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Robert Cantwell
December 17, 1973
Stitched unobtrusively through the rich fabric of Marcel Proust's writing is a quiet exuberance for sport, for gentle pastimes he enjoyed himself and for the harsh brilliance of Jockey Club society that he portrayed in 'Remembrance of Things Past'
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December 17, 1973

Bright Threads In His Tapestry

Stitched unobtrusively through the rich fabric of Marcel Proust's writing is a quiet exuberance for sport, for gentle pastimes he enjoyed himself and for the harsh brilliance of Jockey Club society that he portrayed in 'Remembrance of Things Past'

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Among the friends he cultivated were the women who frequented the local tracks, setting fashion styles. Horse racing in France had not enjoyed the glamour and prestige that it had in England. The Jockey Club itself, founded in 1834, grew out of a rowdy pigeon shoot operated by an expatriate Englishman who gathered together some Paris sportsmen eager to improve their marksmanship and drink in the low-life caf�s nearby. But by the time of Proust the Jockey Club had long since lived down its dubious beginnings. Longchamp had been built, and it was attracting the aristocracy. Yet it caused something of a scandal when Laure, Comtesse de Chevign�, appeared at the course in a mannish attire. She hardly looked a renegade—she was a tall, austere woman with gray eyes, a short straight mouth, a Roman nose and a composed expression in keeping with her social position. One of Proust's school friends wrote that Proust had only two ambitions in life: to be elected to the Jockey Club and to win the affection of the Comtesse de Chevign�. The friend was wrong about the Jockey Club. Proust considered its members the true illiterates of the modern world. However unsparing with high society Proust might be, it is true that he wrote of the Comtesse de Chevign� like an enraptured schoolboy. He compared her to a Greek goddess and hung around the corner near her home, waiting for her to pass. After her initial annoyance and Proust's ardor had noticeably waned, the Comtesse began to invite his presence. Proust became part of the horsey set she entertained, and they remained on friendly terms for years.

Another friend was the Comtesse Emmanuela Potocka, who raised greyhounds, and still another the Duchess Anne d'Uz�s, the dumpy granddaughter of the champagne maker Veuve Clicquot, a vigorous woman who decorated her hunting lodge with the antlers of some 2,000 stags she had killed. She was also a horsewoman, sailed her own yacht and in 1897 became the first woman in France to get an automobile driving license, this at a time when there were only 1,438 automobiles in the country.

But the most remarkable of the society women Proust knew was Elisabeth, Comtesse de Greffuhle. Her father-in-law was a founder of the Jockey Club. Her husband was a bluff, blond-bearded outdoorsman, a fox hunter, grouse shooter, big-game hunter, yachtsman and notorious "collector of racehorses and beautiful mistresses." Proust met the Comtesse first at a party when he was 23. "It is difficult to judge her," he wrote, "because judgment involves comparison and there is about her something that one could find in no one else, or, indeed, anywhere at all. But the secret of her beauty lies in its brilliance, and especially in the enigmatic quality of her eyes. I have never seen so lovely a woman...." The Comtesse was then 34, the mother of a 12-year-old daughter and at the height of her extraordinary charm and social preeminence. It was not out of the ordinary for her to have as guests at small dinners at her home King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra of England. She was a benefactress of artists and musicians, helping along such people as Caruso and Debussy in their early days, and she was a tireless promoter of French artists—Manet, Renoir and even the young Picasso. Proust could hardly have been included as a promising writer because nothing he had published gave any indication of genius. One wonders at the puzzling relationship of this brilliant but obscure student and the woman who was known as "the last queen of France."

The Olympic Games were organized in Paris in 1894, the same year Proust met the Comtesse; motor racing began in France that year; bicycling was to become the rage. European sportsmen organized the Union Cycliste Internationale in 1900 and the first Tour de France (1,510 miles in 19 days) was staged a few years later. Proust was in society, but it was a specialized, narrow sporting side of society. Elisabeth, Marquise de Clermont-Tonnerre, felt a little sorry for him amid all the athletic enthusiasm because of his obvious frail health. Proust was constantly surrounded by a group of young social lions, vigoureux, sportifs et frivoles, who looked as though they could devour him.

One of the places favored by Proust pilgrims is Cabourg, a seaside resort on the English Channel just south of Deauville and only 35 miles from Omaha Beach. It is now a museum piece among French resorts. Started in 1853 as a real-estate promotion, occupying a small flatland between the rough hills and the cliffs along the coast, Cabourg was built around the municipally owned Grand Hotel and the white Casino beside it. Small, tidy old-fashioned villas crowded one another along the beach and through the narrow streets leading to the shore. Unlike Deauville or the resorts in the South of France, Cabourg did not share in the post-war expansion; there was no place for it to grow. As a result it remains pleasant and quiet, with a permanent population of 3,000 (12,000 in summer), now largely given over to families with small children rather than the world of society but still retaining an air of undemanding elegance, a sort of diminutive grandeur.

Proust usually spent the summers in Cabourg, living at the Grand Hotel. Less lively than Deauville, the town was favored by invalids and elderly aristocrats, and while there are many references to exiled royalty, celebrities and eccentrics staying at the Grand Hotel, it is now impossible to determine who was there when Proust was a guest. The registers disappeared two years ago. Anyway, readers of Remembrance of Things Past feel at home. Everything is as Proust described it. Or almost everything. The brick walk that runs past the Grand Hotel and along a line of villas to the lifeguard station is now named Promenade Marcel Proust. Any employee of the hotel can point out the spot where Marcel first saw Albertine, walking toward him pushing her bicycle, a polo cap pulled sideways over her head. The Grand Hotel, a five-story, 200-room white, red-trimmed structure (rate: "120 francs single, with sumptuous bath"), is itself a beautiful period piece, surviving its modernization with its pre-World War I atmosphere intact.

The country between Cabourg and Deauville was covered with thickets of underbrush and dense growths of small trees and laced with paths and narrow roads that led to inland villas and country villages. How much Proust hiked and bicycled along the cliffs and through the woods is unclear, but his enthusiasm for the outdoors is not. Henry Thoreau's Walden had never been translated into French, and once, at Cabourg, Proust decided to translate that work, with its powerful message: "We can never have enough of nature.... Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground." That was the mood of Within a Budding Grove, whose hero watches the gentle flight of the sea martins along the beach at twilight or listens to the countless birds taking up one another's song in the trees around him. On at least one occasion Proust appeared unannounced at the summer home of a friend, dusty and tired but proud of having managed to walk 11 miles on a hot afternoon—hardly the hike of an invalid.

"Now I was keenly interested in golf and tennis," he wrote. His friends were surprised when he attended the polo games at Deauville. He began to be noticed at the racetrack there. A summer refuge for the Paris sporting set, the Deauville track was as fashionable as Longchamp. It was the creation of Jimmy Le Marois, an engaging sportsman-promoter who built tracks along with the Comtesse de Greffuhle's father-in-law. Le Marois lured prominent owners to Deauville, among them James Hennessy, of the cognac-making family, and Jacques de Bremond, a Jockey Club member and a gambler whose Holocauste would have won the Derby at Epsom Downs had the horse not broken his leg just before the finish. Proust remembered the spectacle at Deauville, the women exquisitely dressed, arriving in carriages or standing with glasses to their eyes. In Paris the bookies operated out of sordid caf�s on the rue du 4 Septembre, where women could not go, but at Deauville they followed the practice at English courses, shouting the odds for all to hear—"glorious and vulgar," said a society lady, "with the bowler hat over the ear."

Proust bet on the races—and lost. In Cabourg he played baccarat at the Casino—and lost. He was seen on the golf course, and if he played, he must have lost because he toured the course wearing a long velvet cloak. He was in love. To a friend he hinted that he planned to marry, but he wondered if it would be criminal of him to make a charming girl share a life as ghastly as his own "even if she isn't frightened of it." Perhaps his confidant told him that he would indeed make a disagreeable husband for there seems to be no further mention of the girl in Proust's correspondence and, in fact, no one knows her name. Proust was never to marry. And, alas, he never translated Thoreau. Proust's friend Prince Edmond de Polignac had married an extremely wealthy American girl, Winnaretta Singer, daughter of the inventor of the sewing machine. The prince was a composer whose family wealth had vanished in his advanced years. Winnaretta was a plain, quiet girl, much younger than her husband, and ill at ease among the glamorous and sophisticated women around her. She had no social ambitions, preferring to stay home at night and read Mark Twain aloud to the prince. Proust had the common literary failing of putting off things he intended to do, especially if they required work, and while he was still thinking about translating Walden he happened to meet Winnaretta and learned that she had already translated the book, which was enough to make him give up the project.

Proust's first work appeared when he was 25. Pleasures and Days was a miscellany of sketches, poems and stories, mannered and imitative, carrying an unenthusiastic two-page introduction by Anatole France. Aside from some Thoreau-like evocations of the woods and the seashore and some Thoreau-like aphorisms—"Ambition intoxicates more surely than does fame; desire puts forth blossoms which possession withers"—Pleasures and Days was without distinction, but it was not bad enough to be slighted to the degree it was. Early in 1897 a wave of anti-Semitic hysteria was building up over the Dreyfus affair, and Proust was attacked by a literary gossip columnist, Jean Lorrain, in two articles. The first reflected on the manhood of anyone writing so affected and precious a book. Nothing came of that, so Lorrain came back with an insulting comment which implied that Proust was homosexual. Proust immediately challenged him to a duel. It was fought with pistols in the woods outside Paris, each party firing two shots at a distance of 75 feet.

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