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Proust, his novels told his mother all.

Marcel Proust; drawing by David Levine

Colm Tóibín writes:

A specter haunts the exhibition of Proust’s notebooks, manuscripts, and correspondence currently running at the Morgan Library. It is the specter of Proust’s mother. As you move from left to right in the room, the photograph of maman with her two sons, which appears first, sends a shiver down your spine. Mme Proust is seated, looking to the left, while her sons, young men in their twenties, stand on either side of her. They are beautifully dressed and have a look in their eyes that suggests the boulevard and the salon. There is something feline and sleek about the pair of them.

Easy to imagine why maman is so dour-looking and disapproving, her mouth firmly closed, her eyes fixed on the ground. She is a woman who knows what trouble looks like, and these boys are ready for trouble of the most sweet and tender and pleasurable kind. As your eyes wander back to them, you can see that Marcel is more nervous about himself, his gaze not as comfortable as that of his brother Robert.

The first letter sets the scene. It is written to Marcel from his mother in 1895 when he is twenty-four and in Dieppe with Reynaldo Hahn. She is concerned about what time he goes to bed and what time he rises. Her letter is a demand for precise information. So she writes Couche and leaves a blank for him to fill in and then Leve and leaves another blank.


Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that when he did begin to explain himself in his long novel, started a few years after his mother’s death, he had the lovely idea that his mother, by dying, had left an enormous blank for him to fill in. She wanted all the details, she wanted to be spared nothing as she sat on her chair in heaven, her eyes cast down, and he would do anything to please her.

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