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One of Proust's seconds was Gustave de Borda, a respected sportsman. He was a war hero, one of the few people to come out of the Franco-Prussian War with a good reputation, and he was a masterly fencer. He was also a good-natured individual, easily amused, scrupulously fair, known as the most dangerous—and courteous—of opponents. In his early days he had to fight a good many duels with people who challenged his reputation. He was now old and often called upon to act as a second because of his profound knowledge of the field of honor. Perhaps because Borda appeared on Proust's side, the duel was front-page news in Le Figaro the next day. Proust conducted himself bravely, both parties missed with both shots and honor was satisfied. Borda retired after the encounter and never again served as second.
Though Proust was the target of Lorrain's direct verbal attack, his book actually was not the source of the trouble. The columnist was exchanging insults with Comte Robert de Montesquiou, and Proust, as one of the Comte's prot�g�s, happened to be in the way. Montesquiou belonged to the Jockey Club, as did five other members of his family. He was a descendant of D'Artagnan and related by marriage to half a dozen princely houses of Europe, a poet of limited ability and colossal vanity who was determined to be the literary arbiter of France. Montesquiou consciously cultivated an exaggerated hauteur and prided himself on his studied insults and his mastery of, as the painter James Whistler put it, the gentle art of making enemies.
His social position gave him entr�e into fashionable homes, but he was a dangerous guest, partly because of his ridiculous habit of reciting his poems and partly because his insolence and uncontrollable temper often caused strident outbursts against people he considered his inferiors, including those present. The magnificent portrait that Whistler painted of Montesquiou, now in the Frick Collection in New York, is a classic, picturing him as he wanted to be known, lean, handsome, arrogant, Mephistophelian, a born killer. But Whistler's likeness is shallow compared to the literary portrait that Proust drew of Montesquiou in Remembrance of Things Past. In the novel he is called the Baron de Charlus and is a monstrous tragi-comic villain with insane wit and lethal friendliness, at once dangerous and pathetic, a symbol of an aristocracy bent on destroying itself.
Why Proust put up with this megalomaniac has puzzled his many biographers. Professor Harry Levin of Harvard, one of the most perceptive of Proust's critics, believes that even in his early years Proust was consciously gathering material for his novel and studied Montesquiou as a particularly striking specimen of high society. George Painter thinks that Proust cultivated Montesquiou at least in part to get into the circle of the Comtesse de Greffuhle, who was Montesquiou's cousin.
As tensions over the Dreyfus affair continued to mount, Proust turned away from the more flamboyant aristocracy. He was raised as a Catholic, as was his father, but his mother's family was Jewish, and while most of the French upper-class was anti-Dreyfus, Proust ranged himself with the intellectuals who demanded Dreyfus' release from Devil's Island. That cost Proust his place in society during the tense weeks when the country was on the verge of civil war. But there were exceptions to the anti-Dreyfus, anti-Semitic hysteria even among the aristocracy. The Comtesse de Greffuhle was a notable one. She wrote to her friend, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and asked him to tell her once and for all whether or not Captain Dreyfus was a German spy. (He sent her a basket of orchids but no written reply.) Proust would return to a limited social life among more intellectual salons, but the intoxication he had known was gone, and with it his love of the brilliant spectacles and the studied glamour of society.
What did he have left? He worked for a long while on an autobiographical novel but set it aside unfinished. He devoted years to translating Ruskin's work on the French cathedral at Amiens, the apotheosis of estheticism, every page of which makes a reader long for the fresh air of Thoreau's prose. When Proust began writing Remembrance of Things Past he had no idea of the way the book would monopolize his time, for he often broke off work to take automobile trips—motoring was the only recreation that possessed him in the way polo or steeplechasing possessed his friends. But by 1909 the book had taken over. He locked himself in his cork-lined room, re-creating a world that became more real than the life he had left.
The opening pages of Remembrance of Things Past have probably discouraged more people from reading a masterpiece than any other prose in literature. Proust's worst enemy could not have written anything more calculated to keep people from going on with the story. The first 62 pages are an interminable reverie in which the sleepless narrator recalls his childhood and his early impression of some of the people who are to become major characters in the later volumes. Nothing happens; there are superb evocations of the anxieties of childhood, the fear of darkness, the love of parents, the familiar walks and gardens of the town, but they are described with a sort of slow-motion intoxication, a suspended rapture that moves, if at all, with the speed of a glacier. "I don't understand why a man should take 30 pages to describe how he rolls about in bed before going to sleep," said one editor in rejecting the book.
The memories of childhood dissolve into the story of Charles Swann, a neighbor and friend of the family, a cultivated man-about-town, a member of the Jockey Club, a friend of the Prince of Wales, who married Odette, his former mistress, because of his attachment to their daughter Gilberte. Adult knowledge and childhood impressions are confusedly intermingled: there are memories of Marcel carrying home the fish he has caught, in a basket lined with leaves to keep them fresh, and of his first encounter with Gilberte, a black-eyed, freckle-faced, redheaded little girl, who had left her fishing pole on the bank of a pond and gone off. Marcel, seeing the cork float bobbing agitatedly on the surface, wants to tell her that she has a fish on the hook but is too shy to do so. But these scenes alternate with matters that a child could not possibly know about—the distress of Swann, for instance, when he is humiliated and finally dropped by Odette's friends, whose circle he had joined. They rebuff Swann in order to encourage Odette in her affairs with other men.
Proust believed that our voluntary memories are always false. If we try consciously to remember some event with names and dates and places, we instinctively pick and choose among details according to our present wishes, suppressing some or heightening others according to how we feel. It is only when memory is involuntary that it is true—when we are suddenly reminded of something by a scent, a taste, a strain of music, something that summons up the scene, only then does the original freshness and color of the instant reappear, undistorted by our practical needs or concerns or our shame or pride. At such moments the mind really conquers the past, conquers time, for during them we relive something that has happened before much as we experience what is going on around us. The reflections of Marcel in the novel hover between different kinds of reality; Swann's anguish gives way to memories of childhood games with Gilberte, now a teen-age tomboy in a Paris park, and these in turn to pictures of Odette in society, walking by the Are de Triomphe, cool and unhurried, in a costume never the same, escorted by half a dozen men from the Jockey Club, a gray and black gathering of puppetlike figures whose mechanical and lifeless gestures made her seem, however frail, fearless and of almost military strength, a match for her multiple escort.
The sporting images are rare in Swann's Way. It is otherwise in Within a Budding Grove, the two volumes that follow, for here the memories are of an outdoor world, a sunlit beach, carefree days, recollections of magical moments of horseback riding through silent woods, of boats under sail, a world so suffused with a sense of enjoyment and happiness that sport becomes central to the story. At the beginning of this part of Remembrance of Things Past Marcel is recovering from a serious illness and had been ordered to the seacoast for his health. He gradually becomes aware of a little band of athletic girls passing on the walk before his hotel, leading lives of incessant activity, and thinks of them as classic sculptures with "fine bodies, fine hips, healthy and tranquil features, and an air of agility and guile." Their talk is of automobiles, bicycle tours, horses, polo and sports clothes—"Imagine playing golf in a silk dress!"