4Translation Proust Roman Familial, Laure Murat

4translation proust roman familial laure murat bookblast

Sharif Gemie reviews Proust, Roman Familial by Laure Murat for BookBlast. Awarded the Prix Médicis essai 2023.

Since 1913, almost seven million people have started to read Proust’s epic: the number of those who have completed it is probably smaller. A la recherche du temps perdu has acquired a status of its own: a Proustige, as they say. Of all those readers, few have had as visceral and as personal a reaction as Laure Murat. ‘Proust saved me,’ are the last words of her unusual memoir, Proust, roman familial (Proust, A Family Affair is currently only available in French).

Murat was born in 1967 and first read Proust when she was twenty. For her, A la recherche was not a long, difficult narrative about a strange world, far away in time and culture, but a dissection of the world in which she grew up. Murat was born into a proud, backward-looking aristocratic family which could trace its roots back to the nobility created by Napoleon. Murats have featured in French literature: one is present in Balzac’s Colonel Chabert. While her family could not claim to be as old as some French aristocrats, who trace direct descendants all the way back to the warrior-nobles of Charlemagne, the Murats adopted and internalized many of the distinctive habits and traits of the aristocracy.

There are direct connections between Proust and her family: it’s documented that in 1904 Proust regularly visited a salon held in the family’s Hôtel Murat, and that this salon was clearly the inspiration for many scenes in A la recherche. (A salon was an exclusive, invitation-only cultural and literary event, similar to both a party and a seminar today.)

Despite the aristocracy’s final, formal abolition following the advent of the Third Republic in September 1870, aristocrats survive in modern France as a self-perpetuating caste. As Murat notes, the aristocracy is at once a tiny social class and an immense family. In the absence of any official political role, the modern aristocracy justifies itself with reference to its cultural or spiritual strengths and its cultivated values. As Murat grew up, she found this justification less and less convincing.

Murat learnt that being an aristocrat meant following certain lifestyle codes. Words and representations are more important than actions. Life is to be lived like “a theatre which never closes”. She was taught the value of speech and books were present throughout her childhood. Thinking of her father, she cannot recall a single day when he wasn’t reading. It wasn’t so much his favourite activity, it was more or less his only activity. He had read A la recherche many times, and could recite vast chunks of it off by heart. While her father read novels, her mother preferred history and was the author of five historical studies.

But this stress on language, reading and literature came at a cost: for the Murats, everything was for show. Emotions were repressed, denied and certainly never shown. The final crisis in her relations with her parents was sparked by her sexuality: Murat is a lesbian. When she was nineteen, Murat left home to work for a cultural review. She stayed loosely in contact with her parents: indeed, she found she was doing research in the same archives as her mother, although they rarely talked. One day, she asked her mother to make an exception and to have lunch with her. It was the only one-to-one meal she’d had with her. On this occasion, Murat insisted on talking about her sexuality. Her mother went pale but, at first, attempted to conceal her emotions. Finally she responded, “for me, you are a lost girl”. (In French the term fille perdue can also mean fallen woman, even prostitute.) After speaking, her mother shed some tears — something which the family would hold against Murat in years to come: “You made mother cry in public, like a servant.”

Later, Murat received a letter from her mother.

“Your relationship is not the equivalent of a family relationship. My father and I believe that you want us to see it as such. We want to be very clear: it will never be, and I ask you not raise the matter again.”

The real difference between Murat and her parents was not so much her sexuality as Murat’s refusal to maintain a discrete silence about it. Proust himself always publicly denied his homosexuality. For the next fifteen years, Murat had no contact whatsoever with her parents.

Murat read Proust as a demystification of this world. She recognises that there is no outright attack on the aristocracy in A la recherche. Indeed,  Proust is frequently seen as a snobbish chronicler of fashionable elites, fascinated by their glittering world. But, argues Murat, as the seven volumes progress, the reader is shown the shallowness of aristocratic life. The contrast between their outward elegance and the vulgarity of their emotions becomes clearer and clearer. Proust presents “the most cruel and the most subtle critique of the French aristocracy that has ever been published.”

Proust, roman familial is a fascinating read. Murat cleverly and sensitively connects her background, her identity and her family with this masterpiece of French literature.

Sharif Gemie for BookBlast

Laure Murat on the popular book show La Grande Librairie, “Comment Proust m’a libérée de mon passé; how Proust freed me from my past.”

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