Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… Proust

It’s time to attempt to climb a daunting literary Everest

Swellboy on… Proust

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 01 2011
Nick Foulkes

I am still some way off 50 years of age, but I would like to be able to realise one of my ambitions before I reach my half century: namely, to struggle through one of those monumental works of literature that everyone talks about but which, in reality, very few people have read.

I almost got through all 12 of the novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but fell at the near final fence of number nine. I did six of the nine novels that made the sequence of novels known as The Forsyte Saga, read on one holiday with immense pleasure; but too much time has elapsed for me to attempt the final three without re-reading the preceding six. And I am making pretty good headway with the oeuvre of Dickens, although of course reading Dickens is hardly an achievement – it is more like effortless entertainment.

But if Dickens is a pleasant amble in the park, the obvious literary Everest is Proust’s A la Recherche. I am afraid that I have immense difficulty getting on with Proust; I did try it once and struggled about as far as Swann’s first dinner with the Verdurins. My theory is that the cult of Proust grew out of a post-second world war pact that France made with itself to escape into the safe and splendid world of the belle époque rather than engage with its recent unhappy history during the war.

It is surely no coincidence that Colette wrote Gigi during the Nazi occupation: incredibly, the tale about a young girl in turn-of-the-century Paris being groomed for the life of a courtesan was cleaned up and made into a feelgood musical starring Maurice Chevalier (who was accused of being a collaborator). In the arts, meanwhile, such talents as Christian Bérard, an artist almost forgotten today, worked prolifically in the 1940s, turning out romantic and whimsical illustrations for such escapist books as Gigi, Nicole Vedrès’ Un siècle d’élégance française and Cocteau’s Reines de la France. Bérard also collaborated with Cocteau on the unashamedly escapist fantasy film hit of 1946, La Belle et La Bête, to which Cocteau’s written introduction on screen actually ends with the words “once upon a time”.

Given this intellectual climate, I can see why Proust’s account of the gratin with all its comforting detailing, right down to the inked marks on the inside of a woman’s glove placed there by the cleaner, and the “bleus”, or pneumatic telegrams, that used to whizz around Paris during the middle years of the third republic, would have been the perfect escape from an ugly recent past. In 1954 Gallimard published its Pléiade edition of the text and the French socialite and author with the Hercule Poirot moustache has been with us ever since. Even the imprint has a comforting retro-cultural feel: as well as its connections with the literature of antiquity, the Pléiade was the name given to a group of 16th-century French poets.

I suppose Proust mania peaked at around the time of the fancy-dress ball given Marie-Hélène de Rothschild in 1971 to celebrate the author’s centenary at the Château de Ferrières, although as Cecil Beaton remarked cattily in his diaries, “few of the guests had read A la Récherche, and certainly not Marie-Hélène”. Instead it is whispered that the hostess employed someone to sit with her while she was planning the party to tell her who all the characters were; it is a pity that Marie-Hélène is no longer with us as, with just over three years until my 50th and Proust unread, I could do with this bloke’s phone number.

See also

People, Literature