Caught by the River

Marcel Proust’s Dark Room

Adam Scovell | 10th February 2019

In his latest piece, Adam Scovell seeks out the darkened Parisian room in which, sitting in bed, Proust started work on ‘In Search of Lost Time’.

Marcel Proust’s room must be dark. Four volumes into his epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), and it’s impossible for me to read the thousands of pages of his words without seeing them come into being in his barely lit Parisian chamber. Almost cocooned into this cork-lined literary nest, spreading memories like thin strands of cobweb until the early hours, Proust must have needed his room to be a blank canvas, upon which his past played out. There have been many depictions of Proust’s bedrooms, often mixing the various different houses in Paris in which he lived, wary of illness and possessed by his need to write. On a winter’s day whilst in Paris, I wanted to find these buildings, naively in the hope that they would still suggest something regarding their connection to the writer.

Proust had lived variously around Paris since childhood, first with his parents at 96 rue Fontaine in the 16th arrondissement where he born. His parents had moved there after their first house had been disturbed by the rumblings of the Paris Commune. Though Proust lived in several other properties with his parents, alongside their famous trips away to various hotels and houses on the Normandy coast, the writer first lived alone when his parents had finally died just into his mid-thirties. Moving into 102 boulevard Haussmann in 1906, the writer soon took to his bed, a penchant for early nights being an admission that opens the novel – “For a long time, I went to bed early.” – and began work on the book which was to occupy much of his time.

There’s something about depictions of Proust’s writing, or at least the process of his writing, that is refreshingly earnest compared to more romantic visions of being a writer, especially in pre-World War Two society. The process of writing becomes for Proust something that is isolating, another illness to add to his collection. It literally takes over his life as more and more reams of paper pile up on the fireplace or by the bedside. He becomes in this case engulfed by the momentum of his own memories. Find any depiction of him, paintings and drawings in particular, and they will undoubtedly sketch this lonely scene. Though recreations for such drawings will undoubtedly be taken from images from his last place of residence, 44 rue Hamlin and the bedroom which is famously recreated in the Musée Carnavalet as an exhibit, the loneliness is transposed from building to building. Rather than a desk, however, Proust is tied to his bed. Recollection is best considered when comfortable.

It was Christmas Eve when I decided to go in search of 102 boulevard Haussmann. I was in Paris deliberately, equally alone and wandering in search of film locations and other sites. There was also an element of deliberate isolation; that after months of work, no energy was left for the sort of forced socialites demanded by Christmas. Proust’s house would be my first place of visit, not simply because of other plans and places I wanted to explore, but because it would, so I thought, set the tone for the trip overall. Paris is thankfully a city that doesn’t quite do Christmas in the same way as London. I hopped on the Métro to Opéra, hoping to venture into the Hotel Scribe as well where the Lumière Brothers had held their first film screenings and where Jean-Luc Godard filmed his science-fiction film, Alphaville. But it was in vain as the hotel had changed in key with the luxury of the area, now one of the wealthiest in the city.

I wandered on, closing in on the 8th arrondissement where, so I was constantly warned by garbled news websites, the Gilets Jaunes were causing much chaos every Saturday. The area felt unusual at the time, simply because certain buildings had their windows barricaded, their insides darkened in conspiracy. It only became apparent from walking further that every building attacked was a bank; windows smashed, revolutionary graffiti sprayed upon stone walls and cheap wooden ply board now acting as make-shift barriers against the cold. Shops with much larger windows had been spared, reminding of that unusual contrast sometimes found in British cities where a bombsite created a clean break between a perfectly pristine house and a pile of rubble that once was its neighbour.

Finally on boulevard Haussmann, suspiciously empty and with pavements blocked by building work, I began to look out for building numbers. I almost walked past the house in question as 102 boulevard Haussmann is now a bank. Its windows were totally boarded up. Even its main door had had to be closed, an occasional customer confused as to how to get in before noticing the tiny side door that had been opened in its place. The large plaque on the wall celebrating Proust’s time there had thankfully been left alone, the ire of the protestors aimed solely at what occupied the building. I snapped the Polaroid and sat on the bench opposite, trying to imagine Proust’s room now. It was still darkened yes, but now by boards covering broken glass. I can still see him, writing away as the world turned; barely looking up to see the turmoil away from the page.