I’ve spent most of my adult life avoiding Proust. As a Literature major, believe me, this was not easy. But peer pressure, in the form of a few Proust-loving friends, has forced me into tackling the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. In case you have been avoiding Proust even more successfully than I have, I’ll remind you that he is, in the words of the inestimable Quentin Crisp, a writer “with a style so convoluted, if you turn the pages too fast you may miss the principal verb.” And like Crisp, I shall feel no compunction to treat Proust reverently. In fact, here is Quentin’s assessment:
Mr. Proust was a weirdo, who, although Jewish, was determined to slither like a snake into French society and who, though he suffered acutely from various nervous disorders, insisted on drinking coffee.
Let me elaborate. Proust was an insufferable whiny pantywaist of a child who grew up into a profoundly strange young man. His main obsession was glomming onto various girls and women — especially titled women who might get him invitations to fashionable salon evenings or even condescend to afford him the slight wave and smile at the Opera that would signal that he had “arrived”. His other obsession was the sex lives of everyone he knew. He was convinced that most men were just a wink away from “turning” homosexual and, more horrible in his mind, that women were ducking behind every tree in the Bois de Boulogne to engage in Lesbian grappling. Narrator Marcel even goes so far as to tiptoe around the Fauberg St. Germaine peeking through keyholes and transoms to catch the act in progress.
Now I’m assuming that Marcel the Narrator is actually Marcel Proust the Author. I know there are scholarly treatises telling me this is not so. I’ll need more convincing. Everything in Narrator Marcel’s life seems to mirror exactly Author Proust’s life. In fact, there are dozens of websites that will outline for you which historical persons are which Remembrance characters. The only difference is that Author Marcel was Jewish and Narrator Marcel is Catholic, although he has a lot of Dreyfusard friends. Author Proust was also a closeted homosexual — although apparently anyone who met him knew exactly which way he swung — but he makes Narrator Marcel so heterosexual that he borders on being a creepy stalker. Otherwise, the two are one and the same. This makes it particularly troubling to me how Narrator Marcel talks about the homosexual characters — which, in his mind, is just about everyone. I’m not quite sure if he is sympathetic or condemning. In the first several chapters of Volume Four, he has a long discussion about what “makes” a homosexual — although he segues into arguing, ahead of his time, that they are are “born that way”. I kind of got lost. There was something about “men with women’s souls” and a long, long convoluted metaphor that actually used the example of birds and bees and the stamen and pollen of flowers. I rewound my audiobook four times to wade through it again and again. I still don’t know where he stands. I had just about decided he was a self-hating Gay, when he posited that the only real vice for a Gay man is to sleep with women — presumably because of the hypocricy or self-delusion. So again, more of a Proust scholar than I am will have to tell me what the Hell he is really saying on the subject.
But let’s get to Proust’s greatest sin, which is a literary one. He wrote a seven volume novel — and, full disclosure, I’m only at the end of Volume Four — in which not a single character is likeable or even tolerable. Seriously, the only two with whom I think I could share a Madeleine are the loyal but dim family retainer Francoise and Marcel’s friend, Robert de Saint-Loup. Although, in retrospect, Saint-Loup, while back-slappingly hearty and fun-loving is what the British would call “an Upper Class Twit”. The rest of the characters mostly fall into two camps, snobby and selfish aristocrats and desperately social climbing bourgeoisie.
Again to quote Quentin Crisp, “characters disappear for years on end…They return years later — always in a worse state.” My response to nearly all of them is “Oh no, not HIM/HER again.” The only character I’m always excited to see reappear is the wicked, voraciously sexual Baron de Charlus. Not that he’s likeable; he’s a dreadful snob, he’s completely self-absorbed and he’s a terrible anti-Semite. He sashays in and out of scenes, ogling the teenage sons of society women, cruising omnibus conductors and nipping into shops for quick bouts of vigorous buggery with the local tailor. I always perked up when he arrived because you simply don’t know what new mischief he’ll get up to. There is also a running joke of sorts in that the gossipy haute monde — who are mostly his relatives — are convinced he’s an indefatigable womanizer and is slipping it to the Princesse de Guermantes. It seems only young Narrator Marcel — who was peeping through the transom at Charlus and the tailor — knows the real scoop.
So that’s my take on Proust at the mid-point of Remembrance of Things Past. I will soldier on. I will report back later. Maybe the next three books will change my mind. I seriously doubt it.
British wit Cyril Connolly pointed out:
[Proust] has been praised for having had the blind courage to put everything in, but one day he will be blamed for being afraid to leave anything out.
I can only add, that it’s a good thing that Proust lived the last years of his life as an invalid in a cork-lined room. Because I’m sure, when his society friends got a load of all the stuff he wrote about them, invitations to those tea parties, receptions and salon events he so desperately chased after immediately dried up. In that way, he was the Truman Capote of his day. Without creating an engaging character that could have been played by Audrey Hepburn.
I should disclose that I am not actually “reading” Remembrance of Things Past. I’m listening to the most excellent Audiobook version, narrated by the fabulous Neville Jason. Jason not only gives his reading the drama of a radio play, he has a different but convincing voice for each character. To his credit, he does not attempt French accents, but gives each character the corresponding period English accent as appropriate to his or her class and station in life. If you are familiar with Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, this technique becomes a great shorthand for the listener in immediately pegging whether the character is a true aristocrat, a parvenu or staff. For instance, if you remember Sebastian Flyte and his overtly homosexual friend Anthony Blanche in the PBS version of Brideshead Revisited, the voice Jason uses for Baron de Charlus immediately puts that character in a context we Anglophones can understand. Highly recommended! You can download the whole she-bang here.