By Anne-Bénédicte Guillaud-Marlieu, graduate student in French
Letter from Proust to Reynaldo Hahn (shortly after 24 October 1914)1
This letter was written by Proust to his close friend and former lover Reynaldo Hahn, who chose to enroll in the French army even though he was forty years old and an established composer at the onset of the war. At the beginning of the letter, Proust tells Hahn that he fears a medical note will not be enough to exempt him from military service. World War I started two months earlier. However, Proust would never have to go to the front, since his health was already precarious in 1914, when he was forty-three. He was later declared unfit for combat.2
Proust thanks Hahn for his latest letter, and adds:
My dear boy you are very kind for thinking that Cabourg must have been painful to me because of Agostinelli.3
Proust had met Alfred Agostinelli in the resort town of Cabourg, where the young man worked as a driver, in 1907. Proust became infatuated with him in 1913, but his feelings were not fully reciprocated. Proust promised Agostinelli expensive gifts, including an airplane, but in December of the same year, Agostinelli (who by then lived in Proust’s building with a woman he claimed was his wife) left for the south of France without warning. He enrolled in an aviation school under the name “Marcel Swann.” In May 1914, he made a piloting error during his second solo flight, and drowned in the Mediterranean.4 Proust was inconsolable, but could only share his grief with a few friends. This letter is an example of Proust’s discretion: he asks Hahn not to mention his distress to anyone.
Proust goes on to write:
I truly loved Alfred. It isn’t enough to say I loved him, I adored him. And I don’t know why I write that in the past tense, for I love him still. And yet, in feelings of grief, there is an involuntary element, as well as an element of duty that fixes the involuntary part and ensures its durability.
We find an echo of this reflection in Sodom and Gomorrah (volume IV of In Search of Lost Time), when Proust’s narrator is struck by an involuntary reminiscence of his grandmother who has passed away. This reflection on grieving and death shows the deep sorrow Proust felt after Agostinelli’s disappearance. On the second sheet of the letter (now in a private collection),5 Proust writes that a part of himself has died with Agostinelli, the part that knew him. This is how Proust explains the state of his heart:
It isn’t because others are dead that sorrow diminishes, but because you die yourself.
Interspersed in the letter are Proust’s thoughts about his novel, about his fear of being forced to go to war himself, about the medical note that may or may not get him exempted from service, and about his wish that Hahn will remain in a relatively safe post, far from the trenches. These recurring concerns show Proust’s preoccupation with death and his constant worries about the war that rages around him. The many postscripts at the end of the letter are a common feature in Proust’s correspondence: such hasty additions often contradict earlier parts of the letter, as if Proust changed his mind as he wrote.
Letter from Reynaldo Hahn to Proust (shortly before 5 March 1915)6
A postcard from Reynaldo Hahn to Marcel Proust, written in March 1915 on a picture of Hahn in his military uniform, emphasizes the closeness between the two men. Hahn ends the letter with Hasouden, an example of an invented word of their “lansgage,” a deformed language the two men created to communicate with each other. We can see their complicity through these codes. We could attempt to translate Hasdouen by “until tomorrow” (à demain) or “until soon” (à bientôt). Cacachois, probably meaning “ridiculous,” is another testament to Hahn’s lively sense of humor: he uses the term to comment on his picture.
Nothing could be more cacachois than this portrait.
The childish and scatological-sounding word contrasts with the seriousness of Proust’s earlier letter. As the war goes on, however, the pair’s correspondence becomes more somber, and their use of “lansgage” rarer.7 The presence of the war is also felt in Hahn’s numerous imprecisions, such as the lack of indication of his location, in compliance with the strict restrictions placed on military correspondance.
At the top of the postcard, Hahn mentions “the Widow” (“la Vve,” short for “la Veuve”), their nickname for Madeleine Lemaire. At the bottom, Hahn answers a query about Proust’s brother Robert, who is also serving in the military:
– It seems that Robert is no longer in these parts. –
1. Marcel Proust, Lettres. Edited by Françoise Leriche. Paris: Plon, 2004. 707-708. The date of this letter was established by Philip Kolb.
2. Brigitte Mahuzier, “The First World War.” In Marcel Proust in Context. Edited by Adam Watt. Cambridge University Press, 2013. 174-80.
3. Marcel Proust, Selected Letters. Volume III. London: HarperCollins, 1992. Edited by Philip Kolb. Translated by Terence Kilmartin. 280-282. (Translation modified)
4. William C. Carter, Proust in Love. Yale University Press, 2006. 123-130.
5. Marcel Proust, Lettres. 707-708.
6. Marcel Proust, Correspondance. Volume XIII. Edited by Philip Kolb. 58-60.
7. Virginie Greene, Biographical Notice for “Hahn, Reynaldo.” In Marcel Proust, Lettres. 1241.