I can’t imagine the excitement that must have been felt when previously (mostly) unpublished stories by Marcel Proust were unearthed. But here they are in The Mysterious Correspondent. The book runs to just over 120 pages, and includes a lengthy intro by Luc Fraisse. Fraisse explains that Proust never mentioned these stories and that “they explore, by extraordinarily varied paths as we will see, the psychological and moral subject of homosexuality.” Fraisse also places these stories in the historical and thematic context of Proust’s other work.
Here’s the breakdown:
Pauline de S.
The Mysterious Correspondent
The Mysterious Correspondent–unfinished version.
A Captain’s Reminiscence
Jacques Lefelde (The Stranger)
In the Underworld
After Beethoven’s Eight Symphony
The Awareness of Loving Her
The Gift of the Fairies
That is How He Loved.
Some of the stories are unfinished and are fragmentary, so I’m not going to discuss them all–just my favourites. Pauline de S. is the story of a dying woman. The narrator, hearing the news that his friend Pauline is in the final stages of illness, admits that “it was extremely difficult for me to go and see her.” It’s always difficult to know how to talk to those who are facing imminent death. Do we cheer them up? Should we bring up the subject?
That evening I could not fall asleep. Things seemed to me now the way they must have seemed to her, so close to death, the opposite of how they usually appear to us. Pleasures, entertainments, lives, special, even insignificant labours all seemed insipid, laughable, ridiculously, terrifyingly, small and unreal. Meditations on life and on the soul, the depths of emotions and the arts where we feel ourselves descending into the very heart of our being, goodness, forgiveness, pity, charity, repentance, foregrounded seemed the only real things.
So the narrator arrives, “ready to weep.” Pauline, however is not different from her usual self and asks the narrator to book a box for a matinee at the theatre as long as it isn’t “your boring Hamlet.” The narrator leaves “astonished.” Subsequent visits are more of the same thing with conversations as normal. He wonders if her behaviour is a “pose.” The story, short but quite brilliant, is a mediation on death with dignity.
The Mysterious Correspondent (which appears in Pleasures and Days) is a story about one woman who loves another. Married Françoise receives a letter, a confession of love. The letter is fueled by sexual passion, and the writer, swears to visit the next evening. Françoise is frightened; she bars the door, telling her visiting female friend to forbid entry to anyone. Françoise:
imagined it was a soldier. She had always loved them, and old passions, flames, that had been denied nourishment because of her virtue but that had set her dreams on fire and sometimes made strange reflections pass through her chaste eyes, were rekindled. Long ago she had often wanted to be loved by one of those soldiers whose broad belt takes long to unbuckle, dragoons who let their swords drag behind them in the evening at street corners while they look elsewhere.
While Françoise mulls over the identify of her ‘mysterious correspondent’ it’s obvious that it can only be one person, and yet Françoise is too blind to see the truth that stares her in the face.
A Captain’s Reminiscence is very brief, the sliver of a memory–a “silent meeting” between a captain and a corporal. It’s a moment that the captain never forgot even though nothing happens between the two men–it’s a might-have-been moment.
Finally, this is probably best appreciated by those who are already familiar with Proust. The introduction frequently references other works and how this or that story ties into the bigger picture. The stories are prefaced with intense scholarly references to Proust’s other work.
Translated by Charlotte Mandell