Marcel Proust fought a duel on this day in 1897 — pistols at twenty-five paces. His opponent was Jean Lorrain, a novelist, critic, and gossip journalist who had slandered him. Under cover of reviewing Pleasures and Days, a collection of Proust’s early writing, Lorrain had mocked his habits and homosexuality, describing him as “one of those pretty little society boys who’ve managed to get themselves pregnant with literature.” Seeing no recourse, Proust issued his challenge and gathered his seconds, one of them being his friend Gustave de Borda, a man so familiar with such occasions that he was nicknamed Sword-Thrust Borda. But there are numerous signs that neither Proust’s nor Lorrain’s side expected a fight to the finish on this occasion, and when the combatants finally met in a forest outside Paris all bullets went safely wide of their mark. Not a morning person, Proust said later that his greatest anxiety was that he might have to be dressed and ready for a dawn assignation.
Lorrain was notorious (and highly paid) for his slander journalism, and such confrontations were not uncommon — he had been beaten up and had narrowly escaped having to fight duels with de Maupassant and Verlaine. The surprising thing is that they were not uncommon for Proust, either. One friend, Paul Morand, counters the usual image of Proust — sickly, effete, burrowed into his memories and his cork-lined room — with this: “Proust had a lot of authority, what the English call ‘poise’…. He looked you right in the eye, with a somewhat defiant air, like D’Artagnan, head back. He was very courageous.” One biographer tallies a half-dozen duels, from before Lorrain to well after, and reminds us that Proust so enjoyed his mandatory military service that he applied for a second year. Although his application was not successful — Proust was ranked as next to last among his batch of sixty-four recruits — he later remembered (in Pleasures and Days, the very book that provoked the Lorrain duel) his army days as among those treasured “things past”:
The rural character of the places, the simplicity of some of my peasant comrades whose bodies were more beautiful and more agile, their minds more original, their hearts more spontaneous, their characters more natural than in the case of the young men I had known before or those I knew afterwards….
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.