Not the least troublesome effect of Germany’s declaration of war against France on August 3, 1914, was to disrupt the household at 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. The master of those quarters, an obscure writer who had published Du Côté du Chez Swann to scant notice the year before, lost to the ensuing draft both Odilon Albaret and Nicolas Cottin, his trusted chauffeur and valet respectively. Then, after just days on the job, Nicolas’s successor was also called to the front lines.
Marcel Proust—wealthy, chronically infirm—was in little danger of seeing the trenches himself, and as others fled to country estates he hunkered down in the safety of his cork-lined room. He convinced Albaret’s wife, Céleste, who had previously run errands for him, to move in as his housekeeper. Then, eager to make his customary late summer trip to the Normandy coast despite the war, the author hired another replacement valet, Ernest A. Forssgren, whose entertainingly unreliable Memoirs (Yale) have been newly edited by Proust scholar William C. Carter.
Forssgren harbored belles lettres ambitions of his own. He insists that Proust wanted not only to make him his secretary but to help him get published—and he would have!—if only the valet hadn’t needed to emigrate to America to avoid conscription into the Swedish army. Forssgren’s account doesn’t exactly square with Céleste’s portrait (in Monsieur Proust) of their employer that September, which suggests instead that the ax was about to fall on this social-climbing pretty boy (” ‘You know, Céleste,’ he said several times, ‘Ernest gets on my nerves’ “). It was in fact during that vacation in Cabourg that Céleste and Proust became friends, in part, by exchanging parodic imitations of their third wheel’s “high and mighty” manners.
Forssgren returned to Paris briefly in 1922, and an extant telegram from Proust to “the Swede,” as Céleste called him (he returned the favor by remembering her as “d’Alvarez”), establishes that the two men failed to meet. Futhermore, as Carter explains in one of his exhaustive footnotes—they sometimes consume half of each page—a ship’s manifest indicates that the Swede had returned from that trip to America weeks before Proust died. So the dramatic scene the ex-staffer describes in which he stands at the door to the famous author’s deathbed is pure fantasy. In the annals of literary hangers-on, the Forssgren text is a document to rival the lunacy of Pale Fire and Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Elsewhere, Forssgren, who fancied himself an amateur linguist, digresses at length on how to reform the American tongue (phonetic spellings).
And then there is Carter, whose relentless, bullying annotations to the memoirs are another satellite circling Proust’s sun. As a scholar of French literature, Carter has achieved what Forssgren aspired to, but despite this he seems to resent the dead flunky for having lived, undeservedly, one degree closer to the great man. Carter’s notes smack of pettiness, even when translating a simple French phrase: “War, the incredible folly of man. Forssgren misspells incroyable.” Proust has never lacked for thorough, doorstopping biographies, and Carter now adds to his own 1,000-plus pager an extended coda, Proust in Love (Yale). In this picaresque of “amorous adventures—and misadventures,” Proust comes off as a kinky, kooky, fin de siécle Carrie Bradshaw.
Ever since How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton’s 1998 bestseller, managed to wring pithy self-help out of the dense and demanding La Recherché, the novels themselves have increasingly seemed beside the point. Clearly there’s a thriving market for books about Proust, but where is the audience for the serious commitment that reading his seven-part epic entails? In Proust at the Majestic (Bloomsbury)—yes, another forthcoming biographical title—Richard Davenport-Hines laments that in the immediate decades after Proust’s death “six out of seven readers of Swann’s Way never bought its sequels.” Today, any publisher of Proust can tell you that volume one still outsells the others by a wide margin, no matter how fast those de Botton units move. It is possible that, like Tom Townsend in the film Metropolitan, we now look to literary criticism to give us both literature and our understanding of it all in one neat package.
In a 1920 letter to the chief literary critic of Le Temps—who was not La Recherché‘s biggest admirer—Proust wrote, “Let us not mix life (and the feelings of respectful admiration to which it gives birth) with literature.” Proust squandered much of his youth partying among frivolous high society, and then, when few suspected he had it in him, he transformed an unexceptional life into art. How sad that the reading public cares more about the former than the latter.