Marcel Proust was unusual in this as well: he turned every moment, from the most rarefied to the most ordinary, into an occasion for boundless introspection. He took the private temperament and mental habits of someone accustomed to prolonged solitude and applied them to the world around him, giving, as would become his signature, an internal mold to anything external. Everything, he discovered, from tea biscuits to stewed chicken to asparagus when they were in season, or from the very first stirrings of jealousy when a lover isn’t even aware he’s being cheated on down to the early morning streets with their telltale sounds that it rained all night—everything cried out to be looked at from the inside.
Proust not only made introspection and its attendant solitude the cornerstone of a new aesthetic; he built an epic around them. After he sought out the very rich and was coddled by them, or after he found love—which rarely happened—Proust, like the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu, returned to his solitude, to his private world, as to a coming home. At the end of the novel, when Marcel finally has his artistic vocation revealed to him in three successive flashes, he discovers that the very solitude he had sought out and lived with all of his life, and which followed him like a shadow, was perhaps the most authentic and enduring thing about him.
And yet, quite apart from writing and reading, that solitude, voluntary as it was, must also have weighed on Marcel Proust—for he was very often alone. From the opening pages of his epic, Proust gives us several instances where, lying in the dark, having put away his book, Marcel is prey to terrible anxieties. The man who from his early twenties became an accomplished social creature and seemed to need no courage to brave the snubs that might come from climbing too fast from one exclusive salon to the next1 couldn’t stand being left alone in a hotel room. At the end of a difficult night in their adjacent bedrooms, what the adolescent Marcel needed most was to hear his grandmother tap three times on her side of the partition wall to tell him that he wasn’t alone, that someone would always “come to look after him,” that the ordeal was over. Her knock meant: “Don’t get agitated; I’ve heard you; I shall be with you in a minute. I could hear [you] just now, trying to make up [your] mind, and rustling the bedclothes, and going through all [your] tricks.”
What could be more intimate and more precious and less solitary in Proust’s universe than such intimacy between two beings? She knows he knows she knows that he’s reluctant to wake her up, but that the thing he needs most now is to hear her three little good-morning taps. What could be worse than to wake up somewhere strange and know that these three taps won’t come to relieve the dead silence in the room, or that they won’t ever come again, because the person whose hand once seemed to reach through the wall to shoo away his fears will never again lie behind this or any other partition wall, for the wall between them now is the cruelest one of all?
Intimacy this is, and at its most poignant, but, as always in Proust, intimacy comes with its own insidious barriers and screen walls. Readers of Swann in Love will recall that kissing is less a union of two beings than it is a mournful farewell to solitude abandoned and a near-desperate summoning of desires once nursed in solitude. Touching hardly comes any easier, either for Proust or for Marcel, the narrator. The barriers between one being and another are so great that sexuality itself can pay the price and acquire attenuated forms. Writing in 1919 to Jacques Porel, the son of his landlady, the famous actress Réjane, Proust confides that hearing through a wall his neighbors making love reminds him that sexual pleasure is, for him, “weaker than that obtained from drinking a glass of cold beer.”
This detail is not without interest, since Proust incorporates it in his novel when he has the young Marcel, who’s just witnessed the courtship ritual between the vestmaker Jupien and the Baron de Charlus, pin his ear to yet another partition to make out the intimate cries emitted by the two men. The often-repeated story of sexual arousal at the sight of tussling rats, to say nothing of Proust’s alleged practices in Le Cuziat’s brothel, where he is said to have undressed, slipped under the bedcovers, and satisfied himself at the sight of a young man standing naked at arm’s length, suggests at least the difficulty both author and narrator must have experienced in simply touching another human being.
Yet sadomasochism, homosexuality, voyeurism pale when compared to the most consuming passion known in Proust’s universe: epistemophilia, the desire to know—or rather, speculophilia, the compulsion to speculate about what others do when he’s not there, though when they offer to do it with him, he’ll neglect to take them up on it. Thus Marcel will prefer to take a promissory offer from Albertine rather than sleep with her, and Swann will intentionally arrive late one evening once he feels that Odette must surely be waiting for him. Intimacy is always thwarted, and desire, if consuming jealousy can indeed be called desire, is invariably the work of one’s solitude. In the end, Proust was fully prepared to accept, and from a very young age, that happiness is the one thing in our lives others cannot bring.
If there is happiness—and there were happy moments in Proust’s life—then the anticipation of its loss is almost sure to mar it. Hardly a day passes when the characters worshiping their current flames do not already anticipate the gradations that will unavoidably lead them from fierce obsession to sorrow to languishing indifference. Even as they pine for a beloved, Proust’s lovers are already able to regret that they will soon no longer recall what could possibly have made them suffer for someone they’ll have almost certainly forgotten. Hardly a day went by when Proust himself did not rehearse the moment when his mother would no longer be with him. “Our entire life together,” he writes in a letter about his mother, “was only a period of training for her to teach me to live without her for the day when she would leave me.”
Some men, to paraphrase Pascal, make a virtue of balancing two opposing vices. Proust stood in the present by letting both past and future tug at him with equal force. Everyone encounters life however he can. Proust met his in a time warp all his own.
We wouldn’t have Proust’s books if he had been more social than he was, or if he had let his desires run more to a human being than to a book. Other than his mother and, occasionally, his old friend and lover the composer Reynaldo Hahn, and, in the latter years of his life, his housekeeper, Céleste Albaret, there was, really, no one. His reclusive writing conditions are by now legendary: he wrote in bed, in a cork-lined room, with his clothes and sweaters forever crumpled around him, drinking too much coffee, taking too many drugs in an overheated room that reeked of disinfectant, which made all of his guests uncomfortable. He wrote for himself, not for others. Yet he wrote for himself as though he were another—i.e., someone who was trusted enough to know the day-to-day details of his life but with whom a touch of intimate ceremony was not unwelcome. He wrote as though he had forgotten his entire life and, like a stroke patient who needs to have every limb and faculty reeducated, had to relive through everything all over again, only this time with the small things given larger scope and the larger ones allowed to shrink to their true proportions, everything finally restored, thus implying what everyone more or less suspects: that the life we know is mere rehearsal, but that the second-time-around life is the true and final performance we’ll never live to see. In between both lives, Proust found his place.
Proust’s genius was not to reinvent his life—which he did—or to add to or patch up its unsavory moments—which he most certainly did—but to make going back to its pains and sorrows a source of aesthetic pleasure. He had to find a voice, a vision, a style that would allow him to revisit everything he had felt, experienced, remembered, and longed for:
The fine things we shall write if we have talent enough, are within us, dimly, like the remembrance of a tune which charms us though we cannot recall its outline, or hum it, or even sketch its metrical form, say if there are pauses in it, or runs of rapid notes. Those who are haunted by their confused remembrance of truths they have never known are the men who are gifted…. Talent is like a kind of memory, which in the end enables them to call back this confused music, to hear it distinctly, to write it down, to reproduce it, to sing it.
This is Proust in his late thirties, writing around 1908, when he had more than likely begun work on À la recherche du temps perdu.
What Proust will write about in this book is precisely a life that was spent putting off real life, a life spent watching others live, dreaming of others who never quite fit in his life. Sitting down and writing meant above all to think of time, but as a matter not so much of childhood lost or of love lost as of a vocation deferred. Looking back meant looking back to those fateful hours in Combray when he read away entire summer afternoons, dreaming of Italy and of the Middle Ages and finally taking up a sheet of paper to jot down his impressions of the steeples of Martinville. Time started then.
And yet, Proust’s happiest days were spent not when he was a child in Illiers but as a young man of twenty-four, in the very late summer of 1895. He was accompanied by Reynaldo Hahn, a man he must have adored, and with whom he spent an idyllic vacation in the small sea town of Beg-Meil, on the tip end of Brittany. Here Proust, who was about to publish a collection of short stories, spent days reading Balzac, Madame de Sévigné, and Carlyle. Better yet, in no time, he started writing a novel. The novel, entitled Jean Santeuil, was much later abandoned, but it was a young draft of what would become his masterpiece. That summer, everything—love, writing, friendship—had come together.
This exclusive world, which fascinated Proust and which he described with so trenchant an eye, was captured by the French socialite photographer Paul Nadar (1856–1939). Nadar not only photographed the Proust family, but as the recently published Le Monde de Proust (to be issued in the US by MIT Press in November) will show, he immortalized the rich and famous of turn-of-the-century France: Charles Haas, the model for Proust's Charles Swann (see illustration on page 58); Sarah Bernhardt, the actress who inspired Proust's La Berma; Armand de Guiche, one of the many models for the dashing Robert de Saint-Loup; Claude Monet, the prototype for Proust's Elstir; Robert de Montesquiou, more famous nowadays as Proust's Charlus than the great poet he mistook himself for; and a young wide-eyed Gabrielle Réju (Réjane), the actress whom Proust admired and who in her old age rented out her apartment to none other than the author himself.↩
This exclusive world, which fascinated Proust and which he described with so trenchant an eye, was captured by the French socialite photographer Paul Nadar (1856–1939). Nadar not only photographed the Proust family, but as the recently published Le Monde de Proust (to be issued in the US by MIT Press in November) will show, he immortalized the rich and famous of turn-of-the-century France: Charles Haas, the model for Proust’s Charles Swann (see illustration on page 58); Sarah Bernhardt, the actress who inspired Proust’s La Berma; Armand de Guiche, one of the many models for the dashing Robert de Saint-Loup; Claude Monet, the prototype for Proust’s Elstir; Robert de Montesquiou, more famous nowadays as Proust’s Charlus than the great poet he mistook himself for; and a young wide-eyed Gabrielle Réju (Réjane), the actress whom Proust admired and who in her old age rented out her apartment to none other than the author himself.↩