Louis Martin-Chauffier

(1894-1980) 

I just read the most delightful letter from Marcel Proust. [1] He wrote it two years before his death, in January of 1920, to the twenty-five-year-old archivist, paleographer, and aspiring novelist Louis Martin-Chauffier. Martin-Chauffier had inhaled the second volume of In Search of Lost Time when it came out the year before, in 1919. He then went back and read the first volume and was so “intoxicated” by them both that he sat down and wrote a pastiche of Proust’s style as a way of expressing his admiration. He mailed the pastiche to Proust and Proust wrote him back immediately.

“Monsieur,

I am extremely ill. I have 800 letters to answer.[2] But if I make an exception for you and respond to you tout de suite, you will draw the appropriate conclusion. It is this: your letter enchanted me. Your pastiche made the enchantment complete.”

Having begun his own career by publishing pastiches of other writers, Proust had very high standards when it came to this genre. [3]  He had read many attempts to imitate his own style and found most of them appalling. Martin-Chauffier’s attempt was not without its flaws. It was a little “languid” sometimes, he said, for reasons he was too ill to go into, although he suggested it had something to do with missing the forest for the trees. But “what astonishing delights” the young man’s pastiche contained all the same!

“You have discerned, with aptness, and parodied, with infinite drollery, some particularities of syntax that I believe are known to you and me alone. You mock my comparisons deliciously. The gentleman who receives a medal from a minister who is his friend, the resemblance of fathers and sons, the different veils that women wear, the positive and the negative, all of this made me die with laughter.”

Proust then tells the young archivist that he has a question for him. He wants to know about a certain aristocratic woman in the seventeenth century who finished her days as an abbess at a very exclusive convent. Was she a Montmorency? Or perhaps the widow of a Montmorency whose maiden name was Condé?  Proust needs to know because he wants to give his character, Madame de Villeparisis, the chance to impress her guests by showing them a portrait that she owns of this lady. The one they have in the Louvre is a copy but she has the original! Proust wants to get her name right.[4]

He needs this information for his novel. But he stresses to the young recipient of the letter that this is not the reason he is writing. If it were just a matter of finding out a fact, he has plenty of friends he could ask. He wants to learn this fact from Martin-Chauffier in particular. This is the reason he has written to him, even though “writing a letter for me in this moment is horrifically fatiguing.”

“…your letter was so lovely, and your modesty so exaggerated, that I have set myself the task of thanking you for the one and curing you of the other.”

In Proust’s novel, Madame de Villeparisis is a former bluestocking who is writing her memoirs about all the famous writers and aristocrats she has known. In the third volume of In Search of Lost Time, which Proust was working on at the time, she hosts a party that lasts hundreds of pages. The young narrator has come to the party because he has been told she can help him in his ambition to become a writer. When Proust writes the name “Madame de Villeparisis” in his letter to Martin-Chauffier, he adds, in parentheses, “I was about to say “de la Villetournois.” This is the name that the young writer had used to pastiche her. Proust really knew how to make a person feel good.

I think what I love most about this letter, aside from Proust’s charming capacity to flatter people he admires with total sincerity, is the idea that information on its own is not what matters. Proust could have asked any number of friends to tell him what he wanted to know.  But he wanted to find out this woman’s name from this young man. Today, we can google almost anything. But what Proust is saying here is that sometimes it’s not just what you know, but the people from whom you learn it that makes all the difference.

Here is this story of how I found this letter. As I wrote in my last post, my undergrad Professor Ted Johnson gave me a book of essays last summer that the Proust scholar and translator Suzuki Michihiko had given him in 1986.  I then learned that Professor Suzuki published an article in 1959 about the importance of reading Proust’s work as fiction and not going in search of real-life models for his characters, including Proust himself. The person who says “I” in Proust’s novel, Suzuki argued, is not Marcel Proust. He should not even be called “Marcel.”[5]  When Suzuki was working on this article in 1955, he had a conversation on New Year’s day with another Proust scholar named Jacques Nathan who told him he must read an article that Louis Martin-Chauffier had published on the same subject in 1943. Suzuki read it, and later wrote that it was the best article ever written on how important it is not to conflate the “I” in Proust’s novel with Marcel Proust himself.

This was quite an endorsement. So I read Martin-Chauffier’s article too, in an English translation published in 1947 with the title “Proust and the Double I.” Later, I read that Martin-Chauffier was also a hero of the French Resistance and was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp the year after this article came out. Happily, he survived to live until 1980.

The argument that Martin-Chauffier makes in “Proust and the Double I” is indeed brilliant. Suzuki may still be right in saying that it’s the best piece on this topic that has ever been written. But what I loved most about the piece was how the style reminded me of Proust. This sentence, for example, which ends with one of those inimitable Proustian comparisons that take your breath away:

“…the models supplied by the acquaintances of Marcel Proust lend him only the least part of themselves, only the visible edge of their being, something like the crest of a submarine reef unexplored, unexplorable, in whose stead Proust, as creative as nature, fashions a new one.”[6]

Sentences like this, and the early date of the article, made me wonder if Louis Martin-Chauffier might have known Proust personally. So l looked him up in Proust’s correspondence and there I found this letter.

“Monsieur, je suis extremement malade. J’ai 800 lettres en retard…”

 

[1] Marcel Proust, “509: À Louis Martin-Chauffier,” in Marcel Proust: Lettres (1879-1922), ed. Françoise Leriche (Paris: Plon, 2022), 946–47.

[2] The note in the correspondence says that this is a reference to the letters of congratulation he had received after winning the Prix Goncourt for Within a Budding Grove.

[3] Charlotte Mandell has translated Proust’s pastiches into English. Not an easy task! See Marcel Proust and Charlotte Mandell, The Lemoine Affair, Art of the Novella (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House Pub., 2008).

[4] Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, D.J. Enright, and Terence Kilmartin (Modern Library, 1998). 265.

[5] Michihiko Suzuki, “Le «je» Proustien,” Bulletin de La Société Des Amis de Marcel Proust 9 (1959): 69–82.

[6] Louis Martin-Chauffier, “Proust et Le Double Je de Quatre Personnes,” Confluences, no. 21 (1943): 55–69. I quote from the translation into English that appeared in 1947. Louis Martin-Chauffier, “Proust and the Double ‘I’ of Two Characters,” Partisan Review, no. October (1949): 1011–26. 1023.