Brain Pickings

Proust’s Previously Unknown Illustrated Poems

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“As you read the poems, the lapidary wall of Great Writer dissolves and the person expands horizontally.”

In recent decades, literary history has unearthed previously unknown — and, often, unexpected — poems by such prose icons as Vonnegut, Bradbury, Joyce, and Twain. But even those most deeply acquainted with his work might be surprised that between the ages of seventeen and fifty, Marcel Proust — master of tormented prose, weaver of breathless sentences, sickly eccentric — penned a number of poems, mostly scribbled in his journals and in letters to his correspondents. A newly released dual-language edition of The Collected Poems (public library), with parallel text in French and English, features Proust’s poems never previously translated into English or published in book form at all. Affectionate, witty, often lascivious, frequently full of longing, these unexpected verses reveal a side of Proust that is at once utterly new and all the more intimately familiar.

Harold Augenbraum, founder of the Proust Society of America and editor of the collection, writes in the introduction:

[The poems] show a different side of Proust from the Great Writer to whom we have become accustomed and inured: at various times intimate, vulgar, gay, Proust as Wicked Little Imp, master of the affectionate barb. Knowing this Proust only enhances our appreciation of the novel. As you read the poems, the lapidary wall of Great Writer dissolves and the person expands horizontally, while at the same time the importance of friendship draws out a consistent beauty of form and language, full of sentiment without sentimentality.

At various times they are sexed-up, dreamy, artsy, catty, and loving. They are always observant, insightful, and delightful.

And delightful, indeed, they are. A number of them explore Proust’s experience of place and belonging, and three of those included in the collection feature his hand-drawn illustrations:

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 36, sent to Reynaldo Hahn from Dordrecht

#36 DORDRECHT

Your sky always slightly
blue
Morning often slightly
wet

Lovely Dordrecht
Tomb
Of my precious illusions

When I try to draw
Your canals, your roofs, your steeple
I feel I could love
A homeland

Still sun and church bells
Dry out quickly
For high mass, also brioches
And gleaming steeple

Your sky
So often wet,
But always underneath
A bit stays blue.

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 37, sent to Reynaldo Hahn from Dordrecht

#37 DORDRECHT

A baker in the square
Where nothing stirs but a pigeon
Reflections in an icy blue canal —
A great red mould,
A barge slipping forward, disturbing
A waterlily, sunlight
In the baker’s mirror flitting over a red currant
Tart,
Scaring hell out of a feasting fly.
At the end of the mass, here comes everybody — alleluia,
Holy Mother of Angels
Come, let’s take a boat ride on the canal
After a little nap.

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 58

#58

Little project of sweet stained glass
To make it was a pain in the ass
On the left are Félicie and Marie
Who wash clothes and complain incessantly.
On the right Buninuls cannot open Legras powder
And Binchdinuls comes for alumsinum
Buninuls helps by knee and arms
Binchdinuls is divided by a gothic column
Everything here to show Binchdinuls what day it is
Not a day goes by without sending a little inscripartus.

Echoing neurologist Oliver Sacks’s provocative wisdom on influence and the necessary forgettings of creativity and Twain’s assertion that all creativity is “second-hand,” Augenbraum notes:

The very bookish Marcel Proust was above all a reader, a logophile who imbibed literature to such an extent that one imagines by the time he reached adulthood he no longer knew where the memory of Baudelaire’s work ended and the vision of his own poetry began. Tone wells up from the deeply digested works of precursors.

And yet The Collected Poems are somehow uniquely Proustian — dreamy, ambivalent, sensitive, and invariably, intoxicatingly restless.

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