Posts Tagged ‘Charlus’

Céleste Albaret: Charlus

June 2, 2010

Céleste Albaret writes perceptively about Proust’s research for his novel. She confirms the unimportance of friendship for Proust; the dinners and meetings she arranged for him were simply research for the novel. If he got what he was looking for, he returned to the apartment jubilant. If not, he return dejected, fuming that he had wasted an evening instead of writing. She also shows that the novel’s characters are usually a melange of characteristics found among several members of his circle. Not so with Charlus, who is closely modeled on Robert de Montesquiou.

“And do you know what, Céleste? In the little silence at the beginning of the meal, as people were picking up their knives and forks, suddenly Monsieur de Montesquiou’s voice was heard blaring out to his hostess: ‘Madame, why in the world have you put me next to such an awful old cow?’ I need hardly describe the effect. The hostess nearly passed out and couldn’t think of anything to say. The count’s neighbor wished the floor would open and swallow her up or that the chandelier would crash down on the middle of the table. The worst of it was, the whole thing was gratuitous. The count’s unfortunate neighbor was one of his own circle and had never been anything but pleasant to him. The strange thing is that even when he was being coarse he still had such lordly manners that everyone overlooked his whims. (259)

His voice tended to be shrill. When he recited his own poems he used to stamp his foot; he’d do this even in conversation in a salon or in the street. He always stood pompously erect, with his head thrown back. This was all the more striking as he was tall and thin, with a very high-bridged nose and a thin,curled wax mustache. “Just like a cobra about to strike,” said M. Proust, who did an excellent imitation of him. (259)

[At the death of Montesquiou’s brother:] “I found Count Thierry de Montesquiou, the father, in the garden, stricken with grief. I tried to comfort him, but he was inconsolable. And yet he was a proud man, well-known for his harsh and rather cynical wit. Count Robert was with us, and suddenly, as I was speaking, seeing there were tears in his father’s eyes, he said, ‘Cheer up, Father! You will soon be frolicking about in paradise yourself!” No one else could have carried cruelty to such an extreme.” (260)

It had been years since M. Proust had last seen him. For one thing, he’d got as much as he wanted for the character, and for another, he didn’t hide that he was somewhat afraid of Montesquiou….”I don’t want to see him, Céleste. absolutely not. We must manage to prevent it. I know he goes to bed early now. So you telephone him at the Hôtel Garnier and say you haven’t seen me yet and you don’t know when you will. Say that when you left me this morning I said I wanted to rest….Oh no, that won’t work–if you telephone him he will know I have seen the telegram….No, tell him I am in the middle of a bad attack and I don’t know how long it will last. Say I could not possible see him before two or three in the morning.” I phoned. The count came to the telephone. He listened to my tale, and then he said: “Two o’clock in the morning. I shall be there.”….At the end of the conversation the count had shown his perverse side. “Do you know what he asked before he left, Céleste? ‘Marcel, do tell me how your Baron de Charlus is getting on.'”….The strange thing is, and it shows the real fear he could inspire, that after his death M. Proust said one night when were talking about him: “There are moments when I don’t really believe  he is dead. I know him; he is perfectly capable of pretending to be dead and adopting another name just to see whether his famous and people still remember him.” (262-265)

Recall Charlie Morel’s mortal fear of Charlus.


Contre Saint-Beuve II

May 26, 2010

Proust speaks of his talent for finding the “song” in an author.

 When I began to read an author I very soon caught the tune of the song beneath the words, which in each author is distinct from that of every other; and while I was reading, and without knowing what I was doing, I hummed it over, hurrying the words, or slowing them down, or suspending them, in order to keep time with the rhythm of the notes, as one does in singing, where in compliance with the shape of the tune one often delays for a long time before coming to the last syllable of a word. (265)

At this time, just before beginning ISOLT, he is still composing the tune for this novel. The sketches in Contre Saint-Beuve are thin and far from their final form. Consider the early portrait of Charlus, in the chapter titled A race accursed.

Early every afternoon there appeared a tall stout gentleman with a strutting gait; his moustache was dyed, and he always wore a flower in his buttonhole: this was the Marquis de Quercy. He walked through the courtyard and went to call on his sister, Mme. de Guermantes…His life was extremely methodical; he saw the Guermantes daily from one till two, spent the next hour with Mme. de Villeparisis whose flat was overhead, then went on to his club where he did various things…(211)

 But even as I said this to myself, I seemed to see a magical reversal taking place in M. de Quercy. He had not moved, but all of a sudden he was illuminated by a light from within, in which everything about him that I had found startling, perplexing, contradictory, had been harmoniously resolved as soon as I said those words to myself: “One would take him for a woman.” I had understood, he was one. He was one of them. He belonged to that race of beings who are in effect, since it is precisely because their temperament is feminine that they worship manliness, at cross-purposes with themselves, who go through life apparently in step with other men, but bearing about with them, on that little disk of the eye’s pupil, through which we look at the world and on which our desire is engraved, the body, not of a nymph but of a youth, who casts his shadow, virile and erect, over all they see and all they do. A race accursed…(218)

 When M. de Quercy was a little boy, when his playmates told him about the pleasures of going with a woman, he pressed up against them, supposing he only partook in a common wish for the same excitements. Later on, he felt that they would not be the same; he felt it, but did not say so, nor say so to himself. On moonless nights he went out of his castle in Poitou and followed the lane into the road that goes to the castle of his cousin, Guy de Gressac. Here, at the crossroads, they met, and on the grass bank they renewed what had been the games of their childhood…(225)

But there were times when, just as the desire for a perverse pleasure may blossom for once in a normal being, he was haunted by a desire that the body he clasped to his own might have had the breasts of a woman, breasts like tea-roses, and other more sequestered characteristics. He fell in love with a girl of high breeding whom he married and for fifteen years all his desires were contained in his desire for her, like a deep river in a blue-tinted bathing-pool. He marvelled at himself, like the  former dyspeptic who for twenty years could take nothing but milk and who lunches and dines every day at the Café Anglais, like the idler turned industrious, like the reformed drunkard. She died; and the knowledge that he had found the cure for his sickness made him less afraid to relapse into it. (229)

The language is conventional, the characterization merely descriptive. But through a magical reversal, Charlus would emerge in his glorious, flaming, queenly self.

Charlus Meets His Match

April 17, 2010

We have seen that jealousy may have a social as well as sexual origin. The same may be said of cruelty. Mlle Vinteuil and her friend act out a scene of cruelty to get them in the frame of mind for sex, since for them sex is tinged with evil. Charlus, too, enjoys both self-inflicted cruelty, at the end of a whip, and verbal cruelty, a sort of orgasmic outburst, sometimes directed at a potential conquest, as Marcel can testify.

“Do you suppose that it is within your power to offend me? You are evidently not aware to whom you are speaking? Do you imagine that the envenomed spittle of five hundred little gentlemen of your type, heaped one upon another, would succeed in slobbering so much as the tips of my august toes?” (III,765)

Marcel has gotten over that and now sees Charlus as essentially a good man who badly manages his appetites. Mme Verdurin turns Morel against Charlus.

Perhaps what now struck him speechless was–when he saw that M. and Mme Verdurin turned their eyes away from him and that no one was coming to his rescue–his present anguish and, still more, his dread of greater anguish to come; or else the fact that, not having worked himself up and concocted an imaginary rage in advance, having no ready-made thunderbolt at hand, he had been seized and struck down suddenly at a moment when he was unarmed (for, sensitive, neurotic, hysterical, he was genuinely impulsive but pseudo-brave–indeed, as I had always thought, and it was something that had rather endeared him to me, pseudo-cruel…(V,425-426)

 There is nothing pseudo about Mme Verdurin’s cruelty, nor is it sexual. Motivated by social jealousy, sparked by  Charlus promoting Morel to his aristocratic friends, she concocts slanders about Charlus, which are just plausible enough to convince Morel.

There are certain desires, sometimes confined to the mouth, which, as soon as we have allowed them to grow, insist upon being gratified, whatever the consequences may be; one can no longer resist the temptation to kiss a bare shoulder at which one has been gazing for too long and on which one’s lips pounce like a snake upon a bird, or to bury one’s sweet tooth in a tempting cake; nor can one deny oneself the satisfaction of seeing the amazement, anxiety, grief or mirth to which one can move another person by some unexpected communication. (V,414)

She delights in finding just the right word to mortify Morel.

At this moment there stirred beneath the domed forehead of the musical goddess the one thing that certain people cannot keep to themselves, a word which it is not merely abject but imprudent to repeat. But the need to repeat it is stronger than honour or prudence. It was to this need that, after a few convulsive twitches of her spherical and sorrowful brow, the Mistress succumbed: “Someone actually told my husband that he had said ‘my servant,’ but for that I cannot vouch, ” she added. (V,421)



A Certain Penetration

April 16, 2010

Brichot is the picture of the academic historian, a professor of immense learning who is, nevertheless, at least according to Charlus, appallingly ignorant of history and society. Charlus is thus compelled to give Brichot a lecture of his own, from an admittedly specialized view of history.

The insistence with which M. de Charlus kept reverting to this topic–into which his mind, constantly exercised in the same direction, had indeed acquired a certain penetration–was in a rather complex way distinctly trying. He was as boring as a specialist who can see nothing outside his own subject, as irritating as an initiate who prides himself on the secrets which he possesses and is burning to divulge, as repellent as those people who, whenever their own weaknesses are in question, blossom and expatiate without noticing that they are giving offence, as obsessed as a maniac and as uncontrollably imprudent as a criminal. (V,408)

 For reasons of brevity, I will summarize some of this hidden history.

  • Only three men out of ten is innocent of homosexuality.
  • Swann, for instance, played around a bit with Charlus back in their school days: “In those days he was he had a peaches-and-cream complexion, and, ” he added, finding a fresh note on each syllable,” he was as pretty as a cherub…” (V,400)
  • It was he who introduced Odette to Swann and provided other services to her: She used to force me to get up the most dreadful orgies for her, with five or six men. (V,400)
  • Odette had innumerable lovers, unknown to Swann and she once fired a gun at Swann, nearly hitting him. The enraged Swann then had an affair with Odette’s sister. Who knew?
  • He explains how Marcel’s impecunious friend in Balbec, M. de Crecy, became that way.

O Tempora o mores!  Back in the day, homosexuals were the very bedrock of civilization.

Good heavens, in my day, leaving aside the men who loathed women, and those who, caring only for women, did the other thing merely with an eye to profit, homosexuals were sound family men and never kept mistresses except as a cover. Had I had a daughter to give away, it’s among them that I should have looked for my son-in-law if I’d wanted to be certain that she wouldn’t be unhappy. Alas! things have changed. (V,409-410)

Social Jealousy

April 15, 2010

The novel might be considered a long treatise on the nature of jealousy. The form that afflicted Swann and now afflicts Marcel springs from the fear that the loved one may be enjoying herself with someone else and quite possibly in a way that he can never compete with. Marcel’s jealousy is especially strangling because it’s origin is Oedipal, his childish anguish over his mother enjoying herself with dinner guests rather than with him. Mme Verdurin introduces a non-erotic form of jealousy. She cannot bear the thought that one of her clan may be happy outside of her salon.

She has tolerated Charlus, who manifestly has another life, because he brings Morel and he confers some status. But at a musical soirée he crosses the line. He has invited various of his relatives and the elite to attend Morel’s playing of the Vinteuil septet. After the concert they take their leave from Charlus, ignoring their hostess.

The most noble ladies were those who showed most fervour in congratulating M. de Charlus upon the success of a party of the secret motive for which some of them were not unaware, without however being embarrassed by the knowledge, this class of society–remembering perhaps certain epochs in history when their own families had already arrived in full consciousness at a similar effrontery–carrying their contempt for scruples almost as far as their respect for etiquette. Several  of them engaged Charlie on the spot for different evenings on which he was to come and play them Vinteuil’s septet, but it never occurred to any of them to invite Mme Verdurin….The latter was already blind with fury. (V, 363-364)

The Baron is oblivious to her fury at being marginalized in her own house, in front of her clan.

Intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, M. de Charlus failed to realise that by acknowledging Mme Verdurin’s role and confining it within narrow limits, he was unleashing that feeling of hatred which was in her only a special, social form of jealousy. Mme Verdurin was genuinely fond of her regular visitors, the faithful of the little clan, but wished them to be entirely devoted to their Mistress. Cutting her losses, like those jealous lovers who will tolerate unfaithfulness, but only under their own roof and even in front of their eyes, that is to say when it scarcely counts as unfaithfulness, she would allow the men to have mistresses or male lovers, on condition that the affair had no social consequence outside her own house, that the tie was formed and perpetuated in the shelter of her Wednesdays.In the old days, every furtive giggle that came from Odette when she was with Swann had gnawed at Mme Verdurin, and so of late had every aside exchanged by Morel and the Baron; she found one consolation alone for vexations, which was to destroy the happiness of others. (V,370)


April 9, 2010

Albertine is at once a creation of Marcel’s jealous obsession, rooted in childhood trauma, and a person that he has chosen to live with. Morel enjoys a similar dual existence for Charlus. This unstable duality carries the risk of resolution by madness and even death, a conclusion Marcel both acknowledges and is reluctant to accept.

Jealousy is thus endless, for even if the beloved, by dying for instance, can no longer provoke it by her actions….There is no need for there to be two of you, it is enough to alone in your room, thinking, for fresh betrayals by your mistress to come to light, even though she is dead. (V,107)

“I beg of you, my darling girl, no more of that trick riding you were practising the other day. Just think, Albertine, if you were to have an accident!”  Of course I did not wish her any harm. But how delighted I should have been if, with her horse, she had taken it into her head to ride off somewhere, wherever she chose, and never come back to my house again! (V,153)

 It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one’s own like a bomb which one holds in one’s hands, unable to get rid of it without committing  a crime. But one has only to  compare this with the ups and downs, the dangers, the anxieties, the fear that false but probable thing will come to be believed when we will no longer be able to explain them–feelings that one experiences if one lives on intimate terms with a madman. For instance, I pitied M. de Charlus for living with Morel (immediately the memory of the scene that afternoon made me feel that the left side of my chest was heavier than the other); leaving aside the relations that may or may not have existed between them, M. de Charlus must have been unaware at the outset that Morel was mad….But all this  is only a comparison. Albertine was not mad. (V,236)

Many years later Marcel was to learn just how close to madness Morel had driven Charlus. This is from a letter meant to be read after his death.

This divine prudence it was that made him resist the appeals to come back and see me which I conveyed to him, and I shall have no peace in this world or hope of forgiveness in the next if I do not confess the truth to you. He was, in resisting my appeals, the instrument of divine wisdom, for I was resolved, had he come, that he should not leave my house alive. One of us two had to disappear. I had decided to kill him. (VI,168)




Mme de Charlus

March 28, 2010

M. de Charlus, infatuated with Charlie Morel, accompanies him to the Verdurin’s summer place, La Raspelière, a place in which he would not otherwise think of entering. He instinctively knows that his high society hauteur will not serve him among people who are unaware of his place in society, which allows us to see yet another of his faces.

“Why, yes, here the are!” M. Verdurin exclaimed with relief on seeing the door open to admit Morel followed by M. de Charlus. The latter, to whom dining with the Verdurins meant not so much going into society as going into a place of ill repute, was as apprehensive as a schoolboy entering a brothel  for the first time and showing the utmost deference towards its mistress. Hence the Baron’s habitual desire to appear virile and cold was over-shadowed (when he appeared in the open doorway) by those traditional ideas of politeness which are awakened as soon as shyness destroys an artificial pose and falls back on the resources of the subconscious. (IV,414)

As for M. de Charlus, whom the society in which he had lived furnished at this critical moment with different examples, with other arabesques of amiability, and especially with the maxim that one must in certain cases, for the benefit of people of humble rank, bring into play and make use of one’s rarest graces, normally held in reserve, it was with a fluttering, mincing gait and the same sweep with which a skirt would have enlarged and impeded his waddling motion that he advanced upon Mme Verdurin with so flattered and honoured an air that one would have said that to be presented to her was for him a supreme favour. His face, bent slightly forward, on which satisfaction vied with decorum,was creased with tiny wrinkles of affability. One might have thought that is was Mme de Marsantes who was entering the room, so salient at that moment was the woman whom a mistake on the part of Nature had enshrined in the body of M. de Charlus. (IV,415-416)

By dent of thinking tenderly of men one becomes a woman, and an imaginary skirt hampers one’s movements. (IV,417)

Decomposed Faces

March 25, 2010

Some years have passed since Marcel first saw Charlus in Balbec, a man with the vigour to walk cross-country for days at a time. He now spots Charlus near Balbec, where he is trying to seduce the handsome young Charlie Morel, and notes the actions of time on his face.

In Paris, where I encountered him only at evening receptions, immobile, strapped up in dress-clothes, maintained in a vertical posture by his proud erectness, his eagerness to be admired, his conversational verve, I had not realised how much he had aged. Now, in a light traveling suit which made him appear stouter, as he waddled along with his swaying paunch and almost symbolic behind, the cruel light of day decomposed, into paint on his lips, into face-powder fixed by cold cream on the tip of his nose, into mascara on his dyed moustache whose ebony hue contrasted with his grizzled hair, everything that in artificial light would have seemed the healthy complexion of a man who was still young. (IV,351)

 Meanwhile, in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach is touching himself up at the barbershop.

Like any other lover, he desired to please; suffered agonies at the thought of failure, and brightened his dress with smart ties and handkerchiefs and other youthful touches. He added jewellery and perfumes and spent hours each day over his toilette, appearing at dinner elaborately arrayed and tensely excited. The presence of the youthful beauty that had bewitched him filled him with disgust of his own aging body; the sight of his own sharp features and grey hair plunged him in hopeless mortification; he made desperate efforts to recover the appearance and freshness of his youth and began paying frequent visits to the hotel barber….He watched it in the mirror and saw his eyebrows grow more even and arching, the eyes gain in size and brilliance, by dint of a little application below the lids. A delicate carmine glowed on his cheeks where the skin had been so brown and leathery. The dry, anemic lips grew full, they turned the colour of ripe strawberries, the line around eyes and mouth were treated with a facial cream and gave place to youthful bloom. It was a young man who looked back at him from the glass–Aschenbach’s heart leaped at the sight. (Death in Venice, trans. Lowe-Porter)

Fear and Loathing in Paris

March 15, 2010

Charlus, confident of his superior position in society,  is immune to fear. He takes only minimal precautions to protect his secret life as a homosexual. Not so with those less endowed with wealth and position. The Duc de Châtellerault spends an agreeable afternoon, albeit with an assumed identity as an Englishman, with a man who it turns out is a butler for the Princesse de Guermantes.

But M. de Châtellearault was as cowardly as he was rash; he was all the more determined not to unveil his incognito since he did not know with whom he was dealing; his fear would have been far greater, although ill-founded, if had known. (IV,46)

…from the  first moment the usher had recognised him. In another instant he would know the identity of this stranger, which he had so ardently desired to learn. When he asked his “Englishman” of the other evening what name he was to announce, the usher was not merely stirred, he considered that he was being indiscreet, indelicate. He felt that he was about to reveal to the whole world (which would, however, suspect nothing) a secret which it was criminal of him to ferret out like this and to proclaim in public. Upon hearing the guest’s reply: “le Duc de Châtellerault,” he was overcome with such pride that he remained for a moment speechless. The Duke looked at him, recognised him, saw himself ruined, while the servant, who had recovered his composure and was sufficiently versed in heraldry to complete for himself an appellation that was too modest, roared with a professional vehemence softened with intimate tenderness: “Son Altesse Monseigneur le Duc de Châtellerault!” (IV, 49-50)

Then we have the Marquis de Vaugoubert, who as a youth was intimate with Charlus.

The proportions of this work do not permit me to explain here in consequence of what incidents in his youth M. de Vaugoubert was one of the few men (possibly the only man) in society who happened to be in what is called in Sodom the “confidence” of M. de Charlus. (IV, 57)

His response to my greeting had nothing in common with that which I should have received from M. de Charlus. He imparted to it, in addition to countless mannerisms which he supposed to be typical of the social and diplomatic worlds, a brisk, cavalier, smiling air calculated to make him seem on the one hand delighted with his existence–at a time when he was inwardly brooding over the mortifications of a career with no prospect of advancement and threatened with enforced retirement–and on the other hand young, virile and charming, when he could see and no longer dared to go and examine in the glass the wrinkles gathering on a face which he would have wished to remain infinitely seductive. Not that he hoped for real conquests, the mere thought of which filled him with terror on account of gossip, scandal, blackmail. Having gone from an almost infantile corruption to an absolute continence dating from the day on which his thoughts had turned to  the Quai d’Orsay and he had begun to plan a great career for himself, he had the air of caged animal, casting in every direction glances expressive of fear, craving and stupidity. This last was so dense that it did not occur to him that the street-arabs of his adolescence were boys no longer, and when a newsvendor bawled in his face: “La Presse!” he shuddered with terror even more than with longing, imagining himself recognised and denounced. (IV, 58-59)

Baron of Bums

March 10, 2010

Legrandin is rather clumsy in his desire to be a good neighbor to Marcel and his family and at the same time to appear rather more important than he is to the local landed gentry. He is at the early stage of being a snob, a character trait that he will continue to develop. Here he is with prominent landowners of Combray.

Legrandin’s face wore an expression of extraordinary zeal and animation; he made a deep bow, with a subsidiary backward movement which brought his shoulders sharply up into a position behind their starting point, a gesture in which he must have been trained by the husband of his sister, Mme de Cambremer. This rapid  straightening-up caused a sort of tense muscular wave to ripple over Legrandin’s rump, which I had not supposed to be so fleshy; I cannot say why, but this undulation of pure matter, this wholly carnal fluency devoid of spiritual significance, this wave lashed into a tempest by an obsequious alacrity of the basest sort, awoke my mind suddenly to the possibility of a Legrandin altogether different from the one we knew. (I,174)

One is prompted by this physical description of Legrandin’s derrière to ask if his name is a Dickensian joke. And one is also curious of the opinion of the Baron of Bums, Charlus.

When the Princess, who had undertaken to find a husband for Mlle d’Oloron, asked M. de Charlus whether he knew anything about an amiable and cultivated man called Legrandin de Méséglise (it was thus that M. Legrandin now styled himself), the Baron first of all replied in the negative, then suddenly the memory recurred to him of a man whose acquaintance he had made in the train one night and who had given him his card. He smiled a vague smile. “It’s perhaps the same man,” he said to himself. (V,903)