Colm Tóibín appraises a new exhibit of Proust’s manuscripts, notebooks and letters at the Morgan Library, detecting in one letter the novelist’s readiness “for trouble of the most sweet and tender and pleasurable kind”:
Proust’s handwriting is bad; it is the handwriting of a novelist rather than a dandy, and visitors who can read French will have much fun making out the words and the many untidy emendations on the pages of the manuscript. In a letter to a publisher, as Proust seeks to explain what his novel is about, one word, however, stands alone and is written with a rare exactitude. In a letter to Alfred Vallette, editor of Le Mecure de France, in 1909 Proust described his work-in-progress: it “is a genuine novel and an indecent one in places. One of the principal characters is a homosexual.” The handwriting is that of a man in a hurry. Most of the words can be made out because of the context. But the word “homosexual,” as it is written in his hand here, stands alone; it is very clearly written, each letter perfectly made and totally legible. There is a feeling as you look at it that it was a word Proust did not often write, or that perhaps he enjoyed writing, or that it was a term he now wanted to take his time over, and he needed Vallette to be able to see it clearly.
(Photo of one of Marcel Proust’s notebooks on display. Cahier 12, 1909 NAF 16652. Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France © BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais)