16-Year-Old Marcel Proust Tells His Grandfather About His Misguided Adventures at the Local Brothel


“One can say any­thing so long as one does not say ‘I.’ ” Mar­cel Proust wrote these words to his fel­low French­man of let­ters André Gide, and they con­sti­tute valu­able advice for any nov­el­ist as well as a use­ful key to under­stand­ing Proust’s own work. We think of Proust — espe­cial­ly today, the hun­dredth anniver­sary of Swan­n’s Way, which opens his mas­ter­work Remem­brance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps per­du) — as an impor­tant French nov­el­ist, an impor­tant mod­ern nov­el­ist, an impor­tant fin-de-siè­cle nov­el­ist, and so on. We also think of Proust as an impor­tant gay nov­el­ist.  And we owe that, in some sense, to Gide, who revealed the clos­et­ed Proust’s homo­sex­u­al­i­ty in their pub­lished cor­re­spon­dence after Proust’s death. Sex­u­al­i­ty has since become a major ele­ment of the robust field of Proust crit­i­cism, and the let­ter above sure­ly gives its schol­ars mate­r­i­al — or at least those schol­ars will­ing to exam­ine the author’s biog­ra­phy along­side his work.

The author of Remem­brance of Things Past once suf­fered, accord­ing to Let­ters of Note, from an obses­sion with mas­tur­ba­tion. “As a teenag­er this caused prob­lems for his fam­i­ly, not least his father, a pro­fes­sor of hygiene, who like many of the day believed that such a wor­ry­ing habit could cause homo­sex­u­al­i­ty if left unchecked.” Giv­en 10 francs by Proust père, Mar­cel went off to the neigh­bor­hood broth­el to, in the­o­ry, get him­self set straight. And the out­come of this “cure”? We defer to the six­teen-year-old Proust him­self, who in the let­ter above tells the whole sor­did sto­ry to his grand­fa­ther:

18 May 1888

Thurs­day evening.

My dear lit­tle grand­fa­ther,

I appeal to your kind­ness for the sum of 13 francs that I wished to ask Mr. Nathan for, but which Mama prefers I request from you. Here is why. I so need­ed to see if a woman could stop my awful mas­tur­ba­tion habit that Papa gave me 10 francs to go to a broth­el. But first, in my agi­ta­tion, I broke a cham­ber pot: 3 francs; then, still agi­tat­ed, I was unable to screw. So here I am, back to square one, wait­ing more and more as hours pass for 10 francs to relieve myself, plus 3 francs for the pot. But I dare not ask Papa for more mon­ey so soon and so I hoped you could come to my aid in a cir­cum­stance which, as you know, is not mere­ly excep­tion­al but also unique. It can­not hap­pen twice in one life­time that a per­son is too flus­tered to screw.

I kiss you a thou­sand times and dare to thank you in advance.

I will be home tomor­row morn­ing at 11am. If you are moved by my sit­u­a­tion and can answer my prayers, I will hope­ful­ly find you with the amount. Regard­less, thank you for your deci­sion which I know will come from a place of friend­ship.


Many thanks to Let­ters of Note for uncov­er­ing this illu­mi­nat­ing and — inten­tion­al­ly? unin­ten­tion­al­ly? — comedic piece of cor­re­spon­dence from lit­er­ary his­to­ry, and to Fabi­en Bon­net and Larst Onovich, to whom Let­ters of Note, in turn, gives cred­it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Supreme Court Jus­tice Stephen Brey­er Dis­cuss­es His Love for Read­ing Proust, and Why “Lit­er­a­ture is Cru­cial to Any Democ­ra­cy”

Watch Mon­ty Python’s “Sum­ma­rize Proust Com­pe­ti­tion” on the 100th Anniver­sary of Swann’s Way

Lis­ten­ing to Proust’s Remem­brance of Things Past, (Maybe) the Longest Audio Book Ever Made

Free eBooks: Read All of Proust’s Remem­brance of Things Past on the Cen­ten­ni­al of Swann’s Way

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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