Marcel Proust: Selected Letters (1880-1903)

edited by Philip Kolb, translated by Ralph Manheim, with an introduction by J.M. Cocking
Doubleday, 376 pp., $19.95

Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust; drawing by David Levine

As a young letter writer Proust is already talking himself into what would eventually become autobiography as a continuing art. There will be no stopping the rush. He is about seventeen, still at the Lycée Condorcet—

Forgive my handwriting, my style, my spelling. I don’t dare re-read myself. When I write at breakneck speed. I know I shouldn’t. But I have so much to say. It comes pouring out of me.

He is sending a younger friend one or two tips about half a dozen of the teachers he will have to face and issuing a warning:

Well, I beg you—for your own sake—don’t do what I did, don’t proselytize your teachers. I could do it, thanks to an infinitely liberal and charming man, Gaucher [he had lately died]. I wrote papers that weren’t at all like school exercises. The result was that two months later a dozen imbeciles were writing in decadent style, that Cucheval thought me a troublemaker, that I set the whole class about the ears, and that some of my classmates came to regard me as a poseur. Luckily it only lasted for two months, but a month ago Cucheval said: “He’ll pass, because he was only clowning, but fifteen will fail because of him.” They will want to cure you. Your comrades will think you’re crazy or feeble-minded….If it hadn’t been for Gaucher, I’d have been torn to pieces.

What is he up to? His friends called it Proustification. Earlier we’ve seen him dazzling his adored grandmother with phrases swearing “by Artemis the white goddess and by Pluto of the fiery eyes,” paraphrasing Musset—it will please her generation—and “consoling his woes” with “the divine melodies of Massenet and Gounod.” He will soon be sagely worshipping Anatole France from whom he seems to have learned what was to fertilize him as a novelist: that each human being is made up of many selves. He is classicist, romantic, and exotic at will. In his introduction to Philip Kolb’s selection of the early letters from the Plon edition, written before Proust remembered tasting the madeleine, J.M. Cocking remarks that Proustifying is a flexing of the linguistic muscles by a youth of enormous reading who seems to know more about literature and the arts than can be good for any novelist to know. He is experimenting not only with the actual use of words, but with thought, too. He is attempting to analyze and understand his own spontaneity, his cascading hyperbole, his outrageous flights of social flattery as exercises of the “imagination and sensibility.”

Later Proust called that divine pair “the two ignorant Muses which require no cultivation.” The young man fears the dilettante in himself, but that will not prevent him from going all-out for the flowery manners of the belle époque and their sinuous pursuit of paradox. (Here Ralph Manheim’s translation is excellent.) What…

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