Hardly a novella, but thankfully finally translated into English as part of Melville House’s The Art of the Novella series, The Lemoine Affair occupies a curious place in Proust’s work.
Written over a period of four years (1904-1908) before Proust began to conceive and draft what would become his monumental A la recherche du temps perdu, The Lemoine Affair is a series of pastiches written in the styles of a variety of authors ranging from Balzac to Flaubert, from Sainte-Beuve to Saint-Simon. Proust said that the format of the pastiche allowed him to write in the style of authors in whose work he had recently immersed himself, largely in order to get their influence out of his system so that he could write in his own style, unfettered by even unconscious influence of the grand masters. (One wonders what Harold Bloom would make of this idea of “purging” the anxiety of influence, especially as these pastiches are relevant to the Recherche as Proust comes into his own style after writing them. There is even a scene in which Proust, in his pastiche of Edmond de Goncourt, “forgetting the gratitude he owed Zola, sent him flying ten steps backwards with a pair of blows, and knocked him flat on his back.”)
What unites these pieces is the impact that Henri Lemoine had on Parisian high society after his diamond fraud caused many of Proust’s milieu—and even Proust himself—to buy into the fraud and lose a considerable sum of money. As Proust writes in his preface:This legal affair, which, although insignificant, enthralled public opinion at the time, was selected one evening by me, entirely by chance, as the common theme for a few short pieces in which I would set out to imitate the style of a certain number of writers.And imitate he does. We have crowded drawing room scenes that could be straight out of Balzac; we have a courtroom ringside seat to the Lemoine case that focuses on individualized and collective reactions à la Flaubert; an attack on Flaubert’s piece by Sainte-Beuve (or, rather, Proust writing as Sainte-Beuve and attacking himself); we have a Micheletian account of the sociopolitical context of the Lemoine scandal which points the finger at high society and modern science; and, among many other pieces, we have Proust channeling Saint-Simon very generously, in the longest pastiche collected here—a pastiche that fits Proust’s own style rather well, and which reads almost like a passage from The Guermantes Way. Proust’s own style does come through in many of the other pieces, too, such as in the following passage:But some, thinking of the wealth that could have come to them, felt ready to faint; for they would have placed it all at the feet of a woman by whom they had been scorned until now, who would have finally given them the secret of her kiss and the sweetness of her body.
There are also some delightful metacommentaries here by which Proust inserts his own rejection of society—e.g., in speaking of how the elite would have spent the money the diamonds would have afforded them, Proust suggests that they “would have their bedrooms padded with cork that would deaden the sound of their neighbors”—, the role of gossip as a rumor of his own suicide over the Lemoine affair circulates in high society (a rumor that, in the fiction of these pastiches, eventually proves to be unfounded), and also a self-deprecating comment about his role as translator and literary figure more broadly:An Englishman who lived at that time, John Ruskin, whom unfortunately we read now only in the pitifully insipid translation that Marcel Proust has bequeathed to us...The Lemoine Affair shows us Proust dealing with some of the major themes of the Recherche—especially how hypocritical and dangerous Parisian high society could be, poised as it was on the edge of extinction, as well as how greedy and vulture-like this world often was—and it shows Proust imitating his favorite authors with an obvious kind of glee and playfulness that makes the pastiches a comical look at a collective tragedy.