Marcel Proust spent the last eight years of his life in bed, nursing his chronic asthma and writing one of the great books of the 20th century. His life as a social butterfly over, he undertook what Montreal playwright and director Sylvie Moreau calls "the metamorphosis of a man into a novel."
Moreau recently transformed the author and his creation into a play: Dans la tête de Proust (Pastiche, collage et fabulations), which opened this week at Montreal's Espace Libre in a production by Omnibus le corps du théâtre. As the subtitle suggests, the piece is a free adaptation of material by and about Proust (played by Pascal Contamine), who presides over the action from a sleigh bed at centre stage.
Film adaptations of Proust's In Search of Lost Time tend to feel overstuffed with period detail and starved for the opulence of his prose. Moreau's brilliant insight was to see that she could best meet his eloquence with an eloquence of the body, through physical theatre and mime.
As a summary of the outsized character of Proust's Baron de Charlus, it would be impossible to beat Jean Asselin's wordless physical evocation near the start of the play. He crept past the author's bed as if entering a dubious public place, his face an anxious mask of arrogance and contempt, his body twitching with the mannerisms of an aristocrat who knows he is superior to nearly all other mortals.
No one could portray Proust's delicate warfare between rival salons more concisely than Isabelle Brouillette, as the Duchess of Guermantes, and Nathalie Claude, as Madame Verdurin, trading witticisms from the novel but also sizing each other up for a contest that flowed smoothly and hilariously into physical combat. And I never expect to see a better or funnier presentation of Charlus's impromptu assignation with the tailor Jupien, played by Réal Bossé, performed in mime as the relevant descriptive passages were recited from the novel.
Charles Swann's descent from carefree bachelor to jealous husband took Proust many pages to relate, but the character's fall was swift and vivid on the stage. As Swann, Bossé went from voicing melancholy aphorisms ("The possession of what one loves is a greater joy than love itself") to writhing in agony as his wife Odette (Brouillette) played the coquette and frolicked with another woman. So much suffering, as Proust has Swann remark, "for a woman who was not my type."
Brouillette opened the piece in the persona of a tour guide, addressing the audience as if they were visiting the master's real bedroom. She and Claude, in character as Proust's last housekeeper, offered scraps of lore about the author and his habits, including his meagre diet (two croissants a day plus café au lait) and his need to give poetic form to the mundane. His famous madeleine, they told us, entered the novel because it would have seemed too banal for an epiphany of memory to arise from a piece of toast.
Proust kept up with technology in his novel, writing about the bicycle craze of the early 20th century, the telephones that had entered Parisian homes and, in his final volume, cinema. This he regarded with suspicion, as an overly objective tool that eliminated "the unique relation" between the artist's sensibility and the experiences he describes.
He might well have responded with a husky "So what?" to the news, last week, that a Laval University film professor had found what is probably the first known film footage of Proust. The apparition is as short as his novel is long: scarcely three seconds, as a slim mustachioed man descends a staircase after a lavish society wedding in 1904, five years before Proust began his magnum opus. He passes through the social set he would later immortalize as unobtrusively as Alfred Hitchcock taking a cameo in one of his own films.
The film was made for the Countess Greffulhe, the mother of the bride, a friend of Proust's, and a model for the Duchess of Guermantes. The countess was a renowned beauty and clothes-horse, whose wardrobe was recently exhibited at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, along with photos she commissioned of herself in full costume. But she did not approve of photography as a social medium. There's obviously a crowd watching her guests descend the red carpet, but she would have been horrified to know that her daughter's wedding footage might some day be seen by strangers. She refused even Proust's fervent requests for a photo of her, fearing it might end up in the papers. "A woman should not allow photographs of herself to circulate," she said.
This tidbit of photographic morality appears in Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan's essay in the Revue d'études proustiennes, in which the professor outlines his case that the man coming down the church steps in a bowler hat and pale-grey coat is Proust. The novelist had written to a friend that he would probably attend the ceremony, even though "I never go out during the day," and had previously been photographed or described wearing similar clothes. Only someone with an artistic sense of his own singularity, writes Sirois-Trahan, would have shown up at a posh wedding in such relaxed anglophilic costume, knowing that almost all other men would wear top hats and black coats.
Sirois-Trahan's essay also includes a Proustian passage of speculation as to why the writer was hurrying down the steps: fleeing the church incense that might trigger his asthma, perhaps, or rushing to meet his friend the countess, or evading the glance of some haughty guests who might not find a Jewish doctor's son socially acceptable. One man he passes, the professor writes, "seems to ask what Proust is doing there."
Sirois-Trahan said in a phone interview that others had seen the footage, held by a French archive and available to researchers for the past two decades. Somehow Proust, walking by in plain sight, had eluded all other eyes. The professor said that other archives remain unexplored, and that he believes there could well be more photos and films of Proust to be discovered.
He won't be looking for them, however. "I'm working on other things now," he said. "I leave it to others to find. This is not my specialty."
Pending further discoveries, the rest of us can perhaps reflect on some words Proust put in the mouth of Charlus, about the final worth of photography and film. "A photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks," the baron says, "when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality and shows us things that no longer exist."
Dans la tête de Proust (Pastiche, collage et fabulations) continues at Montreal's Espace Libre through March 18 (mimeomnibus.qc.ca).