The man who wrote for the ‘Figaro’

John Sturrock

  • Selected Letters: Vol. III, 1910-1917 by Marcel Proust, edited by Philip Kolb, translated by Terence Kilmartin
    HarperCollins, 434 pp, £35.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 00 215541 9
  • Correspondance de Marcel Proust: Tome XVIII, 191 edited by Philip Kolb
    Plon, 657 pp, frs 290.00, September 1990, ISBN 2 259 02187 5
  • Correspondance de Marcel Proust: Tome XIX, 1920 edited by Philip Kolb
    Plon, 857 pp, frs 350.00, May 1991, ISBN 2 259 02389 4
  • Correspondance de Marcel Proust: Tome XX, 1921 edited by Philip Kolb
    Plon, 713 pp, frs 350.00, April 1992, ISBN 2 259 02433 5

Proust wrote too many letters: he thought so and so anyone might think, as Philip Kolb’s expanding series of annual volumes edges towards the writer’s death, in 1922. Sheer numbers would not have mattered had they been stronger letters, but Proust’s correspondence is too much of it mechanical or emptily ingratiating, the one remaining exercise of the social virtues by a man who had taken to his bedroom (with occasional querulous sorties late at night to the Ritz Hotel) in order to be alone with his asthma and the prodigiously radiating manuscript of his novel. But as he declined bodily in his fetid hermitage, Proust came to worry about the hundreds of letters he had written in these years of rapt fictional creation; he was afraid, he told his housekeeper. Céleste Albaret, that once he was dead they would be published, or if not published sold at auction, and he even asked a lawyer whether he could stop that happening. He found he could not, and concluded morbidly that his letters would eventually become so many ‘arrows returned against him’. But this black thought did not slow him down, because the iller and more unvisitable he became the more letters he wrote: the later volumes in Kolb’s series are fatter by many pages than the earlier ones. In theory, Proust told Jacques Rivière (in a letter), he was un athée de l’amitié, an unbeliever in friendship, but one who yet ‘practised it with far greater fervour than so many apostles of friendship’; and the evidence of this confessedly Tartuffian fervour is in the plenty and regularity of his correspondence, as he keeps company with a whole vivarium of big fish and small, with the titled hostesses of whose hollow world he had become the pampered adept when young, with the old literary friends and young literary protégés whose work he endlessly overpraises, with his publishers, and with the admirers and reviewers of his own work once that has begun to appear in its full extent after 1918.

Why would he have worried that letters as anodyne and mannerly as his mostly are might one day become ‘arrows’, and be fired back at him in retaliation? The acrid, analytical Proust keeps himself for the novel, and is unloosed all too seldom in the correspondence, beyond the occasional complaint in a safely democratic ear about how depressingly stupid the habitués of the beaux quartiers constitutionally are and of how out of place he always was among them: ‘I got into that circle very young. I said only vacuous things, which were admired. One day I talked intelligently, and they struck me off their dinner-lists for six months.’ But generally Proust the correspondent shows few brute feelings and bares no disturbing secrets: he is more M. de Norpois than the Baron de Charlus; the urbane tactician of the drawingrooms, not the serpentine and malicious deviant. But might this not be just it, might he not have wanted to call his letters back simply because they were so careful, so very much less Proustian than they should have been coming from the bitingly candid moralist of A la recherche du temps perdu? Aggregated and published, they would betray the double standards of the novelist whose great book had ultimately exposed the shallowness, cruelty and unforgiving egotism of the very society that had once attracted and then received the young Proust himself, and of which as a writer of facile letters to dukes, literary lions and countesses he appeared still to be an expert member. His letter-writing was a compulsion the too plentiful evidence for which might much better die with the man who indulged it.

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