Beat the carpets later!

Michael Wood

‘It’s really a miniature novel,’ we read in the introduction to this collection of Marcel Proust’s newly discovered letters, ‘C’est un vrai petit roman.’ It’s such a perfect novel that it looks like a hoax. Twenty-six letters from Proust to his upstairs neighbours at 102 boulevard Haussmann, none of the letters heard of before, many of them complaining about the noise: how could this not be a parody? And isn’t it too broad a stroke to make the husband a dentist? The wife a delicate, suffering lady who plays the harp? Please.

Marie Williams at the harp.
Marie Williams at the harp.

Jean-Yves Tadié is enchanted by these artistic possibilities. In the letters, he says, Mme Marie Williams ‘appears to us as if she were a heroine in a novel by Maupassant, Notre coeur for example’. She appears to us even more clearly as if she were a heroine in a work by Proust, ‘an epistolary novel where each of the two writers competes stylistically’, although we have to guess at Mme Williams’s part in the competition. No matter, we can reconstitute her voice, Tadié says, this dialogue has ‘the beauty of … broken statues’. Tadié also knows that Mme Williams ‘must not be very happy with her husband’ – that’s why Proust is such a soulmate.

The letters are not a hoax, it seems. They reside in Paris in the Musée des lettres et manuscrits, opened in 2004 on the rue de Nesle, relocated (and reopened) in 2010 on the boulevard Saint-Germain. But the presentation of them and the French literary world’s response are cloaked in the piety that now surrounds Proust’s reputation, which does give an air of fiction to the whole show. The piety was not created by last year’s centenary of the publication of Du côté de chez Swann, but was certainly solidified by it. Celebrations were in order, of course, but piety is not quite the same as respect or understanding. Piety’s effect is to refuse questions, and in this case to muffle the recurring one about Proust’s career: how did the brilliant, mannered, socialite dilettante become a great ascetic novelist?

It’s not much of a question if we know he was writing his way towards greatness even when it looked as if he was just flattering and fussing. All we need is hindsight, and a sense of superiority over all those early readers, like André Gide, who got things so hopelessly wrong. Gide was part of a group of editors who turned Swann down for the Nouvelle Revue Française and its associated publishing house, Gallimard – a year later he said this rejection was ‘the gravest mistake ever made by the NRF’, and the house took on all the other volumes of A la recherche. Other publishers, Fasquelle and Ollendorff, also said no to Swann, on the basis of comments which have now become perverse literary treasures. ‘At the end of this 712-page manuscript … one has no notion – none – of what it is about. What is it all for? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading to? It’s impossible to know! It’s impossible to say!’ (Jacques Normand for Fasquelle). ‘I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may, I fail to understand why a man needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep’ (Georges Boyer for Ollendorff ). As Tadié crisply says in his biography, Proust was not part of these people’s world, ‘and he doesn’t write like them, since he doesn’t write like anybody’. Proust published the book at his own expense with Grasset – the first of two volumes theoretically (in some schemes three), although the series finally expanded to seven, and Proust had been dead for five years when the last volume appeared in 1927.

And the question looks quite different if we have even glanced at the work Proust put in along the way to A la recherche du temps perdu, the result of what the Proust scholar Antoine Compagnon calls Proust’s ‘gigantic subterranean labour’. This includes the early novel Jean Santeuil, the novelistic essays collected as Contre Sainte-Beuve, the wonderful drafts found in the notebooks and published as Matinée chez la Princesse de Guermantes, and all the supplementary materials to be found in the second Pléiade edition of the novel (1987-89). But none of these texts was available before 1952, and Proust’s contemporaries understandably found it hard to shake off the image of the fragile hypochondriac dandy.

When the first volumes of Proust’s letters were published, in 1930 and 1931, they were thought to ‘perform a disservice to his memory’, because they reinforced, in Compagnon’s words, the writer’s reputation as a ‘socialite, flatterer and hypocrite’. It’s a long way from that perception to the assumption that Proust’s letters are masterpieces to set beside his fiction. ‘These letters,’ Tadié says of the new collection, ‘are those of a great writer. We must change our minds about Proust’s correspondence.’ They are the letters of a great writer, and we probably should change our minds about the correspondence. But he is not a great writer in his letters, and the change in our minds might be subtler than piety can comprehend.

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