Marcel Proust: A Lifeby William C. Carter
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Marcel Proust portrays in abundant detail the life and extraordinary times of one of the greatest literary voices of the twentieth century. Based on a wealth of letters, memoirs, notebooks, and manuscripts previously unavailable, the book examines Proust's character and development as an artist, the glittering Parisian world of which he was a part, and the passions that enabled him to write his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. Selected as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Review Best Book for 2000. Winner of Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year Award in the Non-Fiction category (2000).
Author Biography: William C. Carter, professor of French at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is the author of The Proustian Quest and the coproducer of the documentary film Marcel Proust: A Writer's Life.
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Marcel ProustA Life
By William C. Carter
Yale University PressCopyright © 2002 William C. Carter
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1 Secret Places of the Heart
THE FIRST DAYS OF SEPTEMBER 1870 were among the most calamitous in French history. In the town of Sedan, on the Meuse River near the Belgian border, Emperor Napoléon III and his troops found themselves surrounded by an invading Prussian army that overwhelmed the French with heavy shelling. Cut off from reinforcements, the emperor, whom Victor Hugo had dubbed Napoléon le Petit, gave the order to raise the white flag. The victorious Prussians demanded unconditional surrender. The capitulation agreement was signed by the French on Friday, September 2.
In Paris the next day, as news of the swift, humiliating defeat at Sedan spread throughout the capital, Dr. Adrien Proust, a middle-aged Catholic bachelor, a grocer's son originally from the small provincial town of Illiers, married Jeanne Weil, the daughter of a wealthy Parisian Jewish family. At twenty-one, the beautiful, dark-haired woman was fifteen years younger than the bridegroom. No one knows how Adrien and Jeanne met, but it is likely that they were introduced at a government-sponsored event or social gathering. Adrien had recently risen to the top ranks in public health administration, and Jeanne's family had many connections in official circles.
The wedding ceremony took place in the town hall of the city's tenth arrondissement, where the Weils lived and where Jeanne's father, Nathé, oversaw his successful business ventures. Nathé's father had made his fortune as a porcelain manufacturer, wealth that Nathé increased as a stockbroker. Jeanne's dowry was an impressive trousseau and two hundred thousand gold francs, a considerable fortune in any era. The bride's witnesses were her twenty-two-year-old brother Georges Weil, an attorney, and her great-uncle Adolphe Crémieux, an important political leader soon to join the frantic efforts to form a new government and defend Paris against the advancing Prussians. The following day, Crémieux accepted the appointment of Minister of Justice in the Government of National Defense. The groom's witness was Dr. Gustave Cabanellas, a distinguished physician and member of the Légion d'honneur. The union was a brilliant one for the provincial shopkeeper's son, proof of the new social status Adrien enjoyed as a scientist with excellent prospects for a stellar career. As a public health official, Dr. Proust's income was in the high range of ten thousand to twenty thousand francs a year.
Everyone agreed that the bride and groom made a handsome couple. Each had strong, regular features and a clear, steady gaze. Jeanne seemed serene, her beauty contemplative, her natural mirth and quick wit subdued by the solemnity of the occasion and the looming national crisis. Perhaps her most striking feature was her large, almond-shaped eyes, eyes with heavy lids that gave her a slightly Oriental look. She usually wore her beautiful dark hair pulled up or braided. Being fairly tall for a woman, she carried her tendency toward plumpness well; her heaviness later became more marked and aggravated her health problems. Adrien was a fine-looking man with an air of quiet authority and confidence. Not yet needing glasses, his eyes had the clear look of a pioneering intellectual, but one who had maintained his provincial common sense, a seeker of knowledge and practical solutions. He, too, had fine black hair, though the line had begun to recede slightly above the temples; his beard and mustache were already flecked with strands of gray.
Jeanne and Adrien
Jeanne Weil was a sensitive, exceptionally intelligent, and well-educated young woman who had a profound appreciation of music and literature. Her schooling had been primarily classical. Because girls could not attend the lycées that functioned as preparatory schools for higher education, Jeanne studied at home, and probably also with private tutors. In addition to Latin and Greek, she learned to read and speak English and some German. She was a passionate admirer of the great French masters of the seventeenth century whose works formed the central element of her education: the plays of Molière, Racine, and Corneille, as well as the letters of Mme de Sévigné. From these and other beloved books that Jeanne read and reread, she used to copy out in a notebook, writing in a fine, slanted hand, her favorite passages, committing many of them to memory. As befitted her modesty, she did so in secret. Her letters contain many literary allusions, and she quotes at ease not only from French classical writers and William Shakespeare but also from such modern novelists as Honoré de Balzac and Pierre Loti. An accomplished pianist like her mother, she often played the works of Mozart and Beethoven for her family and friends. Those who knew her well delighted in her company, enjoying her subtle sense of humor fed by a strong sense of the ridiculous. With all her accomplishments and her fine mind, Jeanne was reserved, preferring simplicity to ostentation, natural dignity to any display of vanity.
Both her parents were descended from wealthy families who had made their fortunes in manufacturing and trade. The Berncastels and the Weils were powerful and rich members of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie of Paris, with many links to legal, financial, and political figures. Home for the Weils was a large six-room apartment at 40 bis rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière, in a neighborhood of stockbrokers and businessmen. This area also comprised the theater and opera district, an ideal location for a financier whose family loved plays and music. Nathé Weil was a conservative who under the reign of Louis-Philippe had joined the National Guard. Nathé often scandalized his family by his avarice. At meals, he served mediocre wines to others while keeping a bottle of a better vintage well chilled at his feet for his own delectation.
Jeanne resembled her mother, born Adèle Berncastel in 1824, an attractive, highly educated woman. Like many prominent Jewish families in France, the Berncastels had adopted the comte de Saint-Simon's recommendations for the education of women. The girls received a strong background in languages, literature, art, and music so that they could carry on the tradition of the brilliant salons of the Age of Enlightenment. With this in mind, Adèle's mother had sent her regularly to the salon of her aunt Amélie, whose husband, Adolphe Crémieux, had agreed to find the time in his busy political and social agenda to be her tutor. She could not have chosen a better mentor, for Adolphe was one of the outstanding statesmen of his era. An ardent republican, leader of the radical left and the Jewish community, Crémieux had been elected since 1842 to the Chamber of Deputies it various governments and had served as minister of justice in the provisional government of 1848. On October 24, 1870, less than two months after Jeanne's wedding he signed the decree that bears his name, granting French citizenship to Algerian Jews. Crémieux was an enlightened political leader whose efforts led to the abolition of slavery in the French colonies and of the death penalty for political crimes.
In the Crémieux salon, Adèle met some of the eras most distinguished writers and composers: Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, Gioacchino Rossini, Victor Hugo, George Sand--whose novels she loved--and Fromenthal Halévy, whose daughter Geneviève Bizet and grandson Jacques Bizet were to be closely associated with Proust. But above all other literary works, Adéle loved those of the seventeenth century, especially the Mémoires of the duc de Saint-Simon and the letters of Mme de Sévigné. To Marcel, his grandmother Adèle always seemed "more Sévigné than Sévigné herself." Witty, intelligent Mme de Sévigné (1629-96), whose letters are among the most famous in French literature, chronicled the entertainments and scandals at the world's most brilliant court, that of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Her letters also reveal her passionate devotion to her daughter, from whom she was separated for long periods of time. Adéle passed her admiration of Sévigné on to Jeanne and Marcel. For Proust, the marquise became a major literary inspiration for her way of narrating, as a chronicler of her epoch, and as a model of motherly devotion. In his novel, Proust endowed the Narrator's grandmother with the same love for Sévigné's letters.
In addition to the artists Adèle encountered in her aunt's salon, she met prominent politicians and social reformers. Adèle and her aunt were invited to other salons, whose leaders they in turn entertained. The young woman quickly lost any sense of insecurity, feeling just as much at home in Comtesse d'Haussonville's liberal salon as among the more conservative guests who gathered around Princesse Mathilde, niece of Napoléon I and longtime salon hostess, whom Proust knew in the final decade of her life. By the time of her marriage, Adèle was a well-educated, gentle, and self-sacrificing woman, in many ways the opposite of her eccentric husband, Nathé. Her daughter Jeanne took after her in both temperament and taste.
What had Jeanne, the product of this milieu, thought of Adrien Proust when they first met? Intelligent, well brought up, and polite he certainly was, but he knew next to nothing about literature and music. What kind of life would she have with him? She must have sensed that he was a good man, solid, reliable, someone who might well become endearing. Being in love was not the most important consideration in the decision to marry. The most one could hope for was that love would follow marriage and last for a lifetime. This seems to have been true for Jeanne and Adrien. Proust later wrote about middle-class marriages in Jean Santeuil: "A love-match, that is to say a marriage based on love, would have been considered as a proof of vice. Love was something that came after marriage and lasted until death No woman ever stopped loving her husband any more than she would have stopped loving her mother." Proust looked approvingly on "this couple whose union was not a matter of free choice, but the result of middle-class conventions and respectable notions, but who, for all that, will remain together until death breaks the bond."
Mixed marriages, although rare under the Second Empire, occurred more frequently in wealthy Jewish families. The Weils accepted such a union for their daughter more readily because they did not observe the Sabbath or keep a kosher house. They went to temple only on major religious days, such as Yom Kippur. As was customary in such marriages, Jeanne agreed to raise the children as Catholics. Out of respect for her parents, she refused to convert to Catholicism.
All evidence suggests that Adrien and Jeanne were devoted to each other. During their marriage, he had brief, discreet affairs with courtesans, actresses, and singers, without causing any apparent harm to his relationship with Jeanne. According to the mores of the time, virile men of the middle class were expected to indulge in such escapades. No one knows what Jeanne thought about her future husband when they met, but she and her parents must have believed in the prospects of this gentile doctor, just in his prime, who had arrived from nowhere and ascended in record time to the first rank of young scientists.
The Proust family, one of the oldest in the small town of Illiers, near Chartres, can be traced back as far as the sixteenth century. Adrien's ancestors, for the most part, belonged to the middle class and held administrative posts that, under the ancien régime, were normally reserved for notables. The records list Prousts who were bailiffs, elected representatives, and lawyers. In 1589 Jehan Proust was listed as a member of the Assembly of Notables, a civic institution dating from the Middle Ages. In 1621, when Louis XIII was king, Gilles Proust purchased the office of bailiff that passed down to his descendants, some of whom are buried in the church of Saint-Jacques in Illiers. With his new office Gilles became exempted from the poll tax paid by serfs and commoners and rose to the ranks of the upper bourgeoisie. In August 1633 Gilles's brother Robert was appointed tax collector, thereby assuming the annual obligations of supplying the marquis d'Illiers with the sum of 10,500 francs minted at Tours and of providing a candle at Candlemas for the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres. Adrien's other ancestors remained in the lower middle class as merchants or farmers.
Adrien's father, François-Valentin Proust, was born in 1801, the youngest of seven children. The family lived in the rue du Cheval-Blanc in an ancient house whose entrance had a low Romanesque arch and sandstone steps. When François-Valentin was in his mid-twenties, he married Catherine-Virginie Torcheux from the nearby village of Cernay. The couple established a general store at number 11, place du Marché, opposite the church of Saint-Jacques. There they earned their living by selling a variety of items, including honey, a chocolate touted as being good for your health, spices, cotton, pottery, hardware, spirits and liqueurs, and candles made from their own supply of wax.
Their first child, Louise Virginie, born in 1826, died when she was only six. In 1828 Virginie gave birth to another girl, Françoise-Élisabeth-Joséphine Proust. Six years passed before their last child was born; on March 18, 1834, François-Valentin and Virginie became the parents of a son, Achille Adrien Proust.
As a child, Adrien was healthy and intelligent, a good boy endowed with an insatiable curiosity about his surroundings and a passion for learning. When he finished elementary school, the family decided that the serious, hardworking pupil should prepare for the priesthood by attending the seminary at the Collège impérial de Chartres, where he had won a scholarship. At the seminary he continued to be an excellent student. In 1853 he received his bachelor's degrees in literature and science and passed brilliantly the examination for his certificate of aptitude in the physical sciences. Despite the many greater awards and honorific titles that were later his, he always remained proud that the name Adrien Proust was engraved on the honor roll in the parlor of the old college in Chartres.
After graduation Adrien declared himself free to follow his new calling, science; against his father's wishes, he abandoned the priesthood for medicine. To pursue his career he went to Paris and enrolled at the Academie de médecin, becoming the first of his family to leave Illiers and seek his fortune in the big city. Unknown and entirely on his own, he succeeded through hard work and concentration, advancing rapidly through the medical ranks until he occupied a position in the vanguard.
Adrien sensed that a new era was dawning. He ceased practicing his religion as he was drawn, like so many of his generation, to the great movement of scientific exploration. He determined to be part of the revolution in science that was taking place in the laboratories and amphitheaters across Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. In France the founders of this new age were men who taught natural and physical sciences and stressed the importance of empirical experimentation. Such pioneers as Philippe Pinel had created new fields of study based on observation and experimentation rather than ignorance and superstition. Pinel's work with the insane, carried on for the most part during the turbulent times of the French Revolution and early Empire, had shown that mental illness was the result not of demons but of physiological and psychological problems. His observations and studies laid the foundation for the establishment of psychiatry as a field of medicine, demonstrating that the methods of observation used in other sciences were also applicable to the healing arts. Marie-François-Xavier Bichat's anatomical research led to the creation of histology, the microscopic study of the structure of human tissues. Bichat was the first to simplify anatomy and physiology by reducing the complex structures of organs to their elementary tissues. These and other revolutionary discoveries influenced Adrien's research and methods.
When his father died in Illiers on October 2, 1855, Adrien, though only twenty-one, had been studying medicine for two years. Death had robbed Adrien of the chance to prove to his father that he could become a distinguished physician. After attending his father's funeral, Adrien returned to Paris, where he excelled, winning prizes at the Academie de médecin for his hospital work and claiming top honors as a resident. His career advanced rapidly. In 1862 Adrien defended his thesis on "Idiopathic Pneumothorax" and received his medical degree. The following year he was named chief of clinic after another competitive state examination. From 1863 to 1866, he practiced medicine and continued his advanced studies. In 1866 he defended his doctoral thesis, "Différentes formes de ramollissement du cerveau" (Different types of softening of the brain), passing with honorable mention the concours d'agrégation, a competitive state examination for teaching posts that qualified him to teach in the Academie de médecin.
It was during the cholera epidemic of 1866, while chief of clinic at the Hôpital de la Charité, that Adrien began the work that eventually brought him international fame. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Asiatic cholera had not spread far beyond India, but with the rapid expansion of trade between Asia and Europe, epidemics of the disease began to reach France and soon grew more frequent. In 1832, two years before Adrien was born, cholera killed 154 of Illiers's citizens and more than 100,000 people in France. Another epidemic swept the country in 1849, carrying away more than 300,000 French souls. Although earlier plagues of cholera had ravaged France, the great epidemic of 1866, with a fatality rate of 50 percent, plunged the entire nation into mourning.
Cholera, a severe infectious disease prevalent in warm regions where filth and poor sanitary conditions are found, is spread by contact with fecally contaminated food and water. After a short incubation period of only two or three days the victim begins to suffer terrible diarrhea and nausea leading to extreme dehydration. In the severe 1866 epidemic, Dr. Proust spent long hours at a stretch without rest, caring for his patients at great personal risk. Yet despite having taken all possible measures to save them, he could only stand by and watch helplessly as their conditions worsened. As dehydration reached a critical stage, the victims suffered horrible muscle cramps, the eyes became sunken, the cheeks hollow, the voice hoarse, and blood pressure dropped. Death quickly followed. Adrien understood that given the magnitude of the disease, individual treatment could never defeat cholera. The solution lay in prevention.
In spite of the vigilance of scientists, the plague of 1866 had spread by following a new, more rapid route from India to Suez and into Europe. Adrien, in addition to his responsibilities as a public health official, belonged to a group of young scientists who were studying hygiene and epidemiology under Doctors Tardieu and Fauvel. Like Fauvel, who conceived the idea of a cordon sanitaire, Adrien was convinced that the only way to prevent plagues was to define and implement principles of international hygiene. A cordon sanitaire would establish a boundary line of nations cooperating to enforce a strict system of quarantine for ships entering their waters. In his clinic, Dr. Proust began to test this idea, with excellent results, by isolating patients sick with cholera. Other doctors and scientists noticed his tireless efforts to combat the disease and his disregard of danger. Although it was nearly twenty years before the German bacteriologist Robert Koch isolated the bacillus that causes cholera, Adrien knew that such an agent must exist. If his theory about how cholera moved westward from India was correct, the deadly epidemics could be halted by creating a cordon sanitaire on Europe's eastern flank. In order to implement such a plan, he must first determine the routes by which the disease spread. Foreseeing the importance of an organized effort among nations to improve world health, he undertook a campaign to persuade political figures of the Second Empire to support his plan.
After the International Health Conference in Vienna in 1869, the minister of agriculture and commerce sent Dr. Proust to Russia and Persia on a mission to learn the routes by which cholera had arrived from Russia in the most recent epidemics. He would travel first to Astrakhan in Russia, then on to Persia, tracing the route followed by the epidemic of 1832. Then, for the return to Paris, he would take a southerly route: Mecca, Turkey, and Egypt, following the path taken by the 1849 and 1866 epidemics.
Adrien's voyage began under excellent conditions in the summer of 1869, when he boarded a car of the new Northern Railway bound for Moscow. The train, a model of nineteenth-century mass-transit technology, combined speed and comfort, and the service on board was superb, provided by an astonishingly large number of valets and waiters. But when Dr. Proust continued the journey from Moscow, conditions immediately became more primitive. He left the Russian capital in a wooden carriage known as a kibitka, a contraption that, as Balzac had remarked decades earlier when visiting Russia, "makes one feel in every bone the tiniest bump in the road." Adrien had to endure jarring potholes in the road as he traveled in withering heat all the way to Saint Petersburg and on to Astrakhan. These hardships tested his physical stamina and courage but did not deter the determined doctor, more thankful than ever for his robust constitution.
To continue across the Caucasus Mountains and the high plateaus of Persia, Adrien mounted horses and eventually camels when he joined a caravan following the ancient routes across the desert. During this adventuresome trip, Dr. Proust lived and ate like the natives, whom he never tired of observing. Along the way he took notes, often while rocking in the saddle, learning as much as he could about customs and hygiene among the Persians. Reaching Teheran, he found himself, for the first time in weeks, in opulent surroundings when he was received by the shah of Persia and his minister of foreign affairs, who presented the brave physician with sumptuous carpets. The Persian officials were curious about the scientific nature of the doctor's voyage and hoped that their country would also benefit from his efforts to find relief from cholera. In Mecca, Adrien was appalled by the crush of pilgrims in the holy city to which each Muslim must make at least one pilgrimage before he dies. He watched as multitudes arrived and departed, living throughout their stay in the most primitive sanitary conditions, a sight that reinforced his convictions about how diseases spread. He journeyed on to Constantinople, where the Grand Vizier Ali Pasha gave him another magnificent reception.
After his arrival in Egypt, where he inspected the ports and ships bound for Europe, Adrien reviewed his observations and continued drafting his report, certain that he had uncovered the routes followed by the disease that sprang from the waters of faraway Indian lagoons to wind its long and deadly journey westward. The observations he made during this scientific expedition also confirmed his theory that cholera was spread by rats--always the first infected in new epidemics--which boarded ships mooring in Indian ports before sailing to Egypt, and then on to Europe.
After this long, arduous, often dangerous voyage, Dr. Proust had become an early authority on epidemiology. Henceforth he was a key member of France's delegation to international conferences on the prevention of epidemics and a tireless, outspoken advocate for the establishment of an international sanitation system against the spread of disease.
Adrien later proposed that all ships bound for Europe be quarantined at Suez, the only place where vessels from India and the Far East converged. In La Défense de l'Europe contre la peste (The defense of Europe against cholera), he wrote, "Egypt must be considered Europe's barrier against cholera." His theory and proposals were not immediately accepted. Some international political figures, keen on maintaining their countries' authority and autonomy, had been troubled by his statement that "questions of international hygiene reach beyond the borders established by politics." Adrien's battle against cholera proved to him that being an accomplished, innovative scientist did not suffice. To his scientific skills he added those of diplomacy in order to overcome the resistance to his proposals made by some nations, especially Great Britain, which saw this French doctor's restrictive plans as a threat to the interests of its trading empire. It took a series of international conferences and the Bombay plague of 1877 before governments began to take steps that eventually implemented all Dr. Proust's recommendations.
By November 26, 1869, Adrien had returned to Paris from his long mission and filed a report that was published the following summer in the government's Journal officiel. Sometime during this period, fresh from his successful and daring expedition, acclaimed by scientists and officials of the Second Empire, Adrien met Jeanne Weil. In early August 1870, he set out again to inspect entry points between France and other countries. By August 27 he had returned to Paris on an important personal mission: to sign the marriage contract between himself and Mlle Jeanne Clémence Weil. At the signing, the couple agreed to the creation of a joint estate as established by the Napoleonic Code.
On September 1, the day the battle at Sedan raged and sealed the fate of the Second Empire, Adrien moved into the new apartment that he and Jeanne would inhabit at 8, rue Roy, in the eighth arrondissement. The yearly rental of 2,500 francs indicated his new financial status. At age thirty-six, the busy, ambitious doctor was ready to take a wife and start a family.
Siege and War
After the Proust-Weil wedding and the banquet, over which hung the gloom of uncertainty about the country's future, the couple settled into their Right Bank apartment near the newly completed Church of Saint-Augustin. As Adrien and Jeanne put away their wedding finery, they could hear the noises of civil strife erupting in the streets as the Second Empire began its death throes. The following day, Jules Favre and Léon Gambetta led a revolutionary mob from the meeting of the legislature to the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall of Paris, and proclaimed the birth of the Third Republic.
When more details of the fate of the emperor and his army reached Paris, Adrien and Jeanne, who had many friends in high positions, grew even more alarmed and saddened. The Second Empire's sudden and disgraceful defeat shocked them. They, like many of their compatriots, had believed the rosy forecasts of vain, boastful leaders and generals. After the debacle at Sedan, nothing stood between the outer defenses surrounding Paris and the invading Prussian army. Only one short month before, in a world now vanished, Adrien had been invited to the Tuileries Palace, where Her Majesty Empress-Regent Eugénie had bestowed upon him the red ribbon of the Légion d'honneur for his heroic efforts against cholera. Now, with the humiliated and generally despised emperor a prisoner of the Prussians, the empress was preparing to flee incognito, escorted by her American-born dentist and friend Dr. John Evans, to exile in England. France was left to face the twin scourges of a military invasion that could only result in the siege of Paris and civil war, as the French divided into a number of seething factions, chiefly monarchists, republicans, and communists. Adrien, angry at the fiasco brought upon the nation by the ineptitude of both political and military leaders, determined to resume his normal activities in a world gone awry.
The siege of Paris began on September 19 when the Prussians surrounded the city and cut all lines of communication. Henceforth balloon post and carrier pigeons were the only means--and very uncertain ones at that--of communicating with the outside world. It was clear that the Prussians intended to starve the city into submission. The government estimated that the food supply would last only until January 20. Food rationing began, with the immediate result of soaring prices. Many suppliers and speculators hoarded food out of greed. Once beef grew scarce and expensive, the slaughter of horses for meat became commonplace. In a short time, Parisians, creators of one of the world's most delectable cuisines, found themselves reduced to nibbling on dogs, cats, and even rats.
The capital now lived in fear of starvation, civil war, and bombardment by the Prussians. The French were poorly organized to handle an emergency on a vast scale, and the situation was made worse by the various factions within the capital who distrusted one another. In the poor districts, there was talk of rebellion, as a number of red divisions pushed for the creation of a revolutionary council that was to become known as the Commune. Some radicals suggested reinstating the Terror.
Both Adrien and Jeanne worried about the safety of their families. Even the region near Chartres and Illiers that had always seemed remote in times of national crisis was not safe. In October, Prussians sacked Châteaudun and occupied Chartres, only twenty or so kilometers northeast of Illiers. For several months Adrien had no word from his widowed mother. In December, desperate for news, he attempted to contact her by carrier pigeon. He sent an urgent message to a friend in Tours, the only destination accessible, where his family knew a draper named Esnault with whom his mother might have taken refuge: "Has she left Illiers? Is she with you? Is she all right? I beg you to send me answers to all these questions by carrier pigeon." After some delay, Adrien received word that his mother had remained in Illiers safe from harm.
Adrien watched with alarm as Paris became filthy and rank. He saw conditions grow ripe for cholera, smallpox, and typhoid as garbage and human waste piled up in the streets, creating a terrible stench. With each passing day, the city resembled more and more the primitive countries he had visited on his scientific mission. Events soon justified his fears as the mortality rate doubled, then tripled.
Nathé Weil's extraordinary decision to leave Paris was perhaps the best gauge of the siege's severity. Among his eccentricities was a horror of spending the night anywhere except in his own bed. Once, before taking a brief excursion to the seaside resort of Dieppe, Nathé made certain he could return home by train the same evening. It was no different when he went on his daily visit to his half-brother Louis's estate at Auteuil, on the outskirts of Paris. There, the two men would dine, discussing business and arguing about politics as they ate. No matter how heated the discussion or how delicious the food and wine he consumed at his brother's expense, Nathé would never agree to stay the night, but always returned home to the rue du Faubourg Poissonnière. Now, with Paris becoming a cold, bleak, desperate city, slowly starving to death, Nathé made the single exception in his eighty-five years of life and took his wife to safety at Étampes. There, miserable but secure, they would wait for the madness to end.
Jeanne, eager to forget the chaotic world outside her new apartment, kept busy organizing the household and overseeing the servants. After trying various arrangements of the furniture, she found the one that worked best, making certain that her husband's favorite chair was close to the fire. She had quickly learned his needs and habits as well as the abilities and shortcomings of the servants. The young wife read and played the piano, occupying herself as best she could, but Jeanne, like most Parisians, longed for one thing: the return to a normal life. One day, scarcely three months after her wedding, Jeanne realized that she was pregnant. Adrien, who had postponed marriage to pursue his medical career, received the news that he was to be a father with satisfaction. He regretted only that Jeanne must carry the baby during such violent and uncertain times.
The siege showed no signs of ending, and luck did not favor the beleaguered Parisians. By early December a severe winter began when the temperature sank to near freezing. Gas lines had been cut, firewood became scarce, and the food supply continued to dwindle at an alarming rate. Officials estimated that at best, no more than a month's supply of wood remained. Snow came early; on December 21 the temperature hit a bone-chilling minus fourteen degrees Celsius. When white bread was no longer available, the government launched a propaganda campaign to convince skeptical Parisians of the virtues of brown bread. By the end of December a number of animals in the zoo had been sold at high prices and butchered, including two beloved young elephants named Castor and Pollux.
Early in the new year of 1871, the Prussians grew impatient and began bombarding the city. On January 14 the writer and diarist Edmond de Goncourt, a neighbor of Uncle Louis Weil's at Auteuil, shot a blackbird, whose roosting habits he had observed, and ate him for supper. On January 19 the first bread rationing began, followed three days later by an alarming but not unexpected event. A group of furious, drunken communists and prisoners newly released from a Paris jail approached the Hôtel de Ville, where they exchanged fire with its defenders. This was the first incident in which French fired upon French. At last, on January 26, after a siege of 131 days and a bombardment that lasted 24, the government announced a truce agreement with the Prussians. An assembly would be elected to convene at Bordeaux, recently named the official seat of the French government, and debate a formal peace or a resumption of the war. The Prussians, who had every reason to be confident of their strength and the eventual outcome of peace or war, allowed Parisians to obtain fresh supplies of food and fuel.
No sooner had the truce been signed and elections held than the French conservative and liberal factions began fighting among themselves. Adolphe Thiers was chosen to preside at Versailles over a provisional government whose majority was conservative and favored the restoration of the monarchy. Meanwhile, the Communards and other leftists controlled Paris. From the beginning they distrusted the Versailles government because they believed that Thiers was too conservative and too eager to accept a humiliating peace with Prussia.
The treaty with Prussia imposed harsh terms on France: cession to Prussia of Alsace and a large part of Lorraine, plus the payment within three years of a war indemnity equivalent to a billion dollars in gold francs. Until the indemnity was paid, Prussian troops would remain in northern France. Thiers, insensitive to the hardships Paris had endured during the siege and indifferent to the fury its citizens felt over the peace treaty, announced measures the workers of Paris found equally severe for them: all landlords were entitled to demand full back payment on rent suspended during the siege; the National Guard's daily salary of thirty sous would no longer be paid.
On March 18 the violent insurrection known as the Commune began when Thiers, in an attempt to disarm the Paris National Guard, decided to reclaim the cannons that had been moved to safety in the poorer districts of the city during the brief Prussian occupation. To recoup the weapons Thiers's generals had planned an early-morning raid. The action began well, but once the government troops had taken possession of the cannons, they realized that no one had thought to requisition enough horses to transport the large guns. When the Communards awoke to discover what had happened, intense fighting began, during the course of which the rebels summarily executed two of Thiers's generals. Paris found itself besieged by its own government.
Adrien refused to stay at home even on the days of heavy street fighting. As casualties mounted, Jeanne became frantic for his safety. Reminding him that she and the expected baby would need a husband and father, she urged him to be cautious while making his way through the dangerous, barricaded streets. Adrien explained that he had no choice; he was a doctor and must look after his patients and fulfill his teaching and administrative duties. If he had had the courage to travel on horseback through the most primitive regions of Russia, Persia, and Egypt, surely he could cross Paris to reach his office at the Hôpital de la Charité on the other side of the Seine.
One day in early spring, just after Dr. Proust left the apartment for the hospital, an insurgent aimed his rifle at the well-dressed bourgeois gentleman and fired. The bullet brushed Adrien's clothes, barely missing its mark. Adrien was shaken by the incident, but Jeanne, almost six months pregnant, became sick with fear over the dangers he refused to avoid. He had vital duties to occupy his time while she had to stay at home, made miserable by worry about his safety, that of her parents, and the prospects for the future of the unborn child. She accepted her husband's obligation to duty and admired his courage, but this did not make the situation easier for her, uncomfortably pregnant and living apart from her beloved mother. Jeanne's parents grew alarmed at her condition and decided they would all go to Auteuil to await the birth of her baby. The traditional story has been that Jeanne fled with Adrien to the shelter of Uncle Louis's estate after the narrow miss of the sniper's bullet. But it is just as likely that the couple went there because it had become a family tradition to go to Auteuil during the warmer months, as did many other fashionable Parisians. An 1855 guidebook describes Auteuil as the spring and summer playground of retired bankers and lawyers who arrived accompanied by their cooks, grooms, coachmen, and valets.
Uncle Louis, recently widowed, had made his fortune early as a businessman; he owned a button and silverware factory and fine property in Paris on boulevard Haussmann, an address that his future great nephew was to make famous. Known for his sense of humor and kindheartedness, Louis gladly took in his niece and her husband. Louis lived in a spacious, comfortable house in the middle of a large garden that had the appearance of a bucolic haven. Although Auteuil was not as removed from danger as Jeanne would have liked, it was safer than the streets of central Paris and close enough for Adrien to ride the trolley from Auteuil to Saint-Sulpice, the stop nearest his hospital. This was presumably a safer way to reach his office than striking out on his own from rue Roy through the bitterly contested streets.
Thiers, whose generals commanded well-trained and disciplined troops, had decided that there would be no negotiating with the Communards, whom he considered no better than common criminals. In April, Thiers began bombarding the city, an unthinkable act to most Parisians. Auteuil, which lay between Versailles and Paris, suffered heavy damage from the shelling. Edmond de Goncourt, the noted writer and future founder of the Académie Goncourt, lived in a house that took many hits. One shell pierced the roof, but Goncourt's art treasures and memorabilia escaped harm. Auteuil's fourteenth-century church was so heavily damaged that it was later torn down and replaced by a modern church. When the bombardment ended, many homes had been reduced to piles of smoldering rubble, but Uncle Louis's property had not been hit. Jeanne and her family, although severely shaken, had remained safe from harm.
On May 16 the realist painter Gustave Courbet, who had become a zealous revolutionary, took part in the destruction of one of Paris's most famous monuments, the Vendôme Column. Erected to commemorate the military victories of Napoléon I, the column was a shrine sacred to veterans but viewed by the Communards as an affront to the Republic and the brotherhood of man. This act was among many that caused support for the Commune to erode. During the uprising's "bloody week," May 21-28, Paris burned. Many of the fires were set by pétroleuses, women who threw kerosene bombs into public buildings and private homes.
On May 28, Generals MacMahon and Galliffet entered the city. The Commune, ill prepared to fight, quickly collapsed. In the following days, the victors inflicted a brutal repression on the Paris rebels as Thiers's men rounded up more than seventeen thousand Communards, including many women and children, and executed them, dumping their bodies in mass graves. Peace had returned to the City of Light, but at a terrible price. Many areas lay in ruins, including the Palais-Royal, the Ministries of Justice and Finance, and most of the rue de Rivoli and the boulevard de Sébastopol. Fire had destroyed the Tuileries Palace, the vast section of the Louvre where Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie had hosted magnificent balls to the tunes of Jacques Offenbach's lively operettas. The war and civil strife had left many severe wounds that needed to heal; there was rebuilding to undertake, the creation of a new government and constitution, and the payment of a huge war indemnity. In June, Adolphe Thiers was elected president of the Third Republic. Despite its bloody beginning, France was to prosper under the Third Republic, the longest in its history.
Excerpted from Marcel Proust by William C. Carter Copyright © 2002 by William C. Carter. Excerpted by permission.
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William C. Carter, professor emeritus of French at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is the author of Proust in Love and a new, fully annotated edition of Proust’s classic Swann’s Way.
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William C. Carter's new biography of Marcel Proust is the finest yet. With a strong narrative line and a profound and sensitive understanding of the writer and his work, it carries us along like a great novel. Drawing on resources unavailable to George Painter (whose biography was for years the standard reference), Carter is able to fill in the gaps with entries from Proust's letters and those he received from friends and editors. Marcel Proust was almost certainly the pivotal literary figure between two centuries, a writer of great courage and humor, and it is to Carter's credit that now, as we stand on the edge of yet another century, Proust is seen to be as relevant to our age as he was to his own.