By Peter Tarjanyi, graduate student in French
Letter from Marcel Proust to Robert de Montesquiou (early July 1915)1
This letter and the one below offer a glimpse of the rich correspondence between Proust and the count Robert de Montesquiou. A poet, essayist and a notorious dandy, Montesquiou was one of the inspirations for the baron de Charlus, a major character in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The two met in 1893 and continued to exchange letters – albeit intermittently – until Montesquiou’s death in 1921. Both letters are from the beginning of July 1915: they contain allusions to a long-promised visit of Proust to Montesquiou as well as comments on the latter’s recently published collection of poems, Offrandes blessées (“Wounded Offerings”).
Proust begins his letter:
Ever since I received Offrandes blessées, every day I hope to be well enough the following day to go talk to you about it and tell you my admiration. With each passing day, a letter seems less and less adequate.
The war connects the personal and literary matters evoked here. Proust claims that his delay is due to a recent draft call; nonetheless, he is optimistic about a future visit:
Yet here I am, summoned again by the military bureau: until my situation with them is cleared up one way or another, I know I will be unable to make plans for a few days, perhaps a few weeks. So I write these few lines instead, to tell you how much I wished to come, and that I will come soon […]
Proust concludes his letter with a short reflection on the art of Montesquiou and its link to the war:
At last, thanks to you, Art and War have found each other!
It is not entirely clear that Proust’s comment about the count’s war elegies is meant to be a compliment: even Montesquiou can sense that his poems are perceived as obsolete and “foreign to contemporary civilization,” and – as Proust puts it speaking of other attempts at war poetry – “unequal to Reality.”
We are told that War will beget Poetry, and I don’t really believe it. Whatever poetry had appeared so far was far unequal to Reality.
At the end of his letter, Proust cites a few words from one of the poems in Offrandes blessées. The count’s outmoded and flowery style is particularly apparent, as he attempts to conflate the principle of “Art for Art’s Sake” with the somewhat broad aesthetic terms of Virtue and Truth:
“Never has this noble word [art] been more sure, perhaps / than at the moment when Virtue becomes Truth.”
Letter from Robert de Montesquiou to Marcel Proust (early July 1915)2
In his answer, Montesquiou responds to Proust’s comments on his latest work. He also expresses pained doubts concerning Proust’s promise of a visit:
I no longer believe in your visit […]
Having been so long awaited, such an event would take on the significance of a “sign from the sky”; there are many such signs these days.
Here we encounter a more somber reference to the bombs dropped on Paris in the first months of the war. Decline and death become a recurring theme in Montesquiou’s letters during the war, due in part to his failing health.
Decrying Proust’s estrangement from him over the years, he closes his letter with a dramatic and striking image:
A wall of ice now stands between us. It contains, keeps and preserves colored and fresh flowers: we see them, but we cannot reach them.
Robert de Montesquiou
Proust increasingly distanced himself3 from his former mentor after the little success of his first book, Pleasures and Days (1896), a work clearly influenced by Montesquiou’s decadent style. This fin-de-siècle aesthetic, rather dated by 1915, is still visible in the material aspects of Montesquiou’s letter, from his mannered penmanship to his purple paper.
These letters enable us to see the interconnectedness of the personal and public spheres in the artistic activities and relationships of the two authors, writing in the cruel shadow of war.