Marcel Proust, Time Regained (1927)
Clients could be heard enquiring of the patron whether he could introduce them to a footman, a choir-boy, a negro chauffeur. Every profession interested these old lunatics, every branch of the armed forces, every one of the allied nations. Some asked particularly for Canadians, influenced perhaps unconsciously by the charm of an accent so slight that one does not know whether it comes from the France of the past or from England. The Scots too, because of their kilts and because dreams of a landscape with lakes are often associated with these desires, were at a premium. (p. 164)
This passage enumerates the preferences of clients at a gay brothel in Paris in 1916, when foreign servicemen were in France fighting the First World War. The reference to the “charm” of their accent makes it clear the narrator is referring specifically to French Canadians, but I think all of us, Anglophone and Francophone, can take pride in knowing our countrymen “were at a premium”. Does this mean the brothel charged extra for sex with French-Canadian soldiers? If so, what a compliment.
The connection of the French-Canadian accent to “the France of the past” also reminds me of the story of French Canadian soldiers in the Second World War. Apparently in some more remote French towns the people still spoke a form of French that was outdated and difficult for contemporary Parisians, but perfectly intelligible to French-Canadian soldiers, because in Quebec certain older forms of French had been preserved from the time when people immigrated.
I have no idea now where I picked up that story (high-school history class?), or even whether it’s true or not. And yet it has lodged in my mind.
But perhaps the most pressing question the Canadian asks about this scene is: is it true? Did French-Canadian soldiers in the First World War work as prostitutes in Parisian brothels, and did their accent make them desirable? Hard to say, but we’ll marshal what evidence is available.
In Marcel Proust: A Life, Jean-Yves Tadie describes the real-life brothel that provided the model for the one described in Time Regained (see pp. 670-674 in Tadie’s book). There is no specific reference to French-Canadians (and a scan of the index found no entries under Canada, French-Canadian or Quebec), but there is this suggestive sentence: “Proust always remained loyal to the principle that he could not describe something unless he had seen it” (p. 672). The proprieter of the brothel, Albert Le Cuziat, was one of what Tadie calls Proust’s “informants,” and he let Proust spy on his clients so that Proust could describe their behaviour in his novel. And preferences for certain nationalities of servicemen seems like just the sort of delicious detail Proust could have picked up from hanging around the brothel and then used in his book.
We could, if we were so inclined, extrapolate these circumstances, and Proust’s preference for basing his fiction on fact, into an assumption of truth here. But are we so inclined?