Who is Proust in ISOLT?

The problem with a roman a clef reading of any novel is that when you identify the real life model of a character, what you know of the real life person can supplant what the text says about the character. For example:

Charlus? Robert de Montesquiou!

Odette? Laure Heyman!

Marcel? Marcel!

The last identification, though, I don’t find completely obvious or least complete. Marcel and Proust certainly share a life mission to find themselves as writers. But a comment by Malcolm Bowie in his Proust Among the Stars has led me to ask in which other characters Proust represents himself.

Bowie sees something of Proust in the character Bloch. The Block character is problematic for just about everyone. He is the apotheosis of the socially crude Jew, cluelessly clawing for recognition in high society. And his family is worse. This character has opened Proust up to charges of anti-Semitism, a charge that is completely out of keeping with what we know of his personal life, his devotion to his Jewish mother and her family, his activism in the fight to release Dreyfus. Bowie sees in Bloch as a parody of the young Proust trying to gain acceptance in the Parisian tout-monde. Block is forever knocking over vases, wearing muddy clothes and lacking graces. Might Proust himself have been expressing his exaggerated fears of being judged badly by society when portraying Bloch? This sounds much more reasonable than interpreting Bloch as an anti-Semitic outburst.

And isn’t Proust very much in Swann? Swann’s knowledge and love of art is bottomless, but without issue. He cannot finish his book on Vermeer. He wastes his time advising society, who respect his taste, about art that will just be adornments on a mansion wall. Proust had a similarly encyclopedic knowledge of painting, as evidenced in the always perfect  choice of a painting to help visualize a scene in the novel. And until his breakthrough at mid-life, he was a commentator, as in his Ruskin translations, rather than an artist. Proust succeeds where Swann failed, thankfully.

The arrogant Charlus could not be more unlike the charming, gentle Proust. Except in one respect. They share similar sexual inclinations. Both are drawn to rough trade and violence as a sexual stimulant. Charlus’ choice of arousal in a male brothel is chains and whipping. Proust’s is the sight of rats fighting to the death. Proust knew firsthand how to lead Charlus to understand the power of cruelty to release sexual frenzy.

Proust famously advised his readers to understand that his characters came from real life, but that each of them was formed from numerous examples. This perception can be turned around. At least some of the characters can be understood as one aspect of Proust’s complex character.

Jim Everett


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