A SENSE OF TIME. Antoine Compagnon is a literary critic, writer, and professor emeritus at the Collège de France, specializing in Marcel Proust. He is Blanche W. Knopf Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. The author of numerous books on literary criticism and history, he was installed as one of the 40 members of the Académie Française known as “the immortals” in May 2023. He was recently appointed the first writer in residence at the musée du Louvre.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Antoine Compagnon, you have recently been received as an Academician. What does it imply?

The main mission of the Académie Française is the French language. There is a meeting every Thursday afternoon to discuss the dictionary. You can also be consulted on a number of other issues and it’s interesting to have new responsibilities. 

You have also been appointed the first writer in residence at the Louvre?

Yes, the formula that we decided was that twice a week for a year I would write an online chronicle of the life of the musée du Louvre. It would be about 7 or 800 words, with a photograph taken with my phone. It will be on everything to do with the Louvre, paintings, sculptures, but it will also be on the life of the museum and the visitors.

Louvre is a very important cultural brand”

Antoine Compagnon, how have you seen musée du Louvre change over time?

I was born in Brussels in 1950 and when I was a child in the late 1950s, early 1960s, for a couple of years we lived in Paris. I was in middle school at the Lycée Condorcet – where Proust went – and we were taken to the Louvre to visit the Greek and Egyptian antiquities. Then this was a small Louvre. There was no pyramid and the whole side on the Rue de Rivoli was the Ministry of Finance. It was before tourism took over, so it was empty.

Now it’s huge. The only one of a scale that can be compared to the Louvre is the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where there is also an Egyptian wing. No visitor comes to Paris without visiting the Louvre. It is a national museum, and not only a museum but a palace, so people also come to visit the history of Kings. One of the discoveries for the archaeologists when the new big Louvre was opened was the underground medieval Louvre. Nobody knew that you would find moats and a dungeon under the Louvre, and it’s still very impressive. Each time I come, I want to go to see the medieval Louvre.

Which are the most visited rooms at the Louvre? 

Most visitors go to Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa), the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Liberty Leading the People of Delacroix, but if you go to the beautiful Poussin room it’s quiet. In the course of my year at the Louvre I will certainly spend a day in that room, and another room that’s always peaceful which I like a lot is the Tiepolo. I like the quiet obscurity of the Islamic art rooms, it’s a nice space to meditate. Greek, Roman, each department of the Louvre is really important for its visitors, for its connections, for its history.

Is the Egyptian wing also very much visited?

Yes, I started my chronicle with the Sphinx, and the mummy room is always crowded. It’s fascinating, because of this the Louvre is also a cemetery. The Egyptian wing is a world.

Do you sometimes come to the Louvre when it’s closed?

I can come on Tuesday when it’s closed. I might also come and try to spend the night in the Louvre, because the people who know the musée du Louvre best are those who are in the Louvre at night. The firemen really know all the stairs backstage and they don’t get lost. 

Does the Louvre somehow epitomize the democratization of art? 

Yes, the Louvre is the epitome of the commodification of art, which is universal. When I was in Tokyo recently there was an exhibition of about 60 paintings from the Louvre about love. It was much more crowded than the Louvre itself. The Louvre is a very important cultural brand.

Do you think that as a state museum the Louvre is better run than the private Metropolitan?

I think the Louvre is quite well run, and they did great initiatives like having a writer in residence, for instance! Laughs. But I like the Metropolitan Museum a lot. When I am in New York I drop in at the Met almost every week.

“I am surprised by the universality of Proust”

Antoine Compagnon, now you are an Academician, but you started your career as an engineer. What happened? 

I worked briefly for one year as an engineer. I was a good student in mathematics so I went to the École Polytechnique, and when I was there I also went to the Sorbonne to check what was being done in literature. I didn’t know that it would become my main professional commitment until I got a fellowship to write a dissertation on literature. That dissertation on quotation is my first book, which is published under the title La Seconde Main.

When did you discover Proust?

My first reading of Proust was in 1966 when Proust was published in paperback, so I am a child of the democratization of culture. At that point I was studying mathematics and it was a very good counterpoint. I was reading Proust every evening and studying mathematics during the day. I read Proust as an amateur. I bought it, and I read it and I loved it.

How did you become a specialist in Proust?

In the early 1980s I taught in London at the French Institute where Jean-Yves Tadié, who is a major Proust scholar, was the Director. He asked me if I would work with him on the critical editions of Proust and that’s how I really became knowledgeable, because then I had to work on the manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Why is Proust so important in French literature?

I am surprised by the universality of Proust. In 2022, 100 years after Proust’s death, there were numerous celebrations, three exhibitions in Paris, many books published all over the world. I was overwhelmed. One can even be a bit worried that Proust extinguishes all the rest of French literature with a sort of monopoly.

Why do you think that is?

Historically most European literatures were encapsulated in one writer. Dante from Italy, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Pushkin. There was no equivalent for French literature, which was never identified with only one writer, there were always couples: Voltaire and Rousseau, Corneille and Racine, Balzac and Flaubert, Hugo and Baudelaire. One could never decide who represented France.

What did Proust invent?

Proust invented childhood sexuality. Proust became as famous as his contemporary Freud. After 1966 – when he was published in paperback as I mentioned – is really when he was extracted from the ghetto of snobbism and aristocracy. Most of the witnesses had also died by then, so he was no longer possessed by those who wrote their memories of Proust and who published their letters of Proust. He’s easy to read, with comic characters such as Charlus for instance, who is a lot of fun to discover, as is the Duchesse de Guermantes. A number of his characters are still Balzacian, at the same time there is a philosophical, theoretical and metaphysical dimension in Proust which is much closer to what you would expect from a very modernist novel.

Is Proust the leading light of French literature?  

Yes, I believe so, and this is proven by what took place in 2022. I’m not sure that all the visitors of the three exhibitions had read Proust or will read Proust after visiting the exhibitions, but what is very striking is that it’s not only in French and in France that Proust has this universal dimension. He always held a lot of appeal for the English speaking world, and now he is translated and read everywhere.

Antoine Compagnon

Résidence Mon Louvre by Antoine Compagnon Dept Antiquités orientales ©2023 Musée du Louvre, Olivier Ouadah

Antoine Compagnon

Résidence Mon Louvre by Antoine Compagnon Dept Antiquités orientales 2023

Antoine Compagnon

musée du Louvre: Antoine Compagnon

Antoine Compagnon

musée du Louvre: Antoine Compagnon

Antoine Compagnon

Résidence Mon Louvre by Antoine Compagnon Sculptures françaises ©2023 Musée du Louvre, Olivier Ouadah

Antoine Compagnon

Résidence Mon Louvre by Antoine Compagnon ©2023 Musée du Louvre, Olivier Ouadah

“Progress implies regret, the sense of the loss of the past, the inevitability of the future”

Antoine Compagnon, what is the difference between Proust and the other famous French writers?  

La Recherche is a monument because it is on themes that still and will always be of concern to all of us: love, death, mourning, sexuality, all types of sexuality, the arts, music, painting, literature. Everything is in Proust, but also it’s comic.

Why did you dedicate so much time to Baudelaire?

Baudelaire is another giant. It’s probably the most important collection of poetry nowadays. It was not always the case, but it’s the one that most French students have studied and that they know, and I think deservedly. A bit like Proust, Baudelaire has the advantage of being a modernist writer but still having this link with the tradition of poetry. What I love about Baudelaire is both the respect for the Alexandrine poetic metre and what he does with it. It’s not free verse, but it’s really the limit of what can be done with the Alexandrine.

In 2005 you published your very successful book Les Antimodernes. Can you tell me about this?

As I just described above, Baudelaire is a modernist, the inventor of what we call in French modernité and at the same time Baudelaire is someone who resists progress, photography, the big city, the boulevard. My argument in this book is that most authentic moderns have a resistance to modernity. Progress implies regret, the sense of the loss of the past, the inevitability of the future. A sense of mourning goes with modernity, and this appears strikingly with Baudelaire.

For many years you have been a Professor of French literature in America at Columbia University. How come?

I spent part of my childhood in the United States where I was in high school. At some point Columbia asked me if I wanted to apply for a job, and since part of my sentimental life was also in the United States I decided to leave Paris and taught for about a dozen years full time at Columbia. Then I came back and was a professor at the Sorbonne, but I still go to Columbia every fall.

Have things changed at Columbia over the years?

When I went to Columbia in 1985 it was a completely different university from what it is today. Then Columbia was a European university in its spirit. Now Columbia, as most American universities, is a global university and when you go on campus you see people from every part of the world.

What do you teach?

Next fall there will be a seminar on the Dreyfus Affair – politics, history, culture, painting and literature – and the other seminar will be on Proust and Colette. I recently published a book on Colette. Proust and Colette were contemporaries so there are many points of comparison and confrontation between them.

Literature globally is not as fashionable as it was. How is it in France?

The problem about literature in our age is that it takes time to read. Reading cannot be accelerated and we are in a world where we expect productivity gains in all activities, but if you read faster you don’t read well. There hasn’t been any progress since the Greeks in terms of reading.

These days university humanities departments have less and less students, who find more immediate results in other areas of study. Is this a big issue for you? 

Not long ago I went to the École Polytechnique where I studied, trying to convince the students that if they read they will be better engineers or better whatever they do. In any activity, as an engineer, as a lawyer, as a doctor, reading literature or poetry gives you a plus. I haven’t pursued it, but I think I would have been a fine engineer.

Thank you very much for this conversation and good luck for your writing in residence and everything else.