The 14-Minute Marcel Proust
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Coligny Caserne
Coligny Caserne, about the time Proust was stationed there

Proust the private soldier

Improbable as it seems, the effete and asthmatic Marcel Proust served a hitch in the French army. He was stationed at Coligny Caserne in the small city of Orléans—and so, I am pleased to say, was I!

Following the Franco-Prussian War that deposed Napoleon III and installed the Third Republic, at first celebrated and eventually reviled, France imposed conscription on all young men. As an asthmatic and the son of an influential doctor, Marcel could probably have avoided military service, but he chose to volunteer, perhaps to escape from the confines of his family. Volunteering also enabled him to serve for a year instead of the five imposed upon those who waited for conscription. (His mother suggested that he regard the twelve months as twelve squares of chocolate that he must consume before he was free again.) No doubt he also looked forward to meeting sturdy young men from the lower classes, "whose bodies were more beautiful and agile, their minds more original, their hearts more spontaneous, their characters more natural than in the case of young men I had known before," as he later described them.

Private Proust Left: Private Proust in winter uniform, evidently marching to the sound of a different drum :)

Proust went into the army on November 11, 1889, and four days later arrived at Coligny Caserne, on the Faubourg Bannier just a few blocks north of the Orléans train station and city center. He was 18 years old. An American draftee would have been hard put to recognize Private Proust's service in the 76th Infantry Regiment: because of his asthma, he was exempted from morning formations, and he was encouraged to live in private lodgings downtown. (As a matter of fact, I did something similar. Toward the end of my hitch the caserne barracks were renovated and we were moved out to Harbbord Barracks, a half-hour bus ride away. Unable to sleep in those crowded quarters, I went AWOL for six months and bunked clandestinely in the office where I worked.) Invited to dine with his captain, and afterward to spend the night, he had to sleep on the bare mattress because he didn't know how to make up his bed.

One-year volunteers like Proust were treated more like officers than common soldiers: to enlist, they were required to have passed their bac exams, and to pay for the uniforms and lodging. (Indeed, in his superlative biography of Proust, William Carter points out that they even had a personal orderly – presumably if they could afford one – to look after their kit. Mr. Carter even gives some credence to the stories that Proust was served his breakfast in bed.) After the mandatory year, such recruits became sergeants in the military reserve, subject to month-long tours of active duty and eligible for commissioning as officers.

In The Guermantes Way, Proust describes how Young Marcel arrives in the fictional garrison town of Doncières and takes a cab to the caserne gate, to visit the aristocratic sergeant, Robert de Saint-Loup, who presumably was enlisted for five years: "One of the men on guard went to fetch him, and I waited at the barracks gate, in front of that huge hulk, booming with the November wind, out of which at every moment—for it was six in the evening—men emerged into the street in pairs, staggering unsteadily, as if they were coming ashore in some exotic port where they were temporarily stationed."

The moment I read those words, I knew that I was once again arriving at Coligny Caserne, which except for the guard-post looked much as it did in the postcard at the top of this page. The red-brick buildings were formed in the shape of a U, surrounding the parade ground on three sides, of which you are looking at the base. When I was there, that building served as mess hall, cafeteria, post exchange (on the second floor), and for offices.

In a throwaway line, early in Sodom and Gormorrah, Proust mentions passing through the real Orléans by train, which causes him to note that the local cathedral is "quite the ugliest in France."

Today, Coligny Caserne seems to have been taken over by the government for office space (Charles DeGaulle threw the U.S. Army out of France in the 1960s). There's a high-school nearby named for the famous writer, and a Rue Marcel Proust not far away. Perhaps they weren't there in 1958, or perhaps I merely overlooked them in the monumental ignorance of the young.

Reader's comment

One of the pleasures of creating a website like this is the occasional message that comes out of the blue: " What you describe about Proust's military situation matches the description of an 'aspirant' ... a draftee who during his first months ... serves as a private training for officer, after that he becomes aspirant who is a rank intermediate between NCOs and commissioned officers.... After the end of his mandatory as a draftee he becomes a sub-lieutenant, active or reserve, depending on if he reenlists, who is the lowest rank of real officer in French Army (career officers issued from officers schools graduate directly as full lieutenants).

"By the way in Proust times, career officers had to spend their first year serving as privates in a normal regiment.... This is the situation of Saint Loup (future career officer serving as a private) the beginning of his friendship with the narrator. [Similarly,] Charles de Gaulle ... after succeeding in the competition for admission at Saint Cyr (France's equivalent to West Point) had to serve as a private for one year. -- Regards, Jean Francois Martinez"