Moncrieff: 140-154; Treharne: 102-113
by Dennis Abrams
To change the subject from the Dreyfus case, Marcel asks Saint-Loup’s friend sitting next to him about military history and whether it has a genuine aesthetic beauty. A discussion of military maneuvers. “We are always entitled to assume that a manoeuvre which an army has attempted to carry out is that prescribed by the rules in force for analogous circumstances. If, for instance, the rules lay down that a frontal attack should be accompanied by a flank attack and if, this flank attack having failed, the High Command claims that it had no connexion with the main attack and was merely a diversion, there is a strong likelihood that the truth will be found by consulting the field regulations rather than the statements issued from Headquarters…Incidents apparently insignificant, misinterpreted at the time, will explain to you how the enemy, counting on support which these incidents prove to have been denied him, was able to carry out only a part of his strategic plan. So that, if you know how to read your military history, what is a confused jumble for the ordinary reader becomes a chain of reasoning as rational as a painting is for the picture-lover who knows how to look…” If war comes, there will be battle similar to those that occurred before. For Marcel, the officers talking about war assume the same power as that once held by “the King and Queen of the South Seas, the little group of the four gastronomes, the young gambler, and Legrandin’s brother-in-law, who were no shrunken as to appear non-existent.” Marcel asks about the importance of the individual, as opposed to the rules of war, in being successful at war. “The richness of the world of possibilities compared with the real world.” Saint-Loup’s “jealousy” of the attention Marcel paid to his neighbor at diner, “Is it because you find him more intelligent than me? Do you like him better than me? Ah, well, I suppose he’s everything now, and no one else is to have a look in!” “All men with similar ideas are alike.”
It is perhaps, surprising, to read several pages of Proust, not looking at the aristocracy, not looking at the ocean, at hawthornes, at Albertine or his own feeling, but examining military strategy. And even if (as I suspect) the discussion is, once again, a look at the general impossibility of seeing at first glance the chain of events that leads from a to b to c, it’s still surprising.
Although, not if you know that, as surprising as it seems, Marcel Proust actually served a year in the army, where, no doubt, he picked up his knowledge of military strategy. (Although there seems to be little that Proust doesn’t know.) He entered in 1889 at the age of 18, while still able to profit from the “Voluntary System” (which was abolished the following year), which meant he would only have to serve one year with the colors. He served with the 76th Regiment of Infantry, stationed at Orleans, where, thanks to an understanding Colonel, he was able to avoid suffering too much from the difference in life between as it was at home with his mother and with life in the barracks.
In the instructional platoon, Proust was ranked seventy-third out of seventy-four. (I can’t even begin to imagine what #74 must have been like.)
Two letters, one from Marcel to his father, and one from his mother to Marcel, illustrate both their relationships and Proust’s life at home and in the military:
Marcel Proust to his father (September 23, 1889)…I am far from unwell (stomach apart) and not even a prey to that general gloom of which my absence from home this year might be so easily regarded as — if not the cause, at least the occasion, and therefore the excuse. But I do find great difficulty in concentrating my mind, in reading, in learning by heart, and remembering what I have read. I have no time for a proper letter. No more at present dear Papa. Remember me to the poet, your neighbor, whose recollection of me would be peculiarly precious, and tell Madame Cazalis that I am at her feet. You may be interested to hear that a number of servant girls from Cabourg, seeing in me the traditional “soldier boy,” have sent me, much to the scandal of the Derbaunes, a thousand kisses. I, however, proved false, though the servant girls have had their revenge and I am punished, if Monsieur Cazalis will allow me to quote a line from one of the loveliest of his poems, ‘Pour avoir dedaigne les fleurs de leurs seins nus.” (Sorry, no translation available. Anyone that can help?)
Your son, with a big hug,
Madame Adrien Proust to Marcel: One month’s already gone, darling. There are only eleven slices of the cake left for you to eat, and of these, one or two will be consumed on leave. I have thought of a way in which you may make the time seem shorter. Put aside eleven slabs of chocolate (you know how fond you are of chocolate), and make up your mind to eat one at the last day of every month. You will be surprised to find how quickly they vanish — and, with them, the months of your exile…”
Moncrieff: Page 154 “I did not arrive at Saint-Loup’s restaurant…” through Page 166 “…he never mentioned the matter to Robert again.”
Treharne: Page 113 “I did not turn up at Saint-Loup’s restaurant…” through Page 121 “…he never mentioned the matter to Robert again.”