‘Proust’s unpublished work does not exist,’ Bernard de Fallois wrote in 1954. Provocative words, since he was introducing a whole volume of such material, and two years earlier had brought out Jean Santeuil, an unfinished novel Proust worked on between 1895 and 1899. De Fallois was trying to suggest, with a little too much bravado, that all Proust’s writing, early and late, published and unpublished, should be considered part of his great novel, À la recherche du temps perdu. ‘The thousands of pages he dedicated to preparing for it,’ he argued, were sketches for the same grand project. Another rather more dubious meaning is that we won’t find a new Proust by looking at his manuscripts, only meet again the author we already know. Still, there is something to be said for de Fallois’s notion that a writer’s workshop is a fictional space: ‘The history of a novel is a novel.’ And pretty soon he relaxes and is happy to contradict himself. ‘Proust’s unpublished materials … do not aspire to an independent existence, distinct from his work, but they are definitely something other than drafts.’
De Fallois had been studying the profusion of Proust papers still at that point held by the family, and later given to the Bibliothèque nationale. His argument about the unpublished materials was made in his introduction to Contre Sainte-Beuve, which gathers together essays on literature and criticism along with garrulous pieces of social and personal gossip. There are thoughts on sleep, on rooms, on days, and on what it’s like to see something you’ve written appear in Le Figaro. There are discussions of Sainte-Beuve’s critical method, of Nerval, Baudelaire and Balzac. And there is a brief elaboration of the memory theory that will resolve the supposed riddle of À la recherche: where are writers to turn when they have lost all faith in their talent and all interest in reality?
A more austere, more scholarly version of some of these writings was edited by Pierre Clarac and published under the same title in 1971, and there are English translations of both works: of the first by Sylvia Townsend Warner in 1958, of the second by John Sturrock in 1988. The English titles rather elegantly contradict one another. Sturrock’s is literal and exact: Against Sainte-Beuve. Townsend Warner’s is more allusive and less quarrelsome: By Way of Sainte-Beuve. Sturrock calls her title ‘emollient’, but it has its element of mischief, since it could be translated back into French as Du côté de chez Sainte-Beuve. All kinds of things can happen down someone’s way, and Proust himself thought his writing was more ‘à propos de Sainte-Beuve’ than ‘sur Sainte-Beuve’, more in connection with him than about him. The difference seems slight, but it may matter.
Throughout his introduction, a wonderful piece of critical writing in itself, de Fallois keeps looking for the right phrase to describe the material he has assembled. ‘This is not an essay or a novel,’ he says. ‘It is a work.’ He also calls it ‘the dream of a book, a bookish dream’. He means it’s Proust’s dream, of course, but since it’s his own assembly it’s his dream too. The literary adventure, however, is Proust’s. He makes a start on a novel, abandons it, turns to criticism and theory, finds that those modes begin to look more like a novel than his novel did, and sets out in earnest on the project that will occupy him till he dies.
Among the papers de Fallois consulted were ‘75 large-format pages’ dating from 1908, which constituted ‘the earliest stage of À la recherche’ after Jean Santeuil. And here a curious story begins. Until 2018, no one had seen any of these 75 pages since de Fallois reproduced fragments of them. What had happened? In the second volume of his biography of Proust, published in 1965, George Painter referred to ‘fragments of a lost novel’. In his 1996 biography Jean-Yves Tadié spoke of ‘75 pages currently missing’. The manuscripts were not in the collection of papers that went to the Bibliothèque nationale in 1962, or indeed anywhere else that scholars could think of. For Nathalie Mauriac Dyer, the skilful editor of the now published documents, ‘their disappearance, the vain inquiries conducted by several generations of scholars since the beginning of the 1960s, all that imprinted on the “75 pages” a special mystery and aura.’
Then in January 2018 de Fallois died, and his papers too went to the Bibliothèque nationale. They contained, among many other things, some stories Proust had chosen not to print – these were edited by Luc Fraisse and published in 2019 as Le Mystérieux Correspondant et autres nouvelles inédites – and the 75 pages. Had de Fallois forgotten he had them? Did they get lost among his own papers? Either way, he had kept them. Both Fraisse and Mauriac Dyer turn to an interesting old French phrase in this context: ‘par-devers lui’. It means ‘to himself’, but is a little more formal than that. Fraisse uses it of Proust’s treatment of the pieces he didn’t want to publish: ‘Proust preserved them pars-devers lui in his archives.’ Mauriac Dyer uses it of de Fallois: ‘A Proustian with taste, Bernard de Fallois … had not kept par-devers lui the least remarkable of the manuscripts of the author of Swann.’
I like the archaic flavour of the phrase, and when I first read Mauriac Dyer’s sentence I thought it was a polite way of saying almost nothing. Then the implications of ‘with taste’ and the double negative (‘not kept … the least remarkable’) dawned on me, and the irony seemed hard to ignore. Delicate, but distinctly present. On this reading, the (unstated, entirely deniable) suggestion would be that, having published some of the 75 pages, de Fallois didn’t want to do any more damage to Proust’s reputation, even if scholars were publicly grieving for the lost treasure, for what Gallimard, on the publication of Les Soixante-Quinze Feuillets, called the Proustian grail.
There are apparently 76 pages with writing on them, but Mauriac Dyer and Gallimard have kept the magical number 75 for their title. Mauriac Dyer has divided them into six sections or episodes, with the titles ‘An Evening in the Country’, ‘The Villebon Way and the Meséglise Way’, ‘A Stay at the Seaside’, ‘Young Girls’, ‘Noble Names’ and ‘Venice’. She lists those elements that will reappear in some form in À la recherche:
The grandmother in the garden, the goodnight kiss, the drama of going to bed, the walks towards Meséglise and Guermantes, the farewell to the hawthorns, the lessons taught by the two ‘ways’, the portrait of Swann, the room in Balbec, the guests at the Grand Hotel, the three trees of Hudimesnil, the little ‘band’ of girls, the poetry of names, the death of the grandmother, posthumous dreams, Venice.
Some of the names won’t stay the same, and some angles of vision, but this is already a lot of thematic material. What’s not there yet seems by contrast quite modest: ‘Charlus and Albertine, Sodom and Gomorrah, though Sodom’s way is not absent, hidden in allusions’. Still, her helpful chart of concordances shows us the connections are mainly to the first volumes, Du côté de chez Swann and À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. And we can wonder what these elements being present means in a long work of fiction. It’s worth remembering, however dizzying the thought, that Proust knew from the start that his narrator was going to be discomposed by learning that the two ways – the two childhood walks he later allegorised into two walks of life, separate zones of personal feeling and social performance – were not opposed, that one could easily cross from one to the other. He knew this, but readers couldn’t register it as a narrative event until the early pages of Le Temps retrouvé, the last volume of À la recherche, published five years after his death.
The pieces de Fallois had already published come from the first and fifth sections of Les Soixante-Quinze Feuillets. The latter is an excursus on the allure of aristocratic titles and properties, remarkable mainly for the invocation of a ‘psychological alternative realism’ by means of which we can get over our disappointments in ‘the countries we have visited … as soon as they have once again become names to us’, as Townsend Warner translates it. The earlier episode concerns a curious scene in which the narrator’s younger brother – he has no brother in À la recherche – has a huge tantrum because he can’t take his pet goat with him when he leaves his uncle’s country house for Paris. At least this is the ostensible reason for the drama. There is a strong current of displaced anger in the scene, and it involves both brothers. Even the older boy speaks of ‘an irresistible fury’ against his mother and father and the ‘plot they had hatched to sever us’ – that is, the older boy from his mother. He calms down a little, and remains ‘smiling and broken, frozen with sadness’. The narrator’s younger brother has already stolen the scene with the masterly stroke of a sit-down strike on a railway track, leaving his mother ‘pale with terror’. His father drags him away and hits him a couple of times.
‘An Evening in the Country’, where this scene occurs, is the longest entry in Les Soixante-Quinze Feuillets (24 pages in the print edition). It begins with a comic family routine where the grandmother and the uncle are at odds about gardening and many other matters, then moves to a version of the goodnight kiss (already rehearsed in Jean Santeuil) that will be a crucial element in the plot and argument of À la recherche. The problem for the narrator is ‘the awful moment when I would have to say goodnight to Maman, feel life abandoning me at the moment when I left her to go upstairs to my room, and then face a suffering one will never know’. As soon as lamps are lit in the garden, he ‘can’t think of anything else’, speaks of his ‘awful anguish’ to come, thinks of ‘having no more happiness’ before him. He mentions ‘anguish’ again, adding the ideas of ‘torture’, ‘prison’ and being ‘sentenced to death’. He stands at the foot of the stairs to his bedroom and thinks that ‘each step would have been more cruel for me to climb only if it had led to the guillotine.’
Fortunately, the family farce is continuing in the garden, and the narrator’s ‘delight’ in it stems his anguish for a bit. The topic is the supposed distinction of the uncle’s chief dinner guest, Monsieur de Bretteville. A nice enough fellow, the grandmother says, but ‘not distinguished’. How could he not be distinguished, the uncle yells, since he owns everything in the neighbourhood of his château: ‘two villages, a lake, a church, a barracks’. The place itself is called after him, Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse. We may feel the barracks and pompous name put an effective end to all idea of distinction, and the grandmother supports us. Her valet, she says to the uncle’s outrage, ‘is a hundred times more distinguished’.
The story of the goodnight kiss returns and takes on the clear contours of its earlier and later versions. The scene ends upstairs with the boy realising that his ‘first victory’ – gained by sobbing loudly enough to persuade his mother to stay with him – is also her ‘first defeat’, and the narrator hints at the mythology that will be so important to the development of À la recherche. ‘For the first time in my life in my mother’s eyes to weep was not “to misbehave, to be naughty, to deserve to be punished”, it was to be sad, and even more, to have an affliction for which one was not responsible.’ The boy feels that he has ‘managed to pervert her will and her reason’. His own will and his reason too, since he is old enough to know about these things. ‘My tears redoubled without her understanding why.’ This is when she starts to mock him ‘with a tender gentleness’, and soon after this we get the scene of the brother and the goat. Proust is repetitive here, prone to over-emphasis, a trope quite different from his later, fully mastered habit of hyperbole. He hasn’t found a voice: he is a person writing out family legends and self-analysis rather than a novelist. Still, we do have the beginning of an answer to the astute question Jean-Yves Tadié asks in his preface to the newly published manuscripts: ‘What was there in these 75 pages that was so good that he would write them, so bad that he would stop working on them?’
There are pages that, as de Fallois suggests, do not read like early work. One of them involves the death of a mother (in À la recherche the narrator’s mother doesn’t die). Even here there are things an editor might want to change, but repetitions aren’t the worst of faults. The mother is dead when the narrator organises his sentences, as Jeanne Proust was in 1908, and the timeframes (then, now and in between) are expertly managed. The narrator mentions ‘the day that broke her life, prepared her death in a matter of months’. Before this, he has described her as she was when as a child he waited for her ‘in the shadow like a thief’, hoping to steal his goodnight kiss:
She was wearing a white cloth dressing gown, her admirable loosened black hair, containing all the gentleness and all the power of her nature, and which survived for so long like an unconscious vegetable growth of ruins that she protected tenderly at the cost of her happiness and beauty, framed a face of adorable purity, gleaming with an intelligence, with a playful tenderness that sorrow could never extinguish, looking towards life with a hope, an innocent gaiety that disappeared very quickly and that I saw again only on her deathbed when all the sorrows that life had brought her were effaced by the finger of the angel of death, when her face, for the first time in so many years no longer expressing sorrow and anxiety, returned to its original form like a portrait overloaded with impastos that the painter wipes out with a finger.
He tells us that this is not the final vision he retains of his mother, and that ‘on the darkened roads of sleep and dream’ he sees her looking tired, walking fast, a little overweight, an irritation on her face that he feels is ‘in part directed towards me’, suggesting that ‘she accused me a little’. We don’t have to attribute all her ‘sorrow and anxiety’ to her concern for her son, but there are no other named candidates, and as Mauriac Dyer suggests, we aren’t far here from Proust’s 1907 essay in Le Figaro on matricide, where ‘he had pictured himself, and had pictured all sons, as assassins of their mothers.’
Other good pages in the Feuillets are lighter. The narrator catches sight of some girls at the seaside, and we see straight away what attracts the narrator to them: they don’t pay any attention to him. They are creatures ‘for whom the rest of the universe seemed not to exist’. ‘They all had a grace, an elegance, an agility, a disdainful pride … which made of them a race completely different from that of the little girls of my world.’ The narrator would like to get to know these creatures, but realises that’s impossible, and he shifts quickly into a full-blown comic register that is quite rare in the Feuillets. ‘I would passionately have liked – not to know them, but that they should have the highest possible opinion of me.’ It would help if they knew, for instance, that his uncle was the best friend of a duke, ‘Son Altesse le duc de Clermont’. Actually, it wouldn’t help at all because the girls would have seen the duke as ‘an old, very badly dressed bourgeois’, and taken his very politeness as ‘a proof of common birth’. Then the narrator sees a family friend, Monsieur T., talking to some people who turn out to be the parents of some of the girls, and makes a plan.
He combs his hair, borrows a pink tie from his brother, puts a little powder on a spot he has on his nose, and grabs his mother’s parasol, because it has a jade handle that makes it look like ‘a sign of wealth’. All he has to do now is to take a walk with Monsieur T. and run into the girls by accident. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and almost doesn’t happen. But finally the two of them are in the right place, and Monsieur T. greets the grown-up who is standing with the girls. The man politely lifts his hat, but the girls stare rudely at Monsieur T. and the narrator and move on.
The narrator’s delusions are very well tracked. ‘I have to say the parasol didn’t seem to produce exactly the effect that I had wished.’ Monsieur T. is shocked at the girls’ rudeness, though his reasons aren’t entirely admirable: ‘They don’t know that without me their father would neither have his château nor even have married the person he did.’ The narrator pretends not to be unhappy with the encounter: ‘I couldn’t complain. If it had no effect, that was something else. They knew what they needed to know and that seemed to me a sort of justice. They knew the advantages I possessed. It was justice … So I had nothing to regret.’ A little later he says again that he couldn’t complain, but he can’t control the slippage of his adjectives: ‘I returned disappointed and yet happy.’ At the end of the section he almost meets one of the girls, and she smiles at him ‘as if we were two old friends’. But he can’t experience the pleasure, because he ‘had not had the time to imagine it’.
The group of girls who appear at the seaside in À la recherche (Albertine is one of them) have similar qualities – grace and elegance and a complete scorn for other people – and they are a ‘bande à part’, as both Proust and Jean-Luc Godard call such a gang. But the girls’ role in the novel is not now to trigger a scene in which the narrator plays a socialite clown. They are instead a sort of magical species whose very existence fascinates him, so that, however much time he spends with Albertine, he can never fully separate her aura from that of her friends and their ‘fluid, collective and mobile beauty’.
The strangest passage in the Feuillets depicts a different trial for the imagination. At first it seems as if the moment – it occurs in the section on the two ways – settles a question that remains unanswered both in other early drafts and in its final form in À l’ombre des jeunes filles. The narrator, faced with a group of trees that seem to be saying something to him – something he can’t understand – wonders where he has seen the trees before, what memory they represent and wish to recall. In the later versions he keeps wondering, but here in the Feuillets, as Mauriac Dyer says, ‘Proust lets us have in advance the key to the memory of the three trees of Hudimesnil.’ Well, a key anyway:
Since then, seeing similar trees in Normandy, in Burgundy, I would often feel that a sort of gentleness was invading me, that my current state of mind was slipping gently away in order to make room for a very old one. ‘I have seen these trees before, where.’ It was so vague that I thought it was only in a dream. And then I remembered, it was the avenue that we took on leaving town to walk on the road to Villebon.
Villebon is the name of the way that will in the finished novel be associated with Guermantes. But then the mystery opens up again, as if the real message of the trees was the unavailability of their meaning, as if continuing to look for a message was a mistake, or a disability. Mauriac Dyer writes of ‘an anti-intellectualist credo’. The narrator knows where he first saw the trees, but that is all he knows. The magical experience loses all contact with the past and becomes another instance of reality’s failure to live up to an attractive dream: ‘the way we imagine each place that we do not yet know, and that we never find when we go there … That obsessive desire to exhaust the particularity of a region, and to find words for it has ended up as a sort of intellectual discomfort that returned to me in dreams, like physical discomforts.’ Rewriting these thoughts a page or so later, Proust says: ‘Even today when all the places in the world have one after the other refused access to the mysterious essence I dreamed of for each of them … it seems to me that this avenue must really contain something analogous to what I have so often dreamed.’ And then he settles for a hypothetical ban as a form of consolation. ‘For there truly are things that must not be shown to us. And when I see that I have spent my whole life trying to see these things, I think that is perhaps the hidden secret of Life.’
‘Each place’, ‘never’, ‘must not’, ‘hidden secret’. Proust’s later work rarely grants such perfection to hopelessness. Indeed much of it is dedicated to the fairy tale of the magical moment, the terrible proximity to defeat that finally allows for victory. But there is something else he learned in 1908. Learned as a writer, we might say, rather than a thinker. We don’t see it in the Feuillets, but it is amply there in Contre Sainte-Beuve. It is the long music of goodbye, of giving up the game. And starting a journey at the same time. We can’t be sure of success, but we can’t be entirely sure of failure either. This is John Sturrock’s translation from Against Sainte-Beuve:
The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody which delights us though we are unable to recapture its outline, or to hum it … Talent is like a sort of memory … There comes a time in life when talent, like the memory, flags, when the mental muscle which brings both internal and external memories closer no longer has any strength left. In some this age lasts all through life, from lack of exercise or a too quick self-satisfaction. And no one will ever know, not even oneself, the melody that had been pursuing you with its elusive and delectable rhythm.