Marcel Proust meets Carolina Maria de Jesus

Image: Karel Appel


A fictionalized dialogue between the two writers

Carolina Maria de Jesus – What kind of conversation did you come from France to have with me?

Marcel Proust – Actually, I wanted to know personally, more closely, what style of writing is done in Brazil, and when I was preparing for the trip I came across your Storage Room still in Paris. The book was given to me by a lover of the things of this earth.

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Good! So come in! In fact, the ruling elite around here read you.[1] They don't know very well and understand absolutely nothing of what is written in your novel... but they read. I have here the volumes of your In search… on top of some furniture in that little Capernaum...

Marcel Proust – Does the elite read me around here? So I was unsuccessful in writing my work. A German critic…[2]

Carolina Maria de Jesus – I know who you are talking about. A Marxist who writes about time, history and violence (I think State of exception is the term)… and a bit about religious issues…

Marcel Proust – Yes! I think it's called something... Benjamin. He understood very well what the ends of my novel were. I wanted to criticize every way of life based on the customs of the French elite and the elite in general. A hateful, snobby social group…

Carolina Maria de Jesus – And around here they walk with you under their arm. But if you think your elite is snobby... ours is violently snobbish...

Marcel Proust – So we are in fact in a very bad situation from the point of view of social struggle…

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Without a doubt, but let’s talk about literature, that’s not why you came to my house…

Marcel Proust – It was! How did your literary work come about?

Carolina Maria de Jesus – How did my literary work come about…? Like all the others. There is no secret here. The work I write stems from my own enunciations; of my own modalities of giving new form to the matter of existence. My Storage Room is pure "literary form"[3] enunciated...

Marcel Proust – I see. My process is similar. I worried the whole time I was writing the In Search of Lost Time in enunciating the form of the novel. And the language…?

Carolina Maria de Jesus – In fact, this is what matters in the invention of a work of art.

Marcel Proust – I completely agree. But it is a difficult consideration for those who read us to understand the importance and meaning of the language we use in our literary works...

Carolina Maria de Jesus – And it is not only the language that is clearly expressed as objective. My work is still read around here in such a way that I was expressing the realities of an extreme situation of poverty and hunger. Of course that's it... it's obvious. Not even Machado was exempt from this…

Marcel Proust – I see. In my particular case, Dona Carolina, they still see me as the writer of memory or, even worse, of a kind of self-fiction of myself. When they don't say I'm a subjectivist writer uncommitted to political practice.

Carolina Maria de Jesus – There is a Hungarian essayist, I think his name is George Lukács, who begins to be read here, who approaches writers from this approach, critical realism[4] and engagement. Terrible... this reading!

Marcel Proust – I've heard of him in France. There's a fine book on social theory, History… it's something. But in terms of aesthetics, he has problems, as you point out. Here in Brazil there is a literary critic who understood my narrative procedures well…

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Antonio Candido…[5]

Marcel Proust – I think so… He understood that the reality of my novel is not in the realm of the social as a thing; rather, in the very subjectivity of the characters, it is in the way in which they place their perceptions of themselves-for-themselves in the otherness that I develop my realism.

Carolina Maria de Jesus – In fact, you create a language to write the relationship between past, present and perhaps future. It's something very authentic.

Marcel Proust – Do you have a specific procedure, or did you have to write your Storage Room?

Carolina Maria de Jesus – I used a variety of them; which is difficult for my readers to understand. I established as an aesthetic creation to give “shape to the unpublishable”.[6] Ever since I was a maid-writer, or writer-maid, my goal has always been to give my subjectivity to the materials of Brazilian daily life.

Marcel Proust – But then there are no standards of social realism, or perhaps historical, the racial issue, in your literary texts…

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Absolutely not…

Marcel Proust – Interesting! The little information I got about you is that she was a writer of blackness and that she writes a kind of self-fiction...

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Well… the tongue has no bones, it moves everywhere, it says a saying from the outskirts of São Paulo, so everyone says what they want.

Marcel Proust – But then…

Carolina Maria de Jesus – There is no “but then…” Mr. Marcel; besides, he didn't have time for that kind of thoughtful discussion. I was a voracious reader of literature... of black abolitionist intellectuals... I fell in love with Nietzsche.[7] Of course I am a black writer (not black literature[8]), just as you are a white writer, but my intention has always been the creation of beautiful art as an endless purpose (also because I wrote inside a shack, as I would intend to be anything other than a literary work…). As I told you, my dream, and I realized it, was to give existence to the enunciation of language, to be a writer. (On the other hand, I also studied the philology of Brazilian social matters…) But how about you, how did you write your book on time and memory?

Marcel Proust – About memory…? Who told you that?

Carlina Maria de Jesus – That’s all they say… in the halls of Bahia, Minas Gerais and São Paulo…

Marcel Proust – I can't do anything about that either.

Carolina Maria de Jesus – From what I read about your In Search of the Lost Time, the volume On Swann's Way and part of the volume The Way of Guermantes… seems to me to be an articulation between a modern character facing arrogant classes framed with avant-garde narrative techniques, condensation of the Self within the scope of form, articulation between his own world and external historical and contingent facts, overlapping between character-narrator, narrator-character. Memory does indeed seem to exist, but it is not the core of the novel.

Marcel Proust – You have been generous with my work. I didn't think about so many things like that when I wrote the book. My desire was to write a book, write a novel about the constitutive moments of modern man's subjectivity...

Carolina Maria de Jesus – And the modern woman… right Mr. Proust…!

Marcel Proust – Yes, yes… I'm sorry!

Carolina Maria de Jesus – There is nothing to apologize for, it happens and times (as you well know) are different. Even I didn't have that horizon of the present day. I didn't even come close to creating anything, especially when it came to literature, understood as beautiful art, original language and authentic enunciation, with this ethical-social-identity dimension. My Storage Room it is a spirit that breathes language full of materiality. But go on, Mister Proust… you were saying that…

Marcel Proust – I was saying that my novel is an attempt to understand how it is possible to narrate oneself in the face of the contingencies that erupt in the various circumstances of our lives. And memory is one of those aspects. It arises from thoughtless, sudden, and unforeseen events. A church, a work of art, a beautiful woman passing by before our eyes, a musical melody, there are so many moments of memory that form and take us to another time, which can be the real or fictionalized past.

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Got it. It is very different from the self-fiction that is done today.[9] I never understood the importance of reading about the real life of a person told by himself. It may be valuable from other angles, but aesthetically and literarily I have my doubts... even more so for me who created worlds and microworlds through the stylized word with multiple tangibility, anyway...

Marcel Proust – Nor do I really understand this fixation on making one's past known. But let's leave it to the critics. In any case, I found in the form of excess of self, the original overflow through art, the way to build my In search…

Carolina Mary of Jesus - And what about the characters…?

Marcel Proust – They are figurations, all of them and all of them from a world of their own created by my modern subjectivity and which, within the course of the narrative, acquire modern personality traits in existing circumstances.

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Perfect! What I do, originating words and languages ​​by intensifying expressiveness (what anguish) you do, if I understand correctly, with the characters, the individuals who make up the novel.

Marcel Proust – That's it. You understand me more than many in my country. Before leaving, let's talk about politics a bit, not to say that we are not engaged… etc, etc…

Carolina Maria de Jesus – But around here, even if I wanted to, I wouldn't be able to be non-engaged, our social matter is very particular.

Marcel Proust – What I have to say is only that at the moment of the final struggle the class (bourgeois and aristocratic) snobbery that I described in my novel will be demonstrated in its most brutal moments… and we are close to that.

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Around here it has been in action… since 2016, but in my novel I figured that our situation (in Brazil) was and is apartheid or social revolution.[10] The next period will be damage reduction only.

Marcel Proust – When are you going to France? I look forward to a visit from you in Combray.

Carolina Maria de Jesus – After finishing my Brick house in two volumes and the passages here go down, I will surely go!

Marcel Proust – Await!

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Until then, dear Proust.

Prousts and Marias de Jesus: Brief Considerations


Throughout this fictionalized dialogue, I intended to propose some considerations about how a literary work arises within humanity itself. And this is independent of the history of civilizations in the various variations it assumes, whether social, cultural, political or mental. Fine art (endless and original), in the sense of Kant's faculty of judgment; the invention of language, the word that shines to ecstasy by Ezra Pound; and the human disclosure spilled over into eternity by Harold Bloom's canon can only be set in motion with the presentification of genius.

In this respect, writers as distinguished as Marcel Proust and Carolina Maria de Jesus are genius, insofar as they inspired something (what) “non-existent” – they invented a work, a language, an anguish directed at their readers with aesthetic processes peculiar to both. The suggestion when inserting the author of the In Search of the Lost Time, a French novel that concentrates in its entire artistic dimension what French culture had most distinctive about literature, written by an author who, despite his critical sensitivity to aristocratic-bourgeois salons, Proust's homosexual-profane socialism, as Georges Bataille rightly stated , which belonged to the highest and best situated strata of France at that time.

And the author of Storage Room, a “realistic” novel because the matter it deals with is real (once) positioned on the periphery of the system. Work that emerges from the hands of a black woman, from the slums (who were slums), from intellectual self-cultivation by herself, from sensitivity in writing and through the words that flowed through the paper (Carolina transformed in a sublime way, only geniuses can do it, notebooks and stumps from pencils found and picked up on the streets of São Paulo into a masterpiece: she always launched herself into the world as a writer of literature and not just anything else) – it was and is precisely to render unsuspected what is the founding genius of literary works.

It is evident that the interpretative hermeneutics (extrapolating – perhaps the record of comparative literature) of the work of Proust and Carolina was lacking here, so that the propositions are better understood. For now, readers will have to articulate imaginatively through the (fictionalized) encounter I am suggesting – complete with Immanuel Kant (the beautiful original art), Ezra Pound (the inventive and authentic language) and Harold Bloom (the enunciated canonical anguish)[11] – among the creators of In Search of the Lost Time and Storage Room, geniuses of mankind.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.


[1] According to some critics, such as Maria Marta Laus Pereira de Oliveira herself, in 1919 in Maceió, Jorge de Lima receives from a French airline pilot – who, when making a stopover in the city from Europe, brought Parisian news to the poet and doctor – the second volume of the In Search of the Lost Time newly published. See Maria Marta Laus Pereira de Oliveira – Aspects of the Proustiene Critique in France et au Brésil. Fragments, nº 2, v. 6, 1997

[2] See Walter Benjamin – The Image of Proust. Selected Works: Magic and Technique, Art and Politics, ed. Brasiliense, 2010

[3] See Atílio Bergamini – Shaping the Unpublishable: Carolina Maria de Jesus and her Art. Contemporary Brazilian Literature Studies, nº 59, 2020. For a predominant reading of the work of Carolina Maria de Jesus in the present day, see the excellent article by Daniela Palma – As Casas de Carolina: feminine spaces of resistance, writing and memory. Paid notebooks, no. 51, 2017.

[4] See George Lukács – Critical Realism Today: an approach to one of the most serious and fascinating problems of our time: the relationship between Marxism and the arts, ed. Thesaurus: 1991. In this respect, Lukács differs from other Marxist and dialectical critics, who have always been defenders of the modern avant-garde novel, such as: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Bertold Brecht and Fredric Jameson.

[5] See Antonio Candido – Reality and Realism (via Marcel Proust). cuts, ed. Gold over Blue, 2004.

[6] See Atílio Bergaminii, op. cit.

[7] See Atilio Bergamini, op. cit.

[8] On the distinction between black writer(s)/author(s) and black literature, consult the lecture by Mario Medeiro (Sociologia-Unicamp) at the IESP-UERJ Lecture Cycle, 2022. Link:

[9] See on the concept or notion of self-fiction, Eurídice Figueiredo – Autoficção e o Romance Contemporâneo. Alea, nº 3, vol. 22, 2020.

[10] This is the final formulation that Chico de Oliveira ends his Criticism of Dualist Reason of 1972.

[11] See Harold Bloom – The Western Canon: The Books and School of Time, Objective, 1995, Shakespeare: the invention of the human, Objective, 2001, Genius: The 100 Most Creative Authors in the History of Literature, Objective, 2003; Immanuel Kant – On Art and Genius. Thinkers Collection – Kant, São Paulo. April Cultural, 1984; Ezra Pound – ABC of Literature, Cultrix, 2003.

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