The Mysterious Correspondent: New Stories

Marcel Proust

Translator, Charlotte Mandell

One World, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

The pandemic offered guilt-ridden biblioholics the opportunity to make up for lost time. With more empty hours than they knew how to fill, they could no longer put off attempting the literary equivalent of ascending Everest. I refer, of course, to Marcel Proust’s incomparable roman-fleuve, À la recherche du temps perdu. If hearsay is anything to go by, many aspiring conquerors did not go further than base camp, defeated as they invariably were by the author’s leisurely approach to narrative and – the curse of this age – an acute case of attention deficit disorder.

This is a pity, not least because it allows many folk who ought to know better to descry Proust as boring, unreadable and irrelevant when, in fact, he is none of these things. To my mind, to have spent a lifetime reading and not to have read In Search of Lost Time (the now accepted English translation of the title), is like listening to rock music without ever having heard Like a Rolling Stone. Proust, together with his contemporaries James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, marks the source of the modern novel. Like Balzac, his achievement was the creation of a world that is rooted in reality and gloriously imagined, evoking the snob-ridden, hierarchical, hedonistic society of fin de siècle Paris with a Dickensian sense of humour.

Having said that, the nine “new” and very short stories in The Mysterious Correspondent may not be the best place to start your Proustian odyssey. Written in his 20s when he was serving his apprenticeship, they are perhaps best appreciated after reading In Search of Lost Time. In his helpful introduction, Luc Fraisse notes that they were composed in the mid-1890s when Proust published a collection called Pleasures and Days. It would appear, however, that he kept these stories under wraps and they remained undiscovered until the death three years ago of Bernard de Fallois, the legendary French publisher and scholar.

Fallois’s place in Proustian lore is assured. It was his good fortune as a student to fall under the guidance of André Maurois, whose biography In Search of Marcel Proust, published in 1949, remains formative. Through Maurois, Fallois met Suzy Mante-Proust, the writer’s niece, whose aim was to keep alive her uncle’s flame. While it was generally believed that Proust had embarked on his masterpiece after a misspent, indolent and unproductive youth, Fallois sensed this was unlikely and that it could not have been the work of someone without a track record. Given unprecedented access to the archive, he managed to piece together a 750-page novel which was published in France in 1952 as Jean Santeuil. This showed that Proust had been refining his talent and finding his own voice years before beginning À la recherche.

These stories confirm this. The Mysterious Correspondent, the longest of them, features a woman who is infatuated with a dying female friend and who pursues her suit through letters purportedly written by a man. It is a morally complex and religiously tortured tale, elements of which Proust revived when writing the book that defines his reputation. The same can be said of other stories in this slim collection, not least A Captain’s Remembrance, which draws on the year Proust spent in the military.

HeraldScotland:

Why Proust did not attempt to publish them and refrained from talking about them even to confidantes is a matter of speculation. One reason may well have been what Fraisse calls “the question of homosexuality”, the very whiff of which would have scandalised a society which, ironically, was sexually rapacious and multi-faceted. Another more prosaic reason may well be that Proust saw them for what they are – exercises which he used to find the voice that would define his genius. Like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, he discarded the influences of youth and altered the course of world literature. I imagine he would rather have enjoyed the lockdown, as he sought the silence of his cork-lined room after flâneuring in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Ignore the quitters; there is no time like the present to go in search of lost time.