Home > 20th Century, French Literature, Literary Escapades, Proust, Marcel > Literary Escapade: the Proust Exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

Literary Escapade: the Proust Exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

December 18, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

For the centenary of Proust’s death, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bnf), the French equivalent of the Library of Congress, curates an exhibition entitled Marcel Proust – La fabrique de l’œuvre. It means Marcel Proust, the making of his work.

In French, A la Recherche du temps perdu, In Search of Lost Time in English, is nicknamed La Recherche and I’ll use that expression in my billet as it conveys a familiarity and a fondness for it.

This exhibition takes us through Proust’s creative process. For each book of we can see how Proust wrote and reviewed his work and, for the volumes published after his death, how his work came to us.

The exhibition shows 370 pieces from the Proust fund at the BnF. Marcel Proust had kept all of his manuscripts and his brother Robert inherited them when Marcel died. Suzy Mante Proust, Robert’s daughter, donated the manuscripts to the BnF in 1962.

Therefore, the BnF has almost all of Proust’s manuscripts from his school essays to La Recherche. They have 26 volumes of proofs and boards, 23 type-written texts, drafts typed by various secretaries, many paperoles, 23 notebooks of edited texts, 75 notebooks of drafts, hundreds of paper sheets, four other notebooks and one diary. That’s a lot of material and here’s a picture of the different sources.

Marcel Proust didn’t write La Recherche from the beginning to the end in a linear fashion. He wrote Swann’s Way and Time Regained at the same time. He wrote episodes of La Recherche here and there and put them in the volumes where he saw fit.

Now, let’s have a tour of the different volumes and I’ll share with you pictures and anecdotes.

Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way). 1913 (self-published) and 1919 (reviewed edition – Gallimard)

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure is probably one of the most famous incipits of French literature, along with Aujourd’hui, maman est morte, from The Stranger by Albert Camus. The BnF showed the different versions of this incipit until Proust settled on Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. They did the same about the madeleine, from toast (1907-1909 drafts) to rusk to a madeleine.

It was fascinating to witness Proust’s thought process, the attention to details and have the evidence that the incipit and the key moment of the madeleine were thoroughly forethought. The first version of Swann’s Way was published in 1913 but it was in the making since 1907. It goes against the idea of a Proust who wasted his time in society life and didn’t start working hard until later in life.

The exhibition also features key objects of the books and for Swann’s Way, I was mostly interested in this drawing from a magic lantern telling the story of Geneviève de Brabant.

It’s a story that the young Narrator used to love and this shows us what kids saw in their magic lanterns.

Proust was a master of copy-paste, long before office solutions and computers were invented. This board from Swann’s Way shows how Proust worked.

Fascinating, no? (Or maybe a typist’s nightmare…) Now let’s move on to the Narrator’s adolescence with…

A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) 1919 – Prix Goncourt

This volume is key as the Narrator gets acquainted with major characters of La Recherche: Robert de Saint-Loup, the group of girls to which Albertine belongs, the painter Elstir, the Baron de Charlus and the Verdurin clan. We’ll follow them all during our literary ride with the Narrator, from Balbec to Paris.

Le côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way) 1920-1921 (Published in two volumes)

The Guermantes Way is where the Narrator is of all the parties and in the heart of high society. It’s the turning point of his adult life: the high society isn’t a glamorous fairytale anymore, as the harsh words of the Duc de Guermantes to a dying Swann remind us. He’s about to explore the kingdom of Sodom and Gomorrha through Charlus and Albertine.

Sodome et Gomorrhe – 1921-1922 (Published in two volumes)

The discussion about homosexuality was conceived as soon as 1909. Marcel Proust didn’t know yet where he would include it. The reader understands as soon as the Baron de Charlus is introduced that he’s gay. The Narrator will only see the light when he catches the Baron de Charlus and Jupien.

Homosexuality is also a hot topic as the Narrator suspects that Albertine is a lesbian. He’s aware of lesbian relationships since Balbec when he saw Mlle de Vinteuil and her friend.

Sodom and Gomorrah were the last volumes published under Marcel Proust’s supervision. Marcel Proust changed the structure of La Recherche several times; for example, he toyed with the idea of three volumes for Sodom and Gomorrah.

The last three volumes were published by Gallimard with the help of Robert Proust. Here’s a letter from Gallimard to Robert Proust describing the final division of La Recherche in the current number of volumes.

The Narrator has now feelings for Albertine and their relationship mirrors Swann and Odette relationship.

La Prisonnière (The Captive) –1923

Marcel Proust wanted La Prisonnière to be the third volume of Sodom and Gomorrha and he sent to Gallimard his last review of the typed version of La Prisonnière a few days before he died.

The exhibition shows a report from A. Charmel, the concierge of the 8 bis rue Laurent Pichat where Marcel Proust lived from May 31st to October 1st 1919. This report is about all the cries from the street vendors and the various trades on a typical Parisian Street.

It will become a famous scene in La Prisonnière where the Narrator listens to the noises coming off the street. It’s a vivid passage that brings the reader to the Paris of this time, to all the street vendors and odd jobs that have disappeared now.

Except from 1909 to 1911, Proust wasn’t a solitary man. He had a lot of people around him, helping him. He sent out friends and servants to check certain details and facts and all this was included in his work.

Albertine disparue (The Fugitive). First title La fugitive 1925

Just before he died, Marcel Proust retrieved 250 pages of Albertine disparue, undermining the consistency of the volume. Robert Proust decided to keep these pages after Marcel died. I guess it was the best choice, no one knew how Marcel would have modified his work to straighten the narrative. I’m relieved to know that Marcel Proust thought that something was off in this volume as it’s the one I struggled the most with.

Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained) – 1927.

In Time Regained, Proust writes about Paris during WWI and here’s a picture of a bombing near the metro St Paul, rue de Rivoli (Night 12-13 April 1918)

It also means that the first version of Time Regained, written before the war started, has been augmented. Marcel Proust added a fascinating picture of Paris during WWI, life behind. He lost friends and acquaintances during the war and he adapted his characters’ fates to the events. He even changed the location of Combray from the West of Paris to the East.

In each room of the exhibition the visitor could see how the novel was finished and got ready for publication: drafts, notebooks, typed sheets, additions through paperoles, phrases crossed and rewritten…All precious testimonies of the making of La Recherche.

This is a major exhibition about Proust. I wasn’t aware of his writing process. I knew about the drafts, adds-on or paperoles and that he sent out Céleste or her husband to check out things.

I didn’t know that he wrote La Recherche in pieces and not in the chronological order. I didn’t know that his books were made of pieces stitched together and that Proust sewed his book together like a couture dressmaker.

I had this image of a Proust writing frantically, knowing his years were counted. It may stem from Time Regained where the Narrator understands late in the game what he has to write. But in Proust’s real life, this epiphany came a lot earlier than I thought and his work is even more astonishing.

We’re talking about a writer who had his masterpiece in mind from the beginning. Given the length, the complexity and the number of characters, his mind was more than a brilliant machine. He knew what he wanted to demonstrate but he didn’t have everything mapped out, or he wouldn’t have changed the structure of the volumes until the end or included historical facts along the way. He had key scenes written and the global idea of what he wanted to pass on about art, life, memory and our journey on this earth.

The key scenes are wonderfully polished because they were written and rewritten, his ability to adapt to real life events roots the novel in French history and this vision of society is also priceless. Proust has the amazing ability to dig deep into people’s inner life without cutting them off real life. He was like that too, having the vivid imagination of an introvert and living the life of a social butterfly.

Extraordinary.

Now, a last picture for the road, this is Marcel Proust’s writing material.

  1. December 18, 2022 at 9:26 pm

    Oh, this is wonderful, Emma – thank you for sharing this! 😊😊

    Like

    • December 19, 2022 at 9:23 pm

      I’m happy you liked it! I wanted to share this experience with other readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 19, 2022 at 3:09 am

    I wish I could comment in French, but sadly, despite many years trying to master it, I cannot. Just wanted to say, I loved this article! I read Proust, on my own starting when I was a teenager, then several times during college (required reading), and again, when I was older (just because). Sometimes I thought I understood, other times, I was in doubt about my understanding of what he wrote. Would love to spend time at this exhibition, but really appreciate all you wrote about Proust, especially his writing approach. Thank you.

    Like

    • December 19, 2022 at 9:28 pm

      Thank you for your kind message and welcome to Book Around the Corner..
      I’m like you I don’t think I understand everything in La Recherche but I do enjoy what I understand.
      This was my second reading of the whole work, I don’t think it’s the last.

      Like

  3. December 19, 2022 at 5:44 am

    Beautifully done, Emma. Good good holidays to you. Jenny

    Like

    • December 19, 2022 at 9:29 pm

      Thanks and thank you for your kind wishes.
      Bonnes fêtes de fin d’année !

      Like

  4. December 19, 2022 at 8:04 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed the exhibition so much and that it enriched your own reading of Proust. But I have to say that I’m a bit shocked to hear the madeleine could have been … toast? Where would that have left French culture?

    Like

    • December 19, 2022 at 9:33 pm

      It was a wonderful exhibition, really. Curated by Antoine Compagnon, that helps.
      Yes, madeleines are a lot more stylish than pain grillé or biscottes.
      This also reminds us that it s a work of fiction, the Narrator is not Marcel.

      Like

  5. December 20, 2022 at 1:35 am

    Ohhh, this is just fascinating, I am already plotting how to offload The Spouse while I spend hours in this museum. (He hasn’t read Proust, what can I say?)

    Like

    • December 20, 2022 at 6:29 am

      Isn’t it wonderful? I loved it. It was erudite and still accessible.
      Antoine Compagnon the Proust specialist who curated this exhibition has done a series of radio shows, Une été avec Proust. They’re available as podcasts on the Radio France app and there’s also a book. (Billet on my blog)
      You might like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. December 20, 2022 at 3:12 am

    I’m sorry I gave the wadholloway award before I read this! What a wonderful account of Proust’s writing process. Don’t ever give up on ‘literary escapades’, better for us on the far side of the world to participate in French culture vicariously than not at all.

    Like

    • December 20, 2022 at 6:34 am

      I’m happy to read such an enthusiastic response to my Literary Escapade.
      Next one is about Molière.

      This Proust exhibition was exceptional and I’m really happy I could go to Paris and visit it. It ends in January, sadly.

      Like

  1. January 1, 2023 at 5:02 pm

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