Proust was truly modern

  • Themes: Culture, France

Proust was neither reactionary nor futurist but truly modern.

Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Emile Blanche.
Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Emile Blanche. Credit: PhotoBliss / Alamy Stock Photo

There is a gravestone at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris that has recently seen even more visitors than usual. It is adorned with so many flowers, it is difficult to make out who lies underneath. No, not Jim Morrison, nor Oscar Wilde or Sarah Bernhardt, although that’s a close guess. Among the many wreaths, there are white orchids and madeleine cakes. Yes, Marcel Proust. There hasn’t been much escaping the great French writer since 2021. First, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of his birth, and then the centenary of his death on 18 November 2022. In the last few months alone, there have been countless festivals, public readings, exhibitions, concerts, new research, and new publications on everything and anything Proustian. Radio France, France’s public broadcaster, commissioned a special series of episodes on Proust: Proust and technology, Proust and God, Proust and gardening, you name it. In other words, we have had Proust à toutes les sauces. As a result, many newcomers to Proust’s world must have had the curious delight of discovering the writer, not through his work first, but through mementoes, trivia, and exegesis. And why not?

I have been circling around Proust for years, especially recently while researching my new book set in Belle Époque Paris. What I have been looking at more closely is Proust’s youth, when he was just an observer, absorbing and collecting thoughts for his epic novel. My story ends the day he starts writing À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Fin-de-siècle Paris was a peculiar time and place. Décadentisme and spiritualism were all the rage and inspired much forgettable art and literature. Proust grew up in this strange and at times actively deleterious artistic atmosphere. One question that has kept me busy: how did he manage to transcend the cheap esotericism that was his generation’s stamp and create an all-time classic of literature? In an enlightening essay, Proust entre deux siècles [Proust Between Two Centuries], literary critic Antoine Compagnon argues that the novel itself belongs to an ‘in between,’ with, at its heart, a ‘defective symmetry,’ an ‘unbalance,’ the kind felt by the narrator who slips on uneven cobblestones on his way to a soirée at the Guermantes, a sensation which triggers powerful memories.

‘How to speak of the last writer of the nineteenth century who also happens to be the first writer of the twentieth century? How to speak of a writer intimately linked to the fin de siècle but who also miraculously escaped from it?’ asks Compagnon. For Proust, as for Gustave Flaubert, art and history are irreconcilable perspectives and it would be a nonsense to read Proust in an historical or documentary way. However, can one completely ignore the era and milieu in which his novel was born? Surely not. Proust himself, and consequently his oeuvre, are the epitome of the turning point, of the threshold in literature. His novel is split between pre-and-post-First World War, between Paul Bourget (very popular then, but now mostly forgotten) and Guillaume Apollinaire. Proust stands in literature just like Edouard Manet did in painting. Was Manet the last great classicist or the first revolutionary? His oeuvre is linked to the past through his subject but anticipates the most radical innovations. In both men’s art, according to Compagnon, ‘continuity and rupture, tradition and revolution compose a rare mélange, an unstable mixture.’ Unstable, therefore potentially explosive. And singular.

Instead of embracing (or refusing) the new century and its many radical novelties, Proust chose instead to walk backwards. He wanted the tie between past and future never to break. He was in essence a mediator. Remembrance of Things Past was originally due to be called Intermittences of the Heart. Hence, again, the idea of an aleatory to-and-fro. Just like a Gabriel Fauré melody, like the French composer himself, a genius of synthesis, a bridge between romanticism and modernism, between Chopin and Scott Joplin. What Proust really admired in Fauré’s music was not his easy melodies for Parisian salons but his most innovative compositions. For instance, his series of ballads and chansons based on Paul Verlaine’s poems. Performed for the first time in Paris in 1895 (with Proust in attendance) these works were not especially well-received by the public, nor even by some of Fauré’s most esteemed colleagues. Even Camille Saint-Saëns thought Fauré had gone mad.

However, Proust had found in Fauré what he himself was trying to achieve: the birth of a whole new world. New but not avant-garde. Proust didn’t trust avant-gardes or self-appointed prophets of Progress, and even less aesthetic manifestos. He believed that only works that tore up harmony and stability could achieve greatness. Great works of art were, in his eyes, always precarious, paradoxical and fundamentally ambivalent. Looking back, we can now safely say that Proust was neither reactionary nor futurist but truly modern.


Agnès Poirier