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Letter from Marcel Proust to Jacques Hébertot, 31 January 1917

By Sabrina Y. Lee, graduate student in English

Letter from Marcel Proust to Jacques Hébertot, 31 January 1917 [1]

102 bd Haussmann [2]


I am sending you a translation of St. Mark’s Rest, one of The Stones of Venice and Swann [3]. Regarding The Seven Lamps, I have been unable to find it because the translation was printed by a publisher that went bankrupt [4]. As it was among the titles you mentioned, I had wanted to send you a complete package and this is why my expression of gratitude is so late in coming. But it is very sincere and your kind words were especially touching because I felt René Blum’s friendship was behind them [5]. The copies I am sending you (except for Swann) are ones I have used, and are quite worn, so do not hesitate to keep them if you would like, or to toss them along the way if they are a bother. In any case they are yours now. They are what you asked for, not what I would have chosen. With Ruskin, there is too much genius that is hidden and held captive in the middle of outdated theories; a Ruskinian not yet fully initiated should not read things besides Selected Pages — or what in the case of Ruskin we should call delivered pages. I once gathered together such a collection of pages, but I destroyed it upon the entreaty or, rather, following the order — because that is more his style — of M. de la Sizeranne who himself had put together but not yet published a similar collection and did not want to find himself one-upped [6]. It was a moral dilemma, Ruskinian if you will, to obey someone whom I do not regard as a master but who, concerning Ruskin at least, for me, held seniority and with whom I had expected to remain, without any false humility on my part, quite distant. Having a clear path, then, he brought out a collection with Hachette. I can send it to you if you would like, unless you would rather continue on your own through the so-often murky undergrowth and forest, searching for the golden bough [7]. Sir I would be grateful if you would let René Blum know that I think of him fondly. I do not write to him because my eyes hurt quite badly and it takes a matter about Ruskin, and about providing an Open Sesame [8] to a writer keen on penetrating the enchanted cave, in order for me to “flourish my quill [9].” But I often think of him.

High regards

Marcel Proust

[1] Letter catalogued as Proust-Series 7 (Items by Proust) / Item Proust 43, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[2] Proust rarely dated his letters; however, this particular letter is still paired with its postmarked envelope. In addition to dating this letter with certainty, the envelope is also remarkable because it bears Proust’s home address, 102 boulevard Haussmann, in Proust’s own hand. I thank Caroline Szylowicz for this insight.

[3] Proust is referring here to Du côté de chez Swann, the only volume of À la recherche du temps perdu published and, thus, able to be mailed by 1917. However, in other letters, he refers to other volumes of the Recherche as “Swann” as well, perhaps as a kind of shorthand.

[4] Except for Swann, these works are by John Ruskin. The publisher in question, Société d’Édition artistique, seems to have gone out of business sometime between 1900 and 1904: see Philip Kolb, Corr, vol. 3, p. 181, note 4. For more information on these translations and their publication dates, see Françoise Leriche, Lettres, p. 795, notes 2-4.

[5] René Blum was a journalist, writer, theater director, and the brother of the French Prime Minister Léon Blum (see the biographical notice by Virginie Greene in Lettres, p. 1189). Like Hébertot, Blum was a writer for the periodical Gil Blas. He also helped arrange the connection between Proust and the publisher Bernard Grasset (see Juliette Hassine in Dictionnaire Marcel Proust, p. 158).

[6] The volume of Selected Pages in question is Pages choisies, avec une introduction de Robert de La Sizeranne, first published by Hachette in 1908 (see Françoise Leriche, Lettres, p. 445). La Sizeranne was a noted art critic and, as Proust notes in his letter, an important scholar of Ruskin. An advertisement in the September-October 1908 issue of La Revue de Paris draws attention to the importance of Pages Choisies: this book was the first “panoramic” view of Ruskin available in French.

[7] Françoise Leriche notes that the golden bough refers to Canto VI of The Aeneid (Lettres, p. 795, note 7). The golden bough is a kind of talisman that Aeneus must find in order to safely enter and exit the underworld.

[8] In the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in 1001 Nights, the passcode that opens the magical cave is “Open Sesame.” This is also one of the designs on Aunt Léonie’s plates in Combray I.

[9] With his use of scare quotes and the subjunctive mood regarding “flourish my quill” (“prisse une plume”), it seems as if Proust is ironically and self-mockingly posing as a grandstanding writer, too busy to answer his mail.

On 31 January 1917, Marcel Proust had this letter mailed to alert Jacques Hébertot to the arrival of a package that included Du côté de chez Swann and translations of a few works by the influential nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin. Hébertot, a pseudonym for André Daviel, was a theater director and critic, as well as a poet [10]. However, the address on this letter’s envelope starkly highlights his situation during the war: Hébertot, a “maréchal des logis” (a military rank comparable to a sergeant), served in France’s 81st Heavy Artillery regiment. Moreover, Proust’s permission to “toss” the books “along the way,” evokes the life of a soldier who, often on the move, might be forced to leave a cumbersome package on the side of the road.

Not merely a practical note, this letter provides Proust the occasion to mention a mutual friend (René Blum), and share a few insights into his own relationship to Ruskin’s work. Considered Proust’s “Virgil,” Ruskin greatly influenced Proust’s development as an artist [11]. Indeed, as both an essayist and a translator, Proust was a Ruskin expert, and it seems as if Hébertot sought out his advice on this account. Here, then, Proust serves as a guide for Hébertot [12]. Through an allusion to the golden bough that grants safe admittance to and return from the underworld, Proust positions himself as the Sybil who directs Aeneus to revelation, in Canto VI of The Aeneid. He then goes on to describe his knowledge as “an Open Sesame” to “the enchanted cave,” able to shepherd readers toward various aspects of Ruskin’s “genius.” Through this mythical and magical self-positioning, Proust effectively competes with and, possibly, supplants Robert de La Sizeranne as a guide to Ruskin.

However, replacing La Sizeranne is hardly Proust’s ultimate aim. In this letter, Proust also distances himself from Ruskin and from his earlier, enamored position as a Ruskinian disciple. Referencing initiation and “delivered pages,” he parodies Ruskin’s religiosity, as well as his own previous devotion to the critic’s works. Furthermore, Proust judges some, though certainly not all, of Ruskin’s theories to be “outdated.” The letter traces the arc of of Proust’s evolving relationship with the famed art critic: Proust initially acts as a guide; later as a critic; and, now, as an independent creator. The contents of the accompanying package underscore the latter role. As Proust includes Swann — the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, a project that grew exponentially during the war — alongside his old bibles, he positions himself as a new Dante, poised to outdo his master.

[10] See the biographical notice by Virginie Greene, in Lettres, p. 1244.

[11] See Cynthia Gamble, p. 30.

[12] Long before this letter, Proust positioned himself as a Ruskin guide for the French public. After Ruskin’s death in January 1900, Proust published several tributes to the English art critic. For example, “Ruskinian Pilgrimages in France” (“Pèlerinages ruskiniens en France”), published in Le Figaro on 13 February 1900, surveys the various places in France Ruskin had admired. Proust — both pilgrim and guide — journeyed to such sites himself (see Cynthia Gamble, p. 30).

Works cited

Gamble, Cynthia. “Finding a voice: from Ruskin to the pastiches.” Marcel Proust in Context. Ed. Adam Watt. Cambridge University Press, 2013, 27-33.

Hassine, Juliette. “Blum, René.” Dictionnaire Marcel Proust. Ed. Annick Bouillaguet and Brian G. Rogers. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2004, 158.

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

Proust, Marcel. Lettres. Ed. Françoise Leriche with Caroline Szylowicz. Paris: Plon, 2004.

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