To celebrate the centenary of Marcel Proust’s birth, Derek Patmore provided a tour d’horizon of the great modernist for the Observer Magazine (‘The Paris of Proust’, 30 May 1971). Proust particularly admired the painter Jean Béraud’s sublime evocations of the Parisian belle époque and his L’Arrivée des Midinettes, featuring the Place de l’Opera, graces the cover.
That year Illiers, where Proust spent his childhood holidays and which was the model for Combray in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, changed its name to Illiers-Combray to mark the occasion. Patmore’s poet friend Pierre Emmanuel once told him: ‘The people of Illiers have become so Proustian that they are all trying to live like characters from his novel.’
‘Proust, unlike most French writers, was much influenced by English writers,’ according to Patmore. ‘He was a great admirer of Dickens and George Eliot; and even translated several of John Ruskin’s books into French.’
Fitting, then, that his niece and literary heir Suzy Mante-Proust said the English were the first to really appreciate her uncle’s genius. At the start of his writing career, most of his French contemporaries regarded him as ‘merely a charming, witty member of society who belonged to wealthy parents’.
Patmore spoke to Antoine Bibesco who told him Proust was a ‘difficult friend, jealous and possessive’, and quoted from a letter Proust sent him: ‘I feel the jealousy of a masculine Andromeda, chained to his rock, tortured by the sight of Antoine Bibesco ever receding, ever disappearing and multiplying himself, ever past following.’
‘It is significant that one of his last gestures was to get up from his sickbed to see his favourite painting by Vermeer, View of Delft,’ Patmore wrote. ‘He was ill and he knew that he was risking death, but he had loved life with such a passion that suddenly he felt he must see the visible beauty of the world for the last time before he died.’