Paris celebrates the centenary of the writer’s death
At 21, Marcel Proust is extremely pale, with large, gloomy brown eyes and a wispy mustache over a sultry mouth. The year is 1892 and in Jacques-Émile Blanche’s portrait of the dandy, socialite and aspiring writer, Proust is dressed for an evening in the Paris Belle Époque.
Glittering evenings are recorded in paintings from the era, among the 280 works of art, photographs, manuscripts, letters, video and audio recordings exhibited in “Marcel Proust, a Parisian novel”, which marks the cent fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Proust and this centenary year of his death, at the Carnavalet Museum until April 10.
Men in formal wear and women in extravagant Worth and Fortuny dresses linger under sparkling chandeliers. The women are always beautiful, the conversation always witty. Caught 43 years between the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune and World War I, the Belle Époque was a blessed interlude that was too good to last.
An orchid adorns the lapel of Proust’s tuxedo. He had his first asthma attack at the age of 10 and was allergic to flowers, with the exception of orchids, which have no smell. Years later, when Proust was disabled under his own version of a lockdown at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, his housekeeper checked visitors to make sure they hadn’t come into close contact with flowers.
The orchid on Proust’s lapel appears to be a cattleya, the variety worn by the fictional demimondaine Odette de Crécy on her chest the night Charles Swann first makes love to her in Proust’s gargantuan novel At the looking for wasted time. Subsequently, the couple refers to the sexual act as “doing cattleya”. Like most of the characters in Proust’s novel, Odette and Swann are an amalgamation of people he has known in real life.
Proust lived on the right bank of the Seine, mainly in the 8th arrondissement. Blanche’s portrait hung in every apartment he lived in. The writer was obsessed with the passage of time. In a twist of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Proust aged while the painting remained unchanged.
“What is moving in Blanche’s painting, and which undoubtedly made him so famous, is that he is presented as eternally young, when we know that he suffered a lot, from asthma but also to be so sensitive”, says Anne-Laure. Sol, curator of the exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet.
Although semi-reclusive for the last third of his life, Proust filled his cork-lined apartment with modern inventions.
Proust kept the friends he made at Lycée Condorcet for the rest of his life. Among them, Jacques Bizet, his first homosexual flirtation and the son of composer Georges Bizet. The Venezuelan Jewish composer Reynaldo Hahn, Proust’s first lover, at the age of 20, taught him to appreciate romantic and impressionist music. The fictional composer Vinteuil is believed to be inspired by Débussy, Fauré, Franck and Saint-Saëns. Proust’s affairs never lasted more than two or three years, but he and Hahn remained friends, and Hahn was present when Proust died at age 51.
Proust often linked art and music to romantic feelings. Swann, an art critic, falls in love with Odette because she resembles a character painted by Botticelli in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. The couple call a Vinteuil sonata their “national anthem.”
Belle Époque Paris was a time of great technological change, when the automobile, the telephone and the Paris metro became more and more widespread. Although semi-reclusive for the last third of his life, Proust filled his cork-lined apartment with modern inventions: a typewriter on which his chauffeur and secretary, Alfred Agostinelli, typed manuscripts, a pianola self-playing, a telephone and a “théâtrophone”, an early form of radio, which allowed Proust to listen to live performances at the Paris Opera from his bed. The cork panels on Proust’s walls were intended to reduce noise. He also bribed the upstairs neighbors’ servants to wear slippers.
Proust loves Agostinelli so much that he invites him to live – with his wife – in the apartment on Boulevard Haussmann. Proust was terribly jealous and hired a private detective who rang each evening with a full account of Agostinelli’s activities that day. The exhibit includes Proust’s notes on the detective’s reports.
The relationship quickly became oppressive. Agostinelli and his wife leave for the south of France. Amateur pilot, he died in a plane crash. Proust transposed his relationship with Agostinelli into that between the narrator and Albertine, the young bisexual woman whom the narrator/Proust loves obsessively and keeps as a virtual prisoner in his Paris apartment.
A portrait of Proust’s mother, Jeanne, née Weil, also hung in the writer’s apartment. Mother and son looked a lot alike. When asked as a child what was the worst thing he could imagine, Proust replied “to be separated from mum”. In the first volume of his great novel, the narrator hatches an elaborate scheme to induce his mother to momentarily leave the guests to come to his room.
When Jeanne Proust died in 1905, Marcel suffered from depression and locked himself in a clinic for nearly two months. He then moved into an apartment at 102 boulevard Haussmann, because it was “the only one I could find that Mum knew”. Proust received friends, lying on his bed, fully dressed and wearing white gloves to prevent him from biting his nails. He wrote in his novel the gossip and details of social life they told. Proust only ventured out occasionally, usually late at night and at the Ritz. Because he was afraid of catching cold, he wore a large fur coat with an otter collar.
In Search of Lost Time is not limited to the Parisian upper middle class. Proust was extremely curious about the world of concierges and cooks, hunters and servants. In the volume Sodom and Gomorrah of the novel, he recounts sexual relations, sometimes sado-masochistic, between one of his most intriguing characters, the Baron de Charlus, and servants. Jupien, one of Charlus’ lovers, opens an all-male brothel called the Temple of Debauchery. The Carnavalet exhibit includes a police report of Proust’s 1918 arrest at such a brothel, where he was found drinking champagne with young men.
Proust thought that real communication between humans was impossible, and that passion was a source of suffering
Proust made what Anne-Laure Sol calls “a bold comparison” between Jewishness and homosexuality. Although Proust was baptized Catholic and made his first communion, he was Jewish on his mother’s side. His parents were secular and the family practiced no religion. “In the novel, he draws a parallel between what the Old Testament calls ‘the accursed race’ and the ‘race of the aunts’ – Proust’s term for homosexuals,” explains Sol. “He witnessed the anti-Semitism of French society during the Dreyfus affair, and saw that Jews and homosexuals were pariahs.”
Proust thought that real communication between humans was impossible, and that friendship served above all to reveal itself. He believed that passion was a source of pain, not understanding.
Roger Stéphane’s superb 1962 documentary, Marcel Proust, Portrait Souvenir, which can be viewed free on YouTube, features interviews with many of those who knew Proust best, including the artist and writer Jean Cocteau. Several of the interviews are shown on video screens at Carnavalet.
French writer and Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac told Stephane that Proust had become terribly cynical about love and friendship. “This man, so sympathetic, so charming, who covered you with protestations of friendship, did not believe that friendship existed,” said Mauriac. “As for love, what I admire most about Proust is that, despite what it was, it succeeded in the manner of Swann in creating the most normal and perfect representation of life. ‘love.”
Céleste Albaret was Proust’s devoted governess and secretary for the last eight years of his life. Although uneducated, she knew instinctively that he was writing a masterpiece. His interview with Roger Stéphane is shown on a video screen in the Musée Carnavalet, next to the brass bed where Proust wrote what many consider to be the greatest literary masterpiece of the 20th century.
Albaret recounts the last days of Proust. “He told me that death was approaching for him and that he would hate to have worked so hard and left it unfinished. announce to you, something huge, so good. I wrote the word ‘End’. I can die now’.
Ultimately, the novel is about time, which appears not only in the title, but in the first and last lines.
At the end, the narrator stumbles on the cobblestones of the courtyard of the private mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes. In a case of what Proust called “involuntary memory”, he is transported to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The experience is similar to the much earlier flashback to her childhood, brought on by the taste of a cupcake called Madeleine dipped in tea.
“Any worry about the future, any intellectual doubt. . . concerning the reality of my literary skills, even the reality of literature, arose as if by magic”, wrote Proust. Its narrator – Proust himself – had found his calling as a writer.
Proust’s work had killed him, but art triumphed over time.