In a recently discovered video showing Marcel Proust at a wedding, he descends a staircase unaccompanied, speedily walking past the slower couples to his right. It is the first footage we ostensibly have of the French writer (who appears at second 36). Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan, a professor of film and literature at Université Laval in Quebec, found the clip in researching the Canadian National Cinema Centre archives.
Prior to this seconds-long moving portrait, we only had photographs of Proust, who generally appears slightly reclining, with pensive, heavy eyes, and a finger to his cheek. We could only ponder these images and animate his character with what we already knew of his reclusive, sensitive self. For him, photographs could not channel memory in the way “involuntary memories” could — a term he coined to describe when a sudden encounter in your day, like the taste of a madeleine cookie, causes a moment from your past to rush forth. A photograph, however, is limited by a single frame and is purely visual. At the same time, it gives you the time to linger over it. In The Guermantes Way, the narrator, in contemplating a photograph of the character Mme. de Guermantes, says it “allowed me for the first time to gaze at my leisure at that plump cheek, that arched neck, that tapering eyebrow (veiled from me hitherto by the swiftness of her passage, the bewilderment of my impressions, the imperfection of memory).”
It is with swiftness and bewilderment that we observe Proust in this video, wearing a bowler hat and a pearl gray suit — two characteristic elements of his style that helped give way his identity. It is a bit jarring to see him move, almost sprightly, in the elite milieu he wrote about in his seven-volume series, In Search of Lost Time. In fact, he is attending the wedding of Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, whose mother was the inspiration for the Duchesse de Guermantes character.
In a way, it is only apt that this video of Proust is an attempt, like his novels, to capture a fleeting moment. However, he made a point of distinguishing the two art forms, writing in Time Regained: “Some critics now liked to regard the novel as a sort of procession of things upon the screen of a cinematograph. This comparison is absurd. Nothing is further from what we have really perceived than the vision that the cinematograph presents.”
Luc Fraisse, the director of the journal Revue d’études proustiennes that first published the discovery of the video, observed to the Guardian, “It’s moving to say to ourselves that we are the first to see Proust since his contemporaries.” Ninety-five years after the writer’s death, it feels as though we are instead met with a vision of him. Perhaps this is partly because it’s not a moment in time “we have really perceived.” As I watch and re-watch this seemingly banal moment of Proust walking down the stairs come and go, the video becomes as much about what has passed as what lies before my eyes.