Literary Essays

In Search of the Writer-Diplomat Tradition

Marcel Proust is forever being lost to myth, reduced either to a gossip who chronicled Parisian salons, or even worse, a withdrawn asthmatic overly sentimental for the past. This reduction makes no room for Proust’s admiration for technology or the diplomats and military men who made statecraft and war. Proust adored automobiles and was fascinated by German military aviation, and we find in Proust’s novels countless examples of his passion for military strategy, diplomacy and foreign affairs, which is personified in his character, the diplomat, Monsieur de Norpois.

Proust attended Sciences-Po, which had been founded to educate an elite for France’s civil and diplomatic posts. And though he developed a rich interest in relations between states, in the end, he knew a life of letters was his destiny. Proust biographer Jean-Yves Tadié writes, “The former pupil of the diplomatic section of the Sciences-Po never wanted to be a diplomat; yet he wrote the novel about diplomacy that those novelists who were diplomats—Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Gobineau, Giradoux and Morand—never wrote.”


The writer-diplomat tradition, though largely ignored in the history of letters, has been critical to the development of many European and Latin American writers. Eight poets with diplomatic experience, including Octavio Paz and Czeslaw Milosz, have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tadié references France’s great tradition, which reached its apex in 1937 when 50 percent of the diplomats from the Quai d’Orsay (The French Foreign Ministry) were published authors.


Henry James Meets Proust’s Characters

One of the pleasures of reading literary biographies is learning what happened when famous “writer A” met famous “writer B” for the first time. Some of the great encounters are a young James Joyce meeting W.B. Yeats (or later Samuel Beckett meeting Joyce), Oscar Wilde hiding in the Proust family bathroom, because Marcel was late, and Wilde couldn’t deal with Marcel’s parents alone. More recently we have the clash of East Coast/West counterculture sensibilities when Ken Kesey met Jack Kerouac.

Until I came across the following paragraph in Leon Edel’s one-volume biography of Henry James Henry James: A Life, I had never heard of a writer meeting the future fictional characters of another writer.

That’s what happened on July 2-3, 1885 when the famously polite Henry James agreed to show three French gentlemen (bearing introductions from painter John Singer Sargent) around London. The three men later become some of the principle characters in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Edel writes:

“We now know that James had spent his two days with three of Proust’s famous characters. Montesquiou would become the model for the Baron de Charlus. Elements of Polignac apparently went into the fashioning of Bergotte, and of Pozzi into Dr. Cottard. A novelist of the nineteenth century had been cosorting with the real-life characters of a novel of the Twentieth.”


Learn French with Marcel Proust

Like most people I have yet to tackle all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but I have managed to read the first two books and Swann’s Way is a particular favorite of mine. If you are a Proustian and somehow who wants to brush up on his French, there are great resources online.

J.P. Smith wrote about his experience reading Proust in French for The Millions and you can download a free copy of Swann’s Way in French here. There is also a French site that has audio recordings of Proust’s books in French and the French woman reading Du Côté De Chez Swann (Swann’s Way) has a positively sublime voice. Enjoy.

Cafe with name in French of Marcel Proust's great novel


Literature with an Agenda

There is an essay on the site Bookslut by Josh Cook that examines “literature with an agenda.” Cook does a good job of defending such books, and faults the influence of MFA programs (which focus strictly on craft) and early 20th Century communist propaganda as reasons why there is resistance today to books with “a message.”

Super Josif
Creative Commons License photo credit: Amio Cajander.

I would also add that many contemporary writers are no longer conversant and/or comfortable with the bedrock works of western civilization: classical Greek and Roman literature and the Bible. This ignorance about the “great conversations” poets and philosophers have been having for 2,500 years is one reason “our national discourse is essentially idea-free” as Cook puts it.

And while I agree with the general direction of Cook’s essay, I disagree with one of his assertions. He writes:

“Literature with an agenda, however, can succeed with sub-par craft, as in much of Philip K. Dick’s work (and even some of Vonnegut’s), if the agenda is compelling, original, and important enough.”

I would argue exactly the opposite. It is writers with poor craft (whether Dick deserves this designation is an entirely different matter) who, by their very nature, write books where artless preaching rudely awakens the reader from the narrative spell.

Cook cites Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as a successful work with an agenda; Proust was a student of the French philosopher Henri Bergson and in his monumental novels he incorporated Bergson’s idea of “the subordination of mere reason to the genius of inner inspiration and the consideration of art as the only reality in the world,” as Nabokov wrote (now that’s a big-time agenda!).

While Proust’s ambition was light-years beyond the simplistic-agenda of a Soviet party hack, any writer who wants to work artfully with ideas must possess the skills to make his efforts invisible (as Proust does).

Cook’s essay opens an interesting dialogue. I hope more readers and writers will chime in across the Internet. Read the full essay here.