Marcel Proust, an American idol: on the side of home

When Marilyn Monroe died, her personal library had just over 400 books. There were counted five of the seven volumes ofIn Search of Lost Time. The dog-eared pages and threadbare binding of the copies fuel the image of the actress curled up in an armchair, reading and re-reading certain passages. Did she identify with a character, did she find in the twists and turns of thoughts of Proust a little sense to his own torments?

One wonders if she leaned more towards the side of Méséglise (that of Swann) than that of Guermantes –the two paths that can be taken for walking from Combray, “Proust’s metaphor for these possibilities and diversities of life” in the words of director William Friedkin. Between Proust and America a strange idyll has been forged. The French writer has never been to the other side of the Atlantic (the idea of ​​traveling caused deep anguish in the ailing author), but he is omnipresent there. And America has seemingly infused its work.

“It’s curious, he confided in 1910, there is no literature that has a power over me comparable to English and American literature. Germany, Italy, very often France leave me indifferent. Already, since the Paris of his childhood, the New World intrigues him. No doubt, during his daily walks in Parc Monceaulittle Marcel observed in the distance the monumental head and the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty by the sculptor Bartholdi, before leaving for America.

Cocktail, lunch and Kodak: America between the lines

At the beginning of XXe century, Parisian society adopted cocktails, jazz, even the “lunch” introduced by the hundreds eccentric and wealthy Americans whose dowry came to replenish the family coffers of the French nobility. Not without some tugging, explains Eric Karpeleswho devoted a book to the paintings in the work of Proust.

The conflicted feelings of the French vis-à-vis this seductive intrusion are reflected in the latter’s writings. Karpeles sifts through The research… and observe that “American rubber boots and revolving doors [semblent] incite a kind of xenophobic anxiety in Marcel”as the Albertine’s American pianola or the precious photo of his grandmother taken at Kodak by Robert de Saint-Loup, which fuels his feeling of guilt.

We also find a wink at Edgar Poe (these invisible and yet prominently placed objects on the fireplace, as in The stolen letter published in 1844) or many references to the painter James McNeill Whistler, who is said to have inspired the character of Elstir. America thus invited itself, implicitly, into his work. In turn, it is Proust who will soon influence America.

Immortalized by Man Ray

The New World, its nomadic people and rooted in a culture oriented towards action, has become infatuated with a literary work devoted to memory, all in introspection: isn’t that a contradiction? “Vast misunderstanding!”warns Ioanna Kohler. According to the Director of Social Policy Programs at the French-American FoundationI’“American cultural space vibrates with a very Proustian effervescence”and it’s not a passing fad: love at first sight would have taken place more than a century ago, during the author’s lifetime – who died in 1922.

“Proust was known and recognized very early on by the intellectual community, American scholar and artist. Ambassadors like Henry James or Edith Wharton have helped spread his work in the United States.” In 1924, the author of time of innocence (Pulitzer Prize in 1921) already dedicated an essay to him, while all the books published at that date had not yet been translated into English.

The Kolb-Proust archives, the second largest collection of archives devoted to Proust, are kept at the University of Illinois.


When Marcel Proust, asthmatic, succumbed to poorly treated bronchitis which turned into pneumonia, the American photographer Man Ray rushes – it was Jean Cocteau who suggested it to him – for the photograph on his deathbed. the scandal provoked by obtaining the Goncourt Prize in 1919 for In the shade of the maidens in bloom already seems far away. Proust will soon be considered out of fashion.

Marcel Proust: I, Lolita

The publication of the last three volumes of The research will be posthumous: The Prisoner in 1923, Albertine missing in 1925 and, two years later, Recovered time. Proust, associated with a “fin de siècle” literary production, soon begins, in France, a crossing of the desert. Historian of literature, Antoine Compagnon evokes “a little purgatory” for the work of Proust “in the 1930s at the time of surrealism, the engagement with the novels of Céline, Malraux and Sartre. This dip continued until the mid-1950s.

Meanwhile, in the United States, he continues to chart his course. In 1935, his niece Suzy Mante-Proust entrusted an American student, Philip Kolb, with her uncle’s correspondence. The colossal doctoral thesis of the young researcher will include some 5,000 letters that he will have spent years sorting, classifying and translating. The Kolb-Proust archives, second largest collection of archives devoted to Proust in the world, are kept at the University of Illinois.

Jack Kerouac considers his novel to be a condensed version of “In Search of Lost Time”.


After the war, says Ioanna Kohler, the French author became essential across the Atlantic, “one of the mainstays of comparative literature courses on American campuses, typically devoted to the “great novels of the XXe century” or to the “genealogy of modernity””, and often dispensed “by outstanding teacherseager to convey their fascination for Proustian prose. This is notably the case of Vladimir Nabokov, known for his “ticking time bomb novel” lolita (1955).

“To do like Proust, but faster”a young man locked himself in a New York studio and doped coffee to write, in 1951, the future manifesto (finally published in 1957) of the Beat Generation: On the road. Jack Kerouac regards his novel as a condensed version ofIn Search of Lost Time. Feather parentage? The year 2022 not only marks the centenary of Proust’s death, but also that of the birth of Kerouac.

The race of “aunts”, of “inverts”

“The truth about Proust cannot be said without scandal”assured Jean Cocteau.

In the 1960s, “gender studies” and “gay studies” developed widely. Proust’s work finds all legitimacy there. Himself homosexual and of Jewish origin by his mother, although baptized and raised Catholic, would never have “of its hero and narrator a Jew or an invert”according to Antoine Compagnon, author of Proust on the Jewish side. Through the gay character of Baron de Charlus, inspired in Proust by Robert de Montesquiou, he defends “the accursed race of Jews and homosexuals”of “the race of aunts” on his terms.

I happened to say that for a long time it was read, although he was Jewish and homosexual, and then there came a period, from the 1970s and 1980s, when, on the contrary, there was a lot of interest in this work, because ‘it was that of a Jew and a homosexual’notes Antoine Compagnon.

But the name of Marcel Proust will also spread, far from the university benches, through unexpected means. So many crooked paths punctuated with possibilities that would no doubt have received his approval.

In our second part, “Marcel Proust, an American Idol: Go Big or Go Home!”Proust meets Warhol and takes tea with the Sopranos.

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Marcel Proust, an American idol: on the side of home