An Absolutely Different Life

Michael Wood

  • Sept conférences sur Marcel Proust by Bernard de Fallois
    Editions de Fallois, 312 pp, €20.00, January, ISBN 978 1 03 210214 6
  • Proust avant Proust: Essai sur ‘Les Plaisirs et les jours’ by Bernard de Fallois
    Les Belles Lettres, 192 pp, €21.50, May, ISBN 978 2 251 44939 5
  • ‘Le Mystérieux Correspondant’ et autres nouvelles inédites by Marcel Proust, edited by Luc Fraisse
    Editions de Fallois, 174 pp, €18.50, October, ISBN 978 1 03 210229 0

Bernard de Fallois, a legendary French editor and publisher, died in January 2018. He worked for a long time at Hachette, and set up his own company in 1987. At one point, he was considering doing postgraduate work on Proust; he said in one of the lectures now published as Sept conférences sur Marcel Proust that he had been ‘tempted to conduct … a university exercise that one calls a thesis’, and the wording alone tells us a lot. But Proust was not the academic fashion then, and de Fallois had a hard time finding an adviser. He left the university world, became a schoolteacher and after that went into publishing, but he remained a distinguished Proustian. Invited by André Maurois to look at the Proust archive, at that point still held by Proust’s niece, de Fallois discovered Jean Santeuil, a long unfinished autobiographical novel, and brought out an edition in 1952. He also found a collection of essays that could be seen retrospectively as the birthplace of A la recherche, and is now indispensable to many of us for all kinds of reason. This was Contre Sainte-Beuve published in 1954. On his death, de Fallois’s papers passed to the Bibliothèque nationale, and now we have three new books: de Fallois’s lectures, his essay on Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours, and just last month, a handful of early Proust stories, all but one never published before. Most of the lectures were given in 1998, the essay stems from the 1950s, and the new pieces in Le Mystérieux Correspondant come from the de Fallois papers. All three works have been curated by Luc Fraisse, a Proust scholar who teaches at the University of Strasbourg.

De Fallois’s lectures were given to non-academic audiences, and are full of good lines and engaging insights. He doesn’t think Proust had much of a life, and he believes in the history of works rather than authors. ‘I wanted to discover something,’ he says, ‘but it was not Proust’s life I wanted to discover. I was passionately eager to know not when he met Robert de Montesquiou [one of the chief models for the Baron de Charlus], but when he met Swann, Charlus or Albertine.’ This perspective accounts for an apparent slip in his other book, where de Fallois writes of ‘three decisive events’ in Proust’s life: ‘the death of his parents, that of Albertine, the discovery of art’. He is resisting the idea that we all know who Albertine is, and that she was a he. The book also includes a 1959 essay about Proust’s readers in the first half of the 20th century, which ends with a epigrammatic expression of a credo that takes us, through Proust, into many other places: ‘an open book is time regained’, ‘un livre ouvert c’est le temps retrouvé’.

Proust avant Proust is the ideal companion to the newly published Proust pieces, in part because de Fallois writes so well, and avoids all the easy hindsight that Proust’s work often seems to provoke, and in part because he discusses six of the nine pieces that appear in Le Mystérieux Correspondant, whose main content consists of material Proust dropped from Les Plaisirs et les jours. In best Proustian fashion, de Fallois’s essay extends to what once was and then wasn’t in the work he is studying.

In 1891, de Fallois reminds us, Proust returned from his spell of military service to live in Paris with his parents, and he stayed there until they died – his father in 1903, his mother in 1905. It is hard to give an account of this time, de Fallois says, ‘because no important event, no new decision or realisation arrives to interrupt its course, dividing up the years and giving each one its colour’. Proust has old schoolfriends who are publishing their first books, and making their way in the world of letters, but he thinks of himself as still an apprentice. Unlike his friends, Proust does not have – the elegant phrase says as much about the critic as it does about his subject – ‘the privilege of not knowing things’, ‘le privilège de l’inconscience’. He is writing stories from 1891 onwards, but doesn’t collect them in a volume until 1896. Les Plaisirs et les jours is a book, de Fallois says, ‘on which time has collaborated’. ‘It is Lost Time without the Search.’ He also comments on the title, with its glance at Hesiod’s Works and Days, which indicates, he says, ‘the moral content of the book, a sadness ashamed of itself that undergoes the double corrective of humour and analysis’.

The sadness is important but so are the humour and analysis. De Fallois says of the themes of the early stories, both the ones kept in Les Plaisirs et les jours and the ones left out, ‘the seducers are always mediocre: the object of love is without value, passion is always subjective. Love is fatally foiled, not only does it not entail reciprocity but on the contrary needs only to declare itself in order to fail.’ Many of the characters have wagered on their soul – ‘and usually lost’.

All the new Proust pieces in Le Mystérieux Correspondant – there is a useful section of the book, written by Fraisse, about other material in the de Fallois archive, that looks clearly towards the later work – are entertaining in their diverse and often slightly over-ripe ways. There is an unfinished story about a man who keeps returning to the same spot in the Bois de Boulogne. He says he has fallen in love with a lake in the park that combines gentle air and calm water. He is known to have tried to kill himself when his affair with a (female) dancer ended, and has since sworn off women ‘for ever’, ‘à tout jamais’, but we don’t learn much more about him. There is a Platonic dialogue in hell about male homosexuality, applauded by Samson because of his experience with Delilah, but described quite differently by a contemporary Frenchman called Quélus. He’s a gay man who likes women, who has ‘always infinitely appreciated them’. The dialogue ends with the appearance of the historian Ernest Renan, who seems to believe homosexuality is some sort of affectation, to be denied because it deprives men of the experience of heterosexual love as poetry or madness or both. ‘The pleasure of your senses,’ Renan says, ‘would be enriched and refined by all those that woman alone can give to our imagination.’ ‘Little does he know’, we may hear the inventor of this dialogue murmuring.

A man who is desperate about his poor luck in love – ‘I had just realised … that I loved her and that probably I was not loved and perhaps never would be’ – is consoled by the visit of a strange creature, half-cat, half-squirrel. ‘I was no longer sad, I was no longer alone,’ he says. He is grateful to his ‘dear loveable noiseless beast’, and we may be glad there isn’t any more of this. Fraisse evokes Poe as a source for this writing, but it feels more like Lewis Carroll gone mushy.

There is a meditation on the power of music. All kinds of human beauty and generosity and grace make wonderful promises, but they can’t keep them.

Yet there is a realm … where we experience without moving the dizziness of speed, without weariness the exhaustion of struggle, without danger the intoxication of sliding, leaping, flying, where at every minute our strength is equal to our will, and our pleasure to our desire … It is the realm of music.

This could be why ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,’ as Pater said; and in this context the suggestion would be that Proust is talking about literature as it might be, a place where the imagination keeps the contradictions of reality at bay. Or as the pieces in Le Mystérieux Correspondant taken together propose perhaps even more firmly, where the imagination lets those contradictions work out their worries in full view.

A piece called ‘The Gifts of the Fairies’ explains that some gifts are welcome and easy to enjoy. Others are wonderful but harder to handle, and for these we need artists, ‘painters, musicians and poets’ to show us the way. ‘Such is the service that these kind genies perform for us, they show us the unknown strengths of our soul, which we increase by using them.’ But then there is another fairy, almost too Proustian to be true. She explains that her gifts are very different from the ones her sisters have offered, because she is ‘the fairy of misunderstood gestures of delicacy’ – ‘la fée des délicatesses incomprises’. Proust is probably thinking of Rimbaud’s lines ‘Par délicatesse/j’ai perdu ma vie,’ which we might translate as ‘politeness ruined my life.’ But he is not as savage as Rimbaud, and Proust’s fairy makes her awful promises with a calm that is almost mesmerising.

Everyone will hurt you, wound you, those you will not love, those you will still love. As the slightest reproaches, a touch of indifference or irony will often make you suffer, you will think these are inhuman weapons, too cruel for you to use, even against nasty people. For in spite of yourself you will lend them your soul and your capacity for suffering.

The litany continues for quite a while, and then another voice is heard, saying:

I am the voice of the fairy who doesn’t exist yet but who will be born of your sorrows, your misunderstood tenderness, of the suffering of your body. And being unable to liberate you from your destiny, I shall fill it with my divine perfume … I shall show you the beauty of the sadness of your disdained love, of your open wounds … The hardness, the stupidity, the indifference of men and women will become an entertainment for you … Certainly illness will take many pleasures from you … But if I enrich it, illness has virtues that health does not know.

The parody of Pascal in the last sentence (‘The heart has its reasons that reason does not know’) shows that Proust is really getting into his melancholy swing, and that even self-pity can become a game.

The last piece in the series describes a person who is able to get over much loving and suffering because he can forget them, as he forgets everything. ‘Time like the sea takes everything away.’ There is a reason for this disposition, though, and it has to do with art. God doesn’t want this man to be totally debilitated by suffering because he has planted in him ‘the gift of song’, which we may read as a talent of any kind. Therefore God puts ‘desirable creatures’ in the man’s way, and recommends infidelity. God’s reasoning here is the same as for granting swallows, albatrosses, ‘and the other little singers’ the instinct to migrate before the cold kills them.

*

This is all good fun, but the powerful pieces in the volume, the ones that engage fully with what is only hinted at elsewhere, are the first three, including the title story. Two of these works address homosexuality directly, the third has nothing to do with it, unless we think, as Proust probably did, that religion and respectability are a necessary part of the modern story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Proust was almost as interested in fantasies of normality as he was in its demonstrable alternatives.

This third story is called ‘Pauline de S.’, and opens the collection. A young man learns that an old friend is dying, and pays her a visit. He prepares himself by imagining how she must be feeling – no, how she should be feeling – and gets things hopelessly wrong. Surely the proximity of death inverts all our assumptions. ‘Pleasures, entertainments, lives, particular tasks’ all become ‘insignificant, insipid, derisory, ridiculously and frighteningly small and unreal’. Don’t they? Not for Pauline. She doesn’t look sad, she just looks ill. She has been reading a political pamphlet, her conversation is as brilliant as always, scoring off the people she knows. She says she would like to go to the theatre with the narrator, but it would have to be a matinée, because an evening show would be too tiring. She doesn’t want to see anything like the narrator’s classy tragedies – ‘your boring Hamlet or Antigone’, as she puts it. A play by Labiche would be good, or an operetta. We may feel, as Proust probably feels, that this is an admirable woman who will not turn her life into an act of dying, but the narrator is ‘stupefied’ by her frivolity. He learns from other visits that she has not been consulting the Gospel or the Imitation of Christ, talking to priests, thinking about repentance, or anything of the kind. The narrator wonders whether it is all an act, but is persuaded that it isn’t. Pauline is behaving – this is what outrages him – as she did before. The story ends with his diatribe against this ‘unique aberration’, but that is because he too has failed to learn death’s lesson and has again taken up his ‘frivolous life’.

‘A Captain’s Memory’ is a regendered prose version of Baudelaire’s poem ‘A une passante’, where a man sees a woman on the street and knows he will never see her again. They have exchanged glances, that’s all – love ‘at last sight’, as Walter Benjamin said. A captain returns to the small town where he served in the army, talks for a while with his old orderly in the presence of a guard who is sitting outside the barracks. The captain is mesmerised by the guard, and has to work hard not to keep looking at him. Finally he leaves, tips his hat to the guard, and smiles. The guard stands up and salutes correctly, although he looks really troubled. And then we get this curious travelling shot as the captain departs:

Then as I took off on my horse, I saluted properly and it was as if my gaze and my smile were already saying infinitely affectionate things to an old friend. And forgetting reality, through that mysterious enchantment of looks which are like souls and transport us into their mystical kingdom where all impossibilities are banished, I remained bare-headed, already carried some distance away by my horse, my head turned towards him until I could see him no longer. He kept saluting and truly two gazes of friendship, as if beyond time and space, of a confident and calm friendship, had been exchanged … Naturally I have never seen him again, and I shall never see him again.

The title-piece of the volume is the longest work in the book. A woman called Françoise is worried about her friend Christiane, who is gravely ill. As they sit together, a servant delivers a letter to Françoise. It is anonymous. It begins: ‘Madame, I have loved you for a long time but I can neither tell you nor not tell you. Forgive me.’ It ends: ‘You are so nice, take pity on me, I am dying because I cannot have you.’ Françoise thinks she will show the letter to her husband but decides against it. The next day she gets another letter, and the writer begins to pester her with notes, saying: ‘Why won’t you see me?’ Françoise gets frightened because she thinks the person is in her house, and writes on the bottom of the last, hand-delivered letter: ‘Leave immediately, I order you.’ Another letter dutifully accepts this instruction. It says: ‘I have obeyed. I shall not come back. You will not see me again.’ A little later Françoise understands what the last words of the letter mean. If the man says he will not see her again, he has seen her already. Who could this be?

You may have guessed what happens next. The plotting of this story is not up to the standard of its representation of disguises and assumptions and dreams. But the language stays firmly with Françoise’s imaginings. This is definitely a ‘he’, and the title is ‘Le Mystérieux Correspondant’, not ‘La Mystérieuse Correspondante’. But then the language is right only about the thought; it is wrong about the facts. Because of course the writer of the letters is Christiane, who finally wanted to be more than a friend of Françoise, and is perhaps dying because this can’t happen. This is not just a figure of speech, since Christiane’s doctor thinks that what she needs more than anything is ‘an absolutely different life’.

Françoise meanwhile has decided that she admires her unknown lover’s boldness and his obedience. She thinks he must be a soldier, and she likes soldiers. Some of this carries over into her shock when she learns the truth, and she would like to respond in some way to Christiane, to go a little further than she is supposed to. She obliquely asks her confessor if this might be all right – framing her question as if it belonged to someone else, and turning Christiane into a man – and receives a no-nonsense answer. Of course it would not be all right. It would be ‘to soil, to ruin, to prevent, to annihilate the sacrifice of a life’. Françoise does nothing and Christiane dies. As I said, the plot is a little jerky, but what Françoise can’t understand is complicated and what Christiane must be suffering is awful. The priest is banning heterosexual connection outside of marriage, and doesn’t even have to think about what is actually going on.

De Fallois says homosexual love in these texts is ‘frightening, singular, almost magical’; and the world of Sodom is still ‘the fabulous exception’, not the complex realm evoked in A la recherche by tones that run from high pathos to sly comedy. But the sense of social enforcement is also very strong, and of religion as a way of making people feel bad about their supposed deviance. It’s tempting to believe that Proust is dramatising a split within himself in these tales, a division between the conformist and the dissident. But I don’t think he was ever a real conformist, which would mean that his portraits of these kinds of behaviour – the narrator angry at frivolity, the priest so ready to give repellent advice – reflect a strong sense of history rather than an urge to confess. Proust didn’t make any of these conflicts up. For a different tone, and an easier relation to this shifting world, we can turn to A la recherche, and the suggestion that a gay community provides a better secret service than the angels.

The two angels who were posted at the gates of Sodom to learn whether its inhabitants … had done every one of the things … had been … very ill chosen by the Lord God, who ought to have entrusted the task only to a Sodomist. He would not have been led benevolently to lower the flaming sword or temper the sanctions by the excuses, ‘Father of six children, I have two mistresses etc.’