Travel: Remembrance of Proust's past

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The Independent Culture
France has many eccentric authors but perhaps strangest of all was Marcel Proust. Anne Boston goes in search of lost times.

The cork-lined bedroom in 102 Boulevard Haussmann, where Marcel Proust famously immured himself for a decade to write his ever-expanding "novel", has fairly recently been redecorated and opened to the public. After taking the best part of a year's bedtime reading to digest A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, I longed to visit, less out of reverence than vulgar curiosity. Lugging George Painter's masterly biography and a street map, I took a long weekend and Eurostar to explore the fin-de-siecle capital of this consummate Parisian.

"Une equipe de femmes Proustiennes," observed a fellow visitor in the lift to the second floor of 102 Boulevard Haussmann. In this apartment a late-night cup of tea and finger of toast on New Year's Eve 1909 unlocked the long-buried memory that fuelled his mighty endeavour. And here was the bedroom where Proust sat in bed, racked by asthma, writing by night and retiring at dawn, insulated from daylight, dust and noise; his needs supplied by Celeste the maid and her chauffeur husband Odilon Albaret ... Quel horreur! The elegant new cork and wood panels look totally wrong, and the bank owning the building uses his salon as a boardroom.

But two museums are genuinely evocative, one of the era, the other of the writer. Westward along Boulevard Haussmann is the Musee Jacquemart- Andre, unrelated to Proust but redolent of the post-Third Empire's displays of wealth and style. The mansion, with its sweeping drive, Tiepolo ceilings and vast reception rooms, was built by Edouard Andre and his wife Nelie; they stuffed the rooms with treasures by Italian and Flemish masters, recalling Charles Haas, Proust's original for Swann.

Buried in the intimate little streets of the Marais at the far end of the Rue de Rivoli, the delightful Musee Carnavalet has recreated a far more authentic version of Proust's bedroom with his own furniture. Nearby is the yellow satin bedroom of his friend the glamorous poetess Anna de Noailles.

Proust himself declared that "the material of my experience ... would also be the material of my book". Reinforcing the illusion, the little town of Illiers, his childhood Eden and original of Combray with its two walks mysteriously leading in opposite directions to the same starting point, has been renamed Illiers-Combray in the novel's honour; and the gravel path in the Champs Elysees where young Marcel first fell in love has become the Allee de Marcel Proust.

I couldn't resist the afternoon trip out to Illiers-Combray, near Chartres. The church still looms at every turn; a wedding party was being photographed on the Pre Catalan. At Aunt Elisabeth's dark, musty little house, a loquacious English admirer was baffled by the view from Marcel's bedroom window: "But where is the drive?" she protested - though the Combray of Proust's imagination owed as much to his great-uncle Louis Weil's house in the Paris suburb of Auteuil, where Proust was born, that was demolished in the 1890s. Proust's Bois today is battered by the Peripherique, and murderous traffic hurtles down the Avenue des Acacias where uncle Louis drove his carriage.

Proust's father was an eminent physician whose social position demanded an address in the 8th arrondissement, with its wide boulevards and tall, gloomy houses. The French aren't given to blue plaques, but apart from the house at Auteuil all Proust's domiciles still stand - 9 Boulevard Malesherbes and 45 rue de Courcelles, where he lived with his parents; and 102 boulevard Haussmann and 44 rue de Hamelin where he moved after their death.

At the Lycee Condorcet he began his strange life cycle of assiduously courting the nobility, then cultivating his ill health and gradually retreating from society to resurrect it in his novel. He emerged increasingly rarely for bouts of extravagant socialising in the great restaurants - Larue, Webers and, above all, the Ritz.

Proust's last move in 1919 was to the 16e, where he took a flat on the 5th floor of 44 rue Hamelin - now an unexciting hotel. Most of the family furniture was by then in store, or donated with exquisite perversion to Albert, former footman to the Duc de Rohan, when he set up an all-male brothel. Surviving on his nightly diet of cafe au lait and occasional iced beer rushed from the Ritz by the faithful Celeste, Proust willed himself to live for the work that finally united the Two Ways, his childhood self with the artist he became.

Musee Marcel Proust at Illiers-Combray, 4, rue du docteur Proust, Illiers- Combray, Eure-et-Loir, is open daily except Mondays, 2.30-4.30pm. Travel by train from Paris' Montparnasse; change at Chartres.

102 Boulevard Haussmann: Proust's bedroom can be viewed on Thursday afternoons 2-4 pm. Metro: St Augustin.

Musee Jacquemart-Andre, 158 Boulevard Haussmann, Paris 8e. Entrance 45fr.

Musee Carnavalet, 23 rue de Sevigne, Paris 3e. Entrance 35fr. Metro: St Paul.