had finished off his mother with dagger blows, would retreat from the horror of his life, and throw himself on a gun, to die straight away.

Should we say, with the critic Antoine Compagnon, that this is an instance of killing quickly the person one can’t bear to think of killing slowly – that van Blarenberghe horribly literalised and accelerated a common process? This is well within the logic of Proust’s argument, and corresponds to Compagnon’s sense that it is ‘the true banality of the crime that fascinates Proust’. But it doesn’t quite accord with the tone of Proust’s evocation of the murder, which for him is enacted in a mood of sacred folly, the complete occlusion of reason. This is why desire (and logic) are irrelevant to the mood, if not to the deed. Proust thinks of Ajax made mad by Athena, so that he slaughters sheep and cattle instead of his enemies (but then whom did van Blarenberghe want to kill if not his mother?); of Oedipus not as the man who has slept with his mother but the one who takes his eyes out when he sees her dead. Proust also thinks of Lear and the lifeless Cordelia, an inverted family relation. This is all too much for the occasion – we can’t imagine the Figaro or any daily paper publishing this sort of stuff now, but it was pretty strange even then – and requires the sort of crazed reading I have been speaking of. It is itself a version of such a reading – of events.

If I have insisted on these great tragic names, above all those of Ajax and Oedipus, the reader will understand why … I wanted to show the pure, the religious atmosphere of moral beauty in which this explosion of madness and blood took place.

This is a long way from banality, and there were certainly readers who didn’t understand. An editor at the Figaro took out a last paragraph that Proust was rather proud of, reminding us of the holy nature of the altars erected to Oedipus and Orestes at Colonus and Sparta. Proust was indignant at the suggestion that he was celebrating parricide – it was ‘un peu fort’, he said – but what else was he doing? Well, he said in a letter to Gaston Calmette, editor-in-chief of the Figaro, that he was shifting the ground from guilt to expiation: since the Greek figures were ‘involuntarily criminal, their memory was honoured, made sacred’. This is undoubtedly true, and there are horrors that take us beyond ordinary morality. But then Proust was moving very fast in his associations, and what were these Greeks doing in his piece to start with? He didn’t know anything about the actual atmosphere in the van Blarenberghe house, and even on his own terms, whatever ‘moral beauty’ there was in the story could arrive only long after the ‘explosion of madness and blood’. ‘Involuntarily’ also blurs the issue Proust had kept so clear in the piece. In context it means only a loss of control, an intervention of the gods; says nothing about what Oedipus or Orestes wished, as distinct from what they did. Proust was proposing, all too lyrically and extravagantly, that the killing of a mother was too huge an event for ordinary commentary, especially when the killer, whom Proust knew vaguely, was known to be such a polite, nicely brought-up fellow. This is where the banality enters the myth: how many sick people can there be in a bourgeois family, or must there be? It’s not that we all kill our mothers, although that is the organising trope. It’s that we all might, even the most improbable and non-violent of us.

We shouldn’t rush to think we understand this, and it’s best to hold off talk of mixtures of love and hatred, because we can’t get any further with complex situations by multiplying simplicities. Michel Schneider says, ‘The mother and the son love each other to a degree they can’t cope with, they hate each other but they don’t know it,’ and Compagnon, with equal elegance, affirms that ‘the love of the mother includes the hatred of the mother,’ getting the genitives to do their double work, meaning love and hatred for and of each other. But what if these people don’t hate each other at all? What if they love each other in a mode of intricate, endless dependence? You wouldn’t have to hate someone just because you sometimes want to kill them. I don’t think Christian Péchenard’s tricky formulation is quite true, but it certainly catches the involution of a relationship: ‘Marcel would very much love to love his mother very much less.’

We are talking about mothers and so is Proust – he has no vision of his father’s hardened arteries and blocked kidneys, and had written a first version of his Figaro paragraph long before in Jean Santeuil. There the hero is in his room simmering with rage after the quarrel with his parents I have mentioned, and takes a coat out of a cupboard. It isn’t his coat, though, it’s his mother’s, one she wore long ago, and he suddenly sees the person she was then, ‘young, brilliant, happy’. ‘But this was not her any more … she would never put on again this little coat too young for her age, too gay for her endless mourning, too slim for her plumpness, too dated for the new fashions.’ ‘And in a few years,’ the hero adds, ‘he would not find her as she was today either,’ the older woman would be even older, and then dead. The hero is not thinking about a magical causality here, though, ordinary time and living will do the trick.

But why parricide in Proust’s title and excised conclusion? Because while Proust’s interest and model is the murdered mother he doesn’t want to be restrictive. We certainly get the mother’s hypothetical view of her murderous child. ‘There is perhaps no truly loving mother,’ he says, ‘who could not, at her last moment, often well before’, ask her son what was said to be Mme van Blarenberghe’s last question, ‘Qu’as-tu fait de moi?’ ‘What have you done to me?’ or more literally, ‘What have you made of me?’ But then Proust moves instantly to the even larger issue of what we all do to ‘everyone who loves us’; more precisely, ‘everything that loves us’, ‘tout ce qui nous aime’. The idiom seems strange, but it is common, and Proust and his contemporaries use it without any special emphasis. It does however bring us very close to Wilde’s ‘Each man kills the thing he loves,’ where the crime is half-mitigated by the subterranean assumption that things can’t be killed. Was Proust thinking of Wilde? Three years later, in a letter of 1910, he said: ‘That phrase of Wilde’s, without knowing it then, I had literally’ – ‘textuellement’ – ‘written it, and had commented on it at length.’ ‘Without knowing it’ means without having a conscious memory of the phrase, I think, rather than without having read the Wilde poem, which was published in French in 1898, the year of its appearance in English. And of course Proust had both elided and amplified Wilde’s phrase. Each man kills the thing he loves, but he also, and perhaps more significantly, kills the thing that loves him.

Things that love and get killed. People who die only when murdered. There is one other important figure in Proust’s magical family scenario: the person who lives as long as she wants to, and not a day longer. Proust’s father died in 1903, his mother in 1905, and in letters written right after her death the son insists on a special sort of bereavement. His mother, he says, ‘wanted to survive’ his father for their sake (his and his brother’s), ‘but could not’. And more elaborately: ‘Alas, whatever will she had to live for me whom she knew to be so ill, so unarmed in life, she could not survive my father.’ Proust insists again and again on his ‘incapacity’ for life, as if his mother were a nurse who had abruptly resigned from her job, and clearly he wants both to sympathise with her and to blame her. She wanted to stay and she just couldn’t. But why couldn’t she, what was interfering with her ‘will’? There can be only one answer, and Proust finally asserts it in a letter written to Maurice Barrès nearly four months after Jeanne Proust’s death (and a year before he wrote the parricide piece).

Barrès was an arch-conservative anti-Dreyfusard, virulently anti-semitic, and the author of one of the most horrible of many horrible articles about Dreyfus’s public disgrace and punishment in 1895 (Dreyfus’s face and manner, Barrès said, ‘create an aura that even the coolest spectator finds revolting … he was not born to live in any society’). But in one of his later letters to his mother, Proust, a staunch believer in Dreyfus’s innocence from the beginning, relates a ‘solemn reconciliation’ with Barrès, where he, Proust, did not mince words but told Barrès a few ‘hard truths, political and moral’. Barrès took this well, Proust said. I mention this background because it seems strange that Proust should say so much about his feelings for his Jewish mother to this anti-semite, and because I think – although I am far from having worked the thought out properly – that Barrès’s repellent politics make him the right sort of confessor. It is certainly the case that Proust knew where he was with Barrès, and wrote comfortably to the man himself about the ‘marvellous and detested pages’ he had written about Dreyfus’s second trial.

Proust starts the letter, as he starts so many letters, by apologising for his delay in replying, and mentioning his illness. He is thanking Barrès for a letter of condolence, says he has ‘often reread’ it, and that he imagines his mother reading it with him, admiring it with him – already a rather baroque notion, once you think about it. He then comes to his chief point, which is that Barrès had kindly said that anyone could see that he, Proust, was the person his mother preferred, literally (using the idiom we have already looked at) that he ‘was what Maman preferred’, ‘que j’étais ce que Maman préférait’. This is wrong, Proust says. She loved him infinitely, but she preferred his father. The proof is that when his father died she wanted but was not able to survive him: ‘elle a voulu – et n’a pas pu – lui survivre pour ne pas me laisser seul.’ There is an apparent logical difficulty in the idea of wanting but not being able, since Proust is saying that if his mother actually had preferred him she would still be alive. Preference here must mean something stronger than the will, or choice, or even love. Christopher Butler has pointed out that the term literally means ‘putting first’, so Proust may be insisting on a technical difference, which would reduce a little what seems to be the grotesque selfishness of the remark.

There are also other elements in the air: anger, a sort of surprise that his mother was not only not exclusively devoted to him but not as he had imagined omnipotent. And at the end of the sentence about being abandoned he offers a curious qualification. His mother left him even though she knew he would be helpless, and even though she believed him to be more helpless, less fit for life, than he actually was. Is he saying he doesn’t/didn’t need her as much as he would like to need her? In any event, the extravagance of what seemed to be resentment turns into something like a clinical moral analysis, and in a brilliant if finicky sentence Proust says to Barrès:

if I was not in the strict sense what she preferred, and for that matter the idea of having a preference among her duties would have seemed to her a fault, and perhaps I would grieve her by introducing nuances where she did not want them, she loved me a hundred times too much since I now have the double torment of thinking she could have known, and how anxiously known, that she was leaving me, and above all of thinking that the whole of the end of her life was so afflicted, so constantly preoccupied with my health.

‘All our life’, Proust adds, was a form of training for the moment when she would leave him; a sentimental education that educated no one even for a moment, and stranded him in a condition just as untrained as it was when the long training began.

‘Thinking that the whole of the end of her life was so afflicted …’ This is the other note that runs through Proust’s letters after his mother’s death, and it obviously represents the literal ground from which he sprang into myth in his parricide article. He writes of ‘the feeling that through my ill-health I was the sorrow and care of her life’; ‘the feeling that in worrying her through my health I made her life very unhappy.’ ‘I always afflicted my poor mother by my ill-health’; ‘this is the concern that added to her sadness, that now gnaws at me with remorse’; ‘I caused too much sorrow to Maman by always being ill … I poisoned her life.’ This goes on and on, for most of the year following Jeanne Proust’s death. There is a bid for morbid glamour here, as well as a lot of self-pity, but there is a terrific, ongoing grief too, and what Henri van Blarenberghe offered Proust was the astonishing image of a man who had lost his mother rather than killed her – or rather lost her by killing her, since he didn’t know what he was doing. Proust didn’t know either, as long as his mother was on the job as his nurse and consoling mirror. Perhaps we should say he knew but didn’t want to know. And once she was dead it didn’t matter what he wanted. The double dream of killing the mother and her not having to die except according to her preference is a dream of loss that is also a dream of excessive or absent power.

Better to kill the thing that loves you than to have it leave you of its own accord. This is how crazed reading works, how you get an emblematic inference out of real family crimes and imagined Jewish weddings. Only a figure like slow murder will express the guilt and helplessness Proust now feels. What he is saying here, and says more delicately, ironically in A la recherche, where the image also evokes a child’s exaggeration of his guilt, is not that he has killed his mother, but that his crime belongs in the ranks of murder, and that its horror is all the worse for arriving so late. We could think of Ruskin and the pathetic fallacy here, where that trope would not be the gratuitous or self-indulgent failure of the imagination it usually is, but the best you could manage, the only way you might do some sort of justice to the unhinged reality of your mind.

At the famous moment of the goodnight kiss in A la recherche, that scene so well known to everyone who has read even a little bit of Proust (and to many people who have never read Proust at all), once the mother has decided not only to confer the longed for kiss on the child but to stay the whole night with him, he thinks of himself as having begun his career as a matricide:

I ought to have been happy: I was not. It seemed to me that my mother had just made me a first concession which must be painful for her, that this was a first abdication on her part before the ideal she had conceived for me, and that for the first time she, who was so courageous, was confessing herself defeated. It seemed to me that, if I had just gained a victory, it was over her … it seemed to me I had just traced in her soul the first wrinkle and caused the first white hair to appear.

Proust is discreetly adapting his Figaro article – he is sensibly saying ‘seemed’ now – and yet much of the force of the lurid story lingers, and we remember the extravagance of the letter to Barrès: no mother will grow old or die if her son doesn’t kill her; no son will fail to be abandoned if he has a father who can be preferred. Not only had psychoanalysis already been invented, it is being invented here all over again, with Orestes added to Oedipus, by a writer who never read Freud.

There is an epilogue, though, and we have seen a hint of it in the last quotation. Virtual parricides can survive, and even become novelists. They can unkill the mother, so to speak, which is not the same as resurrecting her, and find through loyalty and labour the independence they are now able to imagine the dead lady wanted for them. I don’t know whether this extravagance is truer than the other. It has a highly stylised shape to it, and in Proust’s case the phrasing is a little contorted. But it is kinder than the other tale, and it offers a peace quite different from that of those Greek altars. ‘Maman,’ Proust writes in 1908 when he is already at work on his great book, ‘gives me the strength not to see only through her’ – ‘par elle’, by her, with her help – ‘for I know that death is not an absence and that nature is not anthropomorphic.’ It’s the end of the pathetic fallacy.