Marcel Proust: A Life

Marcel Proust: A Life


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Marcel Proust was arguably the greatest writer of the twentieth century. This fascinating, definitive biography by the premier world authority on Proust redefines the way we look at both the artist and the man.

A bestseller in France, where it was originally published to great critical acclaim, Jean-Yves Tadie's monumental life of Proust makes use of a wealth of primary material only recently made available, Marcel Proust: A Life provides a scrupulously researched and engaging picture of the intellectual and social universe that fed Proust's art, along with an indispensable critical reading of the work itself. The result is authoritative, magisterial, and a beautiful example of the art of biography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780641622076
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 11/22/2001
Pages: 1016
Product dimensions: 6.34(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.27(d)

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Chapter One



To begin with, two villages. One on the father's side, the other, on the mother's. The first of them, Illiers, belongs to the timeless French countryside; the second, Auteuil, is a town set in the country, or rus in urbe. Here are to be found not the peasant ancestors, but the liberal-minded financiers of the urban bourgeoisie, and literary memories of Boileau, Racine and La Fontaine. In the one, Marcel Proust spent his holidays as a child, immortalized in 'Combray'; the other was where he was born — something that was not recognized for a long time — and where he no doubt experienced the bedtime scene himself. The two villages came to be juxtaposed in Jean Santeuil, then reunited in Du côté de chez Swann. Proust did not return to either of them in adult life; Illiers would have affected his asthma; the house in Auteuil no longer existed except in his heart.

    In order to imagine the Auteuil that Marcel Proust knew, it is still possible to walk around the hamlets of Boileau and Boulainvilliers, the Villa Montmorency and the rue de l'Yvette. The gardens, the houses set apart and the private mansions give an even keener effect of being in the country, precisely because they are in the town and combine rusticity and comfort with solitude and its remedies. Everything is false, and yet everything is real: the Bois de Boulogne is an artificial forest and yet the woods of the Bois are real, as are its lake, its island, and its 'chalet' which the Narrator visits with Albertine, as he dreams ofBrittany and Mme de Stermaria.

    It was in the village of Auteuil that Louis Weil, Marcel Proust's great-uncle, acquired 96 rue La Fontaine, a property of 1,500 square metres. He had bought it from the actress Eugénie Doche, who had created the role of La Dame aux Camélias: it was therefore a house that already had a feeling of antiquity about it and was impregnated with an atmosphere of the other-worldly, of actresses and 'ladies in pink', so dear to Uncle Louis. The main gate had two small buildings on either side. The garden boasted a fountain and an orangery; the three-storey house, with a floor area of 110 square metres, was built, according to the land registry, in stone. The Proust family lived in one of the two gate-houses (four rooms and an attic). In 1919, when Proust wrote the Foreword to Propos de peintre by his neighbour in Auteuil, Jacques-Émile Blanche, he showed little regard for this house, which he described as being 'as devoid of good taste as possible'. One must, of course, recognize the part played if not by modesty, then at least by that aristocratic politeness which always led Proust to disparage whatever surrounded him, and yet praise excessively anything that belonged to others. For he nevertheless conveyed the immense pleasure he derived from his bedroom, with its big blue satin curtains, its wash-stand and its wardrobe with a mirror, and from the ground floor of the main building, with its little drawing-room 'hermetically sealed against the heat'; the pantry, where the cider, that rustic beverage, was cooling; and the dining-room, where, in the dusk, the crystal knife-rests gleamed. The furniture was described by a cousin: 'sinister, tasteless, massive, cluttered, gloomy' — it consisted of the mahogany and dark wooden furniture that was fashionable in the time of Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III, and which Louis Weil had acquired from Eugénie Doche. This Auteuil of his childhood and youth, Proust reflected in 1919, 'had migrated into invisibility', 'shaded by arbours which no longer existed'. And yet, since Auteuil still exists, what has been 'transformed into memory' is the house itself at 96 rue La Fontaine, sold in 1897, after the deaths of Louis Weil and his father, by their heirs, Jeanne Proust and Georges Weil, and then razed to make way for blocks of flats, which in turn were demolished during the construction of the avenue Mozart. On the site where this house once stood there is now a bank, almost as if Proust's shade should for ever be pursued by banks: he was obliged to move from his apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann (roughly at the time that he wrote about Auteuil in his Foreword) when the building was sold to the Varin-Bernier bank.

    The gardens of Auteuil, Proust tells us, only succeeded in giving him 'hay fever'. At his uncle's there was a fountain, into which, it was said, Marcel fell, just as Paul Valéry once did in a public park, and the fountain is depicted in Jean Santeuil as surrounded by hawthorn trees, just like those he had seen at Auteuil, before the bushes at Illiers. The disturbing beauty of hawthorns is associated with springtime illness, and recuperation: 'Springtime makes me ill,' says the child to the hawthorns, in a draft of the book, and the bushes reply: 'Really? Very well, we shall look after you. You remember when we came into your bedroom.' 'Of course! It was from that day on that I most loved you.' These tears touched the young man 'in the deepest recesses of his past', that of Auteuil buried beneath Illiers.

    Beyond, were the chestnut trees, recalled in Jean Santeuil: 'Further away, are the huge chestnuts whose branches hang low like small trees, a youthful breed of giants which, with their immense leaves, wear their high blossom like massive, delicate towers.' Beneath their shade, the family sat in front of the house, around a 'cast-iron table'. Proust evoked this other childhood tree in Les Plaisirs et les Jours, and again in Du côté de chez Swann, on the boulevards, in a Paris square, in the Bois de Boulogne, as evidence of spring when its leaves are green, of autumn when tinted orange; trees in summer did not interest Proust: this was why he connected chestnut trees with lilac, whose invisible, enduring fragrance pursued him, and why he went to Versailles to see the lilac trees again.

    The Count of Monte-Cristo left his residence on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées one evening for a 'little journey' extra muros, which took him, twenty minutes later, to Auteuil, 28 rue La Fontaine, where he had bought a country house, 'on the outskirts of the village.' The village of Auteuil, to the west of Paris, did not become a part of the city until 1859, and the Proust family continued to differentiate between the two: Marcel addressed his letters from Auteuil, or he set off for Paris by omnibus, by train (from Auteuil station), horse-drawn carriage, or by river steamer (when the weather was too hot to take the train). An 1855 guidebook describes it as follows: 'A village out of a comic opera. The houses are square-shaped, with two storeys and green painted shutters ... For six months of the year, Auteuil is a veritable reproduction of Pompeii or Herculaneum; the streets are deserted, the doors are shut, the blinds strictly lowered, the houses silent and uninhabited. The citizens of Auteuil are spending the winter in Paris during this time. They may be retired notaries or former lawyers and bankers who are no longer in business. As soon as the fine weather comes, everyone reappears with their obligatory retinue of cooks, stable boys, coachmen and servants.' This was very much the social group to which Marcel's great-uncle and grandfather belonged. They spent the summer there, although the grandfather, having dined there every evening, returned each night to Paris, which he never left for a single day throughout the eighty-five years he lived in the city. Professor and Mme Proust lived there 'in springtime and in early summer'. This short journey was enough to provide a change of scenery, rest and memories. The proximity of the station, of the train, which served only the Paris terminus of Saint-Lazare, and of the viaduct, gave Proust his taste for railway timetables, for trips that he dreamed about in bed, for the 'great unfulfilled departures' which Fauré celebrated in L'Horizon chimérique.

    Its etymology suggests that Auteuil signifies 'a small height' (altum + diminutive), forty-one metres at its highest point (as against the hill at Chaillot which is seventy metres high). It was there, close to where the present Mirabeau bridge stands, that in 52 BC, Julius Caesar's lieutenant, Labienus, crossed the Seine to attack Lutetia's Gaulish troops, commanded by Camulogenus, on the plains of Grenelle. A forest covered this region in Gallo-Roman times (the Bois de Boulogne is one among several traces of it; Jacques Hillairet, the historian of Paris, mentions that remnants of a Druid altar were found on the site of the hamlet of Boileau; we know that Proust alludes to Druids in connection with the Bois). Auteuil was placed under the patronage of the Norman abbey of Bec-Hellouin, which in 1109 was amalgamated with the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. The abbeys retained their power until the Revolution. Auteuil was separated from Passy by the rue de Seine (rue Berton), and bordered the southern tip of the village of 'Boullongne'. The monks used Auteuil as a country retreat, which was confiscated at the time of the Revolution. The artist Gérard lived on the site of their former house, as did Fernand Gregh, Proust's friend and the future academician (on the corner of the rue François-Gérard and rue Rémusat).

    Auteuil was raised to the status of a parish by Bishop Maurice de Sully (who began the building of Notre-Dame). It was a small hamlet built between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, grouped around its church and its castle, comprising four streets (the avenue de Versailles, the rue d'Auteuil, the rue Boileau and the rue La Fontaine). During the last third of Louis XV's reign the village became fashionable: Molière, Racine, Boileau, whose property later belonged to Hubert Robert, and Champmeslé, Aguesseau's chancellor, all had their country houses here. So too, in the eighteenth century, did the Mlles Verrières and La Tour, and Mme Helvétius. In the nineteenth came Ampere, Cabanis, M.-J. Chénier, Volney, Chateaubriand, Mme Récamier, Guizot, J. Janin, Carpeaux, Gavarni, Hugo and the Goncourts. In 1800 there were a dozen streets. It was then that the construction of country houses began, and Parisians came to spend the summer here (there were 1,000 inhabitants in 1810; 4,185 in 1851). The fortified walls erected by Thiers girdled Auteuil in 1844.

    As from 1 January 1860, the borough of Auteuil was annexed to Paris by the Law of 16 June 1859. By 1895, its population had grown to 22,500 inhabitants. The price of flats was approximately the same as in Paris. There was no industry, just a few quarries and some mineral water, the 'springs of Auteuil'. One of the springs, in the rue de la Cure, disappeared at about the time of the First World War, the one in the rue Poussin in about 1900. The railway line (from Saint-Lazare to Auteuil) dates from 1853, the station from 1854. Along the site of the former railway tracks, Haussmann constructed the boulevards Montmorency and Exelmans, and he began the avenue Mozart (completed in 1897). The hamlet of Boileau (1840) was built over the former home of the poet; the Villa Montmorency, built by Pereire, over that of the Duchesse de Montmorency (1854); and the viaduct-bridge of Auteuil was erected in 1866. The original church of Auteuil (1319) was on the site of the present one. Two chapels were added to its nave (1320) in the seventeenth century. Dilapidated and too small, and damaged by bombing at the time of the Commune, it was replaced (1877-92) by the present-day Romano-Byzantine church.

    The Goncourts' town house can still be seen on the Boulevard de Montmorency. Edmond de Goncourt described it in detail in La Maison d'un artiste, which Proust wrote a pastiche of in Le Temps retrouvé. In his journal, Goncourt describes the siege of Paris (the period when Mme Proust was pregnant) and the suffering during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870: 'Cursed Auteuil! This suburb may have been deprived of communication with the rest of Paris, devastated by mobilization, starved, bombarded, and it still has the misfortune to be occupied by the Prussians.' During the Commune, Auteuil was again shelled by the government troops installed at Versailles, and not by the Communards: 'The ruins start at the Boulevard de Montmorency,' wrote Edmond de Goncourt on 24 May 1871, 'houses in which only four blackened walls remain; houses that have collapsed and crumbled to the ground. Mine is still standing, with a huge hole in the second floor. Yet how many shell bursts has it withstood!' On 25 May he walked among the 'ruins of Auteuil, where the damage and destruction is such that it might have been caused by a whirlwind'. The entrance to the rue d'Auteuil was nothing but 'smoking debris'; seen from the hill of Mortemart, the whole of Paris seemed to be on fire. It was after these two cataclysms, and amidst the wreckage, that Marcel Proust was born.

    In his memories of the village, the writer would retain the rue des Perchamps, the rue de la Source, and the viaduct (it was destroyed after the Second World War) over which the local train ran, which are to be found in the early drafts of 'Combray': 'Sometimes we would go as far as the viaduct, with its striding stone arches that began at the station and which represented in my mind the very image of the anxiety that lay beyond the civilized world, for every year, on the way from Paris, we were advised not to miss the station, to pay careful attention as to whether it was Combray, and to be ready beforehand since the train would depart in five minutes' time, and would start negotiating the viaduct. In one of my worst dreams, I imagined that I had not heard anyone call out Combray, that the train had left and that I was travelling at top speed over the viaduct, into a country beyond the Christian lands of which Combray marked the outer limit.' In Jean Santeuil, Proust also preserved 'the ferruginous water' at the Villa Montmorency, which the child, accompanied by the maid, used to go to drink using a metal cup which was attached by a chain. The notice with the words 'ferruginous water' hardly seems a detail of much interest. And yet the child must have been struck by it, for this unusual and sonorous word was transferred intact, along with the icy water, to become associated with the tinkle of the bell ringing at Combray, as well as with Swann, in the first and last pages of the book; with Swann, and therefore with the whole drama of the bedtime scene, which certainly took place at Auteuil: 'Its ferruginous, interminable, frozen sound', 'the recurring ringing sound, ferruginous, interminable, piercing and cool', that came from the fountain of Auteuil, opening and closing the work and giving it an additional structural cohesion, a new circular movement, as endless and infinite as the spring.


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