He Should Have Joined A Writing Group
If you have ever summoned the courage to show some of your creative writing to another living person (cats and houseplants don’t count, I’m afraid) you should read about young Proust’s experience of it, because you’ll totally understand how agonising it is waiting for someone’s critical judgement, and it’ll break your heart to when the poor soul has his young dreams crumpled to dust.
Early on in ‘In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower’, Proust – *cough* I mean, the young narrator – allows Monsieur de Norpois to read some of his writing. The visitor also happens to be acquainted with the writer, Bergotte, whose work is greatly admired by the young boy and has been a major influence on his ‘scribblings’. What could possibly go wrong? Everything.
After being utterly scathing about Bergotte, de Norpois turns his critical eye upon the poor boy’s efforts:
Now that I’m aware of your quite excessive admiration for Bergotte, I can appreciate better that little thing you showed me before dinner, about which, by the way, the less said the better – I owe it to you to say so, for did you not say yourself, quite openly, that it was mere childish scribbling? (It was true, I had said so – but I had not meant it.) all sins shall be forgiven, especially the sins of our youth, what?…. You’re not the only young fellow who has ever fancied himself as a poet.
Ouch. Monsieur de Norpois has clearly never experienced the vulnerability of exposure felt when one first reveals one’s creative endeavours to an audience of any sort. His assessment is so damning that I’m amazed that Proust dared to even write his name again let alone anything creative! Clearly, this awful experience could have been avoided had young Marcel been able to join a writing group. He’d still have had to overcome his anxieties about showing his work, but he’d have had the reciprocal support, sensitivity and camaraderie of a group of fellow writers, not to mention copious amounts of tea and biscuits.
I was devastated by what M. de Norpois had said about the piece I had given him to read;…. I became once more acutely aware of my own intellectual poverty and of the fact that I had no gift for writing….What he had done was inform me of the microscopic insignificance of myself when judged by an outside expert, who was not only objective, but also highly intelligent and well disposed to me. I felt deflated and dumbfounded; and just as my mind, like a fluid whose only dimensions are those of the container into which it is poured, had once so expanded so as to fill the vast vessel of my genius, so now it shrank and fitted exactly into the exiguous confines of the mediocrity to which M. de Norpois had suddenly consigned it.
That passage captures so accurately the effect of harsh words on a delicate creative ego, it makes me wince. I can’t help but feel deep respect for Proust in overcoming such a bruising experience. It would have been too much for me. I wonder whether his memory of that moment fuelled him in some way, spurring him on to prove the pompous git wrong.
I’d love to know whether Monsieur de Norpois – or whoever he was in reality – lived to witness Proust’s success as a writer. I like to imagine him strolling past a bookshop and being stopped in his tracks by an attractive illuminated window display in which a plethora of volumes of Proust’s masterpiece hover around a large central photograph of Proust looking straight back out at him, smug and successful, having totally proved him wrong. I really, really hope so.