One mid-July evening in the summer of 1975, I was attending a performance of Rossini’s opera Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra in the Roman amphitheatre at Aries. The moon had risen, and whilst the players of the orchestra were tuning their instruments, I overheard from the row in front an elderly gentleman reply to some question from one of his companions: ‘J’ai vu Marcel Proust trois fois dans ma jeunesse’. The buzz of conversation and the noise of the cellos and trumpets obscured whatever else he said. I wanted to lean forward and ask, ‘What was he like?’
Aesthete, snob, invalid, obsessed genius- and humorist, he might have replied. This selection comes from volumes four to nine of the compleat correspondence, published in France and also edited by Philip Kolb. These five years are crucial for the beginning of Proust’s work on A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. In April 1904, as he was about to shut himself away from the spring pollen that aggravated his asthma, Proust was sent a present of Japanese paper flowers that open under water and which were to figure in one of the most celebrated passages in Swann’s Way as he compares their flowering to the awakening of his memory.
Proust was not much in the habit of celebrating Christmas; then, as now, the night of St Silvestre, New Year’s Eve, was with its promise of the year to come, more of a festivity. Yet, as in the pages concerning Mme Swann at home, he enjoyed the