Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ernest Forssgren, Proust's Swedish valet

William C. Carter, ed., The Memoirs of Ernest A. Forssgren, Proust's Swedish Valet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. $50.

This story constitutes a small part from the life of a sad, embittered old man who wasted his life, who lives ONLY by virtue of a still vigorous sense of HUMOR.

Ernest A. Forssgren, in the epilogue to his memoir
It has been a strange pleasure to read this bit of Proustiana. Ernest Forssgren was with Marcel Proust briefly in 1914 and 1915, before leaving France for the United States. His memoir, "The Mysterious Visit," ninety-three double-spaced typed pages, written in English in 1965, draws its title from a failed attempt to arrange a last meeting with Proust in 1922.

Forssgren does nothing to reveal Proust's character or working habits, but he does reveal his own character — curmudgeonly, misanthropic, obsessive, resentful, and a bit cracked, a combination of Henry Darger and Charles Kinbote. Running through the memoir is Forssgren's hatred of England, its people, its language, and that language's spelling. These matters form the stuff of purported conversations between the author and just about anyone he meets, including, yes, Proust. Here is an excerpt from a conversation between Proust and Forssgren:
"That charming little story you wrote about you and your sister getting lost in the woods, picking berries, the thunderstorm that frightened you, and you saving your sister from drowning — it is such a charming little story I would like to have it published. When you wrote it did you have to consult the La Rousse [Larousse] (dictionary) for the spelling? I noticed that it was perfect."

"No, I did not. That is the great advantage of the Latin languages; after you have learned all the rules thoroughly, you need never consult a dictionary, like you constantly have to do with the idiotic English spelling. Once you have learned the orthography of a Latin language and its grammatical rules you have no need of a dictionary. As for the English language, it reflects the character and nature of its people. Like the French reflects a refined, cultured and artistic people. It is said that language reflects a nation's psyche, its soul and character. English reflects a conservative nation reluctant of change, and though the language like all languages has gone through changes, the English have been slow in following up with reform in spelling. As an example, the obsolete GH was the Saxon's equivalent of the German CH, but was eventually slurred over and dropped, but the spelling retained. The Scotch humorous, 'it is a brah bright moonlight night tonight' is an example of the correct spelling and the original punctuation."

"Where did you learn all that"? MP asked.

"At Prince Orloff's I came across a volume dealing with the origin of language. I looked it over rather superficially. I am not too well versed, but I shall take it up again in connection with my further studies."
Carter's reality-based corrections and notes form an amusing counterpoint to Forssgren's errors and fanciful tales. Here, for instance, Carter corrects "La Rousse," points out Forssgren's habit of misspelling French words, notes the absence of any evidence that Proust took an interest in Forssgren's writing, and comments on Proust's use of French dictionaries and his translations of John Ruskin. "A conversation about English versus French with Proust would have been quite different from the one Forssgren relates," says Carter, dryly.

Elsewhere, Forssgren undertakes an extraordinary digression to present his proposal for spelling reform, "THE AMERICAN STANDARD PHONETIC ALPHABET," "a purfekt soluuqun ty xu speling problem." Sae wut?

This memoir though has a less comic aspect. Troubled by the presentation of Proust's sexuality in George Painter's two-volume biography, Forssgren, himself homosexual, evidently feared outing by association. Painter's biography doesn't mention Forssgren, and according to Carter, Painter didn't even know about Proust's Swedish valet. Still, Forssgren wrote to set his story straight, as it were, denying any knowledge of Proust's sexuality, claiming never to have read Proust's work, and presenting scenes in which private moments with his employer are consistently interrupted when housekeeper Céleste Albaret barges in. "See? Nothing could have happened," Forssgren seems to be saying.

But Albaret says in her memoir Monsieur Proust that she never went into Proust's bedroom unbidden: that was an absolute rule of the household. And there's reason (in the form of a letter from Proust to Reynaldo Hahn) to think that something did happen between Proust and his valet. As Carter asks, "Was Proust falling in love with Forssgren or did he simply desire him?" That question adds a genuinely mysterious and poignant overtone to this curious memoir.

Yes, it's an expensive book. Thank you, ILL (interlibrary loan).

Related reading
All Proust posts (Pinboard)

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