Exorciser la connexion Proust
Le titre de cette chronique n’est pas si étrange qu’il paraît… C’est un hommage à William Friedkin qui signe dans le « Style Magazine » du New York Times un long article intitulé In the Footsteps of Marcel Proust (Dans les pas de Marcel Proust), s’ouvrant sur une photo de la gare d’Illiers-Combray.
Le cinéaste américain est donc l’auteur de L’Exorciste et de La French Connexion, mais aussi un admirateur effréné de l’auteur d’À la recherche du temps perdu. (Je lui avais déjà consacré une chronique, Proust au cinéma : L’Exorciste).
Son texte est bouleversant de révérence envers l’écrivain.
L’artiste explique d’abord que c’est en épousant, à Paris, Jeanne Moreau qu’il fait sa connaissance, l’actrice lui lisant la Recherche le soir. Il a été subjugué et son amour littéraire a survécu à la séparation du couple.
Pendant dix ans, Friedkin lit tout ce qu’il trouve sur Proust, biographies et essais. À Hollywood, il rend régulièrement visite à Louis Jourdan, qui partage sa passion et lui laissera à sa mort la biographie annotée de Tadié.
À la fin des années 80, il revient dans la capitale française dans le seul but de retrouver les traces de Proust. Il loge dans la suite Proust du Ritz, se rend au lycée Condorcet, dans l’appartement du boulevard Haussmann et au musée Carnavalet.
Enfin, il fait le voyage d’Illiers-Combray dont il salue la singularité du nom réécrit avec son ajout fictif. C’est là, écrit-il, qu’il s’est senti au plus près du monde de Proust. Il décrit la maison de tante Léonie, évoque les deux côtés et le Pré Catalan (sic). Une série de photos illustre l’article.
Sa conclusion : « Proust nous inspire à voir et apprécier chaque lieu, ou objet ou personne apparemment insignifiants dans nos vies ; à réaliser que la vie elle-même est un cadeau et que toutes les personnes que nous avons connues ont des qualités qui méritent d’être considérer et à célébrer — in time (à temps ? dans le temps ?).
Les étrangers sont décidément les plus convaincants avocats de la cause proustienne.
Parole de proustiste…
In the Footsteps of Marcel Proust
By WILLIAM FRIEDKIN
MAY 15, 2017
I MARRIED JEANNE Moreau in 1977 at a town hall in Paris. Moreau was one of the most revered actresses of her generation, and we were attended by a notable group: Jacques Chirac, the city’s soon-to-be mayor, spoke, and our witnesses were the film director Alain Resnais, who had introduced me to Jeanne, and his wife, Florence Malraux, daughter of the writer André Malraux.
After sips of Champagne and a brief ceremony, of which I did not comprehend one word, Jeanne and I took a long walk in the Tuileries Garden accompanied by a cluster of paparazzi. It was my first marriage, her second. I’ve seen pictures of myself on our wedding day and I appear shell-shocked and confused. That first year we spent the summer at her chateau in La Garde-Freinet, a medieval village, on 150 acres of farmland in the hills behind St.-Tropez. I had no prospect of work. My most recent film, “Sorcerer,” which I thought to be my best, had been rejected by critics and audiences. I drifted into the sedentary life of the French countryside, begun with long morning walks into the village for a coffee and croissant. The cafe owner and the patrons were dismissive and a large graffiti on the stone wall leading to town read: “Parisians Go Home.” I could only imagine how they felt about Americans.
In the evenings, after dinner, Jeanne would read Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel, “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”). She would begin reading to me in French, then translate it into English. Gradually, I became caught up in the novel’s language, its complex structure and the intertwined lives of the many characters. After two years, Jeanne and I realized we were culturally displaced in each other’s worlds. Our marriage ended, but not my love for Proust. I continued to read the novel, often with difficulty, until the revelation of its final volume. Then I would make time every day to go over parts of it again, sometimes only certain passages, like a favored piece of recorded music.
This went on for 10 years, in which I devoured every biography and essay about Proust I could find and became familiar with his life, which seemed to closely parallel his work. It was a solitary pursuit. The only other person I knew in Hollywood who appreciated the novel was the actor Louis Jourdan, who lived with his wife of many years in Beverly Hills in a single-level house surrounded by books, recordings and antiques. Louis was always cast as an archetypal French lover but his passions were literature and music. I got to know him well in his later years. I would visit him two or three days a week. When he died in 2015, he left me his annotated copy of Jean-Yves Tadie’s definitive biography of Proust, with Louis’s handwritten notes and observations on every page.
In the late ’80s, I returned to Paris with the sole purpose of walking in Proust’s footsteps, of seeing the places in which he lived and wrote about. For the most part I’m intimidated by masterpieces, and not inspired to attempt one. I could never compose music having listened to Beethoven, or play an instrument after hearing Martha Argerich or Miles Davis. I love many works of literature, but I’m not obsessed with seeing Macondo, where Col. Aureliano Buendía faced the firing squad, or East Egg, where Gatsby gazed toward the green light. Reading Proust, though, and experiencing the way he seems to capture a life in full through the novel’s huge compilation of very small moments, made me want to see the genesis of these moments for myself.
It’s impossible to experience Dickens’s London today, but some of Proust’s world still exists, much as it did in his time, especially in Illiers-Combray, which the writer visited as a child and where he set a great deal of his novel. Encountering this place in person would be, for me, like visiting a monument. Seeing the Lincoln Memorial doesn’t deepen your understanding of Lincoln but it does make you think about what he represents. And while I didn’t believe Proust’s novel was autobiography, I hoped that viewing his inspirations firsthand would help me locate the source of the great novel’s transformational power.
I BEGAN ALL THOSE years ago at the Ritz in Paris, where I stayed in the Marcel Proust suite, formerly a private dining room on the hotel’s second floor, where Proust often hosted small dinner parties. Proust had been friends with the maître d’hôtel at the Ritz, who served as a partial model for the character Aimé in the novel. The suite had a marble bathroom, and a high window looking down to the garden; in the room, an elegant chandelier hung from a trompe l’oeil ceiling of blue sky with puffy clouds. It was sparsely furnished with Louis XV reproductions. For me it felt like a kind of sacred space, and it retained its power even though it had undergone many changes since Proust’s time. (A large television set perched on a draped table seemed out of place.) I was told by the hotel manager that the room was reserved for Proust to entertain whenever he could venture out from his cork-lined bedroom at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, where he often lay bedridden from asthma. No doubt he absorbed inspiration from conversations here, ones that made their way into his writing. His curiosity about the inner lives of his characters was constant and his senses were acute to stimuli that might have gone unnoticed by others.
I then rode the Paris subway to the Saint-Lazare station, a short walk to the Lycée Condorcet, the secondary school that Proust attended from 1882, when he was 11, until 1889. Among its hundreds of notable graduates were the painters Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the writer Alexandre Dumas, fils, and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Built in the 18th century around a central courtyard, the school was formerly a Capuchin monastery. I entered the original two-story Mansard-roofed building through a large blue portico flanked by two Tuscan columns. I had no appointment. I was met there by a well-dressed middle-aged woman who introduced herself as the school’s archivist. “Can I help you?” she asked, cautiously.
“Did you know Marcel Proust went to this school?” I asked quietly.
She returned my shyness with scorn. “You must be an American,” she said, to which I awkwardly confessed. She appeared skeptical.
“Why are you interested in Marcel Proust?”
I told her that his work inspired me and that I wanted to find out everything I could about him.
“Why don’t you read one of the biographies? They must have them in translation.” I told her I had read everything I could find.
“And you’re not satisfied?”
“Only more curious.”
“Are you a writer?”
She asked who I was and I told her I was a filmmaker, but I didn’t want to make a film about Proust.
She stared at me as though wondering if I was joking. She must have decided I wasn’t, because her attitude became sympathetic. “Would you like to see some of the work he did while he was here?”
I didn’t expect that. I don’t know what I expected, but she abruptly left the room. For a long time I watched the students playing soccer in the courtyard or talking in groups or reading alone.
She returned, proudly displaying a stack of Xeroxed papers and handed them to me. They were about an inch thick.
“Here are some of his writings. Most of them are in the Bibliothèque Nationale, but here are copies of the few papers we still have.”
There were some early short stories written when he was 13, some papers in Latin and Greek, biology and chemistry. On his final year report card, his philosophy teacher Alphonse Darlu had written an assessment that was translated for me as: “He works as hard as his affliction allows.” I found this to be faint praise, a stunning dismissal of the young man who would become one of the world’s great novelists, whose work would transcend the test of time. I thanked her again and shook her hand. “You won’t find ‘À la Recherche’ in that stack,” she said, smiling as I left.
PROUST LIVED in the five-story apartment building on Boulevard Haussmann for 13 years, beginning in 1906. He described the neighborhood to his friends as “ugly” and noisy, with bad air. But the apartment on the second floor had sentimental value for him. His maternal great-uncle Louis Weil, who died 10 years before Proust moved in, had owned the building. Proust spent precious time there with his family, and it was here that he began to structure his memories, transforming the lives of his family and friends and organizing the notebooks begun in 1908 as a series of essays against the literary criticism of Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. Sainte-Beuve had put forth the idea that you couldn’t appreciate the work of an author without also knowing about his personal life. Proust angrily disagreed and these essays, along with fragments of his unfinished novel “Jean Santeuil,” evolved into “In Search of Lost Time.”
When I visited the former apartment building on the tree-lined Boulevard, it had long since been remade as a branch of a large international banking firm. The office of the director of this division was once the salon of Proust’s apartment. Now it was efficient and well appointed, but without charm. There was a plain mirror over an unusable fireplace, ordinary wall sconces, off-white walls.
The present occupant was distinguished, well dressed, friendly and bemused by my pilgrimage. He was well aware of the former famous tenant and apologetic that the room no longer reflected his taste. There was only one work of art in the office and it was on the wall behind his desk, a reproduction of Jacques-Émile Blanche’s familiar “Portrait of Marcel Proust,” the original of which is in the Musée d’Orsay. In Proust’s time, the salon was next to the cork-lined bedroom where he wrote most of his novel in his brass bed, using his knees as a desk. That was gone.
But it was possible to see a recreation of the bedroom, with some of its original furniture, at the Musée Carnavalet in the Marais. The original building was constructed in the 16th century as a private residence and has since been turned into a museum celebrating the history of Paris. There were more than 100 exhibition areas with objects from the 16th century to the present: historical paintings, photographs, street signs, furniture, a large model of the Bastille carved from its actual stone. There were recreated period rooms belonging to famous Parisians. Wandering through the museum was like being in a large, bric-a-brac-filled department store. Off in a cramped corner were the reassembled pieces of furniture from Proust’s bedroom, including a five-paneled Chinese screen, a velvet armchair that belonged to his father and a writing desk, used mostly for piling books. He kept his notebooks and writing materials on an old rosewood end table beside the bed. Two other tables are adrift in this cramped tableau, one of which was used for his morning coffee tray, usually served with milk and croissants.
The original Boulevard Haussmann apartment was spacious but crammed with furniture, with double windows always covered by padded blue satin drapes. The bedspread was blue satin as well and there was a chandelier, which was never lit when Proust was working. The only light was from a long-stemmed, green-shaded lamp on the bedside table. Imagining the furniture in the museum placed around a much larger room, I had the sense of Proust’s isolation, of a recluse devoted to transcribing his memories and imagination.
IN 1971, ON THE centenary of his birth, the town of Illiers formally added the name Proust gave it in his novel — Combray. Since then it’s been known as Illiers-Combray. I’m not aware of any other place in the world that has acknowledged its fictional counterpart so thoroughly. I made the drive from Paris to Illiers-Combray in about two hours. Seen from a distance as you approach, standing like a sentinel, is the church of Saint-Jacques, one of the inspirations for Saint-Hilaire in the novel.
The permanent population of the town today is about 3,400; in Proust’s time, it was around the same. Marcel and his older brother Robert were born in Auteuil, in western Paris, but that house has long been demolished.
It was in Illiers-Combray that I came closest to Proust’s world. He visited this ordinary little town on at least three occasions as a child, and it left a profound impression. Though he took liberties with its characters and locations, using it as a kind of sketchbook, the place seemed instantly familiar. Here, along the Rue de Saint-Esprit (now called Rue du Docteur Proust) is the former home of his aunt and uncle, Jules and Élisabeth Amiot. This inspired Aunt Léonie’s house in the novel, and I could walk into every room. Though the house is now a museum, it seemed to me exactly as it is in the book. The locations in the novel are indicated throughout the town, but it has not been turned into a tourist mecca. If anything, it’s understated.
On evenings during the family’s holidays in Illiers, Marcel, Robert, their mother, Jeanne, and their father, Dr. Adrien Proust, would take long walks after dinner along one or the other of two paths that went off in opposite directions before circling and coming together. From the Amiot house, they could walk along the Méréglise way (Méséglise in the novel), a windy plain, south toward Tansonville, where Proust set Swann’s house; or they could walk in the opposite direction, along the river Loir, on the path now known as the Guermantes way. The two roads, or “ways,” are Proust’s metaphor for the possibilities and diversities of life.
Out of this beautiful but not extraordinary landscape, Proust created an idyllic, original world. Any one of the hundreds of little towns around Illiers, or thousands of others in rural France, could have been the model for Combray. And it is likely that his depiction of it was equally influenced by memories of his childhood in Auteuil. The places where he lived were like a giant well from which he drew inspiration. As Samuel Beckett observed, “The whole of Proust’s world comes out of a teacup.”
In writing this, I spent hours trying to describe Combray as it existed in Proust’s time and today. The differences are minor but the purpose of my discovery has nothing to do with real estate. I’ve taken pictures of the landscapes and, in Proust’s words, “the little parlour, the dining-room … the hall through which I would journey to the first step of that staircase … and, at the summit, my bedroom, with the little passage through whose glazed door Mamma would enter …” I’ve seen the dark space outside that door where Proust’s young narrator would anxiously await his mother’s goodnight kiss, and the hawthorn blossoms in his uncle Jules’s garden which he called the Pré Catalan, and which resembled “a series of chapels.”
But the alchemy of his work is not found in the parks, the roads, the flowers in bloom nor in the town’s church or in the house itself. It exists in the genius of a person who understood there was a connection between everything — that the roads we take inevitably lead to the same place, a place within ourselves.
What Proust inspires in us is to see and to appreciate every seemingly insignificant place or object or person in our lives; to realize that life itself is a gift and all the people we’ve come to know have qualities worth considering and celebrating — in time.