Robert de Flers1

   Of all the young men2 who have made their literary debuts in the last few years, M. Robert de Flers is perhaps the only person who need not say to himself: "I may be nothing but a failure. Perhaps I am simply chasing shadows. My literary vocation - which, moreover, all other men of letters deny, even though they are the only ones in a position to know - expresses itself above all in my lack of vocation for anything else, in the total absence of those various qualities which lead to success in life. Maybe I am a Gustave Flaubert, but then again maybe I am nothing more than the Frédéric Moreau in L'Éducation sentimentale." M. de Flers is perhaps the only one who could not tell himself that, who with every day that passes, I am not just saying that he achieves greater and greater success, but greater and greater activity, which is something else entirely. He has found in life the perfect medium for adapting his gifts. And that is all the more admirable, revealing, in my opinion, his even more marvellous and rare power, contrary to so many others, and I am talking about those of the first order, in him those gifts are many fold, I could almost say universal. Imagine that. M. de Flers has arrived at the reality which lies at the root of life, almost from all points. To his innumerable aspects his intelligence appeared sufficiently multiform to almost fulfil it. I saw him at twenty years old, versifier lecturing versifiers, having a deep feeling, for example, for Mallarmé's poetry, phrases from Barrès, writing exquisite short stories, not letting a legend or a fact pass by without extracting from it its meaning and its poetry; and during that period undertaking a journey by sea from Paris to Jerusalem and then producing a book about the voyage that not only delighted the literary world, but which interested scholars, before being crowned by the Académie3. Not a single drop of life is lost to him. While he is becoming more learned, while he assembles collections of autographs, original pieces that we all dream of reading, but into which we never dip our noses, he is also the literary and drama critic in several journals. He has a passion for the present just as much as for the past. And not an enthusiasm such as excites the audience at a theatrical drama or a café concert - those strange enthusiasms that wise old men sometimes at the end of their lives regret not having enjoyed, for fear they may have taken a wrong step - that had not been mad about for an hour, the young sage, in order to study it afterwards. You imagine that is everything. You are utterly deceiving yourselves. Feel the same joyous astonishment as that of the admirer of Sir John Lubbock4, the great naturalist, when he learned that the Lubbock who was the great director of complex commercial enterprises was one and the same person. Feel the same joyous astonishment when you learn that this scholar, this poet, this novelist, this publicist is the young director who, since he joined the Escholiers5, set up a theatre where, through his taste for great scholars and his incredible authority on men, artists such as Granier, Mayer, de Max6 perform works by authors such as ... all the most remarkable authors of the day, it is the same thing. And if you go to Lozère7, and if you know that every peasant has only one name on his lips, that of a young man who lives for life, who takes great pains to be able to play his part in that justice and charity which is unknown elsewhere, who turns his district into a kind of Fénélonian province, what would you say when you learn that this Robert de Flers, whom so many people wanted to make a deputy down there, yet again is the very same person? That is not all, but it is enough for today. And join me in my admiration for a person in whom you see that talent and success, art and life, enjoyment of life and talent, high morality and the esteem of the people, are not irreconcilable.
    In such a way he alone amongst us all appears to work towards the only thing of importance, to transform the life around us, in a way that it becomes, instead of a fortress of stupidity rather a temple of beauty, instead of a den of malice rather a haven of justice. Why so? Because he has the gifts which those with talent and who know the laws of justice and insist upon their supremacy8 (and who moreover are not always the same, and which in him are the same thing) never have. Doubtless one could cite other great literary figures, but do you believe that they would have the ability to impose upon a talented author, to direct a theatre with a sense of their own tastes, to speak alone with an actress? They will be charming and powerless. No doubt in our provinces there are other kind-hearted people. But are these the same people who know how to speak to the people, to make them love, to make them believe, to lead them where they want them to go? No doubt there are other refined artists tasting the most subtle pleasures that Baudelairism has discovered in the moral world. But these artists are neither erudite, nor very often literary, almost never haunted by the realization of the ideas of justice in society, certainly never capable of assuring that realization. Above all Robert de Flers is that. If I were alarmed by the multiplicity of his ideas, if I asked myself where is the permanent, solid base of it all, I would return to those who know him best, who, after all the success of Paris, still find him unchanged towards them all, the peasant witnesses to the magnanimity of his character, ultimately the true measure of his worth.

 

1. Unsigned article published in La Revue d'art dramatique, 20 January 1898. A great frienship existed between Proust and Robert de Flers; the previous year Proust had published Silhouette d'artiste in La Revue d'art dramatique. There is much to suggest that this anonymous article was by Proust, but it there is no proof. It was included in Textes retrouvés.

2. Robert de Flers was born in 1872; he was to die in 1927.

3. In 1896 Robert de Flers published his account of this voyage under the title Vers l'Orient. In Quelques lettres de M. Proust Jeanne Caillavet quotes a note from Proust, dated 26 May 1896, congratulating R. de Flers for having been "crowned by the Académie".

4. John Lubbock (1834 - 1913), naturalist, banker, man of politics.

5. At a young age Robert de Flers had become president of the Club des Escholiers, founded in 1886 to attempt to rejuvenate the theatre.

6. Henri Mayer (1857 - 1941) had created Le Plaisir de rompre by Jules Renard for the Escholiers in 1897; he joined the Comédie Française in 1901. - Jeanne Granier (1852 - 1939) and Édouard de Max (1869 - 1924) had achieved celebrity.

7. Robert de Flers' maternal grandmother lived at the Château de Malzieu, in Lozère.

8. Exactly one week before this article was published, 13 January 1898, Zola had published his letter "J'accuse" in L'Aurore.



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