Marcel Proust, A Life

Edmund White’s brief (156 pages) biography of Proust reveals few details not found in the longer works by Carter, Painter or Tadié. But it differs from these other books by having been written by an accomplished novelist and a gay man, two qualities that help the author provide new insights into Proust.

White on Proust the homosexual:

 At the same time that Proust was eager to make love to other young men, he was equally determined to avoid the label “homosexual.” Years later he would tell André Gide that one could write about homosexuality even at great length, so long as one did not ascribe it oneself. This bit of literary advice is coherent with Proust’s  general closetedness–a secretiveness that was all the more absurd since everyone near him knew he was gay. (46)

This suggestion that Proust was a homosexual having an affair with the young Daudet could not be allowed to pass by unchallenged. Three days later the two men, standing at a distance of twenty-five yards, fired in the air above each other’s heads: Proust reported that his bullet fell just next to Lorrain’s foot. Proust showed a surprising coolness under fire. Perhaps he was proudest of the cachet of his seconds, the painter Jean Béraud and a celebrated he-man duelist, Gustave de Borda. No one remarked on the absurdity of one homosexual “accusing” another of being homosexual, which led to a duel to clear the “reputation” of the “injured” party….To be labeled a homosexual in print (as opposed to living a homosexual life in private or discreetly among friends) was social anathema, even in Paris, until the very recent past. (75-76)

Bibesco remembered  that at one of his mother’s salons he had first met Proust, whom he later characterized by saying he had eyes of “Japanese lacquer” and a hand that was “dangling and soft.” When he subsequently instructed Marcel on how to shake hands with a  virile grip, Proust said, “If I followed your example, people would take me for an invert.” Which is just an indication of how devious the thinking of a homosexual of the period could become–a homosexual affects a limp handshake so that heterosexuals will not think he is a homosexual disguising himself as a hearty hetero–whereas in fact he is exactly what he appears to be: a homosexual with a limp handshake. (82)

 To be sure, almost no one who did not know him thought that Proust himself was homosexual. The Narrator is one of the few unambiguous heterosexuals in the book; almost all the other characters turn out to be gay. After Proust’s death several essays congratulated him on his “courage” in braving such disgusting corners of experience, as though Proust were a moral Jean-Henri Fabre-the pioneering entomologist–and his homosexual characters were insects. (150)

White on Proust the writer:

But Proust had more personal objections to Ruskin. Sesame and Lilies is about the importance of reading as a way of improving the lot of the working class; whereas Proust prefaced his translation with one his most moving texts, “On Reading,” about the magical power of reading to awaken the imagination of a child–an end in itself. (79)

As the trajectory of this single character [Charlus] demonstrates, Proust had learned a method of presentation that falls midway between that of Dickens and that of Henry James. Dickens assigns his characters one or two memorable traits, sometimes highly comic, which they display each time they make an appearance; James, by contrast, is so quick to add nuances to every portrait that he ends up effacing them with excessive shading. Proust invented a way of showing a character such as Charlus in Dickensian bold relief at any given moment–Charlus as the enraged queen or, later, Charlus as the shattered King Lear. Yet by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at, though far more memorably. (109)

Proust esteemed Wagner’s way of “spitting out everything he knew about a subject, everything close or distant, easy or difficult.” This sort of fullness and explicitness he obviously preferred in literature as well, an amplitude he contrasted favorably to the pared-back reticence of the neo-classical style, as it was practiced by Anatole France or even André Gide. Still more important, Wagner’s opera Parsifal has been designated by many critics as the very template for Remembrance of Things Past, since both works trace the quest of a young man–in Parsifal, for the Holy Grail; and in Proust’s book, for the secret of literature. (112)

 Rather than distorting the proportions of the whole book, as some critics have complained, the introduction of Albertine actually  fills an immense void, “since little dalliances without importance and fleeting flirtations are replaced by the violent, tragic grandeur of Racinian passion,” as Proust’s best and most recent biographer, Jean-Yves Tadié, writes. (129)

 The apparently meandering prologue to the whole epic, “Combray,” for instance, is actually something like a strict overture to an opera, in the sense that it announces and compresses all the successive themes. (141)

Proust was anti-intellectual and convinced that the domain of art, which is recollected experience, can never be tapped through reasoning or method alone; it must be delivered to us, fresh and vivid, through a process beyond the control of the intellect or willpower. Paradoxically, if Proust was anti-intellectual he was also profoundly philosophical, in that what he sought was not the accidents but the essence of any past event. Involuntary memory, by definition anti-intellectual, nevertheless refines away all the unnecessary details of a forgotten moment and retains only its unadorned core. (143)



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