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.footnote1

Not the only one, naturally, just one that chance happens to have thrown to light. In the double life Proust led, secrets were not the exception but the rule. We can only speculate how early this double life began. In one letter from the young Proust—written in 1888, when he was only sixteen—the rule does not yet appear to be in force. Only published in 1993, this extraordinary little document also concerns the second visit to a place of pleasure. And although it may seem inconsistent with the later secrets, it shows the first budding of a typically Proustian theme. ‘My dear, dear Grandpapa,’ Proust begins,

Please be so kind as to let me have the sum of 13 francs. I wanted to ask M. Nathan, but Mamma would rather I asked you. Here’s why. I had to see a woman so urgently to stop my bad habit of masturbating that Papa gave me 10 francs to go to the brothel. But 1st, I was so worked up I broke a chamber-pot, worth 3 francs, and second, I was in such a state I couldn’t manage to screw. So here I am just as before, still needing 10 francs to relieve myself, more every hour, as well as the 3 francs for the pot. But I don’t dare ask Papa for the money again so soon, and I’d hoped that you would come to my rescue in these exceptional and, as you know, unique circumstances: it doesn’t happen twice in a lifetime that one is too flustered to be able to screw.footnote2

We might almost be tempted to take this for a forgery, if we did not have the authenticated text. Did mother, father, grandson and grandpapa really speak so frankly in this respectable middle-class milieu? But the funny thing about this sponging letter is that we cannot even be sure that all is really quite as candid as it seems. From everything we know of Proust, his inclinations at this age were already directed exclusively towards young men. Shortly before his death, he told an astonished André Gide that he had never in his life had sexual relations with a woman.footnote3 So even if grandpapa had given him the thirteen francs, he did not repeat his visit; unless he departed the house of pleasure for a second time without acquitting himself—an outcome rather at odds with his manly prediction. A third possibility cannot be entirely excluded—and this is what makes the whole affair both comic and complex. Perhaps the young Proust never even went to the brothel. Perhaps he spent the money on a bunch of flowers for some beloved duchess, and the broken chamber-pot was just a pretext: camouflage. If so, the 1888 letter would be a very rare document indeed: not a lame excuse to cover up a brothel visit, but a brothel visit serving as excuse.

For Proust, who had had to habituate himself from an early age to covering up and making excuses, this would have been nothing strange. In a famous passage from Sodom and Gomorrah, he writes of the race maudite:

A race upon which a curse is laid and which must live in falsehood and perjury because it knows that its desire, that which constitutes life’s dearest pleasure, is held to be punishable, shameful, an inadmissible thing; which must deny its God, since its members, even when Christians, when at the bar of justice they appear and are arraigned, must before Christ and in his name refute as a calumny what is their very life; sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie all her life long and even in the hour when they close her dying eyes; friends without friendships . . .footnote4

And so it goes on for over half a page or more, the tumbling rush of a single sentence in which a lifetime’s agony at last seems to find a breath.