Welcome to the Year of Proust. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way, different parts of the literary world have chosen to celebrate in varied manners. Some, in the vein of Infinite Summer, look to finish In Search of Lost Time over the year. The Morgan Library now has on display Proust’s documents, notebooks, and letters, and Penguin has put out a collection of Proust’s Poetry, collected together for the first time and translated into English by a coterie of talented poets. That Proust wrote poetry throughout his life is part of the story here. Essentially, despite the fact that Proust did publish or translate other works, these works rarely enter into the conversation because the Big Book (rabid fans truly use this term with no irony) which, like a bully, crowds out everything else with a barrage of elbows and sneers.
Given that the Big Book casts such a shadow, I find it hard to read these collected poems in any sort of untainted, or simple manner. You cannot think of the poetry on its own terms. The reader will feel compelled to know how they fit into his general thought and character (they do in all the obvious ways), how it compares to the Book (an absurd question at best), does it deviate from or buttress the same images and themes etc. All understandable questions, but questions that inevitably do an injustice to the potential beauty and experience of reading the poetry of one of the greatest writers of all time. Admittedly, some of the poems feel like ripped-out pages from a writer’s moleskin, character sketches showing that even in his earlier days he could tear through a person, “Lucien, a meticulously sheared poodle/Always well scrubbed, plump and pretty/Hermann, who could wear down Patience herself.” But on the whole, the book shows Proust as a master of poetry.
Though we can’t think outside this schema we can hope that self-awareness mitigates its effects. Because, and perhaps here lies the biggest attraction of Proust’s poetry, given his inclination towards verbosity in the Big Book, in his letters, and in his notebooks, seeing Proust limited to poetic structure, to a few short words, illuminates both the extent and limitations of his abilities.
Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation and founder of the Proust Society of America, has taken the challenging task of not only translating, but structuring this dense book in a non-prohibitive manner. Though most of the poems stand alone, because they arose from the context of personal communications and drafts, Augenbraum provides the curious reader and scholar with context in the back of the book. This separation allows for different reading experiences, one rooted in the immediate and specific world of Proust, and one gliding in the clouds of the universal poet, seeing and crafting beauty all around. Though the translators adopt different stylistic choices leading to some clunky translations, the book coheres as a wondrous contrast to the Big Book. Proust in these poems not only lays his petty vulnerabilities to bear, but experiments with craft, style and aesthetic choices, moving in between genres and tradition likes a precocious talent flexing his muscles, showing off his wit, and reveling in the beauty of words.
Proust wrote poetry for himself, for his loves (musicians, artists, men, and women), and largely, in letters to friends. He rarely if ever edited his poems, which given his notoriety for revising again and again, cast a suspicion on the extent to which we can judge these fully as pieces of art. Proust could hardly have imagined that these intimate poems would grace the eyes of a desirous readership, but I doubt that he would mind the transgressions of privacy.
Regardless, for both Proust and poetry fans alike, this well conceived and edited edition provides much to love. They provide a short and and small burst of those moments of Proustian joy: moments in which you glimpse into the absurdity of society, of a tired lame duck aristocracy, slivers of light into the unnoticed beauty of a dog or a flower, joy in the intellect of a consummate artist who writes with a sly, droll, impish charm (“The old nobleman of Este-Modena or Parma/Who judges us by looking down your aristocratic nose”). His poems, while obviously partaking of the same themes as the Big Book, does so in a more playful, and heavy manner. Full of beauty and insight, they also read like jokes: short, to the point, and explosive in their humor.
Though broken up by the editor into different categories (pastiches, burlesques satire, Letters to friends and Lover) the same Proust persists throughout, at turns irreverent, melodramatic (“So tired of having suffered, more tired of having loved”) witty, playful, rebellious (“For what is manly mockery to me?/Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre/I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!”), and of course, slyly satirical all while he provides paeans to the loves of his life, to art, music, flowers upon flowers, hostesses, women, deflating social pomposity, and of course, perhaps the greatest and now considerably less hidden love of his life: Men.
One of the more fascinating and frustrating components of In Search Of Lost Time lies in Proust’s treatment of homosexuality. Already widely known and discussed in his own lifetime as a lover of men, Proust nevertheless chose to hide his sexual tastes in his great book. Not only did he dissemble the nature of his relationships, but he often denigrated homosexuality as a vice, a lazy indulgence not worthy of respect, socially or aesthetically. Consequently, what strikes me most on the first read of these poems is not the technical acumen, or the Proustian images he conjures, but the bleeding sincerity of his devotion, desire, and love of men. Given that many of these poems were written as letters, they strike a more explicit and direct note than from the generally subtle Proust:
You want your basset-hound to be miserable and suffering
So you can surge up and uproot him from the pit
And thus appear to him a God!
O Reynaldo I’m your lamentable basset-hound
Who can’t tag along with you like a true dog
And who’ll cry when he must bid you adieu
In this poem, an expansion on a simple image of puppy love, Proust plays with the complex relationship between himself and his lover. As much as his object of desire is a God to Proust, the artistry immortalizes Proust, not Reynaldo Hahn, his lover. A childishness permeates this and other poems, striking the reader as a bit extreme and absurd, but that misses the element of frivolity. One gets the sense that as much as Proust would like to “tag along with you like a true dog,” he as much enjoys the chase, the flirtation, and the very act of writing love poems to his musician friend. Proust wrote many poems to Reynaldo, that range from encomiums to satire, but all the while, again as with much of Proust, you get the sense that he enjoys the relationship for the actual intimacy, but more so for the imaginative opportunities they provide.
This collection contains a range of poems in this manner from Proust to his lovers. Taken as a whole, these love poems paint a portrait of an amorous, jealous, passionate Proust, yet a Proust still in control of his aesthetic abilities and sensibilities. Reading his flirtatious poems, the best of the collection, shows Proust at his most vulnerable. Most of the flirtatious, sexual poems are private letters to other men, letters Proust requested to be destroyed, or pieces scribbled on the backs of notes. Yet, amidst this intensity, what sets these love poems apart from standard teenage scribbles is the relish with which a young Proust feels in the power of his words, his own heightened aesthetics of flirtation. For instance a young Proust writes, “Your spirit, divine chrysanthemum/Aching with Majesty/One day will reprise for us the prose/Of beauty’s intrinsic suffering.” A poem glowing with the ache of puberty and aglow with the raw shimmering of a nascent talent.
Yet despite the intimacy of many of these poems, as in the Big Book, you cannot separate the disparate parts of Proust’s prodigious personality. They jostle against each other: here a Romantic, there an avant garde Modernist, but always winking, knowingly, as the smartest person in the room. Above all, past the eroticism, above the singular imagery and linguistic control, Proust the person shines through these poems. In the Big Book, as autobiographical as it is, Proust hides behind the artifice of literature, behind the brilliance of his language, the detachment of his style. In contrast, these poems feel ripped from his mind, without his permission, a true telescope into the mundane world of his days. While his letters provide this sort of glimpse, his poetry does so in a way that balances his life with artistic ambition, providing less a diary view than a playful, pouting, and perspicacious lover of life.
With all that said it’s infinitely hard to capture Proust and his lifetime of poetry in any succinct descriptions. They demand immersion, and despite the overcasting mountain of the Big book, these poems stands on their own as brilliant, insightful, experimental, and above all fun and funny. They stem from a person as in love with his own aesthetic capabilities than with the world itself, and they dazzle with a brawniness of their capabilities. For those who always wanted to read Proust, this new collection provides a perfect starting point into his genius, and for those already in love with him, this will just give them more to love.