Sighting #3: City of the Dead in the City of Lights

 Marcel Proust is buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  No, I did not sight him there, unfortunately I am not in Paris.  But in my increasing desire to return to Paris (last time was in 2005), I purchased Rick Steves’ 2007 guidebook to Paris and discovered Marcel in the pages covering the cemetery.   When we were in Paris in 2005 we didn’t visit Pere Lachaise, although I wanted to because I knew Marcel was buried there, but we just ran out of time (as did Marcel and the others there).  We did spend an afternoon in the Montmartre Cemetery and spent quite a bit of time photographing the elaborate tombs and mausoleums, also befriending the cats that apparently live there.  At dusk the guards herd everyone out by blowing whistles and ringing bells- enough to wake the dead.

Back to Marcel and Pere Lachaise.  The picture above is of his tomb there, it is a free use pic from Google and although it is small, you can just see Marcel’s name and dates (1871-1922) on the front and the bouquets of lilies people have left on top.  There are also stones on the tomb, left by visitors; this is a Jewish tradition and Marcel’s mother, Jeanne Weil, was Jewish but his father, Adrian Proust, was Catholic; Marcel himself never practiced any religion.  He wrote this in The Guermantes Way: “Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces”.  And, of course, he would know.

Here is what Rick Steves has to say about Marcel:  “Some who make it through the seven volumes and 3,000 pages of Proust’s autobiographical novel, Remembrance of Things Past, close the book and cry, “Brilliant!”.  Others get lost in the meandering, stream-of-consciousness style, and forget that the whole “Remembrance” began with the taste of a madeleine (type of cookie) that triggered a flashback to Proust’s childhood, as relived over the last 10 years of his life, during which he labored alone in his apartment on boulevard Haussmann- midway between the Arc de Triomphe and Gare de l’Est- penning his life story with reflections on Time (as we experience it, not clock time) and Memory, in long sentences.”  (page 307)

I can just imagine Proust spinning in his tomb like a dreidel over Steves calling his novel “autobiographical”.  Marcel always denied that the novel was autobiographical, but as anyone who knew him or has studied his life along with reading the novel knows, that is a bit of literary license on Marcel’s part.  There are certainly many moments that touch or in some way spring from Marcel’s life, but there are also many fiction elements or disassociations from his life; the major one that I immediately think of is that in the novel, the Narrator has no brother.  Marcel had a younger brother named Robert.

There are other things we could quibble with Steves about, but like mourners at a funeral, we won’t bring them up now.  Rick Steves also says this about Pere Lachaise: “Enclosed by a massive wall and lined with 5,000 trees, the peaceful, car-free lanes and dirt paths of Pere Lachaise cemetery encourage parklike meandering.”  He also used the word “meandering” in his description of Proust’s novel, and so one feels that maybe Marcel can be at rest here.  But I worry about those 5,000 trees and the dirt paths.  Perhaps the gift one should bring to Marcel’s tomb would be some of that “fumigation” powder he used to burn to relieve his asthma.

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2 comments on “Sighting #3: City of the Dead in the City of Lights

  1. imogen88 says:

    Mari, this is such an interesting way to get fact bites about Marcel Proust. I always find myself ambling on, learning more about him be degrees in your posts. Your affection for him shows in the style. Good stuff.

  2. marimann says:

    Thank you, Imogen. I do feel some affection for Marcel and am glad you are led to do some ambling.

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