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Letter from Marcel Proust to Antoine Bibesco, [c. 9 September 1915]

by Francesca Roncoroni, graduate student in French

Letter from Marcel Proust to Antoine Bibesco, [c. 9 September 1915] [1]

Dear Antoine,

I will tell you, as people say stupidly: “It was a pleasure to see your handwriting.” Even though yours (though not [2] quite as much as mine) is awful. But I was delighted to see it. That is one of the mysteries of friendship.

My only usefulness (as I have two fairly common qualities, that yet rarely come together, foresight and self-abnegation) is as a mediator and a doctor. I am worth nothing as a strategist. Besides, your question is formulated strangely. You ask me: “Until when will the Russians move backwards?” This means, I suppose: “Until when will the Germans move forward?” Both are the same thing, but your questioning style is unexpected. I would rather have you tell me whether or not the Romanians will march [3].

I do not dare venture to predict the future (except to say that the final victory is a sure thing, as everyone believes), but I wish to justify myself for the past. When you told me that the Curonian expedition was an eccentric fantasy of the Germans [4], I responded that, when it comes to a people who prepared precisely what they did not predict (ammunition for a war they thought would not last for long and yet were the only ones to be equipped for; moving back to Lens to conquer and use it to their advantage, when they were not planning to move back; the storming of the Dardanelles [5] in order to block Russia, that they considered defeated, etc.), one must not believe that it is all about fancy, and that the Curonian expedition was, in the long run, either a vise against the Russian army or, failing that, against Warsaw, or the twin of the Dardanelles (now Bidou [6], who fifteen days ago said that what happened in Riga was a demonstration, has written since then an admirable article showing this symmetry with the Dardanelles, the obstruction of Russia, inspired by the American Civil War). If Emmanuel [7] is with you, tell him I extend all my affection.

Yours truly


My kindest regards to Henri Bardac [8], whom I love dearly.

P.S.: I am just now receiving your second letter. You know very well that I would have been so glad to become acquainted with Mr. Morand [9] when you asked me to, but keep in mind, he was only available, as he was about to leave for London, at a moment when I was afraid I was not feeling well. You would do me a favor if you could possibly send me his letter, as I was so happy to get to know him.

[1] Letter catalogued as Proust-Series 2 / Bibesco 036, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[2] This “not” (pas) was omitted in the edition of the letter in the Correspondance.

[3] (Note by P. Kolb) Since the outbreak of World War I, the Romanian government had hesitated to line up and state its position. Eventually, on 27 August, 1916, Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and Germany.

[4] (Note by P. Kolb) At the end of April 1915, the German army launched an offensive on the Curonian peninsula, on Lithuania’s Baltic coast. As the military action unfolded, the situation became more and more worrisome. In fact, the German High Command was trying to divert the attention from a more devastating military offensive they were arranging against Galicia, in Ukraine.

[5] (Note by P. Kolb) In 1915, the Anglo-French army repeatedly tried to force the strait of Dardanelles, Turkey, at that time protected by the Turkish-German military forces. Eventually, the Anglo-French failed and had to retreat.

[6] Henry Bidou was a French journalist and man of letters who won the Vitet Prize (Prize for Literature and Philosophy) from the Académie française in 1917. During World War I, he wrote a column called “Situation militaire” in the Journal des débats politiques et littéraires.

[7] Proust refers to Emmanuel Bibesco, who was Antoine Bibesco’s brother. The two siblings were passionate supporters of Proust’s literary works. Emmanuel committed suicide on 22 August 1917.

[8] Henry Bardac was the son of a wealthy financier. Proust first met him in 1906, and they became close friends during the war.

[9] Paul Morand, French writer and diplomat. He met Proust for the first time in 1915, and became a close friend during the final years of Proust’s life.

In this letter, dated approximately 9 September 1915, Proust responds to a previous missive from his friend, Antoine Bibesco, diplomat, playwright and youngest son a Romanian prince. Antoine Bibesco shared with Proust intellectual interests and the pleasures of high society, as well as many years of troubled friendship. From the very first lines, the writer gives a glimpse of what friendship means to him: although he playfully points out that the sender’s handwriting is “awful,” he states right away “Yet, I was delighted to get to see it. That is one of the mysteries of friendship.” The act of seeing a friend’s handwriting is associated, in Proust’s mind, with a strong emotional response that involves both memories and a feeling of presence. The relationship with a beloved friend is particularly intense, in that Proust describes feeling joy at the sight of a friend’s writing, despite his physical distance.

The letter also reflects the novelist’s viewpoint on the military strategies adopted during World War I, and offers insight into Proust’s views about the French press at the time. Following the unfolding events of the war with great interest, Proust read on a daily basis the military chronicles of several newspapers, in particular the column that Henry Bidou wrote in the Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, named “Situation militaire.” As Paul Morand later wrote, Proust looked at the war “from the angle of his complicated, tactical, suspicious and profoundly strategic mind” [10]. Proust valued the military chronicles written by Henry Bidou because the journalist highlighted the coherent strategic reasoning behind military actions that might have wrongly appeared unrelated to each other: “it would be a totally mistaken idea of the war if it were considered as a simple juxtaposition of tactical events. As a matter of fact, it is a vast system of forces where everything is connected. Europe is one only battlefield” [11]. Thus, in this letter Proust mentions an article by Bidou in the Journal des Débats from 27 August 1915 in support of his thesis that the Curonian expedition was not to be considered as “an eccentric fantasy” (as Bibesco had earlier stated to Proust), but rather a military action designed by Germany as a part of a coherent plan which aimed to divert the world’s attention from the upcoming main attack, and followed a precise strategy inspired by the American Civil War.

On the other hand, whereas Bidou often presents the episodes of the war as French victories, Proust is wary of the distorting view that the mainstream press proposes of the war, and that its readers accept by virtue of an ingrained patriotism which makes them believe that the victory of France is near.

[10] Paul Morand, Le Visiteur du soir (Genève: La Palatine, 1949, p. 16). Cited in Luc Fraisse, “Proust lecteur de Henry Bidou,” p. 91.

[11] Henry Bidou, “Situation militaire,” Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 9 February 1915. Cited in Luc Fraisse, “Proust lecteur de Henry Bidou,” p. 98.

Works cited

Fraisse, Luc. “Proust lecteur de Henry Bidou.” Bulletin d’informations proustiennes 45 (2015), 91-110.

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

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