My Strange Friend Marcel Proust


First Person

Marcel Proust in Cabourg, 1896.

Marcel Proust in Cabourg, 1896.

Next month, City Lights will publish Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, a series of reminiscences and miniportraits of modernist writers and artists—Blaise Cendrars, James Joyce, Pierre Reverdy, and others—by Philippe Soupault, a Dadaist who, with André Breton, wrote Les Champs magnétique in 1919, kicking off the Surrealist movement. Soupault’s sketches in Lost Profiles were originally published in French in 1963; this translation, by Alan Bernheimer, marks their first appearance in English.

The personal impressions Soupault provides of these “great” men, who comprise his contemporaries and his heroes, elucidate their individuality, the nature of their friendship, and essential qualities that underpin their artistic reputations. He writes, for instance, that critics’ use of the terms primitive and Sunday painter in describing Henri Rousseau perpetuated a misunderstanding of the man, despite his artistic success. The cause of the misunderstanding is simply that “no one has yet tried to depict the true personality of Henri Rousseau.” In his afterword, Ron Padgett recalls meeting Soupault in the seventies, when he performs the same service for his own literary hero, observing that Soupault’s “personal manner was a reflection of the lightness of touch of his best poems, a delicacy that is so artful that it never calls attention to itself.” —Nicole Rudick 

I’ve always liked people who are called extravagant. Since childhood, when I’ve had the pleasure to meet women and men who are considered fantastic individuals, I couldn’t help speaking to them, while my contemporaries avoided them and fled. One of my most beautiful childhood memories is of a woman, pretty as a paint shop, who was strolling along the streets of the VIIIe arrondissement. She wore a hat with ostrich plumes and metal loops, perched atop a tall wig. Her dress was of puce silk, trimmed with black and white lace and a train that was spotted with mud. She was shod in high patent-leather shoes. And glacé-kid gloves, of course.

She was truly magnificent. Naturally, I wanted to speak to her but, used to teasing and insults (she was often treated like a freak), she turned her head imperiously and, seeing me persist, smacked me with her handbag. I followed her. She walked at a breathless pace. During this pursuit I noted what a neighborhood celebrity she was, what an aura she had. People stopped to watch her go by. Jean Giradoux admired one of her rivals and named her The Madwoman of Chaillot.

It was in this same period, during my vacation at Cabourg, that I met a man whose singularity attracted me and I wanted, as was my custom, to make his acquaintance. One of my friends, older than I, introduced me to the man, who sometimes strolled through the casino in the evening. His name was Marcel Proust. I felt the same amazement and sympathy as for my strange friend of the VIIIe arrondissement.

Marcel Proust always managed to astonish me. Towards six in the evening, at sunset, a rattan armchair was brought out onto the terrace of the Grand Hotel of Cabourg. It remained empty for a few minutes. The staff waited. Then Marcel Proust slowly drew near, parasol in hand. He watched inside the glass door for night to fall. When they passed near his chair, the bellboys communicated with signs, like deaf-mutes. Then Proust’s friends approached. At first they spoke of the weather, the temperature. At this period—it was 1913—Marcel Proust feared or seemed to fear the sun. But it was noise that most horrified him.

All the hotel guests talked about how Monsieur Proust rented five expensive rooms, one to live in, the other four to “contain” the silence.

Fascinated, I came close for a better look, and he spoke to me because he had heard I was the son of one of his budding young girls. He often talked about dance lessons that took place in an apartment on the rue de Ville-l’Éveque.

“It’s there that I met your mother, your aunt—she was named Louise, no? I can see her eyes, the only ones I can say were truly violet.”

He spoke quite a bit about his youth, coincidences, encounters, regrets. His smile was young, his eyes deep, his gaze weary, his movements slow. Of course, I was unaware of his writing. He never mentioned his work, even though this was the time when he was writing A la recherche du temps perdu. No one, for that matter, seemed to suspect it. He did, however, ask a lot of questions. Sadly, I remember only a few. They seemed childish to me. For instance: “What time of year, exactly,” he asked a waiter in a café, “do the cherry trees bloom in the orchards of Cabourg, not apple trees, cherry trees?”

Another day he summoned one of the hotel cooks to ask for the recipe for Sole à la Mornay. The cook recited it. Marcel Proust slipped him a banknote. And, pocketing the tip, the cook left, murmuring, “It’s too much, too much!” Another day, he asked what make of cigar the Prince of Wales, who had become Edward VII, smoked. What do you call a Cronstadt hat?

I couldn’t believe it. My jaw would drop, listening to him.

Sometimes you found him seated at a big table. He would offer those who approached a glass of champagne. When he called for cigars for his friends, you knew he was about to leave.

“Excuse me,” he’d say. The cigar smoke makes me cough.”

And he would stand up. He seemed to be in a hurry to get back to his room and the silence.

I didn’t see him again till a few years later, after the war. I knew he was a writer, since he’d had the kindness to send me Du côté de chez Swann. People were starting to talk about him. But he went out less and less. I spotted him one night at the Boeuf sur le Toit. He was terribly changed. I went to say hello and sat down in front of him. He was feverish, overwrought even. He spoke in a low voice. He asked if I had been back to Cabourg. I talked about Cabourg a little. But he seemed so tired that I didn’t persist. He withdrew on tiptoe.

A few months later, I sent him the Les champs magnetiques, which had just appeared. I was living at this point on the Quai Bourbon, on the île Saint-Louis, very near his friends the Bibescos. One evening around eight o’clock, my doorbell rang. A driver asked if I would come speak with Monsieur Marcel Proust, who was waiting in a car outside. I said yes, of course, though I lived only a half flight up. It didn’t matter.

Marcel Proust was muffled up in the back of a taxi. His eyes were glowing, like an owl’s. He apologized profusely, too profusely for my liking, for having disturbed me.

“I’ve come from the Bibescos, who are your neighbors.”

He would not have wanted to pass my door, he made clear, without thanking me for the gift of a “major” book. (Marcel Proust did not hesitate to employ superlatives.)

“I’m so tired that I can’t thank you as thoroughly as I should, and since I wasn’t sure of finding you in, I have written you a letter. Here it is.”

He suddenly closed his eyes. He seemed exhausted. Was he playacting? I don’t think so. I thanked him and took my leave. He had once again succeeded in astonishing me. His extreme courtesy, excessive, was perhaps overbearing.

Later, I wanted to thank him for sending me, in turn, one of his books, but he had his driver tell me that he was too tired to receive me but that he would send word some evening if I wasn’t afraid of going out after midnight.

I wasn’t the only one who believed that he secluded himself and refused to see those who could have brought back memories he no longer had use for. In truth, and I easily understood it, he was racing to finish his work which was, in any case, never finished, although he understood it was necessary to write “the end” at the bottom of one of the pages of his manuscript.

English translation copyright © 2016 Alan Bernheimer. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.