On Proust at Musée Carnavalet, Paris

— Yves-Noël Genod

Jean Béraud, La colonne Morris, vers 1885

Jean Béraud, La colonne Morris, vers 1885

“Marcel Proust, Un Roman Parisien”
Musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris
December 16–April 10, 2022

Paris swarms with magnificent exhibitions. This has not always been the case, but right now, it is. When Jules (I say his name only for the pleasure of the word) asked me to go and see, for May Revue, the 150th anniversary show commemorating the birth of Proust, I immediately said yes. I love Proust more than anything. He’s my favorite. I created a show about him at the Bouffes du Nord theater in February 2017, La Recherche. What I would like to redo more than anything else, is this very luxurious show—luxury, it is gift and prodigality—which, having already given me so much, continues to give, like the eternal return of the most beautiful dream, like the infinite pleasure of being in contact with the unlimited delicateness of an infinite work. The Musée Carnavalet is simply the doll’s house version of the life-size museum that is Paris, so, fittingly, the exhibition was, at this (doll’s) scale, kitschy and full of a garage sale’s worth of relics and memories (among which there were nevertheless very beautiful pieces like one of Monet’s masterpieces, Le Pont de L’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare, usually found in the Musée Marmottan, two sublime photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue, some drawings by Picasso, a folding screen by Bonnard, etc.). “Visitor friendly,” I thought to myself as I walked into an exhibition more about Paris than about Proust, more for tourists in Paris (the kind of tourists we are all, all the time) than for readers of Proust (that we are, more in secret). His local haunts, the restaurants, the evolution of the Bois de Boulogne, as well as the imaginary addresses in the novel. Little erudition (we are not at the BNF) but instead a superficiality of dreaming, a fog of evocations, perhaps a bit like the cloud of anti-asthmatic powder (Legras powder) that, Jean Cocteau hilariously once recounted, covered Proust’s apartment and his bedroom, which was carpeted in thick cork (a piece of which was displayed on a wall, a blackened relic). All “Paris 1900” clutter, a hodgepodge that could almost be reused for Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the other encyclopedic writer. Fragments of animated images, too, were very moving (because they evoke death). A couple of young obese girls with bows in their hair play in the Champs-Elysées gardens. A photo of Misia Edwards lounging on her yacht anchored at Pont Neuf. Some interviews as well, taken from a 1962 documentary that is available on YouTube, Marcel Proust: Portrait Souvenir; for example, the interview with “Madame André Maurois”—in front of which many visitors were gathered—who, strikingly resembles Jeanne Moreau, and who declares that the character “Mademoiselle de Saint-Loup” was based on her. Late one evening Proust, without even knowing her at the time, she being thirteen years old, had wanted to see her, and she was taken out of bed and dressed. She was furious, but “Marcel Proust was a man of bewitching charm” (we believe her). And there was the coat. The p’lisse that Paul Morand speaks of (eliding the “e”) in the same documentary, Portrait Souvenir, the one he mentions has “an old, worn-out, otter fur collar”—well, that pelisse was here, near the bars of the bed frame, sublime and heavy, with all its Bakelite buttons intact and worn out at the collar, worn out since forever, according to Paul Morand, perhaps moth-eaten, as though overprotecting his crowning glory from the body now departed. When I put on my show at the Bouffes du Nord, a radio presenter had confessed to me, a bit sheepishly, before a promotional interview, that he hadn’t seen the show but that he was going to pretend that he had. With the knowledge of this lie giving me a certain advantage, I started to make up my story when, all of a sudden, the journalist, referring to an image of the play, says completely naturally, “But, you are not at all dressed like Proust!” I was dressed in a red Balenciaga pyjama set that was too small, with very tall silver high-heels (I was “queer,” as one might say now). I immediately answered, “Ah, sorry, of course! But I entered the stage dressed in Proust’s real coat and, as you might have noticed, I take it off for only a very short time during the show; the coat is of course Proust’s pelisse wonderfully conserved at the Musée Carnavalet, who were kind enough to lend it to me for the show and I thank them very much for that.” Something like that. It was live. There was no objection. No one dared to say I was lying. At the time, I hadn’t yet seen this mythical coat (I discovered it for the first time today), but some of my wonderful friends, Vincent Darré and Elie Top, not to name drop, had lent me a coat that was, it must be said, rather similar, superb, very heavy, a good luck charm, Proustian as hell. They are the people I should truly thank here (apologizing also for holding onto this lucky, talisman coat in the hope that the show will be put on again one day). End of the anecdote. Curiously, I found the exhibition packed at the start, rubbing elbows without seeing anything, on that icy late December morning, and then less and less full as I continued, as though the crowds, with a macabre momentum, had vanished between two rooms, or, more accurately, tired from too many details, had progressively sped up toward the exit. Question: Had everyone here read Proust? Not so sure, I thought to myself. Personally, an exhibition about Balzac, of whom, alas, I have unfortunately read so little, would really interest me. Borges says somewhere that, even more than an oeuvre, what a writer gives to the world, or leaves behind, is an image. Proust’s image floats in the air like the most beautiful of our ghosts. A ghost that was already, without a doubt, present during his lifetime while he was busy writing. “We had the impression that he was a sculpture in the Musée Grévin,” Paul Morand says in the documentary.

Translated from the French by Aodhan Madden