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 an up-to-the-minute chaos the young Proust is. He is drunk on Emerson, for example, as he was to be on Ruskin, having glided over the moral content of these misty figures, yet (as Mr. Cocking shrewdly says) Proust was a sort of transcendentalist without belief in any definable metaphysic. He transcends in person. The sound of the music was enough. Music, as we soon see in his letters, was the art apart. He reproached one of his early lovers for having a literary view of it.

The letters are also a kind of open, floating notebook in which he hopes to delight his correspondent, not only by the sight of his passing selves, but by his fascination with theirs. They are also displays. He is passionate in the letters to his mother and his grandmother, but to others, men or women, he can be bold. To Mme. Emile Straus, the family friend who seems to have been one of the models for the Duchesse de Guermantes, he risks saying:

At first, you see, I thought you loved only beautiful things and that you understood them very well—but then I saw you care nothing for them—later I thought you loved people, but I see that you care nothing for them. I believe that you love only a certain mode of life which brings out not so much your intelligence as your wit, not so much your wit as your tact, not so much your tact as your dress. A person who more than anything else loves this mode of life—and who charms. And because you charm, do not rejoice and suppose that I love you less….

To practice writing love letters, as Balzac said, improves a writer’s style. But Proust’s turn out also to be a store of fragments that will find their way, years ahead, in A la recherche. Proustian detectives have noticed that the nose of the Marquis de Cambremer (in Cities of the Plain)—the nose being “the organ in which stupidity is most readily displayed” and which in this instance was moujik-like and suggested an artifact imported from the Urals—was noticed years before in 1903 and is therefore evidence of the victory of Time Regained. The nose transcends.


The young climber is a romantic snob and a moralist as he notes class habits. Unlike the admired Balzac he is uninterested in social forces. At one of Mme. Alphonse Daudet’s parties, he notes (sadly) the “frightful materialism, so surprising in ‘intellectuals.’ They account for character and genius by physical habits or race.” Mme. Daudet was “bourgeois” and had no manners, not even bad ones. “From the viewpoint of art, to be so lacking is self-mastery, so incapable of playing a part, is abominable.” As for the aristocracy—pre-Napoleonic, of course,

they certainly have their faults, but show a true superiority when thanks to their mastery of good manners and easy charm they are able to affect the most exquisite affability for five minutes, or feign sympathy and brotherhood for an hour. And the Jews…have the same quality though in another way, a kind of charitable self-esteem, a cordiality without pride, which is infinitely precious.

By this time he has become the journalist writing the witty sketches for Le Banquet that will become Les Plaisirs et les jours. He has met and flattered the fantastic Montesquiou and has been caught out mimicking his stormy voice and mannerisms. Montesquiou is no fool. The youngster is put in his place. The count tells him “he does not need a travelling salesman for his own wit.”

Presently Proust’s adored mother steps in and puts the young butterfly on to a more serious task. She does a rough translation of Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens to help him and makes him work on it. A grind. His English is not good, yet he does claim to have read Praeterita, which, on reflection, might come too close to his relations with his mother. But what a stroke of genius on her part: the influence of Ruskin’s metaphors, his labyrinthine sentences, his imaginative flights, and his melodious pedantries will be so beguiling that years will pass before he notices the intransigent and Protestant moralist. Marie Nordlinger, the young English scholar and minor poetess, comes over to help him. In return he is moved to become her critic. We see that the word “memory” is already planted in his mind.

Don’t complain of not having learned. Strictly speaking, no knowledge is involved, for there is none outside the mysterious associations effected by our memory and the tact which our invention acquires in its approach to words. Knowledge, in the sense of something which exists ready-made outside us and which we can learn as in the Sciences—is meaningless in art. On the contrary, it is only when the scientific relationships between words have vanished from our minds and they have taken on a life in which the chemical elements are forgotten in a new individuality, that technique, the tact which knows their repugnances, flatters their desires, knows their beauty, plays on their forms, matches their affinities, can begin. And that can happen only when a human being is a human being and ceases to be so much carbon, so much phosphorous, etc.

He worked on The Bible of Amiens for four years, from a rough translation supplied by his mother. There were many mistakes, but some were due to the irreducible obscurity of the text. It turns out that his translation of Sesame and Lilies was excellent. About this time he seems to have been bowled over by Middlemarch. He sees that translation is not his real work. He writes to Antoine Bibesco:

It’s enough to arouse my thirst for creation, without of course slaking it in the least. Now that for the first time since my long torpor I have looked inward and examined my thoughts, I feel all the insignificance of my life; a thousand characters for novels, a thousand ideas urge me to give them body, like the shades in the Odyssey who plead with Ulysses to give them a little blood to drink to bring them back to life and whom the hero brushes aside with his sword. I have awakened the sleeping bee and I feel its cruel sting far more than its helpless wings. I had enslaved my intelligence to my peace of mind…. So many things are weighing on me! when my mind is wholly taken up with you. I never cease to think of you, and when I write to you I keep talking about myself.

Ruskin dragged on and on. We pick our way forward to see Proust at odds with his invalid life, his travels, his appetite for society, and his absorption in the intrigues, jealousies, suspicions, and almost comic fusses of his homosexual love affairs. His love for Antoine Bibesco is a strange mingling of adoration and the strategies and practical pedantries of jealousy. We laugh at the comic word tombeau—“silent tomb”—which occurs even in telegrams as a warning to “keep this to yourself.” This is Albertine without the tedium. The letters written by the sick writer about a proposed journey to Constantinople, the where, how, and when of it, the changes of mind, the splitting of hairs are fuss raised to the point of sublimity, yet to be taken seriously. Proust is a tyrant in love. He is frank. One never desires to fight off an affection, yet “You know in me, no affection can withstand absence.” On the other hand, “Some affections go on too long. They must be dropped before they become too important.” “A year or a year and a half is the term beyond which affection or, I should say, infections, abate and die away.” The bother is that discarded lovers may “register an upswing,” some “bring on a slump.” The more serious trouble is that Ruskin has slumped. So no trip to Constantinople. He will finish with a hysterical joke: “I shall not see the Golden Horn, a thought which gives me palpitations.”


The “real work” is presumably Jean Santeuil, the “straight” autobiographical novel which he came to see was following the pedestrian course of voluntary memory. (The madeleine has not yet been tasted.) His father dies and he is caught by grief and guilt at being the invalid son who has caused nothing but sorrow to his parents. We read his pathetic, self-pitying outbursts against his mother, which begin fiercely and end in the miserable fretfulness of a baby.

The selection inevitably ends too soon, that is to say years before A la recherche begins. For the moment we seem to be in the midst of an enormous web of glittering intrigue in which Proust clings to his friends and rules them by his demands and charm.

For the reader the letters improve as Proust approaches his discovery of what he must do. His health is worse, he is already forced into the necessary solitude, but his Proustifications are calmed by his sense of serious purpose. At two key points we have seen the thinking political moralist strongly appear: scathingly on the scandal of the Dreyfus case; with wisdom in his reaction to the anticlerical ban on teaching by the religious orders. What he fears in both cases is the perversion of justice, the loss of the lasting images of a civilization. He is both Catholic and Jew. Looking back on the letters to his mother one realizes the enormous, protective, nourishing influences his grave and gifted family had on his conscience and on his formation as both man and artist.

This Issue

July 21, 1983