March 29, 2013

Proust’s first poem, and manly mockery


Proust as a young man.

As 2013 is the 100th anniversary of Swann’s Way, there’s a little Proust mania in the air. The Morgan Library is hosting an exhibit with Proust’s early drafts, Anne Carson wrote a book weaving in references to the text, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik and biographer Anka Muhlstein hosted a marathon reading at 192 Books, director Chantal Akerman’s La Captive, inspired by the fifth book, is screening Friday, April 19th…. there’s a Pinterest board with an exhaustive list of anniversary-related events.

The Collected Poems of Marcel Proust was released earlier this week by Penguin. Marcel Proust‘s first poem was written when he was seventeen, and shared with his friend in the autumn of 1888.

The poem is dedicated to Daniel Halévy, a handsome, freckled classmate who wrote biographies of Friedrich Nietzche, Jules Michelet, and Sébastien Vauban in his free time. “The difference in their natures: Marcel Proust’s ‘warmth and good will’ tended to startle a colder, more closed, and defensive Daniel Halévy who then, following a show of mood and impatience, would, without even a backward glance, draw close to him again,” recalled their classmate Robert Dreyfus in his memoir.

Halévy did not return Proust’s romantic interest, and so Proust pursued Halévy’s cousin Jacques Bizet, son of the composer Georges Bizet. Bizet shared a love letter from Proust with his cousin, and Halévy recorded it in his diary with a mixture of admiration and shame. He wrote beside it, “Poor Proust is absolutely crazy.”

According to Proust in Love by William C. Carter, Proust’s father caught Marcel masturbating during his adolescence. Beyond the indecency of his son’s exposure, Dr. Proust feared for his son’s health and morality. Such a pastime was believed to drain men of their willpower and even lead to homosexuality. (Proust must have been at odds with his parents on this subject; to the protagonist in his first novel, Jean Santeuil‘s ‘‘parental home had seemed to him a place of slavery.”)

In his journal, Halévy recorded his envy for Proust’s talent as well as his fears for him: “This deranged creature is extremely talented, and I know nothing that is sadder and more marvelously written than these two pages,” referring to a love letter from Proust to Bizet. “…More talented than anyone else. He overexerts himself. Weak, young, he fornicates, he masturbates, he engages, perhaps, in pederasty! He will perhaps show in his life flashes of genius that will be wasted.”

With these words, Halévy anticipates the main conflict in In Search Of Lost Time, as Carter points out, whether the Narrator can learn the writing craft in time to turn his wasted years into a novel.

This poem was published in The Daily Beast:


Translated by Richard Howard

To Daniel Halévy

If I had money from a boundless mint
and sinew enough in hands, lips, loins,
I’d shun the vanity of politics and print,
and leave—tomorrow? No, tonight!—for lawns
luminous with artificial green
(without the rustic flaws of frost and vermin),
where I’d forever be sleeping with one
warm child or other: François? Firmin? . . .
For what is manly mockery to me?
Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,
I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!
Beneath a solar gold, a lunar nacre,
I’d… languish (an ars moriendi of my own),
deaf to the knell of dreary Decency!


À Daniel Halévy

Si j’avais un gros sac d’argent d’or ou de cuivre
Avec un peu de nerf aux reins lèvres ou mains
Laissant ma vanité—cheval, sénat ou livre,
Je m’enfuirais là-bas, hier, ce soir ou demain
Au gazon framboisé—émeraude ou carmin !—
Sans rustiques ennuis, guêpes, rosée ou givre
Je voudrais à jamais coucher, aimer ou vivre
Avec un tiède enfant, Jacques, Pierre ou Firmin.
Arrière le mépris timide des Prud’hommes !
Pigeons, neigez ! Chantez, ormeaux ! blondissez, pommes !
Je veux jusqu’à mourir aspirer son parfum !
Sous l’or des soleils roux, sous la nacre des lunes
Je veux… m’évanouir et me croire défunt
Loin du funèbre glas des Vertus importunes !

Halévy grew up to become a historian, and the two were close friends until their thirties. Decades later, when his work had gained recognition, Halévy was asked if he and his school friends knew of Proust’s genius in their early years together. He said they all had, but no one thought Proust had “the willpower to achieve a masterpiece.”

Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.