Proust's Solitude

Dernière mise à jour : 12 janv. 2021

Une Chambre Mentale: Proust’s Solitude

by Jon Kear

"Few writer’s rooms are quite so emblematic as the strange solipsistic environment of Proust’s cork-lined bedchamber at his second storey apartment at no.102 Boulevard Haussmann, and fewer still have acquired such an integral relationship to the understanding of its author.

Yet, the relationship of literature to the place in which it is produced has generally been a neglected issue in literary studies. This matter immediately raises a number of questions about how we conceive of such a relationship. What relationship exists between the space that Proust wrote in and the work he created, and did his ideas about literature shape the environment he created to write in ?

In a period of the ascendance of biographical approaches and the increasing consciousness of authors and artists about their public persona, to what extent does Proust’s apartment need to be seen not simply as a private space but as a space of literary self-fashioning ? In short are we to see the author’s apartment simply as a passive context for writing or as part of the actual conditions of literary production ?

Proust moved into the apartment at the boulevard Haussmann, one of the fashionable new Parisian boulevards, in 1906, and it was here he began A la recherché du temps perdu. It might be said that it was while he was at this address that he first became a novelist, for despite a prolific output of short stories, literary sketches and criticism for newspapers and symbolist reviews, to date his early aspirations as a novelist had resulted in only the aborted Jean Santeuil.

Proust was to stay at the Boulevard Haussmann for the next thirteen years semi-invalided for much of the time due to the gradual worsening of severe asthma he had contracted as a child, and it was in the apartment’s bedroom that doubled as a studio, he wrote most of the manuscript of his novel. The apartment on the Boulevard Haussmann therefore holds a special place in accounts of the writer’s life and his quest to become a writer.


By the end of the nineteenth century discourses on metropolitan life had become increasingly focused on alarmist fears about the depleting effect of the conditions of modern urban existence, which was widely regarded as producing neurasthenia. Such concerns spurred on new psychiatric research into neurosis and scientific investigations into various forms of perceptual and attention deficit disorders, of which the synaesthesia so often cultivated by writers associated with Symbolism, was taken to be one example.

Charcot’s investigations into the suggestibility of patients under hypnosis seemed to offer evidence of just such influence operating below the threshold of consciousness. His research provided a conception of the subject as neither really defined, permanent or

stationary but rather as illusive and floating, multiple and intermittent and as such continually subject to the febrile suggestive power of the external environment.

Charcot’s characterisation of the furtive influence of external factors and unconscious forces on the subject’s psyche profoundly compromised the idea of the bourgeois subject as an autonomous individual with a clearly defined personality and the ability to exercise free will.

The new modern interior was thus conceived as a soothing, regenerative and appropriately vitalising envelopment to counter the perceived anxieties, exhausting pace, spatially de-natured and the over stimulating sensory barrage of the modern city that passified mental will, eroded nerve fibres and penetrated deep into the subject’s psyche.

The modern interior thus became seen as an alternative self-sufficient realm, emblematic of self-fashioning, a space at once removed from the contingencies of modernity but whose decor combining evocations of natural imagery, dreams and allusive fantasy constructed an alternative realm of the virtual, that substituted for the frenetic and depleting public realm. In short the modern interior became a place where a form of self-fashioned subjecthood reasserted itself over the divided self that inhabited the public domain.

Such ideas provide a general context in which to understand Proust’s secluded living arrangements. However, in contrast to the new modern interior filled with objets luxe designed either for aesthetic contemplation or revitalising visual stimulation, Proust’s apartment seems by comparison remarkably spare and minimalist. Visitors frequently remarked on the drabness and dimness of his cell like bedroom, of Proust’s apparent indifference to the aesthetics of interior design, exemplified in his exclusion of almost all images from the walls of his bedroom, and the lack of taste of his furnishings, which Proust himself mockingly described as a “triumph of bourgeois bad taste”.

Unlike the Goncourts whose apartment was constructed as an intimate, nostalgic space of reverie that provided an alternative world to the modernity of Haussmanisation, or the fictional Des Esseintes’ elaborate and visually palpitating interiors in Huysmans A rebours (1883), Proust’s apartment was arranged as a space that restricted not only visual and aural stimulous from the outside world but visual, aural and even olfactory distractions from within.

Céleste Albaret