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La Sagesse des Femmes

March 15, 2016 | by

Comtesse Anna-Élisabeth de Noailles, 1922.

“Never saw him write even the shortest note standing up,” Proust’s housekeeper Celeste Albaret wrote. Proust, it seems, spent the better part of his day—and the last three years of his life—in his spartan, cork-lined bedroom. He wrote, according to his biographer Diana Fuss, “from a semi-recumbent position, suspended midway between the realms of sleeping and waking using his knees as a desk.”

His bedchamber has been fully reconstructed at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris’s Marais neighborhood. This is apt; when forced to move from 102 Boulevard Haussmann later in life, the author was at pains to keep his environment intact. An exact copy, the Carnavalet installation is small and snug. According to Albaret, Proust wanted no distractions whatsoever from his writing, nothing extraneous in the room. Writing implements were arranged close at hand on a series of occasional tables; everything else was simple and unadorned. 

Well, after a fashion: the place is still distinctly belle epoque. There’s no bric-a-brac, true, but the chamber isn’t what you’d call monastic. There’s a pretty rug on the floor; the tightly drawn curtains are blue satin. The room is dark—a single green-shaded lamp provides the only source of light, and presumably the Chinese painted folding screen could have provided still more privacy and dark. The narrow bed had belonged to Proust since childhood. The cork on the walls was intended not just to soundproof but to prevent pollen and dust from aggravating Proust’s allergies and asthma. The result was somewhat tomblike. 

There are two schools of thought on preserved rooms. Some find them the most boring thing in the world, and maybe macabre, too. For those of us who like them, it’s interesting to see how little we can know, and how much we can figure out. Does seeing Proust’s fifteen pens allow us to penetrate his genius, or just gawk at it? And what trespass in entering a private space, particularly that of a recluse. And yet this place remains far more inscrutable than the writing he willingly gave the world. 

While Proust’s room is undeniably the big draw, the museum has recreated several writers’ bedrooms. Among the most interesting is that of Anna de Noailles. A princess and socialite, a patron of the arts and a novelist in her own right, Anna de Noailles was sculpted by Rodin and painted by countless artists. Her illustrious circle involved Cocteau, Gide, Colette, and, yes, Proust himself. She was the first woman to be named a Commander of the Legion of Honor.

The two rooms make for an interesting comparison. De Noailles, too, had lined her walls with cork—indeed, she gave Proust the idea. Her room is lighter, prettier—the Louis XV furniture is attractively covered, and several of her own still lifes brighten the walls. But it has a similar feeling of claustrophobia, of monomania. And indeed, for all her productivity, de Noailles was plagued with debilitating fears and neuroses. 

I was first moved by this room to read her prose. Unfortunately, not much of it is readily available in English. But if you can manage any French at all—and I barely can—try Les Innocentes, ou la sagesse des femmes, a 1923 collection of brief meditations on sex, the role of the liberated woman, and the responsibilities of art. Noailles is a passionate, poetic guide to a moment of immense possibility. It seems ripe for translation.

If nothing else, you can probably find bits of her correspondence with Proust. The two were close friends, and at one point Proust wrote her, “Madame, how I admire you, how I love you, and how harsh my constant separation from you is to me.” Now, at least, their mutual isolation is memorialized—in self-padded cells mere feet from each other. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.