“A feeling of vertigo seized me as I looked down beneath me… at the long series of the years.”
This line appears on the last page of Marcel Proust’s monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu (in its English translation known both as Remembrance of Things Past – from a line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 – and as In Search of Lost Time). The novel runs to some 1,267,000 words in six or seven volumes. Reading it is the literary equivalent of listening to all of Wagner’s operas in one go.
Many photographs of Proust are known but until recently it seemed there was no film, although the author lived through the excitement of early cinema. Now, a clip has been discovered in the family collection of a wealthy Belgian banking tycoon, Henri Greffulhe, of whose wife Proust once wrote, “The whole mystery of her beauty lies in the brilliance and especially the enigma of her eyes. I have never seen a woman so beautiful.” Proust used her as a model for his novel’s Duchesse de Guermantes.
In 1904, Proust attended the wedding of Greffulhe’s daughter, Elaine, a high society affair for which no expense was spared, including hiring a cameraman to record the scene. In this early home movie, the newlyweds, their parents and guests can be seen descending the steps of the Church of the Madeleine, in Paris, where the ceremony took place.
The moment is described by Rubén Gallo in “Marcel Proust, Caught On Film” (The New Yorker, 17 February 2017):
“Around the thirty-five-second mark, as dozens of elegant socialites pass through the frame in a leisurely procession, a young Marcel races past them down the steps, garnering the disapproving gaze of one older woman. The film lasts little more than a minute, and Proust comes and goes in less than three seconds.”
Famously, in À la recherche du temps perdu the device of a morsel of cake dipped in tea is used to trigger not just the memories of the narrator (undoubtedly Proust himself), but the whole structure of the novel. A passage in chapter one in the C. K. Scott Moncrieff/Terence Kilmartin translation (1992), sums up the potency of taste and smell:
“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
Proust is likely to have been wearing a touch of cologne when he descended the steps of the Church of the Madeleine, but we shall never know. He was certainly familiar with magic lanterns and the cinematograph, used by the Lumière Brothers to record and project their first film, Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon, shown in Paris on 28 December 1895. But he made a clear distinction between film as “a sort of procession of things upon the screen of a cinematograph” and what he saw as the greater complexity and depth of the modern novel.
And now we have Proust himself passing fleetingly before our eyes through the magic of film, unwittingly underlining the whole premise of À la recherche du temps perdu: that time can indeed be regained.