When Marcel Proust Was an Anxious Debut Novelist – William C. Carter

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On November 8th Proust, who did not rise from his bed, received Élie-Joseph Bois, a reporter from Le Temps, and spoke to him for an hour and a half about “a thousand things.” The newspaper’s editor Adrien Hébrard, who was Marie Scheikévitch’s lover, had arranged for the interview as a favor to her. The primary topic of conversation was, of course, Swann’s Way. The author explained his views on time, characters, and style. Throughout the interview, Proust quoted passages from Swann’s Way and remaining volumes, perhaps hoping to thwart criticisms about the lack of a plot by showing some of the lessons the Narrator learns by the novel’s end.

In the interview Bois raised readers’ expectations about the novel by saying that the copy passed around to “privileged readers” had provoked great enthusiasm. The interviewer wondered whether the book was “a masterpiece, as some had already called it.” He also predicted that Swann’s Way would “disconcert many readers.” Though “a book of true originality and profundity to the point of strangeness, claiming the reader’s full attention and even seizing it forcibly,” Proust’s novel lacked a plot in the usual sense “of what we rely on in most novels to carry us along in some state of expectation through a series of adventures to the necessary resolution.” Instead, Swann’s Way was a “novel of analysis,” “so deep” that “at times you want to cry out, ‘Enough!’ as to a surgeon who spares no detail in describing an operation. Yet you never say it. You keep on turning the pages feverishly in order to see further into the souls of these creatures. What you see is a certain Swann in love with Odette de Crécy, and how his love changes into an anxious, suspicious, unhealthy passion tormented by the most atrocious jealousy.” Bois told his readers that with Proust “we aren’t kept on the outside of things; . . . we are thrust into the mind and heart and body of that man.” The interviewer also mentioned similar experiences with a “child’s love for his mother, and with a boy’s puppy love for one of his playmates . . . M. Marcel Proust is the author of the disturbing book.”

Bois provided a brief summary of Proust’s previous work, reprising the hothouse image from France’s preface to Pleasures and Days to illustrate that the writer had matured: “Marcel Proust, intent upon himself, has drawn out of his own suffering a creative energy demonstrated in his novel.” The interviewer described the novelist “lying down in a bedroom whose shutters are almost permanently closed. Electric light accentuates the dull color of his face, but two fine eyes burning with life and fever gleam below the hair that falls over his forehead.” Although “still the slave of his illness . . . that person disappears when the writer, invited to comment on his work, comes to life and begins to talk.”

Proust wanted potential readers to know that his attempts to bring out all his volumes together had failed because publishers were reluctant to issue “several volumes at a time.” Proust explained his notion of the importance of time in his work: “It is the invisible substance of time that I have tried to isolate, and it meant that the experiment had to last over a long period.” He gave an overview of his work that showed the union of characters belonging to different social worlds, his presentation of people seen in multiple perspectives, and his concept of multiple selves. “From this point of view,” he remarked, “my book might be seen as an attempt at a series of ‘novels of the unconscious.’ I would not be ashamed to say ‘Bergsonian novels’ if I believed it . . . but the term would be inaccurate, for my work is based on the distinction between involuntary and voluntary memory, a distinction which not only does not appear in M. Bergson’s philosophy, but is even contradicted by it.” Proust used the madeleine scene as an example of the extraordinary richness of involuntary memory experiences, indicative of marvelous resources that lie within.

Proust provided examples of the aesthetic lessons the Narrator learns during his long quest to become a creative person. Bois ended with another view of the “ailing author” in his shuttered room, “where the sun never enters.” Although the invalid might complain, the “writer has reason to be proud.”

A week later Proust granted a second interview, also from his bed, to André Lévy, with whom he talked for an hour. This one appeared in Le Miroir on December 21st. Lévy, who wrote under the pseudonym André Arnyvelde, like Bois noted the pallor of the writer’s face. He also mentioned for the first time in print the cork-lined room that was to become legendary. Exaggerating Proust’s reclusiveness, Arnyvelde wrote that the writer had retired from the world many years ago to a “bedroom eternally closed to fresh air and light and completely covered with cork.” Proust was quoted as saying that his reclusion had benefited his work: “Shadow and silence and solitude . . . have obliged me to re-create within myself all the lights and music and thrills of nature and society.”

Arnyvelde, who seemed interested in Proust’s working arrangements, described the large bedside table: “Loaded with books, papers, letters, and also little boxes of medicine. A little electric lamp, whose light is filtered by a green shade, sits on the table. At the base of this lamp, there are sheets of paper, pen, inkwell.” The array of items may have been ordinary, but not the author’s practice of writing at night, and always in bed. The interviewer was struck by Proust’s “big invalid’s eyes that shine beneath the thick brown hair that falls untidily on the pale forehead.”

Proust again outlined his novel and what he had hoped to achieve in writing it. He used Vinteuil as the example of his method of characterization; this apparently dull and banal bourgeois is discovered to be a musical genius. He also made the distinction, first delineated in the essay attacking Sainte-Beuve, between the social self and the creative self. Both interviews stressed the key Proustian point that we must delve deep within ourselves to discover our richest resources.

On November 12th, two days before publication, Proust encouraged Calmette to arrange for the novel to be mentioned in Le Figaro. Back in March the newspaper had published excerpts from Swann’s Way and The Guermantes Way that Proust had edited to create a selection called “Vacances de Pâques” (Easter vacation). But with publication close at hand, Proust told Calmette that it was somewhat “sad to see that Le Figaro is the only newspaper” among those in which literature occupied something of a place that had not announced his novel. Should Calmette insert something, he begged him to avoid the epithets fine and delicate and any mention of Pleasures and Days.

Friday, November 14th, was marked by two major events in Proust’s life, although the importance of the second was not apparent. The first, of course, was the publication of volume one of his novel. The second event, of which Proust took little notice, was Céleste Albaret’s assistance in distributing the copies of Swann’s Way. Proust’s brother Robert had performed gynecological surgery on Céline Cottin that day. The writer asked Céleste, who had come as a temporary replacement for Céline, to go with her husband in his taxi and deliver the inscribed copies of Swann’s Way to his friends. Céleste, who had been in Paris for only a few months when she met Proust for the first time, was still afraid of big-city life. She missed her family, especially her mother, and was happy to have something with which to distract herself. From then on Céleste came to 102 Boulevard Haussmann to work from nine to five while Proust slept. Nicolas Cottin still waited on Proust personally during hours that matched more closely his employer’s nocturnal schedule.

Bernard Grasset had always been professional and courteous in his relations with Proust, but for him the publication of this novel was a business deal. He had tried to read the volume and had found it impenetrable. Grasset had performed his duties well in preparing for publication of Swann’s Way, but his expectations for sales must have been low. He had told Charles de Richter, a boating friend to whom he gave an advance copy: “It’s unreadable; the author paid the publishing costs.”

In the week following publication, Proust told Louis de Robert that Grasset had shown himself to be “intelligent, active and charming.” But Proust complained about an announcement for bookstores that Grasset had printed without consulting him, “which could not be more objectionable from my point of view.” Proust, who had received a copy of the notice from Argus, a clipping service to which he now subscribed, asked Grasset to withdraw this notice, though he feared it was too late: “After a long silence due to his voluntary retirement from life, Marcel Proust, whose debut as a writer elicited unanimous admiration, gives us, under the title, À la recherche du temps perdu, a trilogy of which the first volume, Swann’s Way, is a masterly introduction.” Proust considered “voluntary retirement” untrue and objected to the reference to his “debut,” which might remind the public of Pleasures and Days.

Proust’s dedication to the man who had first opened the pages of Le Figaro to him read: “To M. Gaston Calmette, as a token of profound and affectionate gratitude.” Gaston, who had appeared indifferent to the splendid cigarette case, never bothered to acknowledge the dedication of Swann’s Way. Calmette was engaged in a nasty political press campaign that was to have tragic results. In Mme Straus’s copy Proust wrote, “To Mme Straus, the only one of the beautiful things I already loved at the age where this book begins, for whom my admiration has not changed, no more than her beauty, no more than her perpetually rejuvenated charm.” He addressed Robert’s copy “To my little brother, in memory of Time lost, regained for an instant each time we are together. Marcel.” To Lucien he explained why his “dear little one” was “absent from this book: you are too much a part of my heart for me to depict you objectively, you will never be a ‘character,’ you are the best part of the author.” The dedication to Reynaldo is unknown, but certainly it could have expressed the same sentiment, for no one was closer, nor ever would be, to Marcel. Yet in one sense both Reynaldo and Lucien were very much present in the book. Proust had suffered with each of them the tormenting, debilitating jealousy that nearly destroys Swann during his obsession with Odette.

On the day the novel appeared, Léon Daudet, a key figure in any deliberations of the Prix Goncourt committee, wrote his friend Marcel to explain that a majority of the committee objected to voting for an author older than 35. Proust was 42. In stating this objection, the members of the Académie Goncourt were following what they believed to be their duty. In his will establishing the prize, Edmond de Goncourt had stated his “supreme wish” that the “prize be awarded to young writers, to original talent, to new and bold endeavors of thought and form.” Proust clearly met all the requirements except youth.

Letters written to Robert de Flers, Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, and Anna de Noailles around the time of publication show Proust still profoundly unhappy and making plans to leave Paris and even France. He had recently asked Vaudoyer by mail whether he knew of a “quiet, isolated house in Italy, no matter where, I should like to go away.” He then inquired about renting one of the most splendid Renaissance palaces in Italy: “You don’t happen to know if that Farnese palace (the Cardinal’s), at a place which I think is called Caprarola, is to let? Alas, at the moment when my book is appearing, I’m thinking of something utterly different.” Proust had apparently read a recent article in the Revue de Paris saying that the Palazzo Farnese in the hill village of Caprarola, near Viterbo, had been restored and rented to a rich American. Such extravagance seems foolish, given Proust’s precarious financial condition, but he was completely demoralized. He wrote Flers that he did not even have the energy and will to recopy the last two volumes of his novel, which were “completely finished.” He confided that he had rented a property somewhere outside of Paris, but could not decide to leave. Thanking Anna de Noailles “infinitely for having written him” about his novel, he told her that his book “enjoyed no success.” Even if it were to succeed, he would take no joy from it because he was “too sad at present.” Proust’s distraction resulted from his unhappiness over his relationship with Agostinelli.

Proust had expressed his affection to the young man through constant generosity and favors. But he wanted the impossible—a reciprocated love and devotion. He felt Agostinelli pulling away from him, resentful of his constant and needy presence. Proust knew that the situation was hopeless, but his marvelous lucidity and intelligence remained powerless to unshackle the chains of desire and jealousy that bound him to his secretary. He had depicted Swann’s obsessive love for Odette as a malady and then had again caught the disease himself. He believed, according to the image he used for Swann, that the source of the pain within him was “inoperable.”

Proust had taken the trouble to send copies of his novel to the group of men who had shunned him, but whom he still wanted to impress more than any other because they were writers. The day after Swann’s Way was published, he informed Jacques Copeau that he had sent copies for him, Gallimard, and Gide, as well as for M. Paul Claudel, the poet and playwright, whom he “knew only slightly but admired profoundly.” While he had Copeau’s attention, Proust deplored an indiscretion of Gide’s. Word had reached Proust that Gide had gossiped about a matter relating to Copeau’s rejection of his excerpts for the NRF, a matter Proust and Copeau had agreed to keep confidential. He told Copeau that if Gide knew how many times Proust had tried to refute, for Gide’s sake, stories about Turkish baths, Arab boys, and ship’s captains on the Calais-Dover run, perhaps Gide would have been more circumspect in tattling about him. Not surprisingly, Proust was well informed about Gide’s reputation as a homosexual.

On November 21st Reynaldo wrote to Mme Duglé, Charles Gounod’s niece, to express an opinion and make a prediction: “Proust’s book is not a masterpiece if by masterpiece one means a perfect thing with an irreproachable design. But it is without a doubt (and here my friendship plays no part) the finest book to appear since l’Éducation sentimentale. From the first line a great genius reveals itself and since this opinion one day will be universal, we must get used to it at once. It’s always difficult to get it into your head that someone whom you meet in society is a genius. And yet Stendhal, Chateaubriand, and Vigny went out in society a great deal.” Reynaldo, who had not at first appreciated his friend’s remarkable intelligence, now understood Proust’s genius and the transformation that had taken place in him through application of his gifts to hard work and to his craft.

Source: From Marcel Proust: A Life by William C. Carter, published by Yale University Press.