On the Boyhood Classmates Who Drove Proust to Write
First He Was Transfixed, Then He Was... Disappointed
Marcel Proust drew the inspiration for his earliest literary works from two of his high-school classmates: Jacques Bizet and Daniel Halévy. As Geneviève’s son and nephew (in the Breton way), they introduced him into her salon, catalyzing Proust’s involvement in mondain society. But first, the two boys did something that established a template for Proust’s entire creative output: They transfixed him, and then disappointed him, and thereby drove him to write.
In October 1887, Jacques and Daniel, both 15, enrolled in Paris’s Lycée Condorcet, where Proust, 16, was in the class above theirs. The two cousins had been best friends since infancy, growing up in the same apartment building in the rue de Douai. Their families’ cozy cohabitation had come to an end in October 1886, when Geneviève had married Émile Straus after 11 years of widowhood. Following the wedding, the bride and groom had moved with Jacques into a new apartment in the elegant eighth arrondissement, geographically not far from Montmartre, but socially and spiritually a half a world away. For Jacques, a difficult period of adjustment had followed the move, as it had uprooted him from the apartment that had been his home since birth and from the cousin he loved like a brother. The following autumn, however, he and Daniel were reunited at Condorcet.
Founded under Napoléon I—whence its original name, the Lycée Bonaparte—Condorcet was one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Paris. Despite its location in a former Capuchin monastery, it was the high school of choice for the sons of the Right Bank’s Jewish haute bourgeoisie (a category in which the cousins’ Halévy heritage placed them both, despite the fact that Jacques’s father had been Catholic, Daniel’s mother was Protestant, and both boys were baptized). Jacques’s new stepfather was a Condorcet alumnus, as were Daniel’s older brother, Élie; Ludovic Halévy’s late half brother, Anatole Prévost-Paradol; and Jacques’s great-uncle Hippo Rodrigues. A number of the boys’ parents’ influential friends had been educated there as well, from republican politician Joseph Reinach to alienist Dr. Émile Blanche, and from authors Alexandre Dumas fils and Edmond de Goncourt to several Rothschild barons. Such connections were typical among Condorcet families, although because of their fathers’ celebrity, Jacques and Daniel were likely the two most conspicuous members of their entering class.
Not long after the cousins arrived at the lycée, they struck up a volatile but far-reaching friendship with Proust, who like them came from a respected, affluent half-Jewish family (and was a baptized Christian). He lived with his parents, Dr. and Mme Adrien Proust, and his younger brother, Robert, in a luxurious apartment building in the eighth arrondissement, right off the place de la Madeleine. From modest beginnings as the son of a petit-bourgeois grocer in the provinicial village of Illiers, Adrien had risen through the ranks of the medical profession to become first a brilliant pathologist and then a leading authority in the burgeoning field of epidemiology. By the time his eldest son entered high school, he was one of the Third Republic’s leading public-health experts, shaping government policy in response to outbreaks of cholera and malaria and lecturing around the world on the etiology and treatment of infectious disease.
Mme Adrien Proust, née Jeanne Weil, was a bright, cultivated Parisienne whose family, Ashkenazi from Alsace, had made a fortune in manufacturing and finance. She was a great-niece of the late Adolphe Crémieux, a republican statesman and activist who through the Crémieux Decree of 1870 had extended the rights of citizenship to Jews in the French colony of Algeria. This achievement had earned him the rancor of the nascent anti-Semitic movement; according to its ringleader, Édouard Drumont, Crémieux’s advocacy for the Jews had “made him the enemy” of Catholics everywhere. But in liberal circles, Crémieux had commanded immense respect. When her parents took her to call on him as a girl, Jeanne had met such luminaries as Alfred de Musset, George Sand, and Fromental Halévy. Adolphe Crémieux, too, was a graduate of Condorcet. So was the philosopher Henri Bergson, the future husband of another of Jeanne’s relatives.
Beneath the veneer of upper-middle-class privilege, the disparities between the backgrounds of Jeanne Weil and Adrien Proust uncannily resembled those Jacques Bizet’s parents had faced while his father was still alive. As biographer Evelyne Bloch-Dano points out, Adrien Proust’s uncultured, staunchly Catholic mother had likely never “set eyes on a Jewish person in her entire life” before her son took up with Mademoiselle Weil. But the latter’s refinement, charm, and robust dowry, combined with Adrien’s formidable ambition and success, melded to advance both spouses’ social fortunes. The marriage “opened wide to them the doors of [Paris’s] grande bourgeoisie, which otherwise would have remained closed to both the self-made man and the Jewish heiress.” As the product of this union, Marcel was typical Condorcet material, although until Jacques and Daniel came along, he had always been something of a loner there.
Jacques and Daniel weren’t complete strangers to Proust when he first spotted them in the Condorcet schoolyard, a colonnaded cloister left over from the building’s days as a monastery. As little boys, all three youths had matriculated at Pape-Carpentier, a primary-school feeder for Condorcet; Proust nurtured fond if hazy memories of Jacques’s striking mother picking up her son and nephew after school. Since then, he had lost sight of the cousins, who in the intervening years had grown into tall and handsome young men. Athletic and outgoing, they both had the easy swagger of the popular students they would swiftly become. Proust cut a diminutive figure by contrast; even when he reached his full adult height, he would stand at only five feet six.
Proust was physically fragile as well. Already beset by the allergies, asthma, digestive troubles, and insomnia that would plague him throughout his life, he had spent long stretches of his childhood in a sickbed, and he had a slight build and invalid’s pallor to show for it. Daniel Halévy recalled that “with his big Oriental eyes” and his almost otherworldly frailty, the adolescent Proust looked like “a disturbed and disturbing archangel”—surely not the impression the older boy would have hoped to make on his new schoolmates.
Proust’s somewhat odd demeanor stemmed as much from his upbringing as from his appearance, as his prolonged illnesses had fostered an unusual closeness with his mother. When his sickness kept him from class for extended periods, Jeanne had engaged tutors to help him keep up with his homework, but she herself had assumed primary responsibility for his homeschooling. She had received an uncommonly rigorous education for a woman of her era, mastering an impressive range of academic disciplines and foreign languages, and by all accounts, her intelligence was as great as her erudition. Given the intellectual precocity Marcel demonstrated from a very young age, Jeanne was ideally suited to be his teacher and zealously instilled in him her profound love of literature, music, history, and art history. The extraordinary acuity, unstinting warmth, and wit she brought to their tutorials found echoes in “her little wolf,” as she called him, and formed the basis of their intense, symbiotic relationship.
Proust’s boyhood playmate Maurice Duplay was struck by the sheer delight Jeanne and Marcel took in each other’s company. He observed that they loved to make each other laugh, for instance, by drawing “baroque, improbable” comparisons between episodes from literature and history and “the most banal occurrences” of everyday life. This game had evolved out of Jeanne’s strategy for managing her sensitive child’s terror of such “unpleasant things as enemas or visits to the dentist.” As Duplay remembered:
When Mme Proust had to prepare Marcel for these traumas, she would preface her announcements with lines such as: “Leonidas knew how to remain serene in the most challenging of circumstances,” or, “Regulus amazed the world with his calmness in the face of catastrophe.”
Such playful juxtapositions would become a trademark of Proust’s own literary style, as would his and Jeanne’s related habit of working classic quotations into their letters and conversation. (The 17th-century dramatist Jean Racine was their favorite source.)
Proust’s “exquisite little Maman,” as he called her, taught him to equate the joys of mutual affection and understanding with the joys of literature and art. Though he would go on to seek the same combination of pleasures in his other relationships, with no other love object would he ever be able to re-create the perfect meeting of the minds he had found with his mother. She remained the most important person in his life until her death in 1905. Already in 1886, when he first took the questionnaire that today bears his name, Proust defined his worst imaginable misery as “separation from Maman.” Six years later, he answered the same question: “Never to have known my mother.”
For all the glee Proust took in his and Jeanne’s zany, recondite exchanges, this type of banter marked him as a misfit among his fellow students. Robert Dreyfus, a classmate of Jacques’s and Daniel’s, noted that while Proust’s casually encyclopedic range of cultural references may have endeared him to adults, it only incited “us immature boys [to] tease him” without mercy. Even worse, according to Dreyfus, was Proust’s unabashed eagerness to please. Accustomed to Jeanne’s unqualified love, he did not readily pick up on signs of his peers’ dislike. As he also wrote in the “Proust questionnaire,” his greatest wish was “to be loved.” His failure to conceal that wish further biased his schoolmates against him.
Daniel Halévy took the lead in bullying Proust. Abetted by Jacques Bizet and Robert Dreyfus, Daniel would chase Proust around the cloistered schoolyard during recess, hurling taunts. The boys figured out that removing the letter “s” from their victim’s surname yielded the word “fart” (prout). Upsetting though it was, this puerile insult may have had one positive consequence, by sparking Proust’s lifelong interest in the power of names to mold character and shape destiny.
By his own admission, Daniel was a tyrant at that age. In his memoirs, he described his high-school self in the third person as “forceful and brutal: his comrades looked up to him and obeyed him more than they actually liked him—they didn’t dare to cross him.” Recalling his and his comrades’ mistreatment of Proust, he wrote,
There was something about him that rubbed us the wrong way, and we responded to it by being harsh with him; we even toyed with the idea of beating him up. We never went that far—it was impossible to hit Proust—but we did let him know that we wanted to, and that was enough to upset him. He was quite obviously not enough of a boy for us. We found his kindness, his thoughtful gestures, his tender solicitousness overly mannered; we thought he was a poseur, a phony, and we told him so to his face—whereupon his big Oriental eyes would get extremely sad, though nothing could stop him from continuing to be nice to us.
Proust had his own reason for putting up with their jeers, and it had to do, it so happened, with the power of names. The fact that the two cousins bore the surnames of their legendary fathers endowed them with unmatched glamour in his eyes. With his broad, winning smile and his precociously woolly beard, Jacques Bizet was the spitting image of his late father, and the resemblance only added to his prestige as the composer’s fame continued to grow. By the end of Jacques’s first year of high school, his father’s final opera, Carmen (1875), had already been staged 330 times at Paris’s Opéra-Comique alone and had received standing ovations all around the world. As for Daniel’s father, Ludovic Halévy, his status as the first Jewish Immortal was more than enough to impress Proust, whose own father liked to joke that one day Marcel would be elected to the Académie Française.
In school, the cousins’ fathers’ celebrity became a protective cloak for no end of schoolboy mischief. “With your last names, you know full well that you’ll never get kicked out!” an exasperated study-hall monitor was heard to cry. For Proust, those last names held a special, almost magical allure that his own could never possess. Although his father’s achievements in medicine and public health had brought honor to the family name, these held no interest for Proust. His mother’s son through and through, he worshipped the arts. Nicknaming Jacques “Carmen’s son” and praising Ludovic Halévy’s books to Daniel every chance he got, Proust strove doggedly to win their affection.
The cousins soon found a reason to tolerate (if not exactly welcome) his overtures. For all their rebellious antics, both boys thought of themselves as intellectuals, gravitating toward schoolmates who shared what Robert Dreyfus called their “very lively passion for Literature.” With Dreyfus and two other students in their class, Fernand Gregh and Robert de Flers, they formed a clique they called “the little literary gang” and plotted with the unself-conscious grandiosity of youth to take the world of Parisian letters by storm. In November, they founded a “literary and artistic review” called Mondays (Le Lundi), so named for the Monday Chats (Causeries du lundi, 1851–1862) of the late critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, another Condorcet alumnus. The journal’s stated mission was to publish “everything that’s worth reading, without biases as to content or genre” and to champion “the triumphant eclecticism of the Beautiful”—a quotation cadged from Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. Halévy appointed himself editor in chief, prompting Ludovic to boast, “Daniel cannot escape literature. It is his destiny.”
“Whereas love, for Proust, meant tenderness and intellectual rapport, sex meant debasement and pain.”
It was likely as a recruiting effort for Mondays that Daniel sought a rapprochement with Proust, who at the end of the previous academic year had garnered a degree of notoriety by winning Condorcet’s coveted prize for best French composition. Assigned a standard high-school essay topic—the role of the passions in the neoclassical tragedies of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine—Proust had written a meditation on the “ferocious realism” and “sublime horror” of Racine’s work. His argument diverged markedly from the conventional lycéen interpretation, which opposes Racine’s portrayal of selfish, all-consuming lust to Corneille’s apologia of heroic, community-minded self-sacrifice. Impressed by the older boy’s daring, Daniel invited him to contribute a piece to the little literary gang’s new magazine. “Proust is more gifted than anyone,” he reasoned in his journal, adding presciently, “Perhaps as life goes on, he will display untold flashes of genius.”
Jumping at the chance to prove himself to Daniel, Proust dashed off a satirical theater review for Mondays’ December issue: a pitch-perfect send-up of theater critic Jules Lemaître. The present generation’s answer to Sainte-Beuve, whose anecdotal, frankly biased reviewing style had made a virtue of the critic’s subjectivity, Lemaître liked not only to give his personal “impressions” of a work, but then to undercut them by anticipating all the ways in which they might be refuted. Proust parodied this approach in a review of Pierre Corneille’s tragedy Horace (1640), a staple of the Condorcet curriculum. Venturing a series of ridiculously self-evident insights (e.g., Horace, which is set in Rome, has Roman characters), Proust qualifies each one with variations on the phrase “Or maybe I am wrong.” The wickedness of the lampoon is hard to convey to readers unfamiliar with Lemaître’s extravagantly waffling prose, but Daniel, who knew the critic from his aunt Geneviève’s salon, recognized him in every sentence. Whatever his foibles, Proust would be an asset to Mondays.
Daniel was even more taken with his new contributor’s next submission the following spring. This piece was an untitled poem written in the dark, edgy mode of Charles Baudelaire, a favorite poet of both Daniel’s and Proust’s. Daniel was enrolled that year in an English class taught by Stéphane Mallarmé, one of the most important French poets of the century, and with his guidance, Daniel had fallen under the spell of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du mal, 1857), a work Mallarmé rated as a masterpiece of poetic form. Proust, who had not taken Mallarmé’s class, admired Baudelaire as well but viewed him through a different, rather more idiosyncratic lens: as the 19th-century heir to Racine.
What intrigued Proust in Baudelaire’s poetry, as in Racine’s drama, was its focus on the perverse, violent, and self-destructive aspects of desire. In The Flowers of Evil, that focus includes an examination of homosexual and sadomasochistic themes of particular interest to Proust, who would maintain throughout his life that “for Baudelaire, these [themes] were so much the main thing that he originally wanted to call the whole volume not The Flowers of Evil but The Lesbians.” These themes were very much the main thing for Proust himself, whose adoration of his mother went hand in glove with a deep sense of shame about his attraction to men. (His father’s attempt to “cure” this defect by sending him to a prostitute—an incident that devolved into farce when, before so much as unbuttoning his overcoat, Proust broke a piece of crockery and fled the scene—only heightened his self-loathing.) Whereas love, for Proust, meant tenderness and intellectual rapport, sex meant debasement and pain, and the latter equation was central to The Flowers of Evil. Having pastiched Lemaître for comedic purposes, Proust now channeled Baudelaire in portraying, in dead earnest, the wilder shores of love.
His untitled poem for Mondays relates a “macabre dream” about a group of “charming” young men who have been “pierced [by] the evil sting” of a “cruel King, young Killer.” Addressing this persecutor in scathing terms (much as Baudelaire apostrophizes his “hypocrite Reader!—my double!—my brother!” in the bellicose preamble to The Flowers of Evil), Proust’s poetic speaker declares his solidarity with the other victims of the king’s abuse:
O King! . . . I am transfixed by this Nightmare, riveted
To your palace [ton palais; also “your palate”],
And I want every day to bleed your blood, . . .
I curse you in the name of the pale sleepwalkers who,
Deceived by their troubling heroic dreams,
Curse you too, o cruel, ferocious, white King.
Here, as in The Flowers of Evil, the disturbing imagery and menacing tone stand in bracing contrast to the sonority of the classical alexandrine favored by Baudelaire (as well as by Racine). However, Proust’s poem goes beyond mere imitative homage. Rife with torturers and insomniacs, inhuman torments and unreachable ideals, it bears many of the hallmarks of his mature work.
Regarding Proust’s relationship with Daniel, this poem had a more tactical function: it scored a palpable hit against the “cruel, ferocious . . . King” of the Condorcet playground. Between his insomnia and his delicate health, Proust himself could fairly be described as a “pale sleepwalker,” and he was all too familiar with the “evil sting” of Daniel’s schoolyard teasing. Yet with his poem, Proust showed that he was quite capable of striking back: if not physically, then in writing.
One feature of this work bears particular note. Simultaneously resentful of and enthralled by the king’s cruelty, the poetic speaker twice treats his foe to a shattering malediction—a rhetorical device borrowed from Racine’s tragedy Phaedra (Phèdre, 1677), which Proust and his mother knew by heart and which contains the best-known curse scene in all of French literature. When the play’s eponymous heroine confesses her forbidden love for her stepson, Hippolytus, he recoils in horror. She retaliates by letting her husband, King Theseus, believe that Hippolytus tried to seduce her. Theseus, enraged, curses his son, calling on the sea god Neptune to do away with him. Hippolytus bravely combats the ensuing sea monster until his terrified horses bolt, dragging him to his death and bringing about the play’s tragic conclusion.
Hinging as it does on Theseus’s damning injunction, Phaedra highlights something important about curses in general. They are speech-acts, taking place wholly in words. Using this rhetorical device in his poem was Proust’s way of asserting, once again, that the pen was a creditable match for the sword. He demonstrated that his own strength lay in his mastery of the literary language of Baudelaire and Racine: the very language to which Daniel, the poem’s first reader, wished to lay claim. (While he would go on to become the first French translator and biographer of Friedrich Nietzsche, at this stage Daniel wanted to be a poet when he grew up.) And lest Proust’s targeted attack escape the “cruel King” whom, in real life, he both idolized and abhorred, he inscribed the poem “For Daniel Halévy, written while gazing at him during the first fifteen minutes of detention.”
Peeved but impressed, Daniel copied these lines into his journal, along with the poem itself, thereby instituting a habit of transcribing for posterity all of Proust’s letters to him and to Jacques. In the margins, Daniel wrote, “Proust (Marcel), detention, May 13, 1888—his first verses ever, or so he says—what an intolerable fellow!” This comment betrayed his envy of the older boy’s obvious talent. Supposedly destined for literature himself, Daniel would continue to marvel at Proust’s brilliance, as when he remarked of a long letter Jacques received from Proust some months later,
Proust . . . has written the entire thing without scratching out or changing a single word. The crazy fellow has enormous talent, and I don’t know of ANYTHING that is . . . more marvelously written than this.
As for Proust’s Baudelairean poem, it unsettled Daniel not only with its literary acumen but with its hints about the author’s sexual proclivities. From the sadomasochistic bond between the “cruel King” and his victims (who, “pierced” by the monarch’s “sting,” are riveted both to his palace and, courtesy of a French wordplay, to his palate), to the naked yearning of the dedication (“For Daniel Halévy, written while gazing at him . . .”), its homoeroticism was unmistakable.
At least, this was how Daniel read the poem. In a subsequent diary entry, he noted that while Proust was “more gifted than anyone,” he was also “young and weak, [and] he coitus-es [sic], he masturbates, maybe he even pederasts [sic]!” Having regarded Proust from the first as “not enough of a boy for us,” the rest of the little literary gang agreed. According to Dreyfus,
We admired Proust, and sensed that he was an exceptional being, but we were appalled, the way one can be at 16, by his sexual tendencies . . . That even became our principal reason for mocking and mistreating him, and [for trying to] distance him from our group of friends.
Needless to say, Proust’s sexuality had also played a role in drawing him to Daniel and Jacques, and he wrote the two cousins a series of letters expressing his attraction to them both. The erotic allure they held for Proust accounted for the tenacity with which he tried to win them over. His pursuit of the cousins would introduce him to the humiliation and pain of unrequited longing. But by the time Proust graduated from Condorcet, these feelings would give way to a more creative, and constructive, stance: as a portrayer of the boys’ forbidden appeal, and of his struggle to renounce them as love objects.
From Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siecle Paris. Used with permission of Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 2018 by Caroline Weber.