Dear Proust

LETTERS TO MEN OF LETTERS, Part 6

/ by Diane Joy Charney

We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.

I write them letters.

 

 

Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871-November 18,1922) was born into an upper-class Parisian family headed by an authoritarian physician father and a wealthy Jewish mother. Plagued by asthma from the age of 9, the sickly Marcel, who became a recluse after the death of his parents, found refuge in his cork-lined room. Despite the initial difficulty of getting his work published and the challenge of its nearly 3000 pages in 7 volumes, À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) has been heralded as one of the most significant literary achievements of modern times. Part II, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove/ In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), won the 1919 Prix Goncourt.

 

 

 

Dear Marcel,

 

We have a lot to discuss, and I owe you an apology or two. You and I have had a thorny relationship ever since, as a graduate student, I was forced to swallow every word of your novel. Now I see that my negative reaction was a youthful and rash rush to judgment. It's no accident that the concept of the madeleine figures so prominently in the writing of authors like Andre Aciman, whom I so admire. And I see that it also underlies my own writing and, specifically, the enterprise of this book.

 

I often refer to my memory as “Proustian” because of the way, for better or worse, my past is so present to me. When I recall an experience, even one very far back in my 69 years, the sensory details are there—what I was wearing, the sounds, scents, tastes, textures.

 

What I’m about to tell you is in keeping with the “now-and-then-and-now” theme of my letters, and I think you will understand. I’m currently appreciating you more thanks to a new biography by Benjamin Taylor, Proust: The Search. But even before that, I came across some evidence that our relationship was changing for the better. I’m also reminded that to teach a challenging author like you can lead to a much greater appreciation by the teacher, herself.

 

In the course of trying to write a short article for those who don’t know much about you, I started putting things together in a way that ended up helping me. Until now, I hadn’t looked at this piece that I called, “On Taking Tea with Marcel: Lost then Found,” for a few years, and I am wondering what you will think of it.

 

 

*

 

 

 

On Taking Tea with Marcel: Lost, then Found

 

What if everything that ever mattered to each of us could be restored? Regained? Resurrected? Although everything we have the illusion of possessing is actually "on loan" during our lifetimes, what if it could be recovered? For what, and by whom, do we wish to be remembered? How can we be reassured, in the face of our own mortality? If we have artistic aspirations, to what extent does living one's life in the moment conflict with recording it?

 

In reflecting on Proust, I can't help noticing how often the prefix "re" reappears; to satisfy me, any inevitably clumsy attempt at an English title for Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu has to incorporate it. In Search of Lost Time is the awkward attempt at translation that really gets my goat. I imagine Proust turning over in his grave: "Does anyone really think that I would have taken the trouble to write these 3,031 pages if I'd had the idea that time was 'lost?'" Even the wily wunderkinds of American advertising who came up with "Some things in life are priceless; for everything else, there's Mastercard," understand how to exploit the tension between our hunger for increasing amounts of "stuff" and for something which will endure.

 

One thing that has endured is my attempt to come to grips with this text. It was force-fed to me in graduate school, where I read every word, but found it indigestible--not my "cup of tea.” And yet, even barbaric force-feeding can yield something as divine as foie gras; lobsters gobble garbage, yet their flesh tastes sweet. Maybe that is why, in my teaching, I've been on a mission to introduce Proust in jewel-like bites that will feel like little marvels, instead of what the French colorfully call un étouffe-chrétien--enough to choke a Christian. What could be more fitting than to use the verb "digérer" to talk about the miraculous way morsels of a humble madeleine tea cake could produce an explosion in the mouth that would spark what many consider the most remarkable text of the century?

 

A case in point: I recently dined at one of England's few four-star restaurants, The Fat Duck, where Chef Heston Blumenthal stands ready to startle the palate of those who might cast a skeptical eye toward such menu items as the Douglas Fir Sorbet or the Bacon and Eggs Ice Cream. In the middle of each table was an elegant brochure requesting information on unforgettable taste memories from childhood, which the chef proposed to use as inspiration for new dishes. I found myself wondering what he would do with the cherry popsicle my sweet grandfather used to buy me at the corner candy store. It was always a dilemma: keep the twin sides of the popsicle intact and risk it melting all over Pleasant Avenue? Or break it in half, tackling each side separately, which would make the pleasure seem to last longer. There was also the choice of whether to lick it delicately, or to aggressively suck the colorful juice out, admire the change of hue, then bite what remained: big decisions for a 3.5-year-old. There's an embarrassing coda to one of those journeys. So excited about getting the popsicle, I failed to remember to go to the bathroom first, and ended up peeing in my pants on the way back. But my Russian grandfather, a pants-presser by trade, ever the Good Humor man for whom a 5-cent popsicle was an extravagant expense, never held it against me. The passage to America had devoured all his rubles, but he was rich in stories of his soldier days taking stray bullets for the Czar, and colorful old-country customs like cutting a hole in a raw egg to suck out its contents. Ah, those pre-salmonella days!

 

In Proust's novel, the young Marcel recalls his bedtime anguish at being separated from his mother, a trauma that drives his search to regain what felt like a pure, perfect love. Blocked by a threatening, authoritarian father, this maternal love finds expression in Marcel's relationship with his grandmother. A key element of Proust, with which it is easy to identify, is that we have two types of memory: Voluntary and involuntary. Through voluntary memory, we can choose to remember a particular time, place, or person. Involuntary memory, however, is more capricious. After Marcel tastes the madeleine offered by his mother, what explodes in his mouth feels like the taste of salvation itself, returning him to what had seemed lost: his childhood in Combray, in the south of France.

 

Here are the basic elements of this key scene. One bleak, wintry day, the beloved mother of a tired, adult Marcel offers him some lime-blossom tea accompanied by an ordinary, shell-shaped tea cake, called a madeleine. At the first taste, he feels literally transported back to his childhood visits to Combray, when he used to eat tea-soaked pieces of madeleine with his aunt, Tante Léonie. Far more than a mere memory, Proust here experiences an ineffable pleasure--an epiphany that makes him feel as if he has transcended the limits of time--as if the past had been reborn, annihilating along with it, any fears of mortality (the translations that follow are mine):

 

At the very instant the mouthful of...cake crumbs touched my palate, I shivered, attentive to what was happening within myself. A delicious, singular pleasure had invaded my being, without offering any hint of its origins. It immediately made me feel immune to all the vicissitudes of life...I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal... From where did it, this powerful joy, come? What did it mean? It is clear that the truth that I am seeking is not in it, but within me... I put down my cup, and look inward. It's my own spirit that will find what I seek... And suddenly, the recollection appeared to me. This was the taste of the little piece of madeleine that... Tante Léonie used to offer me, after having dunked it into her own...tea... But (even) when nothing of an ancient past remains, after the death of beings, the destruction of objects...their scent and taste persist, like souls, remembering, waiting...hoping to support, on their nearly imperceptible droplet, the immense edifice of memory.

 

Proust draws a comparison between this experience and multi-colored Japanese paper flowers that slowly "bloom," when placed in a bowl of water. Like them, his seven volumes will emerge from this extraordinary cup of tea.

 

To reflect on Proust puts one in intimate touch with the loss of our previous selves and identities. But there's a flip side to this, a potential consolation: what poses as our mutability is an illusion; what seems profoundly changed, really isn't. Proust reminds us that the clutter with which we surround ourselves is a misguided attempt at insulation from death. But paradoxically, this clutter, in distracting, stifling, and "burying" us, as opposed to paring ourselves down to our essence, produces a kind of death. Two particularly beautiful passages underscore the need to create a space that will allow us to cut through our busyness to attend sensitively to what matters. Here is the first:

 

...I begin to once again perceive, if I listen closely, the sobs that I had summoned the power to hold back in front of my father, and which only burst forth when I found myself alone with my mother. In fact, however, these sobs have never ceased; and it is only because life around me is quieter now, that I hear them once again, in the way that everyday noise can cover the sounds of church bells so thoroughly that one might think they fail to ring during the day, but that they only resume ringing in the evening silence.

 

 

Here is the second passage I want to cite:

 

I find very reasonable the Celtic belief that the souls of those we have lost remain captive inside some simpler being, an animal, a vegetable, an inanimate object, in effect lost to us until the day, which for many will never come, when we find ourselves passing close enough...to enter into possession of the object in which they are imprisoned. They then tremble, call out to us, and as soon as we recognize them, the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have conquered death and return to life with us. So it is with our past. In vain we try to regrasp it; all conscious efforts on our part are fruitless. It is hidden beyond reach, in some material object (in the sensation that that material object would offer us) that we would never suspect of having this capacity. As for this object--it is entirely dependent on chance whether we would encounter it before we die, or whether we would never meet it at all.

 

As I think about these evocative passages, a question comes to mind: Is it easier for an aging Baby Boomer to appreciate Proust, than for a college freshman? At the elite university where I teach, narrow specialization is the name of the game. It is unfashionable to be interested in literature as lessons for life, but I am stubborn and don't mind being considered what the French might call un zèbre. Well, here I sit, decked out in my stripes, to offer the possibility that, like all classics, this is a work that can be accessed, albeit differently, at various stages of life.

 

Indeed, most of my students do seem to "get it.” Inspired by our brief encounter with Proust, one student zeroed in on some essential questions: "Where does time go? Who's in charge of it? If time is lost, is the search for it worthwhile? What really matters?

 

According to Proust, the answer to this last question is memory. The images of those who matter to us return because, in reality, they have never abandoned us.

 

One has the potential to relive the past, thanks to privileged moments, and one never knows where the next catalyst will be: two things can appear to have no relationship to each other, but perhaps a link will later be revealed.

 

Another student, inspired by our dip into Proust, chose to meditate on two photos of herself with her father. In the first photo, the summer prior to her departure for a trip to Ireland and then to college, she and her dad are cozily seated together at a cafe. She feels like a queen, but recognizes that, because she is at the point of making an important transition, this will be the last time the two will be able to sit together in such a carefree way. In the photo, the dad's finger looms large as it points something out to her, marking "the last moment when I would not question the direction in which my father would guide me.” The second photo shows a twisting Irish roadway, emblematic of her wilder encounters with the unexpected: abandoned castles, glasses of Guinness, intriguing accents. She finds herself looking petite in both photos, especially in comparison to the orienting hand of her father, but notes that the two snapshots reflect the difference between a girl who follows the directions of others, and an independent navigator.

 

In our highly digitalized, hyper-documented age, the role of photos in life and literature raises interesting questions that can blur the lines between voluntary and involuntary memory. Coming from a family of fanatical photographers, I often think that I have my own version of a Proustian photographic memory. As I look at most photographs of myself, I have what feels like total sensory recall of the scene. Maybe it's just an illusion prompted by the photo itself, but I don't think so. In the face of an evocative photo, I literally feel transported back to a different time and place. Any distance between me and the scene at hand seems to disappear. Another thing that amazes me about certain photos is the way I always seem to look natural and unperturbed in them, even though I can often remember feeling quite stressed at the time. Since I am not very good about keeping in "traditional" contact with people who are important to me, I rely on photos to feel "in touch," and to complement the mental conversations I have with my soul mates. Photos, both literal and those in my mind's eye, help me maintain the illusion that those about whom I have been thinking can sense the connection.

 

In a wonderful seminar that my colleague, Evelyne Ender, allowed me to audit, called "Writing and Memory," we talked about the role of the photo as a memory prop that has the potential to offer a recognition/witnessing of the self--the ability to see things that we couldn't acknowledge otherwise--that allows us to get past "blind spots.” As I say this, I think back to all of the 8mm movies my father used to take of us kids under those hot, blinding, hand-held lights that were the height of technology in the 1950s. After a while, they'd start to emit a burnt smell, and when they were turned off, there'd even be some smoke. It's a wonder none of us ever got hurt from them.

 

In the Writing and Memory seminar we also talked about the photo as a metaphor for remembering; the fact that a photo is always a record of a past moment; the need to remember that there is an eye/I behind the lens. Does a photo steal the memory away? Replace it? Enhance it? Stifle it? Fuzzy memories can gain clarity from a sharp photo (and vice versa). A photograph appears to offer evidence of real events--to record the way things really were, to offer an objective historical truth. But is this an illusion?

 

Can there be memory outside of language? Does one need to be able to say "I remember," in order to remember? Freud would say that we're overly interested in the visual because it's the least threatening of the senses.

 

In my own classes, two questions I posed stimulated intense discussions: In looking at a photo do you stand OUTSIDE the memory as an observer? Or do you remember yourself from WITHIN the scene?

 

Among the things my students have cited as their own "petite madeleine: “the rock song, American Pie, and the legendary Red Chevy of my father's youth;” “the clink of my mom's ever-present gold bracelets;” “the perfume of the California pine trees inside and outside the home of my grandfather during our Xmas visits;” “the books I constantly reread--impossible not to think of the circumstances when I first read them.” I hadn’t thought about it before, but this Letters to Men of Letters book that I am currently writing is very much in tune with that last “petite madeleine.” As one for whom all of France feels like a personal madeleine, I consider myself lucky to have found a vocation that allows me to relive, on a daily basis, my passion for French literature and the accumulation of the formative experiences that I have had with the French.

 

The astonishing variety of uses to which the madeleine incident has been put no doubt far exceeds the number of Proust's actual readers. I wonder what would Proust think about popularized manifestations of his ideas, such as the recent comic book versions of his work; a classic perfume from the House of Worth called "Je Reviens;" the self-help bestseller, How Reading Proust can Change Your Life; or even a pop psychology book, What Flavor is your Personality, that promises to help you discover who you are by looking at what you eat: "Which snack food do you like best?...Your answer tells you more than just what you like to crunch.”

 

After initially being appalled by an article touting the Proustian implications of Martha Stewart's monthly musings for her magazine (from Combray to the homey pleasures of Nutley, New Jersey seemed like quite a leap), I found myself backing down, and thinking that perhaps I shouldn't be so dismissive. Another example: British perfumer, Jo Malone, is in Proust's debt for this ad, entitled “ALL SHE DOES:”

 

She makes ordinary things like fried eggs or toast with jam special, and when you beg her for her secrets she just smiles and says it’s a pinch of herbs, a hint of spice and something she can’t remember. When she goes out at night she smells like the delicious scent of gardenia lingering in the balmy air of summer, and you wait gladly on the promise of her kiss goodnight when she returns home. THANK HER.

 

Perfumer Jo Malone’s Oedipal conflation of what could have been Marcel’s mother with her besotted son who anxiously awaits her goodnight kiss is right on the money.

 

One might argue that, with today's sophisticated anti-anxiety medications and anti-aging surgical techniques, a work like Proust's might never have emerged at all. In a recent lecture, Where Have all the Hysterics Gone?, distinguished analyst Elizabeth Young-Brehl noted that, because in our increasingly permissive society there are fewer and fewer taboos, there is less repression than in Proust's day. Like the artist who needs to stand back from the canvas, Proust needed to isolate himself. Only through art, and alone, could he penetrate his own multiplicity. Perhaps today, the reclusive, asthmatic, homosexual Proust, who spent much of his life in his cork-lined bedroom, would have felt less need to establish the type of private cocoon propitious to the creation of a work like À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Without the benefit of psychotropic drugs, Proust discovered that as exciting or emotionally draining as events can be in "real time," retrospection offers the opportunity to process what has transpired, and to put to rest what might have been overwhelming.

 

Of course I’m feeling remiss about all that I have not included in this meditation on some aspects of Proust. But I take heart from this comment from Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation:

 

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less real to us.

 

In summary, Proust pulls the rug out from under us, but in a good way, persuading us that:

 

-What we think we've lost--we haven't.

 

-What we think we know--we don't.

 

-The truth is always right there, but we can only access it when we are ready to hear it.

 

-What appears a shared epiphanic moment can be a mere illusion.

 

-We carry in our bones what matters: traces, scars, body memories.

 

-Despite the multiplicity of selves with which, as we age, we seem to have lost touch, there is a coherence to our life.

 

-All small towns and families have a lot in common.

 

-Ghosts can be friendly.

 

-Places and objects can have an aura.

 

-Time is not money.

 

-"The more things change, the more they stay the same" is not a mere cliché.

 

The above is my own list of some of the things I am beginning to grasp thanks to Marcel Proust. And here’s another infiltration from popular culture, compliments of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music:

 

"Every day a little death.”

 

Every day a little death? Who would expect a line like that in a song from a musical comedy? Nothing puts one in touch with loss, like immersion in the work of Marcel Proust. And yet, nothing can prove quite as consoling. When is a good time to be separated from everything you hold dear? If your answer is "never," then Proust has a lot to offer you.

 

*

 

Back to you, Marcel. In terms of the “then” and “now” of our relationship, we are about to get closer to the latter. I want to tell you about what my home institution, Yale University, did to celebrate the 100th-year anniversary of the publication of your Swann’s Way. The French Department sponsored a marathon reading of this first volume of your 7-volume novel. From November 16 to 17, 2013, students, scholars, and guests took turns reading a 10-minute passage in the language of their choice. Readings began Saturday at 7:30am and ran until 3:30am on Sunday. You probably would have felt right at home, since a special highlight was the setting: a full-scale recreation of your cork-lined bedroom.

 

A favorite student and future Rhodes Scholar, Benjamin Mappin-Kasirer, whom I helped with his prize-winning senior essay on you and the weather (“Concordance des temps: Marcel Proust et la métérologie”), was the main student organizer of the event. He had offered me a chance to sign up early to read, but I was too disorganized to take advantage of that privilege, and was closed out. Of course I stopped by anyway, and was able to hear a few of the readers, who got to choose not only their passage and the language thereof, but also the position from which they would read. Some elected to recline on the bed, others paced. There was also quite a range of clothing and acting skills. When I arrived at the purpose-built setting, a lovely blond was doing her reading in Polish!

 

I was pleased to see that the next reader was doing his reading in native French. Had you been there, I’m guessing that you would have been more excited to find this young man sitting on your bed than the pretty blond. In addition to his great accent, this spiffy reader had a pair of shocking pink sunglasses coolly tucked into his shirt.

 

As I was leaving, a very nervous young Yalie who confessed to not knowing much about this guy named “PROW-ST” was just arriving to read his selection. At least he deserves extra credit for having had the foresight to sign up in advance.

 

I’m thinking that you yourself would have been very pleased to see this evidence of how your legacy has endured. And I’m pretty sure that of the two teas on offer, you would have chosen the tilleul to accompany your madeleine.

 

And speaking of madeleines, do you think a pot could be one? I’ve written a piece called, “May Your Future Be As Bright And Shiny As These Pots” that I think of as an homage to you. I certainly couldn’t have written it without you. Henri Bergson has said that for you, the present does not exist. It is made of the past. A key word for you is “circularity.” My notes from Wallace Fowlie’s course at Duke University elaborate on this: “Proust lives in the past in search of his childhood. His nostalgia for the purity of that time is a main theme of his novel.” I wonder if you will agree that my piece below reflects these elements. Although I wrote it a few years ago, and it refers to a long-ago period of childhood, adulthood, and loss, it remains totally present to me. I will be coming back to the links between you and Fowlie, my revered professor and erstwhile dissertation director, that have just been crystallizing for me. One never knows where involuntary memory is going to lead!


 

Here is another place you have taken me. What do French cocoa and Cordon Bleu pots have to do with linden tea, madeleines, and involuntary memory? Please read what I’ve written below.

I’m betting that you will understand.

May Your Future Be As Bright And Shiny As These Pots”

I am thinking about endings as I stand here in 2012 making myself some very fancy French cocoa that had an expiration date of "best by May 16, 2005." I have been known to do stuff like that, especially when the expiration date police are not watching.

 

This particular brand of cocoa, a requested birthday present of some eight years ago called La Parisiennne, is described as "silky swirls of cream gliding, intoxicating and arousing." According to the blurb on the fading package, the maker of this sensual product trained at the Cordon Bleu where her responsibilities while working at the Hotel Crillon in Paris included making this ambrosial drink. And here she is having created in the spirit of this memory, "a Parisian style of chocolat chaud for those who want to bring a taste of Paris home."

 

Well here I am in my New Haven kitchen channeling my inner Proust, and something has made me reach for this box that has about two more servings of this transformative product.

 

One thing about which I had no doubt was the pot in which I was going to prepare this delicacy. I received two Cordon Bleu pots of incomparable quality as an inspired wedding present way back in 1970 from my beloved piano teacher, Mr. Borenstein, with whom I had spent most of my childhood and beyond. Like my memory of Morris and Emily Borenstein, these pots have stood the test of time. Morris' wife, Emily, the multitalented pianist, poet, teacher, and all-around genius mother of a good friend wrote the unforgettable note that accompanied them: "May your future be as bright and shiny as these pots."

 

Well, the 1970 pots are no longer so shiny, but they still work brilliantly and one of them just proved that it can still make a mean chocolat chaud worthy of all the hype on the box. It is so rich and delicious that I even I, chocolat-o-mâne that I am, cannot finish it in one sitting.

 

Mr. Borenstein died a few years ago at 91, his mind still sharp enough to be a master bridge player, and it is hard to believe that he is gone. He imprinted generations of pianists, four in my own family, with a lifelong love of music, and his spirit is always with me.

 

My 87-year-old mom and I talked to Emily a few times over email and on the phone from the nursing home where she moved once her own health problems became too severe to manage. We received word that she died last week, and my sister drove some distance to represent our family at the service in her honor.

 

Every time I spoke with her I reminded her about these pots which I will continue to cherish to the end of my own days. Maybe some day they will become a legacy for my musical son and daughter-in-law.

 

As for the "Couture Cocoa," I am looking forward to drinking the second half of it soon. To tell the truth, I can't remember what it tasted like when I first got it back in 1984, but even eight years after the fact, it remains intensely memorable.

 

Sometimes the expiration police are wrong.

 

*

 

Yes, cher Marcel, I am back again.

 

À propos of our mutual attraction to certain hot beverages, I am quite a tea fanatic. My kitchen shelves are full of all types, but because of my sensitivity to caffeine, herbal infusions work best for me. I see that one of my favorite companies, Mariage Frères was founded in 1854, so you could well have enjoyed one of their elegant brews, perhaps at the Ritz or the Crillon. But whenever I drink tea, I have two involuntary associations: One to my beloved Russian grandfather drinking his strong tea in a clear glass with perhaps a spoon-full of jam as sweetener; the other association is of course to you.

 

You may recall that I said earlier that I would be coming back to the chain of associations that this letter is evoking between you and my Duke professor, Wallace Fowlie. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been reading Benjamin Taylor’s The Search, which is part of Yale Press’s series on Jewish Lives. Some people might be surprised to find you under this rubric, but even though your father was Catholic, having had a Jewish mother, you are considered by Yale Press to have had a Jewish life.

 

I’m thinking about Fowlie’s attraction to you, and your mutual connections to Cocteau. I see that you were 18 years older than Cocteau, while Cocteau was 19 years older than Fowlie. I read in Benjamin Tayor’s book how hurt you were when you heard that your former love, young Lucien Daudet, son of writer Alphonse Daudet, had become involved with Cocteau. Even worse, Edmund White, in his biography of you (Marcel Proust: A Life) mentions that Lucien Daudet told Cocteau that you were “an atrocious insect.” You used to be welcome at the Daudets’ until they became aware of the infatuation between you and their son. White quotes Daudet Senior as saying, “Marcel Proust is the devil!” And that was even after you could have gotten yourself killed in a duel trying to defend the honor of Lucien, after a flamboyantly gay literary critic, Jean Lorrain, intimated that you and Lucien were having an affair. You surprised everyone by remaining calm and scheduling the duel for the afternoon when it would not interfere with your sleep.

 

In Fowlie’s first memoir, Journal of Rehearsals, he talks a bit about being like a star-struck fan when he met the older man-of-the-world, Cocteau. You and Fowlie both demonstrated discretion about your private life, and even the implications of the title of Fowlie’s memoir owes a debt to you. Fowlie always needed a period of retrospection to process what was happening in the moment. Impeccable preparation eased his anxiety. He told me he became a credentialed lay analyst “to be of greater help to his Bennington students,” but perhaps also to help himself come to terms with his own double identity and sexual preferences, of which it took me a long time to become aware. He was a godlike figure to us at Duke, where I had gone especially to study with him.

 

During the summer of 1969, after my first year at Duke, I was taking the course at NYU with Thomas Bishop that ended up providing me with my dissertation topic. One day after class, Bishop asked me about what it was like to work with Fowlie, adding with shocked bemusement that in Fowlie’s book about Cocteau, he failed to make any mention of Cocteau’s homosexuality, something Bishop considered a ridiculous lacuna. Even then, I did not understand the insinuations behind that remark. All my naïve self could say was, “well, Professor Fowlie may have some problems relating to women.”

 

Of course I considered myself an exception since he and my soon-to-be husband felt like privileged members of his inner circle. He used to come to our house for dinner at a time when Coq au Vin made with a secret ingredient or two--Lipton Onion Soup and Thunderbird wine--seemed like the height of culinary sophistication. This was also when gazpacho made what may have been its first appearance in Durham, North Carolina thanks to a “gourmet” recipe from the “TV Guide.” It was surprisingly good, and I still have my well-worn copy. When Fowlie had us to his Valley Terrace apartment, no madeleines were served, but his own self-prepared “company” dish featured shrimp and frozen peas over rice.

 

When I learned to make men’s ties, I of course made one for him. It was burgundy-colored with what I thought were subtle white flowers, and I was thrilled to see him wear it. He brought me a beautiful heavy silk scarf from his trip to Italy. I once played Debussy’s “La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin” for him, and during vacations, he used to send me letters signed “Michel,” a name he reserved for intimates. He sent a number of them while on car trips in his very basic, radio-free, black, “unsafe at any speed” Corvair. Not missing the entertainment or company a radio could provide, he prided himself on his unique method of passing the time on long trips. He had a special, long list of French poems that he would recite from memory. He could actually keep track of the time and miles by where he was in his recitations. Who needs a radio?

 

Closer to home, I’ll never forget the large Cocteau murals he had as one of the few adornments in his all-white, Spartan apartment. These were a gift from Cocteau into which he had incorporated Fowlie’s name and a personal message into the design of the artwork itself. That odd conversation with Thomas Bishop about what he considered Fowlie’s flawed book on Cocteau got me wondering more about what he was implying about the relationship between the two men. Now when I think back to Fowlie’s “Inferno” course, I remember Canto XV where Dante the Pilgrim recognizes as having been condemned to hell as a Sodomite the teacher he revered, Ser Brunetto Latini. I recall the deep poignancy with which Fowlie read the line, “Siete voi qui, Ser Brunetto?” “Are YOU here, Ser Brunettto?”

 

When I recently wrote a Junior Year Abroad friend, Martha Crockett Lancaster, who also ended up in Duke Graduate School, about our experience in Fowlie’s classes, she, who subsequently married a minister, had similar impressions about our teacher:

 

“I, too, always thought he was just a wonderful professor and, as you said, godlike. I never realized he was gay, but I was so naive back then that I’m sure a lot went over my head. It was a different time and place, and you mentioned that he was a very private person. We could use a bit more of that today, I think. I never went to his apartment, but sure wish I’d seen the Cocteau art. He always seemed to me a Catholic priest manqué—he just seemed to have that kind of personality and bearing. I know he came to Catholicism as an adult, so maybe if he had encountered it earlier, he would have been a priest. He was, however, like a high priest of literature to me. I still think of things I learned in his classes, and he opened new doors of understanding for me.”

 

Martha’s mention of doors takes me back to 1968, the year I, against my better judgment, ended up at a concert in the Eastman Theatre of some guy named Jim Morrison and The Doors. As a classically trained musician of narrow vision, I’d never heard of him, but my friend who had an extra ticket insisted that I should not pass up a chance to hear Morrison. I’d never heard of the opening act, either: a little-known group called Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Ponies. I see now that 1968 was also the year that Fowlie received a letter from Jim Morrison, thanking him for having translated Rimbaud’s poems, which Morrison said were important to him. But it was not until 1980 that Fowlie, thanks to a student who gave him Morrison’s biography, realized who Morrison was. Once he noticed the parallels between Morrison and Rimbaud, he wrote the book Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet. We lifelong teachers are constantly learning things from our students, and I am sure that as an octogenarian, Fowlie got great satisfaction from this opportunity to branch out into such a “with-it” area of popular culture. As for my dip into popular culture and The Doors, my own ears are still ringing from the decibel level of that concert.

 

One day, toward the end of our Proust class, Fowlie described an interaction he had had with a gentleman who seemed to know a lot about your own reclusive habits, Marcel. They talked for a while, and during the course of the conversation, Fowlie brought up the name of your Swedish manservant, Ernest Forssgren. The dramatic, perfectly timed punch line of that memorable Fowlie lecture came when Fowlie quoted that man’s revelation: “But monsieur, I am Ernest.”

 

When I think about you and Fowlie, despite his devotion to you, I see a study in contrasting personal habits. I saw a painting by an unknown artist of you writing in bed in your night cap, tucked under voluminous covers, a bedside table and mantelpiece groaning under the weight of what look like tons of perilously balanced sheets of paper. That made some sense of biographer Benjamin Taylor’s recounting of how you “managed to lose, somewhere” in your “anarchic bedroom,” the page proofs of Ruskin’s La Bible d’Amiens that you and your mother had been translating. In despair you “forsook the Ruskin project” on which you had spent four years. “The proofs had to be somewhere in that mess. Instead of looking harder,” you left on vacation. That was probably for the best, since your enslavement to Ruskin delayed your doing your own work. In contrast, it is hard to imagine anything getting lost in Fowlie’s stark, white, orderly apartment.

 

Here comes a newsflash I just stumbled on. Since this is a book about and composed of letters, you may want to know that your 14-year-old great-grand-niece (who has yet to read your novel) sold, through Sotheby’s, 120 items from your personal archive. That included intimate correspondence between you and Reynaldo Hahn, and Lucien Daudet in which The Telegraph tells us that you “lay your heart bare.” According to The London Times the sale raised 1.2 million pounds at auction, double the estimate. You may be relieved to know that the diary of composer Reynaldo Hahn, your most loyal friend and lover, a document that writer Benjamin Taylor refers to as “the holy grail’ of your biographers, will be sealed until 2036.

 

So you see, you have lost none of your allure, and you keep appearing on my traffic pattern in unexpected ways. My next-door neighbor in New Haven, the formidable Catherine Coffin (1892-1982), was a passionate Francophile who ran a literary salon and had a house full of books personally inscribed to her by practically every major author of her time. Thornton Wilder had been her friend and neighbor, and according to another of my neighbors, the eminent critic Harold Bloom, Thornton Wilder owes a lot to you: “...in fact, without being aware of it and though Wilder is a writer of real originality, he has, in a sense, been a popularizer of Proust.” In his The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder is said to have drawn on the letters between Mme. De Sevigné and her daughter, whose passionate devotion to each other recalls that of you and your beloved mother, Jeanne. During a visit to Mrs. Coffin’s house, I happened to notice a book of Wallace Fowlie’s that contained a loving inscription to her. What are the chances of my living next door to someone who had a lifelong friendship with someone who had figured so largely in my intellectual life? Mrs. Coffin lived to be 90, and one of the most eloquent speakers at her funeral on the Yale campus was Wallace Fowlie. For him, this was a return to the campus where he had taught between 1940 and 1945.

 

On the subject of your ongoing cachet, the latest “New Yorker” magazine has an article that might please you: “How the Proust Questionnaire Became a Prestigious Personality Quiz.” I first found out about your questionnaire when I saw it being answered by the author on whom I ended up writing my dissertation, André Pieyre de Mandiargues. You’ll be hearing more about that soon. In the meantime, although there is no end to all the things I want to say to you, this letter is at risk of swelling to the proportions of your own Recherche. It is probably time to say “au revoir” but certainly not “adieu.”  

....
Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.

 


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