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Letter from Marcel Proust to a friend, [first half of July 1916]

By Clément Dubuisson, visiting graduate student

Letter from Marcel Proust to a friend, [first half of July 1916] [1]

Dear friend [2]

I have never had Antoine Bermond [3] in my service, but I have often used him for one thing or another and I have had nothing but praise for him. My impression is that he is deeply honest. However, I think you would perhaps have an additional guarantee by doing the thing under my auspices. He knows that I know the administrations of which he has been and probably will be the employee in the future. It will therefore be twice as interesting for him not to displease you if it is, in a way, myself who sent him to you. I believe that this precaution is useless because he is of a devoted, hardworking nature. But in the end, if it seems to you an added security, you can tell him that I asked you, knowing that you were taking a valet, to take him. However, there is a small problem. He must leave within 15 days for Houlgate [4]. I would not want him to reproach me for making him lose this position if he only must stay a few weeks with you. You could see that with him and ask him very plainly if it does not make him lose anything, but that I vouched for him with you. This way, I do not think you can have any trouble. What surprised me was to find in the same delivery as your letter, one from him telling me about his possible departure for Houlgate. It is probably pure coincidence. Otherwise it should be assumed that someone you know has told him about your plans and perhaps as a way to precipitate them, he decided to tell me about Houlgate. But to tell the truth, I believe rather in a mere coincidence. Dear friend, I would have liked especially to tell you all the pleasure I had receiving a letter from you, and all the friendship I have for you, but I thought that I would be more pleasant to you, by answering in writing and with accuracy the question you asked me. I wrote to you without delay, although I am forbidden to write because my eyes cause me much suffering and I fear I am losing my sight. For this reason, I do not write to my friends, and while on the other hand I do not like to leave someone who is not happy or fortunate without an answer, I have left quite a number of letters from Bermond unanswered, while I would have written to him while not even writing to d’Albufera [5] or to others. For this last letter he sent me earlier I will try to regain the strength, once this letter is done, to send him a few lines. Anyway, you can tell him that I had incidentally said in a letter that you would be taking a valet (if you do not want to seem to have inquired about his morality) and that I replied urging you to take Bermond. You do not have to tell him about Houlgate if he does not tell you about it.

Dear friend, such sadness and sorrow, we would not finish if we were to list all those we mourn, all those for whom we tremble, starting, for me, with my own brother, his superb citations, his Legion of Honor [6] do not offset the worries I have had and that I could have again tomorrow. At least he lives, but poor Bertrand de Fénelon, who was also in a way like a brother to me, and d’Humières [7], and so many others. And you must not mourn any less yourself, since everyone is affected, and I know your heart to be so delicate and so good. Mine sends you, dear friend, its most affectionate memories[.]

Marcel Proust

Destroy this letter unless you send it back to me.

[1] Letter catalogued as Proust-Series 1 / Lefebvre 026, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[2] The identity of this friend is still unknown.

[3] Antoine Bermond appears to be a young man who died a few months later in the trenches.

[4] Houlgate is a town on the coast of Normandy, where Proust had traveled. He spent time there with his driver and companion, Alfred Agostinelli, in July 1913 (see Carter, p. 543).

[5] Louis d’Albufera was a friend of Proust and is thought to have been one of the models for the character of Robert de Saint-Loup in the Recherche.

[6] Dr. Robert Proust was awarded the Légion d’honneur on 16 January 1916.

[7] This mention of Fénelon and d’Humières is relevant since both of them shared Proust’s tastes and died recently in the war, which confirmed “[Proust’s] observation that homosexuals were as capable of bravery as heterosexuals” (Carter, p. 589).

Mystery surrounds the identity of the recipient of this letter, but certain elements can help us understand it.

Some aspects of the letter narrow down who this “friend” could be. The paper and contents of the letter allowed Philip Kolb to date it to June or July 1916. Allusions to the deaths of Fénelon and d’Humières also provide a clue, as Fénelon and d’Humières were both homosexuals whose bravery had been praised by Proust [8]. It seems likely that these men were not mentioned by accident; Proust may have wanted to indirectly mention homosexuality to the letter’s recipient.

Another clue is given by the name “Antoine Bermond.” Judging from the content of the letter, Bermond had been a valet to Proust around that time, as Proust recommends him to his friend. But why is Bermond still working? Why has he not been drafted? A likely explanation is that he had not yet joined the army because he was too young. French military records [9] show an “Antoine Bermond,” born on 26 April 1897 in Paris, who died at the front on 25 December 1916. These dates seem to make sense. After finding entries attesting the birth [10] and death [11] of this man in official registries, it would seem that he is indeed the person Proust is talking about, for the following reasons:

– Aged 19, he was too young to be in the army at the time of the letter (June or July 1916), but he appears to be have been enlisted shortly after, to then die in December.

– The letter appears to have been returned to Proust [12], which could be explained by the fact that Bermond was no longer available to be hired, since he was now in the army (soon to be killed in battle).

– Bermond is from Paris, which does match the profile.

– Proust refers to Bermond has someone who is neither “happy” nor “fortunate.” This makes sense when one considers his social background and his potential to soon be drafted.

– The description given by Proust also fits what we see in the birth and death registries. Bermond was born out of wedlock (no father is named on his birth record) and lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Paris at the time of his death (rue Courat, in the 20th arrondissement). Thus, it seems likely that this could be the Antoine Bermond described in the letter.

However, we cannot know with absolute certainty whether or not this is indeed this particular Bermond. Since a full census was not conducted in the city of Paris before 1926, we cannot know where Bermond lived or worked before the war. We have no record of his profession either. The only address listed on his registry entries is actually his mother’s address.

Previously conducted research by Pyra Wise of the Équipe Proust (ITEM) brings another element into view: an unpublished letter by Proust (belonging to a private collection) could be a postscript to this letter held at the University of Illinois. In this second letter, the exact content of which cannot currently be published, several elements regarding Antoine Bermond can be learned. It would appear that Bermond wrote verse. Apparently, Bermond also had already worked as a manservant in Mantes, Cabourg, and Cannes. But where could this have been? At a hotel? At the residence of one of Proust’s friends?

Further research will need to be conducted in the archives of AP-HP (Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris) to learn more about Antoine Bermond’s mother, Virginie Bermond. Her life could provide clues to the life of her son.

Regardless of who Antoine Bermond really was, various elements in this letter point to the potentially homosexual nature of Proust’s relationship with him:

– The fact that the “dear friend” is not named, potentially as a precaution.

– The way Proust twice mentions how receiving letters from Bermond and from his friend at the same time must have been a “coincidence,” seems to indicate that this was not a coincidence at all.

– The discussion of Fénelon and d’Humières, who were both gay.

– The last words of the letter, requesting that the recipient destroy the letter or send it back.

– The mention that the friend inquired after Antoine Bermond’s “morality.”

All these elements seem to indicate that Proust has a particular interest in Bermond, but that this interest had to be hidden in a rather Proustian way.

In all likelihood, Antoine Bermond was a young Parisian man who was killed a few months after this letter was written by Proust. But until the possible postscript to this letter resurfaces, the identity of Proust’s “dear friend,” whom Proust urged to hire Bermond, will remain unknown.

[8] Carter, Marcel Proust, p. 589.

[9] Base de données des Morts pour la France de la Première Guerre mondiale (Ministère de la Défense): Antoine BERMOND, born 26 April 1897 in Paris, killed in battle on 25 December 1916 at Côte-du-Poivre (Meuse).

[10] État civil de Paris: Actes de naissances / 1897 / V4E 8988 / page 11: Bermond, Antoine, born 26 April 1897.

[11] État civil de Paris: Actes de décès / 1917 / 20D 264bis_1 / page 28: Bermond, Antoine, died 25 December 1916.

[12] The letter was found in Proust’s papers after his death. Philip Kolb notes that the recipient likely returned it to Proust, as requested at the end of the letter. (Corr., vol. XV, p. 205).

Works cited

Carter, William C. Marcel Proust: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Proust, Marcel. Correspondance. Ed. Philip Kolb. Paris: Plon (21 vols), 1970-1993.

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