In which I celebrate Proust’s birthday by returning to the source of Proust and his many anxieties: his mother.
On this day in 1871, Proust was born. It seems appropriate, then, to trace a biographical sketch of Proust, and reflect on the woman who gave birth to him and who was the source, directly or indirectly, of his many neuroses: Madame Proust.
Here is Proust as a nipper. His full name at his baptism was Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – though thankfully for world literature he was known as Marcel.
Alain de Botton writes in How Proust Can Change Your Life that Proust’s mother was fond of calling him mon petit jaunet (“my little yellow one”), mon petit serin (“my little canary”), mon petit benet (“my little clod”), mon petit nigaud (“my little oaf”) or also mon pauvre loup (“my poor wolf”).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears that these infantalising nicknames and the large theatrical bows on his clothes contributed to Proust’s sense of himself as a perpetual invalid, helpless without his mother’s assistance. Proust worshipped his mother, writing to her constantly, and created something of a shrine to her after her death.
It seems strange that Proust never read Freud, just as Freud returned the non-favour by claiming never to read Proust, as they seem to be the opposite sides of the same coin. Proust’s writing, with its detailed interest in dreams, the workings of involuntary memory and the intense bonds of family correlate closely to Freud’s theories, just as the facts of Proust’s life could be lifted from one of Freud’s case studies of sexual neurosis. With his suffocating mother, his distant unforgiving father, his half-admitted homosexuality and his strings of unhappy romantic attachments, Proust could be the definitive Freudian poster boy – or at least a prime contender for a turn on Freud’s consulting couch.
Perhaps someone will write a fictional encounter of the two of them meeting. For now, we have the first part of The Way By Swann’s as a grand testament to the power of Mummy Love.
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Here is Madame Proust in a photo with mon pauvre loup Marcel and his much healthier, heartier brother Robert, who was known as mon autre loup (“my other wolf”) – which, as de Botton says, gives us an insight into who got more attention in the Proust household.
All the biographers report that, despite the unequal split in their mother’s affections between them, Marcel and Robert had a long and happy friendship. Edmund White writes that at the end of Marcel’s life, Robert secured for him the Legion of Honour, and was with him when he died. Robert also oversaw the publication of the final two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which remained unpublished at Marcel’s death.
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This photo shows Proust being photographed with two fellow flaming queens. On the left is Robert de Fler, the future Marquis de Flers and a writer for the theatre and opera. On the right, Lucien Daudet, who became Proust’s lover, and later a live-in gigolo for the widow of Napoleon III.
Though it’s not immediately obvious from the photograph, all three are wearing make up. Lucien, once described by an observer as “curled, well-dressed, pomaded, painted and powdered”, rests his right hand provocatively on Marcel’s shoulder, and looks down at him adoringly, the other hand (to quote Edmund White) “suspended in the air as though he had plucked an invisible harp string”.
Apparently, Madame Proust hit the roof when she saw the photograph, and had a fierce argument with Marcel, in which she implored him not to circulate it. Marcel objected initially, writing to his mother:
“I don’t think there’s any harm in being photographed with Robert de Flers and if Lucien Daudet is wearing a tie a little too right or a complexion a little too pale [due to his powdered face], that’s a problem that disappears in the photograph which doesn’t render colours.”
The lady doth protest too much, methinks. However, like all well-behaved Mummy’s boys, Marcel capitulated, writing this note at midnight and slipping it under his mother’s door:
The best would be if I’m the one to take all the proofs, I’ll give one to each of them and I’ll hand the rest over to you: in that way they won’t be in circulation (since you find in all this something I fail to understand).
Proust’s final parenthetical sentence is a mini-masterclass in passive aggression and emotional denial. It appears that Madame Proust was aware enough of her son’s sexual orientation to be horrified by it and attempt to censor it, at least publicly. Marcel responded with the blanket panic of the secretly terrified closet gay, denying all knowledge of the “guilt” of his proclivities, and assuming a disingenuous innocence. I remember feigning a similar lack of awareness when I had both my ears pierced when I turned 18 – to the horror of my mother and father, who wanted to know if I was trying to “tell them something.””No, no”, I said, unconvincingly, forestalling a more difficult conversation for another year or two.
Though thankfully gay culture has moved away from some of these Freudian-inspired stereotypes – not all gay men are fussy cravat-wearing dilettantes with overbearing mothers – it’s somehow comforting to know that Marcel showed us all how it should (or shouldn’t) be done, over a hundred years ago.
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Here is a photo of Proust on his death bed, taken by celebrated photographer Man Ray. It’s a striking photo, beautiful and disturbing in the same breath. The custom of photographing the dead was apparently quite common in Proust’s day, especially for a celebrity whose reputation was felt grand enough to be monumentalised in death, and goes back to much older medieval and Renaissance customs of fashioning death masks from the recently dead. It seems that it’s only in recent times that dead bodies have become too taboo to be photographed and recorded – at least here in the death-phobic Western developed world.
So bon anniversaire, mon pauvre loup. You packed a lot into a (fairly brief, by modern standards) 51 years.