Maurois on Proust: A Centennial Commemoration

by Douglas W. Alden
Maurois on Proust: A Centennial Commemoration
Douglas W. Alden
The French Review
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Maurois on Proust: A Centennial Commemoration

by Douglas W.Alden

// CmrE PILLE, dont le nom et la fortune pouvaient faire espkrer B sa mere qu'elle kpouserait un prince royal et couronnerait toute l'euvre ascendante de Swann et de sa femme, choisit plus tard un homme de lettres obscur, car elle n'avait aucun snobisme, et fit redescendre cette famille plus bas que le niveau d'ou elle i.tait partie," says the omniscient narrator of Le Temps retrouvi (111, 1028)'. "Cette fille" designates Gilberte's daughter whom George Painter, in his biography of Proust (Proust: Tlze Later Years 179), identifies as Simone de Caillavet because of the well-known anecdote according to which Proust made her parents awaken her in the middle of the night so that he might have this fresh impression to put in the final pages of his novel. Since Simone de Caillavet married Andri. Maurois, one might immediately conclude that the "homme de lettres obscur" was Andri. Maurois and that Proust did not hold him in very high esteem.

Closer scrutiny of dates and facts reveals the errors of this hasty conclusion. Proust died on 18 November 1922. Maurois had never met him. Although Maurois had achieved immediate success in 1918 with his Les Silences du colonel Bramble, based on his wartime experience as an interpreter with the British, there is no indication in Proust's correspondence that he had ever heard of this plotless novel or of its author. To be sure, Maurois's publisher was Grasset who had originally published Proust, but in 1918 Proust and Grasset were not in contact except to exchange letters about unpaid royalties. Maurois says in his Minloires (11, 13), that, when Grasset, in order to lure him back into the literary world after the depression resulting from his wife's death, got him an invitation to meet Marshal Pktain at a luncheon engineered by a certain Madame de Caillavet, he thought his hostess was to be the famous mistress-mentor of Anatole France. He did not even know that that lady had been dead for fifteen years and, when he discovered that his hostess was young and charming, he asked Grasset why she was called "Madame" de Caillavet. Grasset explained that she was a divorcee who had taken back her family name.

When Maurois met Simone de Caillavet, he was hardly "un homme de lettres obscur." Among other things, he had written the very successful, if controversial, Ariel ou la vie de Slzelley. To placate his beautiful but whimsical Jeanne-Marie Wanda de Szymkiewicz ("whimsical" might be an understatement), whom he had married over his family's opposition, he had gradually pulled up his roots


in Elbeuf and, disentangling himself from the managership of the family textile factory, had moved to Paris. It was only a few months after his wife's death in

1924 that he met Simone de Caillavet. He had no romantic interest in her but she did her best to befriend him, talked to him about Marcel Proust and showed him her collection of Proust letters which appealed to his instincts as a biographer. It would be incorrect to say that these letters kindled Maurois's interest in Proust, for Maurois later commented to his own biographer, Jacques Suffel, that he had been fascinated by Du c6te de chez Swann when it came out in 1913 (Andre Maurois 54). Undoubtedly, however, it was the Proust letters that inspired him to cause his somewhat autobiographical Bernard Quesnay, the hero of the novel he was writing at the time, to say in passing to his friend Delamain: "As-tu lu ce Proust dont on parle beaucoup maintenant? . . . Moi, j'aime beaucoup ga" (Bernard Quesnay 70). Even though this plug for Proust leads nowhere in the novel, it will have a profound meaning for Maurois as a biographer. In the Clark lectures which he gave in Cambridge in 1928, he proposes a distinctly Proustian theory of character analysis when he insists that "un homme n'est pas un bloc de vertus ou de vices, qu'il ne s'agit pas de porter sur lui un jugement moral, et que d'ailleurs il ne reste pas le m6me homme depuis l'adolescence jusqu'a la vieillesse" (Aspects de la biographie 35). Now that the facts, if not the intimate details, of his own biography are known, it is quite clear that, like Proust, Maurois had written about himself in his novels. But this resort to autobiography is as far as the Proust connection goes, for, even when drawing on his own experience as a factory manager with literary ambitions in order to write Bernard Quesnay or when viewing life with his first wife in tragic perspective in Climats, his most moving novel, his vehicle is the traditional novel of the nineteenth century. Had not his 1ycl.e professor, the philosopher Alain, advised him to experience life in the family factory before trying to become the twentieth-century Balzac? At best, he became only a very minor Balzac, whereas his greatest accomplishment was creating in French literature a distinctly new genre: biography.

Beginning with this first encounter with his future second wife, Maurois's interest in Proust was in the ascendancy. He amused himself in 1929 by publishing in the Revue de Paris a pastiche entitled "Le C6ti. de Chelsea'" (based really on his own experience in England) in which Proust's narrator takes a trip to London. In the same year he contributed an article on "Proust et Ruskin" to an English scholarly annual. During his second trip to America in 1930, he gave a course at Princeton on "Le Roman frangais de La Princesse de Cleves ii La Recherche du temps perdu." In 1932 he lectured on Le Temps retrouve at the Universiti. des Annales. In 1941, when he was a refugee in America, he included in his Etudes littiraires, published in New York, a study of Proust, well expressed, because Maurois was a gifted writer, but leaning heavily on Lkon Pierre-Quint's Marcel Proust, sa vie, son euure.

It must have been in 1948 that I learned that Andri. Maurois was writing a biography of Marcel Proust, using at last that mine of Proust documents which Suzy Mante-Proust, the longtime friend of Simone, had in her possession and which Philip Kolb and I had only glimpsed in 1936. In the posthumously published continuation of his memoirs, Maurois states that, on returning to France after his course at Kansas City University, his intention was to write more novels but that, being instinctively a teacher, he could not refuse Francis Ambrigre's invitation to give a course at the Universitk des Annales (Memoires 1885-1967). He chose as his subject Marcel Proust, realizing that his audience would not be composed of young existentialists but rather of sedate middle- aged people who had already come to accept Proust as the great author of the twentieth century. As a biographer, Maurois had long ago put behind him the romanticism of Ariel. His Don Juan ou la vie de Byron (1930), he had said in his 1942memoirs, was the turning point: "Cette biographie scella ma rkconciliation avec les krudits" (Memoires [I942 ed.] 11, 87). Since Pierre-Quint's 1925 biography, published even before Le Temps retrouve had appeared, no one had written a life of Proust, even though an extensive correspondence and numerous other documents were in print. With Suzy Mante-Proust's documents and with many unpublished letters owned by other friends, Maurois realized that he had an extraordinary opportunity for an erudite biography. There is no doubt that, as he once had been interested in Disraeli because he and Disraeli were Jews, now he was interested in Proust as a half-Jew.

As I reread A la reclzerche du temps perdu in preparation for this paper, I have tried to recall my impressions when I read this work for the first time in 1949. I was grateful to Maurois for quoting at such great length the inedits of Proust, the numerous unpublished letters and long extracts from the cahiers and carnets. Each text was carefully chosen to illustrate or drive home a point. I admired how he fitted all of this together to give a new portrait of the man Proust and to explain how the great work emerged from this inchoate mass of paper (only now that I have myself waded through masses of Proust's papers do I fully appreciate what Maurois accomplished at this early stage). Yet, although I was aware of the insinuations of Marie-Anne Cochet and Henri Massis (Cochet, L'Ame proustienne; Massis, Le Dranle de Marcel Proust), by some oversight I had not yet read Maurice Sachs's Le Sabbat and was not prepared for this penetrating, but also devastating, portrait. First there were the numerous quotations from the Correspondance avec sa mere, as Philip Kolb was later to entitle the volume when he published the entire collection. The letters seemed to confirm very graphically what Arnaud Dandieu had called the "infantilism" of Proust (Marcel Proust: sa revelation psychologique). Then there were the frequent allusions to "prisoners" whom Proust seemed, during the last years of his life, to have kept in his apartment. Indignantly Maurois asserted: "Des attachements tenaces des Gtres indignes, comme des bGtes rampant dans la vase de bas-fonds, se trainaient en des rkgions de son cceur oii ne pknktraient pas les amis de son esprit" (A la recherche de Marcel Proust 105). At first his indignation seemed unfounded since he gave no proof. But later on he did marshal sufficient evidence: Mauriac's statement that he had seen a prisoner; quotations from Le Sabbat concerning Le Cuziat, the original of Jupien; and, most of all, the incriminating passage in the letter to Nahmias in which Proust asks for advice in having someone followed. Finally, Maurois quotes from Gide's Journal the passages which Justin O'Brien was to use the same year for his famous essay on "Albertine the Ambiguous"-passages in which Proust is alleged to have said that he had never loved a woman, that he transposed from homosexual to heterosexual, and that he believed that an author should never say "je" when dealing with homosexuality. I could not help wondering what Suzy Mante- Proust thought of Maurois's book, but I never dared ask her that question. I do recall that when Philip Kolb and I discussed Painter's later biography with Ckleste Albaret, Proust's "gouvernante," she was vehement in her denial that there were prisoners. She said so again in her Monsieur Proust3.

In his Sabbat, Sachs had said even worse things about Proust and he is the source of Painter's revolting tale about the rats. It is noteworthy that Maurois omitted the rats4.He would also have disagreed with Painter's claim that Proust had an affair with Louisa de Mornand (Painter 12), for Maurois accepts Gide's report that Proust never loved a woman and, undoubtedly drawing on the opinion of his own wife's family, insists that Proust's love for Jeanne Pouquet, the mother of Simone de Caillavet, was entirely simulated, just as Charlus's interest in women was only sham.

Reading Maurois's book a second time, I am not only impressed by his scholarship but also by the intrinsic merits of his method in biography. His primary purpose is to interpret the character of his "hero." To this he sacrifices much of the detail which one finds, for example, in Painter's later biography. Generalizations, and the quoting of long documents to support them, are more important than dates and minor events. Seeking protection and sympathy, Proust is never indifferent to what others feel or to what others think of him- hence his "gentillesse" as well as his flattery of others. Eventually he justifies his sexual aberrations by rationalizing that geniuses are ambivalent and that normal standards of morality do not apply to them. This Maurois calls a "funeste h&r&sie"(A la recherche de Marcel Prousf 118). In the last analysis, this is the judgment of a "normal" puritan. Georges Lemaitre, in his book on Maurois, claims that Maurois did not understand Proust (Maurois: The Writer and His Work 101).Understand him he did, but he did not fully appreciate him.

In the light of Proust scholarship since Maurois, we note inevitably certain gaps in Maurois's information. One can hardly rriticize him for not mentioning Jean Santeuil orContre Sainte-Beuve, since they had not yet been discovered, but one could reproach him for not discovering them since he presumably had access to all of Proust's papers. Let us note in passing that he did discover at least a fragment of what he and Proust call Sainfe-Beuve, although, at the time, he was unaware of Proust's main argument against biography. On the other hand, Maurois claims to have made a capital discovery which has never been confirmed since. He states that he found numerous fragments which prove that, before the Recherche, Proust first composed a third-person novel of which Swann is the hero and that therefore Un Anlour de Swann "est un fragment sauvk de cette version primitive" (142). He does quote from a text which Maurice Bardcche later published in its entirety in his Marcel Prousf ronlancier (I, 397-411). If this is the only text that exists, then it is hardly the proof that Un Amour de Swann is a crypt beneath the Reclzerclze. My opinion is that Un Anlour de Swann belongs essentially to a later stage of Proust's writing, coming

after the childhood reminiscences both at Combray and at Balbec, and that he was developing more traditional novelistic techniques which he was going to use to advantage in the restructuring of the Gilberte episodes and in the entire Albertine plot. In fact, here is another astonishing omission on Maurois's part. Discussing with almost obsequious respect Albert Feuillerat's Conlnlent Marcel Proust a compose son roman, he refutes the distinguished Yale professor's contention that there were chronologically two Prousts, one lyrical and one analytical, but he fails to allude to Feuillerat's significant discovery which is the total absence of Albertine in the Grasset proofs corresponding to A l'ombre des jeunesfilles en fleurs. Nor does Maurois refer to Agostinelli, although he includes Vigneron's article, "Genese de Swann," in his bibliography. This is serious because he fails to describe one of the most dramatic moments in Proust's personal life and in the creation of the Recherche.

One trap that Maurois does not avoid is extrapolating from the work of art to the biography. Like Painter later on, he assumes that the episode of the good-night kiss happened in real life, and with this we have no quarrel except to say that earlier versions of the text suggest that it happened more than once. But he also maintains that the "clochers de Martinville" existed in Proust's childhood, overlooking the fact that they might very well have come from the article "Impressions de route en automobile," dating from 1907 and republished by Proust in Pastiches et melanges (91-99). However, Maurois does not psy- choanalyze the work, as some professional psychiatrists have done, just as he avoids a Freudian approach to his hero's life.

In his Aspects de la biographie, Maurois had asserted that it would be more valuable to the biographer to record Napoleon's attitude during the battle of Waterloo than to describe the battle itself. In A la recherclze de Marcel Proust, contrary to principle and precedent in his other biographies, he spends three of his ten chapters on the battle, that is to say on Proust's Recherche. One cannot avoid thinking that Maurois has lost his respect for the man ad feels that he must redeem him by proving that he has created something greater than himself. Although admirably written and perhaps suited to an enlightened but unin- formed audience, this abecedaire does not go far beyond Pierre-Quint's study twenty-five years before. For Maurois, Proust is a realist with a poetic style who invokes the muses of the subconscious without succumbing to them. Proust is, stylistically speaking, the master of his creation or would have been if he had had time to touch up those posthumous pages. Maurois's third chapter on theRecherche, treating "humor" and clearly inspired by Pierre-Quint's 1929 addition to his earlier version, makes Proust into a realist in the most classical tradition. But it is in the second chapter on the passions of love that Maurois had the greatest difficulty accepting Proust's work. After demonstrating, as Pierre-Quint once did, that Proust was right to consider homosexual love to be the same as heterosexual love in its basic mechanisms, he could not refrain from considering this view of love to be tragic and one-sided because Proust had seen life only through the eyes of a homosexual. Proust did not know "les instincts particuliers de la femme" (218). But Maurois adds that he did not need to because "la forme de son livre lui imposait de ne peindre de l'interieur aucun personnage autre que le narrateur et Swann" (218). He exaggerates the impor- tance of jealousy, says Maurois: "Parce qu'il etait un anxieux (je reprends ici son propre diagnostic), il a interpret6 cette anxiete en termes de jalousie" (218). Finally the puritan in Maurois speaks out again: "Sa faiblesse est de n'avoir connu ni le mariage ni les aventures les plus normales du cceur. I1 n'en reste pas moins vrai qu'il a singuliitrement approfondi notre connaissance des pas- sions" (223). Well may one ask: what happened to Maurois's earlier principle of not expressing moral judgments in biography?

When the English translation of Maurois's work appeared in 1950 under the title Proust: Portrait of a Genius, Joseph Wood Krutch wrote: "M. Maurois' book, certainly the best single volume on the subject, is very likely to be one to which subsequent writers will return both for its information and for the general outlines of what will probably be the standard portrait" (Krutch This prediction held, at least in France, until the time of Maurois's death in 1967. During the eighteen-year period between the publication of Ala recherche de Marcel Proust and Maurois's death, the French XX Bibliography records 27 articles on Proust by Maurois and doubtless the list is not complete. A closer look reveals that many of these were the same article warmed up again or else pieces de circonstance celebrating a Proustian anniversary and the like. Only two items could be called serious writing on Proust by Maurois. The first of these was the well documented preface to the three-volume edition of Jean Santeuil, published in 1952 by Bernard de Fallois, a "jeune agreg6" whom Maurois had introduced to Madame Mante-Proust and who had discovered this early unfinished work in Proust's papers. The second was the excellent preface to the Plkiade edition of the Recherche which appeared in 1954. It is strange, however, that, in the same year, Maurois was not associated with Fallois's next discovery, the Contre Sainte-Beuzle. There was no doubt that Fallois's discoveries rendered Maurois's Proust obsolete. It would have taken little effort on Maurois's part to update his work on Proust, but he did not do so, probably because he was fully absorbed by what most critics consider to be his greater biographies, those of George Sand, Hugo, the Dumas, Fleming, Madame de Lafayette, and finally Balzac. One should not be misled by the listing in Maurois's bibliography of a title, Le Monde de Marcel Proust, published in 1960. This is a beautifully printed collection of Proust iconography but the text was only excerpts from A la recherche de Marcel Proustwhich any amanuensis could have put together.

Maurois might have seen some kind of handwriting on the wall when the Neul York Times Book Rezliew invited him in 1959 to review George D. Painter's Proust: Tlze Early Years. In a very perfunctory review which must have corre- sponded to a very cursory reading, he chided his English rival for claiming that he had written the definitive biography of Proust, undoubtedly realizing that his own biography of Proust was anything but definitive. As for Painter's claim that Proust loved Jeanne Pouquet, Maurois had this to say: "I met several of the ladies Proust was supposed to have made love to. They all said that they had not the slightest illusion on the subject. Their role was to screen his real feelings and behavior." Maurois did not mention Painter in France and to the best of my knowledge Painter's first volume went unnoticed there. Of course, Painter had not yet written his Proust: The Later Years, the controversial volume which Maurois would have loathed if he had had time to read it. It appeared six years later, in 1965, and the French translation not until the following year.6 Most French critics tore the translation to pieces but, with all its shortcomings, it has superseded A la recherche de Marcel Proust as the standard biography.

Maurois's biography, already included in his Euvres complites, has since gone through three new editions with prefaces, respectively, by Jacques de Lacretelle, Jacques Suffel and, in the centennial year, by Jean Dutourd. The translations have also remained in print. Unfortunately no one has seen fit to update the work by including Maurois's essay on ]eat1 Santeuil and his preface to the Plkiade edition of Proust. It would not be difficult, either, to remove the obsolescence with footnotes pointing out and filling the lacunae in terms of present-day Proust scholarship. With these improvements Maurois's biography might well reemerge as the standard introduction to Proust.

What Proust might have thought of this "homme de lettres obscur," if he had ever met him, is anyone's guess. Proust was in the habit of receiving cordially any young author who admired him (Lacretelle, Mauriac, Morand, Jaloux, Anna de Noailles) and of praising his or her works even if, inwardly, he may have had reservations. Inwardly he would have disapproved of Maurois's novels as too old-fashioned. In the light of the Confre Sainte-Beuue, one wonders whether he would have condemned Maurois's biographies. Not knowing the Cotltre Sainte-Beuve until much later, Maurois might well have thought that he was following in Proust's footsteps in creating characters in his biographies. In Choses nues, in 1963, Maurois finally responded to Proust's criticism of biog- raphy as applied to literary figures when he wrote (quoting the translation by Maurois's latest biographer, Jack Kolbert):

I reply that the thesis of Proust seems false to me. He claims that the man who

has written a masterpiece is not the same one who puts on his bedroom slippers, or

lives an amorous adventure. Why yes! He is the same man; and the entire interest

of biography is to show how genius can be born out of very ordinary elements.

Proust showed it while speaking of Bergotte and furthermore has recourse, in order

to demolish Sainte-Beuve, to the kind of facts which he condemns.. The life does

explain genius; it nourishes it. (The Worlds of Atrdr~ Maurois 109)

At least Maurois and Proust had one thing in common: the desire to under- stand genius.


'This article was originally a paper read, during the AATF convention of 1985, at the symposium commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Maurois's birth.

This was the original title used in the January 15 number. The next year the pastiche appeared in book form as Supplenrent a Melanges et pastiches [sic] de Marcel Proustand in 1932 it reappeared, again in book form, as Le C6ti de Chelsea under the N.R.F. imprint. There were later editions, including an English translation in 1966 with an introduction by George D. Painter.

Note that Madame Albaret insists that the conversation reported by Gide could not have taken place (360). The rats have not been buried yet. Henri Bonnet has dug them up again with new evidence in

his Les Amours et la sexualite de Marcel Proust (Paris: Nizet, 1985). In his Andre Maurois, L. Clark Keating attributes this quotation to "Crutch." The original British editions of Painter's biography did not bear the same titles as the American

editions. They were simply called Marcel Proust: A Biography, volume 1 and volume 2, which is almost the same title as a 1950 American edition of Maurois's biography:Proust: A Biography (New York: Meridian Books, 1950). In the French translation both volumes appeared simultaneously (Marcel Proust. 1. Les Annees de jeunesse[1871-19031; 2. Les Annies de maturite [ 1904-19221. Paris: Mercure de France, 1966).


Albaret, Celeste. Monsieur Proust. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1973. 
Bardiche, Maurice. Marcel Proust romancier. Paris: Les Sept Couleurs, 1971. 
Bonnet, Henri. Les Amours et la sexualite de Marcel Proust. Paris: Nizet, 1985. 
Cochet, Anne-Marie. L'Ame proustienne. Bruxelles: Collignon, 1930. 
Dandieu, Amaud. Marcel Proust: sa revelation psychologique. Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1930. 
Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, 17. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932. 
Keating, L. Clark. Andre Maurois. New York: Twayne, 1969. 
Kolbert, Jack. The Worlds of Andre Maurois. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1985. 
Krutch, Joseph Wood. "Marcel Proust: The Strength Hidden in his Weaknesses," New York Herald

Tribune Book Review, 16 April 1950. Lemaitre, Georges. Maurois: The Writer and His Work. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1968. Massis, Henri. Le Drame de Marcel Proust. Paris: Grasset, 1937. Maurois, Andre. A la recherche de Marcel Proust. Paris: Hachette, 1949.

-. -.

A la recherche de Marcel Proust. Preface de Jacques de Lacretelle. Paris: Hachette, 1970. (My page references correspond to this edition.)

A la recherche de Marcel Proust. Preface de Jacques Suffel. Iconographie par Ann-Man Mingard. Genive: Edito-Service, 1976.

-.A la recherche de Marcel Proust. Preface de Jean Dutourd. Paris: Hachette Litterature, 1985.


Aspects de la biographie. Paris: Au sans pareil, 1928.

-. Bernard Quesnay. Paris: Gallimard, 1926.

-. -.

Le C6te de Chelsea. Paris: N. R. F., 1932. 
Menroires. New York: Editions de la Maison Fran~aise, 1954. 

-. Menroires 1885-1967. PrPface de Robert Kanters. Paris: Flammarion, 1979. (First edition, 1970).



Proust: Portrait of a Genius. Translated from the French by Gerald Hopkins. New York: Harper & Bros., 1950. (The most recent American edition is published by Carroll and Graf. The British edition, entitled The Quest for Proust, was published by Cape in 1950 and by Penguin in 1962.)

"Remembrances of an Author Past," New York Times Book Review, 30 August 1959.

-. Supplement a Melanges et pastiches de Marcel Proust. Paris: Editions du Trianon, 1930.

O'Brien, Justin. "Albertine the Ambiguous: Notes on Proust's Transposition of the Sexes," PMLA 64(1949):33-52 (Reprinted in his Contemporary French Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1971.)

Painter, George D. Proust: The Early Years. Boston, Little, Brown, 1959.


Proust: The Later Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965.

Proust, Marcel. A la recherche du temps perdu. Paris: Gallimard, 1954.

-. Correspondance auec sa nrere 1887-1905. Lettres inidites prisentties et annotties par Philip

Kolb. Paris: Plon, 1953. -. Pastiches et nrelanges. Paris: Gallimard, 1919. Suffel, Jacques. Andri Maurois, auec drs ren~arques par Andri Maurois. Paris: Flammarion, 1963. Vigneron, Robert: "Genise de Swann," Revue d'Histoire de la Philosophie et d'Histoire Ginerale de la

Civilisation, 5(15 Jan. 1935), 67-115

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