Photos and papers

Marcel Proust died of complications from pneumonia on November 18, 1922, at the age of fifty-one. That night Jacques Riviere, one of Proust’s earliest supporters and the first to understand the shadowy structure of À la recherche du temps perdu, wrote an impassioned and thoughtful obituary of his friend, weighing the incalculable loss to French literature. The manuscript version of this tribute is now to be seen among the thousand treasures on display at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), in its sumptuous hommage to Proust on the hundredth anniversary of his death: Marcel Proust: La fabrice de l’œuvre. What Rivière discerned has now become what the French call an evidence. So much so that Proust’s great novel threatens to overshadow almost everything else: who today writes of Valéry, Gide, Mauriac, Bernanos, Claudel? Such is the prestige and pre-eminence of La rechercheit is like a honey pot for researchers, or perhaps a wasp bottle, as those who plunge in are unlikely ever to find a way out.

The reasons for this reside in the extraordinary capaciousness of Proust’s world and its capacity to draw in and engage readers and researchers from every discipline: in turn it has enthralled aesthetes and art historians, snobs and social anthropologists, psychoanalysts and literary formalists, la rive droite and la rive gauche. What the BnF offers, its manuscript collection enriched for the occasion by loans from other sources, is an enchanted stroll through the making of La rechercheHere are the paintings that inspired him and his characters, the type of Fortuny coat worn by the Duchesse de Guermantes, the woven lace dress that adorned Mme Swann. Hanging like pieces of fabric on every wall (Proust once likened his work to make a dress) are acres of manuscript, the famous “paperoles”, sometimes more than a meter long, frequently added to at proof stage and devotedly stored by his faithful housekeeper , Celeste Albaret. Her photograph rightfully hangs in the final room, and her voice, from a recording made in 1973, in which she recalls the foibles of “Monsieur Proust”, is played on a loop to spine-tingling effect.

The exhibition is arranged in a suite of rooms, each devoted to one of the volumes that make up La recherche. The rooms vary in color from china blue for Combray and childhood to magnolia, where in a huge image the Jeunes filles en fleur come marching towards you in a happy gaggle on the beach at Cabourg; burgundy red for the high society of the Le Cote de Guermantes; decadent mauve seeping into French gray for the Sodome et Gomorrhe volumes, a room that contains the acme of pride, Boldini’s portrait of Robert de Montesquiou (aka le baron de Charlus); to Prussian blue (La prisonniere and Albertine disparue); and an alcove called “La Mort de Proust”, the darkest room of all. Here hang only the Man Ray photograph and the Paul Helleu etching of Marcel on his deathbed, hauntingly illuminated. The exhibition then opens out triumphantly in midnight blue to the images and manuscripts of Le Temps retrouvéthe final volume, published posthumously.

Imagined with intelligence by the three chief curators, Antoine Compagnon, Guillaume Fau and Nathalie Mauriac Dyer, the journey through the rooms is circular, so that as one contemplates the drafts for the final page of Le Temps retrouvéwith Proust’s eternal pentimenti projected overhead in an ever-shifting arrangement of words, one can look over and see the first phrase of the first volume in the adjoining room—a satisfying acknowledgment that the novelist worked simultaneously on what were to be the first and last volumes. The catalog is a cornucopia of images and up-to-date scholarship, including an account of startling manuscript additions such as the recently acquired Soixante-quinze feuilletons, the earliest extant plan of the novel. My one minor cavil is that the catalog does not follow the room-by-room arrangement of the exhibition, though a summary of contents is found at the end.

Technology is deployed in a low-key way to project contemporary footage of the little coastal train, “le petit train de Cabourg”, surrounded by chaps in black suits and sun hats, and ladies with parasols holding on to little girls dressed in sailor suits or shrouded in lace like Little Bo Peep; of Proust’s driver (and his great love) Alfred Agostinelli in the motor car; of early aeroplanes taking off on bicycle wheels and ending up in the drink. There’s a marvelous photograph showing the immaculate squad of valets of chambers, the butlers of the Grand Hotel, looking for all the world like the gentlemen of the Jockey Club. Proust’s fascination for life below stairs was something that struck his blueblood friends. Maurice Barrès tartly commented that he was like “a Persian poet in the concierge’s lodge”. Later the smart set would realize that he was collecting information for his novel, in which he would register his profound disillusion with that set, a prolonged, frequently comic revenge that culminates in the grotesque pantomime of the “bal de tetesepisode at the end of the novel; his spindly caricatures of high society grotesques are memorably displayed.

At the entrance to each room a monumental image holds a sway, acting as icon and psychopomp: Botticelli’s “Zipporah”, whose sad eyes remind Swann of Odette, towers over the room devoted to Un amour de Swann; there are giant images of Proust’s grandmother and of the writer himself, hunched in greatcoat and bowler, contemplating the Salute in Venice, and standing tall, immaculately turned out after years of poor health in the shadows, the image of a heroic Proust on the steps of the Jeu de Paume in 1921, after his visit to the Vermeer exhibition. Proust was first and foremost an exquisitely attuned ear and an all-seeing eye: an image by Georges Bessière, published in La revolution surrealiste in 1925 and entitled “Marcel Proust”, shows just a large, famously hooded eye; the same eye is visible, closed now, ringed by a circle so dark and deep that one would say its owner had not slept for years, in Man Ray’s death-mask photograph. Then there is the image of his bed, with his manuscripts and notebooks still piled on the night table and the mantel. The bed on which Proust laid, and dreamed, and wrote, and wrote, for years on end, a bed likened by Walter Benjamin to the scaffolding on which Michelangelo lay, to paint his great fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Stephen Romeris Lecturer in French at Brasenose College, Oxford. He was recently made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres

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