Le Paris de Proust

March 5, 2022
Henri Gervex (1852-1929). “Une soirée au Pré-Catelan”. Huile sur toile, 1909. (A l’extérieur, Anna Gould et Hélie de Talleyrand-Perigord. A l’intérieur, 1ère baie, à droite : Marquis de Dion. Baie au centre : Liane de Pougy. Baie à gauche : Santos-Dumont). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

The exhibition features a map of Marcel Proust’s Paris highlighting his favourite places. To what extent does this map reflect the author’s life?
It is indeed in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, between the Place de la Concorde and the church of Saint-Augustin, that Proust spent most of his life, even if, by fate, his birth and death took place in the 16th arrondissement. This setting illustrates the shift of aristocratic and bourgeois circles to the west of the capital in the mid 19th century, which is where his father, a doctor, chose to live – close to his wealthy clientele – and where Proust lived, even though he said he did not care for the place. The different addresses he occupied with his parents and then alone; the Champs-Elysées where he played as a child; the aristocratic and bourgeois salons he later frequented; the restaurants he loved; Albert Le Cuziat’s brothel – the whole Proustian universe fits into this rather small area, which nevertheless grows into an immense world in the novel.

Which place best exemplifies Proustian Paris?
It is difficult to choose, as this would mean emphasising one aspect of its existence to the detriment of another and missing its complexity. The great socialite who dined at the Ritz was the one who loved intimate dinners in his room at 102 boulevard Haussmann but also was partial to cavorting in a brothel on rue de l’Arcade.

Jean Béraud (1849-1936). “Sortie du lycée Condorcet”. Huile sur toile. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Is the city Proust writes about real or fictional?
The city of Paris, which is not the sole setting of the novel but serves as an irresistible magnet for all the characters, is of course a transposition of the Paris that Proust knew. The writer crafts his piece by delving into his memories and observations, to offer a fictionalised portrayal of the city. Thus, real addresses merge with a topographical imprecision that cloaks the city in an aura of mystery and poetry and allows the reader to experience the evolution of Paris between the end of the Second Empire and the 1920s.

Is there Proust character who symbolises the precursor of today’s Parisian woman?
There are countless women in A la recherche du temps perdu, which offers an extremely varied range of “characters,” as understood by La Bruyère. From the aristocratic Duchess of Guermantes to the somewhat disreptuable Odette de Crécy; from Albertine, the shameless young girl, to Françoise, the kitchen maid of the hero’s parents – these are but a few of the female characters. Proust offers portraits of women who each embody, in their own way and according to their own weapons, an image of the Parisian woman, as she was perceived at the end of the nineteenth century – say, between flirtation and wit. Whatever their condition, they all share a strong personality, and their determination finally allows them great freedom to act.

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