by Paola Pruneddu, graduate student in French
Letter from Marcel Proust to Madame d’Humières (evening, 12 May 1915)1
On May 12, 1915, upon learning the death of Robert d’Humières on the battlefield due to a fatal gunshot to the heart, Proust felt as if “a bolt of lightning had shattered in my own heart something perfectly beautiful and noble.” Shortly after reading this terrible news in the evening paper, he wrote a letter of condolence to his friend’s widow, the Vicomtesse Marie d’Humières.
As Proust expresses his despair while trying to comfort the widow’s own grief, he seems barely in control of his emotions:
In my despair I do not know whether I am more devastated to think that I will never see Robert again, or to imagine how you must suffer, you who are so admirably good and fine that, even though I have only met you once, you were one of the people whose happiness I wished the most.
Proust writes “Robert” in the fourth line with a bigger capital letter in comparison to the other capitals he uses, as if he wishes to express his sincere affection and, simultaneously, the exceptional nature of his friend.
The letter continues:
I find the thought of your ordeal intolerable yet I cannot detach myself from it. I may be wrong to speak this way since I know how much this end (I can barely bring myself to write the word) is admirable and I understand your feeling of pride.
Yet I am certain that your sorrow is equal to it, surpasses it even, and your pain hurts me, as does the thought that I will forever separated from this wonderful being.
These intense emotions might explain why Proust makes a rare misspelling in the previously quoted “something” (writing it as a single word, “quelquechose,” when it should be two: “quelque chose”).
[...] when I read the news today, I was struck as if a bolt of lightning had shattered in my own heart something perfectly beautiful and noble.
Proust’s letter feels breathless: he also forgets to end the last sentence with a period.
Robert d’Humières was a talented man of letters, now mostly remembered for his translations of Kipling’s and Conrad’s works. Though his mother was American, he was born to an ancient aristocratic French family. When the First World War broke out, he was made lieutenant of the fourth Zouave regiment. As a close friend of Proust, d’Humières helped him with his translations of John Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens (1904) and Sesame and Lilies (1906).
It is noteworthy that d’Humières, married and a father of three, chose to join the army at the start of the war even though he had been exempted. His fateful decision, as William Carter suggests,2 may have been caused by the “threat of a homosexual scandal” that was about to hit him. It is possible that Proust and d’Humières’ friendship had been intimate, in the years when d’Humières help Proust with his translations of Ruskin, or perhaps earlier.
Proust’s deep affection for his friend suffuses the letter, allowing his outpouring of sorrow to suggest more than a formal message of condolence. For instance, it may appear surprising that Proust writes to the mourning widow:
[...] the idea of his death even if one did not love him as I loved him, [is] as horrific as the destruction of a masterpiece or the extinction of a beacon, I have only ever seen him burning, shining, for something beautiful and grand.
In this light, we may also note that Proust, at the end of his letter, suddenly seems concerned not to upset Madame d’Humières any further:
Madame I will stop now, I do not wish to trouble your despair, I only wanted to tell you how wholeheartedly I join it, and ask you to accept the infinitely respectful tribute of a sorrow that will never end
Robert d’Humières is usually acknowledged as one of the models (along with Bertrand de Fénelon and others) for the character Robert de Saint-Loup who, in Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, is also a married man who secretly has same-sex affairs and dies heroically in the First World War.3