PRINT November 2002


The World of Proust

KNOWN TO POSTERITY as the supersensitive freak who withdrew to his stuffy, cork-lined room to spin gossip, reverie, and insomnia into the greatest novel of the twentieth century, after throwing a good-bye dinner at the Ritz (partly to show he still had his marbles), Proust only seemed to retire from society. In fact, he invited tout le monde into his bedroom to recast them in realer roles—in his personal psychic puppet theater that would outlive them all. Subsisting on little more than caffeine and asthma meds, the electively bedridden night owl sated his appetite for intrigue through a lively correspondence, midnight visits, and chats with the help.

Photos play a funny role in Proust’s world. On the one hand, his oeuvre is the antithesis of photography, demonstrating that art (and personal truth) begin where the mere objectivity of photography ends. The only reality is the darkroom of the artist’s mind—sensitized by feeling and memory—which develops truth from the minutiae of impressions, to reveal the timeless laws underlying apparent chaos.

Nevertheless, he collected photos of family, friends, and idols and kept them in a drawer. He took them out often, to delight guests and servants. He titillated himself with “profane” photo displays at a brothel, where baffled staff were coached to ask, “And who the hell’s this little tart?” when the author flashed his shots of Mme. Proust and other dear ladies.

Originally appearing in French in 1999, The World of Proust, as Seen by Paul Nadar assembles his portraits of “the most prominent Parisian ‘beau monde’ and ‘demi-monde’ around the time during which . . . Proust’s novel takes place—1870–1920.” Shot in the studio Nadar took over from his father, Félix, in 1886, they are printed from the full plate. In some uncropped shots, we see Nadar and assistants tilting large reflective disks at angles to the subject, to tweak the lighting. One recognizes the studio props: oriental rugs, ottomans, tables styled with books—in some cases, painted backdrops. Retouching was big by 1886: Waistlines were reduced, as were warts and eye bags. The few untouched-up images seem uncannily recent. The incredibly crisp detail in such old photos is shocking.

Proust is famous for alchemically transforming the Life into the Work. The people he flattered and fawned over in Life were Worked over by the catty B-side of his “pleaser” social mode. While the author exorcised his infatuations in his genius novel, these people are still being punished for inspiring them! I had the specious feeling I “knew” these folks, as filtered through Proust’s internal darkroom. The “originals” here seem like representations of the novel rather than vice versa. One eyes Charles Haas, the model for Swann, and feels privy to his wreckiest insecurities over Odette, his fictional mistress. One sees the unsuspecting “Duchesse de Guermantes” in a dramatic over-the-shoulder shot, through Proust’s gratifying account of her shallowness and lame puns.

The editor reminds us these figures are not simply the “real life” sources for Proust’s characters: Proust obsessed over details only to find what was generally true. He composed, he wrote, by constructing “individualities (human and otherwise) . . . out of numerous impressions . . . making my book as Françoise made boeuf à la mode . . . enrich[ing] the jelly by . . . carefully selected bits of meat.” Several upper-crust dudes flavored the dashing Robert de Saint-Loup; mother and grandmother were boiled down into one; the sexes of lovers were transposed—the author represented gay affairs as straight, and vice versa. Several bits of meat included here would be known even without Proust’s jelly: Sarah Bernhardt (who inspired La Berma), Monet (Elstir), Fauré (Vinteuil), Anatole France (Bergotte).

With the unfortunate exceptions of Marie Nordlinger (his haplessly devout cotranslator of Ruskin) and Anna de Noailles (the prolific poetess he gushed over and competed with), it is remarkable how many of Proust’s circle got to Nadar’s studio. Comtesse Greffulhe was the style cipher who inspired the narrator’s abject crush on the Duchesse de Guermantes; now we finally get to check out the Anna Wintour of her day, voguing in two different gowns by Worth. The principal model for Mme. Verdurin (the shrewish hostess whose upgrade to princess reveals the nullity of the society that the narrator earlier worshiped) looks like Ernest Borgnine in drag, with saucy tight black leather gloves; or in Robert de Montesquiou’s pretty phrase: “like Queen Pomaré on the lavatory seat.” In her salon, Marcel met that imperious dandy and poet whose ravings (sometimes verbatim) were captured by Proust’s hilarious, über-queeny Lear figure, the Baron de Charlus. Now forgotten as a poet, Montesquiou had condescended to the fawning, younger écrivain for years and never forgave him for successfully immortalizing him as a character. Plain but formidable, the Marquise de Brantes (Charlus’s aunt) looks as modern as Ethel Mertz with a Parisian makeover: sporting a chic black neckerchief and surprisingly 2002ish black leather wristband. Proust’s younger, “normal” brother, Robert, like Proust père a prominent physician, is surprisingly attractive—and conspicuously absent from his sibling’s Search.

Till the day she died—perhaps freeing him to start his Work, already—Proust’s doting, refined Jewish mother was updated on the state of his kishkes, in clinical detail. Meanwhile, her hands—not that she complained—are so swollen by edema they look like claws.

Proust junkies (big surprise!) will find these photos as poignant as they are exquisite. From a century away, we scrutinize these strangers, their dated outfits incongruous with surprisingly contemporary faces, and are left to our inner darkrooms to make sense of their mysteries. That was Proust’s point.

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer living in New York.


The World of Proust, as Seen by Paul Nadar, edited by Anne-Marie Bernard. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. 160 pages.