Stalking Marcel Proust from Paris to Cabourg to Illiers-Combray
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A century after the great author’s death, Michele Kurlander goes on a quest to follow in Proust’s footsteps, and along the way, discovers a new, more readable English translation of “In Search of Lost Time.”
One of the wonders of Paris is that so much of the history of those who famously lived and wrote there can still be found by walking the rues to find their homes and hangouts. Buildings are seldom demolished and replaced by modernism in Paris – unlike over here, where the wrecking crane and construction site is ever present.
I recently wrote in these pages about how my preferred landing place in Paris is a 5th-arrondissement neighborhood around the rue Mouffetard, once a Roman road leading out of Paris, where Hemingway’s apartment from his early writing days can still be located, along with the bar at which he drank and perhaps wrote parts of A Moveable Feast.
Yes, the streets and buildings and churches of Paris exude their history and I adore taking it all in and letting my blood be warmed and my heart beat a bit faster with the knowledge. My imagination can run rampant in this town. As I have said in the past – only partially joking – I think perhaps in another life I lived somewhere in the 5th or 6th arrondissement and wrote novels and poetry for a living and had affairs with the likes of Hemingway.
Dommage – that this past middle-age lawyer from Chicago has to live such a life only in her head.
But let’s get to Monsieur Proust.
I attended a special Proust exhibit at the Musée Carnavalet in January and one at the Jewish Museum of Art and History just a few weeks ago and armed with information from those sources as well as a France Today article written by good friend and author Thirza Vallois, I recently stalked the famous man through the 8th arrondissement and beyond.
Marcel Proust was born July 10, 1871 in the 16th arrondissement and baptized at the Saint-Louis d’Antin church in the 8th. He died on November 18, 1922 – so this year is the centennial of his death – having lived and worked during much of his life in Paris within those two arrondissements.
Honoring this centennial, and the fact that I have finally almost finished the fifth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), I decided to visit Monsieur Proust and his fictional characters in Paris and also in the towns called in his book Balbec and Combray.
Walk and travel along with me, and also do a bit of reading so that you can see that, despite long sentences and multiple volumes, he can in fact be interesting and fun.
Proust and writing
When one thinks of French literature, one of the first names that comes to mind is Marcel Proust. He wrote during the early years of the 20th century, and his novel is one of the most famous and discussed works in literature. To some, it’s also overwhelming: seven volumes, 3031 pages and 1,267,069 words.
Of course, I’m talking about A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time).
It is about a narrator named Marcel who eats a madeleine dipped in tea one day as an adult and suddenly recalls doing the same during his youth at his aunt’s house. This awakens memories of his entire life – which causes him to create seven volumes of recollections taking him from youth to old age. (Click here to find the iconic excerpt of the first volume.)
Below is a a photo of a museum recreation of the bedroom where Marcel Proust as a child slept at his aunt’s house in the town of “Illiers” – now called “Illiers-Combray” to honor the book’s fictional town name — complete with a madeleine and cup of tea on the sideboard.
The new translations
A few years ago, Penguin’s UK Modern Classics series tasked its general editor, Christopher Prendergrast, to oversee a Proust translation project that had begun in 1995. Penguin hired seven translators (one for each volume) to take the latest and most authoritative French text (by Jean-Yves Tadie – Paris, Pleiade, Gallimard 1987) and create a new edition.
In 2012, I ran into Lydia Davis – translator of the new volume one – at Shakespeare & Co and asked her why the translations were necessary. She responded that hers “sounded like Proust.” She was giving a talk that day about her latest book of short stories, but I had to ask the question. I left that day wondering what she meant – and immediately purchased her new 2004 translation of Swann’s Way and then bought a small paperback in the original French from a shop on rue des Ecoles and set those two books on my hotel bed with the original Moncrieff translation that I had been carrying – and compared a few passages.
Sure enough – Lydia Davis’ work was close to a direct translation – particularly when Proust used simpler words; while in the Kilmartin/Moncreiff editions, similes and metaphors and longer flowery words were added or substituted! Really? (Apparently these translators thought they knew what Monsieur Proust was supposed to sound like whether or not it was how he actually wrote.)
And Marcel Proust is often fun to read! See this example below, from volume 4 (Sodom & Gomorreh), with a description of the Count de Cambremer and his giant nose:
“But his nose, in order to come and take up its crooked position above his mouth, had chosen perhaps the one oblique line, out of so many, that you would never have thought of tracing on that face, one that denoted a common stupidity, made even worse by the proximity of an apple-red Norman complexion. It is possible that M. de Cambremer’s eyes had preserved in their lids something of that Le Cotentin sky, so soft on those beautiful sunny days when the stroller is amused to see, halted beside the road, and to count in their hundreds, the shadows of the poplar trees, but those heavy, rheumy, badly drooping eyelids would have prevented intelligence itself from passing through. And so, disconcerted by the thinness of that blue gaze, you turned back to the big, crooked nose. By a transposition of the senses, M. de Cambremer looked at you with his nose. This nose of M. de Cambremer’s was not ugly but, rather, a little too beautiful, too strong, too vain of its own importance. Hooked, polished, shiny, spanking new, it was quite prepared to make up for the spiritual insufficiency of his gaze; unfortunately, if the eyes are sometimes the organ in which intelligence is revealed, the nose (whatever their intimate solidarity and the unsuspected repercussions of one feature on the others), the nose is generally the organ in which stupidity exhibits itself the most readily.”
Proust and Paris
Marcel Proust died in 1922 and, except for trips to the Normandy coast and some time in a nearby village, he lived his entire life in Paris. He suffered for years with debilitating asthma and so did his main character in A La Recherche – one of the reasons for visits to the seaside town of “Balbec.”
He wrote his magnum opus over many years, mostly in his sickbed within the cork-lined room of his apartment in the 8th arrondissement at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, which he moved into in 1906 after his parents’ deaths and remained until the building was sold in 1919.
The current owners have restored the bedroom, but all of its contents are at the Carnavalet Museum, which has an exhibit of his “bedroom” there, along with his coat and other clothing.
Travel tip: If you want to get the feel of the neighborhood in which he lived, worked, and died, and, like me, tend to spend your time in other parts of Paris, I highly recommend that you check in to the Best Western Premier Hotel Littéraire de Swann, where all of his works are on shelves for your use. Located in the 8th arrondissement near Metro Europe, and devoted entirely to Proust, this is one of the literary-themed hotels of the Best Western chain, where everything from the lobby library to the artwork, the room names to the book volumes on your nightstand, make you believe that you are in the world of Marcel Proust. Here you will find yourself within short walking distance from many of the residences of both the young and mature Proust.
When I checked in, the staff handed me a welcome package that included a madeleine. My room was called Maxim de Thomas (I won’t hear of him until Albertine Disparu – two volumes from where I am reading). On my nightstand was a French copy of volume two. Proust was depicted on the walls and everywhere in the hotel: copies of his handwritten drafts and correspondence are in lobby cases along with photos and paintings.
One of the hotel highlights was a shelf of beautifully illustrated graphic novels. I discovered that French cartoonist Stéphane Heuet has published a series of graphic novels on part of Proust’s work which tell the story in an accessible way. An English language kindle version is available at Amazon.
My room was small but had a large comfy bed and a wrought-iron balcony from which I could see the neighborhood and watch the sunset and dream of a prior century. It is not far from this hotel to walk to most of the locations below.
Walk Proust’s neighborhood
Armed with the France Today article entitled “In Search of Monsieur Proust in Paris,” I made a Google Map of places he lived and worked, starting with the above-mentioned 102 Boulevard Haussmann and 96 rue de la Fontaine where Proust was born. Other important addresses are listed below. (You’ll find a map at the end of this article.)
- 9 Boulevard Malesherbes, the building where Proust lived most of his life starting in 1873. This is a six-minute walk from the Haussmann building, not far from the Madeleine church and the Champs Elysées, where fictional Marcel met with with Swann’s young daughter. Note also that young Marcel often ran across the street to a kiosk to check out when his idols, such as actress Sarah Bernhardt, would be performing. Today the kiosks still display notices of performances in local theaters. Note also that in A La Recherche, the young narrator idolized a similar figure, called “La Berma.”
- Lycée Condorcet, his school, and the St Louis d’Antin church, where he was baptized.
- 45 rue de Courcelles, near the Parc Monceau, the uppercrust home where the family moved in 1900.
- Rue Fortuny, lined with sumptuous townhouses which were once the homes of courtesans and actresses like Sarah Bernhardt (she lived at No. 35; Rostand wrote “Cyrano de Bergerac at No. 2). Nearby, cross Parc Monceau and to the south you’ll find a nice little restaurant to rest and have lunch. Le Valois is located at 1 Place Rio de Janeiro.
- Musée Jacquemart-André at 158 Boulevard Haussmann, which was the home of banker and art collector Edouard André and his artist wife Nelie Jacquemart. With its sumptuous decor, it captures the lifestyle of the day’s respectable society, including the salons frequented by the Marcel in the book as well as the living Proust.
A pilgrimage to the Normandy coast
“Balbec” is the fictional seaside town in Normandy visited regularly by Proust and his book’s main character. It is actually the town of Cabourg. Last year I took a train from Paris to Deauville-Trouville, then changed to a local bus where, about 45 minutes later, I arrived at a small but beautiful village with restaurants and stores, a huge and wonderful seaside hotel from another era, and a recently created museum that brought the visitor right into the midst of Proust’s time.
I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Cabourg and from my window viewed the sea much as Proust did in his day since his room was almost directly above mine. I walked the boardwalk behind the hotel as his lady love did in the books, ate in the sumptuous lobby, and visited the recently opened museum a few minutes away called the Villa du Temps Retrouvé. Here are the photos in case you want to do the same.
A trip to Illiers-Combray
“Combray” is the fictional name for a small town about 2-3 hours from Paris, where his father grew up near his aunt and uncle when it was called “Illiers,” and young Marcel in the book stayed with his Tante Leone who served him the now famous tea and madeleines.
Here was where he wandered and apparently digested many of the ideas used in his writing.
A few weeks ago, I took a day trip to the town now called Illiers-Combray. I took a train from Gare Montparnasse and made a short Chartres connection, to arrive in this town where young fictional Marcel ate his first madeleines, met an interesting now famous character named Swann, and took long walks.
In 1971, on the centennial of the author’s birth, town officials honored him by renaming the town, so it is now “Illiers-Combray.” They couldn’t delete the first part of the name since it commemorates a local companion of Joan of Arc.
During my visit, I ate on the square across from the local church (renamed and written about by Proust), walked the park that was built to reproduce the Bois de Boulogne of Proust, and visited the Marcel Proust Museum. I also saw the Chateau de Swann, recently repaired to appear as if it were the home of Charles Swann and his wife, the former courtesan Odette, important characters in the books. This is supposedly that actual chateau that young Marcel would admire and dream about so that as an adult he created that fictional Paris house – and now it is an imaginary home for those characters – furnished so well that it made me believe they were indeed alive and living there. At the start of the tour, a video explains what has been done there and what is yet to do, and behind the chateau is a wonderful woodland with paths created to walk through as if you were in the gardens behind the fictional Swann chateau where young fictional Marcel wandered. In that woodland is a small bright red chapel and chairs to sit in and contemplate the surroundings.
I also understand that this chateau may be used as a bed and breakfast sometimes. I saw it listed on Booking.com as such, yet there was no information about this when I toured. The entrance ticket is 8 euros.
Proust exhibits in Paris
I am not the only one marking this centennial. There are a number of commemorative events.
In January, I attended an exhibit at the Carnavalet that featured Marcel Proust. The museum had expanded their small bedroom exhibit to an entire floor, showcasing original writings, videos in which his friends speak about him, photographs, paintings, and Paris maps with color-coded lights to locate various addresses associated with Proust. On another wall were similar maps locating the residences and meeting places of the characters from the pages of his books.
Then just as this exhibit was ending a few months ago, a new exposition began on April 13th at the Museum of Jewish Art and History called “On his Mother’s Side,” featuring Proust’s family history and his connection to his Jewish mother. Particularly interesting was the part of this exhibit that covers the infamous Dreyfus affair where Colonel Dreyfus was accused of espionage and convicted on flimsy evidence — to be exonerated and released only after years in prison, despite the volume of proof as to his innocence and the article written by Emile Zola called “J’Accuse.” It was acknowledged that anti-semitism was a big part of what happened to Dreyfus.
Here, I found that although Marcel Proust maintained close friendships with anti-semitic men and was generally a political conservative, when the “Dreyfusards” and “Anti–Dreyfusards” split those in the upper-class social milieu of which he wrote, he chose to side with Monsieur Dreyfus. There is much in his books to show the manner in which these sides were taken and how it impacted relationships.
The exhibit is now closed, but for more information, please refer to Beth Gersh-Nešić’s insightful Bonjour Paris article.
Currently taking place in Paris is a Proust exhibit at the French National Library (BNF- François-Mitterrand) called “La fabrique de l’œuvre,” which will run until 22 January, 2023.
Find the Parisian sites listed in the article below:
Lead photo credit : Marcel Proust statue, lounging, in the interior of Château de Breteuil, Wikimedia Commons
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