Marcel Proust, "Cahier 12" (1909). NAF 16652 Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France (© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais.)

Marcel Proust, “Cahier 12” (1909). NAF 16652 Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France. (© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais)

“Proust? No one is less dead than he is,” said Suzy Proust, Marcel’s niece.

Right she was. Is.

Everything about this one-room exhibition (all the one-room exhibitions at the Morgan seem grand to me, just the right size and feeling) is perfectly chosen and described. All the quotations come directly from Proust himself, from his notebooks over the years he is writing his great novel, so it all feels familiar and yet new, watching, for example, the way the madeleine develops from the rusk or biscotte, as it is written in notebook 25.  Here is the church of St. Jacques in Illiers, as it is “summarizing, representing, the town, speaking about it from afar.” How had I not noticed that in the text? That is one of the joys of exhibitions, of course, and the wall or display summaries: what you hadn’t noticed, you suddenly see. These explanations in this layout bring it up to your own remembrance of readings past, up close and personal in the present.

The photographs bring you right into the picture: here is Jeanne, the mother, with Marcel and his brother Robert:

Marcel Proust and his mother and brother Robert (ca. 1895). Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France (© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.)

Marcel Proust and his mother and brother Robert (ca. 1895). Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France. (© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY)

I’d begin here with the beloved mother and brother, right at the outset, and then go on to the way the novel develops. In a letter to the poet Anna de Noailles of December 1908, Proust lays out his decision to write not an essay, like Taine, but a kind of narrative. He imagines  a text starting with: “the morning, the awakening”  where “Mamma comes to my bedside.” What a morning, and what an opening of another, ultimately famous text: “I used to go to bed early.” How many variations of this iconic beginning preceded this now so celebrated phrase: the curator of the exhibition, the world’s leading Proust scholar (and more) Antoine Compagnon showed them to us on the screen on Monday, March 4. The year 1913, that of the publication of the first volume, marked this as part of the landmark of modernism: the Armory Show, the Rite of Spring, and this great novel. What was originally “The Intermittences of the Heart” became the treasure that is A la recherche du temps perdu, In Search of Lost Time, or, in Scott Moncrieff’s translation of 1922, Remembrance of Things Past. Compagnon, speaking of re-reading, insisted on how we can re-read Proust always freshly. Quite surely, the exhibition gives us a head start

No exhibition could be more heart-warming to someone (that is, so many of us) in love with Proust’s text: the images, the layout, and the tiny tall notebooks given him by Geneviève Straus, Bizet’s widow, on New Year’s Day of January, 1908.

The notebook pages with the repeated crossings-outs — are, each one, described in just enough detail to make sense, a memorable sense. … Here it is, in 1908, that he muses on his writing and his being: “Should it be a novel, a philosophical essay, am I a novelist?” The pages feel in fact so close, rather like a conversation, in this small room, that you want to answer him: “yes, a novelist.”

The letters feel just like what we know of Proust: to his mother, he says he has so much to tell her, but going to sleep is more important. She knows that, and insists he tell her exactly how many hours he was able to sleep each night away. What letters! I especially liked the letter  to Gabriel Fauré  recounting his adoration of the way Fauré had set Leconte de Lisle’s poem about “le parfum impérissable,” that imperishable perfume… “I do not only like, admire, adore your music, I have been and still am in love with it.”

And us all with Proust.

Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way: 100th Anniversary continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 28.

Mary Ann Caws teaches in the English, French, and Comparative Literature programs at the Graduate School, CUNY, and writes on art and text whenever she can. She also translates French poetry. She recently...