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Marcel Proust to Jean Cocteau [shortly after 21 May 1917]

(Click on the link above to see this letter and its notes in the Corr-Proust digital edition, including all relevant hyperlinks.)


Dear Jean

had I not been in the middle of a terrible attack today I would have liked to tell you - and Monsieur Picasso - of the sneezing fits and bouts of despondency that have been unrelentingly provoked in me by the dominical blue and the white astragals of the misunderstood acrobat[2], dancing “As if hurling reproaches at God.” [3] I live with such nostalgia. The other ballets[4] were so-so. This one was heart-rending, and continues to unfold in me I can’t tell you what regrets. I can still see the mauve horse[5] like the Swan “with mad gestures, Like ridiculous and sublime exiles.” [6] “And then I think of you.”[7] Of you Jean, and I think too of the little girl’s “Scottish dress”, so touching, of the little girl who stops and starts so wonderfully. What concentration in all that, what nourishment for these times of famine and what sorrow when I still had the use of my legs not to have frequented the sawdust of circuses and all that is left to me tonight is heart-rending regret. Thank you dear Jean for helping me in so many ways[8] to make the effort in the state I was in to go to the Châtelet and seek “The only such delectable bread That is not served at his table By the world we follow.” [9] How handsome Picasso is!

Affectionately yours,


[10] [11]


  1. This letter dates from shortly after 21 May 1917, because Proust wrote it after attending one of the Ballet Russes performances held at the Théâtre du Châtelet on the 21 or 23 May 1917. The Ballets Russes left for Madrid 24 May ("Dans les théâtres" [In the theatres], Le Gaulois, 18 May 1917, p. 4). [PK, FP]
  2. This refers to the ballet Parade, based on a composition by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie, choreography by Léonide Massine, sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso, which was very badly received. The scenery represented an urban design in cubist style. An acrobat wore a blue and white costume. The programme for the first performances included texts by Apollinaire and Léon Bakst (Jean Cocteau, Entre Picasso et Radiguet, Paris, 1967, p. 69-71). Photographs of the performance are held in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum: see one of the photographs showing the acrobat and his costume with white astragals. A reconstruction, faithful to the original choreography, musical score, scenery and costumes, has been attempted (Susanna Della Pietra, 2008). [PK, CSz, NM]
  3. Baudelaire, "Le Cygne" [The Swan] (Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857), seventh stanza: "Vers le ciel ironique et cruellement bleu, / Sur son cou convulsif tendant sa tête avide, / Comme s'il adressait des reproches à Dieu !" [Towards the ironic and cruelly blue sky / Stretching his avid head upon his quivering neck / As if hurling reproaches at God!] [PK]
  4. The programme for the Ballet Russes performances at the Châtelet in May 1917 states that it is presenting: The Midnight Sun (Russian dances), music by Rimsky-Korsakov, scenery and costumes by Larionov, choreography by Massine; Petrouchka, by Stravinsky and Benois; and The Good Humoured Women, by Bakst and Massine. [PK, FP]
  5. Refers to one of the characters in the ballet Parade, of whom a photograph exists. [CSz]
  6. "Le Cygnet" [The Swan], ninth stanza: "Je pense à mon grand cygne, avec ses gestes fous, / Comme les exilés, ridicule et sublime, / Et rongé d'un désir sans trêve ! et puis à vous, / Andromaque […] [I think of my great swan, with its mad gestures, / Like ridiculous and sublime exiles, / And consumed by a desire without respite! and then of you, Andromache [...]]. [PK]
  7. Allusion to the first line of the same poem: "Andromaque, je pense à vous !" [Andromache, I think of you!] [PK]
  8. Proust, after reading the critics who had seen the première of Parade on 18 May, had expressed to Cocteau his wish to attend one of the performances if his state of health permitted (CP 03290; Kolb, XVI, no. 64, [19 or 20 May 1917]): "[...] I would very much like on my humble part to benefit from another [miracle] and which would be that one day my state of health coincides with a performance of Parade." [CSz]
  9. Racine, Cantiques Spirituels [Spiritual Songs] (1694), third stanza, adapted: "[…] C'est ce pain si délectable / Que ne sert pas à sa table / Le monde que vous suivez" [The only such delectable bread / That is not served at his table / By the world you follow]. [PK]
  10. Translation notes: "Astragales" seems a curious description of the dancer's costume. Terence Kilmartin also gives astragals as a translation in Selected Letters, Volume Three, 1910-1917. This image and this video show this costume as a blue and white leotard with arabesques and stars.
  11. Contributors: Yorktaylors