Is this Proust?

Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan, a professor at Canada’s Laval University, has claimed to have found the only known film footage of the author, who died in 1922. Blink and you might miss him—a young man in a bowler hat descending the stairs, his head twitching from side to side like a small bird. The footage, from 1904, comes from the wedding of Élaine Greffulhe, daughter of Comtesse Élisabeth Greffulhe, whom Proust immortalized as Oriane de Guermantes in In Search of Lost Time. Proustians are ecstatic at the discovery. William Carter, a Proust biographer, told the Times, “It would be very important that we have this brief image of Proust in motion.” Luc Fraisse, director of the Review of Proustian Studies, told Le Point, “It’s moving to say to ourselves that we are the first to see Proust since his contemporaries ... even if it would be better if he was descending the steps a little less quickly!”

Proust at the time had not begun the monumental work that would establish his place in the literary firmament. A year earlier he had published a translation of Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens, an important step in developing his own writing style, but to the rest of the world he was a “frivolous social snob,” as William Gass once put it. He was a sickening flatterer when it came to the nobility, and his obsequiousness reached full fever in the rarefied company of the Comtesse Grefullhe, “every snob’s highest goal,” as Benjamin Taylor wrote in Proust: The Search. “Beyond Élisabeth Greffulhe there was simply nowhere to climb.” As Proust once gushed to Robert de Montesquiou, the inspiration for the Baron de Charlus, “I have never met such a beautiful woman.”

If the man in this grainy footage is indeed Proust, then what we are seeing isn’t the acknowledged genius famously captured on his deathbed by Man Ray in 1922. This is the ladder-climber, the hanger-on, the courtier, though he possessed a deeply felt ambition that would one day justify the intense superficiality of his existence as a young man. When his head flits to the side, is he seeking a famous face in the crowd? Or is he absorbing the scene and the people, reserving what he sees for his great purpose, part of that mysterious transformation that will elevate all this pettiness into something improbably noble? This could be Proust, yes, in the flesh; but what Proust teaches us is that life is like this footage—unremarkable, disorderly, finished in a flash—and that its essence is regained elsewhere.