France Part 3: Looking for Proust

June 21, 2010 at 11:34 AM | Posted in Books, France | 5 Comments

A simple room


After reading “In Search of Lost Time” twice and looking forward to beginning again, I could not be in Paris without doing something to connect with that great soul, Marcel Proust. Just being in Paris, walking through the Luxembourg Gardens to the Louvre and then from the Louvre to the Tuileries, you connect. So, my plans were general but looking at a travel guide I saw that at the Carnavelet Museum in the Marais section of Paris there is a recreation of Proust’s bedroom (with original furniture.) 

If you know only two things about Proust, one of them is that he spent his last years – he had severe asthma which eventually killed him – in his cork-lined bedroom, in bed, writing  throughout the night fueled by espresso. He always wanted to write, to be an artist and went from writing nothing, to writing small pieces for newspapers and small publications, to writing a novel that he discarded, to writing, as if a nuclear bomb of creativity ignited while his illness accelerated, the 7 Volume, 3400 or so pages, “In Search of Lost Time” which I consider the greatest novel of the 20th Century and perhaps of all time. 

The Carnavalet Museum is housed in two old, adjoining mansions and its focus is the history of Paris. The Museum lacks both masterpieces and magic and the bedroom, curiously, did not evoke for me the sense of Proust’s struggle or of his great work or of him. Once, in a Proustian fever, I stood before Vermeer’s “A View of Delft” in the Hague, Netherlands, a painting that Proust (or was it Swann) considered the greatest painting in the world, and tears came to my eyes. In this museum, I merely took pictures. Perhaps this moment’s day will come. 

Once upon a time, up there ...


So, that was that and we went off to Chablis and Beaune in Burgundy till we came back to Paris for one more day. My wife had certain plans and they included the Champs Élysées and Rue Montaigne. She mentioned in passing that she wanted to walk down Boulevard Haussmann and I said, casually, that Proust lived many of last years on that street. And so, after those other famous boulevards had their turn, we looked for Proust and found him.    

... there lived a great man.


The Boulevard  Haussmann is big and  busy and Proust’s cork-lined bedroom made sense (and the desire to have one installed came on me.) At the ground floor of the building is a bank but  I found it easy to forget that as  I looked up at the apartments, solid, formidable, holding tightly, I hope forever, their glorious luck in housing a very sick man as he sorted the piles of memory that became his masterpiece.


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  1. Thanks for sending a Proust “postcard” back home!

  2. I can’t get excited about Proust as a person, so wouldn’t be too interested in Blvd Haussmann. But where the characters walked is different, so: Balbec, Combray, the street where Marcel had that thing with Gilberte: they would all resonate. More generally, though I love to visit scenes of past action: battlefields, Chartwell, for example, I find writers’ houses less interesting. Shakespeare being the exception, as he usually is.

    • It is true that in my mind i’ve idealized Proust. I’ve read Selected Letters and they can be painful. Still, he had a great heart.

      That said, yes I would like to have dinner with Charles Swan and Odette, just after he has ceased to love her.

      • Oh yes.

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