Proust’s Way Home

Published in: July-August 2010 issue.



“PARIS IS WHERE the 20th century was,” declared that eccentric raconteur and occasional aphorist, Gertrude Stein. Writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein herself, artists like Picasso, Dalí, and Matisse, musicians and singers such as Stravinsky, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, and even Jim Morrison, all lived here. Paris was a flashpoint of both World Wars but managed to survive them both relatively unscathed.

It’s a city where grandeur and beauty are everyday. The monuments are immense, the views spectacular, and the history rich and diverse. There is very little about Paris, or Parisians, that’s understated. It’s also a city in which you can walk in the footsteps, as I have done, of Marcel Proust (1871–1922), author of the grandest, most out-sized prose epic of them all: the seven-volume À la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time (traditionally translated as Remembrance of Things Past). The city itself is filled with Proustian moments of crystallized time, if you know where to look.

For instance, on leaving a party at the Ritz Hotel one evening in honor of Stravinsky’s latest ballet, Proust shared his cab with James Joyce. Of course we’re tempted to imagine what passed between the two greatest writers of their day—what extraordinary writers’ shop talk must have flown between them! According to reports, however, Joyce rolled his window down and lit a cigar, terrifying the hypochondriac Proust, who got out at his apartment and instructed the driver to take Joyce to his destination. But perhaps it’s not so surprising that the pair had little to say to one another, neither having read a word of the other’s writing. (Both were competent in the other’s language.)

The beautiful Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre presents another Proustian moment. The grand cathedral was reviled by Republicans of the time when it was being constructed around the turn of the 20th century, who saw it as a reminder of the domination of the Vatican and an insult to the ideals of the Republic. Proust felt compelled to write a series of articles defending Sacré-Cœur—not as a church, but as a work of art, claiming that art superseded both religion and politics (and who could disagree?). Cathedrals, he wrote, “are the highest and most original expression of French genius.”

With time and tolerance (the latter something Parisians can be notably short on), the basilica has come to be seen as a symbiosis of old and new ideals. This, in fact, was very much in evidence when I was there recently. Inside, a choir of nuns sang a plainsong, while outside on the steps young songsters harmonized a different sort of hymn, Oasis’ “Wonderwall” (“Maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me”), each bringing together the faithful of a different sort.

It’s fleeting moments like these that make the city real for me, as much as its solid monuments and landmarks. Today the apartment at 44 rue Hamelin, where Proust ended his ride with Joyce and the cigar, is an elegant hotel. A sign marks Proust’s one-time tenancy on the fourth floor, where he spent the last years of his life obsessively writing and rewriting his great work. Sadly, as Proust fans know, he did not live to complete the final revisions, leaving it to his brother Robert to cobble them together as best he could. Even so, À la recherche du temps perdu ranks as one of the greatest works of literature ever created.

There is no signage at 9 boulevard Malesherbes, where Proust spent the first thirty years of his life. Perhaps the current residents in the mini-mall below are sick of all the Proustian devotees who come to gawk at their windows, but not to buy, marveling that real people move in the space where their god once ate and slept and practiced his multiplication tables like any mere mortal. They certainly glared at me as I lurked about, munching my baguette while taking photos of the place. Oscar Wilde is said to have visited Proust here and left complaining about the décor and the bourgeois appearance of Proust’s parents.

A few streets away, on rue du Havre, stands the Lycée Condorcet, once attended by the young Marcel. He’s not the only famous alumnus—Henri Bergson, Jean-Paul Sartre, and aviation pioneer Marcel Dassault also walked these halls. It’s hard to imagine what today’s students think of these famous predecessors, if indeed they remove their iPods for long enough to reflect on such things.

Before he started publishing À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust was thought of as a dilettante rather than a real writer. The work he was best known for was a series of disconnected essays called Contre Sainte-Beuve, in which, among other things, he denounced a renowned French literary critic’s obsession with the social standing of writers over the quality of their writing. At the same time, however, Proust was writing a popular society column for Le Mensuel, a résumé of the past month’s social and political happenings. He also translated John Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens (1890, translation 1926) without actually mastering English. “I don’t claim to know English,” he declared. “I claim to know Ruskin.”

Neurasthenic, asthmatic, obsessed with emotions and æsthetics, Proust must have appeared as little more than an art nerd. Of course, he transcended all that once the first of seven volumes of the great work was published in 1913. The last thing any serious writer wants to be called is a dilettante (full disclosure: this writer is the author of comic mysteries), and the publication of Swann’s Way began to disabuse the reading public of this notion.

The one thing Proust was serious about, of course, was his writing. He agonized over structure. He abandoned his first novel, Jean Santeuil, because he felt unable to resolve its plot issues (it was eventually published, unfinished, in 1954), though it contains the seeds of much of what he later developed in the septet. Intriguingly, Proust described his greatest work in architectural terms, likening its structure to the grand cathedrals of France that he had once defended.

It was at 102 boulevard Haussmann that Proust wrote the lion’s share of his magnum opus, between 1909 and 1919, until his aunt sold the building to a bank and he was forced to move to the rue Hamelin. Still carved in granite over the entrance is “Banque M. Varin-Bernier et Cie.” Oddly, Proust disdained what is easily the most attractive of his three notable residences, calling it “the ugliest thing I ever saw.” His famous cork-lined room in this apartment is now the bank’s boardroom.

A collection of Proust’s furniture can be found in the Musée Carnavalet at 23 rue de Sévigné (see photo on cover). Dedicated to the history of Paris, the museum is located in the Marais district, currently the city’s hippest and gayest quarter. Even better, the permanent collection is free to the general public. Here, actual items from Proust’s bedroom are displayed in a full re-creation of the room where he did much of his writing, including his bed, his writing desk, and a five-panel Chinese screen.

Elsewhere in the city, there still exist many of the haunts frequented by the book’s characters (of which there are more than 2,000, so this is inevitable). The subversive and sleazy Baron de Charlus was based on the real-life Comte Robert de Montesquieu-Fezensac, who lived at 41 Quai d’Orsay. Proust charmed the Count and pumped him for stories about his privileged social circle, then disingenuously denied any and all connection between the character and the count when the book came out.

The Faubourg Saint-Germain was the domain of the aristocratic Oriane de Guermantes and is still considered fashionable today, while Odette de Crécy, the beautiful courtesan who marries Charles Swann, is said to have been based on a well-known cocotte, Laure Hayman, who lived at 3 rue La Pérouse. She was Proust’s uncle’s mistress and one of Proust’s muses. It was in this latter neighborhood that Proust ended his writing career and died.

Despite the city’s exceptional beauty, there lies a darkness at the heart of Paris. Mimi, the pretty young seamstress in La Bohème, would probably agree. So would Marie Antoinette. Many have been drawn to Paris for a great variety of reasons. Some, like Oscar Wilde, Maria Callas, Princess Diana, and Jim Morrison, went to Paris to escape their personal problems, only to end up dying there.

For years, Proust had been predicting that he would die of pneumonia. He finally did so, at the age of 51, on November 18, 1922. His grave lies on the far side of town in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, division 85. The marker is attractive but unspectacular, considering the overall ostentation of the place. By contrast, four divisions over, in number 89, stands the massive tomb of Oscar Wilde with its modernist angel and missing genitalia. (Apparently, after being broken off, they served as a paperweight for a number of the cemetery’s groundskeepers before disappearing altogether.) In any case, it is here where, along with his parents, his brother, and his sister-in-law, one can visit Proust’s final haunt.


Jeffrey Round’s latest book, Vanished In Vallarta, is third in the Bradford Fairfax comic mystery series, of which the first two were The P-Town Murders and Death in Key West.