I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I visited Los Angeles — the first time I truly visited LA, in the same way as you visit friends, as a place where you feel at home, but not quite. I was struck by something perhaps only a European — a Frenchman, moreover — would have noticed: the fascination toward Proust.
In France, the novelist’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time had remained for a long time the silent secret of literary transcendence. Only recently has it become a source of late glory for a nation constantly infatuated with its past. Proust scholarship suddenly was granted an aura of prestige, and commercial success. Every week of 2013, hundreds attended the class of esteemed literary critic Antoine Compagnon at the Collège de France — a class whose topic was the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way. For achieving such an extraordinary popularity, Professor Compagnon was nicknamed “the Mick Jagger of academia.”
In the fall, a Dictionnaire Proust made it to the top of the best-sellers list in French nonfiction. And during the “Nuit Blanche,” a one-night event organized in early October, over 1,000 people attended “Proust and Me,” a five-hour program during which creatives from many fields discussed their relation to the writer’s life and work.
The French have an obsession for anniversaries: 2013 was Proust’s year, and also perhaps that of Albert Camus, who was born in 1913. 2014 came. And Proust, whose celebration by means of an anniversary already belonged to the past, was gone.
The French reception of Proust was extraordinarily telling: Les lieux de mémoire (Places of Memory), the legendary historian Pierre Nora’s groundbreaking collection of essays on national memory, included a chapter on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time — which, in the 1980s already, Nora commissioned Compagnon to write. Proust’s work was part of the French patrimoine — the country’s history and traditions, a position it got rather early on. Many of the aristocrats and wealthy intellectuals who knew Proust wrote about their conversations immediately after he died in 1922. In 1937, when the French Public Library (Bibliothèque nationale de France) sketched elements for a museum of literary history, Proust’s work was there, in a very prominent position. The writer and his work were an acknowledged part of French literary history.
But a lesser-known is the fact that his books achieved no public success until the 1960s — not until a paperback edition came out. And no real scholarly interest, either. The first major academic study of the structures inherent to the novel dated from as late as 1971 — Jean-Yves Tadié’s seminal Proust et le roman (Proust and the Novel).
In short: across the last 50 years, and especially over the last decade, the French learned to widely celebrate a writer they knew had already entered the legacy of mankind. And they celebrated him and his work in a particular way: as a part of the past. The very notion of an anniversary demonstrates this: Proust was read as a monument — as a reference to the past.
For sure, we still meet people, in Parisian social life, who are described as “Proustian” — and rightfully so. Writers such as Patrick Mauriès and François-Marie Banier qualified for that category: their lifestyle turned them into characters; they could have escaped from a novel to participate in our world. They most suited that description when they made their debut, in the 1970s. In the meantime, there are some dandies left on the Left Bank. But are they knowledgeable and refined enough to be called “Proustian”?
In that sense, Inside a Pearl, Edmund White’s memoir, was the last account of a Proustian world that was vanishing even from its status of having already vanished. White looked at Paris from the perspective of a very thorough reader, and he found in the city what he was eager to discover — a present remembrance of things passed. The social sphere he encountered, already rarefied in the 1980s, kept disappearing, until the very last members of the old world were gone.
Proust, in France, was history. Proust is the world of the elite, available to the common citizen — or the common reader — by means of a book, or even just a picture of the author.
What struck me in Los Angeles is how different his role, his involvement in human lives, actually was. He helped people live, they told me, and nurtured their own work.
During that first real visit, I visited the artist Thomas Houseago at his studio, in Glendale. When I pushed the door into this seemingly small space, I entered a room, the walls all painted in white, and, on them, drawings of faces, black and white. Some of them were merely sketches, others were detailed artworks: human faces, masks, looking inhumane.
Houseago was already a myth, famous as much for the modernist bodies he created in sculpture and, more and more, in drawings, as for embodying the image of the modernist artist, the person whose life had been changed and saved by art. Art owed him life, as much as he owed art his life. He was from Leeds, in the United Kingdom. He got away from Leeds.
So there I was, waiting for him, when he ran into the room, whirling like a storm. We started talking, and, after a while, he asked me: “Is it true that you’re a Proust scholar?” I nodded. And, agitated, he told me the story:
When I was 17, 18, in Leeds, things were bad. They were really bad. I was losing my mind. But one night, I had a dream that Proust visited me. I hadn’t read three pages of In Search of Lost Time, but he visited me. And he calmed me down, saying, “don’t worry, don’t worry, it will all be OK. You’re an artist, and that’s fine.” The next day Picasso came, and said the exact same words. At that point, I knew I would get out of there.
There was something extraordinarily moving in those words. Thomas, while pronouncing them, still was the teenager he had been, some 20 years before. Proust and Picasso — P & P — were allegories — they symbolized art. And in many ways, what the dreams brought to Houseago’s mind was a rather accurate parallel: both Picasso and Proust continued a history, the one of the novel or the one of painting, a certain history of art and literature, while at the same time stating its end. Both murderers and saviors for their own sake.
A few days later, I met with Richard Hawkins, in San Fernando Valley. There, in the home of the industry of filth, lived one of the truly great artists based in Los Angeles. Richard had made paintings based on Proust, and I urgently needed to meet him. That time it was no surprise to meet a passionate reader. And yet the path he had chosen for his reading was very different from Houseago’s — the two knew each other, and actually shared a best friend, fellow artist Aaron Curry.
At his studio, Hawkins showed me drawings related to his fascination with Ancient Greek aesthetics, and commented:
The only thing with Proust is style. If there’s no style, there’s nothing. That’s what we learn from him. Of course, there are the characters. But style grants them life, and enables them to actually, fully exist. I love Françoise. She’s brutal. I actually wrote a pastiche on Françoise. If you want, I’ll send it to you.
The connection between emotion, life, and style; the fact that a Los Angeles–based artist would write, in English, a pastiche of Proust, on a typically French character, whose name actually means “French” could not be anything but thrilling to a visiting Frenchman.
Later, I had dinner with Paul McCarthy, his wife, Karen, his daughter, Mara, and some of their relatives. We went on to talk about Little Miss Sunshine. “The directors are friends, they’re from here,” someone said — the directors of a movie featuring “the second-best Proust scholar,” who cannot stand not being the first …
Last encounter, before I left — and what an encounter: John Baldessari, the Angeleno godfather, the man who for over 50 years had been shaping the very notion of art on the West Coast. I visited him at his studio in Venice. He opened the door — the giant with an ivory beard. We sat down. His books surrounded us. He asked about who I was, what I was doing in Los Angeles. We talked about his obsession with literature, and about the false commonplace of LA artists not being literary. He shook his head: “that’s simply not true.”
Of course, Proust came into the conversation. He too was very fond of In Search of Lost Time. “Do you know who is a great Proust reader?” he asked, and I was unable to guess who he meant. “Frank Gehry. Fascinated with Proust. You should meet him. Tell him I said you should.” I later found out that Gehry, when accepting the commission for the Louis Vuitton Foundation in the Jardin d’Acclimatation, mentioned how pleased he was to design a building for a place where Proust went as a child.
After meeting Baldessari, I came back to Paris, and then, some time later, returned to Los Angeles. Once back, the Proust conversations resumed.
By then, I was ready to go beyond the limits of wonder, and seek answers. Why was it that there seemed to be such a wide interest in Proust on the shores of the Pacific Ocean? Why were such different individuals — and creators — so deeply passionate about him?
I had not found an answer. Not yet. And as I encountered new people, made new friends, and admired some even more, I found other traces of Proustian love.
I met Kenneth Anger, the author of Hollywood Babylon, a book interesting not as much for the scandals it once provoked as for the project from which it emanated. In many ways, he appeared as the ultimate Proustian: his interest in stories of love and hate; his ability to produce a long narrative as well as masterpieces of brevity in his short films; his passion for magic and transcendence; his love for the uncanny. All that was so, similar to what Proust had been, what he had striven to achieve. What’s more, Anger actually witnessed, while living in Beverly Hills in the 1940s, the existential sparkles of Hollywood’s Golden Age, its belle epoque.
We met at Chateau Marmont. He was seated in the right-end corner of the terrace, with his collaborator, fellow artist and black magic initiate Brian Butler. It was lunchtime. As we started talking, I asked: “So Proust was very important to you, as you were growing up?” He nodded, did not utter a word. His face remained still and immobile.
I continued: “You went to Paris very early on, in the late 1940s. There were still some people around who had known him …” He nodded, again. And, after some time of silence, whispered: “There was Cocteau. I knew him quite well.”
Then followed my next question: “So you had read Proust previously! When did that happen?” A pause, again, then a whisper, again. “When I was in high school, in Beverly Hills.”
Sitting near this man of words and wit, this man who named himself “anger,” and was so quiet and still, but whose silences contained so much life and energy, I thought of the world whose end he had witnessed, the world he had tainted with infamy and made immortal. I thought of presence, and silence. Presence beyond words — Proust had been so important for him, it was easy to sense. Deep feelings, few words.
Paul McCarthy. Paul — the great, great master, Picasso and Duchamp combined, in Los Angeles. I was aware of his stunning expertise in the history of art, of philosophy, music, and literature. I had sensed his familiarity with Gauguin’s work. But strangely enough, I had been unaware of his knowledge of Proust. One day, as Paul was seated at his studio, Alhambra’s Valley Boulevard behind him, I told him: “I don’t know why there is such a Proustian theme in Los Angeles. So many people are fascinated by Proust, so many … You, Paul, maybe, too …” And I stared at him, expecting some sort of answer, with no idea what he would say.
Paul smiled at me, mischievously, and he replied slowly: “Proust, that’s Deleuze’s thing. Signs. Language. But even more than that. Proust, it’s the sensation of writing as life. It’s art as life.” And as he phrased those words, he scribbled his own signs on a sheet of paper, as he always did.
I was about to end this trip, and I had coffee with my fellow European Russell Ferguson, Professor at UCLA, the great friend of artists, a man of acute sympathy to art, profound sensitivity, and refined intelligence. With him, a Proustian too, a great observer of art and life in Los Angeles, I discussed this enigmatic fascination for Proust. He listened to me, and asked: “But isn’t it the same everywhere? People love Proust. That way, they are able to feel feelings.” I considered his comment — maybe that was it. Proust was universal. He was able to extract everything from us — our sensations, our feelings, our thoughts. Proust was important in Los Angeles, but maybe he was so too, everywhere. Proust was global.
My next encounter was with Proust himself. Or with one of his faraway brothers, grandsons. Alex Israel is an artist. He is fascinated with culture, with fashion — he designed his own brand of sunglasses — and with celebrity. All of that is LA, too. Israel — a name Proust used for one of the characters in In Search of Lost Time — and I were supposed to meet at the Polo Lounge, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. As I got to him, we shook hands, and I was struck by his way of being, his allure. He looked extremely frail, elegant, intelligent, and sensitive. I could not avoid being reminded of the writer Maurice Barrès’s comment, on the day of Proust’s funeral: “he was our young man.” Alex definitely was the incarnation of a “young man.”
Maybe it was that quote; maybe the time or the place, that fiction in the middle of Beverly Hills, the place where actors from the Old Continent gathered in exile — maybe all of it combined; but we immediately started talking about Proust. He said:
I just made a new work, it’s a frozen yogurt sculpted in marble. When I was a child, my parents used to take me to have frozen yogurt, always at the same place. If you like, it’s my madeleine. I wanted to preserve it, to make it eternal. That’s why I used marble.
All of a sudden, I realized that an artist, in Los Angeles, creating a marble frozen yogurt was reliving and reengaging with Proust’s legacy. The discrepancy with what had been my starting point was immense. And yet, I was still in a familiar land. Why was that?
Ferguson was right about the universality of Proust. But there was something about Los Angeles that was both specifically universal and commonly idiosyncratic. All the issues that had been raised in these Proust conversations were deeply, deeply human: childhood, recognition, acceptance, life, death, art, transcendence, belief. All that I had been told was also part of what I knew to be the DNA of that city — or at least of its spirit — a fascination for celebrity and glamour, while individual loneliness and despair keep being unveiled, and exposed.
It was a city of hope, and of dreams, for so many people I had talked with, who, in majority, were not native Angelenos, but had made it there, because they felt it was the part of the world most suited to their dreams and fantasies — to their inner, and outer, reality.
Gore Vidal, another adopted California Proustian, once said: “Rome is a wonderful place from which to observe the end of the world.” And it certainly is no coincidence that he lived part-time between Rome and Los Angeles, the city of so many stories, some of which had been told a hundred times, some of which were still secret. The city in which fictions and lives conflagrated, in which the past, the recent past, the eternal past, constantly entered the rites of life. The city where we could feel that all might end, or continue with relentless energy.
Such was Proust’s Paris. There, too, everything was about to end. The First World War marked the end of an era — that of the secular privilege of the Old Continent. Until 1914, French was the language used by all diplomats internationally. After 1918, nothing was the same.
And Proust, while written in French, and being read in English in Los Angeles, represented a link between an end that was not one and a form of life in which death was already present.
What I sensed in Paris was the importance of history — that Proust was a national museum, in which anyone could enter, and celebrate the language and the culture of the community. The past, while being lived, was still present, and could help conceive the future.
What I sensed in Los Angeles was the predominance of life — of living the text fully, as a form of life, used in order to live life better, with more knowledge, and therefore, perhaps, enjoyment. Using fiction to seize our real — our fictional — lives.
There was certainly life and fiction in Paris, history and language in Los Angeles. That is true. Eventually, the most fascinating of all is the fact that a literary text has been so instrumental in shaping the spirit of two cities, of two worlds, leading them, throughout what they unexpectedly shared and what made them so radically different, to construct themselves, and, humanly, to communicate, the one with the other, in Proust’s love.