There is a scene in Marcel Proust’s Time Regained (1927) when, looking for some repose during an evening stroll, the narrator, Marcel, ducks into a hotel. Unbeknownst to him, the establishment is actually a gay brothel. After he has been given a room in which to rest, he wanders the halls. Through a small window into another room, he, by chance, sees his friend the Baron de Charlus chained to a bed, ‘like Prometheus to his rock’, being whipped. The Mysterious Correspondent (2019), a new collection of never-before published stories, fragments and sketches, in mostly incomplete state, has something of the same feeling. (Published this fall by Editions de Fallois in France as Le Mystérieux correspondant et autres nouvelles inédites, an English edition has yet to be announced.) In this case, we are the ones peeping through an uncurtained oculus to find the writer at his most vulnerable: at work. Much like Marcel’s discovery in the novel leads the narrator to understand something about the private life of his friend, our discovery of Proust’s unpublished early sketches gives us a rare insight into his development. These fragments not only spotlight an early phase in Proust’s first attempts to address sexuality in his work, but also evince the collage of styles that Proust would employ throughout his later work.
Immediately, the most remarkable thing about The Mysterious Correspondent is the way it deals directly with gay and lesbian characters. It might seem an odd remark for an author who titled one volume of his major novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–27), Sodom and Gomorrah (1921–22). But a few of these stories are narrated in the first person, from the perspectives of the gay characters themselves. Even throughout In Search, the narrator’s observations about gay desire are removed, observed in the actions of others, not in those of the narrator. Here, in these early unpublished pieces, the stories provide a rare intimacy into the development of one of Proust’s major themes – the psychological effects of the complexities of human sexuality.
All the material in The Mysterious Correspondent dates from the 1890s, when Proust was in his 20s. Similar to his other work from this decade, such as Pleasures and Days (1896), the texts here stylistically vary: monologues of men, haunting scenes of past love, meditations on music, dialogues and psychological portraits worthy of Henry James. In fact, it’s all the elements that will make up his mature prose, only in fragments. In these drafts, we see Proust collaging a variety of sensibilities and themes – including one of the more amusing, a quasi-philosophic dialogue titled ‘In Hell’, in which a group of shades discusses homosexuality (‘it is only a far richer flourishing of friendship’, one of them says, ‘the laughing coronation of our tender fidelities and virile ejaculations’). At points throughout, too, Proust achieves the same poetic depth of observation as the later work: ‘The face of our souls changes as often as that of the sky,’ he writes in the titular story. ‘Our poor lives float helplessly between currents of voluptuousness, where they dare not stay, and the port of virtue to which they do not have the strength to reach.’ All of the materials here are left in their unfinished state, some pieces ending mid-sentence, with annotations throughout, and an introduction for bibliographical and biographical context (the collection also ends with a section that connects biographical sources to In Search of Lost Time). In its current form, it will thus interest mostly specialists and heartthrob devotees, although I could imagine an expanded version of Pleasures and Days, including this material, for general readers.
Why are these fragments appearing now? The central story of the collection has been known since the 1950s, when the late editor and scholar Bernard de Fallois located in Proust’s archives two previously unknown manuscripts, Jean Santeuil and Against Sainte-Beuve (published in 1952 and 1954, respectively), as well as discovering The Mysterious Correspondent. At the time, the publication of Jean Santeuil and Against Sainte-Beuve offered a bridge between the early and the late Proust, providing us with an understanding of how the author’s method developed, yet The Mysterious Correspondent remained unpublished until this year. Its appearance occurs months after de Fallois’s own posthumous Proust Before Proust: Essay on Pleasures and Days, an unedited essay from the mid-1950s in which de Fallois explored the importance of the early Proust and included references to The Mysterious Correspondent. Whatever the reason, it seems that this new volume, and the preceding critical essay, are indications of a new weather pattern advocating for a reconsideration of Proust’s early work, which had been largely ignored.
Aside from the crucial ways in which Proust addresses sexuality here, this collection further reminded me of the way that his work from the 1890s, often dismissed simply as pastiche, highlights the core of his aesthetic: a collagist poet’s sensibility. Indeed, as Donatien Grau remarked, ‘Proust, we must not forget, began as a poet, or at least with a poetic relationship to the real…In a way, he conceived of prose as a poet does.’ The collection illuminates how Proust in his prose attempted to unify a variety of different stylistic influences. In his mature work, he had found a way to fuse those influences into one consistent narrative voice, giving his prose the breadth and scope of poetry, a key connection between this work and In Search of Lost Time.
Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (2008) and Jeff Wall: North & West (2016). His writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, Artforum and The White Review, among others.