It is one of the many realizations of Marcel Proust’s narrator at the end of the “Search for Lost Time” that the paths of his childhood to Mésiglisé and Guermantes were never two different paths, but always only one.
It is similar with Proust’s work, from his first attempts at writing, which led to the publication of “Freuden und Tage” in 1896: All roads lead to “research”, actually there has always been only one.
This is also the case with the very early stories that only appeared two years ago in the estate of the French Proust researcher Bernard de Fallois, who died in 2018. It is also available in a German translation for Proust’s 150th birthday under the title “The Mysterious Letter Writer”. (Translated from the French by Bernd Schwibs. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2021. 174 pp., € 28.)
Proust had written the stories during the time when he was sitting on “joys and days”, in the early and middle nineties of the 19th century.
During this time Proust got to know and love the composer Reynaldo Hahn, spent a summer with him at Madame Lemaire’s Réveillon Castle and dedicated the story “The Death of Baldassare Sylvande” published in “Freuden und Tage” to him.
Proust didn’t want to be outed as a homosexual
Hahn and Proust had a relationship that was sometimes violent, sometimes distant, and always marked by a lot of jealousy. This went hand in hand with Proust’s decision not to use some of his stories for his debut. Obviously he didn’t find them literary enough either, but above all they dealt all too openly with the subject of homosexuality.
Proust feared that this topic would determine the reception of “joys and days” too much – and despite all the caution he exercised while writing, he did not want to be outed as a homosexual himself.
What seems strange nowadays, but is always a primarily individual decision.
However, Proust was able to observe with many friends and acquaintances that his sexual orientation did not have to contain tragedy, from Robert de Montesquieu to Jane Dieulafoy to André Gide, with whom he would later talk a lot about homosexuality.
Gide judged Proust’s tormenting rats to orgasm in terms of his literature: “How many adjuvants did he need to get paroxysm? But all served his books in an indirect way, the unbelievable, luxuriant proliferation of his books “.
“The” letter writer is a woman
But back to the early, only recently published stories: Although the cover story is called “The Mysterious Letter Writer”, it is a woman who writes love letters to a married friend.
She believes the letters were from a man: “She had often wondered who he was, and now she imagined it was a soldier.”
Or in the story “In Hell”, in a dialogue about homosexuality: “The woman will rule in Gomorrah, the man in Sodom. And throwing an irritated look at each other from afar, the two sexes will ever die on their side. ”
The “memory of a captain” is also about the mutual sympathy of two men, without this being explicitly mentioned: “In the passionate desire (why?) To be looked at by him, I clamped my monocle and pretended to be I would look around trying not to look in his direction. “
With the exception of the latter story, “Recollections of a Captain”, which was published in 1952 after Bernard de Fallois had copied it (and which has already found its way into the volume “Abandoned and Recovered”), the eight other stories were stored in de Fallois’ huge archive.
Many echoes of the “research”
Bernard de Fallois was the Proust researcher who, after getting to know Proust’s niece, discovered the early attempt at a novel “Jean Santeuil” and the novel essay “Against Saint-Beuve” and made it accessible to the literary world in the 1950s.
As with these publications, which refer to what was to come, it is with “The Mysterious Letter Writer” and the other, often unfinished stories.
This is how the Strasbourg literature professor and Proust expert Luc Fraisse writes in his instructive introduction: “We see the writer here at the moment when his literary enterprise, which is gradually gaining shape up to ‘research’, begins.”
In fact, there are many echoes of the world of “research”, of Combray and Paris, of the world of Guermantes and the salons in which Proust’s later narrator hangs around, just in the atmosphere and in the settings chosen by Proust.
Just think of the – in this case female – “mysterious letter writer” who sent the narrator in the sixth volume of “Recherche”, “Die Escaped”, a telegram when he was in Venice, “signed with Albertine, who was dead is “.
Or the same captain who returns to a small town where he was stationed for a year and falls in love with a soldier of low rank. At the beginning he says that he wanted to see everything again in that city, “the places to which love has made impossible for me without a great shudder of sadness to think back, and the places as simple as the walls of the barracks and our little garden, whose only adornment was the charms that the light gives them depending on the time of day and the mood of the weather and season. “
Or, one last example, again “In Hell”, when it comes to the fact that love is a disease, one of the main topics of the “research”. It says that the poets cannot be completely together psychologically, which is what the doctor du Boulbon’s statements are in advance of, as it were: “So the doctors claim with reasonably good reasons that the poets are sick, madmen. So be it. After all, a blissful disease, divine madness, as the mystics say. “
Art has a redeeming character
The entire “research” is populated by characters with unstable gender identities, be it Saint-Loup, be it Albertine or Andrée, or in the end even the Prince de Guermantes. Last but not least, the greatest love of the narrator in “Recherche”, Albertine, is based on the trains of Proust’s temporary chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, who died in a plane accident in southern France in 1914.
But in the end, as is always the case with Proust, art stands in all its greatness. It has a redeeming character. All of this is already hinted at in these stories. Art, so Fraisse writes, broadens the “perspective of suffering and cursed”; here especially against the background of homosexuality and the difficulties that Proust had to openly admit to.
Of course, “The Mysterious Letter Writer” is difficult, not really satisfactory read on its own. The volume is hardly suitable for attracting Proust readers for the first time. It can only be understood with the knowledge of the following and the explanations and comments by Luc Fraisse.
Nevertheless, it is astonishing what is incessantly found in the Proust archives, what kind of puzzle pieces are gradually coming to light. With Proust and his “Contre-Saint-Beuve”, Bernard de Fallois was only too aware of how little the work of a writer can be deciphered by means of a life, a biography. Research “began and hardly went out, became more and more monotonous and was more and more limited to correspondence.
But the discoveries and rediscoveries from Proust’s writing mine alone are adventurous enough. Think of the short story “Der indifferent”, published in 1978 after the editor of Proust’s correspondence, Philip Kolb, had been referred to its first reprint in a 19th century magazine.
The story of Fallois and his lifelong research on Proust are also worth a novel in their own right. You don’t need to be a prophet to be able to see that “The Mysterious Letter Writer” is not the end of the excavations and demolitions, especially from the Fallois fund.
And yet: There is only one way to open up to Proust, and that is to read the seven volumes of “In Search of Lost Time”.
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