Marcel Proust’s First Poem, ‘Pederasty,’ Shows Him Struggling With Homosexuality
Everyone knows In Search of Lost Time, but few know that Marcel Proust started on poetry and kept at it throughout his life. For the centennial of Swann’s Way, editor Harold Augenbraum brought together 20 renowned poets and translators to publish the most complete volume of Proust’s poetry ever assembled, in an edition with both French and English. Most of the poems in The Collected Poems of Marcel Proust have never been translated into English or published in book form until now.
Here is the first known poem by Proust, written when he was 17, that shows him struggling with his homosexual urges. The poem is dedicated to his friend Daniel Halévy, and he wrote to him in a letter: “Don’t treat me as a pederast, that wounds me. Morally I’m trying, if only out of a sense of elegance, to remain pure.” The poem is titled “Pederasty.”
Translated by Richard Howard
To Daniel Halévy
If I had money from a boundless mint
and sinew enough in hands, lips, loins,
I’d shun the vanity of politics and print,
and leave—tomorrow? No, tonight!—for lawns
luminous with artificial green
(without the rustic flaws of frost and vermin),
where I’d forever be sleeping with one
warm child or other: François? Firmin? . . .
For what is manly mockery to me?
Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,
I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!
Beneath a solar gold, a lunar nacre,
I’d… languish (an ars moriendi of my own),
deaf to the knell of dreary Decency!
À Daniel Halévy
Si j’avais un gros sac d’argent d’or ou de cuivre
Avec un peu de nerf aux reins lèvres ou mains
Laissant ma vanité—cheval, sénat ou livre,
Je m’enfuirais là-bas, hier, ce soir ou demain
Au gazon framboisé—émeraude ou carmin !—
Sans rustiques ennuis, guêpes, rosée ou givre
Je voudrais à jamais coucher, aimer ou vivre
Avec un tiède enfant, Jacques, Pierre ou Firmin.
Arrière le mépris timide des Prud’hommes !
Pigeons, neigez ! Chantez, ormeaux ! blondissez, pommes !
Je veux jusqu’à mourir aspirer son parfum !
Sous l’or des soleils roux, sous la nacre des lunes
Je veux… m’évanouir et me croire défunt
Loin du funèbre glas des Vertus importunes !
Discovered in the Daniel Halévy archive in Dijon and published in Marcel Proust: Écrits de jeunesse 1887—1895, edited by Anne Borrel et al. Most likely composed in November 1888 and dedicated to Halévy. It seems to have elicited a correction from Halévy, since Proust responded with a letter discussing Halévy’s correction, which was truncated when Proust’s philosophy teacher, Alphonse Darlu, interrupted its writing.
Proust’s sexuality was a matter of public discussion even during his lifetime, but this poem and letters between Proust and Jacques Bizet (the son of Georges Bizet, the composer of Carmen) and Daniel Halévy written at the same time certainly make his interest in homosexuality abundantly clear. In a letter to Bizet, probably written in the spring of 1888, he responds to Bizet’s letter (now lost) that seems to say that Bizet had refused Proust’s advances, Proust saying that he is “not fatuous enough to believe that my body is so precious a treasure that to renounce it required great strength of character… Still, I always find it sad not to pluck the delicious flower that we shall soon be unable to pluck. For then it would be fruit… and forbidden.” Proust writes to Halévy later in the year, “You think me jaded and effete. You are mistaken. If you are delicious, if you have lovely eyes which reflect the grace and refinement of your mind with such purity that I feel I cannot fully love your mind without kissing your eyes, if your body and mind, like your thoughts, are so lithe and slender that I feel I could mingle more intimately with your thoughts by sitting on your lap, if, finally, I feel that the charm of your person, in which I cannot separate your keen mind from your agile body, would refine and enhance ‘the sweet joy of love’ for me, there is nothing in all that to deserve your contemptuous words, which would have been more fittingly addressed to someone surfeited with women and seeking new pleasures in pederasty.” (Letter translated by Terrence Kilmartin.) At about that time, Halévy wrote in his journal, “Take Proust. As talented as they come and yet look at how he overdoes it. Weak, young, he screws, he masturbates, maybe he even pederasts! But maybe in his life he’ll show flashes of hidden genius.”
The Halévy family constituted cultural aristocracy in mid and late-19th century Paris and played a major role both in Proust’s life and art. Daniel Halévy’s great-grandfather Elie, the son of a rabbi and talented in music composition and choral conducting as well as literary exegesis, emigrated from Würzburg to Paris in the late eighteenth century. Elie had two sons, Fromental and Léon, both of whom achieved fame in Parisian artistic circles. The former would compose several highly acclaimed operas, including La Juive, which Proust would use as a prominent and recurring motif in À la recherche du temps perdu, beginning with the narrator’s own grandfather humming an aria from the work when a friend of his grandson came to call, to the epithet the narrator gives to Rachel, the prostitute he frequents, “Rachel, quand du seigneur,” who turns out later to be his best friend’s great love.
Fromental’s daughter, Geneviève, would play an important role in Proust’s entry into Parisian artistic and social circles. At the age of 20, Geneviève married the composer Georges Bizet, who was 30 at the time of the marriage. However, with the perceived failure of his 1875 opera Carmen, Bizet experienced a deep depression and then died of a heart attack, at the age of 36. Proust, Bizet’s son Jacques, and Daniel Halévy would all attend the Lycée Condorcet. Geneviève would become Madame Straus, and at her salon Proust would meet Paris’s nobility, artists, writers, musicians, and wealthy businessmen, many of whom would later populate his work.
Proust and Daniel Halévy would remain close friends for many years, although they fell out with one another several times and had grown apart by the time they had reached their thirties. In his memoir Souvenirs sur Marcel Proust (Memories of Marcel Proust, 1926), Robert Dreyfus, Proust and Halévy’s schoolmate at the Lycée Condorcet, described the uneasiness of their schoolboy relationship: “The difference in their natures: Marcel Proust’s ‘warmth and good will’ tended to startle a colder, more closed, and defensive Daniel Halévy who then, following a show of mood and impatience, would, without even a backward glance, draw close to him again.” In fact, Dreyfus mentions that at one point during their school days Halévy refused to speak to Proust for a month. Though Proust often claimed to have brought the novelist Anatole France into the (Alfred) Dreyfusard fold, Halévy should most likely share the credit, since the approach took place at a party at the Halévy home, and the following day France signed a petition on Dreyfus’s behalf in the presence of them both.
Halévy went on to a respected career as an historian and editor.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Collected Poems of Marcel Proust. Copyright Harold Augenbraum, 2013.