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.

For Proust letters were the opposite of literature. They were random social acts, the graphic equivalent of the slight, disjointed things we say to one another when we meet. They had none of the depth or continuity of literary art. In his correspondence a novelist can only fall back into the superficial world of Sainte-Beuve, that dominant 19th-century critic whom Proust despised for having supposed in his philistinism that the writer’s social and creative self were one and the same, that the person you dined and talked with in the cafés or salons was the same person who went home and wrote the Fleurs du mal or Madame Bovary. Proust insisted on two selves for the true writer, a surface self for when he was in company and a deep one, a moi profond, for when he was alone, and writing. Letters may be written in solitude, but they are not written by the moi profond, whose arduous excavations of the unconscious and of buried memories are not to be squandered by being put into an envelope and delivered to a friend. It was vital that Proust the socialite and Proust the novelist be seen to be two people therefore, not one, and the letter-writer never mistaken for the man who wrote A la recherche du temps perdu. This need for duplicity finds an oblique reflection in a late essay on Flaubert, which contains in passing the suspiciously gross misjudgment that ‘what is alone surprising with such a master is the mediocrity of his correspondence.’ Flaubert’s letters are in truth the best of their century in French, a wonderfully frank, powerful and animated compendium of his moods, his attitudes and his ideas concerning the practice of his art. Why would Proust go out of his way to condemn them, if not to warn his own posterity that a great writer may (or must?) write second-rate letters, because his moi profond is nowhere in them?

Even so and happily for us, the Proust on show in the later volumes of Professor Kolb’s edition is much more the practising author than he had been earlier. A lot of his letters now are about the book, about getting it into print, getting it read and getting it rightly understood. The printing of the successive volumes of A la recherche was one of the great dramas of French publishing history. When the first of them, Du côté de chez Swann, appeared, the misprints were a scandal, a good thousand of them, but the excusable fault of type-setters who had had to work from galleys that were more palimpsest than proof, the original wording having been overgrown by the author’s scrawled and spiralling additions. (‘But it’s another book,’ said Jacques Copeau, catching sight of the ‘corrected’ galleys on a bedside visit.) So distinctive were this author’s proofs that there was a plan later on to bind some of the actual returned sheets into the deluxe editions by way of illustration, if only to show what the publishers had had to go through. Swann appeared before the war, in 1913, published by Grasset but at Proust’s own expense. Other publishers had turned it down, including the Nouvelle Revue Française (later to evolve into the house of Gallimard and to buy Proust out from a wounded but powerless Grasset), on the advice mainly of André Gide. It has sometimes been said that Gide rejected Proust’s MS because its overt homosexuality had scared him, but overt homosexuality was as yet more in the plan for the novel than the text; it does not come into Swann.

The reason Gide himself gave for turning it down – in a letter of 1914 to Proust included in the Kilmartin selection, already apologising for ‘the gravest mistake ever made by the NRF’ – is quite different, and it bears out what I have just been saying about Proust’s fears of being mistaken for nothing more than an emeritus hanger-on of the St-Germain set. ‘For me,’ wrote Gide, ‘you had remained the man who frequented the houses of Mmes X, Y or Z, the man who wrote for the Figaro. I thought of you – shall I confess it? – du côté de chez Verdurin: a snob, a dilettante socialite – the worst possible thing for our review’ (the NRF was at once magazine and publishing house). It is an irony that Proust’s offer to pay for Swann’s publication himself should have confirmed Gide in this idea, to the point where he was able to believe that French literature’s supreme modern masterpiece had begun as a piece of vanity publishing – an irony because Proust’s real reason for paying for its publication was so that he could keep control of things, and not be forced into mercenary compromises over size or subject-matter.

During the four years of war the text of the novel grew exponentially, in private; by 1917, Proust is talking of some three and a half thousand printed pages to go with the one published volume. These began to appear in 1919, when A l’ombre des jeunes filles was published, an event which he fussed and complained over to Gallimard in anticipation, then enjoyed when it happened and eventually celebrated, because the book won the Prix Goncourt for that year, a rare success for literature in the annals of a corrupt award. Proust was suddenly a literary notable, and he liked the idea of honours. The trouble, however, was that the later volumes of the novel were far riskier sexually than the early ones. How would the readers he had now gained – the ‘electricians’ he imagined taking to the novel because it described a world so unlike their own! – bear with the perversions of characters such as Charlus or Mlle de Vinteuil in the imminent pages of Sodome et Gomorrhel? Would the gathering explicitness of his text put him beyond the social pale and scotch once and for all his chances of the Légion d’Honneur or a seat in the Académie Française? He hoped for both and played some Jesuitical games with himself so that he might remain convinced of his own respectability, lobbying the poet and academician Henri de Régnier, for example, in rather too complicated terms:

I should be very sorry to spoil the character of my books out of any aspirations to the academy. But I have in the end to speak the truth, even though it might favour my candidacy. I firmly intended to talk about Sodom and Gomorrah in an objective fashion. But to my great annoyance, the fatality of the characters involved dragged me into a sort of pamphlet, or sermon, very different from the impartial portrait I had intended.

‘I’m anti, I’m anti’ becomes a minor motif of his letters around this time, in case anyone should suppose him soft on homosexuals. He asserts the morality of the later parts of his novel very strongly, even claiming them as ‘religious’, but why might this be thought to put him in bad with the Academicians? He seems to have become entangled in his own homophobic cover-story, and in the irremovable discrepancy between his worldly needs and his authorial integrity. In 1920 those appointed to the rank of chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur included – in a section of the list he thought demeaning, containing as it did various sub-literary figures – the unwontedly full name of ‘Proust (Valentin-Georges-Eugène-Marcel)’; the Academy he did not live to enter.

Far and away the most substantive element in these letters is the novelist’s intermittent but forthright commentary on his novel and on what it was meant to be. As the volumes came out he wrote frequently to the journalists and critics who reviewed them, beginning always in flattery but then passing on if need be to correction, to show where and how they had misread him. He hated the idea that A la recherche should be taken, as it so readily was, for a roman à clé; if it was one, he said, there were so many clés for each character and episode that to try and correlate them one to one was futile, and worse than futile inasmuch as it denied him his right to create a world rather than report on one. To those like the absurdly tortuous, sulky and by now moribund Robert de Montesquiou, quick to pick out members of his own plush acquaintance among the novel’s characters (though seemingly blind to any resemblance between himself and the monstrous Charlus, whom he sees rather as a descendant of Balzac’s sinister ‘invert’ Vautrin), Proust asserts the prerogative of the synthesist, for whom no one and nothing can pass untouched from life into literature, the text answering exclusively to the novelist’s particular needs. Again, he asks repeatedly that A la recherche be judged only once it is complete, that no one should decide on its quality or meaning on the strength of its serial parts. Time is the principal actor in his fiction, and time takes time to work its transformations. The novel is a ‘composition’, in the same sense as a building or a work of music, its end is predetermined – already written, he emphasises – but to be disclosed only slowly, so that the experience of reading towards it may be brought close to the experience of living. ‘It’s only at the end of the book, when the lessons of life have been grasped, that my design will become clear,’ he said, writing to Jacques Rivière, in 1914. By the same token, the book is not to be understood as a merely subjective memoir or autobiography, because according to Proust it contains not a single ‘contingency’; everything in it is there in illustration of those general laws of human demeanour which he has spent his adult life searching out in the society around him. The novel, in fact, is his valediction to that society and to his own unworthy social self and the comments that he allows himself on it in his letters converge finally in his desire to be free of his past.

Health and money are the other two truly engrossing concerns of Proust’s last letters. The first was by this time terrible, by his own account of it. Scarcely a letter but opens with a plaintive bulletin, telling of his ‘attacks’ and of the difficulties he is having even as he writes with his breathing, or seeing, or sometimes even speaking. Injections of caffeine, adrenalin and in extremis morphine keep him working on his proofs, and his room is lucky to getaired once a week from the reek of fumigants – the old woollies he wears in bed are full of holes from where he has burnt himself lighting them. His correspondents can be in no doubt just how unwell and how beleaguered he has become. By 1920-1, only the novel is alive, its author habitually declares himself to be either ‘dying’ or ‘dead’. Nor is he happy with where he has ended up by living, after being forced to move out from the old apartment in the Boulevard Haussmann where he had lived for many years, into what he likes to call a ‘slum’ in the Rue Hamelin (he manages at one point to enrol his old friend the Duc de Guiche no less as a go-between in negotiating with landlords). He has had to leave his famous cork tiles behind, because of the expense of removing them, and to put up as a consequence with the sound of the couple next door having sex.

And as with his health and his apartment, so it is with his fortune: he is financially done for, so he likes to tell people, a rentier brought low by the years of war and then by the post-war depression. In reality he was far from ruined, merely very neurotic and silly over money. All the way through his edition, Kolb has included a helpful and intelligently chosen selection of Proust’s incoming mail, and some of the best letters written to him are those of Lionel Hauser, an old family friend and investment adviser who is almost alone in treating the novelist without any hint of flannel, and tells him plainly off more than once for acting the spoilt child. Proust had got through a great deal of money over the years, and made almost none from his writing. He was quite oppressively generous when it came to giving presents: in the one surviving letter written to Alfred Agostinelli, his chauffeur and perhaps his lover, who had left him to go and take flying lessons on the Côte d’Azur, Proust refers to a propitiatory offer he had obviously made to buy the runaway his own aeroplane. (The letter arrived in the south on the same day as Agostinelli was killed when his plane dived into the Mediterranean.) But he never became poor; the dereliction into which he liked to represent himself to his correspondents as having descended is surely a part of his wish to be seen to have broken utterly with the false values of the arriviste. He is finally the arriviste in reverse.

Agostinelli’s aeroplane, had Proust ever bought it, was to have cost 27,000 francs – the precise cost in 1914 in Paris of a Rolls-Royce car (such as the narrator offers to buy for the fugitive Albertine in the novel). That we should know of this suggestive confusion between the real and the fictive is entirely due to Philip Kolb, whose editing of Proust’s letters has been from the start a wonderful example of scholarly care and definitive thoroughness. Kolb explains everything one could want explained in his footnotes and has tracked down every least allusion. When Proust casually writes to someone that ‘my age is rising as quickly as the Seine’ his editor consults the files of Le Figaro and is able to tell us that in late December 1919 the river was abnormally high and that the feet of the zouave on the Pont d’Alma were once again awash. Indeed, it is by the tracing of references like these that Kolb has been able to date many of the letters, since Proust himself seems never to have bothered with dates.

Kolb’s is a magnificent edition. Even fanatical Proustians, however, may find the complete run of what will be 21 volumes too much for them and think that Anglophone readers are fortunate to have just the three (it will eventually be four) volumes of selections from the letters. These were made and quite splendidly translated by the late Terence Kilmartin, and it is sad indeed that he should have died before the sequence was complete. But the three volumes that he did provide stand as a fine memorial to an unusually attentive, stylish and knowledgeable translator.