[As a sabbatical reading project, I decided to "do" Proust—from childhood insomnia in Combray to the uneven paving stone in the Guermantes courtyard. This essay, which I presented at an English Department Symposium at the University of Redlands, was one of the results of that reading.]
In Search of Gay Identity in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time
Marcel Proust and his mega-novel are back. Not that he ever went away exactly, but The Modern Library has chosen to refurbish its paperback edition of In Search of Lost Time with new covers in a larger trade paper size, hoping, apparently, to attract new readers. A straightforward goal. They may also have spiffed up the franchise to compete with a new contemporary edition of the novel from Viking/Penguin with translations from eminent writers like Lydia Davis. More mysterious is exactly who the publishers imagine the potential audience for so much revamped Proust is going to be. The six Modern Library volumes are the usual, handsome black and copper of this publishers Classics series and feature slightly fractured photographic images on each cover. These images suggest a curious merger of Martha Stewart Living and the dust jackets for “tasteful” Continental erotica. The first volume, Swann’s Way, offers an expanse of crisp white linens: pillows and sheets that could suggest the bed where Young Marcel awaits his mother’s goodnight kiss in the novel’s opening Combray section or perhaps the authorial primal scene of the invalid Proust crouched under the covers composing his masterpiece. It also looks a bit like a catalogue page from Pottery Barn; I wonder what the thread count is.
Other volumes present a strand of pearls, a pair of orchids, a close-up of a man’s starched collar. Two volumes feature images of women. Within a Budding Grove offers the head and shoulders of a young strawberry blonde lying prone on more white sheets. Her heavy-lidded eyes are vacant, although not in an unpleasant way. Is she resplendent from sexual exhaustion? A really good back rub? Are we meant to connect her with Teen Marcel’s first love, Gilberte? If so, whose bed is she lying on? For the volume combining The Captive and The Fugitive, there is a photograph of a woman’s bent leg, protruding from a silky negligee, manicured nails resting at the knee. Admittedly, there is something very Parisian about this image (the poster for an Eric Rohmer movie?), and the legs of Marcel’s key love object do get one mention in the text. But if this woman flaunting her slender thigh is Albertine, for whom is she posing and why? Maybe we are not meant to take this imagery literally—it’s meant to evoke an atmosphere or it’s all an attempt at repositioning the novel: In Search of Lost Time—The Saucy French Comedy from Marcel Proust.
Inside the covers, the sole new written feature of this edition is an introduction from poet and translator Richard Howard, cast in the form of a letter to Proust explaining what contemporary readers expect from him and what he requires from them. It’s a fine essay proposing some intriguing ideas about the “strangely absent presence” of Proust’s narrator, but as an enticement to the common reader (if such a person still exists) to jump on board, the introduction is almost comically inadequate. After scanning an essay that drops “Menippean,” “evangel,” and “enchiridion” on the first page, will the average book browser ditch The Lovely Bones and head home with eight pounds of Proust?
I suppose all this repackaging is acceptable if it shifts more inventory, but it underlines a key question: Why should anyone at the start of the 21st Century want to read an enormous, difficult, self-absorbed, novelish thing composed at the start of the last century? Proust’s work is not a naughty romp through Belle Époque Paris, yet I suppose if readers are looking for something sexy but classy, they can display these new volumes on their shelves, leaving them—as so many volumes of Proust let loose in the world must certainly be left—confidently unread. On another, intellectual level, a common assumption about this novel is that it should be studied because it is somehow edifying, that the alchemy of its prose will leave the reader a better person. What kind of better person is left unclear, but the process has something to do with aesthetics and Proust’s ability to penetrate to the heart of the human condition. Another enticement is simply the challenge itself: reading all of Proust instead of climbing a mountain or travelling up the Amazon—an outward bound adventure for inert introverts.
To be honest, this “Because it’s there” factor was key to my own motives in undertaking the novel this year. I have been on a half-year sabbatical from teaching, and Proust seemed like a suitably monumental reading assignment. I had read Swann’s Way twice before, but my attempt at the summit had always gotten scuttled at the crevasse between the first and second volumes.
Before starting, I had a clear impression of the novel as a portrait of the development of an artist: how a writer comes to find his themes and his voice. This conception of the work—its widely agreed-on subject—is undoubtedly valid, and Proust’s insights into this topic are extensive, brilliant, convincing. Further, his evocation of human lives extending down through the dimension of time may be unsurpassed. What I wasn’t expecting to find at the center of the work was the most agonizingly thorough depiction of the self-hatred and closeting of a gay man that literature is likely to produce. Why anyone should be interested in reading that painful portrait is another vital question. In her insightful, if sometimes highly specialized, chapter on Proust in Epistemology of the Closet (a key embarkation point for queer studies), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick feels the need to apologize to her readers for “the by now authentically banal exposure of Proust’s narrator as a closeted homosexual” (223). But if readers’ awareness of this exposure is commonplace, the unavoidable centrality to the novel of the issue of Proust and his narrator’s sexual identities remains remarkable. And I’m convinced that the struggle captured both in and surrounding the text—to maintain personal identity and integrity against the onslaught of a culture that forces an individual to twist and bend until the most extensive and egregious lies are needed to prop up a collapsing self—is important to any person who has felt her- or himself at odds with the oppressive and monolithic.
In the vast mountain range of ancillary material surrounding Proust’s peak, discussion of the centrality of Proust’s exploration of sexuality remains relatively rare. In our time, Marcel Proust’s homosexuality is universally, even banally, acknowledged; his recent biographies are candid and thorough in their exploration of his sexual and romantic life, even extending their speculation to his erotic fixation with rats; and every study of his work that I’ve surveyed at least glances at the topic of sex. Strangely, however, Proust’s personality and experiences as a gay man are often assumed to exist at some remove from the work itself as if the impact of his identity on his prose was indefinite or minimal.
Until queer studies became a relatively established focus in the academic world, a classic maneuver for avoiding the homosexuality of various celebrated authors and figures was to claim that biography and literature must be viewed as entirely separate enterprises. This New Critic feint allowed scholars to discuss Walt Whitman or Henry James without making any mention of the author’s sexuality and experiences. When “queerness” did appear in the texts themselves, it could be “dealt with”: in Whitman’s case by transforming his homoerotics into a valorization of universal brotherhood; in James’ case either by ignoring his references (what isn’t oblique in James?) or by offering an alternate analysis. Also like Whitman, whose status as the American Poet makes acknowledgement of his sexuality an uneasy matter for some people, Marcel Proust has become such a towering icon of French letters that calling him queer may seem an affront to France itself. Unlike Whitman and James, however, Proust poses an even more persistent problem to critics bent on avoiding his homosexuality because his discussion of the topic in the novel is so direct, detailed, and unmistakable.
What past critics have done, and what many writers on Proust continue to do, is to deploy the strategy that Proust himself encourages. In his 1921 journal, fellow gay author André Gide reports a series of visits to the home of the ailing Proust. Discussing homosexuality in regards to Gide’s proposed memoirs, Proust exclaims, “You can tell anything, but on condition you never say: I” (265). Proust encourages Gide to adopt his own approach: Deflect by every means available the issue of homosexuality away from the central consciousness, the narrator, the character of Marcel, the “I” of In Search of Lost Time.
Proust’s gambit is tricky, however: he wants to write with more forthright detail about a particular aspect of human sexuality than any novelist before him, yet he also hopes to ensure that his intense, personal interest in the subject in no way calls his own sexual identity into question. A further challenge arises from his decision to locate his narrative precisely at the permeable boundary separating fiction from autobiography. The novel not only draws extensively on his intimate history, it ambivalently draws reader’s attention to these connections. As a fiction writer myself, I am reluctant to deny a novel the autonomy to create its own independent world, to require a narrative to reflect its author’s “real” experience. Yet unlike the fictional worlds of Proust’s relative contemporary Oscar Wilde, in which I feel no need to ponder the verifiability of Gwendolen or Mrs. Cheveley, In Search of Lost Time makes the fiction/reality divide hard to maintain. Proust may have assumed that his readers would have no outside information to contradict his self-assertions, but current widespread knowledge of his life may make this division nearly impossible. At best, I can pretend I don’t know what I know about the man, the author.
Many critics, however, continue to view this “extra-textual” information as illegitimate. They are more than willing to accept Proust’s stratagem, even to bolster it. The opening section of Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah, resolves into an anti-manifesto of homosexual liberation, in which Proust analyzes the “freemasonry” of “inverts” and concludes that it would prove impossible for people so afflicted to unite more fully. In his comprehensive overview of the novel, Proust’s Way (as good an introduction as any into non-queer studies-based criticism of the work—with lots of kooky tables and diagrams as a bonus), Roger Shattuck in essence proposes that Proust’s assessment of the place of homosexuality in the world should be adopted as the framework for considering the topic within Proust’s text. After quoting Proust’s warning against “the fatal error of creating, as people have encouraged the creation of a Zionist movement, a sodomite movement and the rebuilding of Sodom,” Shattuck explains:
Proust has been accused recently of not having had the courage “to come out of the closet”—openly to admit to his own homosexuality. But Proust wished to reject the false solidarity of labels and banners and special causes. He concerned himself with all humanity, not with one segment of it. His vision was shaped by his desire not to allow his sexual identity to define the scope of his novel. (47)
Applied to In Search of Lost Time, this passage is an admonition not to view the work as a homosexual narrative by a homosexual writer because doing so would be limiting, would “define the scope” of the novel. A page earlier, Shattuck offers one of his rare criticisms of Proust when he notes that “Proust is working with a set of characters who are, in varying degrees, so homosexually active that the novel, especially in the latter books, appears at times to lose sight of the story itself" (46). Setting aside the contradiction of these two statements (Is Proust properly suppressing or improperly splurging with his homosexual content?), Shattuck reinforces a standard critical stance that homosexuality and homosexuals are not and can never be “universal” subjects for a work of art; their presence—too much and too many of them anyway—will make the work narrow, crimped, bent. I am particularly struck by Shattuck’s concern that the characters are “so homosexually active,” so dangerous in fact, that by some venereal process they threaten to derail the whole project.
It is undeniable that there is an amazing amount of material about homosexuality in the novel—hundreds of pages—although you would never know it from most criticism of the work. If there were hundreds of pages about the plight of coal miners or the effects of slavery—if these ideas were as strong a focus of the narration as sexual identity is in this novel—would Shattuck suggest that Proust was losing sight of the “story itself,” or would he stop to consider that perhaps this issue is a fundamental part of that “story”? As a present-day reader, I must confront Proust’s huge pile-up of commentary and incident about homosexuality (so much and in such detail, that any challenge made to our ability to compare Proust’s definition of sexuality and our current ones seems beside the point). Even more of a conundrum, while reading this novel I am keenly aware that it is the life’s work of a homosexual writer whose central character and narrator—a figure who shares much of the background and experience, as well as the name, of the writer—is presented to the reader as strongly, even ostentatiously, heterosexual.
If I were to grant Shattuck’s implicit contention that Proust has straightened out his narrative doppelganger in order to embrace “all humanity,” I would be acting in the manner Proust likely expected of his readers. Proust clearly sensed that his contemporaries would not tolerate a gay narrator at the center of his grand project; it seems likely that Proust, himself, could not accept such a figure. As queer theorists have demonstrated, that is how closeting works: the person or community inside the closet and the society outside it exert equal forces to keep the door closed and in place. Proust counts on his readers’ ignorance of his nature or on their willingness not to call his bluff. Yet it is also clear that Proust cannot bear the weight of this masquerade; he cannot allow himself to compose a novel, which—more than almost any other single work I can think of—represents the transmutation of an author’s sense of selfhood into the medium of prose, without offering any route into the avenues of his own heart. So all this stuff, Proust’s queer stuff, has to ooze out somewhere.
When I was eight or nine, I sat at my friend Jennifer’s kitchen counter as she showed me a joke. She filled a bowl with water and covered the surface of the water with black pepper. She said this was a swimming pool full of people. She stuck in a finger, another swimmer. The bits of pepper floated about normally or even moved closer. Then she coated her finger with soap and plunged it in again. The pepper spots rushed away towards the bowl’s edge. I don’t remember the joke—something about pee or farts, fat girls or Polacks—but I do recall the image. How the dark flecks raced in every direction except towards the soapy finger. The presence of homosexuality in Proust’s novel operates in the same fashion: Proust coats his character Marcel with a film of impermeable heterosexuality that protects his identity by hurling all hints of queerness away towards anyone and anything that surrounds him.
Our narrator is encircled by gay male characters: The Baron de Charlus, his lover and later procurer Jupien, the Prince de Guermantes, the bisexual Morel, and on and on. More bizarrely, the narrator suspects almost every girl and woman who enters his field of sexual and romantic attraction of some sinister strain of lesbianism. Edmund White in his slim, gossipy Penguin Lives biography of Proust suggests that this pervasive secret sapphic sisterhood arises from Proust’s mistrust of the working men, chauffeurs and the like, whom he doted on later in life; White posits that Proust didn’t like his guys sneaking out to be with women, so he burdens the fictional Marcel with suspicions that his loves are creeping off with to be with the ladies as well. It’s a valid theory. In the novel, Marcel is less concerned with his lover Albertine becoming involved with other men because that desire is one he understands, but her entanglements with women are a mystery with which he can’t compete (likewise, Proust’s narrator inverts this equation when diagramming the Baron de Charlus’ jealousy: the Baron cannot comprehend his male lover’s dalliances with women). But the fundamental source of the cheating lesbian motif seems to result from the diversion of Proust’s own sexuality away from the fictional Marcel and into the protagonist’s surrounding world.
There is a lot of loathing in these volumes. While Proust’s/the narrator’s/Marcel’s (take your pick) social snobbery is frequently noted, this obsession with French aristocracy and its lineage and habits is largely comic. In fact it’s sort of endearing: Marcel as a fin-de-siècle Trekkie, overflowing with minutiae about Guermantes and Montmorencys instead of Romulans and Klingons. The real loathing, the hardcore nastiness, is aimed primarily at the Jews (especially at Marcel’s friend Bloch) and at the homosexuals (principally the Baron de Charlus). It can hardly be coincidence that Proust lavishes indulgent satire on the foibles of the group he had once fantasized about joining and saves his true vitriol for the minority categories in which he could claim membership. Jewish Bloch is never portrayed in a flattering fashion; he is uncouth, grasping, full of embarrassing pseudo-sophisticated banter, and somehow, always, unseemly in his semitism (and, horrors, he has a likely lesbian sister to torment Marcel as well). As I progressed through the volumes, I kept wondering why Marcel maintained a friendship with someone he viewed with such contempt. The only answer that satisfies me is that Bloch must persist onstage because Bloch is the severed splinter of Proust’s/Marcel’s Jewish self. Marcel can’t shake Bloch off and be done with him, because Bloch is welded to him on a level deeper than the narrative itself can acknowledge. The novel’s Marcel has no apparent Jewish relations; instead, Bloch exhibits every trait that Proust worries his own partly-Jewish heritage might lead him to reveal, every foul stereotype that Proust fears might be levelled at his own character. Remarkably, Proust is too fundamentally honest an artist to conceal his Jewish aspect entirely. He mocks Bloch, but keeps him in view as a constant foil, along with an enduring sympathy for the Jewish Dreyfus and his notorious treason case that also threads throughout the narrative. It is also revealing that the other Jewish focal point in the text is Charles Swann, the protagonist of the novel’s most widely-read section Swann in Love. He is most admired by his society and perhaps by the narrator for the success of his assimilation, his ease and erudition, his lack of semitic, tribal qualities.
The Baron de Charlus, and the other male homosexuals in the novel, function in a similar, if more complicated way. The scorn that the narrator metes out to Charlus is profound. But, perhaps because Proust experienced his sexuality as a more immediate and essential part of himself than his Jewishness, Charlus—unlike Bloch—is also approached with various kinds of empathy and praise.
Charlus is a flamboyant monster. It is often pointed out that his character is based on the Comte Robert de Montesquiou, the same outsized personage who inspired the decadent aesthete at the center of Huysman’s Against Nature. Charlus is already too old, as the novel begins, to be shown in his dewy boy or handsome youth stages; otherwise, he is held up as the avatar of every extant stereotype of what a gay man is or does. At various moments, he is a vicious snob, an effete aristo, a duplicitous schemer, a swishy queen with vast knowledge of home décor and women’s fashion, a diva capable of withering volleys of invective, a sadomasochistic pervert, an ostentatiously if hypocritically devout Son of the Church, a castrated auntie, and a clueless dupe unaware that his nancy mannerisms are hiding in plain sight. Sedgwick calls this last trait, “the spectacle of the closet”: Everyone is allowed to recognize, and comment upon, the Baron’s “secret” except for the Baron himself. The Baron’s inverted condition is invariably bracketed with those of the diseased, the insane, and the criminal (leaving out only “the sinful” from the familiar quartet of “explanations” of homosexuality). And as the Baron sashays across the courtyard towards his first tryst with Jupien the tailor at the opening of Sodom and Gomorrah, Marcel observes him and recognizes that the Baron didn’t just look “like a woman: he was one!” (IV, 19). Proust proceeds to explain that inverts are actually female souls slipped into the wrong biological sleeves; even so, the idea doesn’t seem to convince Proust entirely, and he only haphazardly adheres to the concept for the remainder of the novel. Inversion is seldom implicated as the source of Albertine’s lesbianism, so perhaps the process chiefly moves one way—towards the feminine. Certainly, Charlus’ surrender of his male prerogative is among the most grave transgressions on Proust’s list. The Devil is a Woman.
Like all the best monsters (Frankenstein’s creation, say, or Beauty’s Beast, or King Kong), Charlus is also among the most tenderly sympathetic creatures on display. Proust finds time in his narrative for a number of humiliating scenes to give the haughty Baron his comeuppance, but these sequences reliably leave me (and Marcel) with a feeling not of satisfaction at a punishment well-deserved, but of regret at the world’s cruelty. The narrator posits Charlus as one of the great art critics of his time who should have put his ideas into print, and he goes further to argue that it is inversion itself that allows the Baron to discern and appreciate great art. Somehow, his condition and the cultural perspective it creates, provides Charlus with “the narrow loophole that opens upon Beethoven and Veronese” (V, 271). Even the grotesquely dramatized encounter between Charlus and Jupien is not seen as merely absurd, but “stamped with a strangeness, or if you like a naturalness, the beauty of which steadily increased” (IV, 6). The portrait of Charlus keeps enlarging, shifting, and by the novel’s end, he emerges as Proust’s most vivid, possibly greatest creation.
So why is it that Proust, who has “all humanity” to nail into place, chooses to lavish so much attention on this particular character? Why does homosexuality spread like craquelure across the whole height and breadth of the social fresco Proust has painted? And why so much wrath? During another of his 1921 visits to Proust, André Gide suggested that Proust seemed to want to “stigmatize homosexuality” with his unrelentingly harsh presentation of his gay male characters. Proust blamed an unexplained “indecision” that led him to draw on his own homosexual experiences to create the little band of girls that Albertine runs around with at the seaside in Balbec. All the “attractive, affectionate, and charming elements” of the young men he admired had been poured into these girls so that there was nothing left but “the grotesque and the abject” to draw upon for his portraits of male inverts (267). In his journal, Gide does not further assess or judge Proust’s explanation, but it seems a pretty dubious premise that a man capable of writing a 3500 page novel had such a limited reservoir of creative juices in his head that the girls on the esplanade were able to drain him.
I find it difficult to read the Baron de Charlus and the majority of the novel’s other gay male characters as anything but projections of self-loathing. Because Proust cannot embrace the thing that lies inside him—his sexuality—he cannot portray it sympathetically in his characters. But this thing occupies such a large part of his conscious and unconscious attention that he cannot suppress it either. He layers it into his novel, along with his self-disgust, his fears and fascination, almost against his better judgment, against his will. Then he feels the need to apologize: “…the author would like to say how grieved he would be if the reader were to be offended by his portrayal of such weird characters” (V, 52).
Proust’s comments to Gide do provide insight into the shaky foundation on which the character Marcel’s female love interests are erected. These girls are the filmiest characters in the narrative, often uncompelling and unconvincing because they lack both the comic vibrancy of his society ladies, social climbers, and crotchety servants, and the poignancy and empathy found in his portrayal of certain beloved figures, notably his grandmother. In her teen phase, Marcel’s first love Gilberte seems crafted of tissue, more a conjecture than a character, built from some boyish rambunctiousness (I kept wondering how old these girls playing rough-and-tumble on the Champs Elysée were meant to be) and from pale echoes of her mother, Odette, the novel’s wellspring of female duplicity. Because Odette is viewed from an objective distance in the novel’s most highly polished section, Swann In Love, she gains a solidity that her daughter never approaches. My vote for the most tedious, tendentious passages in the whole work are Marcel’s endless ruminations about his non-starter relationship with Gilberte. Granted, it’s not uncommon for a teenager to obsess endlessly over a girl (or boy) he knows nothing about, but Gilberte lacks even the specificity of a Christina Aguilera poster. When the adult Gilberte resurfaces in the last volume, her character is neither recognizable from her earlier incarnation nor consistent among her later appearances.
Albertine, the main conquest of a somewhat older Marcel, is more satisfying and substantial, if only because she is onstage more often and is subject to the novel’s most dramatic contrivances. A graduate school professor of mine suggested to our class that Proust had simply substituted a Gilberte for a Gilbert, an Albertine for an Albert, then proceeded to tell his story, and Proust does provide a formula for such a substitution in his novel. After the narrator describes the Baron de Charlus’ self-identification with a Balzac character, he goes on to explain how Charlus (and inverts in general) makes a personal inversion of literature by switching the genders in a book’s romantic couplings as he reads:
…the mere conversion of a woman, as the beloved object, into a young man immediately set in motion around him the whole sequence of social complications which develop round a normal love affair…Everything can have been changed without causing any disturbance, since the ratio between the figures is still the same. (IV, 623-24).
In the novel’s last volume, Proust states even more directly, almost plaintively, that “the writer must not be indignant if the invert who reads his book gives to his heroines a masculine countenance” (321). It is not hard to invert this formula and recognize Proust’s anxiety over his own gender-flipped characters. Nonetheless, these are calculations that readers make all the time to bring unfamiliar material in line with their own experiences, and there is no reason the transposition of a same-sex affair into a cross-gendered one could not succeed narratively on an emotional and psychological level. However, the specific texture and coloring of events require alteration to appear plausible and vivid. And while the dysfunctional dynamic between Marcel and Albertine is intriguing, their encounters often unfold in a virtual vacuum. The narrator finds excuses to evacuate Marcel’s mother and father from the family house in Paris before Marcel installs Albertine there, but as the time of her stay stretches on and on, unanswered questions arise about the parents’ absence and of the length of time that is being depicted. In fact, his parents remain in this void for the remainder of the novel. I have no way to know if this vagueness results from the process of heterosexualizing, but I do sense tension here. In the project Proust has set for himself, he does not seem free to create a wholly imagined world—it must cling with a thousand tiny hooks to his own biography—and he can’t directly depict his actual, complex affairs with young men, so he resorts to a provisional stage set, underfurnished, uncertainly populated.
There is also palpable anxiety in Proust’s creation of his heterosexual alter ego. Here is where Richard Howard’s observation of the narrator’s “strangely absent presence” comes into highest relief. Proust has little interest in providing either the chronology or the touchstone events that a conventional memoir or autobiographical novel would almost certainly examine. The narrator rarely deigns to reveal how old Marcel is at any particular time, and key life events pass by unrecorded; for instance, the reader never learns how, when, or where Marcel received his education. Fragments of exposition that do find their way into the text are often more confusing than helpful. Very late in the novel, the narrator alludes to his years of military service, a period that has no place on the implicit timeline of Marcel the Character’s life. In another aside, the narrator mentions a duel that he had come to fight, but with no indication of the involved parties or purpose. I know from my biographical reading on Proust that his real-life duels—essentially ceremonial—were fought to defend his honor against imputations of homosexual conduct. Because Proust is unwilling to let such associations, even a “false” imputation, brush anywhere close to his narrator-hero, the duel and its instigating causes remain ghostly flickers with no viable entrance into the novel.
One area where Proust does make an effort to provide Marcel with some back-story is in his dalliances with women. Through much of the second volume, Marcel plays kid’s games in the park by day yet, according to the narrator, is a regular visitor to Paris bordellos (although the only brothel the narrative explores in any detail is a gay one in the World War I section of the last volume). While contemplating Albertine, the narrator reveals that he has had “moments of pleasure” and “ephemeral favors” from thirteen of her friends. Still later, our narrator implies trysts with all manner of ladies in Venice. These allusions to Whoremaster Marcel might be more convincing, and seem less sweaty with panic, if the onstage erotics between Marcel and his ladies had more heft and traction. Proust is not primarily encumbered here by some prohibition in the depiction of sex. A startling sequence in The Captive finds Marcel dry-humping Albertine’s thigh while she sleeps (he likes her best when she’s unconscious), but his much-professed access to the uncomplicated relief of his sexual needs is never dramatically depicted. Instead, all mentions of his offstage assignations and his frequent disquisitions on little seamstresses, countergirls, and the like leave behind a clammy air of empty boasting. Proust’s narrator half-acknowledges the potential for comedy; at one point, Marcel sends his housekeeper out to retrieve a lovely milkmaid on the pretext of using her as a delivery girl, but when the girl arrives in his room, Marcel can’t figure out what to do with her, quickly loses interest. Somehow, Proust’s real lusts—for soldiers, waiters, drivers, elevator boys—are so fully leashed in his writing that they fail to animate Straight Marcel’s skirt-chasing.
A few pages after the protagonist’s masturbatory encounter with his lover’s sleeping side, Albertine wakes and speaks the narrator’s name for the first time in the novel: “…my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be ‘My Marcel,’ or ‘My darling Marcel’” (V, 91). Why now, after 2500 pages, does Proust insert his name? This name, the most explicit bridge between novel and author, falls from the lips of arguably his most fictionalized character in the context of a relationship without a definite real-life counterpart. Why here? Because this naming is a stab at heterosexual legitimacy; Proust hopes that this volley of fact into the fictional bubble will rebound, pierce the membrane, and point the way back to him. Marcel the character enjoys the love of a woman; therefore, so does Marcel the author. His male lovers who did or didn’t say “My Marcel, my darling Marcel” are effaced, their effigies stripped like those of discredited pharaohs, and the endearments they did or didn’t offer are given to hazy-bordered Albertine. And not only their endearments. Whatever treacheries Proust felt he suffered at the hands of his loves are also transformed, as life with Albertine unravels into a snarl of lies, into crusty clichés of The Deceitful Woman, into a secondhand misogyny. So Queer Marcel, afraid that he is hiding in plain sight like the Baron de Charlus, gives his name out for an imaginary woman to coo back to him, and displaces the source of his suffering from the men he knew and the homophobic culture he endured onto that old fallback: the treachery of women. The anxiety and the sorrow of his efforts are recognizable to me; they should be familiar to anyone who has spent great energy erecting and maintaining a lie.
For me, this lie, Queer Marcel’s lie, doesn’t make Proust’s work any less valuable, any less beautiful, because the very scope of his sprawling, conflicted novel also provides the raw material necessary to refute falsehood and rebuild truth. In Search of Lost Time extends to Marcel the Narrator the noblest qualities of Proust’s race of inverts—a refinement of sensibility and an appreciation of the beautiful—as a final consolation: when Love, Friendship, and Society have fallen away, there remains, ever-enduring, Art. And it is in art—despite denials, effacements, subterfuge—that Queer Marcel lives.
(Direct quotations are cited in the text by page number; quotations from Proust are identified by volume and page number.)
Gide, André Journals, Volume II: 1914-1927. New York: Knopf, 1948.
Proust, Marcel In Search of Lost Time. 6 Volumes. Translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff,
Terence Kilmartin & D.J. Enright. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
Introduction by Richard Howard in Volume I: Swann’s Way.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California
Shattuck, Roger Proust’s Way. New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2000.
White, Edmund Marcel Proust. Penguin Brief Lives. New York: Penguin, 1999.