Let yourself be lulled by the secret lives of our Junior Suites, which comprise a bedroom, a sitting room, and a small writing cabinet, with all modern amenities and in the truly Parisian atmosphere from where the “fragrances,” “strokes,” and the “iridescent” bubble of The Remembrance arise.
With their Belle Epoque cosiness, bathed in light by two windows overlooking tall plane trees and the beautiful architecture of the Carreau du Temple, they are an elegant blend of precious fabrics and paintings, transporting guests out of time and into the ephemeral or sustained splendour of shared pleasures.
A FRIEND OF FLAUBERT AND DUMAS
“Without Napoleon I, I would be selling oranges in the streets of Ajaccio!” said Princess Mathilda, born Napoleon, who knew how much she owed to her uncle. Her salon on rue de Berri was home to all the celebrities from the literary, art, and political world. Marcel Proust is twenty when he meets her. The writer has heard about her turbulent life, her broken engagements, failed marriages, and violent separations. He sees in her a “fictional character, a real literary creation,” and resorts to her as inspiration for Madame Verdurin.
Having retreated to her room, Princess Mathilda turns a weary eye to the red and yellow crested birds resting on the delicate foliage of her wall covering. She has been painting watercolours all morning, went for a walk in the gardens of the Élysée Palace occupied by her lover, Count Émilien de Nieuwerkerke, then had a long chat with Gustave Flaubert, with whom she maintains a regular correspondence. She knows them all – the Goncourt brothers, Ivan Turgenev, Prosper Mérimée, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Hippolyte Taine, Dumas, father and son, Théophile Gautier, who is also her librarian, Maurice Barrès, and later the young Marcel, to whom she gave a piece of dress to be turned into a cravat. She knows how to welcome them, to protect and console all these writers who rush daily to her salon, so appreciated for its lack of decorum. Proust is touched by the simplicity with which the “first Highness” speaks about everything to do with birth and rank, and by her genuine passion for writers. On this particular Sunday in 1846, the Princess dined early. Her doors will open again on Wednesday.
A GREAT LADY OF HER CENTURY
In 1894, the young, pretty, witty Colette met Marcel Proust at Léontine de Caillavet’s. It was a failed meeting: the novelist did not appreciate the excessive politeness of the one she called a “little praiser.” Though it would take her years to read Swann’s Way, the book was a revelation. It marked the start of a fruitful correspondence. Marcel Proust had deep admiration for the talent of this unfettered woman and her many free love affairs. Their admiration was mutual, the two great authors recognised each other in one another.
“Because of my rather lunatic and noble father, I need a father, a friend, a lover… God – I need a lover! (…) What is the point of having read so much if a single word my brain makes me clench my teeth and curl my toes…” She had been so young when she had written these lines! Amused, Sidonie-Gabrielle closes her book, Claudine in Paris. It is late. Instead of returning to her writing cabinet to jot down her inspiring meeting with Queen Mary of Romania, who had come to Paris that night in 1919, she dims her lamp, as light forms a halo on her bright wall hangings. From her window, she can see shadows racing across the pavement, stretched almost horizontally by the streetlights. Pensive, she thinks of the peculiar Marcel, who, just as his novel, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is being published, wrote to her, “I cried for the first time in a while when I read Mitsou’s letter.”
A GREAT PATRON OF THE ARTS
Her regal bearing and bright black eyes that could both strike people down or be a gentle stroke was captivating. Although she was the most beautiful woman that Marcel Proust had ever seen, Elisabeth Greffulhe was initially annoyed by his excessive admiration. It would be years before she would invite the author to her salon, where, as a fervent republican, she enjoyed encouraging all forms of progress. Her admirer would turn her into his Duchess of Guermantes, an emblem for women of the world, often brilliant, sometimes cruel, now and then stupid, like people who are too intelligent.
In her gilded writing cabinet, she was in a bad mood. It was 1894, and Edmond de Goncourt had delayed the publication of her diary about the “qualms of a high society woman, her sensations and impressions, and the victories of beauty and elegance.” In it, she described the ardent “anonymous embrace” of being in contact with crowds at the opera, or her unhappy love with her husband, Henry, who not only cheated on her shamelessly, but was also violent. Goncourt said it was all too narcissistic and intimate, advising her to make do with her piano and with her photography lessons with the great Nadar. She should now focus on her battle against the royalists and in favour of Dreyfus. The countess picked up her quill. The note was addressed to Henry: “We do not depend on anyone; we must find the courage of our convictions. It is a luxury – the greatest one of all.”
SALONNIÈRE AND ARTIST
Alexandre Dumas, fils, who was her lover, said so prettily, “After God, she is responsible for creating the most roses.” A demanding muse and a strong-willed woman, Madeleine Lemaitre painted, but was also an inspiration and a hostess: the whole of Paris would rush to her fancy dress and musical parties. Proust drew inspiration from his “beautiful godmother” to create the character of Madame Verdurin, the iconic figure of social climbing bourgeoisie with a strong character who hated “bores” and was fond of “executions.”
The book lay open on the bed; Madeleine was not happy with the print quality of its illustrations. For his first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours, a particularly luxurious edition, since it also featured a preface by Anatole France and four pieces for piano by Reynaldo Hahn, Marcel Proust had commissioned a series of drawings. Holly and ferns, chestnut trees and dandelions framed a collection of short stories and poems by the young author. While she had participated in the design of the book, all final decisions had been left to the publisher, Calmann-Lévy, who had aimed for it to be published that year, 1896. She could not help but display a dubious pout upon seeing her clover blossoms as a header for Coucher de soleil intérieur, and its chestnut tree branches, which made no mention of those trees at all… Never mind, at least she was pleased with the aesthetic outcome of it all. And she took solace in Anatole’s words, “Such a delightful book! Decorated and scented with flowers strewn by Madeleine Lemaire’s hand, that same divine hand which graces dew upon roses, it will be read throughout the city.”
ANATOLE FRANCE’S MUSE
Léontine de Caillavet was forty-five when she first welcomed Marcel Proust into her salon on avenue Hoche. Their connection? Anatole France. Léontine took him as a lover, who turned her into his muse, and her salon, filled with particularly brilliant mind, revolved around him. Intelligent and educated, Léontine was as curious about politics as she was about literature. Marcel Proust poured several of her features into his character, Madame Verdurin.
Reclining on soft cushions, Léontine was remembering the previous evening, in her salon on avenue Hoche. It had been attended by at least one hundred guests: writers, members of parliament, solicitors, actors, and painters. She was still laughing about the scene about whom a regular had told her. As soon as her husband spotted a newcomer, he would rush forward, saying: “I am not Anatole France.” She thought back to the preface of her friend Marcel Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours, ordered from Anatole France. No one ever found out that she was the author of those ecstatic lines. Thinking of her lover also filled her with a giddy joy: today, like every morning, she had made love with Anatole with passionate energy. She worshipped him…
A SACRED MONSTER
Sarah Bernhardt was a wondrous actress who could play men as well as women, and who loved them all. Staging every minute of her life, at once a liar, a mystic, an eccentric, and a great lover, the one for whom Jean Cocteau invented the expression “sacred monster” had tremendous talent. Crazy about her, Marcel Proust turned her into his character Berma, admired by Swann, adulated by Bergotte, and adored by the narrator.
Ointments and powders were scattered across the small chest of drawers in her boudoir, covered in draperies that reminded her of stage curtains. As usual, rapturous applause play had erupted at the end of the play. The enthusiastic audience had thrown dozens of roses on the stage. Her many suitors knew that the great Sarah loved these flowers as much as she loved gems and everything that shone. She was proud of being the first French actress to have toured across five continents. Yet having international success was not enough. In 1874, she started sculpting, and later painting in the well-known Julian Academy.
A PRECURSOR OF MODERN PAINTING
Rejected by academic painters and the official salons of his time, this precursor of modern painting was the leader of an entire generation of freedom-loving artists. The friend of Zola, Baudelaire and Mallarmé inspired Marcel Proust for his character Elstir. In The Remembrance, Elstir’s asparagus are, of course, Manet’s. And, as we know for Marcel Proust, who applied the principle to himself when he wrote, the apparent subject of a work is nothing, it is all about the art of recreating, suggesting, bringing something into existence.
A few months ago, Charles Ephrussi, his friend and art collector, commissioned a still life from him. He had sent him a painting of a bunch of asparagus on a bed of greenery. Pleased with the outcome, Ephrussi had sent him 1,000 francs instead of the 800 they had agreed upon. The still life against a black backdrop, in the manner of 17th century Dutch painters was a gem of simplicity and delicate shades. The painter had an idea: he had just finished a tiny canvas on which he had painted a single asparagus. He delicately rolled thick paper around it, then jotted down his friend’s address. Leaning over his desk, on which stood a full-length portrait, he picked up his pen and added a note: “Your bunch was missing a spear.”
IN SEARCH OF IMPRESSIONS
Celebrated worldwide for his paintings of female nudes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir produced a substantial body of work, the style of which evolved over decades, in turn an Impressionist, a Realist, a Classicist… What was Marcel Proust’s relationship with the artist? A famous painting, the Luncheon of the Boating Party. In his Remembrance, Marcel Proust attributed the work to Elstir and placed it in the collection of the Duke of Guermantes. The Master of Impressionism was indeed one of the painters whose thoughts on art inspired Marcel Proust: he sought out impressions, the biggest truth of life.
He was captivated by the young woman on the edge of the water. This delightful painting reminded him of his friend, Charles Ephrussi. The art collector used to own a considerable collection of Impressionist paintings, along with several of his own canvases. Alas, the only painting on which he was pictured, the Luncheon of the Boat Party, painted in 1880, was purchased by Balensi, a collector. Yet he knew that before his death, Ephrussi had been able to admire it at Duran-Ruel, the art dealer. The canvas represents Ephrussi, the man standing in the background whose top hat seems incongruous amidst this country feast. It was painted during his Impressionist period. He had now returned to a more classical style of painting. In fact, the art critic Gaston Gallimard had recently written a harsh article about his new style. He fondly remembered two summers on the property of his friend Paul, Gaston’s father. When he had been very young, Gaston used to watch him paint with admiration.
A TORTURED POET
Although they both dominated their century, the two artists never met, since Marcel Proust was born four years after the death of Charles Baudelaire. Through countless real or fictive references, the author’s entire work is filled with Marcel Proust’s admiration for the poet, who was so like-minded and for whom “the only life truly lived” could be reached through art. At once provocative and sincere, they both revolutionised poetry and the novel through books that heralded modernism.
“Dear Rivière, a serious illness unfortunately prevents me from giving you a study, let alone a simple article about Baudelaire. For want of better, let us be contented with a few brief comments. I regret it all the more that I see Baudelaire, along with Alfred de Vigny, as the greatest poet of the 19th century. By that, I do not mean that if one had to choose the most beautiful poem of the 19th century, it would be found amongst Baudelaire’s. I do not believe that in the entire Flowers of Evil, in that sublime, grimacing book in which pity sneers, debauch crosses itself, and the task of teaching the most profound theology is entrusted to Satan, it would be possible to find a poem equal to Booz endormi (by Victor Hugo).// But compared to a book such as The Flowers of Evil, Hugo’s vast body of work seems limp, vague, monotone.// Perhaps, alas, must imminent death be self-contained, must one live with the threat of aphasia, as Baudelaire was, to have the lucidity of genuine suffering…”
Marcel Proust: to Jacques Rivière, Director of the Nouvelle revue française, June 1921.
THE MAGNIFICENT ACROBAT
Jean Cocteau was a dancer, a trapezist, a poet. His unique form of genius was his youthful, mercurial spirit. He was a filmmaker, an actor, a writer, a photographer; he drew and he painted. His admiration for the author of The Remembrance is tinged with resentment. Did the magnificent acrobat ever appreciate Proust? Although he outlived him by forty years, his work had a more ephemeral glory. Though they were twinned in terms of their sensibility and their keen sense of poetry, they never admitted it.
Lying on his bed in his “white dressing gown, soiled with opium residue and cigarette holes, and with a tightly wrapped scarf around his neck…” Jean Cocteau was tired. It was three in the morning. He had just left 102, boulevard Haussmann, the stifling den of Marcel Proust, who, to impress him, had read him pages from his “cathedral.” It had been a bad idea: Cocteau did not like his high-pitched voice. What was worse, he was a bad reader, getting his lines muddled, making poorly timed interruptions, bursting out laughing, starting again, getting annoyed… Yet he sensed the genius in this bouncy insomniac, mixed in with what he did not have: courage. He flitted about too much, dreamt too much, spread himself thin in sterile socialising. He was impressed with the consistency of his young companion to write for hours at a time for The Remembrance of Things Lost. For now, mascara and rice powder were clumping on his hawk-like face. Motionless on his bed, the poet gazed at the ceiling mouldings, smoking a cigarette. Plumes of smoke billowed into the confined air of the bedroom, lined with hessian, reeking of various substances. His muttered lines were filled with clever puns and surrealist homonyms:
« La rue meurt de
en corps noirs.
Fenêtres sur la
rue meurent De
La chambre avec
Volets sur la mer… »
IN HIGH SOCIETY
Seated in a rocking chair, a little finger resting on his lip, Marcel Proust watched young girls in flower. On holiday, he often visited Cabourg, turned into Balbec in The Remembrance, where he led the same life as in his Parisian neighbourhood, la Plaine Monceau. In Paris, with his insatiable taste for high society living, the flamboyant dandy flitted from luxury hotels such as the Ritz to restaurants like Maxim’s, and from concert halls to salons in elegant private homes, attended by Belle Epoque gentry and aristocracy. It was this Paris, both real and imagined, that he transposed into The Remembrance, created by the greatest writer of the 20th century.
A passage from The Remembrance, by Marcel Proust
“Had not Albertine been—out there in front of the Hotel—like a great actress of the blazing beach, arousing jealousy when she advanced upon that natural stage, not speaking to anyone, thrusting past its regular frequenters, dominating the girls, her friends, and was not this so greatly coveted actress the same who, withdrawn by me from the stage, shut up in my house, was out of reach now of the desires of all the rest, who might hereafter seek for her in vain, sitting now in my room, now in her own, and engaged in tracing or cutting out some pattern? No doubt, in the first days at Balbec, Albertine seemed to be on a parallel plane to that upon which I was living, but one that had drawn closer (after my visit to Elstir) and had finally become merged in it, as my relations with her, at Balbec, in Paris, then at Balbec again, grew more intimate.