Anx­i­ety among the sil­ver and crys­tal

Madame Proust By Eve­leyne Bloch- Dano Trans­lated by Alice Ka­plan Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 291pp, $ 49.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kathy Hunt

IN July 1870, Napoleon III de­clared war on Prus­sia. In Au­gust, Prus­sian troops en­tered France, and in Septem­ber Mar­cel Proust’s par­ents were mar­ried in Paris. ‘‘ The deal,’’ writes Eve­leyne Bloch- Dano of the mar­riage con­tract, ‘‘ was made among men’’, a re­cip­ro­cal ar­range­ment that brought the am­bi­tious doc­tor An­dre Proust 200,000 francs and a pen­sion for life in the event of his wife’s death. Jews had won the right to cit­i­zen­ship in 1791, but in 1870 be­ing Jewish was still a hand­i­cap. For Jeanne Weil’s Ger­man- Jewish fam­ily, de­spite their long his­tory of pub­lic ser­vice, the mar­riage ac­com­plished what good deeds alone could not: of­fi­cial as­sim­i­la­tion into French so­ci­ety.

Anx­i­ety is the word favoured by this bi­og­ra­pher to de­scribe Jeanne’s first preg­nancy and con­fine­ment. In a Paris un­der siege, Madame Proust lost weight, nau­se­ated by the re­volt­ing food on of­fer. As bon­fires crack­led and grenades ex­ploded, her hus­band risked his life help­ing the wounded. When the Com­mune be­gan to re­store a ter­ri­fy­ing kind of or­der, the Prousts left for Au­teuil, on the edge of Paris, where their first son, Mar­cel, was born on July 10, 1871. ‘‘ The birth may have been long and dif­fi­cult,’’ guesses Bloch- Dano with­out re­course to proof, and ‘‘ Mar­cel al­most died’’, an­other shot in the dark un­sub­stan­ti­ated by a five- page bib­li­og­ra­phy.

De­ter­mined to set in con­crete the idea of the mother and son’s ex­treme co- de­pen­dency, Bloch- Dano says that ‘‘ from the mo­ment of his birth, it seems Mar­cel caused his mother ( yes, more) anx­i­ety’’. The im­pres­sion I get, how­ever, is of a nor­mal, sen­si­tive child re­act­ing to a typ­i­cally for­mal fin de siecle en­vi­ron­ment, the point of which was to turn him into a man and, more­over, a man of his class.

The epi­cen­tre of this emo­tional ten­sion was the good­night kiss to which Bloch- Dano de­votes a whole chap­ter, paint­ing pretty, witty Jeanne as ‘‘ a hostage to love, caught be­tween a son who was too de­mand­ing and a hus­band who didn’t de­mand enough’’. The sit­u­a­tion comes to a head one evening when Proust’s fa­ther sends him to bed and his mother is de­tained by a guest. As told by Mar­cel in Swann’s Way, what hap­pens next is very in­ter­est­ing in the light of Bloch- Dano’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion. For just as the seven- year- old am­bushes his mother on the stairs as she re­tires for the night, he sees to his hor­ror ‘‘ the light from my fa­ther’s can­dle al­ready creep­ing up the wall . . . Too late: my fa­ther was upon us!’’ But An­dre proves un­ex­pect­edly un­der­stand­ing: ‘‘ You can see quite well that the child is un­happy,’’ he tells his wife. ‘‘ Stay be­side him for the rest of the night.’’

In con­trast, Bloch- Dano’s ver­sion has strange in­con­sis­ten­cies. An­dre’s kind­ness is para­phrased into some­thing pa­tri­ar­chal and pa­tro­n­is­ing, and she gives Jeanne words that don’t ap­pear in Proust’s book. Since 1931 English read­ers have been mis­led by the ram­pant in­di­vid­u­al­ism of some trans­la­tors, but this French writer has no such ex­cuse.

In­creas­ingly cir­cu­lar and repet­i­tive, the story fol­lows the fam­ily from spa to spa, giv­ing us glimpses of sil­ver and crys­tal but never quite seat­ing us at the Prousts’ ta­ble. An ex­cep­tion is the ‘‘ vi­o­lent quarrel’’ be­tween Mar­cel and his par­ents over a pho­to­graph of him and two male friends. In­do­lent, lazy and with his health dan­ger­ously com­pro­mised by asthma, he had also be­gun to ex­hibit what, as late as 1979, the Ox­ford Com­pan­ion to English Lit­er­a­ture called ‘‘ ab­nor­mal ten­den­cies’’, and here was the pic­ture to prove it. It is all too much. Voices are raised, doors are slammed and Vene­tian glass is smashed. Classy that, and all very nor­mal re­ally.

Jeanne Weil Proust out­lived her hus­band by only two years, dy­ing in 1905. Af­ter her death, and draw­ing on an ear­lier un­fin­ished novel, Jean San­teuil , Mar­cel knuck­led down to write what would be­come one of the mas­ter­pieces of 20th- cen­tury lit­er­a­ture, A la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time , for­merly known in English trans­la­tion as Re­mem­brance of Things Past , a di­rect quote from Shake­speare’s Son­net 30.

In a cork- lined room on the Boule­vard Hauss­mann a bereft Proust be­gan to re­alise that ‘‘ the work of art was the only means of find­ing Lost Time again’’ but ‘‘ that the es­sen­tial book, the only true book, was not some­thing the writer needs to in­vent . . . so much as to trans­late’’, re­al­ity be­ing a re­la­tion­ship be­tween sen­sa­tion and me­mory, en­closed ‘‘ within the nec­es­sary ar­ma­ture of a beau­ti­ful style’’. He was writ­ing against time for ‘‘ all those peo­ple who had re­vealed truths to me, and who were no longer liv­ing’’. In the quiet of the night he could hear, ‘‘ if I lis­ten at­ten­tively’’, the sounds of the past. ‘‘ Ac­tu­ally’’, he wrote in Swann’s Way, ‘‘ their echo has never ceased.’’ Kathy Hunt is a lit­er­ary critic based in rural Vic­to­ria.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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