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New Left Review 10, July-August 2001


Deciphering the puzzle of Proust’s second visit to Italy, through a chimera of desire in his fiction: from chambermaid to valet, through tell-tale slips of idiom and signature tricks of speech.

MICHAEL MAAR

THE SINS OF PADUA

Proust meets Mme Putbus's maid

In May 1900, Marcel Proust and his mother travelled to Venice, following in Ruskin’s footsteps. In 1931—nine years after Proust’s death—a French consul in Venice came across a surprising entry in the visitors’ book of the Armenian monastery there: Proust’s signature. In itself, this might not seem so strange, but the date was rather peculiar. The entry was made not in May 1900 but on October 19th of that year. We must infer that Proust made two trips to Italy—for he was certainly in France in September; and that the second time, he probably went alone. As to what he did there, the latest research has almost nothing to say. The most recent American biography, nearly a thousand pages long, contains no more than three brief sentences on this final Italian visit. It remains a mysterious blank in the scholarship. [1] See William C. Carter, Marcel Proust. A Life, New Haven 2001, p. 298. ‘Is it possible’, Carter wonders, ‘that Marcel, like his future Narrator, wandered through the working-class quarters of Venice, casting covetous glances at attractive young women or men?’ That Carter is taken in by the ‘young women’ casts some light on his degree of understanding of this fundamental Proustian problem.

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