From The Cambridge Companion to Proust, William C. Carter’s essay “The vast structure of recollection: from life to literature”:
In Paris, on Saturday, 3 September 1870, as news of the humiliating defeat of the French by the invading Prussian army at Sedan spread throughout the capital, Dr. Adrien Proust, a middle-aged Catholic bachelor, a grocer’s son originally from the small provincial town of Illiers, married Jeanne Weil, the Jewish daughter of a wealthy Parisian family. At twenty-one, the beautiful, dark-haired woman was fifteen years younger than the bridegroom. No one knows how they met, but is likely they were introduced at a government sponsored event or social gathering. Adrien had recently risen to the top ranks in public health administration and Jeanne’s family had many connections in official circles.
Marcel was born the following July at Uncle Louis Weil’s estate at Auteuil where Jeanne’s family usually spent the summer months. The house, built of quarrystones, was larbe, with spacious rooms, including a drawing room with a grand piano and a billiard room where the family sometimes slept to keep cool during heat waves. In fine weather Louis and his guests enjoyed the large garden with a pond surrounded by hawthorn trees, whose blossoms Marcel was also to admire in his other uncle, Julies Amiot’s garden in Illiers.
Marcel’s mother possessed a lively mind, an unfailing sense of humour, a profound appreciation of literature and music, combined with common sense and a firm belief in traditional bourgeois values. Her influence would be the most important in Proust’s life. Jeanne and her mother, Adele, supervised his cultural education, exposing him to what they considered the best works in literature. In Jean Santeuil, the mother initiates Jean into the love of poetry by reading to him from Lamartine’s Meditations, Corneville’s Horace, and Hugo’s Contemplations. Jean’s mother believes that good books, even if poorly understood at first, provide the child’s mind with healthy nourishment that will later benefit him. When Marcel was older, his mother and grandmother read with him the great seventeenth-century works, of which he acquired a special understanding and appreciation. He came to love the tragedies of Jean Racine, whose masterpiece Phedre in its depiction of obsessive, destructive jealousy haunts the pages of In Search of Lost Time.
Adrien’s sist er, Elisabeth, had married Jules Amiot, who operated a successful notions shop in Illiers at 14, place du Marche, opposite the church of Saint-Jacques. It was to the Amiots’ house in the rue du Saint-Esprit that Adrien returned with his wife and two young sons, Marcel and Robert, during the Easter holidays, when the town was at its best, offering wild flowers and trees in bloom that Marcel adored. The Prousts travelled by rail from Paris to Chartres, where they changed trains for t he short ride to Illiers. Seen from afar as the train approached, Illiers was contained in ints steeple, just as is Combray in the Search:
[Combray at a distance…was no more than a church epitomising the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it to the horizon, and as one drew near, gathering close about its long dark cloak, sheltering from the wind, on the open plain, as a shepherdess gathers her sheep, the woolly grey backs of its huddled houses]
Jules indulged his passion for horticulture by creating a large pleasure, just beyond the banks of the gently flowing Loir River. He called it the Pre Catelan, after a section of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. On the south end of the garden a magnificent row of hawthorn trees rose up a slope, leading to a large white gate that opened onto fields of blue cornflowers and brilliant red poppies fanning out to the west and south on the plain towards Mereglise and the chauteau of Tansonville. The Pre Catelan became the model in Swann’s Way for Charles Swann’s park at Tansonville near Combray. It must have seemed natural to Marcel, who often played in the Bois near Auteuil, for his Illiers uncle to name his own garden after the one in Paris. The name held in common by the two principal gardens of his childhood may have provided the first linking in Marcel’s mind of the two spaces, Auteuil and Illier, that inspired Combray.
In Illiers, Marcel visited his elderly grandmother Proust who lived in a modest apartment. Relatively little is known about her except that she was an invalid cared for by an old servant, which makes her a more likely model for the hypochondriacal Aunt Leonie in the Search than Elisabeth Amiot, generally considered the original. Adrien took his sons on walks to show them where he had played as a child. He pointed out how two different topographies join at Illiers; the Beauce, a flat, windy plain that, as it moves westward, meets Le Perche, whose hilly terrain is ravined by streams rolling down to feed the Loir River. The defining features of Combray’s fictional topography approximate those of Illiers where the two walks — one the landscape of an ideal plain, the other a captivating river view — embody, for the child Narrator, two separate worlds.
As Adrien and his boys made their way back from Tansonville, it was the steeple of Saint-Jacques, appearing now and then in the sky as they mounted a hillock or rounded a bend, that beckoned them home. Proust later used a motif from the church’s sculpted wood as one of the most powerful symbols of his art. On either wall behind the alter stands a wooden statue of a saint above whose head are placed scallop shells. Such shells are the emblem of Saint James (Jacques in French) and, in the Middle Ages, were worn by the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Campostela. The church of Saint Jacques was a stopping point on the route to Spain. The shells also provide the form of the little cakes known as madeleines, symbol of a key revelation in the Narrator’s quest to find his vocation as writer. Proust would remember the connection between the pilgrims and the madeleines, when he described the cakes in the Search: ‘the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds.’
On his walks through the river country north of Illiers, Marcel spied on Mirougrain, the large manor house built on a slope overlooking a water-lily pond. Proust remembered the impressions evoked by this mysterious dwelling later when creating the composer Vinteuil’s house in the Search. He took the name of the old mill, Montjouvin, but used the setting and atmosphere of Mirougrain for the lesbian love scene between Vinteuil’s daugher and her friend. The names of the streets, old inns, manor houses and ruined church of Illiers and its surroundings, such as Tansonville, Mereglise, Montjouvin, Saint-Hilaire, rue de l’Oiseu flesche, were to live in Proust’s memory and imagination, until he used them, with slight alterations or at all, as part of the material out of which he constructed Combray, a place that exists only in his book.
A story that Proust wrote in his early twenties depicts the goodnight kiss drama from his childhood, generally thought to have taken place at Auteuil. In ‘La Confession d’eune Jeune fille’ [‘A Girl’s Confession’], a woman, dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, confesses her weakness that led to tragedy. Although she had given up her lewd behaviour to become engaged to a fine young man, she succumbed one evening to the temptations offered by an attractive guest. Her mother, who happened to catch the daughter and visitor in a passionate embrace, fell dead from the shock. As the girl lies dying, she recalls her childhood and the tender, loving relationship with her mother. Until she reached fifteen, her mother left her every summer at a country home. The child, like Marcel, dreaded more than anything separation from her mother. Before departing, the mother used to spend two days with her, coming each evening to her bed to kiss her goodnight, a custom the mother had to abandon because [‘it caused me too much pleasure and too much pain, because due to my calling her back to say goodnight again and again I could never go to sleep’]. This is the prototype of the crucial goodnight kiss scene in the Search that send in motion the Narrator’s long quest to regain his lost will and become a creative person.
In the Search, it is the mother’s habit to give the child Narrator one last kiss before going to bed. On nights when company prevents her from coming to his room, he is particularly upset. On one such night, he waits up for her and then implores her to remain with him. She does not want to yi8eld to his nervous anxiety, but the usually stern father intervenes and capriciously tells her to stay with the boy. The child, incredulous at the easy violation of a strict rule, feels guilty for having caused his mother to abandon her convictions. He will spend the rest of his life trying to recover the will he lost that night and to expiate the wrong done to his mother. This scene illustrates how Proust eventually learned to make his private demons serve the plot and structure of the novel.”
More to come…but let me ask you this: Do you think that if Marcel’s mother had not given in and given him the kiss, that none of the rest of the events in the book would have taken place? That Marcel would have been entirely different?
1. Don’t forget that “I Spent a Year in Search of Lost Time” t-shirts, mugs and tote bags are now available — perfect for holiday giving to yourself and others!
Men’s tshirt: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089385
women’s tshirt: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089384
tote bag: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089383
2. And don’t forget that Project D will be starting up after the first of the year. The site is up, with listings and links for the recommended translations we’ll be using:
Enjoy your weekend!