Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Proust was a soldier

Neuroscientist? Yes. Next president? Yes. Marcel Proust was a soldier too. He enlisted at the age of 18, in 1889, for one year of service, joining an infantry regiment at Orléans.

William Carter calls Proust a "strange but zealous private." Private Proust was permitted to live in a room in a private house because his coughing kept his fellow soldiers awake at night. He was excused from morning parades and jumping ditches on horseback. He went home on Sundays. He never learned to swim. After finishing his service as 63rd (of 64) in his class, Proust applied to reënlist and was turned down.

In the early sketch "Memory's Genre Paintings," Proust writes of his "regimental life" as "a series of small paintings," "filled with happy truth and magic over which time has spread its sweet sadness and its poetry." Évelyne Bloch-Dano reports that Proust "always had excellent memories" of his army days. His service is of course the background for the narrator's visit to Robert de Saint-Loup in The Guermantes Way.

Ghislain de Diesbach, quoted in Bloch-Dano's Madame Proust, likens Proust in the photograph above to "a clown disguised as a municipal security guard and a sultan's page trying out a dance step."

Works consulted

Bloch-Dano, Évelyne. Madame Proust: A Biography. Trans. Alice Kaplan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Carter, William C. Proust: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Proust, Marcel. Complete Short Stories. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Cooper Square, 2001.

All Proust posts (via Pinboard)

comments: 3

flexnib said...

I didn't know this about Proust!

Oh, and I like your use of the umlaut in "reenlist". Why don't we use it more in English? I suppose we tend to use the hyphen in these situations...

Michael Leddy said...

I think of it as the New Yorker umlaut — that magazine being about the only place I see it. Thanks for noticing. : )

Michael Leddy said...

As I just learned, it’s a dieresis: “a mark (¨) placed over a vowel to indicate that it is sounded in a separate syllable, as in naïve, Brontë ” (New Oxford American Dictionary).