Monday 3 May 2010

Travelogue: Proustian Moments

Because of a cloud of volcanic ash, my partner, Jennifer, and I were marooned in Europe for eight days. To start with, we were in Helsinki, where the cloud seemed determined to hover indefinitely. After difficulties in buying tickets—please take a number—we travelled by ferry and by train to Paris. Arrival there was a relief because it was nearer home. While I was there I thought I would make a little pilgrimage to places where Marcel Proust had lived.

In an online article Marylin Bender has described five thoughtful walks to visit Proustian places (click here). Marcel was born in the Paris suburb of Auteil on 10 July, 1871. A few months later his family moved into the city, to an apartment on the second floor (North American: third floor) of 9 Boulevard Malesherbes, not far from the Madeleine. Bender imagines the young Proust standing on the balcony with which the second floor of the building is equipped and looking towards his left to see the dome of St Augustin's Church which, Proust says in Du côté de chez Swann, "imparts to this view of Paris the character of some of the Piranesi views of Rome." It was from this apartment that Marcel could walk five minutes or so to the high-school he attended from 1882 to 1889, the Lycée Condorcet, near the Gare St Lazarre. Other pupils there have been Proust's cousin Henri Bergson, as well—later on—as Jean-Paul Sartre.

I tried squinting my eyes a bit to imagine a twelve-year-old Proust on his way to school. Did he dart across the street in the days before cars and traffic lights? Did he carry on his shoulders one of those leather satchels? Perhaps because of my not-yet-quieted anxieties as to whether the Icelandic Volcano would erupt yet more fiercely so that I would never again get home, or perhaps because the modern cars and bendy-buses were too un-Proustian, I couldn't get a good piece of imagination going. I walked, instead, a kilometre or so west to the Proust family's second apartment, again on the second floor, into which they moved in 1900. The building, at 45 rue de Courcelles, is just as grand as the previous one. Now, on this street, I found it hard to imagine Marcel at age 30.

My walking tour took me, also, to 102 Boulevard Haussmann, to which Proust moved in 1906 after his mother died. He lived here in seclusion for 13 years. It's where he wrote most of À la recherche du temps perdu. The Haussmann buildings are grand like those that housed the two family apartments. The boulevard is lined with trees, lime trees I think. Proust's building looks different from those on either side of it because its ground-floor has a large door flanked by Ionic columns: the entrance to a bank, the name of which is carved in stone in large letters along a stretch of the first floor: Banque M. Varin-Bernier et Cie. On the second floor was the apartment in which Proust lived. Now the windows have striped awnings. I look up, and wonder which was the window of his room. Bender says that Proust described this apartment as: "The ugliest thing I ever saw … frightful dust, trees under and against my window, the noise of the boulevard between the Printemps and Saint-Augustin." To help keep out the noise, Proust had his bedroom lined with cork. The noise is perhaps worse now: the modern French moto-bicyclette is a fearsome acoustic device and certain sports cars that drive up the boulevard emit a throaty roar that is no doubt intended to remind one of Le Mans. Bender says that the apartment had previously been occupied by Proust's uncle, Louis Weil, but that in 1919, his aunt sold the building to the private bank, the name of which is now displayed so prominently. Apparently the apartment that had been Proust's is now the bank's board-room. When the building was sold from under him, Proust was not at all well, and he moved to the fourth floor of 44 rue Hamelin to complete his novel, and to die there on 18 November 1922.

I wondered about whether to visit Proust's last dwelling place, some way away from the others, but re-reading Marylin Benders's helpful perambulatory sentences, I was suddenly struck by her remark about Proust's Haussmann apartment: "The commercial bank on the street floor of number 102 belies the building's status as a Proustian shrine." Shrine! I suddenly remembered Erasmus's question: "Why do people travel long distances to see the relics of saints? Why don't they read the works?" Was that all I was doing? Visiting relics? So, to be more serious, I visited, as Benders suggests, the Musée Jacquemart-André on Boulevard Haussmann. It was built as a magnificent private house that functioned in Proust's time as the setting for its aristocratic owners' parties. It was and still is furnished in the most exquisite and expensive taste, with wonderful paintings—here a Rembrandt, there a Botticelli—and with the loveliest statues, busts and bas-reliefs. Benders says that if one wanted to have another go at making a film of Proust's novel this would be the place for one of Princesse de Guermantes's parties. Benders says she was convinced she "saw monocled aristocrats ascending the curved double staircase, and Marcel in the library listening to strains filtering from the balconied music room." I tried squinting my eyes a bit to see if could get the same effect. It worked well. Not a shrine: a real place of imagination.

Marcel Proust (1913-1927). À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time). London: Penguin (Current edition 2003).

Image: One side of the double staircase of the Jacquemart-André house on Boulevard Haussmann

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