Reading Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s Madame Proust, one realizes that Marcel’s childhood in Combray has a lot less to do with Illiers than with Auteuil. Illiers was the home town of Adrien Proust, the father of the author. Proust’s mother belonged to a large Parisian, Jewish family. Her uncle, Louis Weil, owned a large “country” house in what is now the rather staid and dull 16th arrondissement. He built a wing onto the house to provide summer accommodations to his favorite niece and her family.

Read a few of the descriptions of summer life in Auteuil and see how many appear in Combray:

Jeanne had a small, wrought-iron bed placed in his room that he could use when it was too hot to sleep in the big bed. “The flame of the night-light of Bohemian glass, in the shape of an urn, which hung from the ceiling by little chains” looked like a sacred object from the synagogue, transformed into an everyday accessory…

The new cook was busy. Would he last long? Auguste served as coachman, butler, and valet for Uncle Louis: his wife did the laundry, and their daughter helped with the cleaning. Jealous of his territory, this very devoted servant could not stand having any other domestics in the house. Yet they needed a cook. Auguste arranged things so that none of them lasted very long. Uncle Louis was taken in, but not Jeanne: she finally figured out the mystery of the cooks who served lukewarm leg of lamb and curdled or over-salted gravies. Auguste held back the dishes on purpose, or salted them secretly.

The teasing wasn’t cruel, and Adèle put up with it, though with a touch of sadness. Who knows if the needling hurt her feelings or not? It certainly shocked Marcel, who adored his grandmother. As in every family, each member was expected to play his or her role. Adèle was the expert on hygiene and health. She believed only in the benefits of nature, and in any kind of weather she roamed the garden paths, disturbed by the lack of taste shown by Gaillard, the new gardener, who wanted to align everything symmetrically and lacked, according to her, all feeling for nature…

The conversation died down. Only an occasional remark to no one in particular broke the heavy silence that followed summertime meals. The sweet peas close to the doorway looked pale in the midday sun. Around the pond, the pink blossom of the hawthorn was drooping a little…

In 1897 Louis Weil’s heirs put his house on the market…But an echo of those summer days can be heard in the  pages of Jean Santeuil that gave birth to the mos famous passages of In Search of Lost Time. Combray is still called Illiers or sometimes Eteuilles. From Auteuil to Eteuilles, from Jeanne to Jean, from sans-Auteil to Santeuil, there’s but a small step, years of maturation and crystallization, pages of writing. We now know that Marcel took “the little wing opening onto the garden that had been built for my parents behind it,” “the lively sound of the fountain,” the hawthorns, the lilacs, and the pink chestnuts from Auteuil; transported by involuntary memory, they come to life through the madeleines dipped in lime-blossom tea and mingle with images of his visits to Illiers. Other details aren’t as clear: the specialists hesitate. Illiers? Auteuil? Each place has its partisans. The roast goose? Probably from Auteuil, since it’s a traditional Alsatian dish. The roast lamb and peas? I’d vote Illiers. But what about the way the cook slaughtered the chicken? There was something  very kosher about the way she split the chicken’s neck under the ear instead of wringing it. Not to mention the hawthorns, the most sensitive topic of all. By making his memories of Auteuil part of the material for Combray, merging them into his memories of Illiers, Marcel has forever made them vibrant and indivisible. (Madame Proust, A Biography, Block-Dano, pages 63-66)

I would only add that by suppressing the largely Jewish nature of his childhood summer life in favor of jthat of his more remote Catholic relations, I am struck by the similar way he suppressed his own homosexuality in the character of Marcel. Perhaps, he thought, the novel is difficult enough without having a gay Jew as the protagonist.


5 Responses to “Auteuil”

  1. Joyce Hunt Says:

    I agree. I am sure that Proust was anxious at the thought of having a Jewish homosexual as the protagonist of his great work. Proust told Gide, “You can say anything as long as you don’t say “I”.

    I have long thought that the ” longest” sentence divides the book into before and after . Placed somewhat centrally in ISOLT this amazing sentence suggests the similarities of the feelings of self hatred as being common to Jews and Homosexuals. Both are suffer as social pariahs.

    And it is this startling sentence that separates two if the main focuses of the book-Jews – emphasizing the Dreyfus affair, the Narrator’s Jewish family, his grandmother , Bloch and his family and the second part of the book having homosexuality as its central focus through Charlus, Albertine the male brothel and the panoply of characters revealed as homosexual.

    All this in a book filled with Philosophy, Time,Change, Memory, Art, Music Culture and HUMOR.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      That’s an interesting insight on the longest sentence being a watershed between these two great themes. (Where exactly is the longest sentence?) But I’m not sure about the “Narrator’s Jewish family.” I don’t recall passages that support that. When Bloch or another of Marcel’s Jewish friends visit in Combray the grandfather does a little routine to show that he suspects a Jew is entering the house. Perhaps you did not mean that literally so much as biographically. I would love to be proven wrong; it would redeem Proust the man somewhat.

      • Joyce Hunt Says:

        The “Longest Sentence” is in Cities of the Plain p.638 ” Their honour precarious………ending on p 640 – “… and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.”

        It follows the coming together of Jupien and Charlus p 623-635.

        And it is followed by” Intermittencies of the Heart” p. 778 – 785 ” I discover that I have lost her forever”

        * * *

  2. decayetude Says:

    After my “exposition” on the 2013 “year of reading Proust” post, i see here, on this site, lots of references which do NOT marginalise P’s homosexuality; and , Joyce and Jim, you seem to be agreed on two of the largest themes being Jewishness and homosexuality, joined by one sentence!So, just as some of the writing is Anti-Semitic to disguise P’s self-hatred of his part Jewish ancestry, we get a mirror of his internalised self-loathing as a homosexual(he sued someone for saying he was homosexual inhis real life!). Interesting. Yet, Kosofsky Sedgwick, in “The Weather in Proust”and “Epistemologies of the Closet”(chapter on P) sees glimmers of P’s actually saying the opposite: that homosexuality is natural to homosexual people! I, at least, WANT to believe that (of P) but need to do some more close reading. This is a very openminded site on gay issues(meant as compliment not as patronizing!:))Steve

  3. Nick Wellings Says:

    “sans-Auteil to Santeuil” I never thought of that. Excellent. This is why I love to read criticism and posts on Proust.

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