By Nick Strole, graduate student in French
Letter from Marcel Proust to Louis d’Albufera, (early March? 1915)1
In this letter, addressed to Louis d’Albufera (marquis and later duke of Albufera in Eastern Spain), Marcel Proust honors Bertrand de Fénelon who died in battle a few months before. In other letters, Proust has praised Louis d’Albufera’s loyalty and commitment to their friendship, a friendship which may not have existed without their common friend, Bertrand de Fénelon.2 Fénelon, a distinguished aristocrat, attracted Proust’s attention around the year 1901, earning the nickname “His Blue Eyes,” though it is unclear if Fénelon ever returned the affection.3 Here Proust admires Fénelon’s lack of hatred toward the Germans:
His courage was all the more sublime in that it contained no hatred. He knew German literature very well, while I’m fully ignorant of it. And, diplomatically speaking, it’s not Germany […] that he held responsible for the war. It’s certainly possible that this view is wrong.
Yet it shows, through this very error, how this hero’s patriotism was in no way exclusive or narrow. And he loved France with a passion. How he must have suffered.
Showcasing all of Fénelon’s best qualities, this letter acts as a eulogy which then sparks memories of everything else Proust has lost in this time of war. Reflecting on the loss of Fénelon, Proust is taken back to a vivid memory of looking out at the city of Paris in September 1914, as he was preparing to flee to Cabourg. Proust remembers feeling as if the city could, in all its beauty, be snatched away at any moment:
As for me, two or three days before the victory of the Marne, when we believed the siege of Paris to be imminent, I got out of bed one evening, I went outside, under a lucid, dazzling, reproachful, serene, ironic, maternal moonlight, and in seeing this immense Paris that I did not know I loved so much, waiting, in its useless beauty, for the onslaught that could no longer be stopped, I could not keep myself from weeping.
At this point in the letter, Proust tries to comprehend both the beauty and the anticipated loss of something he knows and cares for so well. For Proust, Paris is much more than a mere place, as we see in his proliferation of very specific but peculiar adjectives to describe (“serene” but “dazzling”) and personify (“maternal” but “ironic”) the moonlight shining on the city. Employing personification and this rich list of adjectives, Proust expresses feelings for the city of Paris as for a loved one such as Bertrand de Fénelon.
Considering Fénelon’s appreciation for German works of art, Proust notes: “I think we generalize too much the crimes of the Germans.” Proust wishes to take a closer look at the motives behind the Germans’ behavior — in their “hideous rage” — to explore their seemingly illogical actions, perhaps to argue that his close friend Fénelon did not die in vain. Although the Germans may have committed horrible crimes, Proust admires Fénelon’s refusal to condemn everything German, in contrast to widespread chauvinistic attitudes during wartime.
Proust goes on to describe his own complicated situation with the military:
Years ago I did my military service in the infantry. But later on when I was too ill, I was named to an administrative position, to avoid being formally declared unfit [for duty in times of war]. It was only four years ago I received a formal discharge.
[...] I expect to be summoned, but I have not yet received anything. [...] I have never worked in this position, whether for 28 or 13 days, and I don’t know a thing about it. These days I also have terrible fits of illness, in which I find some solace:
thinking of all that soldiers endure, my state of rest feels less morally wrong, since it isn’t a true state of rest but a harsh life as well, only it serves no one. How many friends I’ve lost this year, who seemed destined to live so many years beyond me!
Just as he mourns the loss of his friend Fénelon, Proust also mourns his own inability to be useful in the war. Reflecting on his losses, he seems to wish for action — to be able to do something to regain all he has lost. Although he is grateful not be subjected to the physical conditions of a soldier, he still expresses a sense of futility in his life which, he believes, “serves no one.”
At the end of the letter, he addresses Louis d’Albufera as “Dear Robert,” a mistake which could be attributed to there being several different Roberts in Proust’s life, both real and fictional.4 In any case, Proust does correct himself in a postscript crammed into the bottom corner of the last page of this letter. He blames his mistake on his own “fatigue,” the same physical weakness that has prevented him from being as active, perhaps, as he would have liked in the war.
This letter, centered on loss during the First World War, underscores Brigitte Mahuzier’s description of Proust as a “distant observer” in the war.5 Although he expresses disappointment in his inability to bring back those he has lost, Proust has succeeded in giving them life in this and in many of his other writings.