“Reading Days” by Marcel Proust, an unknown work

Reissues, unpublished publications. The world of letters makes it possible to periodically discover or rediscover authors’ manuscripts, sometimes voluntarily left in the shade by the latter, or just forgotten. Reading days, by Marcel Proust, unearthed by Éditions de l’Aube, thus emerges from its modest condition as a preface to acquire the status of a work in its own right. A substantial preface to the writer’s translation of sesame and lilies, by John Ruskin, since it has 80 pages and a very extensive note apparatus. The title, given by the publisher, sums up the purpose of the book well, with its canvas cover, delicately illustrated by Pascal Lemaître.
The book opens with an evocation of childhood reading. The author considers as the most fully lived the days that one could spend with his favorite book. The interruptions which punctuated the apprehension of it, far from being perceived today as importunate, make it possible to rediscover lost time “and, if we still happen today to leaf through these books of yesteryear, it is not more than like the only calendars that we have kept from bygone days, and with the hope of seeing reflected on their pages the dwellings and ponds that no longer exist.” The relationship to books, to time, to memory has constituted Proust as a writer, and this preface revives certain obsessions of The research. The author likes to recall the circumstances, to describe the landscapes and the places which sheltered them, the state of mind which accompanied them.

“From time to time, we heard the sound of the pump from which the water was going to flow and which made you look up at it and look at it through the closed window, there, very close, in the only alley of the small garden which bordered with bricks and earthenware in half-moons its flowerbeds of pansies: pansies gathered, it seemed, in these too beautiful skies, these versicolored skies and as if reflected from the stained glass windows of the church that one sometimes saw between the roofs of the village, sad skies that appeared before the storms, or after, too late, when the day was about to end. “

The description is shrouded in an almost sacred melancholy, which unites the real landscape and that, interior, of the young Marcel. The evocation of his family arouses memories imbued with sensuality, such as the description of strawberries with cream, the masterpiece of a “horticulturist and cook” uncle, who mixed them, “in always identical proportions, stopping just at the pink that was needed, with the experience of a colorist and the divination of a gourmand “, a memory as aesthetic as that of the coffee made by this same uncle, and of the bell jar whose steamy walls appear “a fragrant and brown ash”. The dishes evoked by Proust have for him the perfection of a sonata.
But the privileged place for reading remains the space of the bedroom, whose beauty, according to William Morris, briefly mentioned by the writer, lies in its functionality. Having enacted this aesthetic rule, the author affirms that his bedroom, on the contrary, draws its own from the objects of pleasure that populate it:

“These high white curtains which hid from view the bed placed as if at the bottom of a sanctuary; the strewn with marceline quilts, flowered quilts, batiste pillowcases, under which it disappeared during the day, like an altar in the month of Mary under festoons and flowers, and which, in the evening, in order to be able to go to bed, I would carefully place on an armchair where they would agree to spend the night; next to the bed, La Trinité du verre with blue designs, the same sugar bowl and the carafe (still empty since the day after my arrival on the orders of my aunt who was afraid of seeing me “spill it”), sorts of instruments of worship…”

The author, after having evoked the joy that his readings gave him, describes the grief experienced in having to leave his favorite heroes, once the work is finished. It shows the casualness and the cruelty of the author who dispatches them in an epilogue, as if “a person indifferent to our passions of the day had replaced him”. If reading should not “play in life the preponderant role assigned to it by Ruskin” in his book, Proust sets aside those of childhood. He summarizes the ideas of the English writer whom he translates and prefaces, in a few pages as powerful as they are poetic, then separates himself from them while maintaining a critical distance. Ruskin’s text allows him to deploy his own thought, but also to evoke the happiness caused, twenty years earlier, by his immersion in the universe of Captain Smash. Gautier, whose metaphors he considers a little weak, shows in this novel an intuition of beauty revealed by one or two quotations, one of which “gave him a real intoxication”, making him see “a marvelous Antiquity in through this Middle Ages”, and allow him to hope for other revelations of the same order: what judgment to make on renowned writers, or by what means to access the truth? He describes the role played by beautiful books in our spiritual life as follows:

“We feel very well that our wisdom begins where the author’s ends, we would like him to give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires. And these desires, he cannot awaken them in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty to which the last effort of his art enabled him to attain… For it is indeed love that poets awaken in us to make us attach importance literal to things that are only meaningful to them as personal emotions.”

It is doubtless through this aspiration that Proust the Writer joins Proust the Reader. Doesn’t all his art boil down to making his own readers experience what he himself felt when reading other authors? He also evokes, well before Régine Detambel and her bibliotherapy, the therapeutic dimension of books for the sick.

“For him, the book is not the angel who flies away as soon as he has opened the gates of the celestial garden, but a motionless idol, which he adores for itself…”

Proust finally highlights this strange form of friendship that reading represents:

“But at least it is a sincere friendship, and the fact that it is addressed to a dead person, to an absent person, gives it something disinterested, almost touching. what makes others ugly.”

Thus, the writer devotes a series of pages to this friendly relationship, of which he cites a certain number of examples. He finally returns to the use of the first person to bring some of his readings closer to a dreamlike sensation experienced in Venice, by showing how the past can resurface at the heart of the present.

A wonderful booklet, a little melancholic, with delicious illustrations, which takes us back to our first pleasures as a reader. In this preface, the writer condenses his favorite themes, while paying a vibrant tribute to the authors who preceded him, and allowed him to build himself. His preface teaches us more about his intimate universe than about Ruskin’s work. Precious testimony, it completes our knowledge of the childhood of young Marcel, and his tastes in adulthood. This beautiful text, unknown to most, will undeniably delight lovers of The research.

Proust, Marcel, Reading days, illustrations by Pascal Lemaître, Éditions de l’Aube, 08/25/2022, 1 vol. (139 pages), €15.90.

Chronicle written by Marion Poirson

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“Reading Days” by Marcel Proust, an unknown work

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