When a new novel appears these days, it is the practice of publishers to include a biographical blurb on the jacket noting that the author, in addition to his literary accomplishments, plays golf, fishes, skis, raises retrievers, hunts with bow and arrow, canoes, camps, hikes or, if nothing else, at least played sandlot baseball as a boy.
There was a time when an author was not supposed to do anything. That was the whole point of being a man of letters. Anatole France, who spent eight years as a librarian without ever cataloging a book, epitomized the true literary spirit: he merely stood around in salons being lionized. But even back then, at the end of the 19th century, the most unlikely novelists were getting mixed up in sport. One notable example is Marcel Proust.
Proust lived within a few blocks of the Jockey Club of Paris, the most elegant collection of snobs in the history of horse racing. It was impossible to pass by the clubhouse on the rue Scribe, facing the Opera, and not be fascinated, and Proust clearly was. Most of the aristocrats in Remembrance of Things Past, his enormous and celebrated novel, are members of the club or candidates for admission. Only his intellectuals do not fit into this background.
The Jockey Club had a row of 22 high windows along the street, illuminating three gambling salons, the cardroom (where one night a member lost $300,000 in pre-World War I money) and the lounge, where the really heavy betting took place. There was a register of bets in the club so the members would not forget what they had been arguing about, be it wars or weddings. Or, infrequently, horses.
During the morning, the club was deserted, but by three o'clock the members began arriving, making their way up the white stone staircase, past a row of uniformed footmen. These aristocrats were elegantly dressed, conscious of their great names and great fortunes, the occupants of the first boxes in the theaters, the possessors of the finest carriages in the city and the most expensive mistresses. An after-theater supper was served at 12:30. By that time the roulette wheels in the gaming rooms were busy. It was commonplace for players to win or lose $25,000 in a night. Around three in the morning members began drifting away, and about five a.m. the high-stake whist players dealt their last hand, the winners leaving a bill on the table, sometimes a thousand-franc note ($200), for the employees.
Nowadays if people read of the Jockey Club at all, it is in Proust. Ironically, these lofty sportsmen have been immortalized by someone who would surely have been blackballed had he tried to join their club. For a decade Proust worked on his book in his second-floor apartment on the boulevard Haussmann, just up the street from the club. He generally wrote at night, getting to bed about eight in the morning. He worked in his bedroom, which he had soundproofed with cork walls to keep out distractions, and he was often so ill he wrote in bed. He suffered from asthma, hay fever, insomnia, chills, fever, allergies, constipation, bronchitis, uremia and eventually from pneumonia, which would kill him at the age of 51. He treated himself with drugs—amyl, Trional, Veronal and Adrenalin—with inhalants and fumigants and, for one short spell, with ice cream and cold beer delivered morning and evening from the Hotel Ritz. He was slight, very pale and had eyes so large he would have seemed ghostly were it not for his animation. Just the sort of person who did not belong in the Jockey Club. There were about a thousand members, most of whom were inactive. Only 250 or so gathered regularly and made it the most fashionable club in the world. Five European kings belonged, the high nobility, bankers like the Rothschilds and a few horsemen who dated from the time the club had been primarily concerned with racing.
If Proust had appeared among those aristocrats in the heavy overcoat he wore indoors, he would have been regarded as an apparition. Nor was ill health his only handicap. Proust's friend Elisabeth, Marquise de Clermont-Tonnerre, whose relatives belonged to the Jockey Club, put it succinctly. "The horsemen," she said, "were contemptuous of intellectuals." But if Proust could not join them, he made them folk heroes in the form of characters in his novel.
A modest tourist business has grown up in France, catering to pilgrims who want to see where Proust lived, where he fought a duel, where he walked and exchanged confidences with Elisabeth, Comtesse de Greffuhle, the most popular society beauty of her time. The building that housed the Jockey Club looks much the same. And 65 miles outside of Paris is Illiers, where Proust spent the summers of his boyhood. The pilgrims carry blue volumes of Remembrance of Things Past and retrace his steps along the paths he called Swann's Way and Guermantes Way. A kind of small sponge cake called a madeleine, traditional in Illiers, plays a part in the novel, and the enterprising bakers of the town now produce the cakes for tourist trade. Though they are rather tasteless, Proust expert George Painter reports that the pilgrims have a "mysterious enthusiasm" for the cakes. Having spent 18 years producing a minutely detailed 800-page biography, Painter knows more about his subject than you or I would like our family doctor to know about us.
He has poked through the interminable books on every aspect of Proust's life. There are index guides to the characters in Remembrance of Things Past, studies of the role of dreams in the novel, of Proust's treatment of the theater and modern painting, Proust and science, Proust and the Oedipus complex, Proust and the movies, and numerous essays on Proust's sex life. There are works on Proust and music, on Proust's housekeepers and on Proust's philosophy, even a study of Proust and the Hotel Ritz. But there is no study of Proust and sport.
There was something unsettled in Proust's own attitude toward sport, in spite of its place in his novels. It is as though the writer himself were uncertain as to how much sport meant to him or as though athletic embarrassments in his life confused his memory—a condition fairly common among literary men.