Today is the ninetieth anniversary of Proust’s death and I would like to mark the occasion with this post on a visit I made to Illiers-Combray back in 1971 (coincidentally the centenary of Proust’s birth).
Chartres sits on the great flat plain of la Beauce and the cathedral with its two towers can be seen from miles away, crouching like a solitary cat with huge ears. I spent some time exploring this wonderful, Gothic cathedral and at that time there was a great English guide there called Malcolm Miller who had spent several years studying the building. He led a really mind-opening tour of the cathedral for a small group of English speakers. Though I recall no details of that tour now, I do recall its impact: the realisation that architecture can convey ideas and an overall purpose and that buildings can be ‘read’ to discover their meaning, in a similar way to literary texts. Malcolm Miller was superb on the stained glass windows of Chartres and how all the parts of the cathedral worked together to deliver a consistent visual message, essential in a society where literacy was the preserve of the wealthy or learned.
Not long before that visit to France I had read the Combray section of Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of Proust’s vast novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (ALRTP) and was aware that there was a connection between Proust and this part of la France profonde. For some fifteen miles south-west of Chartres lies the small town of Illiers, where Proust spent childhood holidays with his family and which was one of the main models for Combray in the novel.
[I was living in northern France at the time, working as a surveillant in a private Catholic college in a small town in Picardy, and stayed for a while with a doctor and his family called Perdu. One day out in the street, the doctor’s wife stopped me and asked if I had seen her youngest son Antoine. To which I replied: ‘Ah, Madame, vous êtes à la recherche d’Antoine Perdu!’ She didn’t seem to get the joke. In hindsight she was probably more concerned to find her young son than laugh politely at a foreigner’s lame humour.]
So, on a Sunday, just out of curiosity to see what the place looked like and without doing any research on whether there was anything worth seeing and if there were whether it would even be open, I caught the train from Chartres out to Illiers. I was surprised to discover on arrival that the town name, as displayed on the station platform, had changed to ‘Illiers-Combray’. It turned out that this change only came about in 1971 in commemoration of the centenary of Proust’s birth.
Illiers-Combray was a rather characterless small town on the banks of the river Loir, consisting of undistinguished houses in grey stone around a small central square on which stands the church of St. Jacques. The church name is a reminder that the town stands on the old pilgrim route of St James of Compostella.
Illiers is where Proust’s father was born and where his uncle and aunt, Jules and Elisabeth Amiot, lived. From an early age Proust’s parents brought him and his brother Robert out to Illiers at Easter and during the summer holidays to stay. The Combray of the novel is a composite of Illiers and Auteuil (just outside Paris) where his maternal grandparents lived, just as the characters are composites of lots of different people that Proust actually knew.
However it is from Illiers and the surrounding area that Proust drew many names that appear in the novel. For example: Tansonville (the name of Swann’s estate); Méséglise (estate of the Duc de Guermantes, adapted from Méréglise); La Raspelière (house of the Verdurins near Balbec from La Rachepelière); Saint Loup (name of one of the narrator’s aristocratic friends); Montjouvain (home of the composer Vinteuil and his daughter, adapted from Montjouvin); Saint Hilaire (the name of the church in Combray, taken from the Rue Saint-Hilaire in Illiers); Mirougrain (farm owned by the narrator’s Tante Léonie); and Combray itself (adapted from the village of Combres).
Everything was closed up in the town that Sunday afternoon; the streets were empty and completely silent. Wondering off the main square to explore the side streets I came across what was described as La Maison de Tante Léonie (the house where Proust’s Amiot uncle and aunt lived) in the Rue du Saint Esprit and amazingly it was open. When a small group of people had gathered (there couldn’t have been more than 6 or 8 of us) we were given a guided tour of the house: the dining room; the kitchen ruled over by the family servant, Ernestine (one of the originals of Françoise in the novel); aunt Elisabeth’s bedroom; the room where Proust slept; the small garden itself.
We were then led out of the garden, through the town and across the river Loir by a footbridge to a small park or pleasure-garden built by uncle Jules that he called the Pré Catalan (after a famous enclosure in the Bois de Boulogne). Uncle Jules laid it out with lawns, dwarf palms, gravel paths, geranium beds, a small lake (more accurately a pond) with swans and carp, and an octagonal, red brick summer-house that he called La Maison des Archers. A small brook, still too wide to jump across, ran from the pond into the nearby Loir. Here Marcel and his brother Robert came to play and fish in the pond, and Marcel read on the divan in the summer-house. When I visited it, the pond was silted up and the pleasure-garden overgrown, so it was difficult to see how it would have looked in Proust’s childhood.
Back at the house, we were shown into a garage (built after Proust’s time), fitted out with old red plush cinema seat, where we were addressed by our guide about the town and its connection with Proust and his novel. The guide’s name was M. Pierre Larcher, an old man, in his eighties at least, with rheumy eyes. From his clothes he looked as if he had stepped straight out of the late nineteenth century. He was wearing a white shirt with a tie of the sort called in French a bande lavallière (a large, floppy, stringy bow tie fashionable amongst artists and intellectuals of the fin de siècle) a black velvet jacket with piping round the lapel edges and a black fedora. M Larcher had been born in Illiers-Combray and was president of the Société des amis de Marcel Proust.
As we filed out of the garage into the garden again for one last inhalation of Proustian atmosphere, I went up to M Larcher and asked him whether he had ever met Proust. “No”, he said, “but I used to see him in the street when he came to stay.”
I still can’t work out how old M Larcher was. Proust was born in 1871 and stopped coming on holiday to Illiers when he was about 13, as his father thought the river and the countryside were bad for his son’s asthma. He came back on a few rare occasions in later life, but not for any length of time. To be conscious of who he was looking at, when he saw Proust in the street, M Larcher must have had to be born by the late 1870s at the latest. That would have made him somewhere in his mid-nineties at the time I met him.
The temptation to identify places and people in real life with their fictional counterparts is often overwhelming. This is particularly the case with Proust whose novel frequently tends to be read as a thinly disguised autobiography. However, I am sure this something he would have strongly resisted. In a critical essay entitled Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust attacked the biographical approach to understanding a writer’s work.
Nevertheless that visit to Illiers-Combray has always stayed with me and gave me an understanding of the background to the novel that I could not have got any other way when, 2-3 years later, I came to read ALRTP itself.