Thérèse in the Garden
In a family album dating from circa 1900, a page is devoted to my great-grand-aunt striking a theatrical pose in a dilapidated garden. She is draped in a white toga that hangs on her broad limbs with the elegance of an unmade bed. Her left arm is wrapped above a head of straggly hair. She sprouts from the ruins and vegetation like a broken statue. She is neither pretty nor ugly, she doesn’t appear particularly happy, and her playful disposition comes across as a tragic necessity. You’ll want to laugh – as I often do when I look at this silly photograph – but she means it.
Thérèse was my great-grandmother Augusta’s sister. Born with strong personalities to a devout and repressed Roman mother and a theologian French father, the two girls were going to rebel. Against their parents’ orders, they both frequented the artistic and literary circles of Paris. Augusta was motivated by the thrill of transgression and the party life, and Thérèse had a real affinity for literature and the arts. From the Faubourg Saint-Germain to Montmartre they befriended a range of high and low. They were friends with people like the Rothschilds, Marie Bernardaky, and Elizabeth Greffulhe, but it was the best friend of the not so recommendable Toulouse-Lautrec that Augusta chose to marry. Thérèse became a bluestocking and spent most of her time writing letters to writers and literary types and engaging in amateur theater.
I read A la recherche du temps perdu for the first time when my grandmother read it for the last – I was in my early twenties, she was in her mid-nineties. It was her sixth time, and I suspect that chaperoning me through it was her way to claim ownership of Marcel: my pleasures and discoveries would be nothing new, they would only confirm thrills and epiphanies that she had already lived many times over. I didn’t mind. I was amused by her Proustian anthropomorphism: she talked about the characters as if they really existed, sometimes confusing me for several minutes – is she talking about Françoise my aunt (her daughter), or the “real” Françoise? My grandmother’s generation was made of the children of the characters in the Recherche, many of whom she had known. Augusta was my grandmother’s mother-in-law; she and Thérèse were models for some of the young girls on the beach in Balbec. Holding Grand-maman’s tiny, wrinkled hand made in 1907 and listening to her own stories superimposed over chapters we had just read often made it easier for me to enter those salons: they were suddenly less distant and I could taste a bit of her wistful longing for a world that was so foreign to me.
The most frustrating family tale goes like this: one winter morning, Thérèse was in her room, a fire burning in the chimney, answering a letter. Her austere mother walked in, leaned over her daughter’s shoulder and asked to whom she was writing. “Who is this Marcel?” She cut off her daughter’s explanations and cried, “I don’t care who this Monsieur Proust is. An jeune fille does not write to a man to whom she is not related!” The mother snatched the box filled with Proust’s letters, took the sheet of paper from under her daughter’s pen, and fed the treasure – and evidence of this story – to the fire.
When I was in my teens, I stole that photograph of Thérèse from the old album. As I detached it, I tore it a little. I don’t know what touched me about this bizarre version of Sarah Bernhardt lost in verse in a melancholy garden. Even though I took it before I discovered the Recherche, I associate the image with Proust – the ghost of his estranged pen pal he probably only remembered in the nebulous cluster of a type, but a Proustian type, to be sure. Thérèse never married. She died of consumption in her early thirties. I was never reprimanded for stealing her photograph and vandalizing a family album. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve had the photograph with me. Today it’s in my New York bedroom.
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