Proust’s Secrets Revealed
Le Mystérieux correspondant et autres nouvelles inédites, Marcel Proust, Éditions Fallois, 2019, 174 pp, £22.17 (paperback)
Marcel Proust and his oeuvre are at once overexposed and mysterious. Entire books and studies have explored the minute details of his personal life and literary work. There is a book about what cures and medications he took specifically for his insomnia. There is a hundred-page academic study dedicated solely to the eight-word first sentence of his novel In Search of Lost Time. And yet, despite all this, Proust and his work remain elusive.
Suzy Mante-Proust, his niece, whom he had a close relationship with, maintained that her uncle was the ‘victim of a legend’ created mostly by scholars. In her view, the image of Proust as frail, fussy and a bit kooky does not correspond with the conscientious, determined, funny and caring person he apparently was to those who knew him. In Search of Lost Time has in a sense suffered a similar fate. Images of teacups, madeleine cakes and silk cravats obscure much of its social, historical and artistic complexities. The recent publication by Éditions Fallois of Le Mystérieux correspondant et autres nouvelles inédites (The Mysterious Correspondent and Other Stories), a collection of Proust’s previously unknown short stories written in the 1890s, is a significant addition to this contradictory monument of French literature.
For a long time, it was assumed that all of Proust’s work was known and accounted for. Aside from In Search of Lost Time, the other substantial works by Proust are his translations of John Ruskin and a ‘hybrid’ work called Pleasures and Days published in 1896, containing short stories, poetry, ornate hand-painted illustrations and musical scores. Posthumously, two additional works were assembled from notes and manuscripts: an unfinished novel called Jean Santeuil (1952) and a work of literary criticism, Against Sainte-Beuve (1954).
There had been talk, within the narrow circle of Proust researchers in Paris, that the literary scholar and essayist Bernard de Fallois had stumbled onto some short stories while going through the Proust family archives in the 1940s and 50s. The assumption was that those stories were, essentially, not good enough to make the cut for Pleasures and Days. De Fallois supposedly wrote about them in a doctoral thesis that was never finished. After that, the pieces disappeared.
This begged the question if they existed at all or if, perhaps, they were merely working versions of already known works. As it turns out, the stories do exist, now presented in The Mysterious Correspondent. Surprisingly enough, far from being some auxiliary bonus material to Pleasures and Days, they form a unit of their own, bound by shared themes, aesthetics and similar subject matter.
Written when Proust was in his twenties, the texts gathered in this collection are steeped in the decadent fin-de-siècle mood of the time. Extreme passions and feverish troubles of the mind unfold in a strange world that is often caught between sleep and wakefulness, sanity and delirium. Stylistically they are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, Gérard de Nerval and Arthur Schnitzler: that is to say, quite different from where Proust would end up in the Search with its unbound, staggering modernism.
A distinctive characteristic of these texts is excessive desire, particularly homosexual desire. This is nothing new: much of the Search deals with homosexuality, and literary historians generally suggest that Proust himself probably had many lovers who were men. Here, however, sexuality is much more tragic and fateful than it would become in his later work. In the Search, homosexuals and heterosexuals alike are depicted as overexcited fools constantly chasing some object of desire or other – never satisfied, always disappointed with their lovers. These short stories, however, depict sensual urges as being tied to physical health, the soul and artistic creation, very much in line with the fin-de-siècle attitude.
Reading The Mysterious Correspondent, one finds: a captain fantasising himself into a hallucination recalling a brief encounter with a young brigadier; a protagonist who, emulating the heroes of Greco-Roman Antiquity, descends to the Underworld to consult the spirits about his bisexual frustrations; elsewhere, a young woman wrestles with her passion for another woman which cannot be realised.
In this latter story, ‘Le Mystérieux correspondant’, the young lady, Christiane, is slowly dying because she cannot act on her feelings for her friend Françoise. Realising this, Françoise considers making love to Christiane as an act of ‘mercy’. Not knowing what the best course of action is, Françoise consults a doctor and a priest. In this conflict, it becomes clear what is at stake for the young Proust when it comes to physical love: lose your life or your soul.
The doctor sees virginity as a deadly illness that must be ‘cured’ in order to save Christiane: ‘Des plaisirs nouveaux pourraient seuls modifier un état aussi profond […] Quand une femme est dans un état pareil et qu’elle est vierge, une vie absolument différente peut seule la sauver’. The priest, on the other hand, sees Christiane’s pending death as an honourable and necessary sacrifice to save her soul: ‘C’est une belle mort et agir comme vous dites ce serait fermer le royaume de Dieu à celui qui l’a mérité en triomphant si noblement de sa passion.’ But, as Proust proposes in the story ‘Aux Enfers’, it is from these extreme passions that artistic creation flows. Love and madness are an illness, but an illness that is the source of poetry:
L’amour ai-je dit est une maladie. Mais l’exaltation cérébrale ou folie en est une aussi. Nul doute pourtant que le jour où la poësie fit son apparition sur la terre elle n’eût singulièrement relevé le niveau de la folie. Presque tous les poètes sont des fous.
When Proust wrote these pieces, Paris was a hub for new neurological and psychological research studying the sexualised madness perceived to be affecting many young people at the time. The ‘illness’ was referred to as ‘hysteria’. Historically, when speaking of hysteria today, it is often seen as a misogynistic catch-all term for an array of symptoms in women, including what would now be known as bipolar disorder, insomnia, sleepwalking, personality disorders or dissociative identity disorder, and other psychosomatic afflictions. Deriving from a Greek word meaning ‘wandering uterus’, hysteria implied that the cause psychological unrest might be traced to abnormalities in the womb.
In The Mysterious Correspondent, men too are hysterics. This is not some poetic innovation on Proust’s part. In the late nineteenth century, his physician father Adrien Proust studied the troubles of the mind alongside the leader in the field, Jean-Martin Charcot, and a then unknown young doctor – a Viennese man called Sigmund Freud. Their patients, while largely female, were not exclusively so and they treated many men. Proust was both deeply curious about the science of his day as well as his father’s work and would have been aware of both male and female patients treated in the field. The many signs of this ‘modern’ affliction tied to ‘heightened’ sexual drive, troubled sleep, waking hallucinations and hypersensitivity are all characteristics which define the characters in these stories.
Proust would never abandon his interest in the possible link between madness and desire. Most of the main characters in the Search are affected by it in some way, including the narrator, as well as the narrator’s hero Charles Swann, the mistress Albertine and mentor Charlus. But this madness that was so revered by the young Proust would be presented as quite ridiculous in his later work. At one point in the Search, the narrator’s best friend Robert is losing his mind and the will to live over a young actress, Rachel. When the narrator meets her, he realises that Rachel is a prostitute he frequented in a cheap brothel:
I realised also then all that the human imagination can put behind a little scrap of face, such as this girl’s face. […] I saw that what had appeared to me to be not worth twenty francs when it had been offered to me for twenty francs in a brothel, where it was then for me simply a woman desirous of earning twenty francs, might be worth more than a million, more than one’s family, more than all the most coveted positions in life if one had begun by imagining her to embody a strange creature, interesting to know, difficult to seize and to hold. […] I had known her simply as a woman who for twenty francs would do anything that I asked.
In the end, Robert, unlike Christiane, is not driven mad by his passion, nor does he die from it. He loses interest in Rachel, marries a wealthy heiress and realises later that he was gay all along. What seemed like tragic love is reduced to a misplaced desire.
The stories in this collection might well be read as the secret confessions of an eccentric dandy grappling with his own sexuality. But to do so would obscure Suzy Mante-Proust’s portrait of the conscientious writer, who slowly and painstakingly developed his characters over decades. However, to run the risk of shedding little or no light on Proust himself, these stories, like the Search, should not be read as some veiled autobiography.
Of course, Proust’s entire body of work is deeply rooted in the very tissue of his reality, but the literary craft and philosophical astuteness underpinning his oeuvre outshines the scattered randomness of conventional biography. Proust’s writing, rather than a personal reflection, is the result of a lifelong exploration, through art and literature, of the human condition and the elusive strangeness of being. The Mysterious Correspondent reveals an important early step in Proust’s meditation on the implications of desire. The opposition between how exceptional passions might seem and how futile they can be remained central throughout his life and work. Towards the end of the Search Proust concludes:
We never think of the framework of nature which surrounds our passion. The tempest rages on the sea, the ship heaves and pitches on every side, avalanches fall from the windswept sky and, at most, we allow ourselves to pause a moment, to ward off an inconvenience caused us by that immense scene, in which both we and the human body we desire, are the tiniest atoms.
Mersiha Bruncevic is a literary scholar and writer based in Paris. After working in book publishing and the film industry in London she packed her bags and crossed the channel to Paris where she wrote a PhD thesis on the representation of sleep and dreams in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Catch her on twitter @mbproust or in a café in the Marais with her Kindle in hand.
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