Marcel Proust     PROUST, MARCEL (1871-1922)

The French novelist and critic, best known for his Remembrance of Things Past, Proust moved in fashionable Parisian society during the 1890s. The portrait painter Jacques-Émile Blanche introduced Wilde to Proust at the home of Mme Arthur Baignères, whose grandsons gave an account to Philippe Jullian of the relationship between the two writers (the grandsons having learned of it from their grandfather). At their initial meeting, Wilde was impressed by Proust's enthusiasm for English literature and particularly by his intelligent questions concerning Ruskin and George Eliot.

Wilde accepted Proust's invitation to dine in the Boulevard Haussmann apartment, but the evening began awkwardly, for Proust was detained. When he arrived out of breath, Proust asked his servant, "Is the English gentleman here?" The servant informed him that Wilde had arrived but almost immediately thereafter went to the bathroom and was still there. Proust rushed to the door: "Mr. Wilde are you ill?" Wilde emerged "majestically": 'No, I am not in the least ill. I thought I was to have the pleasure of dining with you alone, but they showed me into the drawing- room. I looked at the drawing-room and at the end of it were your parents, my courage left me. Goodbye, dear Monsieur Proust, goodbye...." Proust learned from his parents that Wilde had made an unpleasant comment concerning the furnishings in the drawing-room: "How ugly your house is", but this report depicts Wilde so crudely that it undermines itself.

In April 1894, on his final visit to Paris, Wilde dined with Proust at the home of Dime. Arman de Caillavet, where, writes George Painter, "the two men eyed one another ... with a complex curiosity". They apparently never met again, nor are there any letters known to have been exchanged between them. Painter contends that Wilde "failed to impress Proust: yet perhaps Wilde's glorying in his vice may have taken some effect in that spring of 1894. Possibly there is a little of Wilde in Charlus," the baron in Remembrance. In the volume of Remembrance titled Cities of the Plain, Proust alludes to Wilde in a passage concerning the secret lives of homosexuals and the consequences of discovery, a dilemma with which Proust himself was preoccupied: 'Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet one day feted in every drawing-room and applauded in every theatre in London, and the next driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head....".

References: George Painter, Proust: The Earl Years (1959); Philippe Jullian, Oscar Wilde, trans. Violet Wyndham (1969); Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, Vol. 2 (1981).