Subtitled ‘new stories’ by Marcel Proust, the nine pieces of writing contained within The Mysterious Correspondent are (mostly) being published here for the first time and that, in part, may be as a result of the fact that Proust is, here, more explicit about his sexuality than he appears to have been elsewhere.
But before we get to that. ‘New stories’ is undoubtedly a misnomer. What we have here are nine extremely short pieces of writing, some of which are fragments (this one is abandoned, this one is unfinished), written at more or less the same time as the (longer) stories that appeared in Pleasures and Days all the way back in 1896.
The fragments are themselves buttressed by introductions (there is an introduction at the start of the book but each fragment also gets an introduction) as well as footnotes indicating alternate takes derived from notes left in the margins on the pieces of paper Proust wrote these things on. All told, the book clocks in at 138 pages and I’d say about half (possibly less than half) is Proust.
Of the fragments that we have, some of them have interesting moments (where they are perhaps more overtly ribald than would have been acceptable in 1896, say), but none of them really qualify (in my book at least) as a short story. These are fragments, glimpses, snapshots, works in progress. There are moments, as you read, where you can hear Stephen Fry mockingly reading excerpts:
“…a kingdom where a gaze of our desire immediately gives us a smile of beauty, which is changed into tenderness and which it gives back to us infinitely, where one feels without movement the vertigo of swiftness without the weariness or exhaustion of struggle, without danger the intoxication of sliding, leaping, flying, where at any moment force is matched by will, desire with voluptuousness, where all things rush over every instant to serve our fantasy…”
There are times where Proust sounds like Morrissey (“Trees, you have nothing more to say to me”) or even like Withnail & I’s Uncle Monty:
“At the age when little boys go out to laugh and play, you will always weep on rainy days because they will not take you to the Champs-Elysees…”
Luc Fraisse, Professor at the University of Strasbourg, works very hard across the various introductions to sell the importance of the writing, connecting various nods and winks and allusions to Proust’s masterwork, In Search of Lost Time, or various other books that Proust would (or in some cases would not) have been aware of. There are definitely moments where some of the things being said feel like a stretch (like Fraisse could be saying, if you look at this line and squint and hold it up at a slight right angle, you can glimpse the genius in utero).
All told, it feels like one of those books that are edifying. You can read this in an afternoon and at the end of the afternoon you’ll be able to say you’ve read some Proust that most other people haven’t read. That may be it’s lone selling point, in the end.
Any Cop?: We’re glad we read it. We’re glad it exists. But if we are being honest we’re not sure it’s for anyone but Proust scholars. Although, you know, any book featuring a story about a squirrel-cat written by Marcel Proust can’t be all bad eh?